Twenty years ago on Sept 2, 1999, a handful of local Eurasians met at the Sarawak Club to talk about the idea of forming the Sarawak Eurasian Association.
As a member of Selangor Eurasian Association and friend of the president JP Monteiro, I was armed with the rich history of the Eurasians of Malaya and their heroes.
Even though they were well-established in Penang, Negri Sembilan and Malacca, Sarawak had an equally impressive record of their own Eurasians.
On that fateful day, I roped in Sarawak Forestry’s Erwin Wright and Kuching rugby mate Thomas Jacques and marine captain Bernard Geikie and got the ball rolling.
Even though the Sarawak Eurasians are probably the
smallest community in Malaysia, we had and still have iconic leaders who played an important part in the development of our state.
When James Brooke arrived in Kuching in 1839, he relied on two Malacca Eurasians — Domingo De Rozario and Thomas Williamson, who were his interpreters.
According to Peter Varney in ‘The Anglican Church in Sarawak from 1848 to 1852’ (Sarawak Museum Journal Vol XV1, New Series 1968) Thomas Williamson, Henry Steel, constabulary inspector Joseph Middleton, and a ship captain named Douglas, were the Europeans who fathered the children.
Varney wrote: “On Advent Sunday, 3rd December 1848, the first baptisms took place. Three girls and two boys, whom McDougall (Dr Francis MacDougall, the first Bishop of Kuching) was asked by Brooke to take into his care, and a school was started by them by MacDougall and his wife.”
In the meantime, the first local Eurasian to become a priest, Reverend William Howell, was born to Welsh engineer Frederick Howell and a Malay on Sept 15, 1856.
In Lundu, Reverend John Louise Zehnder from Switzerland married into the local community and one of his sons married an Iban community leader, Datuk Tra Zehnder, who was the first Sarawak woman assemblyman.
One of the first Eurasians who would have been the first Eurasian ‘Rajah’, was the son of Charles Brooke named ‘Esca’ (Isaka) from his relationship with Dayang Mastiah, a Malay from Simanggang. But he was sent away for adoption.
Colin Crisswell’s ‘Rajah Charles Brooke — Monarch of all he surveyed’ (1978): “He (Charles) expressed the belief on several occasions that the products of mixed marriages would become the most able citizens of the East. In later life, he defended his officers against the moral criticisms of the clergy, declaring that ‘I don’t feel disposed to interfere with the private affairs of unmarried men (Europeans) employed in this country’.”
At the turn of the 20th century, another Eurasian, Horace Gray, who was favoured by the third Rajah Sir Vyner Brooke, established the first continuous telephone line stretching 600km from Kuching to Baram.
He also constructed one of the most advanced short-wave transceivers in the world and in 1932, Sarawak became the first country in the Southeast Asia region to receive broadcasts from BBC London.
Another outstanding Eurasian in the 20th century was John Anthony Owen or ‘Uncle Johnny Owen’ who made a name for himself when he was appointed a Council Negri (state assemblyman) member.
In May 1946, together with 17 other assemblymen, he voted in favour of the cession of Sarawak to Great Britain and three months later on July 1, Sarawak became a British Crown Colony.
The first Muslim Eurasian woman to make a name for herself in pre-War Sarawak was Lily Eberwein. She on the other hand was opposed to the cession of Sarawak to Great Britain.
A school principal, she headed the ‘Kaum Ibu’ — a Sarawak women’s nationalist movement — during the Japanese occupation.
Three other prominent early 20th century Eurasians were William Crocker, the first Eurasian to graduate with a pre-war Bachelor of Science degree from the Philippines.
Two others, Dr Jerry Jacques and Dato Brother Michael Jacques, a Catholic brother of the St John Baptist de La Salle Order, were outstanding personalities.
After the formation of Malaysia, a Perak-born Eurasian Dato Sri JG Ritchie, became Malaysia’s first local Sarawak Commissioner of Police in 1967.
He was the first local Eurasian to be bestowed a Sarawak State award.
Other post-Malaysia Eurasians were Vincent’s sister Judge Elizabeth Chapman and Public Works Department director Datuk Michael Parker. Over the years, the Eurasian community in Sarawak has grown.
In 1960, there was a total of about 500 Eurasians and even though there are currently about 100 registered members of the SEA, the Eurasian population in the state is estimated to be about 1,000-strong.
Today the descendants of the Sarawak Eurasian are a potpourri of cultures who not only celebrate Christmas, but also Gawai Dayak, Chinese New Year as well as Hari Raya.
The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the New Sarawak Tribune.