Learning about the wild men of Borneo ... in Chiang Mai

The old teak house and former home to The Borneo Company is now part of the 137 Pillars House boutique hotel. — Photos: DAVID BOWDEN

Fortuitously, in a matter of days, I visited the Rajah Brooke’s Museum in Kuching, Sarawak and then travelled to Chiang Mai in northern Thailand. The museum provides a wonderful background on members of the Brooke Family, who ruled over Sarawak from 1841 to 1946 as the White Rajahs.

The family’s legacy forms the basis of a tour around the historic heart of Kuching. The tour takes in landmark colonial buildings such as Fort Margherita, which houses the Rajah Brooke’s Museum, the Astana (the governor’s residence), the Square Fort, and the Sarawak Museum.

The Brooke Memorial is located immediately in front of the former courthouse.

In Chiang Mai, while sipping a refreshing cocktail in Jack Bain’s Bar at 137 Pillars House, I noticed a reference to the Wild Men Of Borneo.

137 Pillars House, one of Chiang Mai’s most impressive boutique hotels, sprawls around a historic wooden building (supported by 137 teak pillars) that now houses a bar, a restaurant, and a lounge where ceiling fans work overtime, and books cry out to be read.

My attention was captured by the book’s title, and I became so enthralled in my readings, that I lost count of the number of cocktails I consumed. At least, that’s the story that I’m rigorously sticking to, as my time was spent productively researching what were also referred to as the “wild wallahs from the west”.

It turns out that Sarawak’s celebrated White Rajahs had business connections with northern Thailand through the Borneo Company Limited (BCL), which the first Rajah, James Brooke, helped establish.

While I was reasonably familiar with the history of the White Rajahs, I became increasingly interested in the Thai connection and the ability of the White Rajahs to infiltrate both Thai and Sarawakian society, trade, and politics.

The Borneo Company

But first, the Borneo Company and its connection to James Brooke, the first “White Rajah”, needed to be resolved. It has always been my understanding that the retired Bengal Army officer, James Brooke, suppressed a tribal dispute in Sarawak, and the Sultan of Brunei, who then controlled considerable parts of Borneo, thanked him by simply handing over control of Sarawak to Brooke.

I have always thought – really?

Learn about the White Rajahs at the Brooke Gallery at Fort Margherita.Learn about the White Rajahs at the Brooke Gallery at Fort Margherita.

I am intrigued that the Sultan of Brunei, who presided over a large part of Borneo, would hand control over to basically a stranger.

However, it would appear that the sultan did indeed hand control over to Brooke. This generosity was in return for Brooke effectively suppressing tribal disputes, threats to the sultan’s life, and piracy in the waters off Sarawak, Brunei, and Labuan.

Brooke had inherited a small fortune and equipped a schooner with greater fire- power than his opponents possessed, thus enabling him to quickly resolve disputes.

After arriving in Kuching in 1838 and resolving a tribal dispute, the Sultan of Brunei handed Kuching over to Brooke. In 1842, the sultan ceded the rest of Sarawak to Brooke and made him the Rajah of Sarawak.

Brooke set about governing the state and creating a civil service. According to reports, they administered the affairs of the locals quite fairly. His original intention for travelling to the Far East was to exploit its natural resources and add to his fortune. He didn’t waste any time, attending to both quite quickly once he was in control.

The Borneo Company was founded in London in 1856 as a joint stock limited liability company. It was headquartered in Singapore, and its initial directors were associates of Brooke’s. The company nurtured close economic ties with the ruling elite in the markets in which it operated.

In its early days, BCL mined antimony, which was then used to make ammunition. Later, it became involved in mining gold in Bau. The company paid royalties for the exclusive mining rights to Sarawak’s mineral wealth, including its gold reserves.

The company began to play a valuable role in helping to manage the Sarawak economy. BCL became involved in almost every facet of the state’s economy and in the steamship company that exported the state’s commodities to global markets.

Its Kuching offices once stood where the Hilton Hotel now stands, and it had warehouses where the Grand Margherita Hotel is now located.

The life of the Rajahs and the era are documented in the Josie Ho-produced 2021 movie Edge Of The World.

Fort Margherita on the Sarawak River is one of Kuching’s impressive sights. Fort Margherita on the Sarawak River is one of Kuching’s impressive sights.

Branching out

The company quickly spread its wings to what was then Siam at the invitation of the king, who was beginning to open the country to outside economic enterprises. King Mongkut embraced Western innovation and began to modernise the country.

The king was well known among foreigners, particularly the British, including Brooke, who regarded the King of Siam as “our own king”. BCL began trading with Siam through Bangkok, and then an office opened in Chiang Mai in 1884.

Its Chiang Mai base is now a boutique resort centred on the historic 137 Pillars House. The old wooden building originally stood on the western side of the Ping River, but it was relocated in 1886 to the foreigner’s enclave on the eastern side.

The house served as the manager’s residence until 1927, and just after World War II, it was sold to William Bain, a BCL staff member with Scottish heritage. Bain’s son Jack followed in his father’s footsteps and raised his family on the grounds (the bar in 137 Pillars House is named after the son).

Anna and the King

In another interesting twist, I discovered that BCL was connected to Louis Leonowens, whose mother Anna attained notoriety as the English teacher to the children of the King of Siam.

In 1862, such were BCL’s connections that it introduced Anna Leonowens as a teacher to the children of King Mongkut of Siam. King Mongkut is best known as the protagonist in the 1951 musical and 1956 film The King And I.

Anna taught in the king’s court from 1862 to 1867, and the play and movie, are drawn from her memoir. However, these were not viewed favourably in Thailand and were banned as they were considered to insult the king. The 1999 remake, Anna And The King was primarily filmed in Malaysia because the Thai authorities wouldn’t give permission for it to be filmed there.

Her success in helping educate members of the royal family led to BCL expanding its interests in Siam.

In 1884, Anna’s son Louis took charge of the company’s forests in Pak-Num-Po and Raheng (now Tak) in northern Thailand.

The company continued logging up until World War II and then afterwards until 1960, when the industry was nationalised by Thailand, forcing foreign timber companies out of the teak business.

Chiang Mai touring

Seeking more information while staying at the 137 Pillars House, I joined one of their “Tales and Trails of the Teak Wallahs”, day tours. I was seeking an appreciation of the intrepid lives of the “gentleman foresters” or “teak wallahs” who worked for the European-managed companies that owned timber concessions in the country’s northern forests.

In the mid-to-late 19th century, timber supplies in Europe had become scare so attention was turned to forests in the New World. Thailand’s teak forests were of particular interest because of the timber’s resistance to rot, its durability, and its wondrous appearance.

Northern Thailand became the centre of this timber industry with the arrival of the BCL in the late 1870s. With timber concessions in Chiang Mai, Lamphun, Lampang, Phrae, and Nan, BCL became the region’s richest and most powerful teak company.

More British-controlled companies obtained concessions, and by the end of the 19th century, they collectively controlled 60% of Chiang Mai’s teak production. This included BCL’s 100-year lease over a vast plot on the east bank of the Ping River.

My teak tour started in the small museum at 137 Pillars House and continued by private vehicle to Lampang. On the way, time was allocated at some of the reminders of bygone days, such as Wat Ket Museum, the Lanna Ancient House (one of Chiang Mai’s oldest houses), the Chiang Mai Gymkhana Club (a sports club founded in 1898), the Foreign Cemetery, where many Europeans are laid to rest, and the former residence of the British Consul General.

In Lampang, we rode in a horse cart, a legacy of that period, to the Louis House, the former office of the Louis Leonowens Company. Also included was a visit to the 100-year-old Forestry Department office, Ban Sao Nak, a wooden house dating back to 1895, the iconic Lampang Railway Station, Bombay House, and the location of the former Lampang Sports Club.

After several mergers, takeovers, and buyouts, BCL ceased trading in 2018, but its legacy lives on in parts of the region such as Kuching and Chiang Mai.

  • David Bowden is the author of two books on Borneo: Enchanting Borneo and Blue Skies Travel Guide Borneo, both published by John Beaufoy, UK (www.johnbeaufoy.com).

Travel notes

How to get there: AirAsia flies directly from Kuala Lumpur to Chiang Mai, with the flight time being just over two hours.

Accommodation: 137 Pillars House Chiang Mai is an exclusive boutique property close to the Ping River in a central but quiet precinct in Chiang Mai. The original building that housed the headquarters of the BCL stands in the manicured gardens. Non-resident visitors can inspect this beautiful teak building while partaking in a cool beverage at Jack Bain’s Bar, one of Asia’s iconic bars.

More information: The Tourism Authority of Thailand (TAT) has an office in KL (03-2162 3480, tourismthailand.my).

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