George C. Woolley
Danny Wong Tze Ken and Stella Moo-Tan (eds)
Kota Kinabalu: Department of Sabah Museum, 2016. ISBN: 978-903-9638. xiii, 1482 pp.
The first volume of Woolley’s diaries was reviewed in JMBRAS Vol 89 Part 1 (June 2016). This second, more substantial volume, covers the years 1907–113. The main episodes in Woolley’s life at this time were a brief stint as District Officer in Beaufort, then a stint from 8 November 1907 till March 1910 when he served as District Officer, Province Clarke, based at Sipitang. This was on the west coast of Borneo, readily accessible from Labuan and, also, partly by the new railway line to Tenom from Jesselton. It was a dagger-shaped district, extending from the Klias Peninsula in the north, south to beyond Long Pa Sia, bounded on the west by the Sarawak border. Woolley’s stint in Sipitang appears to have been an extremely agreeable and happy one. Here he was away from the petty politics of colonial Jesselton, and encouraged to undertake long trips into the interior of his district to report on conditions there, and arrange for the introduction of such modest facilities as the Chartered Company would afford. This seldom extended beyond court hearings, and the establishment of rudimentary government offices. Ross Ibbotson on p. 63 has attempted, with some success, to superimpose on a 1:500,000 Tactical Pilotage Chart from the UK Ministry of Defence the routes of Woolley’s major excursions. Although routes along the coast, generally by boat, were well travelled, the country inland, was rough and roadless with two mountains well over 6000 feet.
There were, of course, no proper resthouses, so on such excursions Woolley was obliged to sleep in the houses of village headmen or in sulap (primitive huts, often consisting of little more than an attap roof and a raised bamboo floor). It must have been a harsh and tough life, laced with danger and uncertainty: headhunting raids from over the Sarawak border were not uncommon occurrences. Unfortunately, with few exceptions, Woolley gives no account of the fascinating talks he must have had with his hosts on these travels, not to mention detailed accounts of the village ceremonies he must have witnessed.
For the reader, the diaries in this volume are greatly enhanced in value with Woolley’s own photographs. At this time he became an extremely enthusiastic amateur photographer, developing his own prints. Many of the resulting photographs have survived and are reproduced alongside the diary entry which specifically refers to them. The majority are of individuals, or groups of local people, or views of sulap or rather grander buildings Woolley encountered on his travels. [End Page 167]
Woolley was anxious to stay in his Sipitang post for as long as possible and, by keeping a low profile, managed to stay for 2½ years. He was then, in one of the frequent reshuffles of expatriate officers, posted back to Jesselton as Commissioner of Lands. This took him all over British North Borneo at the time of a rubber boom. This made the post particularly important. The Chartered Company was keen to establish rubber estates along the west coast, in view of the success of the Sapong and Melalap estates, in the Interior Residency, linked to Jesselton by the recently completed railway line.
Woolley’s generally brief and cryptic comments on his land work indicate that there were frequent disputes with traditional land owners objecting to arbitrary confiscation of their property. These issues remain, over a century later, in disputes over land now taken over, not for rubber but for oil palm, without adequate free, prior and informed consent. Plus ça change . . .
Perhaps the most important of these was the Papar Land Case, in which Woolley was deeply involved, initially assessing whether claims by dispossessed Dusun landholders near Papar had been adequately compensated. The overall result was that, thanks to the activities of the Dusuns themselves, the Roman Catholic Church and the dissident lawyer R. B. Turner, the land law of the state was significantly tightened up in favour of traditional landowners...