The History of Leith

December 9, 2004

A chip off the ode block

IN December 1851, the Singapore Straits Times reported the death of Robert Burns. It was not an overdue obituary of the celebrated poet, whose memory millions of Scots around the world will be toasting this weekend, but the dramatic story of the young man reputed to be his grandson.

This Robert Burns had left Scotland in 1846 to seek his fortune in the East Indies. He had been making a name for himself as a trader and an explorer in Borneo – he was the first European to visit Kayan territory – when he was captured and unceremoniously decapitated by pirates while sailing off the north-east coast of the island.

The story of how this 27-year-old Scot met his death has fascinated Burns scholars for more than a century and a half. But very little was known about his short, if eventful, life – until now. In his new book The Burns Boys, Alistair Renwick takes the first detailed look at Burns’ life, from poverty-stricken roots in Glasgow to the exotic dangers of the Far East – including an apparent marriage to the daughter of the chief of a tribe of head-hunters.

Renwick – an Edinburgh-born biochemist who now teaches in Malaysia – stumbled across the story of Burns’ murder in a chapter of The Pirate Wind, a 1930 book about the marauding mariners of the South China Sea, written by Owen Rutter. Since then he has spent the past decade playing historical detective in order to piece together the first definitive account of the young explorer’s life.

“I was intrigued by the story and a search of the New State Library in Kuala Lumpur confirmed several of Rutter’s observations, but there weren’t any official records and no primary sources of information,” he says. “So in 1994 I visited the Sarawak Museum [in Malaysian Borneo] where I saw a rare off-print of a piece published in the museum’s journal in 1951 to mark the centenary of Burns’ death.

“As a fellow Scotsman, I thought he seemed worthy of further recognition, so I have spent my spare time mooching around digging stuff up.”

Renwick’s search for information has not gone unrewarded. While there are not many records relating to Burns’ early life, he is known to have left Glasgow for Singapore on the Princess Royal in 1846.

“He spent part of his early life in Glasgow – and Scotland in the 1840s was at that time, as the distinguished historian TC Smart once said: ‘Vile’. If you could get away, you got away.”

Renwick says Burns would no doubt have heard stories of traders in the East, and about James Brooke, the British Army officer who became the first white raja of Sarawak – a region of Borneo controlled by the Kayan tribe of headhunters – as a reward for helping the Sultan of Brunei quell a civil war.

On arrival in Singapore, Burns found work with a Scots-owned trading company, Hamilton Gray, whose partner George Nicol sent him to Borneo to explore prospects.

Burns first sailed to Labuan, a British-controlled island about 40 miles off the coast off Brunei, and then he sought permission to travel to Bintulu in the independent interior of Borneo, where he found signs of rich deposits of coal and antimony.

He returned to Brunei to ask the Sultan’s permission to work the mines, and this was granted. But what Burns didn’t know was that the Sultan had already signed an agreement with another man, a deal supported by the Sarawak raja, James Brooke.

His attempts to secure his agreement with the Sultan were blocked by Brooke, despite entreaties which went as high as the Prime Minister of the day, Lord Palmerston, and this led to friction between Burns and his employer. As a result, Burns set up as a private trader, leaving him further exposed to the dangers of the region – including the notoriously ruthless Illanun pirates who plagued the coast of north-east Borneo.

Renwick says Burns’ last trading venture took him to these treacherous waters, aboard the British registered schooner Dolphin, skippered by a Captain Robertson of Leith. Burns had intended to visit the Kinabatangan River, where he had heard he could find camphor and edible birds’ nests. “But the schooner ran aground at Maladu Bay and disaster struck before the Dolphin could turn about,” says Renwick.

According to reports at the time, a group of pirates sailed alongside the schooner and masqueraded as traders of tortoiseshell and pearls in order to board the Dolphin.

“Burns died a horrible death, when pirates boarded his ship – he was decapitated, according to the depositions made by the surviving crew,” says Renwick.

“This stretch of water was very dangerous and it is still is – last year in the Malacca Straits there was an act of piracy almost every day.”

Renwick says Burns’ own naivety was partly to blame for his fate, but that the attempts of Brooke and the British Government to obstruct Scots traders was also a factor, and his murder sparked some angry questions in the House of Commons. “It was very unfair, as the Scots basically fell foul of the British Government. The monopoly of the East India Company was due to expire in 1853, so a lot of Scots were in the East trying to get a foothold in trade and shipping. Robbie Burns was one of them, but he fell foul of Brooke.

“In many ways Robbie was naive – he wasn’t aware of many of the dangers, both on and off-shore. All they knew was a lot of stuff about headhunting. But ironically he is thought to have married the daughter of the Kayan chief.”

This raises the question of whether any descendants of Burns have survived in Borneo. “There is a possibility,” says Renwick. “He is said to have married this tribal princess. This seems to be fairly reliable although there is no proof other than a statement in a letter from Nicol. In his letter to Burns, Nicol expressed his surprise at the ‘extraordinary report of your having been married to the daughter of the Dyak [Kayan] chief at Bintulu. I thought it was a joke, but on sending for a Malay from Bintulu who came over on the Amelia he told me it was true and that you had been married to the daughter of Akumlassa, the Kayan Chief’.”

Renwick adds that another interesting question surrounds the fate of Robert’s brother, Matthew, who he discovered from letters had been practising as a doctor in Oregon – almost certainly without a licence.

Renwick believes he may have assisted an Army surgeon where he picked up a few techniques. “He certainly had a monomania for amputation,” he says. “I came across a letter from him inquiring about Robert Burns’ estate where he mentioned he was a licentiate of the Royal Faculty of Physicians and Surgeons in Glasgow.

“I am medically qualified, so I contacted what is now the Royal College and they said they had no record of him.”

The grandson Robert Burns, however, deserves to be treated more kindly by history, he adds.

“He was perceived as a hero by some. The editor of the Journal of the Indian Archipelago and Eastern Asia said it was quite amazing what this young man had achieved.

“I think regardless of the connection to the poet, people should know more about the younger Robert Burns.”

While there is no absolute proof that Burns was the grandson of the poet, Renwick says there is enough evidence to suggest it was the case.

“How Robbie came to be named as Burns’ grandson I am not sure, but I think I have come up with an answer. But I would rather not give away as it might spoil the book.”

• The Burns Boys by Alistair Renwick is published by Cualann Press, £12.99


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