Books & Manuscripts

Exploring Sarawak, the Photographic Journeys of Charles Hose

By Sotheby's
Sotheby's Travel, Atlases, Maps and Natural History sale on 14 May features 19th century anthropologist Charles Hose's photographic account of the Sarawak tribes of Borneo and their customs.

“A little before dawn the cocks roosting beneath the house awaken the household by the crowing and the flapping of their wings. The pigs begin to grunt and squeal, and the dogs begin to trot to and fro in the gallery. Before the first streaks of daylight appear, the women light the fires in the private rooms or blow up the smouldering embers; then most of them descend from the house, each carrying in a basket slung on her back several bamboo water-vessels to be filled from the river. Many of them bathe at this time in the shallow water”.

This peaceful scene is described by Charles Hose, a British photographer and anthropologist. He gives us a unique insight into the lives of the tribes of Borneo in the end of the 19th century both in written form and through photography. Such a rare insight is found in an album of photographs by Hose, offered in the next Travel, Atlases, Maps and Natural History sale on 14th May. It opens with a series of images taken in and around Kuching, the capital of Sarawak, however the majority of photographs show life and culture (including head-hunting), with haunting portraits, stunning architectural views and intriguing rituals.

Charles Hose (1863-1929), went to Borneo in 1884 as a civil servant. He was to work for Charles Brooke the Rajah of Sarawak, effectively the British monarch of Sarawak state in Borneo. Hose eventually became a member of the Supreme Council and a judge of the Supreme Court. When he retired he returned to Norfolk where he spent his days teaching about Sarawak and its peoples. His most significant publication was The Pagan Tribes of Borneo, made to educate westerners at a time where anthropology was about to gain traction. Hose was an enthusiastic photographer and the Sarawak Civil Service List states: "While in Sarawak [Hose] distinguished himself as a geographer, anthropologist and collector of natural history specimens. His numerous journeys in the Baram District, which he was the first Officer to explore thoroughly, brought him into contact with many interior tribes, who, through his influence, came under Sarawak control and made peace with Sarawak tribes".

This rare album was presented to “His Highness The Tuan Mudah of Sarawak, with compliments from R. Shelford and Charles Hose". The Tuan Mudah, Bertram Brooke (1876-1965), was a member of the family of White Rajahs who ruled Sarawak for over one hundred years. His title of Tuan Muda ("Little Lord") reflects his status as the heir presumptive to the Rajah of Sarawak. The dynastic monarchy of the White Rajahs started in 1841 with the Englishman James Brooke. This happened because of his assistance in fighting piracy and insurgency in the Bruneain Empire. James Brooke was granted the province of Kuching which then gained independent kingdom status. The last heir was disinherited as Rajah Muda by the British Government in 1946.

The 157 photographs were taken between c.1884 and 1900. They are platinum prints, made using a monochrome printing process involving platinum. Platinum prints are the most durable and the costliest of all the photographic processes.

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