Private Papers and Public Opinions of a Colonial Official

Zaffar Junejo on the many subjects of public and scholarly interest in the diaries of George C. Woolley

Private Papers and Public Opinions of a Colonial Official
In the spring of 2019, one drizzling Malaysian morning, Dr. Azharudin Bin Mohamed Dali (who teaches colonial history at University of Malaya) and I were sipping lemongrass tea in his cozy office where the colourful book spines always invite one to read. On that day, I failed to resist the temptation as usual. I picked a book and looked at its index. I found one name quite interesting: George Cathcart Woolley.

I enquired about him and learned that Woolley graduated from Queens College, Oxford, in 1899, where he read Classics. He joined the British Borneo Company in the first quarter of 1901. The Company operated in North Borneo (nowadays Sabah in Malaysia) with the Royal Charter conferred to it in 1881. Thus, the Company got absolute authorization to administer the territory. It worked on the pattern of the East India Company. Over a period, Woolley took an interest in artifact collection, photography, ethnography and the customary land tenure system. Woolley’s most appreciated contribution was the proposed land tenure which is still practiced in Sabah, Malaysia.

George C. Woolley around 1903, in North Borneo (now Sabah, Malaysia)

Last week I read his two-volume diaries entitled The Diaries of George C. Woolley, Vol I: 1901 -1907 and The Diaries of George C. Woolley Vol II: 1907-1913. Both have been edited by Professor Dr. Danny Wong Tze Ken and Stella Moo-Tan and published by the Department of Sabah Museum, Kota Kinabalu.

The diaries depict a time when North Borneo was a dense jungle teeming with all kinds of birds, animals, reptiles and insects.

The native people were the living epicenter of their ecological zones. On the other hand, Europe’s commercial companies as principal investors, contractors or petty-contractors were installing telephone lines, railway tracks and jetties. There were high returns in real estate, construction work, shipping and later rubber plantation. North Borneo of those times was far behind the British Empire’s holdings in India, Kenya, Singapore and Malaysia.
it is vividly clear from the diaries that he detached himself from women as there is no entry about the “fishing-fleet” of young unmarried ladies who voyaged to the colonies to find suitors

Woolley started his diary with his first entry on the 26th of April 1901, when he began his voyage to the Far East, and ended in 1945. He continuously wrote for 44 years. Sadly, the diaries from 1927 to 1940 are somehow lost. Fortunately, the diaries written during World War II in the Pacific Theatre, which spanned the years from 1941 to 1945 have survived and have been repeatedly published. The first volume contains the text from 12 standard-sized notebooks containing 2,109 handwritten pages. The volume covers the period when Woolley was attached to the land department; in 1903 he was stationed at Jesselton, and in 1906 and again in 1907 he went to England for vacations. Most of the entries are personal – related to work or brief descriptions of the day. However, the internal politics of the Company are also discussed, such as how officers avoided the rotating positions in various departments. The diaries show the contradictions between various departments and their working mechanisms.

Woolley photographed natives and prepared a brief about them. Some of them are described in the diaries. He worked with the Company as the land officer, judge, resident and commissioner of lands. Along with these diversified tasks, he also edited The British North Borneo Herald.

The second volume’s first entry is dated the 4th of April 1907. This volume contains the text from 630 notebook pages of four diaries. Broadly, this volume covers his voyage in the line of duty to Singapore and back, and ends his second tenure of leave in England dated the 8th of February 1913. Like the first volume, almost all entries are personal and job-related. However, this volume helps the readers to have a peep at England’s society in those times. One of the entries mentions how Woolley was irritated when one of his sisters liked a Flemish man and intended to marry him. On the other hand, the situation at Jesselton was also fairly conservative. Although the city had a social club which was founded in 1903, most of the activities were male-focused. The European ladies were allowed, with the assurance that there would be no Asians or local men.

Therefore, effectively the activities of European ladies were confined to their homes, and the most popular events were “At Home” ones where major items of amusement were food, songs and dances. On the contrary, in India the European women’s considerable representation was reflected in “Garden Tea Parties” which were hosted by local politicians or businessmen. In addition to that this volume also contains 300 photos. Some of the pictures may offer a clue about family patterns or values; and dress code, environment and occupations. Others tell a lot about the land patterns, geography, agriculture and rural infrastructure.

Image of an entry in George C Woolley's diary

One must remember that at earlier times, life in North Borneo (now Sabah) was not convenient. The tough environment, jungles and literally nonexistent roads were always there to welcome The British North Borneo Company’s cadets and officers. Therefore, the Company used to sign a death agreement. It was preemptive measure in case of any mishap or claim by the heirs of the deceased person. It indicates that there was some significant risk to life. Although against all odds, Woolley enjoyed his life and work, he preferred solitude over the “At Home” events, the “Pony Riding” and all the “Gossip”. He loved diary writing, collection of artifacts, photography and writing about native traditions. Interestingly, random entries from both volumes show that he was an active member of society. However, it is vividly clear from the diaries that he detached himself from women as there is no entry about the “fishing-fleet” of young unmarried ladies who voyaged to the colonies to find suitors.

A handbound manuscript of 12 diaries, which George C Woolley wrote between 1901 and 1926

The entries in these volumes also shed light on how the British Empire selectively and conditionally developed economic zones around the railway lines and the ports

These volumes have opened new areas of knowledge for scholars. They are among the most reliable sources for scholars who are interested in comparative studies of the British colonies. The entries in these volumes also shed light on how the British Empire selectively and conditionally developed economic zones around the railway lines and the ports. It also helps scholars to understand how the Empire’s mega-projects, railway and shipping, bypassed the traditional economies. On the other hand, these diaries have valuable insight for the South East land administrative officers and policymakers to understand traditional land tenure in old Sabah and how social relations was based around access to land. Most importantly, these diaries help to understand how Woolley was able to recommend a land tenure arrangement in 1913, which was accepted by all parties and secured the natives’ customary rights.

I hope one day our academic institutions will surely come up with publications of diaries and private papers of Baden Powell, Lord Cornwallis, Thomas Munro and Holt Mackenzie – imperial officials who introduced new land tenure practices and shaped the politics of colonial India. Some of their land tenure principles are still practiced in India, Bangladesh and Pakistan today.

Dr. Zaffar Junejo has a Ph.D in History from the University of Malaya. His areas of interest are post-colonial history, social history and peasants’ history. He may be reached at