Unravelling the death of Robert Burns Clow

If you’ve been following this blog avidly, or indeed languidly, you’ll be aware that we spent most of May in Malaysia, and in fact we spent almost all of our time there in Kuching in Sarawak and in Sabah

Sarawak was established as an independent polity by James Brooke, and only became a British colony in 1946 when the last of Brooke’s successors as Raja of Sarawak abdicated

The reminders of the Brooke presence are all still there, from the Sarawak coat of arms on the old post office building, the old court building where the Raja presided and of course the Astana, once the Brooke residence and now the residence of the governor of Sarawak

While we were there I came across a story that an illegitimate son of Robert Burns (Scotland’s national bard, and a well known serial fornicator) had been killed by Borneo pirates in the 1850’s and that Charles Austen, a brother of the more famous Jane, had commanded the mission to revenge the murder of Robert Burns’ illegitimate son.

A little fantastical and a little bit garbled.

I already knew from our 2013 trip to Sri Lanka that Charles Austen was buried in Trincomalee and had died during the second Burmese war in 1852. Wikipedia helpfully details his career and he took over command of the East Indies and China station, based in Penang, in January 1850 and died of cholera in October 1852.

As commander of the East Indies and China station it is unlikely the Austen took personal command of the mission, but he was probably reponsible for ordering it.

This was the first clue to the story.

There was a well known mission in 1848, commanded jointly by Henry Keppell and James Brooke to supress piracy in Borneo, but this clearly was not it.

Charles Austen, for one, was home in England in 1848.

So I went looking for Robert Burns Clow.

Being an illegitimate son of Robert Burns he was incredibly easy to find, but being born in 1788, and a sucessful merchant in London. Unfortunately the date of his death is not known, but if it was him, he would have been around 63 when murdered, and crucially probably not of an age to gallivanting round Borneo if he was already a successful merchant.

However, he had a son, also Robert Burns Clow, born in 1820, who would only have been 30 or 31, and was recorded as being murdered in Borneo.

Again the story is slightly garbled, with confusion between the son and the father, but understandably so.

So my next trick was to go looking in Trove, the National Library of Australia’s digitised newspaper database. At first, I searched for Robert Burns Clow and drew a complete blank. However, searching for Robert Burns in the period between 1850 and 1852 found gold. In among all the mentions of Burns club dinners and immortal memories was a clutch of articles from September 1852, such as this one from the Bathurst Free Press describing the murder of a Robert Burns, a grandson of the poet, while aboard the Dolphin, in the Sulu Sea, which lies between the south of Sabah in Borneo and the Phillipines.

Crucially this was quite a different location to the 1848 anti piracy mission which was centred on Labuan to the north of Borneo.

As a cross check I ran the same searches on Welsh Papers online and the dates matched reasonably well with a report of the initial attack on the Dolphin and the not totally successful mission to avenge the murders, both from the Pembrokeshire Herald.

Crucially the latter report also gave the names of the ships involved in the mission, HMS Cleopatra and the armed paddle steamer HMS Pluto and the East India Company steamer Semiramis.

Both the Pluto and the Semiramis are not particularly well documented but the Cleopatra is and confirms her role in the punitive action.

I’m happy in my own mind that I’ve unpicked the garbled story. I’ve also learned something about using online resources along the way. And I’m quietly fascinated that a vicar in Pembrokeshire would know as much about this incident as his counterpart in Bathurst. Even before the international telegraph network was in place, the mail steamers kept the world connected.

[Update 01 June 2020]

I’ve just finished Eric Hansen’s Stranger in the Forest about his walk across Borneo in the 1980’s.

In it he refers to our friend Robert Burns, grandson of the poet, as the first British trader to describe the palang, or penis ornament worn by some indigenous groups in Borneo.

Which adds a bit of colour to say the least …

About dgm

Former IT professional, previously a digital archiving and repository person, ex research psychologist, blogger, twitterer, and amateur classical medieval and nineteenth century historian ...
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1 Response to Unravelling the death of Robert Burns Clow

  1. Pingback: Robert Burns Clow again | stuff 'n other stuff

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