Saturday, July 23, 2011

Frank Hatton: Blood Brother to the Dusun

If you had lived a hundred and fifty years ago and you had one precious son, would you have let him leave the comfort of your home to work in the land of the headhunters and pirates?

The doting parents of a boy, barely out of his teens, did just that. They released their only son (albeit reluctantly) to sail half-way round the world and live in the land they knew only as a spot on a map.

The boy, Frank Hatton, was born in England on 31 August 1861. As a child he had wanted to be an engine-driver but he became an outstanding scientist instead and was made an Associate of Chemistry and a Fellow of the Chemical Society by the time he was twenty.

And by the time he had turned twenty, he had left his anxious family to become a blood brother to an unknown people (savages to them) in a faraway country.  

He had turned down the opportunity to work as assistant chemist at Guys Hospital in London and accepted an offer from Alfred Dent. It was the post of mineral explorer and metallurgical chemist. That was how he found himself in the equatorial jungle of Sabah in 1881.

Hatton had a flair for languages and learnt flawless French when his father sent him to study for two years in France. He displayed this same trait in Sabah, learning to read and write Malay and various Dusun dialects. He even compiled a comprehensive Dusun dictionary with the aim of publishing it.

The ‘mineral survey’ took him to the east coast of Sabah where he undertook journeys of exploration. In 1882 he surveyed the entire Labuk River and its tributaries, from the estuary right to its source in Mount Kinabalu.

He found very little evidence of minerals apart from coal but he found friendship among the Dusuns who, although Frank must have been the first white man they had ever seen,   embraced him and made him one of them in ceremonies conducted with traditional rites. In a letter to his father he told about being made a blood brother in five villages and that 300 spears would readily come if he needed help!

In 1883 while Hatton and his party were turning back from an aborted expedition—it was the wet season and very swampy—to discover the source of gold in the Segama, Hatton spotted an elephant. He shot at it but only succeeded in wounding the animal. The men gave chase and it was dark when Hatton called off the hunt. Going back to their camp, he used his rifle, holding it by the barrel, to clear a path. Unfortunately, he stumbled and the rifle discharged and shot him on the upper chest (probably puncturing a lung.) His party was 160 km up the Kinabatangan. The nearest hospital was 270 km away. The party paddled day and night for 53 hours so Hatton could be buried in Elopura by white men.

A funeral service was held in his house before he was buried on the side of a hill. He was   the first European to be buried in Sandakan. He was only twenty-two.

Back at his home in England, his parents had been aware that the gold-prospecting expedition was to be his last before he went on leave. He had hoped that on his return to Sabah he would be appointed Resident.

His parents had been eagerly awaiting his return when they received the devastating news of his death from William Crocker (after whom the Crocker Range was named).

After his death his father wrote a book—“a tribute from a loving father to a devoted son”—in which he included the latter’s letters home and materials from his diaries and notes. The  father said: “I had my reward in a brave, upright, modest, scholarly son, to whom I hoped to have bequeathed my name and the care of his mother and sisters. We had all come to regard him as the prop of our small house and I knew that he was of the stuff that great men are made.” The senior Hatton added that he “could have been content to lay aside my work and have for my epitaph: He was the father and friend of Frank Hatton.”

During his short life, Frank Hatton had been a brilliant scientist, a great linguist, a gifted musician and, judging by the natives’ high regard for him, a lover of human beings.

We could only guess at what this brave, selfless man would have been able to accomplish for Sabah if not for his untimely death. And we could only regret that our own posse of leaders does not have a fraction of his brilliance or an iota of his humanity. (Wasn’t that People-First slogan just crap cooked up by desperate clowns?)

So, would you have sent your son to Borneo like the Hattons did?

I’ll let Frank Hatton have the last word: “It is the duty of everyone to see as much of the world, and to do as much in it as is possible in the short time allotted to us.”

North Borneo: Explorations and Adventures on The Equator (Joseph Hatton)
Blood Brothers (Lynette Silver)
Pictures from Blood Brothers


  1. Handsome looking fellow. In some ways, I envy these adventurers of old who had the privilege to see Sabah of old but then again, I don't think I have the stomach to kill or be killed. I'm grateful that our ancestors survived the old days so that we today, can write and dream about how it is during the old days :P.

  2. This ia a really nice post Tina. Makes you wonder how it was in the old days.

    To answer your question, I'd have to say NO. If I were the Hattons, I would never send my son to an unknown territory. I know that sounds very selfish but I just don't have the courage/ heart to do it. The Hattons were indeed selfless people.

  3. Yes, Justin, there were many adventure seekers. Hatton, unfortunately, died young. Among their valuable contributions, I think, was leaving a written legacy-- books, diaries, notes etc and photos-- for us besides, the obvious: curbing piracy, opening up the land and such. If not for them Sabah would have very little written history, if any.

  4. Hi Lizee! I feel the same way you do. The Hattons were really very brave and selfless to let their son go!

  5. Frank Hutton, William Pryer, Franz Xavier Witti, we will never see such men again.
    You can read the book about Frank Hutton on