Borneo to Philadelphia

The Furness-Hiller-Harrison Collections

By: Adria H. Katz

Originally Published in 1988

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In the years 1895-1903 William H. Furness 3rd, Hiram M. Hiller and Alfred C. Harrison, Jr., (Fig. 1) traveled extensively in Asia and the Pacific, making zoological and ethnographic collections for the University of Pennsylvania. The largest of these collections was made in 1896-1898 on the island of Borneo. The University Museum Archives contain Hiller’s Borneo journals and copies of his letters from the years 1895-1901. The following account is drawn primarily from these journals and letters. 


William Henry Furness 3rd (1868-1920) was a member of a socially prominent Philadelphia family that included the Shakespearean scholar Horace Howard Furness (his father) and the architect Frank Furness (his uncle). After taking his degree from the University of Pennsylvania Medical School in 1891 and completing his residency at the University Hospital, Bill Furness took time off in the spring of 1893 to accompany a patient on a trip to Japan.When he returned, Furness was “tattooed artistically down to the waist” (Fig.2). He brought back with him 19 large cases of “curios,” and what was to prove to be an enduring enthusiasm for Eastern travel (Harvard Class Report, 1894).

When Furness proposed a collecting expedition whose ultimate destination was the island of Borneo, his choice for a companion was his classmate and friend, Hiram Milliken Hiller (1867-1921). Son of a banker from Kahoka, Missouri, Hiller had followed his residency with a year of study in Europe. In 1894 he returned to practice in Philadelphia, taking a post as surgeon at the Howard Medical College. The following year, he gave up this position to travel with Furness.

On their way to the Malay Archipelago, the two young men explained to a reporter that while the expedition on which they were embarked  was a strictly private one financed by Furness’s father, their goal was to make collections for the University of Pennsylvania. According to a Honolulu newspaper (ca.28 October 1895), they sought “to secure the most perfect collection possible; money will really not be an object to dter them from picking up articles or making an extended search for them.” Borneo posed a particular challenge: “They intend making a journey across Borneo and as much of the country has not been visited by a white man the trip is fraught with considerable danger…They will have a siege of rough life such as they have never experienced before.”

It was to be several months before they reached their destination. In Yokohama, Furness purchased a schooner and added two more recruits to the party: James Austin Wilder, a fellow Harvard man ready to drop everything for an adventure, and Lewis Etzel, hired as a hunter and as second mate on the schooner. Some weeks were spent exploring and making collections in Japan’s Luchu (Ryukyu) Islands, after which Furness decided to dispose of the schooner. By the end of April the four men finally reached Singapore and outfitted themselves for Borneo: “an axe, knives, lead for bullets, keg of powder, rubber blankets, mattresses, cane pillow, butts of alcohol for specimens, pounds of Arsenic—etc. etc., bought of McAllistor & Co.–who knew more about Borneo than anybody” (Appell 1968: 415-416).

Furness and Hiller in Sarawak, 1896

By May 6, 1896, the party was on a steamer heading up the Sarawak River to Kuching (Fig. 3), seat of the government of the second Rajah of Sarawak, Charles Brooke (see Brown, this issue). Furness and Hiller carried letters of introducition to Brooke, and as soon as they were settled in Kuching they crossed the river to his residence for an audience. “We spent,” reported Hiller, “a pleasant twenty minutes in which we discussed all our plans, the  Rajah willingly consenting to them all.”

Charles Hose, the Rajah’s Resident Officer in the Baram district who was then on leave in Kuching, immediatly took charge of the Americans. Himself an avid ethnographic and zoological collector (see box), Hose arranged for the hiring of Dayak hunters. Furness, Hiller, Wilder, and Etzel, along with a Chinese cook and one Malay “boy” apiece, moved into the rented bungalow that was to be their base in Kuching for the next two and a half months.

Charles Hose

Charles Hose (1863-1929) was field administrator in Sarawak under the second Rajah, Charles Brooke, from 1884 until 1904. He was a dedicated amateur naturalist and was especially interested in the ethnology of Dayak peoples. Furness and Hiller profited enormously from Hose’s extensive knowledge and generous assistance. Just how many of The University’s Museum’s ethnological specimens were obtained from Hose directly, or through his good offices, is not known, but many or the Museum’s object catalogue card list Furness and Hose together as collectors.

After retiring from the Brooke Raj, Hose returned to England and turned to lecturing and writing about his experiences and observations in Sarawak. His major two-volume work, The Pagan Tribes of Borneo, written in collaboration with Oxford anthropologist William McDougall, was published in 1912 and is still regarded as a major contribution to Dayak ethnology. By his own admission, McDougall’s input on Pagan Tribes was slight; most likely, he advised Hose mainly on such matters as what topics should be included and how the volumes should be organized according to cultural anthropological interests of the day. In 1926 Hose published a shorter version of Pagan Tribes under the title Natural Man: A Record from Borneo, which was indeed to reach a broader readership. (Natural Man was reissued in 1988 by Oxford University Press, Singapore.) W.H.D.

Travel in Boneo has always been most feasible by boat, along the coast or up one of the many rivers into the interior. Furness and Hiller wanted to cross the island by ascending a river in Sarawak, walking over the watershed, and descending a river in Dutch Borneo (Fig. 3). This was not possible, they were told, because of hostility between the Dayaks who have acted a their guides, and the tribesmen they would have encountered on the Dutch side. Hose invited them to observe a “peacemaking” ceremony at Baram Fort, so they went directly to Baram.

By 1896 Rajah Brooke had achieved virtual pacification in Sarawak, but beyond the surveillance of the resident officers, heads were still sometimes taken. The peacemaking at Baram Fort brought together leaders of the downriver Iban and the upriver Kayan, between whom were considerable tensions. Addressing them in Malay, the Rajah reiterated the government’s policy: “heads must not be taken even in retaliation without the government consent,” and any infringement of this directive would be followed by a punitive expedition. Tama Bulan, a prominent Kenyah headman and friend of the Rajah’s government, responded with a speech pledging his continued support.

When peacemaking was over, Furness and Hiller’s decide to make a trip upriver to visit Kenyah and Kayan longhouses. Hose loaned them a canoe and entrusted them to the care of Tama Bulan, who was returning home to a tributary of the Baram called Pata River.

This was Furness and Hiller’s first excursion by Dayak canoe, a mode of travel with which they were becoming very familiar. The trip had its grim side: the party carried “grippe” with them up the river and there were several deaths, but on the whole hiller counted it “the finest trip we’ve taken yet.” From the Pata they made a five-day excursion over the hills to the Apoh, where they made brief visits to several other longhouses. They acquired some ethnographic specimens at longhouses on the Baram, the Pata, and the Apoh, but bought especially  heavily at Tama Bulan’s, where when they asked about artifacts they found themselves ” in the midst of a regular bargain day at Wanamakers [sic].” The chief and some of his men contribured shields, spears, and blowpipes, “but we bought right &left and feeling under obligatios to the men for bringing us up we did not haggle with our old friend on the prices.”

After a month upriver, Furness and hiller rejoined Wilder and Etzel at Baram Fort, and everyone returned to Kuching. The our men moved back into their bungalow, but Furness and Etzel left almost immediatley for a trip to the Sadong. Two weeks later they returned, after what Hiller summed up as ” a disagreeable but sucessful stay.” “They brought down 200 Ethnological and Natural-history specimans [sic] – but had a dreadful time with their Malay boatmen and were utterly disgusted with the Land Dyaks with whom they staid….”

At this point the Americans were preparing to “close down the Kuching show ,” and everyone was busy with taxidermy, writing, cataloguing, and packing. Hiller surveyed the bungalow with nostalgia: “True boxes of birds and animals, trunks, guns Etc. strew the house & pelts & skins & monkeys the lawn – but we have been comfortable all the same.”

In August, the group dispersed. While Furness and Etzel went back to the Baram, Hiller went up the Rejang river, venturing far into the interior but collecting comparatively little. After a short stay he headed back to the Baram River where he found that Furness had been taking photographs, which were turing out “brilliantly,” and had acquired many ethnographic specimens to fill gaps in the collections they had already made While Hiller and Hose worked at “copying notes of native customs” (Fig.4). and collecting, drying, and naming poisons and medicines, Furness and Etzel made one last short trip. Traveling down the Baram, up the Bakong, overland to the Sibuti, and down to Niah, they made photographs inside birds’ nests caves (birds’ nests were collected for export; see Jessup and Vayda, this issue).

On September 11, 1896, having wound up their first year of collecting, the Americans headed for home. The specimens they had obtained were sent to the University of Pennsylvania for cataloguing and study (see below).

Preparations for a Second Expedition

Back in Philadelphia, Hiller resumed his position at the Howard Medical College, and struggled to make ends meet. Through a friend, however, another opportunity for travel soon presented itself. Alfred Craven Harrison, Jr. (1869-1925) was the son of a millionaire sugar manufacturer and the nephew of Charles Custis Harrison, Provost of the University of Pennsylvania. Because of his friendship with their son, Alfred Craven Harrison and his wife had all but adopted Hiller, and as early as January 1897 the senior Harrison was proposing to support the two young men for five years of Eastern exploration and collecting.

Although Hiller was initially reluctant to accept this offer because he could not see where it would lead (“it left me nothing afterwards”), he finally did decide to undertake another expedition. The first week of May found him boxing books, packing trunks, and having a last minute conference with Stewart Culin, Curator of Asia and General Ethnology at the University of Pennsylvania. Furness was ready to go again, even though his father wanted him to remain at home for a year or so “that he may get over his fever and also study up zoology etc.”

On this trip the Americans would travel separately: Hiller and Harrison decided to go to Dutch Borneo, while Furness wanted to return to the Baram. Hiller expressed confidence in the new venture: “We are going to Borneo so much better equipped, with far better command of the language…than we had on the last trip, that I am hopeful of a better and more ;thorough exploration and larger collection than we have yet obtained.”

Furness in Sarawak, 1897

Furness picked up Etzel in Yokohama, and the two men reached the Baram at the of October. In the next months, Furness accomanied Hose as the British Resident Officer went about his job of maintaing peace among the peoples of his district. There were two major trips: a “war expedition” on the Baram, and a “peace expedition” to the upper reaches of the Tinjar River.

The “war expedition” which took place in November, retraced Furness’s 1896 route up the Baram River. In response to rumors that men from Tinjar had been threatening workers in some Kayan rice fields, Hose led the party upriver to investigate and, if necessary, drive away the intruders. No interlopers were found, and in a letter to his father, Furness confessed that the excursion may have been prolonged for his benefit: “Don’t give it away but our chief object in pursuing the thing to the bitter end and keeping up their angry feelings was in order that we might get some good photographs of them; we really had very little hope from the first that we should meet with any foe.”

The “peace expedition,” which followed immediately afterwards, took Furness up the Tinjar River, into territory new to him. The object this time was to reduce tensions between the Kayans of the Baram and the Lirongs of the Tinjar by arranging a reconciliation between them.

After the “peacemaking,” which took place in the longhouse opposite the mouth of a tributary of the Tinjar called the Dapoi, Hose took Furness on a trip a trip up the Dapoi to visit a group of nomadic Punan. They then went to nearby Mount Dulit, where the party camped on the summit for five days, collecting birds, animals, insects, and plants. From Mount Dulit they returned to Baram Fort, arriving on December 23, 1897. Christmas week was spent labeling the specimens and writing notes.

Hiller and Harrison in Dutch Borneo, 1897-1898

In september of 1897, Hiller and Harrison were in Dutch West Borneo, traveling up the Kapuas River to Sintang. Their goal in this case was primarily the collection zoological specimens (Fig.5). Later, Hiller wrote, ” I finally got hunters, taught some men to skin, got the alcohol to filling with reptiles and animals, the box to swelling with skins and skeletons…” So many birds and animals came in that they stayed in Sintang for almost a month superintending preparation of the growing collections.

In november they moved on upriver, to the last Dutch outpost in the Kapuas at Putus Sibau. As soon as they were settled in the fort there, a great many Kayans came to see them, among them a chief named Tegang from the nearby Mendalam River (Fig. 6). Within a week Tegang had come down again to take  Hiller and Harrison up to his longhouse fro ten days of photographing and ethnographic collecting. A Dutch collector,  A.W. Nieuwenhuis, had visited the Mendalam the year before, and the American found themselves at a disadvantage: ” prices are awful and we are compelled to bargain like a Chinese trader to get anything at a decent price. When Nieuwenhuis was here he spoiled these people paying any price they demanded evidently.” Nevertheless, they bought a great deal, and Harrison took many photographs. This was Harrison’s first extended stay in a longhouse and Hiller noted with amusement that “his journal fairly reeks with descriptions and drawings.”

Hiller and Harrison stayed in Putus Sibau for two months altogether, making short trips to Tegang’s house and to some Kantu’s houses downriver (Fig. 7). During this time, Hiller was negotiating with the Dutch resident in Pontianak for permission to ascend a tributary of the Sibau and cross over the watershed to a tributary of the Rejang in Sarawak. As Hiller assured his mother, the trip was not unlike the one that he and Furness had made before the Pata to the Apoh the year before. It was, however, much longer and more rigorous, the trek to the watershed alone taking 14 days. It also involved going from Dutch West Borneo to Sarawak, thus fulfilling Furness and Hiller’s original ambition of crossing the island. From the watershed, the party descended a series of small streams to the Balleh, and down the Rejang to the sea.

From Sarawak, Hiller and Harrison traveled to Singapore, where they met Furness. The three had planned to return together to Dutch Borneo, but in response to news about the outbreak of hostilities in the Philippines Furness decided to go home. Thus Hiller and Harrison alone sailed from Singapore to Banjermasin, where they obtained permits from the Dutch resident to travel up the Mahakam River as far as the rapids at Ana. They then proceeded to the mouth of the Mahakam where they called on the Sultan of Kutei in his “palace” at Tanggorang.

In 1898, although control of the area was effectively in the hands of the Dutch, the Sultan of Kutei still held the concessions on salt, birds’ nests, gutta percha, and rattan along the Mahakam, and his influence extended upriver in many subtle ways. It was taken for granted that Hiller and Harrison would ascend the Mahakam in a launch rented from the Sultan, and make most of their trip in company of a man whom Hiller identified as “the fourth son of the Sultan,” as he made rounds on the Sultan’s business.

The Americans went up the Mahakam as far as they were allowed. On this trip they had “neither the time nor the inclination for natural history work” and found that ethnographic collecting was difficut because the people “cared little for money,… only requiring tobacco, salt, cloth, etc. and trading takes time and patience.” They did acquire representative objects from each of the groups visited, but all things considered this was, as Hiller foresaw, the “least enterprising and least dangerous” of all Borneo trips.

Arrival of the Collections in Philadelphia

On the Afternoon of his return to Philadelphia after the first Borneo journey, Furness gave an interview describing his efforts “in the interest of the Museum of the University of Pennsylvania,” adding that the “large and valuable collections will soon arrive and be sent to the University Museum” (Philadelphia Ledger, 5 December 1896). At that time, the Department of Archaeology and Palaeontology of the University, which served the functions of the functions of a university museum, still had no building of its own, so when the collections did arrive, both ethnographic and zoological specimens were sent to the Wistar Institute.

Some parts of the collections had actually reached Wistar before Furness left Borneo, and one box in particular created a considerable stir. It was addressed in “a very peculiar manner,” and was smudged with blood. The Wistar directors gave in to their curiosity and ordered it to be opened. A Dr. Greenman ripped the cover from the box to reveal, wrapped in blood-soaked rags, what appeared to be a human head. ” ‘It’s Furness,’ he yelled, while the others gasped a they looked close and saw the pale face and the bloody neck that was supposed to be the decapitated head of Dr. Furness.” When they calmed down, everyone agreed that the dummy head, made for Furness by a Dayak in Borneo, was “an excellent counterfeit,” bearing a great resemblance to the man and including a remarkable imitation of the arteries and veins as they actually appear in a severed neck (Philadelphia Inquirer, 18 April 1897).

In May the ethnological collections were opened for inspection at a week-long public exhibition, invitations to the opening reception being issued jointly by the Wistar Institute and the Department of Archaeology and Paleontology. Furness was not able to work on the exhibit, since he had been laid low by ” a persistent and severe return of the old Borneo jungle fever,” but Hiller helped to unpack and organize the specimens. Stewart Culin, Curator of Asia and General Ethnography, set up the exhibition. He also with the collector’s help, wrote a long article for the Philadelphia Times which described in detail the remarkable objects that were on display (9 May 1897).

When the second installment of Borneo collections arrived at Penn in the summer of 1899, the first wing of a seperate museum building was just being completed. Pending the move into the new building, however the collections were again sent to the Wistar Institute where a temporary exhibit of ethnographic materials took place in July 1899. In december the new Free Museum of Science and Art was formally opened, with the Furness-Hiller-Harrison collections housed in the lower hall of the Fitler Pavilion (now the Mesoamerican Gallery).

Furness, Hiller, and Harrison were in Assam, but friends sent them pictures and enthusiastic descriptions of Culin’s display in the “Borneo Room” (Fig.8). Harrison wrote that “it give us all the greatest amount of pleasure to hear of the great success that Culin has had arranging and displaying our Borneo collection and we are all most anxious to see it in its permanent home.”

It does not appear that any of the three collectors was involved in studying or working with the Borneo material after it reached Philadelphia. By the fall of 1903, Hiller and Harrison were both in the sugar business in Cuba. Furness was associated with the Museum, as a member (later secretary) of the Board of Managers and as Curator of the General Ethnology section (Culin had redesigned earlier in the year). Furness’s title as curator was largely honorary, however, and the day -to-day work of the section fell to the newly appointed Assistant Curator, George Byron Gordon.

Most of the Borneo ethnographic collections are still a The University Museum. A small number of duplicate specimens were, however, set aside for exchange by Gordon, in consultation with Furness. In 1905 this group of approximately 380 objects was given by Furness  to his alma mater, Harvard College. It is not known when the Borneo Room was dismantled, but photographs show that objects from the Furness-Hiller-Harrison collections later formed part of a Southeast Asia display on the third floor of the Museum, probably some time in the 1930’s.

Over the years, the zoological collections of the Wistar Institute have gradually been dispersed. Most of the Furness-Hiller-Harrison specimens went to the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia, beginning with the sale of hundreds of birds skins in 1911. Some primate skeletal material has been transferred to The University Museum.

The Significance of the Ethnographic Collection

To this day, there are not many Bornean ethnographic collection in the United States. Of these, the Furness-Hiller-Harrison collection in the United States. Of these, the Furness-Hiller-Harrison is among the earliest and with over 2,000 catalogue entries, one of the largest. Only the William Louis Abbot collection, acquired in Dutch Borneo between 1906 and 1915 for the Smithsonian Institution, is of comparable size. The University Museum’s Borneo collection has the added strength of ethnic diversity, having been acquired from a large number of different tribal peoples on both sides of the island. The people most comprehensively represented are the Kenyah, Kayan, Iban, and Kantu’.

What Furness, Hiller, and Harrison set out to accomplish was to acquire the most complete possible assemblage of specimens from the widest possible range of peoples. Similarly, the stated rationale for their subsequent years of travel and collection (see box) was the exploration of the racial origins of the peoples of Borneo: “These trips have Borneo for the center  and, were so arranged because Dr. Furness, having found a peculiar people in Borneo, drew a circle about them in his explorations, hoping to connect them with some other races about which more is known” (Boston Sunday lobe, 16 December 1906) Thus, according to accounts in various Philadelphia newspapers, they visited the Naga tribes “to trace to its source the remarkable culture which exists today among the wild tribes of Borneo,” the Menangkebau “to discover whether they are, as is claimed,  the parent stock of the Malay race,” and even the natives of Yap because “the people of the Carolines are probably allied in blood to those of Eastern Borneo.”

One they returned form their travels, Furness, Hiller, and Harrison did not undertake to pursue such anthropological inquiries further, clearly felling that their part ended with the gathering of artifacts and the recording of information on their context. Their goal was to collect information “of general and scienific interest,” and what they brought back from Borneo still serves both of these audiences. On July 11, 1899 the Philadelphia Executive Bulletin declared that “the thanks of the city of philadelphia, as well as those of the University , are due to Messrs. Harrison, Furness, and Hiller for the liberal gift, and for the public-spirited manner in which they have turned their intelligent pastime to serious profit for their fellow citizens.” Today, the Furness-Hiller-Harrison collections and notes still constitute a rich source for scholars, and this year over 500 of the ethnographic objects are on display again for the instruction and amusement of the public.

Later Adventures of Furness, Hiller and Harrison

In five years following their expeditions to Borneo, the three young men made collecting trips to several other asian and Oceanic aboriginal groups: the Veddahs of Ceylon and the Nagas of Assam (Furness et al. 1899-1900), the Ainu of Japan and the Menangkebau of Sumatra (Hiller and Harrison 1901), and the natives of Yap in the Carolines (Furness 1903) The only zooloigical collections, from Sumatra, were presented to the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia. All the Ethonographic collections were presented to the University Museum.

In their years of traveling, Furness and Hiller were popular lectureres around Philadelphia, giving talks before the American Philosophical Society, the Geographical Society of Philadelphia, and various groups at the University. The talks were illustrated with lantern slides made from photographs taken by all three men. Furness published two books, The Home-Life of Borneo Head Hunters (1902), and The Island of Stone Money, Uap of the Carolines (1910).

It was Furness who originally had the idea of going to Borneo, and it was he who pursued this interest the longest. Until as late as 1916, he devoted himself to the project of trying to teach a Bornean orangutan to speak. His first live orang, which he brought back from the 1896 trip, was donated to the Philadelphia Zoo, where it survived for three years; three more orangs died en route from Borneo in 1898. He first began taking orangs into his home in 1909, when he acquired one young animal in Borneo and purchased two more from a dealer. A fourth was obtained in 1911. After months of daily drill, the most successful of these pupils learned to pronounce and use the words “Papa” and “cup”, but Furness concluded that even she did not demonstrate the ability to reason (Furness 1916).








Cite This Article

Katz, Adria H.. "Borneo to Philadelphia." Expedition Magazine 30, no. 1 (March, 1988): -. Accessed July 14, 2024.

This digitized article is presented here as a historical reference and may not reflect the current views of the Penn Museum.

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