In 1928 Charles Hudson Southwell, a recent graduate of both the University of Melbourne and Melbourne Bible Institute, sailed north to establish the Borneo Evangelical Mission. Like his famous namesake, Hudson had intended to go to China, but was challenged at MBI to go to the remote jungle instead. Establishing a mission in the Limbang District of northern Sarawak, close to the border with Sabah, Hudson quickly learned both the Malay and Iban languages. Returning to Australia to marry his childhood sweetheart Winsome, the two returned to Sarawak and settled into a ministry among the Murut people, who were eager to know about ‘Tuhan Isa,’ (Lord Jesus) who is mentioned in a favourable light in the Qur’an. Unfortunately their success among the Murut attracted the attention of the British overlords of that territory who preferred to keep missionary activity to a minimum and on occasion banned them entirely as it interfered with British territorial ambitions in the region.

Taking a strategic furlough in Australia, the Southwells returned quietly to Borneo in 1936 to the Miri area and began working among the Iban with equal success. By then American missionary John Willfinger had rendered the New Testament in the Iban language (one of the many ways that Christian missionaries have strengthened and preserved indigenous people groups has been to commit their oral language to written form) and the Southwells found that Christ’s parables rendered in their own language spoke to the Iban in a powerful way. The war loosened British hold on the territory, and staying in Borneo during the conflict the Southwells were able to renew their work with the Murut who themselves became evangelists to their neighbours. Driven further inland by the Japanese who had now landed in Sabah to the north, Willfinger – a brilliant scholar and gifted linguist who was now working on the Murut New Testament – and the Southwells continued to evangelise indigenous tribes as they fled, among them the Kelabit people of the highlands near the border with what was then Dutch Indonesia.

The Japanese, like the British before them, understood the dangers posed by an educated and empowered tribal population and targeted both Willfinger and the Southwells for immediate arrest. When they surrendered – rather than further endanger the local tribes people – John Willfinger was summarily executed and the Southwells and fellow missionary Frank Davidson were incarcerated in an internment camp where Davidson died of disease. Hudson’s previous education as a chemist allowed him to identify and use local leaves and berries for both food and medicine, and he and Winsome survived. In March of 1945 American parachute troops, led by Major Tom Harrisson, landed in the Kelabit Highlands, and organizing and arming the Kelabit people led them in a guerrilla campaign against the Japanese that left no escape from advancing American and Australian troops now attacking the coastal regions.

Following the war, Harrisson returned to Bario and began working among the Kelabit people, to whom he felt he owed much of his wartime success. He was opposed to the evangelical efforts of the Southwells and sought to restrict their influence. But the Kelabit themselves were in awe of the changes they saw among the Murut and many Kelabit turned to Christ in the years after the war. In the early 60s Sabah and Sarawak joined the new Malaysian Federation, raising the ire of the Indonesians who considered the provinces part of their territory. The resulting ‘Confrontation’ with Indonesia caused many Kelabit from the surrounding villages to flee into Bario where there was a Malaysian army base. This increased Bario’s population and importance which after the conflict led to the construction of first a primary and later a middle school to serve the children of the area.

The Southwells continued to minister in the Highlands until the 1980s, working among the Kelabit, Kayan and Kenyah people. Hudson developed a Kayan-English dictionary to preserve this indigenous language and established a Community Development Project far up the Baram River at Long Lama that provided technical training to improve local living conditions. A ‘moving of the Holy Spirit’ in Bario in 1973 led to the Christian conversion of the entire village and the construction of a local church. An emphasis on Christian morality and an understanding of the importance of education has led to the Kelabit being among the most well-educated people groups in Malaysia. Former Malaysian Airlines executive director and current minister in Prime Minister Najib’s inner circle Dato Sri Idris Jala is Kelabit, as are a number of Malaysian CEOs and Christian evangelical leaders.

Some research material from: With Pythons & Head-Hunters in Borneo (2009) by Brian Row McNamee. Xlibris.