Captain Burn and Associates: British Intelligence-Gathering, Trade, and Litigation in Borneo and beyond during the Early Nineteenth Century

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John Leyden's well-known "Sketch of Borneo" (Leyden 1811) (1) included a large amount of information that had been supplied to T. S. Raffles from Pontianak by "Mr. J. Burn." This information has been used by many historians of the region, but without paying attention to Burn. He was Captain Joseph Burn, a country trader from India. This paper traces Burn's experiences in the last ten years or so of his life. It was the comment by Mary Somers Heidhues (1998: 277) that little is still known about Burn, and the fact that much of the information in his letters has not been published, that led to the present study. It may help to give better recognition to those whose adventurous lives are mostly difficult to follow in any detail--the British country traders.

Joseph Burn and the Invasion of Java

John Leyden wrote his "Sketch of Borneo" while a passenger on the Lord Minto during the slow voyage of the British invasion fleet between Malacca and Java. (2) Most of the recent information in the "Sketch" had been sent earlier in the year to T. S. Raffles by "Mr. J. Burn," after "a residence of several years" in Pontianak, West Borneo (Burn 1811). (3) Burn's letters were in response to correspondence from Raffles who, from his base in Malacca, was gathering intelligence about Borneo that included details of piratical attacks on British shipping but ranged much more widely. Leyden summarized some of Burn's descriptions of West Borneo, Pontianak as the most important trading port, and also the customs of the Dayak people. The "Sketch" does not seem to have been merely an academic exercise. In October 1810, during a visit by Raffles to Calcutta, Leyden wrote to Olivia Raffles: "I have however settled with R. that the instant he is Governor of Java I am to be his Secretary. That is the only chance you ever have of seeing me. The time fast approaches when I shall proceed to take possession of Borneo & whenever I proceed, I am determined to succeed" (his emphases) (Bastin 2002: 70). Whatever Leyden's plans were with respect to Borneo, they were not to succeed: he died of fever soon after the British landed in Java (Wurtzburg 1954: 167-168; Bastin 2002: 83).

Soon after writing to Raffles, Burn gave assistance in surveying a route via the Karimata Islands off West Borneo for the planned assault on Java. Because of the prevailing winds the only alternative was a much longer passage from Malacca around northern Borneo. The matter was not settled in favor of the former route until May 1811, after the arrival in Malacca of Lord Minto, Governor-General of India, and his entourage (Boulger 1897: 101-103; Wurtzburg 1954: 122, 136, 141-142). Shortly before Minto's arrival, Raffles wrote to him: "I recommend your employing the services of Capt. Burn, now residing at Pontiana. You can easily arrange to pay him and may leave him at Matan or Succadana to complete any points that have been commenced but unfinished by you, for want of time." (Lady S. Raffles 1830: 40-41). Raffles reported slightly later that Burn was helping Captain Greig, (often called Greigh), who commanded the Lord Minto and had been sent from Malacca to make the hurried survey. Leyden had recommended to Lord Minto that Greig be put under Raffles's command (Boulger 1897: 98). He had made many voyages from India to the east as a country trader, including at [east one visit to Pontianak, in October 1808 when Burn was probably living there (Prince of Wales Gazette (PG) 3/155:11 Feb 1809). Burn was to be left to complete the survey after Greig returned to Malacca and would help pilot the invasion fleet: "Captain Burns [sic], who has long been a resident at Pontiana ... is understood to have once brought a fleet without difficulty through the passage" (Raffles 1811 : 117). This other fleet remains unidentified, but Burn's knowledge and assistance certainly deserves recognition in view of the credit always given to Captain Greig in establishing the feasibility of the passage. …