The 1905 ascent of Mount Tahan (Malaysia) and fate of the bird collection
Was the Federated Malay States Museums expedition the first to reach the summit of Mount Tahan, the highest peak in Peninsular Malaysia? And what happened to the expeditions’ bird collection?
By John-James Wilson, Curator of Vertebrate Zoology, World Museum, National Museums Liverpool
Intrepid explorer, Isabella Lucy Bird, traversed the western coast of the Malay Peninsula in 1880, describing the interior as “terra incognito”, a “vast malarious equatorial jungle, sparsely peopled”. Alfred Russel Wallace, now so closely associated with the natural history of Southeast Asia, never ventured much beyond the peninsula’s coastal ports.
Around the time of Bird and Wallace’s travels, the geopolitical region now known as Semenanjung (Peninsular) Malaysia was steadily coming under British control. Penang, Singapore, Malacca (Melaka), and Dindings (Daerah Manjung), made up the Straits Settlements Crown Colony. The Malay sultanates were ruled “indirectly” as protectorates. A map in Bird’s travelogue labelled large parts of the interior as “unexplored country” or “unexplored Malay land”.
The “Barrier Mountain”, Gunung Tahan (previously spelt Gunong Tahan), on the Pahang-Kelantan border lies at the heart of this “unexplored” hinterland. Through speculation about its enormity, said to be 10,000-20,000ft, and local folklore, involving giant monkeys, magic stones, and other supernatural wonders, Gunung Tahan had attained a legendary status amongst explorers.
Attempts by Europeans to reach the summit began in earnest in 1891 with an expedition from Singapore led by Henry Nicholas Ridley, Director of the Singapore Botanical Gardens, accompanied by William Ruxton Davison, Curator of the Raffles Museum. This expedition was abandoned due to sickness and lack of food. In 1899, during a Cambridge University expedition to the northern states, Walter William Skeat made an attempt on the mountain that was “within an ace of success”.
The states of Pahang, Perak, Selangor and Negeri Sembilan, were federated as a single administrative unit in 1895 and the two state museums administratively merged under the Federated Malay States Museums service. Perak-born Leonard Wray Jnr, founding Curator of Perak Museum, was appointed Director in 1904. Liverpool-born zoologist, Herbert Christopher Robinson, former assistant to Henry Ogg Forbes at the Liverpool Museums (now World Museum, National Museums Liverpool), had been appointed Curator of Selangor Museum in 1903.
Wray and Robinson were field enthusiasts, spending several months on collecting trips each year. Many of the specimens were forwarded to the British Museum (Natural History) (now the Natural History Museum, London). For Robinson in particular, Gunung Tahan had long held a fascination. Realising that the failures of previous expeditions had largely been financial, and due to lack of forward planning, an agreement was made with the British Museum trustees. They would fund half the cost of an expedition to Gunung Tahan in exchange for a half-share of the collections.
The Federated Malay States Museums expedition of 1905
Engaging sixty-five men and lasting five months, the 1905 expedition to Gunung Tahan was no picnic. On May 12th Wray and Robinson set off from Taiping and Kuala Lumpur respectively. Approaching Kuala Lipis, they caught a passing glimpse of the peak shrouded in cloud.
An advance party of locals, organised by Dato’ To Muntri Idin and Penghulu Panglima Kakap Husin, had already laid the groundwork two weeks earlier, pitching a main camp at Kuala Teku, the highest navigable point on the Sungai (river) Tahan, and another two camps further along. After switching to dug-out canoes, one of which sank and abandoning another, the main party reached Kuala Teku on May 24th, already closer to the summit than Ridley and Davison had reached.
The camp, now known as Wray’s Camp, was reached on May 28th. Two days later, Wray and Robinson went up to the next camp where remains of huts and a flag left by the 1899 expedition could be found – the furthest point reached by Skeat and also the advance party. At some points ladders were set to get up the rocks. They returned to Wray’s Camp and Wray, suffering dysentery, stayed put while Robinson went back up to Skeat’s Camp to start selecting a site for a camp further on. Wray was due to retire, and not in the best of health generally, but was determined to try the ascent before leaving the peninsula. On June 25th after no improvement he was carried downhill, his attempt on the summit over.
For the next two weeks Robinson busied himself with collecting while other members of the party built a final camp on the padang, the high plateau. Robinson moved up to this camp on July 15th and the next day, Bulang, Che Nik, Mat Aris, Mu’min and Robinson cut a track to the summit. Akhirnya! Finally! By 10:15 am they had reached the top.
It must have been a slight anti-climax. Clouds continued to obscure any views before they retreated back to camp. A storm struck the next day so it wasn’t until July 18th when they returned to the peak, built a cairn, and finally enjoyed spectacular mountain views. Robinson’s own measurements cast doubt on the status of Gunung Tahan as the highest peak in the peninsula, but this was later confirmed by Surveyor-General, Col. Jackson – 7186ft (2187m) compared to Gunung Kerbau at 7160ft (2183m).
Mission accomplished, the party headed downhill and, after an exhilarating ride downstream on the flooded river, reached Kuala Lipis on August 10th. Robinson spent a fortnight making lowland collections around Kuala Tembeling, returning to Kuala Lumpur on September 6th after an absence of nearly 4 months.
The fate of the bird collections
As agreed, half the collection (394 birds) was dispatched to London and accessioned in 1906. William Robert Ogilvie-Grant of the Bird Room wrote up the collection, annotated with the field notes. He described seven species as new to Western science, including a Woodpecker (Picus canus robinsoni), Jay (Cissia chinensis robinsoni), and Green Pigeon (Treron sphenurus robinsoni), named for Robinson.
Following Wray’s retirement in 1908, Robinson became Director and continued forwarding specimens to England, probably due to lack of storage space at his own institution. Around 350 birds were donated to Robinson’s former workplace the Liverpool Museums following a visit by his successor in Liverpool, William Shepherd Laverock. This included seven birds from the 1905 expedition, two from the ascent, two from the padang, one from the descent, and two from the lowlands. Birds were also sent to Lionel Walter Rothschild who sold his collection to the American Museum of Natural History, New York, in 1932, although his museum building in Tring is now an outstation of the Natural History Museum, London. There is one specimen from the 1905 expedition in New York, collected near Kuala Teku.
Robinson himself was succeeded as Director by his former assistant Cecil Boden Kloss, who headed both the Raffles and Federated Malay States Museums. The pair arranged that the vertebrate collection in Kuala Lumpur be transferred to Singapore in exchange for the entomology collection. The reasoning being that each collection would then be under “the immediate supervision of the curator most qualified to deal with them”.
Birds from the 1905 expedition are now in the Lee Kong Chian Natural History Museum, Singapore. Selangor Museum was bombed during WWII and collections moved to Taiping. The Selangor Museum building was finally demolished in 1959 making way for Muzium Negara (National Museum).
Was the 1905 expedition the first to reach the summit?
This brings us to the controversial expedition of Johannes Waterstradt. The Danish collector was hired by Rothschild and claimed to have summited Gunung Tahan in 1902. Given his account included no maps and, according to Robinson, “details of the natural features … [that] differs materially from the actual facts”, Robinson concluded that Waterstradt was never on the true Tahan range but “merely on some of the loftier outliers to the north and east”. John Brooke Schrivenor delivered more hot takes on previous attempts, including that of 1905, in the account of his climb in 1906.
Waterstradt’s birds, part of the Rothschild collection, are now in the American Museum of Natural History. What is now known about distributions of these species confirms that Waterstradt had made it to the padang of Gunung Tahan if not the summit.
Sam Shor Nahar Yaakob and colleagues at Universiti Putra Malaysia believe it impossible that locals had not visited the area around the peak of Gunung Tahan prior to the European-headed expeditions.
The expedition’s legacy
Victorian and Edwardian narratives of expeditions in Peninsular Malaysia can be uncomfortable reading; punctuated with unbridled patriotism and “everyday” racism. There can also be striking moments of humility. Bird quotes Alfred Tennyson when she argues (in The Golden Chersonese) that “the fierce light which beats upon a throne” be turned on the entire colonial enterprise. Natural history collections in Western museums, such as those documented here, are largely spoils of empire. How can we work to decolonise these collections in an entangled world? Acknowledging the context in which collections were acquired is an important first step.
Whether or not the 1905 expedition was the first to reach the summit, it provided the foundation for the “traditional” trail route still used by tourists and climbing fanatics today. The “World’s oldest rainforest”, encircling Gunung Tahan, was gazetted as a national park in 1938/39. Now called Taman Negara, it is one of the largest protected areas in Southeast Asia.
I first learned of Gunung Tahan while studying the “ring” butterflies of Peninsular Malaysia with Jisming See Shi Wei. One subspecies described in 1933 by Henry Maurice Pendlebury, entomologically specialized Curator of Selangor Museum, is confined to the padang. We haven’t attempted the ascent ourselves … yet.
I am grateful to Wan F. A. Jusoh, Kelvin Lim Kok Peng, and Martyn Low Ern Yee for information about collections at the Lee Kong Chian Natural History Museum, Singapore; Thomas J. Trombone and Paul R. Sweet for information about collections at the American Museum of Natural History, New York; Clem Fisher, Steve Judd and Donna Young (World Museum Liverpool) for feedback on an earlier version of this article; Tony Hunter for providing images of birds in the World Museum Liverpool collection.
John-James Wilson, Curator of Vertebrate Zoology, World Museum, National Museums Liverpool.
I have been curator of the Vertebrate Zoology collection in Liverpool since 2018. Between 2012-2016 I worked at the Museum of Zoology, University of Malaya in Kuala Lumpur and retain a special interest in collections from Peninsular Malaysia and the wider East and Southeast Asia region. I have also written blog posts for NatSca https://natsca.blog/ and stories for National Museums Liverpool. https://www.liverpoolmuseums.org.uk/stories