Returning the Johnsons’ photos to their origin and ensuring they’d be
accessible to the peoples they concern was the main goal of the IPAM project.
Leaving Borneo in 1936, the Johnsons gave copies of all their photos to the
government hoping they’d be preserved as a record of the untouched haven
they saw vanishing before their eyes. WWII, however, destroyed all but a
handful of these images. In May,
I arrived in Sabah with digital copies of our museum’s 2,217 Bornean
photos, a DVD of the film Borneo, and a shiny new
laptop on which to show them.
My first few weeks were spent in bustling Kota Kinabalu (KK) at the Sabah
Museum with exchange curator Stella Moo selecting photos for an exhibition
dedicated to Martin and Osa in the Sandakan Heritage Museum. Sandakan was the colonial capital and the Johnsons’ “city
camp.” The exhibit will restore the pictorial history of the region and
foster an interest in conserving the natural beauties that still remain.
Stella and I flew to the town on May 24th to meet World
Wildlife Fund (WWF) and the Partners for Wetlands (PW) staff who wanted to
take us to a site proposed for a Martin and Osa Johnson Memorial Trail and
Information Center. The trailhead was to start at “Johnsonville,” the
spot cleared in 1935 as the “jungle camp” and we were to furnish photos
for the center. Accessible only
by water, it took hours by speedboat to reach the village of Abai where we
met seven young, newly certified “Johnson Trail Guides.”
Chatting with the guides, two of whom were girls (which would have pleased
Osa), I was shocked to discover none had ever seen any of the Johnsons’
photos. I set up the laptop and
after flicking a very scary looking scorpion off the monitor–and
momentarily reevaluating my career choice–ran a slideshow for them and
several villagers. A hundred images that featured unidentified river scenes
composed the show. Two photos in, at a shot of the houseboat crew, many of
the elders yelled out “Logan!” and the crowd went mad.
Story after story poured out and thanks to PW’s Julia Majail
translating, I learned that the star of Borneo
was as heroic offscreen as he was handsome on it.
All we’d known of Logan was that Martin and Osa hired him because he
spoke fluent English and looked great in a loincloth. There has been
speculation by anthropologists that he was an actor brought in to pose as a
local. Not only was Logan
Kandayah from Abai, he was a decorated hero in WWII and he worked as a
policeman for over 30 years in Sandakan.
As the show continued, more names were put to faces, their tales and
histories recalled. We only had
a few hours in the village and needed to get to the Johnson campsite, though,
so right after the show the guides ferried our group the few miles to
Johnsonville. The site lay
abandoned for decades and the jungle had completely reclaimed it. To be the
first westerner given a tour of the historic site by the
fresh faced and energized guides was quite
an honor. I’ve no doubt that when completed, future visitors will likewise
be excited by the guides’ enthusiasm and the Johnsons’ story will
continue to inspire a love of the natural beauty here as well as garner a
respect for the local peoples who work so hard to preserve it today.
Just before our river excursion, The
Daily Express (a leading newspaper in Sabah) ran a two-page feature on
our project. Enough cannot be
said about the assistance the press gave in
identifying the unknown people and regions in the photos. Full credit for our
success should go to the Express’s Chief Editor James Sarda. After
finding our website while researching the history of Sandakan, James
introduced us to the Sabah Museum and Stella, then generously also donated a
great deal of his time and his paper’s resources to ensure word of our work
spread. His plea for anyone with connections to the Johnsons to contact us
resulted in many people we would never have found on our own actually coming
Among these was Haji Montoi, whose granduncle,
Rahman, provided a house and assorted
invaluable services to Martin and Osa in both 1920 and 1935. Amazingly of the
12 photos James picked to publish, three featured members of Haji’s family!
Haji kept in touch with others linked to the Johnsons and they’d
often gathered at his home in Sandakan for “Johnson Family Reunions.” As
the elders passed on and the children moved away, however, the tradition lost
steam. After seeing the article,
Haji swore if we would come, he’d assemble “the family” once more and
many mysteries of our photos would be solved.
Amongst those to be summoned were Wahab
Abdul Rahman and Masri Angau, his two
uncles who’d both been children in the Johnsons’ camps.
While incredibly tempting, this was also a major challenge as I had a
tight itinerary, was not to go to Sandakan again until the end of my trip,
and had no extra travel budget for more flights. Stella solved all the
problems by shuffling my KK duties and letting me stow aboard for a bumpy five-hour
overland roadtrip to Sandakan where her family would take an impromptu
vacation while I attended Haji’s reunion.
We had no idea how many people Haji could produce, but due to the short
notice and distances involved we hoped for four or five.
When we arrived at the Montoi home, 35 Johnson campmates or their
sons, daughters, grandchildren, etc., waited with the promise that more were
on the way. To keep the crowd
from getting restless as we set up for a slideshow, we passed around some
photos. Fearing technical problems, I’d brought a handful of old copy
photos as back-ups. There were only 18 prints, and not one really
spectacular, but I thought they’d be better than nothing if the laptop went
After doling out the photos, we returned to setting up.
Before the boot screen appeared, there was a keening wail from the
back of the room. It was such a gut-wrenching sound I thought someone had been
hurt. When Stella and I rushed back we found Masri, crying with a photo
clutched to his chest. Unbelievably,
one of the random photos was of his late father Salahudin, who worked with
the Johnsons in both 1920 & 1935! Masri
had never seen a photo of him before and obviously was beyond words over it.
I had teased the rest of the Safari staff that I was going to defect
to the larger Sabah Museum, but meeting this sweet little man and reuniting
him with the image of his beloved father
was a far better reward than I could ever have hoped for as a curator
Angau with the photo of his father, Salahudin.
During the show, Haji acted as my translator.
An elegant speaker in multiple languages, Haji is also skilled at
driving home a point. At the
part about the last trip and how worried the Johnsons were about what would
become of Borneo, Haji picked up the DVD of the film and shaking it towards
the youngsters assembled, he added, “Martin died for us, he died to leave
us these photos of things you will NEVER see again.”
As in Abai, each image that flashed brought names and stories we had
one of Logan’s daughters, squealed with laughter and cried tears of joy
each time her father was shown. The evening was one of the best in my life
and though we were assembled for hours it seemed like just minutes had passed
before the time for sad goodbyes came. I
wasn’t sure if I’d ever meet any of them again so bidding them farewell
was exceptionally hard. Without letting loose of his father’s photo, Masri
was still able to give me a bone-crushing parting hug and Irini actually made
me cry as she kissed and thanked me for ensuring her father would live on in
In June, Terry Todoroff joined me for my last two weeks in Sabah.
He’d visited Vanuatu last year and had come for the leg
of my stay that was dedicated to retracing the Johnsons’ jungle footsteps
and filming several of their famous haunts. At our welcome ceremony in Abai,
Suluk ladies performed the same dance for us that Feeli Mendoza had for the
Johnsons. Critics of Borneo say the dance scenes were staged for the film, but Ruckee
Abai’s Homestay Coordinator confirmed that the dance was traditionally
conducted before and after hunts and that Feeli performed it in 1935 pre and
post the “thrilling climax” capture of the orangutan. Here we met more
people with Johnson ties and by giving another slideshow, we even may have
made some new Johnson fans along the way.
"On and on we flew over seemingly endless jungles, up and
down the winding Kinabatangan River. My
eyes were rapidly tiring from the tedious and fruitless search for a clearing
that could be used as a campsite. The sun was just beginning to tumble down
orange backdrop of the western horizon when Martin shouted, ‘Osa, down
there to your right!
That’s the spot. It’s right on the water’s edge.’ I
glanced down through the oval pane of glass at the sun-drenched clearing. It
My eyes looked up and met Martin’s. We
Home in the Jungle,
Last Adventure, 1967
We spent three days on the river, but the first was truly incredible as
shortly after we arrived, I was shocked and overjoyed to see Julia sail in
with Masri! Haji had arranged for him to come and accompany Terry and me to
Johnsonville. It was the best
surprise of the trip. On the boat ride over, as soon as the tall Menggaris
tree came into view, Masri explained that when Martin and Osa cleared the
land to build the camp, they couldn’t bear to fell the lovely tree and
built around it. Their sentiment
paid off as this towering fig acted as the perfect marker when landing their
giraffe-spotted airplane. Today it is the sole camp remnant and will mark the
At the site, Masri regaled us with stories of camp life that never made it
into the Johnsons’ book or films—how Osa was bitten by a cobra and was
deathly ill for a week; that the capture of the huge orangutan was much more
dangerous than ever hinted at in the film; how all the children lined up
outside Jim Laneri’s house and begged for airplane rides; and that Osa
would often take the kids out with her for the day as they liked Martin so
much they’d mob him and he couldn’t get any filming done. Thanks to Terry, we now have Masri’s recollections at the
campsite on film and his stories can be added to our account of the
Back at Abai that day, as we ate lunch on a porch overlooking the
Kinabatangan, I decided to get a picture of the group. Showing the digital
view to Kasnah Binti Rukok, homestay ‘mother’ to Terry and me, I promised to
send a copy as her new grandchild was in it. She smiled and whispered that in
60 years her children would see that photo and happily recall the day that
Terry and I had brought Martin and Osa “home.”
Everywhere I went in Sabah, I was introduced as a curator, but over and
over I noticed Martin was referred to as my datuk
and Osa as my nenek. Being Malay
challenged, I didn’t recognize those as terms for grandparents.
Later, not wanting to misrepresent myself, I learned the word for
“employee.” Two days before
I left Sabah, I gave a travelogue in Sandakan and afterwards a woman from a
school came up and stated my grandparents would have been very proud.
I decided to dazzle her with my Malay vocabulary and explained that I
was just Martin and Osa’s pekerja. She laughed and replied that from her understanding,
“to be an employee of the Johnsons was to be their family so what is the
difference?” I hope she is
right as I can’t imagine anything I’d love more than to be invited to the
next Johnson Family Reunion!