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November 9, 2011

The Mysterious Skulls of Kuching

Tom McLaughlin

Kuching, Malaysian Borneo – “Where did those skulls come from,” I asked myself. I was standing on a walkway peering into a turret where a basket containing several skulls hung from the ceiling. There was no explanation, just a basket of skulls.


Fort Margherita was built along the Sarawak River in 1879 here in Kuching. The primary purpose was to defend the town from any attacks coming from the South China Sea. The main building is a tall, rectangular structure about 40 meters high. Emanating outward on the eastern side, and facing the river, are walls with walkways where men could fire and there are openings for canons.


The basket holds what I think are five skulls. Made of very loosely rattan, the contents are visible. Crushed at the bottom, large pieces of caps, jaws, and teeth were arranged loosely in a macabre pile. On top, three relatively intact skulls are loosely piled with two on the bottom and one on top.


The groundskeepers told me the skulls were from the rebellion in which a group of Chinese attacked the town to rid themselves of the white rulers who taxed the gold mined from an area known as Bau. The skulls came from the defenders whose bodies were burned. There are supposed to be a British skull in the mix, but at that time I couldn’t tell the difference between the skulls. Parts of the skulls are blackened and charred.


I then took my questions to the local university – to people who were supposed to know the answers. All did not know there was a basket of skulls hanging in Fort Margherita and probably thought me daft.


My next step was to try to identify the skulls. I wanted to find out if there could be a western skull in the mix. I have absolutely no clue on how to tell the differences between the races based on skulls. I trolled through the Internet looking for a person like Temperance “Bones” Brennan from the American television program. I did find such a person with a long list of credentials and fired off an e-mail.


I explained my dilemma to her hoping she would not think I was crazed. To my utter astonishment, she sent back a complete power point presentation. The problem was that I could not tell from looking through the basket to positively identify the race of two of the skulls. I am sure three are Asian but the other two I cannot tell.


To Western minds, the easiest thing to do would be to take down the basket, check the skulls and piece together the pile. However, the skulls contain spirits and are venerated by many. In order to move them, I would need permission and this would entail finding a person versed with the other world. As a guest living here, I respect the culture and traditions and I do not wish to violate the beliefs of these wonderful people.


There are possibilities. The first is that they are indeed the skulls from those who defended the town from the Chinese invaders. Historic accounts confirm there were four Asians and one westerner killed, their remains were burned and they were beheaded. The problem is how did they get to a fort that was built over 25-years later? The other problem is that I cannot confirm there is a western skull among the mix.


In my mind, the most likely explanation comes from the activities of head hunters during World War II.


The British Rajah gave permission for the resumption of headhunting activities as long as the victims were Japanese. These skulls could be Japanese heads donated to the returning British as curios.


There is more research to be done on my part to unravel the puzzle of the skulls of Fort Margherita. To me, this is a fun quest in the pursuit of satisfying my intellectual curiosity. I will keep you posted.


For other articles on Malaysian Borneo, see Tom’s website at


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