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As Long as We Remember...

May 23, 2012

Another Fading Tradition

Tom McLaughlin

Kuching, Malaysian Borneo – I never thought I would get interested in cannons, let alone own four of them. I had always thought of these guns as sitting on courthouse lawns, exhibits on civil war battlefields or thrusting shells toward Japanese held islands in the Pacific.


I am not sure if those monsters on ships are called cannons, but I do remember John Wayne calling them that during one of his many war movies.


My interest was piqued when I wandered around shops here in Malaysian Borneo and espied them on shelves. At first I thought of them as toys that colonial English children played with. They come in a wide variety of sizes, some of them the perfect length for a two year old to pull around on a floor. The larger ones a six year old could straddle and push along with his feet balancing the barrel on wheels much like a see-saw.


Back in the states, I was a buyer and seller of used books and I had my own Internet business. I would scour antique shops, auctions and thrift stores searching for valuable items I could resell. The passion, some call it a disease, still remains, and I do the same here but for my own collections that I have convinced myself are an investment.


Naturally, or unnaturally depending on your perspective, my interest turned to cannons. I began to examine them more closely and ask the price. Here, the cost is never what is asked but what one negotiates.


The shopkeeper states the amount. My counter is 70% off what he asks. Then I move up and he moves down until a mutual amount is agreed. Between the exchanges, we talk about children, where I am from, our parents and maybe have a cup of tea or bottle of water. When I think it is still too much, we depart on friendly terms. If he chases me, which happens often, I know we are very close. If not, and I really want the item, I go back and we confer some more.


One day, I casually mentioned to a local friend I was interested in cannons. It was an offhand remark, something I really don’t remember making; and I think we all have those unguarded moments. Into the condo came three of them. They were from Borneo, he assured me, and they were offered at a ridiculously low price. I asked how the children played with those without wheels. He looked at me quizzically.


He patiently explained that each kampung had a cannon. They were fired during celebrations and to announce the end of fasting each day during the month of Ramadan. I asked why the people wanted to sell them. He said that with advent of radio and television they were no longer needed. The beginning of feasting is now broadcast over the radio. Besides, the younger generation is no longer interested in such old fashioned methods.


The three I purchased are about 63 cm (25 inches to the Americans) and weigh about 5 kilos (11 pounds). The style is called Brunei. I read an 1865 account – that has been confirmed by many other references – that they were used by the people as money. They would bring them to market, weighed and exchanged for rice or other goods.


Although they are called “Brunei “cannons, nobody can find a smelter or other place where they could have been cast. Archeological digs have not turned up a site for their manufacture. Some postulate they came from India. Others say they were trade goods from the Arab world.


Living here in Malaysian Borneo, one discovers many different and fascinating learning experiences to feed the intellectually curious mind, one of the major benefits in living in this wonderful land.


…Life is good . . .


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