McDougall, Harriette B.

1818 - 1886
Missionary, teacher and writer

Harriette Bunyon McDougall was born on August 30, 1818 in Blackfriars, London. Her family was part of the influential Bickersteth dynasty, notable Anglican missionaries who were strong supporters of the work of the Church Mission Society and the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel. An uncle of Harriette, Edward Bickersteth, once braved the hostile climate of Sierra Leone in 1816 to inspect and report on the work of the Church Missionary Society (CMS) there. This story appears to have hugely influenced young Harriette who grew up together with her cousins. Her father, Robert John Bunyon, had an interest in an ironworks in Trimsaran in South Wales. Harriette also had an older sister, Frances.

As young women, both sisters were influenced by the ideas of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, the renowned theologian, poet, and philosopher who spearheaded the Romantic Movement in England together with his friend, William Wordsworth. Both Coleridge and Wordsworth emphasised the importance of individualism and human emotions, which were key thoughts that shaped the minds of young Harriette and Frances.[1]They also struck up a friendship with F.D. Maurice, another famous English Anglican theologian who was a pioneer of the Christian Socialist Movement which blended the political ideology of socialism with the religious philosophy of Christianity.[2] Maurice’s acolytes believed that capitalism was rooted in the sin of greed and saw social inequality as the direct consequence of this. 

These factors contributed to Harriette’s strong character and courage which she later exhibited during times of trouble. She was also well-educated and a good amateur artist, and was once the pupil of Cornelius Varley and Henry Gastineau. In 1843, while at her father’s ironworks, she met and later married Francis Thomas McDougall who was a superintendent there. Their wedding in July of that year was officiated by John Colenso, the future Bishop of Natal and Anglican theologian who would one day become well-known for his controversial views on polygenism. Colenso married Harriette’s sister Frances in 1846. 

Harriette, who was reputed to have vowed to only marry a clergyman, actively encouraged her husband to be ordained in the Anglican church.[3]She even personally persuaded the chief of the British Museum – Mr Forshall – to allow Francis to be released from his position at the Museum to become a missionary in 1844. While Borneo was not their first choice for mission work, the couple were elected to go there in 1847. 

For six months, the McDougalls travelled via the Cape of Good Hope to Singapore, and then on the Julia which arrived in Kuching on June 29, 1848. As they had come at the invitation of James Brooke, the recently installed “White Rajah'' of the state of Sarawak, to “civilise” the Dayaks, the McDougalls immediately set about their work. A committee headed by Francis McDougall was established for the mission, while Harriette assisted in the planting of a small, native church-based school. Some converts from the Dayak, Eurasian, and Chinese communities, whose baptism was personally overseen by Mrs McDougall[4], soon after attended the school. During this time, Harriette also attempted to learn the Malay language using whatever material and books she could find to better converse with the natives. However, her efforts were only moderately successful. 

In 1850, the McDougalls began the construction of a church on College Hill (today known as St. Thomas' Cathedral in Jalan McDougall, Kuching) while another mission house was also constructed to house the needy. In August of that year, a large number of Chinese who were fleeing an uprising against Dutch rule in Kalimantan, part of the Dutch East Indies, arrived at Kuching. These refugees quickly fell under the care of Harriette, who placed them at the mission house while their children were sent to the church-based school for primary education.[5] The compassion shown by Harriette and the Christian community in Kuching eventually bore new converts among the Chinese refugee population, which numbered in the dozens by the end of the year. The following year in January 1851, the Church of St. Thomas in Kuching was completed and consecrated by Bishop Daniel Wilson of Calcutta.

Amidst their moderate success in Kuching and its surrounding environs, 1851 was a sorrowful year for the McDougalls when she lost another child. From their arrival in Sarawak up to this point, she lost three children, two of whom died in infancy.[6] Yet she pressed on, certain that her children were in God’s care, and helped her husband to initiate mission work among the Dayaks. As Francis began visiting and establishing mission houses in various Dayak villages surrounding Kuching, Harriette herself oversaw the founding of one station in the town of Lundu. The mission was left in the care of a certain Mr. Grant who represented the Sarawak government while ensuring that people’s livelihoods would improve. 

Another mission house was built in Banting the following year, which would eventually grow into a church as the efforts of the McDougalls began to bear fruit and many Dayaks came to know Christ.[7]That same year, a new hospital was also founded in Kuching as an increasing number of Chinese immigrants brought with them diseases which needed to be cured. With the medical expertise of Francis and the care shown by Harriette, many of the Chinese patients eventually converted to the faith. 

The couple returned from England in 1854 after spending a year there to sort out the funding issue and the transfer of the Sarawak mission to the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel. Harriette continued her work among the Dayaks and the running of the church-based school, which was seeing an increase in attendees and converts. She also published her first book at this time – Letters from Sarawak: Addressed to a Child. The book comprised letters written by her to her son, who remained in Britain to be educated. When Rev McDougall was summoned to Calcutta to be consecrated as Bishop of Labuan in 1855, Harriette stayed behind in Kuching and oversaw his affairs. 

The year 1856 was a tranquil one for the couple, with the newly installed Bishop McDougall performing his episcopal duties in Kuching and Harriette giving birth to another child, a baby girl. However, the following year, a massive Chinese uprising began in the nearby town of Bau led by Liu Shan Bang against the Brooke government in Kuching. Around 600 Chinese rebels descended on Kuching, forcing the European population of the town to flee. The McDougalls fled to Banting, where they waited for the uprising to be quelled by the Rajah and his Malay allies. 

When events settled in Kuching later that year in 1857, the McDougalls returned, and Harriette oversaw the settling of new missionaries from England to join the Sarawak mission. Her school also saw the addition of new students, in particular Chinese and Dayak orphans whom she and a few other ladies personally cared for. In October, she gave birth to another son. 

Between 1858 and 1861, Harriette was frequently ill and had to return to England on at least two occasions. During this time, she also began collecting additional letters to her son Charley for her second book, Sketches of Our Life at Sarawak, which she would publish in 1882. In addition, Harriette also tirelessly sketched and recorded notes of local flora and fauna that would contribute much to English naturalist and explorer Alfred Russel Wallace’s research on Borneo. 

Harriette also remained active in the field of missions, overseeing an expansion of the church-based school in 1862 while an orphanage was founded the following year. Parishes were also established due to the twin efforts of both Harriette and Bishop McDougall in the towns of Bintulu, Quop and Lingga. In 1865, work was intensified among the Dayaks. This bore fruit when a mass conversion and baptism took place where at least 52 received Christ as Lord in the town of Lundu.[8] The McDougalls also sent off many of their Chinese Christian converts, who returned to China to spread the Gospel after their contracts ended. 

Tragedy struck the family again in their final years in Sarawak as Harriette lost two more children, while Bishop McDougall was constantly ill due to the tropical weather.[9]This eventually led to him relinquishing his post in 1868 and returning to England that same year. 

After their return to England, Harriette continued to support her husband as he switched between various posts within the Church of England. Though she was not as active in the ministry as she was in Sarawak, she was still a crucial pillar of support for Francis, especially as he continued to advocate for the Church of England to revisit the true meaning of missions and change its imperialistic perceptions of indigenous tribes in the East. She also took this time to write and finalise her book Sketches of Our Life at Sarawak, featuring her experiences in Sarawak and her observations. The book was finally published in 1882.[10] 

Harriette McDougall passed away in 1886 shortly after her husband’s death earlier that same year, leaving behind her only child to survive out of six children – Charley McDougall. 


  1. ^ Charles John Bunyon. Memoirs of Francis Thomas McDougall ... Sometime Bishop of Labuan and Sarawak, and of Harriette, his Wife (London: Longmans, Green, and Co., 1889).
  2. ^ Bunyon, Memoirs of Francis Thomas McDougall.
  3. ^ D.A. Edwards, “The Legacy of Francis Thomas McDougall”, International Bulletin of Missionary Research 31(4), 204-208., 2007.
  4. ^ Graham Saunders, Bishops and Brookes: The Anglican Mission and the Brooke Raj in Sarawak 1848-1941 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992).
  5. ^ Harriette McDougall, Letters from Sarawak: Addressed to a Child (London: Grant and Griffith, 1854).
  6. ^ McDougall, Letters from Sarawak.
  7. ^ Harriette McDougall, Sketches of Our Life at Sarawak (London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 1882).
  8. ^ McDougall, Sketches.
  9. ^ McDougall, Sketches.
  10. ^ Felix Wilfred, The Oxford Handbook of Christianity in Asia. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2014).

Brendan Yeo

The writer is a student of history and is currently pursuing his Masters in Southeast Asian History at the University of Malaya. 



Bunyon, Charles John. Memoirs of Francis Thomas McDougall ... Sometime Bishop of Labuan and Sarawak, and of Harriette, his Wife. London: Longmans, Green, and Co., 1889. 

Edwards, D. A. “The Legacy of Francis Thomas McDougall”. International Bulletin of Missionary Research 31(4), 204-208., 2007.

McDougall, Harriette. Letters from Sarawak: Addressed to a Child. London: Grant and Griffith, 1854. 

McDougall, Harriette. Sketches of Our Life at Sarawak. London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 1882. 

Saunders, Graham. Bishops and Brookes: The Anglican Mission and the Brooke Raj in Sarawak 1848-1941. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992. 

Wilfred, Felix. The Oxford Handbook of Christianity in Asia. New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2014.