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23 Jan 2024
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Robert (Robin) McEwen Little
(16 Oct 1860 – 17 Sep or Dec 1905)

The narrative that follows is transcribed from Alexander (Sandy) Waddell's invaluable summary in his biographical documentation of the Little and Martin families.

Summary transcript

Born 16 0ct 1850 in Singapore. Youngest child of Sarah Sophia (née Whittle) and Dr Robert Little. Almost certainly in the service of Raja James Brooke of Sarawak with whom his father was acquainted, but documented proof is still required. As an administrative officer, having sentenced a head-hunter to a long term of imprisonment as a deterrent to the practice, the miscreant swore revenge when led from the court. In the amnesty granted by Raja Brooke to mark the occasion of Queen Victoria's Diamond Jubilee 1897 the prisoner was inadvertently released and making his way to the parade ground, he attacked Robin as he sat mounted in full ceremonial uniform, inflicting a deep cut which scarred his face for life, before being overpowered. He married Ruby Campbell, the younger sister of Mary Elizabeth Campbell (second wife of his father Dr Robert Little!).

As we see from the boxed text below, Robert (aka Robin) McEwen Little was clearly recognised as an outstandingly capable colonial administrator, and a tough and seasoned expeditionary campaigner. The attack on him at the Durbar on 28 May 1889, described below, was in fact an act of premeditated revenge, as outlined in Sandy's summary above.

I was absolutely delighted to discover both these accounts, as they explain a longstanding confusion. My father would often allude to a mysterious episode involving "Uncle Robin and the head-hunters", but owing to his habitual digressiveness never got to the point of the story. Furthermore, "Uncle Robin" to me meant my father's younger brother who had died of polio at the age of 21, so I was completely baffled. To my father, Little was in fact a great-uncle, but the degree of avuncularity had been elided, as they say in Barnsley, and the whole thing has puzzled me for 60 years. At last, I have closure!



Lot 131


Estimate: £5,000 – £6,000

British North Borneo Company Medal 1897–1916, silver, 1 clasp, Punitive Expeditions (R. M. Little, Esq.) engraved naming, with original watered silk ribbon and contained in its original Spink & Son, London card box of issue, the lid inscribed in ink 'Punitive Expeditions Silver', the bottom also with contemporary inscription in ink 'R. M. Little Dep. Governor' and repeated in later ball-point, some careful restoration to box, otherwise extremely fine and of the highest rarity being one of only five original issues in silver £5000-6000.


Ex Peter Minns Collection, purchased from C. A. Lusted, June 1972.

Only five silver medals with clasp 'Punitive Expeditions' were awarded to officers and 47 bronze medals with clasp to non-commissioned officers and men. Bronze medals were allowed to be exchanged for silver in 1905-06 and Spink records indicate that 9 silver Punitive Expeditions medals with impressed naming were supplied in 1905, and a further 12 unnamed examples were supplied in 1909.

Robert McEwen Little was born on 16 October 1860, in Singapore where his father was a doctor, and entered the service of the British North Borneo Company as a Treasury Clerk in Sandakan on 14 February 1883. In the same year he was appointed Acting Residential Secretary and a few months after this appointment was Cadet-in-Charge, Papar. In January 1884 he was Magistrate-in-Charge, Province Keppel and at the end of that year was appointed Assistant Resident, West Coast. In June 1887 he was appointed Assistant Resident, Province Dent and in January 1890 Assistant Resident, Darvel Bay. In May 1891 he received the appointment of Acting Resident, West Coast and in February 1892 was confirmed Resident, West Coast. In February 1898 he was appointed Resident, Labuan, and in April 1899 was for a short time Deputy Governor, Labuan and one of three Commissioners to Administer the Government of North Borneo. In 1902 he was appointed Resident, Province Alcock which appointment he held at the time of his death in 1905.

During the long period of nearly twenty-three years in the service of the Chartered Company, Mr Little had the most varied and interesting experiences. He accompanied the first expedition to the Interior against Puroh and Gana in October 1883, in company with Chief Inspector de Fontaine. He also took part in the Kawang expedition in May 1885, on which occasion he was wounded by a spear in the arm when several Bajaus 'ran amok'. Despite his wound, Little 'disposed of his opponent with his revolver'. In addition, Dr Manson Fraser was shot at point blank range, the Sikh Jemadar killed and eight other police were wounded. Chief Inspector de Fontaine pluckily pursued several of the attackers but tripped and fell just at their heels. He was speared nine times and dropped three men with his revolver but died of his wounds a week later.

Little participated in two further expeditions, firstly to the Marudu Hills in June 1894, narrowly escaping with his life when the Police post was attacked, and in the expedition up the Labuk and Sugut Rivers in September 1896. At the Durbar held at Sandakan on 28 May 1889, in celebration of Her Majesty's birthday, Little had another very narrow escape with his life. Whilst superintending the tug of war near the conclusion of the athletic sports, a Bajow named Drah suddenly 'amoked', having procured a Dyak Parang, rushed upon Little who was badly cut about the head and cheek. He also succeeded in wounding two police constables before being knocked down by the Battery Sergeant-Major and secured and ironed. The prisoner was tried and sentenced to 28 years imprisonment and died in Sandakan Gaol in November 1899.

In addition to his other duties, Little served many years as a Magistrate and was appointed a Judge of the High Court in August 1904. In March 1905 he was permitted extended leave to the U.K. to attend to urgent private affairs but fell ill and died in Edinburgh on 17 December 1905, from pneumonia and pleurisy. "The Service," it was reported, "has lost a zealous and loyal Official, and there is no doubt that his death will be mourned throughout North Borneo by Europeans and natives alike. He had served the Company faithfully and well for over twenty-two years, during which time he was more than once placed in a position of imminent danger."

Sold with research including copied pages from The British North Borneo Official Gazette and The British North Borneo Herald.

Medal and cards