A Historic Journey Through Sabah

[Note: Together with about half of Brunei, my family and I were in Sabah over the December holidays. We flew there but my brother in law and his family drove there. When we met up, he drove us around including taking us to Papar. On the way back to KK, I was reminded by the road signs of the historical significance of Sabah. So I wrote this article and this was published in THE GOLDEN LEGACY column on BRUNEI TIMES on 3rd January 2010]

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A Historic Journey through Sabah
by Rozan Yunos

During the last holidays, there were so many 4-wheel drive Brunei registered SUVs in Kota Kinabalu that the driver of the hotel’s car that the writer was staying in, thought that in Brunei, no one drove small cars. There were indeed many Brunei holiday makers in Kota Kinabalu and all parts of Sabah, some ending up going up to the peak of Mount Kinabalu. Virtually all of those Brunei cars drove for about 6 to as long as 10 hours to get from Bandar Seri Begawan to Kota Kinabalu.

Those hours could have been very useful if the Brunei passengers knew their history. Not many would realized that until the beginning of the 20th century, many parts of Sabah or North Borneo as it is known then was still in the possession of the Sultan of Brunei. Even after the formation of the North Borneo Company which eventually governed Sabah until 1946, many parts of Sabah especially in the west were still under the control of the various Brunei owners.

In 1901, the Sultan of Brunei granted his personal territory, from River Sipitang to River Trusan, to the North Borneo Company. The company also acquired Mengalong and Merantaman (now in Sipitang district) in 1901 through a grant by Pangiran Tengah Damit of his tulin right on those areas. The acquisition of these areas was done separately because lands such as these are owned individually by Brunei princes and noblemen through their tulin right and independent of the authority of the sultan.

Until 1900, the Sipitang River marked the frontier between Sabah and Brunei until Trusan was acquired later by Rajah Brooke adding that to the Limbang District. However demarcation has now receded to the present day Sabah-Sarawak border, near Mengalong now known as Sindumin.

The drive from the border between Sabah and Sarawak started from the border control post at Merapok and Sindumin. From there, one will head towards Sipitang. From Sipitang, the next major town will be Beaufort.

Beaufort was once an interesting place called Padas Damit. During the North Borneo Chartered Company days which then already controlled parts of North Borneo, the Company wanted to own all the lands in Sabah including Padas which at that time still was still governed by the Brunei Sultan under the leadership of a Brunei noble named Pengiran Shahbandar Hassan.

The Bruneians living around that region protested and the North Borneo Company sent in its army. During that battle, the North Borneo army failed to defeat the Bruneians. Part of the reasons, it was said that around the Manggalela Fort, the defenders had put up a white cloth curtain as a shield against the army and bullets supposedly did not go through it. Legend has it the shield was considered as ‘magical’ and ‘indestructible’.

However an interesting description of the battle named the ‘Padas Damit Battle’ can be found in the Sabah local government homepage which described the battle. There was no mention of any magic bullet proof curtain but what was important was the building of a very strong fort made up of eight foot tall round wooden pillars at Kampung Galila which prevented the well armed British army from attacking. And what was also important was the bravery of the locals who were only armed with knives and swords as opposed to guns and cannons.

It was a long drawn out battle and fought between the two sides from December 1888 to May 1889. The locals eventually lost when the British declared them as pirates and started to kill them one by one. The British eventually took over the area and renamed the whole area as Beaufort in 1895 after Governor Beaufort who was the British Governor based in Labuan then.

Istana Manggalela in Kuala Belait completed in 1958 was named after this historic fort in Padas Damit.

After Beaufort, the next major town will be that of Papar before reaching Kota Kinabalu itself.

Just about 10 miles from Kota Kinabalu, many sharp eyed tourists will be able to see the label for a major tourist site in Kinarut which is in the Papar District. The site was the former house of a rubber estate manager there. The house was Panorama Kinarut Mansion. A few pillars are all that remain of this once grand mansion of a rubber plantation manager.

Unfortunately, what was not sign posted was a former Brunei fort. There used to be the remnants of an old Brunei fort in Kinarut. This was the fort that was built by Sultan Hakkul Abdul Mubin when he retreated from Pulau Cermin during the Brunei Civil War. From here with the assistance of the local Bajaus and Dusuns he managed to repel attacks from Sultan Muhiyiddin even killing a few of Sultan Muhiyiddin’s Cheterias before returning and losing the final battle at Pulau Cermin.

The fort was strategically placed on top of a hill with two rivers flowing beside it and a view that can oversee a few small island in the South China Sea. The fort was so good that Sultan Hakkul Abdul Mubin stayed for about 10 years becoming the Sultan in Kinarut where he among others also managed to curtail piracy activities in that area.

According to a research done by the Sabah Museum, the fort used to be walled with steps leading from the fort all the way to the bottom of the hill. It was made out of clay and gravel and the buildings made out of bamboo and other local wood. The hill was also known as Belud Kota and is situated facing the town of Kinarut.

According to the local legends, Kinarut itself is an old town used by the Brunei Sultanate. Some said that the name of the town was derived when Chinese traders used to sell coal along the streets and the street was called China Road and over time becomes Kinarut. Though this is very unlikely as the period when Sultan Hakkul Abdul Mubin came to Kinarut was in the late 17th century. But what is very likely that the name Kinarut must have been derived because of early Chinese connections similar to Kinabalu and Kinabatangan.

The fort was said to have remained until the early 20th century but unfortunately the surrounding forest caught fire and destroyed the fort. It would have been interesting to see such a fort today.

Even upon reaching Kota Kinabalu, one failed to realize that less than a hundred years ago, the place was known as Api-Api. Wendy Suart wrote in her book ‘The Lingering Eye’ that “… there is in the [Sabah] State Museum a Dutch map of Borneo and the Celebes dated 1657 in which the settlement where Jesselton was to stand is clearly labeled Api-Api …” The area was owned by the Sultan of Brunei before it was acquired and renamed as Jesselton, named after Sir Charles Jessel, the then Vice Chairman of the Company. As Jesselton, many Brunei students flying out of Brunei would have taken their first jet ride from Jesselton in the 1960s. It was not until 1968 that Jesselton was renamed as Kota Kinabalu.

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