A Battle on Borneo's Northern Coast

Brooke's and HMS Dido's forces attacking a pirate stronghold in the background. The destruction of Marudu in 1845 during the height of the British expansion through Rajah Brooke and the British North Borneo Company was instrumental in allowing those expansions to continue, according to the author.

Rozan Yunos
Sunday, April 10, 2016

IN AUGUST 1845, a British newspaper, the Illustrated London News (ILN), reported a battle between Her Majesty's Ships – HMS Agincourt, HMS Vestal, HMS Dedalus, HMS Wolverine, HMS Cruiser and HMS Vixen – “in all twenty boats and near 500 men belonging to the squadron, under the command of Sir T Cochrane, Rear-Admiral and Commander-in-Chief, and the fort of Schriff Osman, a well known daring Arab pirate, whose terrible piracies have paralysed the commerce of the seas around the northern portion of Borneo”.

The ILN reported that “the pirates were commanded by 10 Arabs, who had 100 men each, under their respective commands, the whole under the immediate direction of Osman, who was plainly seen controlling, with consummate coolness and courage, the line of his batteries – four 18-pounders, two 12-pounders, three 9-pounders and two 6-pounders – all long iron guns, bore upon the boats lying at the boom – besides twenty-two brass guns that fortified other portions of his defences, but did not bear upon the boats. His flags were shot away, but were immediately re-hoisted. The boom was admirably secured , and foiled all efforts for fifty minutes during which both sides were firing. As soon as the boats managed to get past the booms, only two guns more were fired, and firing ceased on both sides”.

The ILN reported that the enemy had suffered a great loss, “their leaders, five of whom were dead or desperately wounded, and the remainder having fled”, convinced them that victory was hopeless, and deserted in all directions. A few of the more daring, in bringing off the last of their wounded and dead, were shot down by the marines and seamen. Spoils of every description were found; and, in one hour, the village and forts for a mile up were wrapt (sic) in flames. Thirty proas were burnt, and two very fine ones on the stocks, two magazines of powder and houses filled with camphor, china ware, English manufactured goods, French prints, and splendid timber were found and fired in every directions. Several slaves effected their escape. They had orders to pitch the enemy's dead into the river as fast as they fell, or carry them away to the jungle, the Illaloon pirates considering it a great disgrace to leave their bodies in the hands of an enemy”.

Another news paper based in Hong Kong by the name of The Friend of China also published same accounts of the same battle on 17th September 1845. The Friend of China was incorporated with the Hong Kong Gazette which was a mouthpiece of the Hong Kong government, though by 1845, the connection was dissolved.

The Friend of China had an interesting account that the battle was being instigated by Brunei. The newspaper reported that “the Sultan (Omar Ali Saifuddin II 1829-1852) informed the Rear Admiral that at Maludu Bay, on the northern extremity of the island, there was a notorious piratical colony commandered by an Arab. The man, the Sultan declared, would oppose any European settlement that might be formed in Borneo Proper, and that it was of the utmost importance that he should be expelled in the island, and the horde be dispersed. This portion of Borneo is included in the territory ceded to Great Britain many years ago, and is near the island of Brambangan, which at one time was in the possession of the East India Company”.

The ILN did not report the British losses during the battle but the Friend of China reported that “the loss in this brilliant little action was rather severe. Twenty-five were put hors de combat while lying on the raft – 10 of them killed and 15 wounded. Among the officers, Mr Leonard Gibbard of the Wolverine was killed and Lieutenant Heard of the Samarang, and Mr Pyne, second master of the Vestal, wounded”.

So, who is this person, whom Sultan Omar Ali Saifuddin II declared as someone who would oppose any European Settlement that might be formed in Borneo Proper?

According to a paper jointly written by Baszley Bee Haji Awang Basrah and Bilcher Bala entitled Syarif Osman Syarif Ali, Syarif Rum Syarif Osman dan Dayang Chahaya Sultan Muhammad Fadi: 1830 an - 1845 Tokoh Utama dalam Kerajaan Marudu presented during the second Borneo History Seminar in 2013, Syarif Osman Syarif Ali, Syarif Rum Syarif Osman and Dayang Chahaya Sultan Muhammad Fadl were the eminent characters in the area around that time.

The writers argued that similarly to Syarif Ali who became Brunei's third Sultan, and Syarif Al-Hashim who founded the Sulu Sultanate, both in the 15th century, Syarif Osman could have became just as great with the Marudu government in the 18th century as the other two Syarifs in Brunei and Sulu.

There were several versions as to the origin of Syarif Osman. One version from the Tuausg said that Syarif Osman was from Kagayan Island. Another version was that he came from an Arabic bloodline. Whereas another local tradition in Marudu noted that his grandfather, Syarif Abdul Kadir, originated from Baghdad. It was also said that his real name is Syarif Osman Indal Lama and came to Marudu with a friend named Syariff Syee.

Another version said that his father Syarif Ali came to Brunei and married a member of the royal family. Syarif Ali then went to Marudu to become a religious teacher. A Sarawak tradition said that he is cousin to Syarif Masahor who fought against Brooke in Sarawak in 1853-1860.

Most importantly, the local tradition said that Syarif Osman died before the British and Brooke attack in 1845. It was then Syarif Rom took over from Syarif Osman and the said battle in 1845 was actually between the British and Syariff Rom. Syarif Rom was a fierce man and was feared by everyone. He is said to be married to a Brunei lady named Dayang Cahaya and in another version he is married to a Marudu lady named Siti Aishah. Dayang Cahaya is also said to be the granddaughter of Sultan Jamal Al-Kiram and the daughter of Sultan Muhammad Fadl of the Sulu Sultanate.

Marudu itself was considered by Western writers to be a port and the market place of slavery for north Broneo. However, local historians considered that during its heyday, Marudu was a proper government (coastal state) and should be considered as the only local government which had appeared on Sabah. The governance of Marudu by the Syarifs showed the dominance of Syarif Osman and Syarif Rom as the local dominating factors in the short-lived government. And it was said that the existence of Marudu as a new political power caused uneasiness among the elites in both Brunei and Sulu. Marudu was able to dominate among the warlords of the Irranun and covered the areas of Teluk Marudu, Lahad Datu including Tempasuk, Tuaran, Pandasan and up to Tungku on the eastern coast.

Marudu became successful with trade. But jealousy among the elites, made them allies with Brooke and accused Marudu as being a pirate and slavery centre. Brooke saw Marudu as a rival who can compete against him and his expansion in Sarawak. Brooke convinced the British Navy of the need to destroy this pirate nest and this was followed with the attack on Marudu on 19th and 20th August 1845 resulting in the British destroying Marudu and killing many of the inhabitants.

The destruction of Marudu in 1845 during the height of the British expansion through Rajah Brooke and the British North Borneo Company was instrumental in allowing those expansions to continue.

The Brunei Times


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