The Loss of Labuan Island

My article below was published on Sunday, 14 August 2016 in The Golden Legacy column of The Brunei Times.


The Signing Ceremony to surrender Labuan Island as forced by the British in 1848. Original photo source is from Frank Maryatt's book entitled "Borneo and the Indian Archipelago" published in 1848

The Loss of Labuan Island
by Rozan Yunos

DURING Sultan Omar Ali Saifuddin II’s skirmish with the British in the mid-1800s which resulted in the loss of the Labuan Island, there were a number of books published by different authors giving accounts of the ‘battle’ between the British attackers and the Brunei defenders. These authors were either captains or naval officers of various British battleships present during the combat and signing of the treaty surrendering Labuan Island to the British.

Another book which this writer had only come across very recently was a book with a typical long title during that period, entitled Five Years in China from 1842 to 1847: With An Account of the Occupation of Labuan and Borneo by Her Majesty’s Forces written by Lieutenant (Lt) FE Forbes. The book was published in London by Richard Bentley, London in 1848, almost 170 years ago. Lt FE Forbes RN, was commander of HMS Bonetta when this book was published.

According to an article in The Spectator published on February 5, 1848, Lt Forbes “was employed in China and Borneo from 1842 to 1847, sometimes in movement, sometimes stationary: when duty permitted, he occupied himself in collecting coins, making excursions, and studying the Chinese and their institutions both from life and books. His observations that were compiled in the volume before us; which, though somewhat deficient in the art of narration, and rather sailor-like in the treatment of topics and the management of style, conveys, so far as it goes, as lively and good an impression of the Chinese as any publication that we know of.”

Forbes focused very much on China taking up 26 chapters out of the 30 chapters in his book. It was only the last four chapters that he described about Labuan and Brunei and a chapter on the Manners and Customs of the Borneo Malays.The Spectator’s reviews on his visit to the islands as follows:

“Lt Forbes was employed at Borneo during the treaty which ended in the cession of Labuan. He also assisted at taking possession of the island; remained there for some time, and explored the country, discovering its veins of coal. His accounts of Borneo and Labuan are but slight; the history of late events not so full as has lately been published. His picture of the Sultan, however, is the best we have met with: Lieutenant Forbes saw him when he had laid aside his state. The account of Labuan is our only one.”

There was no picture of Sultan Omar Ali Saifuddin II in the book. What was meant by “picture of the Sultan” was Forbes’ not so flattering description of Sultan Omar Ali Saifuddin II. However, among others the Sultan was described by Forbes to be “a smart man” despite his other shortcomings. Forbes also noted that the Malays who conquered Borneo Island 380 years ago, possessed the whole line of coast and present in many separate governments but “at the head of all, not so much in a political as a religious sense is the Sultan of Borneo Proper, Omar Ali. He was considered to be a “high Mussulman” (Muslim) and “is looked upon as the religious chief of chiefs”.

Forbes also described the Sultan “besides in regal state, is in a religious point of view the head of his people, he is always surrounded by bearers of different devices of honour, and seldom left without one or more Pangeran (prince) attending on him… at his court any subject can enter the council-chamber, first performing the salam as he seats himself on his hams, provided he wears his kris. The Quran and ancient usage guide as laws…”

Lt Forbes described the battle and the forced signing of the treaty ceding Labuan very casually and calmly as compared to Frank Maryatt who wrote about how tense it all was in his book, Borneo and Indian Archipelago (published in 1848) with guns pointing at the Sultan. Forbes described the event following from the murder of Pengiran Muda Hashim and some of his followers.

“… Pangeran Muda Hashim, and several others, who were known to be friends of the British. Partly to avenge their deaths, and partly to punish some acts of piracy, and an attempt to murder Captain Egerton, the forts in the River Brunei were destroyed, with the loss of thirty or forty guns taken, and the town of Brunei deserted by the Sultan and his subjects. A promise was then held out of putting an end to hostilities, provided the Sultan would give up his piracies, and cede the island of Labuan, situated at the mouth of the Brunei , to the British forever.”

“The Admiral, having communicated with government, despatched HMS Iris and Wolf, on December 1, 1846 to Brunei, there to conclude a treaty, and thus take formal possession of the island. On December 10, the ships being anchored off the island of Mora (sic), at the entrance, the boats of the Iris, in command of Lt (now Commander) Little, those of the Wolf, under my command, started at nine in the morning for Brunei.”

“About eleven we anchored in line off the Sultan’s house, and as Captain Mundey landed … when the Sultan, Pangeran and several of the higher classes received him on the wharf.”

In the centre of his hall of audience, a plain barn like room, sat his majesty Omar Ali, Sultan of Borneo, dressed in a jacket of yellow crape, slashed with satin, a turban of black and gold, and black inexpressibles. Behind him stood his sword and betel bearers, and other attendants, with horsetails, much the same as those worn in state by Pachas in Turkey. The only other Malay seated on a chair was the Pangeran (or Prince) Moormen.”

Prince Moormen was Pengiran Anak Abdul Momin who later became Sultan Abdul Momin replacing Sultan Omar Ali Saifuddin II in November 1852 as the 24th Sultan of Brunei.

“The treaty was explained by Lieut. Heath as interpreter (it being written in Arabic, the Malay written character). After much discussion between the Sultan and the gentry seated around, orders were given to the chancellor, another Pangeran, to prepare the seal (which was made of metal and inserted in Arabic characters): this he did by holding it over a huge candle, made of pure beeswax; when well blacked he rubbed it smooth, then having wet the parchment, he pressed it thereon. This leaves the characters white on a black field.”

“Conversation now turned upon the relative advantages and disadvantages to be derived by both parties. Trade, it was agreed, would materially benefit both sides, as, on the one hand, the Malay would be clothed, while, on the other, gold, antimony, diamonds, coal, sago, pepper and beeswax would be plentifully supplied to the British. Under the head disadvantage to the chiefs were mentioned the loss of their slaves, who would no doubt flee.”

Forbes went on to describe about the ceremony on the possession of the Labuan Island. In his book he also described about the Malays and his survey of the Labuan Island and the most important discovery on Labuan for the steam ships of those days, coal.

Rozan Yunos, writer of The Golden Legacy — the longest running column in The Brunei Times — also runs a website at

The Brunei Times


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