May 9, 2011

North Borneo Historical Figure : The Founding of British North Borneo Company


The North Borneo Chartered Company or British North Borneo Company(BNBC) first set foot on North Borneo soil in 1882. They set up their first settlement on Pulau Gaya. 

How did BNBC came to its fortuitous position of acquiring this sizable real estate in the 3rd largest island in the world? Let us study it.

In 1865, Charles Lee Moses, the United States Consul to Brunei obtained a 10 year lease from Sultan Abdul Momin (1852 - 1885) over the Sultan's territory in North Borneo but his government was not interested in North Borneo. So the right to the lease was later sold to American Trading Company of Borneo in 1865. The company built a settlement at Kimanis River mouth but it was disastrous.  Just before the lease expire in January 1875, the right to the lease again was sold to the Consul of the Austro-Hungarian Empire in Hong Kong, Baron Von Overbeck.  

Baron Von Overbeck successfully obtained a 10 year renewal of lease from Sultan Abdul Momin and he also obtained a 10 year lease of North Borneo from the Sultan of Sulu, Sultan Jamalul Alam on 22 January 1878. Why did he approach the Sultan of Brunei and Sultan of Sulu? So who had authority over North Borneo? Brunei Sultan or Sulu Sultan? Both and none actually. 

In 1658, Sultan Abdul Jalilul Akbar (1598 - 1659) ceded the North-East Coast of North Borneo to the Sultan of Sulu for the latter's help in a power struggle in the Brunei Sultanate. Some accounted that it was Sultan Abdul Momin who ceded the North-East region of North Borneo to the Sultan of Sulu but according to Brunei's government official record, Sultan Abdul Momin only ascended to the throne 194 years later! 

So it seems that no one party had total control over North Borneo. North Borneo it seems was "owned" by two parties and even on the areas they supposedly controlled, the "control" was at best, nominal. On the North-East region of North Borneo, the Sultan of Sulu would have had trouble dealing with the Momogun Rungus who were also known as "Dusun Laut"(Sea faring Dusun) or "Dayak Dusun". The Momogun Rungus whom is part of the Dusunic family, were well known for their fighting prowest. 

While the Brunei Sultanate would have trouble subduing the fierce head hunting Muruts. At best, both the sultanates only controlled some parts of North Borneo but not all. A writer aptly said that North Borneo was claimed by many but owned by none. So that explains why Von Overbeck had to approach 2 parties.  

In a letter to the British Consul in 1881, the Sultan of Brunei explained:

1) There are Pengirans (Brunei nobles) that own "Sungai Tulin" (land/region) and "hamba Tulin" (citizen/inhabitants) that they inherited from their ancestors or fathers:

  • These are the Pengirans private property which they had inherited or bought, it is within their right to sell it or transfer the ownership,
  • The Sultan although the ruler of the kingdom, have no right to collect taxes from these private domains,
  • These private domains are self autonomous but without sovereignty because the Sultan remains the head of the kingdom,
  • When a Pengiran passed on, his descendants have the right to claim his private domain.
2) The Sultan has his own "Sungai Tulin" which in his case, is referred to as "Sungai Kerajaan", "Kerajaan" means government in the Malay language. The Sultan collects tax from these "Sungai Kerajaan". When the Sultan dies, only his rightful heir can inherit these.
3) There are "Sungai" and "Hamba" that are owned by Wazirs, they are called "Sungai Kuripan" and the Wazirs have the right to collect taxes but when they die, ownership will revert to the Sultan.

Source : Brunei 1839 - 1983 and Problem & Political Survival D.S Ranjit 1884

The sultan explained that this has been a long practiced tradition. It is unclear whether BNBC was truly ignorant to the fact that the lease they obtained was only towards territories or regions that the Sultan had rights and that the "Sungai Tulin" and "Hamba Tulin" under the Pengirans were exceptions.

The Region of Sungai Padas

The sister of Brunei Sultan, Hashim Jalilul Alam Aqamaddin (1885 - 1906), was given "Hak Tulin" (Hak means Rights) over the region of Sungai Padas. The territory included all areas along the Padas River up to Kampung Bengkalalak and to the east, the Jimpangah area.

The princess entrusted the administration of her territory to Pengiran Shahbandar Hassan. Hassan chose and area not far from the Padas River as his seat of administration. He named the place Padas Damit, Padas in reference to the Padas River and "Damit" means small in Bruneian language. A fort was built in Padas Damit.

Padas Damit War December 1888 - May 1889

When BNBC set foot on the Padas area, they refused to accept Pengiran Shahbandar Hassan's authority. BNBC argued that they had obtained lease on the areas around the Klias Peninsula and for whatever their reasons, they opined that the lease extend to the territory that Hassan was administering.

Hassan conceded that indeed the lease to Klias Peninsula was given to BNBC. However, it did not include the region of Padas River because this was the "Hak Tulin" of the Princess and she had not come into any kind of lease agreement with BNBC.

BNBC was dead set on taking over the region despite it being an illegal takeover. They instigated the local population who were mostly Dusuns and Muruts then, to hate Pengiran Shahbandar Hassan, telling them if they subjected themselves to him, they would be his slaves. The fear mongering worked to great extend because some Dusuns and Muruts declared their support to BNBC.

The BNBC also implemented laws and levy designed to punish the residents for Pengiran Shahbandar Hassan's defiance. Life became hard and freedom of movement was limited. Seeing the hardship endured by the people in the region, Hassan called for a meeting with the people.

The Bisayas who were fiercely loyal to Hassan declared that they would die to defend their home and would support Hassan. With this, Hassan decided to go to war. They conducted raids at night against people who had pledged their allegiance to BNBC.

Sir Hugh Low
Sir Hugh Low protested the action of Pengiran Shahbandar Hassan to Sultan Hashim in Brunei. The Sultan was pressured to give a cease and decease instruction to Pengiran Shahbandar Hassan. Although compelled to heed to his Sultan, Pengiran Shahbandar Hassan knew that the Sultan was forced. Hence, he continued with his campaign.

On the BNBC side, the Governor of Labuan, C. V Creagh took command of the operation. There were many attacks and counter attacks from both sides but it was a stalemate. 

At one point, Sir Hugh Low was furious that C. V Creagh had not been successful in dealing with the rebels. He found it appalling that the natives who were primitively armed could fend off BNBC's forces whom were armed with modern weapons.

After about four months of war, C. V Creagh was replaced as governor of Labuan by A.S Hamilton. Governor A.S Hamilton preferred diplomacy and did not wish the fight to be protracted. Hence, he called for a negotiation. Both sides agreed to cease fire on 10 March 1889.

Interesting bit about this conflict, it is said that Pengiran Shahbandar Hasan built as many as 4 forts and his followers defended all 4. In one of the forts they say, the leader was a lady warrior named Dang Insum. She was a Bisaya. Dang Insum and her men successfully repelled many of BNBC offences. It was only through treachery that Dang Insum's fort was taken. I'm not sure whether she perished in the conflict or lived on but today, some old folks in Beaufort, could trace their lineage to her.

Ownership of North Borneo when it was leased to BNBC is not discussed in detail here because it is such a long topic. My version is not complete. If you want to know the full version, you will have to do your own research. There's too many he say, she say, she say, he say... 


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