May 8, 2011

North Borneo Historical Figure ; Syarif Osman

Syarif Osman is a mid 19th century chieftan in Kota Marudu or Marudu as it was known then before it was named Bandau and later Kota Marudu in 1974.

Syariff Osman was from the syariff lineage and was of mixed blood - Suluk, Bajau and Brunei. His wife, Dayang Cahaya, was a Sulu Princess and was the niece of the Sultan of Sulu, Sultan Jamalul Alam. Initially, Syarif Osman ruled Marudu on the authority of the Sultan of Sulu. However, he subsequently formed an independent Chiefdom and many people came to live under his jurisdiction because he could provide protection and security. 

A census done in the 1840s put the number of inhabitants at 50,000*.

Syarif Osman had been promoting raids against the Brunei Sultanate on sizable scale. It is said that his followers numbered between 1,500 to 2,000 equaling those of Brunei's most prestigious nobles'. These hostilities in fact, went far back since 1771, when the Sulu Sultanate had been sending or sponsoring raids against the Brunei Sultanate. Attacking trading boats and settlements of Brunei Pengirans in an attempt to weaken the influence of the Brunei Sultanate. The Sulu Sultanate was expanding because of their success in commerce and they had their eye set on the northern part of North Borneo especially Marudu which they deemed to be the most productive area of North Borneo.

In the 1780s, immigrant Iranun from the Sulu Sultanate started migrating to these prized areas. They became powerful community through trade and kinship with the Sulu Sultanate. All these culminated in Syarif Osman's entrenched power base in Marudu in the 1840s.

Syarif Osman is also reported to be in cahoot with people like Pangeran Yussuf and others who were rebelling against James Brooke in Sarawak. Pangeran Yussuf was involved in a power struggle with Raja Muda Hashim in Brunei of which the latter would eventually win with the assistance of James Brooke. Hence, when Syarif Osman openly declared his support for Pangeran Yussuf, he was deemed a threat to James Brooke's dominion over Sarawak and threat to Brunei presence and influence over North Borneo. 

Additionally, it was alleged that Syarif Osman and his followers had been attacking British and other Western countries' merchant ships that docked at Marudu and Kudat Bay. Nothing is said about what these ships were doing in this water but we know that the Sulu Sultanate was a thriving trading entity then. Perhaps, these ships were on their way to the sultanate. 

Perhaps by now, the Sulu Sultan had lost control of Syarif Osman. After all, the latter did declare his Chiefdom as independent. 

James Brooke
Raja Muda Hashim brought charges of piracy against Syarif Osman to James Brooke. The Pengirans of Brunei were beginning to fear the power and influence that he had acquired.

To prepare themselves for eventual attack by James Brooke and Brunei, Syarif Osman, his son Syarif Merum and their followers built a fortified fort at the Langkon-Bandau River. Hence, that is how present day Kota Marudu got its name. "Kota" means fort in the Malay language.  

With the help of his cousin, Syarif Masyhor in Sarawak, Sharif Osman bought cannons from Brunei. Incidentally, Syarif Masyhor was ultimately banished to Singapore for his involvement in uprising in Sarawak.  

It is said that one of Syarif Osman's cannons was nicknamed "Mandi Darah" which meant bloodbath. Legend has it that "Mandi Darah" would ooze with blood as an omen if something bad was going to happen or when they lost a battle. 

Meanwhile, James Brooke requested for reinforcement from the British and they responded by sending Vice Admiral Sir Thomas Cochrane leading a strong naval expedition. Under the command of Sir Thomas Cochrane were HMS Agincourt, HMS Vestal, HMS Daedalus, HMS Wolverine, HMS Cruizer, HMS Royalist, HMS Vixen and HEIC Steamers Pluton and Nemesis. Source.

The British inflicted a decisive defeat on Syarif Osman and his followers on 19 August 1845. Syarif Osman and his men were outgunned by the British and Marudu was decimated on that day. Some say as many as 1000 perished along with Syarif Osman. 

Mysticism associated with Syarif Osman :

1. He is claimed to be invincible and impervious to weapons and bullets. Nonetheless, he had his "achilles' heel" that was his armpit. During the battle, he was shot in the armpit. 

2. The British searched for his body so that they could publicly hung it to deter further belligerence among the locals but they couldn't locate it. However, his followers believed he had died and in accordance to his wishes, they buried him at his fort along with men who had perished with him. 

3. Present day villagers found one of his cannons in the Langkon river. They had successfully retrieved it and handed it to the state museum. They said it took 4 grown men to carry it and they couldn't lift or moved it unless they were descendants of the men who fought with Syarif Osman. 

Other account claim that Sandokan, another famous "pirate" fought together with Syarif Osman on that fateful day. 

Today, the grave of these pirates could still be found near where the fort was. 

In 1846, the Brunei Sultanate tried to "control" James Brooke but was defeated by the latter forcing the Sultan of Brunei to sign a treaty which effectively consolidated James Brooke's power over Sarawak. 

Sources : Commemorative History of Sabah 1881 - 1981 - R.S Singh /
*Life in the Forests 1863 - S St.John
The Sulu Zone, 1768 - 1898 : The Dynamics of External Trade, Slavery - James Francis Warren
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