Tuesday, January 11, 2011

What are you reading?

The Pirate Wind by Owen Rutter (Oxford University Press) was first published in 1930. If you’re interested in the history of piracy in SE Asia, this book is for you! It’s only 282 pages and beautifully illustrated.

You’ll learn about the origins of pirates such as the Illanun and Balanini (both from the Sulu Archipelago… and therefore NOT Sabahan!) and how they roamed the seas—in their fleets of ‘prahus’ which could number 200 vessels. Don’t think that the ‘prahus’ were puny little boats because each could exceed 90 feet long and carry a hundred slave-rowers! The pirates had safe hiding places scattered all over the coasts of Borneo and they travelled as far as the Bay of Bengal!

Plundering bigger European ships was no problem and slave trade was good business. Farmers and fishermen captured from the heavily populated coasts of the Philippines were sold as slaves in Brunei. People caught in Brunei were sold elsewhere.

How much did people pay for a slave? Needless to say, only the wealthy could afford slaves. A young woman cost more than a man—about 18 to 30 British pounds. A pretty girl was more expensive than her plain sister and a person past middle age cost about 3 pounds—the cheapest!

There is a chapter on the history of Balambangan, the little island to the west of Banggi, the island off the northern tip Borneo. (On a map, Balambangan looks like a fish spitting out some water and has half its guts hanging out of its body.) Apparently, the East India Company wanted to develop it as an outpost where ships plying the east-west route could stop with their goods and trade on the island. But the wrong man was chosen for the job. Not only did John Herbert incur huge losses for the Company when he sailed the Britannia (the Company ship) to Balambangan, but the voyage from London to Borneo took him two and a half years instead of the normal eight months. He also used company money to buy goods and pocketed the profits when he sold them! Sounds familiar?

Balambangan had to be abandoned when pirates raided the island. The pirate-mastermind had actually been employed as a carpenter on the island. He had noted that the island was only defended along the beaches but the forested ‘backside’ was left vulnerable! (Remember Singapore and Penang WW2 when the Japs surprised the British by coming overland??) Same tactic.

There’s even a ‘love story’. What happened when a pirate chief fell in love with a slave and was willing to do anything to get her?

Owen Rutter also hinted at some treasure the British flung into a well as they fled from the raiding pirates. Just in case you fancy going on a treasure-hunt, (after reading the book) the East India Company dug dozens of wells!

I haven’t finished reading the book. Another two-thirds. So, what are you reading?


  1. Hi Tina, sounds like a very interesting book. Would like to read it one day.

    I've just started reading Something Borrowed by Emily Giffin. I don't really like the person she put as a heroin in this book, for she introduced her as a boring lawyer who slept with her bff's fiance on her 30th birthday. Oh, well. Maybe she'll repent in the latter chapters and be a real heroin before the story ends.

  2. In this book "The Pirate Wind" were there lot of stories about North Borneo?

    Looking forwards to read your precis version of that love story. You made it sounds mysteriousness and romantic.

  3. currently reading Greg Mortenson's Stones into Schools. inspiring.

    the pirate wind sounds great. i should look it up. thanks for pointing it out.

  4. Hi All!
    Thanks for visiting and telling what you're reading. I'm glad 'The Pirate Wind' has aroused your interest!
    Andrew, it's an interesting book. I also learnt that historical records about Sabah are kept in unlikely places like... India!

  5. My kind of book! Will look for it at the Kadaiku.

    Just finished rereading Standing in the rainbow, Fannie Flagg (heartwarming smalltown American life) and Shanghai Girls, Lisa See (learning so much about how cosmopolitan life was in Shanghai in the 30s, Chinese women with feather hats!)

  6. Hi Jewelle! Good luck with the book.
    Standing in the rainbow must be good to earn a second reading? Shanghai Girls is in my reading list too. But I've to go through my unread pile before I allow myself anywhere near a bookshop.