Friday, July 01, 2011

Before the White Men Came

Another short history lesson… tralala...  What was life like for the Dusun on the east coast of Sabah about  two centuries ago?

While the west coast of Sabah was Brunei’s jajahan (dependencies), the east coast came under the influence of the Sulu Sultanate from late 18th century to the 19th century.

Because of regular and widespread flooding of the big rivers on the east coast—the Segama, Kinabatangan, Sugut, Labuk, Paitan—the Dusun* avoided the flood-prone plains on the lower courses of the rivers, the river mouths and the fertile deltas. Instead they settled in the middle and upper courses, practiced shifting cultivation and planted hill paddy.

*Ranjit Singh used ‘Kadazandusun’ which is a recent tag and FYI, I don’t quite subscribe to it because ‘Kadazan’ denotes the indigenous people of Penampang and Papar while ‘Dusun’ the other regions of Sabah. Example: Dusun Tindal of the Tempasuk region, Dusun Lotud of Tuaran, Dusun Rungus of Kudat, etc.

Dusun girls (Oscar Cook)
Probably an important reason for keeping to the upper courses of the rivers (as pointed out by the author of ‘Blood Brothers’) was to avoid pirates who frequently raided villages situated along the lower courses in search of booty and slaves.

I imagine the Dusun working hard and living simply but contentedly in small communities along the upper courses of the rivers. All their needs were within reach in the virgin jungles around them: animals for food and game, edible jungle greens, building materials, etc. Well, maybe they’d miss salt which of course they couldn’t pluck from the forest but it was easily obtainable from the coastal areas. All they needed to do was row down the river ‘highways’ which were navigable for long distances upstream. The forests were excellent sources of jungle produce such as damar, rattan, camphor, bees’ wax, gutta percha. And these could be brought downstream in exchange for salt, fabric, jars and other ‘luxuries’ from Suluk traders.

Traders from Sulu discovered that by playing middlemen, they made handsome profits when they brought Chinese jars, brass gongs, cloth to the Dusun upriver in exchange for the jungle produce which were much sought-after by the Chinese.

The jungle produce were shipped to Jolo (pronounced Holo!) which was the last port of call for the Chinese junks on their annual route to the eastern flank of Borneo.

Tapping damar (Google Images)
From the late 18th century there was an upsurge of trading activity in Jolo because European ships began to call at Jolo (where the Sultan of Sulu was based) to acquire goods to trade with China. Jolo was becoming an important commercial centre! Now, if you had been the Sultan of Sulu, what would you have done? Why, get more goods for the Chinese, of course! More forest produce meant more trading and, therefore, accumulating more wealth.

Suddenly, the east coast of Sabah became an important source of income—free durian runtuh from the forest and the sea (because Sabah was rich in both forest and marine produce.) The Sulu Sultanate could not touch the west coast because that was Brunei jajahan.

Suddenly, waiting for the Dusun to supply the forest produce was too slow and the consignments too small to meet demands. Unlike the Brunei overlords, the Sulu Sultan did not appoint local proxies to oversee the collection of stuff from Sabah. He appointed Suluk datus/aristocrats as governors. He chose datus who had local family ties and strong personal influence in Sabah.

Google Images
The datus/governors’ job: to open up settlements on the east coast and take care of economic activities—mainly collecting forest produce, pearl fishing, collecting marine produce.

So from the late 18th century, Suluk settlements (sponsored by the Sulu Sultanate) sprouted like mushrooms at strategic locations on the lower courses of the great rivers. The majority of the people in these settlements were Bajau. They were not there to open up the land for agriculture. They were there to harvest natural resources from Sabah’s rich forests and waters and bring the goodies to Jolo! They didn’t have to wait for the Dusun to bring the forest produce downriver. They organized their own expeditions (some taking as long as a month) to collect the jungle produce themselves. Maybe ‘plunder’ is too harsh a word, huh? (Damn, for some reason the word ‘petroleum’ in blood-red capital letters is blinking in my head.)

Anyway, the Bajau population in the new settlements was too small to support the economic activities. More people were needed for labour so the Suluks did what they knew best. (Ref: The Pirate Wind)

They went on large scale slave-raiding expeditions! Hapless people/farmers/fishermen were snatched off the coasts of the Philippines, Borneo and even New Guniea—the natives of NG were a ‘novelty’ with their frizzy hair and whatnot—and all captives were taken to Jolo, the collection centre, and sold as slaves.  Many of them ended up labouring in the Suluk datus/governors’ economic enterprises on the east coast of Sabah.

Men from Sulu (Google Images)
The Sultan gave free rein (complete freedom bah!) to the Suluk datus/governors to do what they pleased as long as they:

Transmitted to the Sultan his share of the royalties.

Gave the Sultan the 10% import tax levied in his name.

Ensured that all marine and jungle produce were shipped to Jolo.

Just like today’s rich who become richer through ingenuity and blahblahblah, those days the Suluk datus/governors accumulated wealth through shrewdness and craft.

One method was to introduce their own taxes by controlling the traffic which went up and down the river. Imagine our modern-day roads where you must get a ticket to enter certain routes and pay a fee at a booth on your way out. Well, those days the rivers were highways and the datus/governors set up custom houses (similar to our modern ‘toll’ booths) along the rivers. A bamboo or rattan slung across the river was lifted after the boat owner had paid a duty. No pay, no entry! Clever, eh?

Old Chinese jar (Google Images)
The datus/governors also imposed ‘sarar’ which was a system of ‘forced trade’ whereby village folks were forced to buy, say a Chinese jar or a gong or cloth, at sky-high/tak berbaloi prices to be paid with a certain amount of jungle produce—even though the villagers had not wanted the merchandise in the first place. (Hmmm, how come I’m thinking of that damn email thing which everyone above eighteen is supposed to get?)

The governors were also free to conduct slave trading and raiding activities. It was perfectly legal for them to pluck any Pacik, Gaman and Sumandak, to sell as slaves or to turn into slaves, and to raid and plunder villages.

On the west coast each household had to pay poll taxes to their Brunei overlords. On the east coast the Dusun communities lived in fear of plundering pirates and bullying traders. Was it a wonder that parents insisted their prospective sons-in-law had human heads to prove their bravery?

Now you’ll understand why many of the Dusun people did not fight against the white men when the latter came, especially when the British Crown, among other conditions, specified that the British North Borneo Chartered Company must ‘abolish slavery, administer justice and law in concurrence with native laws and respect religion and customs of the local people’. (Blood Brothers)

Okay, end of lesson. In case you’ve anything to add or share, please feel free to leave your comments!

Ref: The Pirate Wind, The Making of Sabah, Blood Brothers.


  1. Hi Tina,
    Oh, I love it! Thanks so much for writing this.

    I'm going to promote this to everybody!


  2. Thanks for sharing this. Yes, the white men were the best thing that could ever happened to us.

    Have you read or heard about the legend of Aki Nunuk Ragang's 3 sons? The eldest became the ancestor of the Rungus in Kudat/Marudu, the second son became the ancestor of the Kadazan in Penampang and the third son, the ancestor of the Dusuns.

  3. :) hehehe very enlightening... Seems like before and now it is just the same.. Greed is a major motivation

  4. Hi Gunaqz, glad you liked it!

    Yes, Justin, the white men did a lot to bring us out of the 'stone age'... I haven't heard of Aki's 3 sons. Sounds interesting. Did you blog about it? I'll have a look.

    Karulann, you can say that again! Those long ago days and now are just the same. Like our ancestors, we just look on helplessly... wringing our hands.

  5. I blogged about it without a doubt :P.

  6. Old Chiness Jar.... We still got one at home.. and the age is about 100 years something.. hehehe..

  7. Will visit your blog to read it, Justin. Thanks for pointing it out.

    Hi Dayzee! In the old days everybody owned a few of these jars. Nowadays, they've become quite rare!