Wednesday, June 27, 2012

The German Connections

Many of us in Sabah are familiar with the ruins of what was once the magnificent Kinarut Mansion. Built during the years preceding WWI by a German named W. F. C. Asimont and partially demolished by the North Borneo Chartered Company (NBCC) in 1923, the mansion remains shrouded in mystery. Why did the government allow Asimont to build such an imposing dwelling only to destroy it within ten years of its existence?
Kinarut Mansion ruins (Photo credit: Richard Sokial)

Asimont was an expert on rubber and was hired as the first manager of the Kinarut Estate, a rubber plantation owned by a British company called Manchester North Borneo Ltd. It was the second largest rubber estate after Sapong Estate. Asimont was interned during WWI and, apparently, that was the last thing people knew about him. There had been other Germans in NB and they came long before Asimont. Somehow, like Asimont, their stint in NB had been short and—shall we say, disastrous?

Twenty-six years before Mr. Asimont’s sojourn at Kinarut Estate, two Germans—Herman Friedrich Meyerink and Friedrich Hockmeyer—founded the German Borneo Company (GBC) in Germany. The GBC was taking advantage of offers by the NBCC which was eager to attract investors to open up agricultural lands in NB. The German company was offered 10,000 acres for $4,500 at Banguey (Banggi!).
Map of northern Sabah (North Borneo)

H.F. Meyerink and his assistant, Carl Eduard Funcke, arrived in Banguey in 1884 where they established Hacienda Nicolina. Chinese coolies were employed to work on the plantation. However, by mid-year a group of coolies revolted, stole a boat and attempted to escape. Meyerink and his assistant pursued the fleeing coolies and when they were threatened with parangs, the Germans fired several shots. Two men later succumbed to their injuries. The NBCC was blamed for the deaths through its failure to take the wounded to the Kudat Hospital.

Naturally, the NBCC wasn’t too pleased! The company started an investigation which revealed that the coolies were forced to endure bad working and living conditions, ill-treatment by the German managers and Meyerink’s ill-temper. Now it was the Germans’ turn to get upset because they faced ten years in prison! They had come to Borneo to make money for the GBC, not to rot in some prison!

They solved their problem by leaving Hacienda Nicolina in the hands of one John Carnarvon before fleeing to Jolo in August 1884. They established a new plantation on Jolo, Gomantong Plantation, on behalf of the GBC. We have to give them credit for their diligence, for not wasting any time moaning about their misfortune and for being responsible to the shareholders of GBC.

However, fortune wasn’t on their side. It was more like out-of-the-frying-pan-into-the-fire kind of situation. The Gomantong Plantation in Jolo was doomed from the start. A civil war raged—the result of conflicts of succession caused by the death of the sultan. There were numerous attacks on the plantation: the coolies died or were injured; the Germans were threatened; cultivation and harvesting were hampered.

When the Spaniards failed to curb the attacks, Meyerink sent an SOS to Germany which sent a warship to Sulu!  It was to protect German property but Spain suspected Germany of ulterior (political) motives. Spanish Governor, Arolas, sent support (27 soldiers) to Hacienda Gomantong but situation didn’t improve and the plantation was abandoned in 1889.

Meanwhile, back at Hacienda Nicolina in Banguey with John Carnarvon, the situation wasn’t much better. Hamburg sent a new manager, Joseph Lind, and pumped more capital into the venture which in 1888 included a plantation on the mainland, in Bengkoka, but nothing worked in the Germans’ favour. The coolies felt exploited; Lind, the manager, felt the NBCC were not supportive and the NBCC blamed the Germans for starting all the trouble. More misfortune struck when a harvest (probably tobacco) sank with the steamer off the coast of Somalia.
What the Kinarut Mansion looked like before it was demolished (Drawn by Richard Sokial)

In January 1889, exactly five years after the GBC was founded, the board of directors decided to dissolve the company, thus ending the presence of a German company in NB.

Can you imagine what could have happened if the GBC’s ventures had been successful in Banggi and Bengkoka? (During that time Germany had colonized part of New Guinea and several islands in the Pacific.) Who knows, German presence could have become permanent in NB and the grand Kinarut Mansion could still be standing and looking out into the South China Sea!
A beautiful book to treasure!

Reference: The Sarawak Museum Journal; Colonial Townships in Sabah


  1. Hi visitor! Glad you liked this story. Reading up for this post had been a 'journey' of discovery for me too! And I've always been fascinated with the Kinarut Mansion.