Thursday, June 21, 2012

A Letter to My Anak Buah

Dear Koyoh and Gurongit, it pays to know your history so you don’t burst a vein every time some folks say Sabah belongs to them. Many people repeat stuff they’ve heard, about something they know nothing about. With that in mind, I suggest you check the facts and don’t take everything I’m saying here as the truth although I’ll tell you as closely as possible what I’ve learnt about Sabah of the 1800s.

This was a period, long past long ago, when pirates prowled along the coasts and headhunters roamed the countryside. It was long before the word ‘Sabah’ magically evoked images of black gold and dollar signs, and ages before the natives discarded their loin-cloths for made-in-Thailand underwear.
An old map of Brunei

Sabah (North Borneo) was still under Brunei then. Do you know that Brunei used to be a huge part of Borneo? The Brunei Sultanate stretched all the way from present day Sarawak to the tip of Borneo. Apparently, from the very beginning we, the natives, have been the source of income for various sultans and pengirans of Brunei. These overlords or their proxies collected poll-taxes from the people residing in their jajahan and tulin— which were really river valleys. That was why they were also known simply as sungei.

Then the white men came…

The Americans were never really interested in Sabah. However, they did offer protection to Brunei —from pirates and invaders?—in return for friendship and commerce. Brunei declined the offer because the Sultan was optimistic of obtaining British protection. Various diplomatic missions were dispatched by the Americans to the Far East including Borneo in the early 1800s.This was mainly for commercial interests, not colonial expansion.

1845: The USA offered Brunei protection in exchange for friendship and commerce. Brunei, optimistic of obtaining British protection, declined the offer.

1850: The USA obtained commercial privileges and right to establish a consulate in Brunei.

1865: The USA established a consulate in Brunei with Claude Lee Moses as Consul.

Moses was more interested in making money for himself. He saw that the Sultan hoped to use US presence in Brunei as a counter-weight against Sarawak expansion. (The Sultan had given Sarawak to James Brooke in 1846 for the latter’s role in curbing piracy… and now James Brooke wanted Sabah too!)
Borneo (Google Image)

With the dwindling empire/sultanate, the Sultan and his pengirans were getting less rich  due to loss of income because there were fewer subjects from whom to collect poll-taxes. Moses shrewdly persuaded the Sultan to lease him large concessions in Sabah for yearly rents.

Sultan Abdul Mumin leased the land from the Sulaman River to the Paitan River for $4500 annual rent. The Pengiran Temenggong signed another agreement to lease Benoni, Kimanis, Paitan, Sugut, Bongaya, Labuk, Sandakan, Kinabatangan, Cagayan and Muming for $4000 annual rent for ten years but could be renewed.

(Note: Brunei also leased areas which were not under its jurisdiction but were supposed to be under Sulu rule. Why? More about this later…)

Moses was now ‘lord and master’ of huge tracts of land in Sabah leased from the Sultan. Was he going to develop the land? No. This was before the rubber era of the next century. Was he going to collect taxes on the inhabitants of his concessions?  No! Moses quickly left for HK and was able to sell his concessions to two Americans—Joseph William Torrey and Thomas Bradley Harris, and a Chinese named Wo Hang.
Harris and Torrey (Google Image)

Torrey formed the America Trading Company of Borneo (ATC) to develop the land he had acquired.

Sultan Abdul Mumin signed a document on 24 November 1865 appointing Torrey as Rajah of Ambong and Maroodoo with the powers of life and death over the inhabitants; the right of making laws, coining money, creating an army—together with the powers and rights usually exercised by and belonging to sovereign rulers. So, Torrey was made a white rajah just like James Brooke in Sarawak!

With 12 Americans and 60 Chinese, the ATC opened a settlement in Kimanis. The new settlement was given a pretty name: Ellena. The plan was to develop commercial agriculture planting sugar cane, tobacco and rice. Unfortunately, the company had to be abandoned at the end of 1866 due to a number of reasons. Thomas Harris died after suffering a high fever. There was shortage of capital; there was sickness among the settlers and there was  labour unrest.
Thomas B. Harris's tombstone at Kimanis

Torrey returned to HK to look for someone who'd be interested to buy his property. Among those who expressed interest in this far-flung wilderness was Italy. Apparently, Sabah was perfect for a penal outpost where convicts could be sent to exile! Didn’t happen, by the way. (Can you imagine Romeos and Juliets labouring in the paddy fields and living in little water villages?)

1875: Finally, after almost ten years of looking for a buyer, an Austrian named Gustavus Baron Von Overbeck, offered Torrey $15,000 for the concessions if the Sultan of Brunei would renew the leases. The Sultan refused! So, Overbeck, having been turned down by Vienna, turned to Dent Brothers (London) for financial support.
Alfred Dent (Google Image)

1877: Alfred Dent saw great potential in the Sabah venture so in March 1877 they formed the Overbeck-Dent Association (ODA) to obtain the Sabah leases with the intention of selling them for a profit.

Dec 29, 1877: Sultan of Brunei leased his Sabah estates to Overbeck and Dent for an annual payment of $16,000—except for some tulin/private lands from Kimanis Bay in the west to the Kinabatangan River in the east. ODA appointed William Pryer as the first Resident of NB. He was to be based in Sandakan, was to eradicate piracy and establish an administrative centre for NB.
Photo credit: J. Kessey

A few weeks after the Sultan of Brunei had leased his lands to ODA, the Sultan of Sulu also sold his share of NB to Overbeck.

1883: Pangalat, Putatan, Kawang and Mantanani Islands were leased by Brunei to the British.

1884: The Sultan of Brunei signed over the Padas and Klias Rivers, and Tuaran, Bongawan for additional sums.

Jan 22, 1878: The Sultan of Sulu on the island of Maibu ( having been ousted from Jolo by the Spanish) relinquished his claim on all his territories in return for $5000 [five thousand dollars] a year, the same land the British was already paying $12,000 per year to Brunei.

1898: By 1898 the British NBCC owned the rights to every square centimeter of land in Sabah.

Now, Koyoh and Gurongit, which part of Sabah did some clown claim belong to them?

Aunty Tina

(p.s. Homework! Find out when the leases were transferred from ODA to the NBCC.)

Reference: British North Borneo Herald

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