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

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

Saturday, June 16, 2012


When the stray cat came to our house she had looked more kitten than adult and the caved-in tummy indicated she was starving. She must have liked our food because she decided to stay. Months passed. Sonny and I had assumed the good food was making her balloon up. Who’d have guessed the slowly enlarging tummy contained babies?

Two days before the kitties came, Pudding—that’s what we call her—mewed incessantly and would only be quiet when someone was with her. Sonny’s friends said that it’s normal for tabby cats to be restless when the babies are coming and that we should just leave the cat alone. So we left her in a spacious box to have her kitties.

I guess Pudding didn’t know she was going to be a mother. When the first kitty’s head got stuck and refused to come out, Pudding must have thought she was constipated. She went under the bush and tried to rub her behind on the ground. I put her back in the box but she jumped out and hid under the car. The baby stubbornly refused to come out.

“Miao… miao…,” Pudding formed the sound with her mouth but no sound was coming out. OMG, I thought, she’s growing weak…the baby is stuck…what are we going to do?

I didn’t want a dead cat so Sonny and I put Pudding in her box and rushed her to the vet for advice. The stuck kitty was pulled out, laid on the table and pronounced dead. The computer screen showed there were three more babies and we were told mama cat was growing very weak. I had to make a decision quickly: a C-section or a dead cat?

“How much for a C-section?” I asked. I knew there was a fifty ringgit note in my bag.

“RM380,” the receptionist answered. My eyes must have popped out because she was quick to add, “We accept credit cards.” That would make a big dent in my purse but I couldn’t picture myself digging a hole in the backyard. Pudding had been generous with us, sharing a bird she had caught, a mouse, several cockroaches and a few grasshoppers.
Pudding with her 3-day-old kittens

“How long will it take for her to recover?”

“Two weeks.”

I looked at Pudding half lying and half sitting down on the table. A nurse held her by her fore-legs. Her eyes were wide open but she was so quiet and docile that I thought she had been given a jab to sedate her but she hadn’t.

An hour after her operation, Sonny brought her home. She was groggy and lying down in the middle of the box. I was sure that the ignored newborns, arranged like a row of dead fish in a corner of the box, didn’t have a chance of surviving the night. I stayed with them and ran a damp paintbrush on their tiny bodies to simulate licking. Soon one kitten was crawling. The other two lay close to each other. At least they kept each other warm.
The kittens at 17 days.

It must have been about 3am when mama cat let the kitties crawl to her teats. She even started licking them! Finally I could go to bed knowing I’ve done all I could for one tabby cat and her new kittens.

Note: I'm very grateful to everyone on Facebook's Animal Friends who responded to my call for help and gave valuable advice.

Friday, June 08, 2012

Off to the Races!

What is all this excitement at the racecourse that can make grown men act like kids with a brand new toy? Well, just the other day I went to see for myself. It was the first time I went to the race tracks since the Royal Sabah Turf Club (RSTC) moved to Tambalang in Tuaran—although I’ve been to the stables many times. I didn’t know what to expect, except ponies and horses and their jockeys, of course.

But first a little history about pony racing in Sabah 

Initiated by the European community, the first pony races in Sabah were held in Sandakan in 1892. The pony race craze and excitement spread to the other towns and tracks were made in Jesselton, Kudat, Kota Belud and Labuan. Incidentally, when the North Borneo Chartered Company (NBCC) was looking for an alternative site to rebuild the town after the 1897 fire at Pulau Gaya, the Company noted that the wide open ground at Tanjung Aru would be perfect for a racecourse.

The first tracks were straight and only four furlongs (half a mile) in length. These tracks were later formed into rings which exceeded eight furlongs. The earliest ‘grandstands’ were viewing shacks of wood and attap. Even posts were good as viewing stands! Now there’s a modern grandstand at the Tambalang race course in Tuaran and it can accommodate thousands of spectators.

Whereas today the riders/jockeys are local men, during the NBCC era, only Europeans were permitted to ride in Jesselton and Sandakan. In the smaller towns, because there were not many European riders, the natives were allowed to compete with the white men. 

The ponies were of Mongolian breed and were brought in from Southern Philippines. Apparently, the Bajau people of Kota Belud have been rearing ponies for generations, hence earning the name ‘Cowboys of the East’. During the NBCC days the ponies were actually used as draught animals for higher ranking officers who qualified for ‘pony allowances’.

These days besides ponies, there are also horses and cross-breeds reared as ‘racehorses’. I’ve been told that race ponies can’t be ‘retired’ as ‘walking’ ponies because they’ve been trained to only run and not to slow canter. Well, at least that was what Mr. Hubby-knows-it-all told me when I suggested we adopt some of the old, unwanted ponies and rent them to leisure riders.

What I saw and learned at the races…

I thought only men go to the races but many women and children go too.

The ponies and horses are walked twice around this oval pitch in front of the grandstand… like beauty contestants, I thought.

The tracks are smoothened… and then sprayed with water before each race.

There were special ‘Cup’ races the day I went because Sabah was celebrating Tadau Kaamatan. Winning ponies receive their prizes immediately after each race.

Many people place bets on their favourite ponies. Forecasts appear in the local papers to ‘help’ them predict and pick the winners.

A jockey has to watch his diet and I’m told he normally weighs around 55kg only! The RSTC pays the jockey a riding fee for each of the race he runs. The RSTC also keeps track of the jockeys’ performances and awards are given to the ‘Champion Jockey’ every year.

Mr. Hubby’s pony didn’t win that day. Sakit kaki konon.

(Angel Bear, if you're reading this... we'll go to the stables one of these days when you're not busy.)