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Pirates or patriots?

Millennium markers - Borneo-Sabah-Sarawak

ON THE new moon night of July 29, 1849, a fierce naval encounter took place between the forces of James Brooke, the new Rajah of Sarawak, and a large fleet of Malay "pirates''. The encounter took place off the sandspit known as Beting Marau which lies between the Seribas and Kerian estuaries in what is now the Sri Aman Division of Sarawak.

In terms of numbers, the opposing forces were more or less even, but the result of the encounter was a crushing victory for the White Rajah. Over 100 war perahu (boat) were destroyed. On the Rajah's side, not a single vessel was lost. The final body count was some 1,500 "pirates'' killed eventually, one third of whom died on the spot; the remainder were butchered by Brooke's Iban auxiliaries as they tried to make their escape on shore. On the Rajah's side, there were only "two natives killed, and about six wounded.''

Indeed, the encounter was more of a massacre than a battle. Brave and desperate as the Malay "pirates'' undoubtedly were, they were no match for the superior weaponry of Brooke's side, nor could their small wooden craft withstand the iron-clad hull of the East India Company's ship, Nemesis (loaned to Brooke for the occasion), whose paddles churned scores of them into mangled corpses floating in the water.

In fact, the horror caused by the great loss of life created an uproar in far away Britain even. Questions were asked in the British Parliament by leading radicals such as Joseph Hume, Richard Cobden and John Bright, and led ultimately to Brooke himself being brought before a court of inquiry, held in Singapore, to account for his actions. He was acquitted of all the accusations against him in the end, but the episode nearly broke his spirit.

Whatever the rights and wrongs of the case may be, the "battle'' of Beting Marau was undoubtedly a significant marker in the long saga of the triumph of Western imperialism in the world at large and in our part of the world in particular over other, often older, civilisations and cultures. That Western imperialism itself was fuelled by the great expansion of scientific knowledge in Europe which started with the Renaissance in 14th century Italy and which culminated in the technological achievements of the Industrial Revolution with its roots in 18th century Britain.

James Brooke was as much a representative of this new industrial civilisation as any other Briton of his age, and in that sense deserves to be regarded as an imperialist. But he was an imperialist with a difference.

He was a strong believer in the benefits that the industrial civilisation of the West could bring to other members of humankind, but he was not a supporter of unbridled European commercial enterprise that would undermine the "indefeasible rights'' of the "natives''.

He thought that Western imperialism should be directed "to the advancement of the native interests and the development of the native resources, rather than by a flood of European colonisation, to aim at possession only.''

For this reason Brooke was opposed to piracy. For as long as the pirates were permitted to carry on their activities along the sea-lanes of commerce in the region, there would be no hope of building settled, prosperous local communities which could participate in the new industrialised order. At the same time, of course, without their defeat, his own position as the Rajah of Sarawak could never be secure.

But therein lies the rub. Were the inhabitants of Sarawak or Borneo and the Sulu archipelago as a whole to be regarded as "pirates'', or were they, in fact, patriots fighting to defend their own way of life and survival? One could answer "yes'' to both questions depending upon one's standpoint.

By any dictionary definition of piracy i.e. robbery on the high seas the Malays of the Batang Lupar basin were undoubtedly pirates. And so were their counterparts scattered throughout the region, including their cousins who lurked in the Riau archipelago, the Achinese of North Sumatra, the Ibans who competed with them in their own home waters, and above all the dreaded Ilanun and Balinini of Sulu and Mindanao, whose ferocity and brutality made lanun another word in the Malay vocabulary for "piracy'' itself. As far as Westerners were concerned "piracy'' was identified with the Malay world in general, and Borneo in particular.

In fact, "pirates'' was a good generic term to apply to one's enemies. The Spaniards of the 16th century with considerable justification described as pirates English national heroes such as Drake, Hawkins and Frobisher. One of them, James Lancaster, was the first English sailor to reach the Straits of Malacca where he behaved in the most piratical manner. By the 19th century, however, the British themselves had become "legitimate'' merchants and traders, conscious of the sanctity of property, the law and formal obligations, and regarded those who attacked the peaceful commerce they promoted as "pirates''.

In fact, in the Malaysian context, the main opposition to the commercial enterprise of the Europeans came from the local inhabitants, especially those who depended on the sea for their livelihood. For them "piracy'' was a traditional profession, justified as attacks on these white intruders who had disrupted and ended their own monopoly of the local sea-borne trade of the region. For them "piracy'' was a legitimate way of making a living. It produced the Robin Hoods of South-East Asian sea lanes.

It was also a business in which Malaysian rulers themselves were involved. It was well known in Kuching during James Brooke's day that the royal court at Brunei derived much, if not most, of its revenue from the proceeds of the sultan's piratical subjects. The 19th century Malay sultanate of Riau-Lingga was virtually a pirate base that prospered exceedingly on the pickings offered by its next-door neighbour, Singapore. Moreover, it was strongly suspected by the local British authorities that Temenggung Ibrahim of Johor, a most enlightened Malay Ruler who lived and socialised in Singapore itself, was in league with his piratical cousins of Riau.

That is where the shadowy line between piracy and politics lay. What was regarded by European officials and merchants alike as outrageous plunder and robbery on the high seas was seen by its perpetrators as natural acts of self-defence.

Were not the braves of Sulu and Mindanao engaged in a centuries-old struggle against the infidel which began when the Christian Spaniards captured Manila in 1570? Were not the Ibans and Malays of northern Borneo defending their heritage against the marauding Europeans who had reduced them to beggary by monopolising the trade of the region?

So to return to Brooke and the "battle'' of Beting Marau, it was not just a matter of the representatives of law and order fighting to suppress local piracy. It symbolised, on a small local scale, the clash between the new civilisation of the West created by the advances of science and technology epitomised by the Industrial Revolution, and the traditional order of economy and society.

Rajah Brooke's victory not only buttressed his own position as ruler of Sarawak, but added yet another nail in the coffin of the old Malayan world and its way of life. Just as the IT revolution of today leads inevitably to globalisation, the Industrial Revolution released economic and social forces that were overwhelming. One either adapted and survived, or opposed it and succumbed.

- Muzaffar Tate has written several books on various aspects of Malaysian history.

Millennium Markers is a weekly series that looks at events and happenings that shaped Malaysia and the surrounding region over the last 1,000 years; it is coordinated by Dr Loh Wei Leng, Universiti Malaya.

Notes: Map- The battle of Beting Marau

Notes: STF- In this week's Millennium Markers, MUZAFFAR TATE examines the reasons behind and consequences of one of the region's major sea battles between the Rajah of Sarawak and Malays and orang asli.

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