It has been mentioned often in reports of the Chartered Company that the Mat Salleh Rebellion was the major disturbance in its 60-year administration. It challenged the authority of the British rulers who had come in unannounced, taking charge of a people scattered over 75,000 sq. km (29,000 sq. miles) of land. Indeed it would seem that the North Borneo Company was for many years quietly implementing all that was good for the people when all of a sudden this rebel, Mat Salleh, went on a rampage and upset the peace and order of the land.
Sadly, records available on the causes of the rebellion were written mostly by the administrators of the time. Mat Salleh's side of the story were downgraded and efforts to analyse his behaviour had been few.
What we have now are records written by the people Mat Salleh fought against. For many years school children of Sabah had been taught to deplore Mat Salleh as a trouble maker.'
When nationalistic feelings in the Sabahan were aroused after Independence, emotions ran high, discrediting all that had been said about the "rebel". The Sabahan was called upon to revere this personality. Mat Salleh was no longer looked upon as a rebel but a hero. Revolutionary or freedom fighter, precious little evidence can be studied of Mat Salleh's thoughts, his fears and his reasons for killing and plundering in defiance of the British administration.
What is clear is that Mat Salleh was no ordinary man. He fought, he killed, and he was killed in the end.
During the first few years of Chartered Company rule Sabah was governed by keen and capable men. Men like W.H. Treacher and W. Pryer, M. Crocker, A.E. Davies and C.V. Creagh opened up the country and dealt with local administration anned only with dedication and zeal. Following the state's progress with equal earnestness were men like Alfred Dent and Sir Rutherford Alcock from the London Court of Directors.
In 1893 Sabah's financial position weakened. This resulted from overspending by the early administrators when the Company policy of stringent spending had not been enforced. Added to this was the general poor world economy.
In the following year W.C. Cowie, a Scottish adventurer, (who, prior to this was involved in gun-running activities for the Sulu authorities) was elected to the Court of Directors in London as the managing director. He decided to do away with the idea of just running an administration that was not going to yield any profits. In London a group of shareholders rallied behind him in -his ambition for dividends.
Dent, the founder, opposing Cowie's ideas, resigned. So did Alcock and Creagh. Cowie, within a short time had Leicester P. Beaufort (a lawyer with no experience of the east nor of administration) appointed as governor.'
Referring to Cowie and Beaufort K.G. Tregonning said,
"Between them the two nearly ruined North Borneo", . . . . . Beaufort the most incompetent Governor North Borneo ever acquired and who in the manner of nonentities, had a town named after him. . . . ."
Thinking he could expand the state's weakening economy Cowie launched two grand projects: a railway line from Brunei Bay to Cowie Harbour and a telegraphic line from Labuan to Sandakan. Both these projects cost the Chartered Company a great deal of money. To help pay for these two projects new taxes were imposed, among these was a new tax on rice, a staple food of many of the people. "The duty on rice added about 5% to its cost, and it produced a loud outcry from the Chinese, through their Advisory Council, and from the planters, through their Association. In 1898 they combined and with the native chiefs sent a strong petition to London, listing grievances, protesting at the increased charges, and particularly at the tax on rice. This was one of the irritants which undoubtedly influenced supporters of Mat Salleh, as rice was the staple food of everyone".' Poll-tax which had been collected earlier now caused unrest because of the manner of the native chiefs that Beaufort employed agents to collect this tax.
It was Cowie's belief, from the start of Mat Salleh's antigovernment activities, that the Bajau leader should be made to come to terms with the Chartered Company. He felt it illadvised to hunt down Mat Salleh for punishment. So strongly did Cowie think about this that he personally came to Sabah to negotiate with Mat Salleh in 1898.
After a personal meeting with Mat Salleh Cowie verbally agreed to grant a pardon for Mat Salleh and his followers on condition they stopped fighting and to make their homes in Tambunan. Tambunan at the time was not under Chartered Company control. The Tambunan people would therefore come under his authority. Cowie also promised him a present (an unspecified sum of money and help towards Mat Salleh's pilgrimage to Mecca) if he did not cause trouble in the next 12 months. Then he would also be allowed to return to the coast.
Although Cowie reasoned that these were fair terms of submission many of the Sabah administrators thought these concessions were outrageous.
Among those who resigned in protest were G. Hewett, the West Coast Resident, Captain T.M. Reddie, the Commandant of Police, G. Ormsby, the North Keppel District Officer, P. Wise and one or two other west coast officers.
Also, from his handling of the Mat Salleh negotiations, Cowie lost the support of the Court of Directors in London. They initially felt it absurd to settle the matter by negotion. Further, Cowie in Sabah had failed in communicating to London the exact lines taken by the government in pursuing Mat Salleh. His reports of Mat Salleh's exploits and the stands taken by the government were unclear.
On the other hand there were many in Sabah who felt, quite unwisely, that Cowie had succeeded in making Mat Salleh come to terms with the government. These people felt Mat Salleh had been let off too lightly. The British North Borneo Herald leader of May 2, 1898 ran:
"Both the Government and the shareholders of the British North Borneo Company may be congratulated upon the sub mission of Mat Salleh a general sense of relief that an initating source of worry has been done away with will be generally felt, even by those who would have dealt with him in a harsher manner. It will be noted that certain conditions he tried to make were peremptorily negatived and that the prestige of the Government has not suffered in the hands of Mr. Cowie or Goverrmor to the ex-rebel".
When the terms of submission were drawn up for Mat Salleh's signature however, the Bajau felt he had been double-crossed. The verbal agreement reached was that he and his followers were all to be pardoned. The written agreement stated that some of his followers who were escaped prisoners were not pardoned. For this he immediately started building a fort in Tambunan.
Cowie blamed Beaufort for this blunder. In return Beaufort criticised Cowie for the concession.
When the Chartered Company assumed control over Sabah certain areas still remained part of Brunei's jurisdiction. These included independent rivers like the Mengkabong, Menggatal, Gantisan and Api-Api. Eventually the Company tried to bring under control many of these areas in its efforts for expansion.
From neighbouring Sarawak Rajah Charles Brooke issued strong objections to this. He had entertained hopes of inheriting the then declining Brunei Sultanate. In addition Rajah Brooke felt the advent of the Chartered Company a threat to his kingdom.
With the development of Mat Salleh's agitation, Chartered Company officials felt it imperative to get control of these areas and police them.
Coupled with this and Cowie's wish to personally negotiate with Mat Salleh the two met for the first time on April 22, 1898. Menggatal came under the Chartered Company control on the same day.
Minimum spending of any kind by the Chartered Company authorities was the order of the day. This even extended to the police force. In 1882 there were only about 50 men in the force. The majority of these were Sikhs sent by Hugh Low from Perak to suppress the Padas Damit rebellion in 1888. Inspector De Fontaine, in 1883, found the force, "scattered around the east and west coast stations totally undisciplined, with arms of different types and six different uniforms ..
The "Dyaks" referred to in the police force elsewhere in this chapter were the natives of Sarawak during the Rajah Brooke days. They were later known as lbans. "Dyaks" was a term loosely used by the Sarawak Malays and the Europeans. The lbans in their customary ways of wanderlust found jobs in the Chartered Company service and soon the "native" police employed were the lbans.
According to Ian Black ., a historian, "The Court preferred that police be recruited locally, both for reasons of expense and to avoid any criticism that imported aliens were to be used to subdue a native population .......
However, none of the Sabahan natives seemed overly-keen to join the force.
At the time Governor W.H. Treacher sent the Commandant of the British North Borneo Constabulary, A.M. Harrington, to India to recruit for police persormel.' This was also the practice of the Federated Malay States. The London Court of Directors were incensed at this kind of unnecessary expenditure and ordered Harrington back to Sabah. However, he had already enlisted 100 Sikhs, Sepoys and Somalis from Singapore, Perak and Penang.
Only when Mat Salleh's activities intensified and the authorities were sent hither and thither trying to hunt him down did they realise how weak its force was. Consequently, Governor Beaufort appealed to the Straits Settlement Government for troops and arms. Sir Charles Mitchell, the governor there, refused as Cowie was not much admired by Straits Settlements authorities." His successor, Sir James Alexander Swettenham was equally critical of the Chartered Company's rule."
In April 1898 when Cowie offered Mat Salleh to live in the Tambunan Valley and the right to lead the people there the area at the time had not come under Chartered Company rule.
In June the same year Cowie opened a station in Tambunan. Mat Salleh was given the message that he should work side by side with F.W. Fraser, the Keningau District Officer.
Understandably Mat Salleh viewed this as a breach of faith. Once more he and his followers went about raiding and killing.
The Inanam river was another area which was still under the control of the Brunei authorities. In 1896 Beaufort went to Brunei to buy the rights on customs, taxation and police control from the Brunei Sultan." The Inanam Bajaus became resentful over what they felt unwanted control by the British. Thus when Mat Salleh was looking for supporters for the raid on Gaya Island in 1897 they went readily enough. Subsequently the Chartered Company sent a force and burnt down all the Inanam villages.
The supernatural powers possessed by Mat Salleh and his principal wife, Dayang Bandang, are legendary.
Mat Salleh was the son of Datu Balu, a Sulu chief who controlled part of the Labuk and Sugut area prior to the Chartered Company days. His mother was Bajau and he spent part of his childhood in Inanam and Gaya Island.
He married Dayang Bandang, a Sulu princess, from the Court of the Sultan of Sulu. Mat Salleh himself was a pangeran. It has been claimed that Dayang Bandang never set foot on ground but was carried everywhere in a litter. There were other claims too that she was a witch.
Interestingly, when Mat Salleh replied to Cowie's request for a meeting between the two he said I say truly I very much wish to meet Tuan Cowie but my wife, Dayang Bandang, is afraid of the police who are near Tambunan"."
Cowie in his opening negotiations with Mat Salleh wrote to the latter mentioning that Dayang Bandang's father was a great friend of his." Cowie also said that he had known Mat Salleh's wife when she was a child.
The first records of Mat Salleh were in 1894 when he became a trader on the Sugut river. He had a band of followers even then. The first clash that Mat Salleh had with the authorities was when two lbans were killed by Mat Salleh's men in the same year.
Mat Salleh has been described as a tall, slim and pockmarked man. His personality, by all accounts, was a commanding one. Mat Salleh had been rated with above-average intelligence, a military affairs genius and it has also been said that as a youth he had been able to throw a buffalo by its horns. Other tales of Mat Salleh say that his mouth produced flames, his parang a lighting flash and rice scattered by him became wasps.
The pangeran also had a taste for fine clothes.
In his diary describing his first meeting with Mat Salleh
Cowie wrote of the latter's striking appearance. He was dressed in gold cap, smart green embroidered tunic, and Sulu embroidered trousers with no waistband. He wore no arms. His manner and appearance made me aware that I was face to face with the Rob Roy of British North Borneo, the notorious Mat Salleh, whom I at once saluted with a 'tabek' ". "
Among his own people he commanded great respect. When he found it necessary to increase his forces he easily picked up supporters enroute to his points of attack. A belief was also held by the people that Mat Salleh had performed the kebal rite. For this, the person who wants to become kebal goes into the deep jungle in his war gear and fasts for three days and three nights. He prays to the spirits of his ancestors. If successful, on his third night, his ancestors will bestow him with special knowledge. The person will then become invulnerable to weapons.
Mat Salleh's plan of undermining British rule in Sabah consisted of raiding and retreating to a fort. If the fort did not prove safe enough he would slip into the jungle. This was a method commonly used by warring chiefs in Borneo. His geography of Sabah was astounding, looking at the many slips he gave the authorites. He would attack at one point, disappear and surface again at the other end of the country.
But Mat Salleh was no ordinary chief. His forts were huge solid affairs, his legion of supporters swelled to large numbers when necessary.
Below is a description of Mat Salleh's Ranau fort by G. Hewett the West Coast Resident who led the expedition in destroying it."
"The fort was a most extraordinary place and without the guns would have been absolutely impregnable. The buildings covered three sides of a square, the fourth side being closed by a stone wall. The whole square was 20m by 18 (22 yards
by 20) and the fact that over 200 shells burst inside will give some idea of its strength, the enemy still remaining in possession. The walls of the building were of stone, 2.5m (8 feet) thick with numerous large bamboos built into them for loop holes. The whole fort was surrounded with three bamboo fences with the twigs left on and the ground between was simply covered with sudah (bamboo spikes). On the outer walls all the loopholes were slanted so as to bear directly on the outer bamboo fence, but there were also places between the big stones on the top of the walls for firing through. On the side of the square the loopholes were also very cunningly arranged to repel internal attack. There was neither exit nor
entrance to the buildings and had an attacking force, no matter how strong, succeeded in reaching the middle of the square they would have been no nearer capturing the place than if they had stayed away, and they would have been shot down like sheep by an invisible foe without the possibility of returning the fire.
"The houses were originally built some 2m (7 feet) or so off the ground, the stone walls being supported on heavy tim
bers. Subsequently the lower part was walled in and the ground inside excavated to afford a refuge. Fortunately they
had left a narrow slit about 15 cm (6 inches) wide between the upper and lower walls and the shells had penetrated through this, the only possible spot, into their underground refuges.
"The outer enclosure which was carried by assault on the13th December proved to be almost a circle some 72 or 82m (80 or 90 yards) in diameter and closely packed with houses which entirely shut out all view of the rear of the strong hold, making it impossible to shell it effectively and the object of the assault at the first attack was not the capture of the stronghold but to expose its rear by destroying all the houses in the enclosure. In this we were entirely successful and had the assault not taken place the fort would still be in the hands of Mat Salleh".
During the troubled years that the Chartered Company encountered with Mat Salleh's exploits numerous punitive expeditions were sent into the wilds of Sabah to pursue him.
One of these expeditions was led by Raffles Flint, who in 1890, was in involved in a bloody massacre, killing between 130 to 140 Muruts at the Pegan River in the interior.19 This was in retaliation to the alleged murder of Walter Flint, Raffles' brother, by the Muruts there.
Mat Salleh's death, it has been said, resulted from a fluke shot from a maxim bullet during the seige of his Tambunan fort.
On February 1, 1900 a Bajau woman, known only as Niuk, on trying to escape from the fort, when apprehended said that Mat Salleh had been killed the day before, at noon.
Niuk said Mat Salleh's corpse had been shrouded in white for burial in the fort. Mat Salleh's body was the only one accorded this treatment.
Five other bodies were dug up before Mat Salleh's corpse was found. Fraser, the Keningau District Officer, who had met Mat Salleh on many occasions identified his body. This was confirmed by a Murut chief, "Kansanat," several Tiawan chiefs and Tuaran Dusuns. Mat Salleh's death must have been instantaneous as he had been shot through the left temple, the bullet was carried to the back of his head.
From this fort 31 prisoners were taken. They included three of Mat Salleh's wives, a son and a daughter." Dayang Bandang was sent back to the Court of the Sultan of Sulu.
Source : Sabah - The First 100 Years by Cecilia Leong, Pencetakan Nan Yang Muda Sdn. Bhd., Kuala Lumpur1982
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