Project Canterbury

Sketches of Our Life at Sarawak

By Harriette McDougall

London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 1882.
New York: E. & J. B. Young, 1882.


Chapter IV. Pirates

WHEN we first lived at Sarawak, the coasts and the seas from Singapore to China were infested with pirates. "It is in the Malay's nature," says a Dutch writer, "to rove the seas in his prahu, as it is in the Arab to wander with his steed on the sands of the desert." Before the English and Dutch Governments exerted themselves to put down piracy in the Eastern seas, there were communities of these Malays settled in various parts of the coast of Borneo, who made it the business of their lives to rob and destroy all the vessels they could meet with, either killing the crews or reducing them to slavery. For this purpose they went out in fleets of from ten to thirty war-boats or prahus. These boats were about ninety feet long; they carried a large gun in the bow and three or four lelahs, small brass guns, in each broadside, besides twenty or thirty muskets. Each prahu was rowed by sixty or eighty oars in two tiers, and carried from [32/33] eighty to a hundred men. Over the rowers, and extending the whole length of the vessel, was a light flat roof, made of split bamboo, and covered with mats. This protected the ammunition and provisions from rain, and served as a platform on which they mounted to fight, from which they fired their muskets and hurled their spears. These formidable boats skulked about in the sheltered bays of the coast, at the season of the year when they knew that merchant-vessels would be passing with rich cargoes for the ports of Singapore, Penang, or to and from China. A scout-boat, with but few men in it, which would not excite suspicion, went out to spy for sails. They did not generally attack large or armed ships, although many a good-sized Dutch or English craft, which had been becalmed or enticed by them into dangerous or shallow water, was overpowered by their numbers. But it was usually the small unarmed vessels they fell upon, with fearful yells, binding those they did not kill, and burning the vessel after robbing it, to avoid detection. While the south-west monsoon lasted, the pirates lurked about in uninhabited creeks and bays until the trading season was over. But when the north-east monsoon set in, they returned to their settlements, often rich in booty, and with blood on their hands, only to rejoice over the past, and prepare for next year's expedition. There are still some nests of pirates in the north of Borneo, although of late the Spaniards have done much to exterminate them. But when Sir James [33/34] Brooke first visited Sarawak, the nobles there, and their sultan at Bruni, used to permit, nay, encourage, piratical raids against their own subjects at a little distance, provided they shared in the profits of the expedition, thus impoverishing the country they ruled, and putting a stop to all native trade--a short-sighted and wicked policy. It took a good many years of stern resistance on Sir James Brooke's part before the Bruni nobles could be cured of their connivance of pirates, whether Malay or Dyak.

The Dyaks of Sarebas and Sakarran, a brave and noble people, were taught piracy by the Malays who dwelt among them. These Dyaks were always head-hunters, and used to pull the oars in the Malay prahus for the sake of the heads of the slain, which they alone cared for. But, in course of time, the Dyaks became expert seamen. They built boats which they called bangkongs, and went out with the Malays, devastating the coast and killing Malays, Chinese, Dyaks, whoever they met with. The Dyak bangkong draws very little water, and is both lighter and faster than the Malay prahu; it is a hundred feet long, and nine or ten broad. Sixty or eighty men with paddles make her skim through the water as swiftly as a London race-boat. She moves without noise, and surprises her victims with showers of spears at dead of night; neither can any vessel, except a steamer, catch a Dyak bangkong, if the crew deem it necessary to fly. These boats can be easily [34/35] taken to pieces; for the planks, which extend the whole length of the boat, are not fastened with nails, but lashed together with rattans, and calked with bark, which swells when wet; so that, if they wish to hide their retreat into the jungle, they can quickly unlace their boats, carry them on their shoulders into the woods, and put them together again when they want them. When we first lived at Sarawak no merchant-boat dared go out of the river alone and unarmed. We were constantly shocked with dreadful accounts of villages on the coast, or boats at the entrance, being surprised, and men, women, and children barbarously murdered by these wretches. I remember once a boat being found with only three fingers of a man in it, and a bloody mark at the side, where the heads of those in the boat had been cut off. Sometimes the pirates would wait until they knew the men of a village were away at their paddy farms, then they would fall suddenly upon the defenceless old men, women, and children, kill some, make slaves of the young ones, and rob the houses.

Sometimes, having destroyed a village and its inhabitants, they would dress themselves in the clothes of the slain, and, proceeding to another place, would call out to the women, "The Sarebas are coming, but, if you bring down your valuables to us, we will defend you and your property." And many fell into the snare, and were carried off. If they attacked a house when the men were at home, it was by night. They pulled stealthily up [35/36] the river in their boats, and landing under cover of their shields, crept under the long house where many families lived together. These houses stand on high poles. The pirates then set fire to dry wood and a quantity of chillies which they carried with them for the purpose. This made a suffocating smoke, which hindered the inmates from coming out to defend themselves. Then they cut down the posts of the house, which fell, with all it contained, into their ruthless hands.

In the year 1849, the atrocities of the piratical Dyaks were so frequent, that the rajah applied to the English Admiral in the straits for some men-of-war to assist him in destroying them. Remonstrances and threats had been tried again and again. The pirates would always promise good behaviour for the future to avert a present danger; but they never kept these promises when an opportunity offered for breaking them with impunity. In consequence of Sir James Brooke's application, H.M.S. Albatross, commanded by Captain Farquhar; H.M.'s sloop Royalist, commander, Lieutenant Everest; and H.E.I.C.'s steamer Nemesis, commander, Captain Wallage, were sent by Admiral Collyer to Sarawak. Then the rajah had all his war-boats got ready to join the English force. There was the Lion King, the Royal Eagle, the Tiger, the Big Snake, the Little Snake, the Frog, the Alligator, and many others belonging to the Datus, who, on occasions like these, are bound to call on their servants, and a certain number of [36/37] able-bodied men living in their kampongs, to man and fight in their boats. This is their service to the Government. The rajah supplies the whole force with rice for the expedition, and a certain number of muskets. The English ships were left, the Albatross at Sarawak, and the Royalist to guard the entrance of the Batang Lupar River, into which the Sakarran and Sarebas Rivers d├ębouche; but their boats, and nearly all the officers, accompanied the fleet, and the steamer Nemesis went also. On the 24th of July they left us, as many as eighteen Malay prahus, manned by from twenty to seventy men in each, and decorated with flags and streamers innumerable, of the brightest colours,--the Sarawak flag, a red and black cross on a yellow ground, always at the stern. For the Tiger I made a flag, as it was Mr. Brereton's boat, with a tiger's head painted on it, looking wonderfully ferocious. It was an exciting time, with gongs and drums, Malay yells and English hurrahs; and our fervent prayers for their safety and success accompanied them that night, as they dropped down the river in gay procession. They were afterwards joined by bang-kongs of friendly Dyaks, three hundred men from Lundu, eight hundred from Linga, some from Samarahan, Sadong, and various places which had suffered from the pirates, and were anxious to assist in giving them a lesson. We heard nothing of the fleet until the 2nd of August, when I received a little note from the rajah, written in pencil, on a scrap of paper, on the night of the 31st of July, [37/38] and giving an account of how they fell in with a great balla (war fleet) of Sarebas and Sakarran pirates, consisting of one hundred and fifty bang-kongs, returning to their homes with plunder and captives in their boats. The pirates found all the entrances of the river occupied by their enemies, the English, Malay, and Dyak forces being placed in three detachments, and the Nemesis all ready to help whenever the attack began. The Lion King sent up a rocket when she espied the pirate fleet, to apprise the rest. Then there was a dead silence, broken only by three strokes of a gong, which called the pirates to a council of war. A few minutes afterwards a fearful yell gave notice of their advance, and the fleet approached in two divisions. But when they sighted the steamer they became aware of the odds against them, and again called a council by beat of gong. After another pause, a second yell of defiance showed they had decided on giving battle. Then, in the dead of the night, ensued a fearful scene. The pirates fought bravely, but could not withstand the superior forces of their enemies. Their boats were upset by the paddles of the steamer; they were hemmed in on every side, and five hundred men were killed, sword in hand; while two thousand five hundred escaped to the jungle. The boats were broken to pieces, or deserted on the beach by their crews; and the morning light showed a sad spectacle of ruin and defeat. Upwards of eighty prahus and bangkongs were captured, many from [38/39] sixty to eighty feet long, with nine or ten feet beam.

The English officers on that night offered prizes to all who should bring in captives alive: but the pirates would take no quarter; in the water they still fought without surrender, for they could not understand a mercy they never accorded to their enemies. Consequently the prisoners were very few, and the darkness of the night favoured escape.

The peninsula to which they fled could easily have been so surrounded by the Dyak and Malay forces that not one man of that pirate fleet could have left it alive. This blockade the Malays entreated the rajah to make; but he refused, saying that he hoped they had already received a sufficient lesson, and would return to their homes humbled and corrected. He therefore ordered his fleet to proceed up the river, and the pirates went back to Sarebas and Sakarran. This severe punishment cured the Dyaks of those rivers once and for all of piracy, and was the greatest blessing which could have been conferred on those fine tribes. They allowed forts to be built on their rivers, and submitted to English residents, who ruled them with the counsel of their own chiefs. In 1857, when the Chinese rebelled and burnt the town of Kuching, these Dyaks sent their warriors to assist the Sarawak Government; in doing so they joined other tribes whose hereditary enemies they had been for many generations. Some of us felt anxious when we saw the fleet of Sakarrans and [39/40] Balows lying side by side at the Linga Fort; but they all kept their good faith, and in fighting a common enemy became friends for evermore.

In 1852 Sir James Brooke placed Mr. Brereton in a fort at Sakarran, built at the entrance of the river. He threw himself heartily into the work of improving the people, and gained a good influence over many. One of the most important chiefs, Gassim, attached himself to him, and even gave up the practice of head-taking to please him.

There were certain paddy farms in the country which by ancient custom could only be cultivated by heroes who had taken many heads. One of Gassim's people, however, who had never taken a single head, presumed to clear and plant some of this ground; whereupon the other chiefs complained, and one sent a message to Gassim, that if he did not put a stop to this breach of law, he would fight him. Gassim answered that he was ready to fight with swords if necessary, but first he begged a conference with all the other chiefs to discuss the matter. To this they agreed, and by the force of his eloquence and the justice of his cause, Gassim proved to them that the old custom was bad and ought to be repealed. About that time Brereton brought Gassim and a number of his people to visit Kuching, and the chief breakfasted with us. When all the school-children came in to prayers--for the church was not yet finished--and Gassim heard them repeat the responses and say the Lord's Prayer, he was delighted, and said [40/41] that he and his people would also like to be Christians.

We used to like the Sakarrans much better than their neighbours, the Sarebas, in those days. They were fine, tall, handsome men, with straight noses and pleasant manners. The Sarebas were coarser-looking people, who disfigured themselves by wearing brass rings all along the lobes of their ears: the one at the bottom was as large as a curtain-ring in circumference, though of slender make; it lay on the chest, and by its Aveight dragged a great hole in the ear. These rings were inserted when the children were quite young, and pulled their little faces out of shape, giving an uncomfortable expression. Sarawak Malays always said, "A Sakarran Dyak may be trusted, but a Sarebas is deceitful." It is a curious fact, however, that the Sakarrans, with all their fair words and sleek prepossessing looks, did not embrace the gospel as the Sarebas did. The Rev. Walter Chambers lived at Sakarran for some time, but gathered no converts. He then settled himself among the Balows of the Batang Lupar and Linga, and when there was a community of Christians from these rivers, at Banting, where Mr. Chambers had built his church and house, a Sarebas chief, Buda by name, the son of a notorious old pirate, happened to meet some of these Christian Dyaks, and came himself to be taught. He brought his wife, sister, and child. They walked upwards of eighty miles, partly through the mud of the sea-shore, carrying [41/42] their mats and cooking-pots with them, and established themselves in the mission-house, where they were kindly welcomed, and stayed six weeks, during which time they were so diligent that they learnt to read and made some progress in writing. This was in the rainy season, when all farming operations are in abeyance. The next year they returned at the same time, but, meanwhile, they had not been idle, but had taught all they knew to their countrymen. Shortly afterwards Buda was made a catechist, and he excited so much interest, that in 1867 Mr Chambers baptized one hundred and eighty of these people, who were once the most dangerous enemies of the English and the most notorious pirates of Borneo. Then Buda proceeded to the village of Seruai, and Mr. Chambers had soon to visit there, for the people were so earnest they would scarcely let him sleep, nor seemed to require any sleep themselves, but day and night learnt the hymns and catechism, which they must know by heart to be baptized. Nearly two hundred were baptized on the Kryan River. A catechist had been placed there, called Belabut. He married Buda's sister, who walked to Banting for instruction. She had much influence over the women of the tribe, and Mr. Chambers said it was delightful to hear her read "her beloved gospel" with the correct pronunciation of an English lady.

The Christians of the Kryan did not keep the good news to themselves, but proceeded to teach the next village of Sinambo. In these villages [42/43] there are now school-chapels, built by the Dyaks themselves. In 1873, Mr. Chambers, who was then bishop, wrote: "These Sea Dyaks have made the greatest advances in civilization and Christianity. Looking back even five years, there is a great difference. They have abandoned superstitious habits." "They no longer listen to the voices of birds to tell them when to sow their seeds, undertake a journey, or build a house; they never consult a manang [Heathen doctor.] in sickness or difficulty; above all, they set no store by the blackened skulls which used to hang from their roofs, but which they have either buried or given away to any people from a distance who cared for them, assuring them at the same time that they 'were no use.'"

Thus we see what a just punishment and a fostering Government, added to the sweet influences of Christianity, have done for these people; but it took years of patience and faith to effect so great a change.

After the pirate fight of 1849, the evil disposed and turbulent, both of the Sakarrans and Sarebas, found a leader in Rentab, a Sarebas chief. He braved the Government for years. In 1852 his war-boats appeared above the Sakarran Fort, and the two young Englishmen there, Mr. Brereton and Mr. Lee, too confident in their strength, attacked the boats with a small force. In this engagement Mr. Lee was killed, and Mr. Brereton escaped with difficulty. Several expeditions were taken into the [43/44] interior against Rentab; but he was so clever, that even when Captain Brooke battered his stronghold to pieces by having guns dragged up the steep hill on which his fort was built, Rentab managed to escape, and was never taken. His followers, however, fell away from him by degrees, and there are now no pirates in those rivers.


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