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 XVI. Illanun Pirates

I HAVE described in a former chapter the habits of the Dyak pirates of Sakarran and Sarebas, and how, after being punished by Sir James Brooke when they were caught at the entrance of their river, with captives and plunder in their boats, they were required to live at one with their neighbours, and to study the arts of peace. Happily for them, they had a wise and paternal Government to repress their vices, and, after a time, Christian missionaries to teach them the fear and love of God. But the Malay pirates who lived on the islands and coasts of North Borneo were governed by sultans who encouraged piracy, and insisted on sharing their spoils; moreover, they are Mahometans by religion, and that is not a faith which teaches mercy or respects life. To this day, therefore, these Illanuns remain pirates. They have larger prahus and carry heavier guns than the Dyaks, and nothing can exceed their [204/205] cruelty. When we lived at Kuching there was scarcely a Malay family there who had not suffered from them, either by the loss of relations or property; for they are naturally a trading people.

It is a common practice for a party of men to join together in hiring a boat in which to venture goods or gold-dust by trading on the coast, or even to Singapore three hundred and sixty miles away, These small and comparatively unarmed boats fell an easy prey to the pirate prahus, who went out in fleets.

The Spaniards and the Dutch were everv now and then roused to search the seas for these pests of the human race, but they were so cunning they generally evaded them. At last they had a signal lesson. In the year 1862 Captain Brooke, then governing Sarawak in his uncle's absence, decided to go to Bintulu on the north-west coast of Borneo, a territory which had lately been ceded to the Rajah by the Sultan, and build a fort on the river, to check piracy and protect the peaceable inhabitants who were settling there on the promise of such protection. For this purpose he took the Rainbow, a small screw steamer of eighty-nine tons and thirty-five horse power; and the Jolly Bachelor, a Government gun-boat. The Bishop accompanied him, to see what missionary prospects there were in that distant spot, also because he was at that time anxious about Captain Brooke's health. Mr. Helms, the manager of the Borneo mercantile company, accompanied them as far as Muka, where [205/206] was an establishment to collect sago for exportation. On the second day after his arrival, a piratical fleet of Ilanuns, consisting of six large, and as many smaller vessels, appeared on the coast, and blockaded the town. For two days they remained off Muka, capturing there, and on the coast southwards, thirty-two persons.

Mr. Helms persuaded Hadji Mataim and a few natives to start in a fast boat and apprize Captain Brooke; and this boat, though chased by the pirates, got safe to Bintulu. Hadji Mataim got alongside the steamer early on Thursday morning, while it was still dark, and the Bishop, recognizing his voice, called him on board. He delivered a letter from Mr. Helms, asking for help. Steam was got up directly, the Chinese carpenters who were to build the fort were landed, and the guns which had been brought to protect it were put on board, as well as the fort men who were to man the fort, that they might strengthen the crew. With the first dawn of light the Rainbow steamed over the bar taking the Jolly Bachelor in tow, and steered for Muka.

Meanwhile all preparation was made for fighting. Planks were hung over the railing to raise the sides of the poop where there were no bulwarks, and mattresses were laid inside to receive the shot and spears of the enemy; this doubtless saved the lives of several of the crew. There were eight Europeans on board, including the captain of the Rainbow and his mate, the engineer, Captain Brooke, Mr. Stuart Johnson, Mr. Hay, Mr. Walters, [206/207] and the Bishop. As soon as there were any wounded, Mr. Walters assisted the Bishop in his work of mercy. The Bishop always carried a medicine chest and case of surgical instruments wherever he went; and, happily, a large sheet had been packed among his things this voyage, which was speedily torn up into bandages. Now all was ready, but it was not until Friday morning that they sighted what looked like three large palm drifts to seaward off Tanjong Kidorong, to the north-east of the British River. They proved to be three large prahus, with their masts struck, and bristling with men, who were rowing like the Maltese, standing, and pushing for shore, casting off their sampans [Small boats.] one by one to make better way. Hadji Mataim recognized the sampan which chased and fired at him when he slipped away from Muka. Brooke then asked one of the chief officers of the Sarawak Government, who was on board, and Pangeran Matussim of Muka, if they were perfectly sure that these prahus were I Ilanuns? "Not a shadow of doubt," they said. So they loaded their guns and prepared for action. The leading prahu was going almost as fast as the steamer herself, and though steam was put on, and every effort made to get between her and the Point, the prahu won the race, and got into shallow water where the steamer could not follow; then she opened fire on the steamer, which was returned with interest. This prahu had three long brass [207/208] swivel guns, and plenty of rifles and muskets. As she was beyond the reach of the steamer, Captain Brooke turned to the second prahu, which was now fast nearing the shore. His plan was to silence the brass guns by the fire of the rifles on board the steamer, and shake the rowers at their oars by a discharge of grape and round shot; then to put on all steam and run at them with the stem of the Rainboiv. This was done with great coolness by Captain Hewat when Captain Brooke gave the order; the steamer struck the prahu amid-ships and went over her. Those on board called to the slaves, and all who would surrender, to hold on by the wreck until the boats could take them off; then they steamed away after the third prahu, which had already got into two-fathom water and was struck too far forward to sink. All the pirates in her jumped overboard and swam for shore, leaving their own wounded, the slaves, and captives, who were also bid to remain by their vessel till they were rescued.

Meanwhile the first prahu, seeing the fate of the others, ran ashore among the rocks inside Tanjong Kidorong; and all the crew, pirates, and slaves ran into the jungle. Had the captives known better they would not have run away. The Jolly Bachelor was left to look after these runaways, and then the captives of the other two prahus were helped on board the steamer. Several of the crew of the Rainbow recognized friends and acquaintances among the saved; and the joyous, thankful look [208/209] of the captives, as they came on board and found themselves among friends, was indeed a compensation for the awful destruction of the pirates. Many were wounded, either with shot or the fearful cuts of the Illanun swords of the pirates, who tried to murder their captives when they saw all was lost. The Bishop was dressing one man who was shot through the wrist, when he spoke to him in English, and after pouring out his gratitude for his wonderful escape, said he was a Singapore policeman, and was going to see his friends in Java when he was captured. There were also two Singapore women, and a child, and two British-born Bencoolen Malays, who were taken in their own trading boat going to Tringanau. The husband of the younger woman had been killed by the pirates, and she, like all women who fall into their hands, had suffered every outrage and insult which could be offered her. They were almost living skeletons. One was shot through the thigh, and after the Bishop had dressed her wound, Mr. Walters said quaintly, "Poor thing, she has not meat enough on her bones to bait a rat-trap." It is a wonder how the poor creatures lived at all, under the treatment to which they were subjected. When the Bishop asked some of the men whether their wounds hurt much, they answered, "Nothing hurts so much as the salt water the Illanuns gave us to drink. We never had fresh water; they mixed three parts of fresh with four of salt water: and all we had to eat was a handful of rice or raw sago twice a day." Very [209/210] few of the pirates who were not wounded surrendered. They are marvellous swimmers: took their arms with them into the water, and fought the men in the boats who were trying to pick up the captives. The Bishop and Mr. Walters were fully occupied doctoring friends and foes, arresting hemorrhage, extracting balls, and closing frightful sword or chopper wounds. One man came on board with the top of his skull as cleanly lifted up by a Sooloo knife, as if a surgeon had desired to take a peep at the brain inside! It took considerable force to close it in the right place. This man had also two cuts in his back, yet the next morning he was discovered eating a large plate of rice, and he ultimately recovered. Another poor fellow could not be got up the ladder because he had a long-handled three-barbed spear sticking in his back: the Bishop had to go down and cut it out before he could be moved.

While all this was going on, the captives told Captain Brooke that there were three more pirate vessels out at sea, waiting for those near shore to rejoin them; as soon, therefore, as the steamer had picked up as many captives as she could find, she steamed out to sea in search of them. After an hour, the look-out from the mast-head reported three vessels in sight. It was then a dead calm, and they were using their long sweeps, when they were seen from the deck, to arrange themselves side by side, with their bows towards the steamer; but, a breeze springing up, they hoisted sail, spread [210/211] themselves out broadside on, and opened fire on the Rainbow as soon as she was within range, so that there was no question as to whether these were pirate prahus or not. The same plan was followed as in the case of the other boats, and with more success, as there was no shore to escape to.

The pirates had secured their captives below the decks of the prahus, but when the steamer struck them and opened their sides, they were liberated. But few of them were drowned, being all good swimmers; but some were killed by the pirates in their rage and despair, and some had been lashed to the vessel and could not therefore escape.

One poor Chinaman came swimming along, holding up his long tail of hair lest he should be suspected to be a pirate; other men held up the ropes round their necks, to show they were captives. The deck of the steamer was soon covered with those who had been picked out of the water, men of every nation and race in the Archipelago, who had been captured during this cruise, which had lasted seven months. These vessels left Tawi-Tawi, an island to the south-west of Sooloo, in October. The Sultan of Sooloo is in league with the pirates, and receives part of the plunder and slaves. In the only boat boarded by Captain Brooke was found the Sultan's flag, which is only given to people of high rank; also the usual Illanun flag, six Dutch, and one Spanish flag, which no doubt belonged to vessels they had captured. The men who were saved gave details of the taking of two [211/212] large vessels--one a Singapore prahu trading to Tringanau; the other a Dutch tope, of one hundred and fifty tons, on the coast of Borneo to the south of Pontianak. There they fell in with five other Illanun boats, which had come down from the northward--they themselves were going up from the southward. The new-comers told them of a merchant vessel near at hand, and proposed they should join them in capturing her, which they did. She had a valuable cargo, worth ten thousand dollars. They killed everybody on board, plundered and burnt the vessel. Only the one Chinaman escaped who told this tale. The captives stated that this was the usual proceeding if resistance was made. When they spare their captives' lives, they beat them with a flat piece of bamboo over the elbows and knees, and the muscles of arms and legs, until they are unable to move; then a halter is put round their necks, and, when they are sufficiently tamed, they are put to the oars and made to row in gangs, with one of their own fellow-captives as overseer to keep them at work. If he docs not do it effectually, he is krissed and thrown overboard. If these miserable creatures jump into the sea they spear them in the water. They row in relays, night and day; and to keep them awake, cayenne pepper is rubbed into their eyes or into cuts dealt them on their arms.

The masts of these prahus are very small, so that they may not be seen at a distance. They go very fast. Those encountered by the Rainbow [212/213] were seen off Datu on Monday night, and on Friday morning they were near Bintulu, a distance of two hundred and forty miles, although they had delayed nearly two days at Muka, picking up thirty people on the coast. Most of these were recaptured and returned to Muka. On reckoning up, it was found that one hundred and sixty-five people had been rescued, and perhaps one hundred and fifty or two hundred had got away from the vessels sunk on shore. In every pirate prahu were from forty to fifty Illanuns, and from sixty to seventy captives, many of whom were killed by the pirates when they found themselves beaten, among them two women. Nine women and six children were saved; seven of the women belonged to Muka or Oya. Of the Illanuns, thirty-two were taken alive; ten of these were boys. Some died afterwards of their wounds; some were taken to Kuching in irons, there tried, and some of them executed. They died the death of murderers; but Captain Brooke gave the boys to respectable people to bring up, hoping they might be reformed. We had one young fellow, about fourteen years old, when he had been cured of his wounds in the hospital. I kept him about me, and used to teach him; but he could not be tamed. He turned Mahometan, and left us to be employed at the fort; but there he stole money, and had to be sent elsewhere. The nature of an Illanun pirate seems almost unmixed evil, because they are taught to be cruel from their childhood.

[214] There were two circumstances in this affray with the Illanuns which called for thankfulness on the part of the victors. First, that they met the pirates in two detachments, which enabled them to attack them successfully, without the danger of their boarding the steamer, which, from their numbers, would have been fatal to the little party on board the Rainbow. Secondly, that their ammunition lasted through the two engagements. It was quite finished; only a little loose powder in a barrel, and a few broken cartridges, remained when the last prahus were taken. Had they fallen in with another fleet, they would have been at their mercy. Almost while I write these last words, we have received a letter from the present Rajah of Sarawak--Charles Johnson Brooke. He says, "I have heard this morning that one of our schooners has been captured by the Sooloo pirates, and the crew murdered." The last twenty years have not therefore altered the character of these people, and their extermination seems the only remedy for the misery they inflict on their fellow-creatures.

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