Book - East of Kinabalu

The Superintendent of Police in Sandakan had warned me, shortly after I arrived, that Tungud would be an obvious target for Filipino pirates.

Situated as we were on a navigable river running into the Sulu Sea, without a single policeman between us and the Philippines, there was absolutely nothing, he said, to stop a pirate perahu slipping up the Klagan River under cover of darkness, attacking the estate and getting back to the Philippines before anyone in Sandakan knew anything about it.


The police concern was understandable. Throughout the 1960s, Sulok pirates were a constant scourge along the east coast of Borneo. Cases of piracy were on the increase in the Sulu Sea and in the rivers and bays around us. The North Borneo Annual Report for 1962 stated:

‘Piracy around the northeast coast increased, with 97 cases reported against 42 cases in 1961. There were 8 killings and 45 were wounded or missing. The Police and the Navy obtained convictions against 4 pirate crews consisting of 32 men. In all cases heavy penalties were imposed.’

After the family joined me, the possibility of a pirate attack was very much to the forefront of my mind. The most likely targets for a raid would be the money in the office safe and, of course, the goods in the estate shops. I arranged that in the event of an attack, Olive and the children would be taken to a hut on a hill far back from the river bank, where they were not likely to be bothered.

Our first encounter with the pirates was one afternoon just before the start of the northeast monsoon. Catriona and Fiona, with the two bullmastiffs, had as usual come to the office to meet me. The two dogs had by now grown to their full size. The male, Jonah, was huge. He was a red colour and the bitch, Alex, was fawn.

The girls were playing on the veranda of my office overlooking the river, when the dogs started to bark furiously.

“Daddy, there’s a boat coming up the river with a lot of people on it,” Catriona told me. I looked out. A large, black, sinister-looking Filipino kumpit with 15 or 20 villainous-looking characters on the deck, was gliding in to the office jetty. There was no question but that they were Suloks.

I dived for my Colt automatic which I kept locked in the drawer of my desk. I slipped a full magazine into it and stuck it in my belt, hidden under my shirt. I shouted to my secretary to take the girls back to the house, and to collect Olive and take them all up to the hut.

The two dogs galloped down to the jetty barking furiously. One Sulok who had jumped ashore to tie up, took one look at them, shouted, “Rimau!” (Tiger) and leapt off, missing the kumpit in his haste and landing with a splash in the river.

‘Fishers of men’

The islands of the Sulu Sea and the east coast of Borneo had been centres of pirate activity for many years. Up until the early years of the 16th century, the inhabitants of the area were mainly hard-working fishermen, scraping out a living from the surrounding seas.

However, the insatiable European demand for spices and other tropical produce, encouraged western traders and adventurers to venture into the area in increasing numbers.

The Muslim state of Sulu, which encompassed the area between Mindanao and the east coast of North Borneo, became a rich and powerful trading centre. The Sultan was able to play off one European nation against another. Merchants from the west were happy to provide him with guns, gunpowder, cannon and opium, in return for spices and other high-value produce.

At the same time, there was a great demand for slaves to work in the rapidly expanding Spanish-owned sugar estates in Luzon and northern Mindanao. Conditions were ripe for piracy. The Suloks, who were already proficient sailors, were now armed to the teeth. They became, as one author put it, “fishers of men”. The slave trade brought them great wealth.

There were several tribes in the area controlled by the Sultan of Sulu. The two most war-like of the Sulok peoples were the Illanun and the Balanini, and they became the most ferocious of the pirates who preyed on shipping in the eastern seas.

As the two tribes became richer and more powerful they expanded the range of their activities. Huge fleets of fighting perahu were sent out on voyages around the Indonesian archipelago, searching for booty and slaves.

A round-voyage could last anything up to three years. It could take them around New Guinea, past Bali and Java, as far as the Bay of Bengal, and back through the Straits of Malacca and Singapore. They established heavily defended forts throughout the area. One of their main forts was to the north of the Labuk, in Marudu Bay. This was the area where the Dolphin had been captured and Robert Burns beheaded, in 1851.

As a general rule, the Illanun activities tended to extend through Brunei, Sarawak and the Malay peninsula, while the Balanini raids were mainly along the south coast of Borneo and on down through the Indonesian islands. This is reflected to this day in the respective languages. The word ‘Illanun’ is a synonym for ‘pirate’ in the north of Borneo, while in Kalimantan the word the locals tend to use is ‘Balanini’.

There could be as many as a hundred heavily-armed perahu in a pirate fleet. Each perahu had a cannon mounted in front. Its crew consisted of anything up to 80 warriors. They were fearless fighting men. They carried long swords and they dressed in bright scarlet jackets.

The fighting perahu were fast and mobile. Their sails were augmented by a bank of up to a hundred oars manned by slaves. This meant that they could sail against the wind. They could easily out-manoeuvre European sailing ships.

The pirates had no qualms about attacking any merchant ship they came across in their travels. Their main prey was of course the Spanish to the north. Dozens of Spanish ships were captured, and on average, 500 Spaniards were taken into slavery every year.



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