Book - East of Kinabalu

Back at the office jetty …. There was a hail from the boat and I realised that our friend Ibrahim was one of the passengers standing on the deck. I breathed a sigh of relief. It was obviously not a pirate attack, in spite of appearances.

Keeping a wary eye on the dogs, Ibrahim brought the group to my office and introduced me to the leader. His name was Centi and his father, said Ibrahim, was Panglima Abdul Kalil, a native chief on the island of Tawi Tawi.

Centi was a tall, rather handsome young man. He could speak reasonably good Malay and a smattering of English. He explained that he and his friends were looking for jobs for a few months. Throughout most of the year, he said, they worked as fishermen in the southern Philippines.


However, when the northeast monsoon, from December to February, made the Sulu Sea too rough for their boats to operate, it was necessary to find work on land. His father had heard that we were starting a big development in the Labuk and had sent them over to get temporary work with us. He had asked Ibrahim to put in a word for them.

Apart from Centi, they really were a murderous-looking bunch. They were burned a dark mahogany colour by the sun. They were taller than any of the other races that worked on Pamol. Some of them wore white turbans wound around their heads. Others wore the characteristic round cane-helmet which is common in the southern Philippines. Most of them carried a long parang in a wooden scabbard at their waist.

I was understandably still a bit dubious about them. John Wyngarten came through to my office. As a Dutchman who had spent most of his life in Indonesia, he knew more about the various island races than most Europeans.

He looked at the men standing outside and snorted disbelievingly. “Fishermen? I bet none of them have ever pulled in a fishing net in their lives. They’re a bunch of Balanini pirates. I would steer clear of them if I was you.”

John spoke in English but Ibrahim obviously got the gist of it. “These men are indeed Balanini,” he said to me, “but I have known Centi and one or two of the others since they were boys, and their chief Abdul Kalil is an old friend of mine. I can guarantee there will be no trouble with them on this estate.”

Half-turning towards them, he said loudly in Malay: “I am informing the Tuan Besar that any man who creates trouble on Tungud, will not live to see Tawi Tawi again.”

“And my father has also asked me to give you his word that none of our Balanini people will cause any trouble on this estate,” added Centi.

This was good enough for me. I knew I could trust Ibrahim. After all, I reasoned, we were already employing the sons of Dyak headhunters from Sarawak, whilst our Bugis were supposed to be the most dreaded knife-fighters of the east. A group of pirates would hardly be noticed in this company. We could certainly use a few more workers. I decided to offer them jobs.

Whether it was a result of Ibrahim’s guarantee or not, no one can say. But it is a fact that although we must, as the police had warned us, have been a prime target for pirates, never once in the 45 years which have elapsed since we first arrived in the Labuk, has Tungud ever been bothered by pirates; nor have any of the company’s kumpits plying between the estate and Sandakan ever been attacked to this day.

Other estates and villages on the east coast have not been so fortunate. Many attacks have been made over the years on shipping in Labuk Bay and the Turtle Islands.

The worst incident was further south, in 1964, when Filipino pirates mounted an attack on the small coastal town of Semporna. They came in from the sea with bren-guns blazing. They captured the police post, killed the police constables and then took over the entire town, looting and pillaging, for several hours.

No trouble until …

Although the Balanini who came to us were sea-going types, they were strong and reasonably willing, and were a useful addition to our workforce. They picked up Malay very easily, since it was so close to their own Sulok language.

Centi their leader proved to be a quiet and intelligent young man. He became a member of the Labuk Club, of course, as did all the leaders of our other groups, and he would join us there for an hour or so most evenings. He became a popular figure with the other staff.

I tried to persuade him to stay on permanently as a trainee overseer. It was not to be, however. In late February, when the northeast wind had died down and the perahu were able to return to the sea, they all slipped off back to Tawi Tawi to resume their normal activities – whatever that might have been!

From then on, every year in late November or early December, Centi and his Balanini friends returned to us, along with the northeast monsoon. They would work for us for a few months and then return home.

As Ibrahim had promised us they did not create any trouble, and we never thought it advisable to probe them too closely about the occupations which they followed for the other nine months of the year. Apart from Centi, they mostly kept themselves to themselves. They were Muslims and this helped them to fit in fairly well with the rest of our community.

It was not until 1967 – when they had been coming and going for a few years – that our Balanini friends eventually blotted their copybook. After leaving us as usual at the end of the monsoon, they took off downstream in their perahu. We learned of their subsequent progress through news broadcasts on Sabah radio and from the stories in the Sabah Times.

According to the media reports, when they reached the estuary, they attacked the village of Sapi and looted the Chinese shop. They captured a kumpit, which they filled up with the contents of the shop. They also abducted several of the village maidens and cut the throats of one or two of the local men who tried to stop them. They set off for the Philippines in the heavily laden kumpit just before nightfall.

Given reasonable luck, they might have expected to be home in Tawi Tawi before dawn. Apparently, however, they got the captured kumpit stuck on a sandbank in Labuk Bay. While endeavouring to float it off, they were surprised by a police gunboat which happened to be in the area. The Sabah Times reported the incident as just another pirate encounter.

Some of the Balanini were killed outright. Others hid in the mangroves but they were eventually tracked down and shot dead one after another over the course of the next few days. The newspaper said that all the abducted girls were returned to Sapi unharmed, and that only one pirate succeeded in escaping alive.

We all hoped that this was Centi, but we never saw him again. I was relieved that the newspaper article omitted to mention the fact that the pirates had been working on Tungud Estate on and off for the past few years. I asked Ibrahim about his guarantee that there would be no trouble from the Balanini.

Ibrahim was quite philosophical about it. “Very difficult for the tiger to forget that he eats deer,” he said, quoting an old Malay proverb. “But Tuan will remember that my guarantee of good behaviour applied only to Tungud Estate, and not to the entire country.”

I never ascertained exactly how Centi’s father had become a friend of Ibrahim, but then there were many things about old Ibrahim which remained a mystery to me.

There was a sequel to this. Years later, when Catriona was at boarding school in Cheltenham, the teacher was telling the children a story one day about the pirates of the Caribbean.

“Please Miss,” said Catriona, “My Daddy says they have pirates in Sabah.”

“No, no,” said the teacher. “There are no nasty pirates nowadays, darling. They all died out many years ago.”

Catriona wrote us a nice letter telling us that we need have no more worries on that score.


Datuk Leslie Davidson
Author, East of Kinabalu
Former Chairman, Unilever Plantations International


This is the second part of an edited chapter from the book published in 2007. It can be purchased from the Incorporated Society of Planters;  email:


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