[Note: I wrote this article for last Sunday's Golden Legacy column on Brunei Times. It is a set of two articles about our former northern territories.]
The history of Brunei’s nearest island, Labuan, just off Brunei Bay had its start in the early days of the Brooke interference in Brunei’s affairs. Labuan, until its forcible take over by the British in 1846 had been under the rule of the Sultan of Brunei ever since the Brunei Sultanate began.
Similarly, from the 14th century, the territory around Sarawak River (today’s Kuching) was a province of Brunei. Its administration was headed by Datu Pattingi Sarawak who reported to a Cheteria, both appointed by the Sultan of Brunei. In 1824, the Cheteria was Pengiran Indera Mahkota Pengiran Mohamed Salleh.
Pengiran Indera Mahkota was educated in Batavia (Jakarta) and furthered his studies in Netherlands. In 1827, he was appointed as Governor of Sarawak. Sarawak flourished under him. He also developed its trade and increased its revenue by exporting antimony. Antimony was used in the making of alloys. To get the antimony, local residents were forced to work in his mines.
In 1839, the residents there rebelled against him because of his oppressive rule. Brunei sent Pengiran Muda Hashim, the son of Sultan Muhammad Kanzul Alam to deal with the rebellion. James Brooke attracted by the richness of the area also came there. Pengiran Muda Hashim asked for Brooke’s assistance because Pengiran Muda Hashim had a long standing resentment against Pengiran Indera Mahkota. Five years earlier, Pengiran Muda Hashim visited Kuching but when he arrived, he was not personally welcomed by Pengiran Indera Mahkota. Pengiran Indera Mahkota as the Governor of Sarawak opted to wait at the Hall of Audience instead.
At first James Brooke refused to help Pengiran Muda Hashim, but Brooke came back the next year and helped Pengiran Muda Hashim because he was offered the Governorship of Sarawak in replacement of Pengiran Indera Mahkota if he could end the rebellion. Brooke managed to end the rebellion but he was not offered the Governorship until he forced the issue in 1841. In 1842, Brooke sailed to Brunei to be confirmed Governor in exchange for paying an annual tribute.
In 1845 Pengiran Muda Hashim returned from Sarawak to Brunei, accompanied by a British naval captain, Sir Edward Blecher. While in Sarawak, Pengiran Muda Hashim had lost his high status at home due to a palace coup in Brunei. His opponent Pengiran Usop has become Bendahara in his absence. Brooke and the British Naval Forces forcibly re-installed Pengiran Muda Hashim as the Bendahara. Pengiran Muda Hashim also secured official recognition to become the next Sultan of Brunei. This upset the chances of Pengiran Temenggong Pengiran Anak Hashim, the son of Sultan Omar Ali Saifudin II, who plotted to kill Pengiran Muda Hashim.
As might be expected, the foreign intervention in Brunei caused a great deal of unhappiness in the Brunei Court, Pengiran Muda Hashim was hated as he was regarded to be Brooke’s protégé and his family’s arrogant manner alienated the other Brunei nobles. In 1846, Pengiran Muda Hashim was murdered. Ranjit Singh in his book, ‘Brunei 1839-1983’ argued that the murder was not necessarily because it was an anti British movement. Another view was that this was the culmination of a long drawn out feud between two branches of the royal family.
However Brooke considered the murder to be an insult to Britain. He asked Rear Admiral Thomas Cochrane that Brunei be punished.
The British hearing of these events, and pressured by British commercial interests, decided that this is a good opportunity for them to occupy Labuan. The other western powers had expanded in the region that Britain too realized the need to have a permanent harbour in northwestern Borneo. Labuan was considered as a safe shelter and strategically sited to protect British interest in the region especially the China trade route. With the assistance of Brooke, Britain now sought to take over Labuan.
The Rear Admiral sent British Warships from Singapore. In Brunei, there were minor exchanges of fire but the British Gunships were able to destroy much of Brunei’s defences.
The Sultan had to flee to Damuan. But Sultan Omar Ali Saifuddin II was eventually persuaded to return to accept the terms imposed by Brooke. The Sultan was also forced to sign a treaty on 2nd August 1846 allowing Brooke to become Sarawak’s independent ruler and given territories from Tanjung Datu to Samarahan River. James Brooke now became the Rajah of Sarawak.
In a book written by Frank Maryatt, ‘Borneo and the Indian Archipelago’ published in 1848, the description of the pressure that faced the Sultan was very intense. He, a midshipman with HMS Samarang was part of the party that came to seek an audience with the Sultan.
He was “… ordered to lie on her oars abreast of the audience chamber, and to keep her 6-pounder, in where there was a fearful dose of grape and canister, pointed at the Sultan himself during the whole of the interview …”
At the same time, in the main street (of the river), “… lay the steamer, with a spring on her cable, her half ports up, and guns loaded to the muzzle, awaiting, as by instruction, for the discharge of the gun from the barge, to follow up the work of death. The platform admitted one of the steamer’s guns to look into the audience chamber, the muzzle was pointed direct at the sultan, a man held the lighted tow in his hand. Every European on board had his musket ready loaded …”
The British was surprised that despite such intense pressure, the Bruneians did not show any sign of fear. Frank Maryatt described the atmosphere ‘… considering the natives were well aware that our guns were directed against them, the self-possession and coolness shared by every one of them were worthy of admiration. They never showed the slightest emotion, their speeches were free from gesticulation, and even their threats were conveyed in a quiet subdued tone; and every thing was carried on with all the calmness and deliberations that might be expected at a cabinet council at St. James …”
Soon after the signing of the 1846 treaty, the British put pressure on Sultan Omar Ali Saifuddin II to cede Labuan to the British. The Sultan refused and employed delaying tactics. However the British navy lined up British warships near the Sultan’s palace with cannons ready to fire if the Sultan refused to sign the treaty. The Sultan had no choice.
He signed the Treaty of Labuan on 18th December 1846. Six days later, the British occupied the island. It was on 24 December 1846 when Captain Mundy, commanding H.M.S. Iris, took possession of Labuan, ‘in the Name of Her Majesty Victoria Queen of Great Britain and Ireland under the Direction of His Excellency Rear Admiral Sir Thomas Cochrane, C.B., Commander-in-Chief’.
The loss of Labuan was a big blog blow to Brunei. Labuan was considered as its only gateway in the sea to the outside worlds.
Subsequently Labuan became a Crown Colony in 1848 and part of North Borneo in 1890. It joined the Straits Settlements in 1906. During World War II, Labuan was occupied by the Japanese and renamed as Maida Island. Labuan joined British North Borneo in July 1946 and became part of Malaysia as the state of Sabah in 1963. In 1984 Labuan was ceded by Sabah to the federal government and made a federal territory.