Thursday, February 01, 2007

Mat Salleh, The Man Who Antagonised The British

"That night he (Mat Salleh) and his wife fled. He did not die here. The one died here is not Mat Salleh but his deputy. My grandmother stated that my grandfather himself saw Mat Salleh making his escape.

"However, my grandmother did not reveal where Mat Salleh died," said Petrus to Bernama.

Another interesting piece of historical finding. So Mat Salleh didn't get killed and managed to escape? I hope Petrus grandmother's version of story is reliable enough to convince local historian and the public.

By Nashir Mansor (via Bernama)

KOTA KINABALU, Jan 31 (Bernama) -- Till today nobody knows the fate that befell Datu Muhamad Salleh Datu Balu a.k.a Mat Salleh after he led an uprising against the British in Tambunan near here more than 100 years ago.

According A.R Dunlop, the man who led the British North Borneo Chartered Company's (BNBCC) troops during the assault on Mat Salleh's fort in Kampung Tibabar, Tambunan, 81 km from here, he died there after a bullet hit his temple.

Dunlop who later became a historian stated in his records that the incident occurred on 31 January 1900.

Though more than a century has passed, Petrus Podtung Kuyog, 73, from Kampung Tibabar, the grandson to one of Mat Salleh's followers, begged to differ on the fate that befell the warlord.

Petrus asserted that he could clearly recall the accounts narrated by his grandmother, Giok, on Mat Salleh's fate.

"That night he (Mat Salleh) and his wife fled. He did not die here. The one died here is not Mat Salleh but his deputy. My grandmother stated that my grandfather himself saw Mat Salleh making his escape.

"However, my grandmother did not reveal where Mat Salleh died," said Petrus to Bernama.

Petrus stated that his grandfather Panjuran Bungkahou was one of Mat Salleh's faithful followers involved in the skirmish with the Sikh and Dayak soldiers of BNBCC. In the incident Panjuran was shot on the right toe.


Mat Salleh and his followers were hunted down by the BNBCC troops following the murder of two Dayak businessmen in Mat Salleh's settlement in Sungai Sugut.

Mat Salleh who was to succeed his father as the head of Sungai Sugut settlement, however denied that he was behind the murders. It was believed that his followers were involved.

Being the head of the settlement his father collected taxes from traders who came there to trade and at the same time protected the local traders from being exploited. But Mat Salleh and his followers were unhappy that the poll tax and the boat tax on local traders plying Sungai Sigut imposed by BNBCC diminished the rights of the locals.

When attempts by Mat Salleh and his followers to meet Governor Charles Vandelleur Creagh in Sandakan over the murder and the tax were rejected by the company, Mat Salleh was left dejected and knew that the company was up to something.

Mat Salleh was proven right when on 29 August 1895 the company sent troops to Pulau Jambongan to arrest him on allegations that he created a ruckus in Sandakan.

Mat Salleh's village was attacked, robbed and the houses razed with many of his personal belongings confiscated. Nevertheless, Mat Salleh managed to escape and BNBCC offered a $500 reward for anyone who captured Mat Salleh, dead or alive.


Following the incident, Mat Salleh declared a war on the company and launched a series of attacks on the company's interests in Ulu Sugut between August 1895 and September 1896. Mat Salleh and his followers attacked and destroyed a settlement in Pulau Gaya on 9 July 1897.

However, the odds did not favour him in Ranau where he was defeated on 5 January 1898. After a peace negotiation in Palatan, Ulu Menggatal, with William Clark Cowie, BNBCC's Managing Director in London, Mat Salleh agreed to retreat to Tambunan and he set up his base there.

During the negotiation Mat Salleh is said to have told Cowie: `At any rate, you will have to admit that your company cannot prevent us from dying for what we think as our rights.

However, peace was short-lived when BNBCC decided to set up its administration centre in Tambunan, a move that violated the agreement reached between Mat Salleh and Cowie.

According to available historical facts and the verbal accounts handed down by Petrus' grandmother, Mat Salleh declared that he was the sole ruler of Tambunan and with the backing of the majority of the Dusun Tagas people he revolted against the British authority.

Tregonning K.G in his book `Under The Chartered Company Rule' (1958), stated that Mat Salleh had more than 1,000 followers from the Dusun community and 300 from the Bajau when he set up forts in several locations in Tambunan. Among Mat Salleh's followers were Mat Sator, Mat Daud, Kamunta, Santara and Langkap but their details remain sketchy.


According to Petrus, when Mat Salleh and his followers first reached Kg Tibabar, he was well received by the villagers who were unhappy with the tax imposed by the British company.

It was compulsory for the villagers to pay a poll tax of $1.50 that according to Petrus is equivalent to RM1,500 today. The villagers were against the tax as it involved a hefty sum.

Mat Salleh and his followers made their way into the hearts of the villagers by showing high respect to the villagers.

He is said to have met the village head beforehand, but it could not be ascertained what transpired in their meeting, before setting up fort in the village.

"When Mat Salleh arrived here, he met with the village head and asked for permission to set up a fort. The kampung folks must have agreed. How can an outsider set up a fort here if the villagers did not agree to it in the first place," asked Petrus, describing Mat Salleh and his followers' arrival as related by his grandmother.

Though the Tambunan dwellers at that time were not adherents of any faith and knew that Mat Salleh is a Muslim from the Suluk and Bajau ethnicity, they received him with an open heart.

The support from the Kadazandusun, especially from the Dusun Tagas sub- ethnic group in Tambunan, is nothing new for Mat Salleh because he also enjoyed their support previously when he set up forts in Sungai Sugut and Ranau.


According to Petrus, he too believes like what his grandfather said that Mat Salleh did not die at his stronghold. Had not Mat Salleh escaped from the village, the villagers would have fought along with him until the end.

"The villagers knew that he was fighting for their rights. He himself was not in favour of the poll tax imposed by the British. He also wanted to defend the rights of the indigenous people," said Petrus. Mat Salleh's struggle and valour, and the fact that the different ethnic groups united under him, is something that Petrus will never forget in this life.

Historians like D.S Ranjit Singh described Mat Salleh as an exemplary figure for the coming generations due to his courage and the principles he espoused.

Though there is no official record on what happened to Mat Salleh after the Kampung Tibabar confrontation, the only reminder of his legacy today is the memorial in this village built to honour him.

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