Wednesday, 14 January 2009

Immigrants In Colonial Malaya and Borneo: a pictorial account (3)

Lords of the Eastern Seas

The Somali pirates remind me of the pirates that infested the seas of South East Asia in the 19th century. I digress here, but they deserve mention.

This was what they were after: bird's nest. The Qing Dynasty's demand for it was insatiable; and the Lords of the Eastern Seas, the Illanuns, or the slave raiders profited from a highly lucrative trade of capturing and selling slaves to cave owners to work in birds' nest caves, and to entrepreneurs to collect jungle produce in what is now known as Sabah and Sarawak. Tens of thousands were captured at the height of the increase in trade between Qing China and the European colonialists in South East Asia. The Europeans provided birds' nests to China in exchange for the much sought after Chinese tea and other commodities in the early and latter part of the 19th century.

The Illanuns, who originated from Mindanao (the Philippines) and the islands in its vicinity and owed their allegiance to the sultan of Sulu, and the lesser known Balangingi pirate terrorized the coastal villages and the interior of Borneo in search of slaves to be sold in slave markets. In fact, slave trading began as early as 1768 to supply labour to the nobility to work as bondsmen in their fiefdoms. Whether out of complicity or lack of resources, the colonial powers were unable to stem the rampant slave trade. The English called them "Sulu pirates' while the Dutch branded them a "vile race".

The Qing Emperor. Beside him a bowl of bird's nest soup

The Empress Dowager Cixi and her entourage

Harvesting birds' nests from caves

The distribution system in the procurement and sale of birds' nests

Another valuable commodity was China's porcelain and stoneware. An Iban with his pecious 'pesaka' or heirloom. Apart from its functional value, it was believed to be infused with spirits that protected the owner

An Illanun pirate

Sea robbers as Owen Rutter called them

An Illanun warship. Upward to 100 feet long, it was paddled by more than 190 men. Illanuns were accomplished ship builders and seamen

A slave boat

They raided as far as the Sea of Bengal to the west and as far south as the coast of Papua New Guinea

A slave's account of his capture and bondage (From Sulu Zone, 1768-1878 by James Francis Warren)

How much was a slave worth? ((From Sulu Zone, 1768-1878 by James Francis Warren)


Proud display of skulls. Captured slaves were not only put to work in bird's nest caves, jungles, fisheries and rice farms. The weak, elderly or infirm were sold off for human sacrifices, a ritual among the war-like Ibans of Borneo. Battles with rival tribes used to provide the heads for ritual sacrifices, but the abundant supply of slaves from the Illanuns enabled even the less affluent to perform this ritual.

Iban women carrying skulls in a ceremony


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