The Bau Rebellion: What sparked it all?

By Danielle Sendou Ringgit
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Located approximately 30 km and a little more than an hour’s drive from Kuching, the peaceful town of Bau mostly inhabited by the Bidayuh community was once famous for being a gold mining town and now it is known to be a popular weekend destination.

In the early 1800s, the old name of the Bau District was ‘Ulu Sarawak’ or Upper Sarawak while the Kuching that we know now was referred to as ‘Hilir Sarawak’. The old Bau Town was known as ‘Mau San’ or ‘Bukit Mau’ and the settlement was established due to the discovery of gold and antimony.

Desmond Leong giving a talk at the State Library on the Bau Rebellion.

Desmond Leong giving a talk at the State Library on the Bau Rebellion.

According to popular belief, Bau town got its name back in 1857 during the Bau rebellion when the wives and children of the Hakka miners who hid in the Ghost Cave were burnt alive or had died from smoke inhalation from brush fires set at the cave mouth under the  White Rajah, James Brooke’s orders. The legend goes that the whole area reeked of the smell of corpses, leading to the town to be called ‘Bau’ which means smelly in Malay.

Contrary to this, Sidi Munan, an avid history lover and frequent attendee of the talks organised by Friends of Sarawak Museum (FoSM), said that the town actually got its name from the Bidayuh word ‘bauh’ which means new, referring to the new settlement opened up by the Chinese settlers who came from Sambas, Kalimantan.

According to Harriette McDougall in her book, ‘Sketches of Our Life at Sarawak’, the first batch of Hakkas came by land in the 1820s to escape the battle between the Dutch and a kongsi clan in Kalimantan while the second batch came to Lundu area by sea in the 1850s before joining their relatives in Bau.

While the Hakkas were an ally of the Dutch who fought alongside them against the Lanfang kongsi – the largest Kongsi clan in West Kalimantan at the time – the Hakkas had lost many of their own people. As a result, they fled Kalimantan and established themselves in Bau as the Samthiaokloe Kongsi. It is popularly believed that Liew Shang Phang was the one who brought his fellow miners and farmers from Kalimantan.

For those Sarawakians familiar with the story of the Bau Rebellion in 1857, they may have heard that it was sparked when James Brooke started to impose taxes on gold, antimony and opium, consequently enraging the miners.

To local history enthusiast Desmond Leong, however, the rebellion is a mystery wrapped in a riddle. “To the Chinese, it is a great whodunit mystery.” Since his retirement from journalism, he has researched the history of the rebellion, poring over Chinese and English texts and sources to answer unanswered questions on what really happened.

As the author of ‘The White Rajahs…Myths Retold/The Massacre of the Bau Hakkas’, a brief glance through the book will give you an idea of his views on the Bau rebellion and James Brooke’s role in it: “Not Sarawak’s first or last massacre, the Brooke campaign against the Bau Hakkas was the largest in the number of lives obliterated.”

  • Sparked by an adulterous affair, not opium taxes

While it is believed that the Bau Rebellion was ignited when the Chinese miners became upset with the White Rajah’s taxes on opium, Leong asserts that a woman’s adulterous affair was what really set Bau aflame.

According to Leong, the incident was told in details by Daniel Owen, a Hakka-speaking ‘principal teacher’ of the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel (SPG) Mission, a 300- year-old Anglican missionary organisation, who wrote of his personal experiences at the time in ‘An Account of the Borneo Rebellion’.

“Superficially, the Bau Rebellion was over some domestic problem,” said Leong, explaining that the woman named or nicknamed ‘Assie Moi’ (little sister in Hakka) was the spark that lit the rebellion.

Prior to the rebellion, Assie Moi had fled her husband to Crookshank, a magistrate then, for protection. While Crookshank had initially encouraged her to return to her husband, she threatened to commit suicide and so the magistrate had no choice but to take her into custody rather than handing her over to her husband.

The men from her kongsi had descended upon Kuching to take her back, but she fled in a sampan. Her escape was spotted by the men from the kongsi and 50 men were sent to catch her.

The boatmen were beaten and her boat was destroyed. The boat operator then reported the incident to the police and three men from the kongsi were arrested and whipped. Middleton was serving as a police officer at the time.

This ‘loss of face event to the kongsi’ lead to a chain of events that escalated into a full scale rebellion where 500 angry men came down to Kuching and burnt down the residences of the Rajah, Middleton and Crookshank while shouting ‘Assie Moi’.

“During that time if you lived in Kuching, you were under the rule of James Brooke,” said Leong.

The Rajah then came back days later with a bigger army and bigger guns aboard the Borneo Company steamer, the Sir James Brooke together with his nephew, Charles Brooke. Most of the Chinese miners were killed in Jugan, Siniawan where they had set up their defences while some managed to escape to Kalimantan.

Although the name ‘Bau’ might not have originated from the smell of rotting bodies, Leong does detail that the hundreds of wives and children of the miners hiding out in the Ghost Cave did die from asphyxiation after the Rajah ordered to have dry brush set on fire and placed at the cave mouth to either flush them out for certain death or remain within and suffocate.

  • Liew Shang Phang, Bau’s own Keyser Soze

It was said that the rebellion against James Brooke was headed by Liew Shang Phang who was alleged to have been killed during the battle in Jugan, Siniawan but Leong claimed that he could find no records on the man himself, citing McDougall and Owens who claimed that the name of the leader was actually Kaming, not Liew Shang Phang.

  • The White Rajah, an officer not a king

It is widely known that Kuching was given to James Brooke by Sultan Brunei when he helped to eradicate rebellions the Sultan faced in those days.

Leong refutes this point, saying that during the Commission of Inquiry in Singapore in 1854 where Brooke was being investigated for charges of inhumanity and illegality in separate events, Sarawak was not an independent state but a vassal state of Brunei, where the White Rajah had to pay annual rental fees for mining the gold and antimony. Aside from that, the title ‘Rajah’ was actually a title for an officer under the Brunei sultanate.


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