The Pirate Wind; Lahud Datu to Sandakan, October 30 – November 07

Piracy is only a sea term for robbery, piracy being a robbery committed within the jurisdiction of the Admiralty. If any man be assaulted within the jurisdiction and his ship or goods violently taken away without legal authority, this is robbery and piracy.” Later, “…to the most remote parts of the world; so that if any person whatsoever, native or foreigner, Christian or Infidel, Turk or Pagan, with whose country we have no war …. shall be robbed or spoiled in the Narrow Seas, the Mediterranean, Atlantic, Southern or any other seas …. either on this or the other side of the line, it is piracy within the limits of your enquiry and the cognisance of this court.” (Sir Charles Hedges, Judge of the High Court of (British) Admiralty, October 13. 1696).

In the 18th – 19th centuries in the waters around Borneo and especially in the waters of the Celebes, Sulu and South China Seas, a tradition of piracy developed that was so widespread it became quite the local, major industry. By all accounts it was also practised in such a violent and homicidal manner as to make your Spanish Main buccaneers (Pirates of the Caribbean) appear to be quite well behaved. Most everybody was involved in some way it seems as one was either or a pirate or not a pirate and if you weren’t a pirate then you were likely to be robbed, killed or enslaved by pirates, or get paid by pirates. It also became a major source of income for the various Sultanates, especially the Sulu and Bruneii Kingdoms where even their own people could be captured by pirates, have ransoms paid to obtain release then shortly after be taken again by other pirates; with commissions paid to ‘Government’ Officials. If a captive couldn’t obtain a release ransom they would almost certainly be sold into slavery. Bruneii nobles would buy slaves from one set of pirates while Bruneii people would be captured and enslaved by other pirate groups. If there was no room for slaves, captives might be hacked to death, decapitated, buried alive, burnt or killed by whatever methods of despatch the pirates dreamed up at the time. Killing with their swords or ‘Kris’ was a favoured option however as the wielder of the scythe got to put little brass or gold rivets on their weapon; numbers here were important.

Amongst the Sulu pirates it was said, “To catch a fish is hard, but it is easy to catch a Bruneii”. Piracy became eventually so entrenched in the Sulu kingdom to the north-east of Borneo, that the easterly winds that followed the SW monsoon became known in Bruneii as ‘The Pirate Wind’, as the pirate sailing vessels moved out of the Sulu sea toward Bruneii following the prevailing winds. One does gather however that in this part of the world and at the time, that the term might just as easily be applied to the SW monsoon by people who lived to the NE! Just a matter of perspective really.

Not that there weren’t many tribal groups that weren’t involved in some way.  The Illanun and Balanini from Mindanau and the Sulu Archipelago were the biggest protagonists (with help from the Bajaus) but eventually many of the local river and sea  ‘Dayaks’ also became involved after serving apprenticeships in the Malayan war ‘prahus’. These Prahus would range from the Philippines to Sumatra to far NE Malaysia, often in fleets of up to 200 and in journeys such as circumnavigations of Island Borneo. They would prey on shipping and boats of all sorts, local foreign, large and small, at times challenge foreign warships (perhaps inadvisably) and also raid onshore for whatever was available and for slaves.  On Balambangan, an island just north of Kudat and in 1775 a Sulu pirate chief  ‘Datu Tating’ a first cousin of the Sultan even led a pirate attack and destroyed a British military settlement and stockade. The Dayaks of course applied their more bloodthirsty traditions to piracy with considerable enthusiasm and were just as happy hacking off peoples heads (anybody at all) as they were collecting swag.

While various foreign governments tried with limited success to reign in piracy in their various colonial realms, in Borneo it wasn’t until Sir James Brooke became the first white Rajah of Sarawak in1839 that the scale of piracy began to wane. Rajah Brooke exercised the standard levels of British diplomacy for the time and with help from Admiral Cochrane and the Royal Navy, Singapore squadron gave the pirates a lesson in ‘strength through superior firepower. While the Sulu Archipelago was left to the Spanish, the pirate strongholds in the river ports of Sabah, Sarawak and Bruneii succumbed in succession to the latest advances in colonial diplomacy involving, guns, cannons and soldiers.  The actual city of Bruneii also proved quite reluctant to withdraw from the financial benefits associated with piracy and in 1846 the Sultan was given an abject lesson in gunboat diplomacy!

Like elsewhere, piracy of course was never totally wiped out in this part of the world and piratical attacks have continued in various forms up to current times. We have in our sailing endeavours been hearing all forms of expression of concern from locals here, primarily telling us that we are very ‘brave’. However, while the locals tell us that there have been two attacks on shipping nearby this year we have yet to hear of any attacks on yachties in the recent past. To be honest there is not really that much to steal from the average yachtie, a couple of radios perhaps, some cameras and rice maybe; hardly compares to a cargo ship or shipping containers full of all sorts of good things. There were the attacks on tourist divers at Sipidan down past Semporna in 2000 where the locals from the Sulu archipelago decided to resurrect their forebears more questionable concepts of commerce. The result of this little incursion, robbery, abduction and murder, standard program really for your average ‘Moro’ pirate, is a police and military presence that is almost overwhelming. We were overflown twice by military surveillance aircraft near the Kinabatangan mouth on the way around from Lahud Datu and photographed by police while at anchor one morning.

Lahud Datu itself was we are told something of a pirate stronghold for years and the ‘Lonely Planet’ warns people about the perils of the seafaring life here; one wonders if the travel writer at the time even got on a boat or just listened to apophrical stories from locals. There are the stories of ten years ago pirates armed with automatic weapons robbing the bank at Lahud Datu and one of the teachers at the school on Tambisan tells us that the pirates made an attack on Tambisan in the nineties; wonder what they wanted from Tambisan, there isn’t a great deal there?

All things considered though, the Sulu Archipelago and Southern Mindanao are not on our list of places we are going to visit; there probably still be pirates there of some sort!

We got away from Lahud Datu on the 31st and on glassy seas motored to Tungku Vil, a sort of point with an inlet 38 miles to the east. Hot here so swimming and bombing demonstrations were the order of the day including British ‘back-slappers’ from Lucy and a face plant from Trevor. Dent haven was next 30 odd miles east and north leaving Darvil Bay. Next morning bright and early it was off from Dent to our old haunt of Tambisan and a look around at the local school and recently painted pre-school.  Simon here offered Trevor’s services to talk to the grade sixers in English (or at least Australian) and the teachers took this seriously enough that next morning all four of us sallied forth for our cultural interaction with Tambisan’s brightest. This excursion was undertaken under some difficulty after our Melbourne Cup celebrations and cocktail party of the previous evening.  For the record, Simon won the sweep while Trevor got second and third. Back at the school, after having the students all join in a rousing rendition of Waltzing Matilda and discussing why we would want to travel so far on little boats off we went to watch the launch of the latest initiative in English teaching, a mandatory 33 minutes of communal reading.

The teachers tell us that it is obligatory for them to video proceedings and submit the video to the central education department for verification, it seems they are serious about their English teaching. The school here serves locals from a few nearby communities including some more permanent, Bajau groups who commute, quite appropriately, on boats. It seems that in spite of their stateless nature the school on Tambisan still takes them in, unlike Mabul where they are not allowed to attend the school.  The Bajau here have taken up residence along waterways in more permanent fishing communities and apparently they get by bartering with their fish for whatever else they need.

After our introduction to the Malaysian education system it was back to the boats in anticipation of a visit from the grade sixers who were dead keen to get a look inside the weird boats parked in their river; the strange white peoples boats come and go but none of the locals had ever seen the inside of one. So there we were giving the boys and girls of Tambisan a tour through our boats along with one of the teachers, the local boatman and one of the kids dads who happened to be passing by on his boat. They especially liked playing with the VHF radio and the chart plotter (lots of pretty pictures there) while the girls were fascinated with the on-board toilets. From Tambisan it was on to Dewhurst Bay and a revisit with the proboscis monkeys, then a 35 mile hop back to Sandakan to revisit the yacht club at Sandakan. Time for some new batteries, other boat fixes, a crew change and maybe a clearance to head direct to the Philippines.

Moro Pirates

The Moro Pirates, also known as the Sulu Pirates, were Muslim outlaws of the southern Philippines who engaged in frequent acts of piracy, primarily against the Spanish, beginning in the late 16th century. Because of the continual wars between Spain and the Moro people, the areas in and around the Sulu Sea became a haven for piracy which was not suppressed until the beginning of the 20th century. The pirates should not be confused with the naval forces or privateers of the various Moro tribes. However, many of the pirates operated under government saction during time of war.

The pirate ships used by the Moros were known as proa, or garays, and they varied in design. The majority were wooden sailing galleys about ninety feet long with a beam of ten feet. They carried around fifty to 100 crewmen. Moros usually armed their vessels with three swivel guns, called lelahs or lantakas, and occasionally a heavy cannon, proas were very fast and the pirates would prey on merchant ships becalmed in shallow water as they passed through the Sulu Sea. Slave trading and raiding was also very common, the pirates would assemble large fleets of proas and attack coastal towns. Hundreds of Christians were captured and imprisoned over the centuries, many were used a galley slaves aboard the pirate ships.

Other than muskets and rifles, the Moro pirates, as well as the navy sailors and the privateers, used a sword called the kris with a wavy blade incised with blood channels. The wooden or ivory handle was often heavily ornamented with silver or gold. The type of wound inflicted by its blade makes it difficult to heal. The kris was used often used in boarding a vessel. Moros also used a kampeli, another sword, a knife, or barong and a spear, made of bamboo and an iron spearhead. The Moro’s swivel guns were not like more modern guns used by the world powers but were of a much older technology, making them largely innacurate, especially at sea. Lantakas dated back to the 1500s and were up to six feet long, requiring several men to lift one. They fired up to a half-pound cannon ball or grape shot. A lantaka was bored by hand and were sunk into a pit and packed with dirt to hold them in a vertical position. The barrel was then bored by a company of men walking around in a circle to turn drill bits by hand.

The Spanish engaged the Moro pirates frequently in the 1840s. The expedition to Balanguingui in 1848 was carried out by Brigadier José Ruiz and a fleet of nineteen small warships and hundreds of Spanish Army troops. They were opposed by at least 1,000 Moros held up in four forts with 124 cannons and plenty of small arms. There were also dozens of proas at Balanguingui but the pirates abandoned their ships for the better defended fortifications. The Spanish stormed three of the positions by force and captured a remaining one after the pirates had retreated. Over 500 prisoners were freed in the operation and over 500 Moros were killed or wounded, they also lost about 150 of their proas. The Spanish lost twenty-two men killed and around 210 wounded. The pirates later reoccupied the island in 1849 and another expedition was sent but they encountered only light resistance

Also in the 1840s, James Brooke became the White Rajah of Sarawak and he led a small navy in a series of campaigns against the Moro pirates. In 1843 Brooke attacked the pirates of Malludu and in June of 1847 the rajah participated in a major battle with pirates at Balanini where dozens of proas were captured or sunk. Brooke fought in several more anti-piracy actions in 1849 as well. During one engagement with Illanun Sulus in 1862, Captain John Brooke, the Raja Mudah of Sarawak, sank four proas, out of six engaged, by ramming them with his small four gun steamer Rainbow. Each pirate ship had over 100 crewmen and galley slaves aboard and all were armed with three brass swivel guns. Brooke lost only a few men killed or wounded while at least 100 pirates were killed or wounded.


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One Response to “The Pirate Wind; Lahud Datu to Sandakan, October 30 – November 07”

  1. Duncan Fog Says:

    Trevor, Finally found this and a way to contact uou other then through Find a Crew . I have waved twice and you have maybe-d twice back in past 5 weeks……. How could we proceed in some fashion that I could learn more of your requirements other than intent and costs per diem/week and join your adventure? Best, Duncan

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