That war in Upper Sarawak


Without the Seniawan War, there would have been no Brooke Raj in Sarawak.

TODAY we go to war! I mean the Seniawan War (1836 to 1840) at Belidah. Where’s that? It’s on the righthand bank of the Sarawak River, as you go up; downriver a bit from the present Siniawan Bazaar; somewhere in that general locality.

For sources of information on this revolt, I’m relying partly on the extracts from the journal of James Brooke as published in Henry Keppel’s book ‘Expedition to Borneo of HMS Dido’ – OUP Singapore reprint 1991, and other secondary sources.

Due to lack of space here, however, those readers wanting to know about details of the fighting on the ground should read the relevant entries in the journal itself.

Cause(s) of revolt 

The northwestern part of the Island of Borneo was part of the Brunei suzerainty for a long time. On it was a small settlement called Sarawak, the founding of which is attributed to a Brunei noble man named Pangiran Makota. He became its first governor, responsible for the collection of taxes as revenue for the government and for the general welfare of the Sultan’s subjects.

At the beginning of the 19th century, Brunei rule was so lax that many Brunei subjects in Sarawak were not happy with the way they were treated by Makota and his officials in terms of business deals. One complaint was the use of a system called serah (a system that forces buyers to buy goods whether they needed them or not). Another factor for this unhappiness could have been associated with the dealings in antimony since the discovery of the ore in 1824. This metallic silvery element was collected by the Dayaks and sold through the middlemen, the Malays.

This was one of the reasons why the high ranking local Malays were not happy with Makota, who they alleged was competing with them in this business. Antimony was exported to Singapore. James Brooke while in Singapore must have heard about two interesting things: the antimony ore and the rebellion.

When this Anglo-Burmese war veteran from England came to Sarawak for the first time in August 1839, he paid a courtesy call upon Rajah Muda Hassim, the resident representative of the Sultan of Brunei. In his diary James recorded that, “Our conversation did not extend beyond kind inquiries and professions of friendship.” One question he did ask, though, was about the progress of the war upriver. To this query the host replied “that there was no war, but merely some child’s play among his subjects”.

The Rajah must have hinted that Mr Brooke would be welcome to stay a while longer. This would be, the visitor thought, “a demonstration to intimidate the rebels” and there might be something else, perhaps, as exciting as the prospects of trade in antimony.

Renewed interest in war

When James returned the following year, the war was still ongoing, apparently getting more serious. It seems that the pull of the soldier in him was so strong that he offered the men under his command as volunteers while Pangiran Makota would remain the Commander-in-Chief of the Rajah’s forces.

Hints taken seriously, James, joined by a handful of his men, proceeded to the theatre of war by boat, equipped mainly with small guns (swivels) plus a sense of adventure.

The first few days of this ‘war’ were a great disappointment for the veteran of the Burmese War (1824 to 1826). The government’s forces were composed of the following: 200 Chinese, 250 Malays, and 200 Dayaks from various tribes/areas: Sibnowans (Sebuyau – word wrongly spelt in Henry Keppel’s book); Paninjaws (including possibly the Diberuis); Bombak (Bombok); Sarambo; Kampit; Tabah; Sampro; and Suntah. James was not impressed, describing them “as such was our incongruous and inefficient army”.

After visiting several stockades and doing a bit of recce of the enemy’s strength, he decided to go back to his boat, in frustration. But the Rajah pleaded with him to stay for friendship’s sake.

He yielded but insisted on moving to another site. At Sekundis (Kandis) he was in the company of Pengiran Illaudeen and the Tamanggong of Lundu, who were busy constructing their own stockades there. There he found men who would be willing to fight with the view to a peaceful conclusion.

One day, from a new vantage point the stockades of the rebels were easily hit and badly damaged by the Rajah’s men with the help from the volunteers. James observed one casualty on the rebel side, then some 30 or 40 of the defenders were running away. They had abandoned their ‘fort’. Effectively, that was the beginning of the end of the war. He declared that it was all over on Dec 20, 1840.

War Council 

A Council of War was convened quickly. A white flag was raised; if reciprocated by the other side, this was the signal for a peace talk. During this time, two characters, Seriff Jaffer and Seriff Moksain, appeared on the scene as a go-between.

Then began serious negotiations. The Rajah, happy to have some effective assistance, insisted on severe punishment on the rebels and all their kin, but James objected to such treatment of the losers. He insisted that none of the family members of the rebels must be hurt!

It was much more than that. As it turned out, all the high-ranking rebels were pardoned by the Rajah at James’ behest on pain of severance of their friendship established a year previously.

He records, “I left the scene with all the dignity of success … The better class pulled down the houses, abandoned the town, and lived in boats for a month; when, alarmed by the delay and impelled by hunger, they also fled, – Patingi Gapoor, it was said, to Sambas; and Patingi Ali and the Tumangong amongst the Dyaks.” And the Chinese remained at Siniawan.

It is not recorded if a few underlings were punished, just for show, but the big shots were left unscathed, in fact getting the most favourable terms in any peace deal ever.


Was James playing a shrewd political game here? If this sounds familiar to the student of history and politics in general, well, yes, that’s how things usually go in the world!

And the rest, as they say, is history. James Brooke, the soldier/businessman, was appointed the Governor of Sarawak, replacing Makota, and later installed as the Rajah of Sarawak himself.

This was the beginning of a unique episode in Sarawak’s history, the 100-year legacy of an English Raj in this part of the world.

Among the many recorded events of historical interest in Sarawak are two wars, both happening in the month of December although a good 100 years apart. One is the Seniawan War that ended on Dec 20, 1840. The other is the landing of the Imperial Japanese Army troops on Dec 24, 1941 in Kuching. It marked the beginning of the end of the English rule in this part of the world.

Your comment?

Comments can reach the writer via [email protected].