Friday, June 5

The price of love


IN last week’s column, we had a glimpse of the end of a Malay/Dyak-led rebellion in Sarawak against Governor Makota’s exactions and his policy of forced labour at the antimony mines. At the same time, we saw the beginning of a 100-year long reign of an English family in this part of the world.

Also, we read about some benevolent peace deals. Among them: the prominent Malay rebels were pardoned and given back their government jobs and titles so that they could continue collecting head tax from the people while the leader of the Blue Jacket volunteers, former East India Company’s soldier, James Brooke, had become the governor of Sarawak and Siniawan. James in politics.

Soon after that war, James went off to Singapore for some well-deserved rest while looking around the Singapore harbour for a cargo ship to buy. He did buy one, the Swift, for transporting goods between Sarawak and Singapore. James in business!

A friend killed 

In the aftermath of the rebellion, some sad events had taken place while he was away. Here is one of the many betrayals. When he came back to Sarawak in early 1841, he was told that Si Tondo, one of his key men during the successful assault on the rebels’ stronghold at Belidah in December 1840, had been ‘put to death by the Rajah’s orders’. On account of love, it may be added.

Si Tondo was a former pirate chief from Magindanau. He had lived in the Sadung (don’t exactly know where) for some time. He was one of the 13 ex-pirates who were recruited by Seriff Sahib for Makota’s army to help crush the revolt.

In his journal James describes Si Tondo as “tall, elegantly made, with small and handsome features, and quiet and graceful manners … My gallant comrade!” Si Tondo had fallen in love with the daughter of an adopted son of Pengiran Makota. Si Tondo would do anything in the world if he was allowed to marry the girl. This situation is better described metaphorically by the Iban saying ‘Bekikis Bulu Betis’ (giving all for the sake of love and marriage or scrapping the bottom of the barrel in pursuit of an objective).

So mutually passionate were they about their relationship that Si Tondo and his sweetheart had actually eloped! The girl had gone ‘to her lover’s house’. That was asking for trouble, real trouble, for the couple, in terms of a violation of the religious tradition of the community at the time.

By the way, for those readers who had missed reading last week’s column, the story today is also based on the extracts of the journal of the Governor, as published in Henry Keppel’s book ‘The Expedition to Borneo of HMS Dido’ – OUP Singapore 1991.

In self-imposed lockdown  

Imagine the anger among the community of nobles when news went viral that Si Tondo and his girlfriend were in a self-imposed lockdown in a house! Had the handphone and the Internet been invented 180 years ago, you could have seen on Facebook photographs of the house and the crowd of newspaper reporters vying to be the first to achieve a scoop.

A promise 

Si Tondo was ordered to surrender the lady to Makota “on the understanding that he was to be allowed to marry her on giving a proper dowry”. Reluctantly, Si Tondo released the girl but he was determined to get her back soon by any means possible. By chance or providence, he suddenly remembered that he had a relative in Sadung. He was Datu Jembrong; this man could help him secure that lady. They went to the house of her parents and demanded them to deliver her to them or else they would burn the house. A wrong move.

Si Tondo betrayed

The scandal was so embarrassing to the whole community of the Brunei overlords that the Rajah Muda Hassim himself had to intervene. He had heard about the rumours and, if true, he had to do something about finding a solution to Si Tondo’s problem. The Rajah summoned him and the Datu for a meeting at the balai (audience hall), probably the same venue at which James Brooke had first met the Rajah two years previously.

Si Tondo and his relative dutifully turned up, armed only with the kempilan (sword), minus the keris. The hall was full of the Rajah’s men armed to the teeth, ready for any eventuality.

What about another girl?

According to James’s journal, the Rajah had offered Si Tondo another woman but this proposal was rejected by the man in love; Si Tondo was ‘only praying he might have the woman he loved’.

The question of dowry was raised again. “Poor Si Tondo brought all his little property (his bulu betis) to make good the price required for the woman.” The Datu chipped in a bit, so did the Orang Kaya de Gadong, followed by others who pretended to be generous. Yet the amount of dowry required was far short ‘by 40 or 50 reals’.

Another meeting was called, after a couple of days’ standoff. This time, the final job to decide what to do with Si Tindo was given to another government official, Orang Kaya de Gadong. At the meeting in his house, the Orang Kaya proposed that Si Tondo and his relative surrender their keris. That was an order difficult to refuse. However, “their gold-mounted krisses were given up, and the bargain was complete, when the four executioners threw themselves on the unarmed men, and, assisted by others …” Fighting began!

How do you expect the duo to survive at the hands of the overwhelming size of the enemy? Wounded and dying, Si Tondo’s last words, “You have taken me by treachery; openly you could not have seized me.” His body was thrown to the river! And his relative’s life was spared after he had been stripped of his clothes. The Datu returned to Sadung in disgrace.


What a way to treat a former serviceman in love! James Brooke, now the governor endowed with power and authority, could have intervened if he was around, but he was not there to defend his friend in need. For instance, he could have easily topped up the dowry by 40 or more reals and his gallant comrade could have married the woman he loved. Both could have lived happily ever after.

So Si Tondo died for love of a woman. A fitting story for a short film, I would recommend. The moral of the story is that for the love of a woman a man is prepared to die. He is prepared to lose every tangible property he possesses – his bulu betis – but he is not prepared to lose his honour as a man. As for the woman, there is no freedom of love, a discrimination that has been in existence for a long time, which no man has been able to successfully stop, unfortunately.

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