Wednesday, April 14

A pledge cast in iron 


These cannons symbolise the letter and the spirit of the joint pledge by the Brooke government and the Malays and Dayaks of Lingga/Banting.

FOR the past week, a debate has been raging on social media among the supporters of the major Malaysian political parties in the federal opposition. The point of contention is the choice of who should be the Prime Minister in the event of the opposition regaining power before the next general election.

Should an agreement be reached on the person of the shadow Prime Minister, all those points of agreement would be reduced to writing and the document would be duly witnessed and signed.

If you are convinced that an agreement of a political nature on a piece of paper over the choice of the Prime Minister in a future government will definitely be honoured in the letter and in the spirit by all the signatories, you are very trusting indeed. Have you ever read about a pledge made by a ruler, only to be tampered with by a government servant, with or without the approval of another ruler, 74 years later, even though the promise was cast in iron?

Swearing by cannons 

I’m referring to the pledge, more like a treaty, made in 1843 by Rajah James Brooke with the Malays and the Balau Dayaks of Lingga/Banting. By four cannons made of iron, half-buried muzzle-down in the compound of the Lingga Fort, the first English ruler of Sarawak made a solemn pledge to the natives to ‘protect and govern’ in return for the people’s pledge to ‘work for peace and to refrain from making further trouble with or against any one’.

As there were no ethnic problems between the local Malays and the local Dayaks, the reference to ‘anyone’ must have meant any outsider. At the time there were constant raids on the Lingga Malay villages by outsiders, pirates among them, that the Malays decided to move up the Strap to Banting, living amongst the Dayaks for a while before they moved back to Lingga.

When James Brooke visited the fort that year, a joint pledge by Abang Osen Abang Hassan, representing the Malays, and by Ijau Dunggau, representing the Balaus, was made in front of the Rajah, with the local luminaries as witnesses.

James Brooke’s next successors, nephew Charles and grand-nephew Vyner, as well as the members of the two communities must have honoured the agreement in spirit because there had been no further disturbances throughout the Raj.

A somewhat curious event happened in 1917: the cannons were pulled out and replaced muzzle-up, upon orders from Page Turner, the Resident of Second Division (the full account, by Percy Majeng, is in the Sarawak Museum Journal December 1956). No reason is given – did this action abrogate the joint pledge made by all the parties? Did Vyner Brooke want to forget all about the promise made by his great uncle – for the Brookes, ‘to govern and protect’ and, for the people of Lingga/Banting, the pledge to ‘work for peace and to refrain from further trouble with or against any one’?

What is the significance of the tampering with the cannons? Did the good SAO of Lingga, who could after all rule like a little King in his own district, try a bit of landscape gardening in his front yard?

I would be grateful if any surviving descendants of Abang Osen, of Ijau Dunggau, and of Sherip Aming, would comment on this article. The bit of information that I got was from the late Percy Majeng. He was the District Officer of Simunjan whom I met during the Gawai Dayak in 1966 during the Kumang Gawai contest held at the village of Sungai Pinang, Simunjan.

Can anyone else tell me more about these leaders of Lingga/Banting? I know that the Dayaks at Banting and Krokop once revered Ijau Dunggau as being a brave and fair leader of their tribe; Abang Osen Abang Hassan was a respected leader of the Malays; no one in the village dared to disobey Sherip Aming’s instruction to collect iron scrap as much as possible.

One cannon from the Balau Dayaks

According to Percy Majeng, one of the four cannons was donated by the Balau Dayaks for the peace ceremony. It had been cast from scrap metal by one Sherip Aming during an emergency (the cannon must be completed before the arrival of the Rajah). The other three were provided by Rajah James himself.

Why did the Resident of Second Division order the digging up of those cannons just before the arrival of the Third Rajah, Vyner Brooke, at Lingga in 1917? Was the Resident ordered to do so by the Rajah or was it the Resident’s own bright idea to please his big boss?

In 1982, I went to Lingga and saw the four cannons; they had been painted black, and placed upright in the open along the path to the old fort, recently converted into a mosque. At the time, there was no caption about their importance in terms of what I would call the Peace Treaty of Lingga, 1843. The curious visitors to the place may like to know about those cannons – their role in cementing the harmonious relationship between the government and the local Malays and the Dayaks.

I hope these antiques are still there today. The living descendants of Abang Osen, of Ijau Dunggau and of Sherip Aming should make it a point to see those cannons for themselves. Will they be able to identify the particular cannon that was the gift of the Balau Dayaks and which had been cast by Sherip Aming? I doubt it. A thick coat of oil paint, applied by well-meaning but ignorant hands, has erased all trace of what might have been an interesting relic of the past.

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