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10 random historical facts about Malaysian islands you might know

Malaysia has a lot of islands. In fact, there are 878 that belong to the country.

Taking the prize for having the largest number of islands is the state of Sabah, with 394 within its waters.

Each of these islands has its own charm. Some Malaysian islands are uninhabited, while others are a place the locals call home. The ones which offer accommodation, white sandy beaches and activities such as snorkeling and scuba diving were always swarmed by tourists during pre-Covid days.

Nonetheless, the historical attractions of these Malaysian islands are often overlooked. 10 random historical facts about Malaysian Islands you might not know:

1.One of Malaysia’s islands is shared with North Kalimantan.

Pulau Sebatik. Credit: Creative Commons.

The biggest island in Malaysian territory – Borneo – is shared with Brunei and Indonesia. But do you know that there is a Malaysian island which has a border cutting straight through it with the northern half belonging to Sabah on one side and the southern part to North Kalimantan, Indonesia?

Located on the eastern coast of Borneo, between Tawau Bay to the north and Sibuku Bay to the south, the island is officially listed as one of the 92 outlying islands of Indonesia.

The border was carved out by the British and the Dutch under the Anglo-Dutch treaty when they colonised British North Borneo and Indonesia respectively, in the 19th century.

It is not immediately obvious that the island belongs to two different countries when you arrive there. There are no border guards, no immigration office, no customs department and no barbed wire fence or any kind of fencing.

2. The Suluk male population of this island was executed by Japanese forces during World War II.

During World War II (WWII), the locals formed the Kinabalu guerrillas to rebel against the Japanese forces in North Borneo.

With about 300 guerrilla fighters, the revolt was aided by the Bajau-Suluk leaders such as Panglima Ali (Sulug island), Jemalul (Mantanani islands), Arshad (Udar island) and Saruddin (Dinawan island) attacking from the sea.

They won, successfully reclaiming Jesselton, Tuaran and Kota Belud with 50 to 90 Japanese casualties.

Meanwhile, the Japanese retaliated and they retaliated hard. They launched a series of bombings from Kota Belud to Membakut, burning down villages along the way.

In Dinawan island in particular, nearly every Suluk male was executed while their women and children were moved elsewhere.

According to official reports, 66 were killed out of a population of 120 in Dinawan island.

3.On another island, the Japanese massacred the women and children who were left behind.

Today, the Mantanani islands provide a popular diving site, boasting rich marine life and blue waters. But in World War 2, the islands became a site of bloodshed.

The Japanese was gathering all the Kinabalu Guerrillas when they heard a rumour that some of them were hiding on the island of Mantanani.

Edward Frederick Langley Russell in the book The Knights of Bushido wrote, “When the Japanese force commander on Mantanani was unable to find the Chinese guerrillas for whom he was searching. During the next few weeks, each one of these men died of torture or starvation at the Kempei Tai headquarters or in Jesselton Prison. Not a soul survived.”

Two days after the Japanese force had left Mantanani with the arrested Suluks, it returned.

First, they machine-gunned the Suluk men and women, subsequently killing all the wounded.

After that, the Japanese killed 25 women and four children.

4.One of the battle of the Napoleonic Wars took place near the vicinity of this island

While the Napoleonic Wars had nothing to do with Malaysia, interestingly enough, one of its tiny battles took place near our coast.

The Napoleonic Wars (1803-1815) were a series of major conflicts between the French Empire and other European powers.

On Valentine’s day in 1804, a large convoy of East Indiaman (a type of sailing ship) consisting of well-armed merchant ships chased away a powerful French naval squadron. The naval engagement took place in the vicinity of Aur island, Johor.

The french convoy was led by Contre-Admiral Charles-Alexandre Durand Linois. Meanwhile, Commodore Nathaniel Dance was the commander of the British convoy.

Although the French force was much stronger than the British convoy (they were just merchant chips by the way), Dance’s aggressive approach against the French led Linois to retire after only a brief exchange of shot.

After chasing the French away, Dance resumed his passage toward British India.

Perhaps out of embarrassment, Linois later exaggeratedly claimed that the British convoy was defended by eight ships of the line. This claim, of course was later disputed by many historians.

Whatever makes you happy, Linois.

The retreat of Rear Admiral Linois’s Squadron consisting of the ‘Marengo’ of 84 guns, the ‘Belle Poule’ and ‘Semillante’ of 44 guns each, a corvette of 28 guns and a Batavian brig of 18 guns from a fleet of 16 of the East India Company ships after the action off Pulo Aor in the China Seas on the 15th. February 1804. Credit: Public Domain.

5.Another island which witnessed a battle during World War I.

Route taken by Emden during her commerce raiding operations. Credit: Public Domain.

During World War I (WWI), Penang island was a part of the Straits Settlements, a British Crown Colony.

Right after the outbreak of WWI, the German East Asia Squadron left its base in China. All but one ship headed east for Germany. In the meantime, the lone ranger which was the SMS Emden under Lieutenant Commander Karl von Muller was sent on a solitary raiding mission.

Then on the early morning of Oct 28, 1914, SMS Emden appeared off Penang island to attack any harbour defenses or any vessels she could find.

As a disguise, von Muller made her vessel to look like the British cruiser HMS Yarmouth (1911).

Once Emden entered the harbour, she came across the Imperial German navy. von Muller then proceeded to launch a torpedo at the Imperial Russian protected cruiser Zhemchug.

In retaliation, French cruiser D’lberville and French destroyer Fronde by now opened fire on the Emden. However, the French was just shooting wildly and Emden just left the harbour unharmed.

You might wonder why Zhemchug did not return fire. Well, her captain Baron I. A. Cherkassov went ashore that night to visit his wife (in some reports, they state it was his mistress).

After spending what we like to assume was a good night with his woman, Cherkassov watched helplessly from the Eastern & Oriental Hotel as his ship sank.

88 of his men died and 121 were wounded because of the attack.

6.The former name of this island is Peria (bittergourd in Malay).

Pulau Duyong is a river island located in the mouth of Terengganu river.

The island was a famous residence for Tok Syeikh Duyong (1802-1889). Originally, the island was known as Pulau Peria or Bittergourd Island alluding the shape of the island.

However, the villagers of the island allegedly saw two mermaids landing on its shore.

Hence, the name Duyong or Mermaid.

Honestly, Mermaid Island does sound cooler than Bittergourd Island.

A mermaid sighting has led the residents of Pulau Peria to change its name to Pulau Duyong. Credit: Pixabay.

7.One of the Malaysian islands is a former leper colony and camp for Prisoners of War (POWs).

Located in Sandakan Bay, Malaysian state of Sabah, the Berhala island is about 5 hectares in size.

Before World War II (WWII), the island was used as a layover station for labourers coming from China and the Philippines. There was also a leper colony on the island.

Then during WWII, the Japanese used the quarantine station as a makeshift internment camp for both prisoners-of-war (POWs) and civilian internees.

The POWs and civilian internees were stationed on Berhala Island before they were sent Sandakan POW Camp or Batu Lintang Camp respectively.

Some of the notable internees who were held here were author Agnes Newton Keith and her husband, Harry Keith as well as North Borneo district officer Keith Wookey.

In June 1943, eight POWs made a daring escape from the island. They managed to escape to Tawi-tawi in the Philippines before they were transferred to Sandakan POW Camp.

The eight-member group was later known as the Berhala Eight.

8.The 18th descendant of Prophet Mohammad was buried on one of Malaysian islands.

Pulau Besar or Big Island is an island in Malacca. On the island, there is a tomb which belongs to Sultan Al Ariffin Syeikh Ismail.

He was the 18th descendant of the Prophet Mohammad. He received his calling to spread Islam to Java after a visit to the Prophet’s tomb in Medina.

Syeikh Ismail reached Pulau Besar in 1495 and from there start to preach the Islamic teaching throughout the Malay Archipelago.

He passed away at the age of 58 and was buried on the island.

His tomb along other ancient graves and mausoleums are now part of tourist attraction of the island.

9.A Malaysian island was a refugee camp for up to 40,000 Vietnamese refugees.

Bidong island in undated photo. Credit: Creative Commons.

The Vietnam War ended on Apr 30, 1975 with the evacuation of the American Embassy and the fall of Saigon to the North Vietnamese Army.

Soon after that, millions of people tried to flee the new communist rule in Vietnamese.

By May 1975, the first boat with 47 Vietnamese refugees arrived on Malaysian shore. On Aug 8, 1975, Bidong island off Terengganu officially opened on Aug 8, 1978. At one point, the small island was cramped with up to 40,000 refugees.

From then, about 250,000 Vietnamese had passed through or resided on Bidong island until it was closed as a refugee camp on October 30, 1991.

Most of them resettled in countries such as the United States, Canada, Australia and France. The remaining ones were repatriated to Vietnam against their will. The last refugees left on Aug 18, 2005 for Vietnam.

Today, a marine research station was established by Universiti Malaysia Terengganu on the island.

10.The natives of this island attacked shipwreck survivors, cutting off the legs of one of them.

The year was 1805. A 75-tonne schooner named Betsey departed Macau heading for Sydney. Her crew comprised of two officers, Captain William Brooks and chief mate Edward Luttrell, and 10 seamen, including four from China, three from the Philippines and three from Portugal.

On Nov 21, 1805, the vessel struck a reef. The crew struggled to refloat their vessel for three days before deciding to abandon her.

Brooks, Luttrell and three Portuguese crew climbed into the jollyboat while the rest abandoned the Betsey on a raft. The initial plan was to travel together, but a strong wind parted them.

Unfortunately, the raft and the crew on it were never seen again.

On Dec 2, the jollyboat arrived on the Balambangan Island off the North Coast of Borneo. There, 11 natives attacked them. Brookes died after they cut off both his legs.

The survivors, Lutterall and two Portuguese crew managed to escape and head back to the sea.

Two weeks later on Dec 15, the three men arrived at another island to find food but were attacked by a group of local Malays.

After killing one of the Portuguese, the Malay kept Lutterall and the surviving Portuguese crew as slaves. A year later, the captors finally released them.

Remember these interesting historical events when you have the opportunity to visit any of these Malaysian islands some day.

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Patricia Hului
Patricia Hului is a Kayan who wants to live in a world where you can eat whatever you want and not gain weight. She grew up in Bintulu, Sarawak and graduated from the University Malaysia Sabah with a degree in Marine Science. She worked for The Borneo Post SEEDS, which is now defunct. When she's not writing, you can find her in a studio taking belly dance classes, hiking up a hill or browsing through Pinterest. Follow her on Instagram at @patriciahului, Facebook at Patricia Hului at Kajomag.com or Twitter at @patriciahului.

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