Ellena, the forgotten American colony in Sabah

Patricia Hului

Did you know that there was an American colony in Sabah? And at one point in time, James Brooke and successors were not the only white ‘Rajahs’ on Borneo island.

The establishment of Consulate in Brunei

In 1850, the United States signed a bilateral treaty of Peace, Friendship, Commerce, and Navigation with the Sultanate of Brunei. This treaty was enforced on July 11, 1853 and is still in effect to this day.

Then in 1865, the US sent its first consul in Brunei, Charles Lee Moses.

Moses later on played an important role in the establishment of Ellena.

In August 1865, Moses concluded a 10-year lease with Brunei’s Sultan Abdul Momin.

The Sultan then guaranteed land rights in various areas in the north of Borneo.

Later, Moses went on to sell these rights to an American merchant Joseph William Torrey in return for a third of any profits made.

In October 1865, Torrey along with another American, Thomas Bradley Harris decided to build a colony in the area of today’s Kimanis, about 45km from Kota Kinabalu.

The new venture was pursued under The American Trading Company of Borneo. It was a chartered company formed by Torrey, Harris and several Chinese investors.

Torrey even made a trip to Sultan of Brunei to draw up a new concession letter on Nov 24, 1865.

In the letter, the Sultan even gave Torrey the title of ‘Rajah of Ambong and Marudu’.

The beginning of Ellena colony

Finally in December 1865, Torrey with 12 Americans and around 60 Chinese founded a colony in Kimanis called ‘Ellena’.

After raising a flag of his own designed, Torrey appointed himself as the governor and Harris as his vice-governor.

The news of this colony even made it to Hong Kong China Mail. The news reported, “The progress of the enterprise will be watched with much interest, as being the first attempt of Americans to colonise away from their own continent.”

Thomas Bradley Harris (standing) and Joseph William Torrey, founders of the US colony “Ellena” on the Island of Borneo

The downfall of Ellena

According to Frank Tatu in his paper ‘The United States Consul, the Yankee Raja, Ellena and the Constitution’, the British government was concerned with American intentions.

They asked their Minister in Washington to enquire about the issue.

In response, the British was informed that the US had not authorised any attempts to form any settlements in Borneo.

As for Moses, he simply acted on his own.

Maybe because the colony was not approved by their own government, Ellena went down as fast as it came into being.

Ellena became a target for pirates from Hong Kong and Macau.

In the same time, the colony did not have any financial backup and their workers were going hungry.

Rumours had it that it was Moses who recruited the pirates in an effort to collect the money from the company.

While Torrey was trying to find investors in Hong Kong for Ellena, Harris died of Malaria on May 22, 1866.

By the end of 1866, Ellena was abandoned.

The remaining Ellena colonists found work at nearby British-operated coal fields while others went back to Hong Kong.

As for Torrey, he buried his friend Harris on the top of a nearby hill in Ellena.

He still used his title as the ‘Rajah’ and conducted commerce in the region for several years.

Finally in 1881, Torrey sold his rights in Kimanis to Austrian Baron von Overbeck and partner Alfred Dent for $25,000.

This paved way for what we know now as the British North Borneo Company (BNBC).

What happened to Moses?

The fall of Ellena affected the life Moses who became poor after the collapse of the colony.

Tatu stated, “He frequently wrote the US State Department complaining that no consular fees were to be had, and imploring that he be accorded a salary. Receiving no favourable response, Moses was driven to desperation.

“Moses allegedly armed attacks on the burning of his consulate on Mar 25, 1867 by ‘Malay people’.
By way of demanding reparations, Moses threatened the Sultan with retaliation by American naval units ‘to fire and burn the city.’”

However, the Sultan strongly believed that Moses burned the consulate himself. He was reportedly seen removing valuables from the consulate for days before the fire.

In the meantime, Moses moved to Labuan to wait for any news especially from the US.

There, tragedy struck him again when one of his children died. He had no choice but to send his wife and surviving child back to the US.

In September 1867, Moses received the news that he had been suspended from his duties by the president.

Then in May 1868, he boarded the Barque Swallow and later reported to be lost at sea.

The rediscovery of Ellena and he rediscover the grave of Thomas Bradley Harris

Ernest Alfred Pavitt, a land surveyor for the British North Borneo Company (BNBC) was the one who found Harris’ grave in 1909.

In a note published in British North Borneo Herald, Pavitt wrote, “A good many years ago, having to go from the West Coast to the Interior of British North Borneo, accompanied by Mr. P.F. Wise, the District Officer of North Keppel, we made our starting point from Kimanis and from the principal native kampung on the river. Mr Wise pointed on a hill on which he had told me an American gentleman had, some years previously, been buried.

”This was again brought forcibly to my collection some days ago as in my examination of land at this particular place I sent a gang of coolies to clear the top of a small and prominent hill of jungle to enable me to have a look at the surrounding country.

“On my going up a few days later I found this was the resting place of evidently an old pioneer, as there still exist in a very fair state of preservation both the head and foot stone marking this interesting spot.”

A year later, while BNBC was opening the Kimanis Rubber Estate, they found that some of the hill sides had been carefully terraced.

The company believed that these terraces were probably the remains of the company’s experimental planting.

What happened to Torrey after Ellena collapsed?

A year after the collapse of Ellena, Torrey had a daughter born in 1867. He named her Elena Charlotte, most probably after his colony.

Torrey later bought his own ship which he christened as ‘Ellen’.

From 1877 to 1880, Torrey was a vice-consul at the US Consulate in Thailand.

By 1883, he returned to America. In 1885, he received the news that he had been appointed as the King of Thailand’s chief adviser.

While he was contemplating whether he should accept the post, Torrey died suddenly on June 22, 1885.

After his death, Torrey was known as the ‘Yankee Rajah’ and ‘the only American Rajah’ despite the fact his beloved colony did not even last a year.