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James Brooke’s role in the Battle of Marudu Bay 1845

“The Battle of Marudu Bay sees James Brooke enlisting the help of the British Royal Navy in Singapore to defeat Sherif Osman, a pirate leader from North Borneo, effectively ending his piracy,” this is what you will find on the Sarawak goverment’s official website of what happened in 1845.

But is there more to the story than the first White Rajah defeating a group of pirates?

Marudu Bay is located at the northern tip of Borneo where, in the 1840s, it was led by a man named by Syarif Usman (sometimes spelled as Sherif Osman).

According to Clifford Sather, Marudu Bay in particular, in the early 1800s served as a major staging point for slave-raiding operations.

“By the 1820s, the presence of Bajau and Ilanun settlements in coastal Sabah effectively eliminated Brunei’s political and commercial hold over the region,” Sather wrote.

In the meantime, Illanun slave trading activities allegedly sponsored by the Sulu was causing a blow to Brunei’s maritime commerce. These pirates disrupted sea routes and cut Brunei’s connections with the vital Chinese junk trade.

For a short period in the beginning, the northern Borneo settlement, particularly those of the Tempasuk Bajau was strong enough to ignore Sulu’s hegemony.

However in the 1830s, the Sulu reasserted its influence by recognising the powerful chief Syarif Usman as its regional governor in Marudu.

Believed to be a charismatic and a brave leader among the locals, the Westerners on the other hand, had a different perception of Syarif Usman.

James Brooke’s role in Battle of Marudu Bay 1845

James Brooke

Brooke at that time was seeking to consolidate his uncertain position in Borneo.

While he was already treated as the Rajah of Sarawak, Brooke was worried about his position with regards to Britain.

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Steven Runciman in The White Rajah: A History of Sarawak from 1841 to 1946 wrote, “He wanted official support, some form of official rank and a guarantee that Britain would interest herself in Borneo.”

Brooke finally could sigh a relief in February 1845. At that time, Captain Charles Bethune arrived from London with a despatch appointing Brooke as Confidential Agent to Her Majesty in Borneo.

Runciman stated, “Bethum also brought a letter from the British Government to the Sultan of Brunei, expressing the intention of co-operating with him against the pirates.”

Brooke then accompanied Bethune to deliver this letter to Brunei to which the Sultan received the latter politely.

After his visit to Brunei, Brooke found out that Admiral Sir Thomas Cochrane commander of the Far East Fleet was at Malacca.

He hurried to see him. The admiral shared Brooke’s views about the pirates and promised to join him in expedition against Marudu Bay.

In order to strengthen his position in Borneo, Brooke’s alleged principle method was to campaign for the destruction of ‘pirate’ strongholds on the island including Marudu Bay.

How the Battle of Marudu Bay 1845 went down according to Captain Pascoe

Captain R.N. Pascoe who took part in the expedition to Marudu Bay 1845 recorded about the attack in his journal:

It was on the 18th of August 1845 that a British squadron, consisting of H.M.S. Agincourt, Vestal, Daedalus, Vaxen and the sloops Cruiser and Wolverine, under the command of Rear Admiral Sir Thomas Cochrane, anchored at the entrance of Marudu Bay, the expedition having for its object the destruction of a nest of pirates under a Serip Usman, an Illanun pirate chef.

The attacking force, which consisted of 530 seamen and marines, in 24 boats, of which nine were gunboats, took up station off the mouth of Tandik river, in the southeast corner of the Bay, at 3pm and at dawn next day proceeded up the river, the pinnace with guns leading. Two Malays from Sarawak accompanied the forces as guides.

About six miles from the entrance the advance was checked by a boom moored across the river by view of three batteries “about musket range from the boom;” the largest fort, mounting eight large pieces, stood on the right bank gaily decked with banners, stood at the junction of the river, which at this point divides into two branches, the third was a floating battery moored to the left bank.

A messenger “an Illanun from Mindanao in rich attire,” with a flag of truce came down to meet the force, with the request that the two senior Officers should proceed to the fort and negotiate, “but they were not thus to be trusted,” and a reply was sent back that unless Serip Usman (Syarif Osman) himself came down fire would at once be opened.

Immediately the messenger’s boat was clear of the boom, a galling fire was opened from the forts. Gibbard, mate of the Wolverine, fell mortally wounded, and a brisk fire was kept up from both sides.

The enemy’s guns being lad on the boom, caused fairly heavy loss amongst the attacking force, which was working hard to remove the obstacle. In about at hour an opening was effected; two cutters with marines instantly carried the three-gun battery, and the enemy, abandoning the forts, fled through the town in the rear and made for the jungle.

At 2pm the forts, towns, and enemy vessels being destroyed, the force reassembled to return to the ships, taking with them the hospital pinnace with the wounded. The casualties amounted to ten killed and fifteen wounded, three mortally. The number of the enemy slain is not computed, though it seems to have been very large, the carnage being described as frightful, and the destruction of the pirate’s stronghold was complete.”

The other side of the Battle of Marudu Bay’s story

Even so, not everyone believed that Syariff Osman was a pirate captain. Alternatively, the locals believed he was a leader who brought prosperity to Marudu Bay.

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German author Bianca Maria Gerlich who wrote the book Marudu 1845 believed that not everything happened like in the Western records.

She told an audience during a talk on Syarif Osman in Kota Kinabalu in 2019 that James Brooke defamed Marudu as a pirate’s lair.

Moreover, Gerlich said that Brooke defamed Syarif Osman as a pirate chieftain.

Brooke did that to eliminate a possible rival for his influence over parts of Borneo, which were not yet occupied by other Western powers.

She stated, “Syarif Osman had not only built a strong, economically expanding and independent polity in Marudu Bay, but moreover was in contact with many important leader personalities of the region. His fair-reaching authority was considered too dangerous by James Brooke.”

Perhaps Colombian writer Nicolas Gomez Davila’s famous quote was right, “Truth is in history, but history is not the truth.”

With most records still written Syarif Osman as the pirates leader, the Battle of Marudu 1845 did not only destroy the town but also the memory of its development as a coastal state.

KajoMag readers, let us know in the comment box what do you think? Was Syarif Osman the leader of pirates? Was the Battle of Marudu Bay necessary>

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 or Twitter at @patriciahului.

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