Culture

James Erskine Murray and his tragic death in Borneo

Patricia Hului

Inspired by James Brooke’s success in founding the kingdom of Sarawak in 1841, another British adventurer James Erskine Murray wanted to establish his own fiefdom too.

While Murray might share the same first name and nationality with Brooke, he did not share the same fate with first White Rajah of Sarawak.

In his pursue to achieve his dream, Murray found himself dead in the hands of the locals and buried at sea off the coast of Borneo, thousands of miles from home.

So what went wrong?

James Erskine Murray and his journey to Borneo

Born in 1810, Murray was a lawyer and the author of a travel book on the Iberian Peninsula.

In 1841, he took his family including his wife, two sons and two daughters to Port Phillip, Australia.

Then in early 1843, he left Port Philip and headed to Hong Kong on a ship named Warlock.

In Hong Kong, he sold Warlock and bought a 90-tonne schooner Young Queen and a 200-tonne brig Anna.

After hiring enough crew, the two vessels set sail from Hong Kong on Nov 9, 1943.

A schooner. Image by Pixabay.com

James Erskine Murray at Tenggarong

A fortnight later, they arrived off the Sambas river in western Borneo. The Dutch did not think too much about it.

They spent the Christmas season in Banjarmasin.

By early February 1844, the expedition arrived at the mouth of Mahakam river.

The river is the most important river in southeast Borneo.

Murray’s plan was to visit Tenggarong, the capital city of Sultanate of Kutai which was located in the upper river of Mahakam.

When he arrived at Tenggarong, Murray expressed his desire to trade with Sultan Muhammad Salehuddin Aliuddin.

The sultan agreed but said he must consult his court of datu first.

Looking at how agreeable the sultan was, Murray proposed to the sultan should present him with a large tract of land for an independent settlement so that he himself or some other Englishman be allowed to reside at Tenggarong to protect any of his fellow countrymen who might come to trade

For his own record, he wrote that he had tried by all possible means to gain the friendship of the people so that “a vast field for English enterprise and manufactures” might be opened up in this part of Borneo.

The sultan declined his proposal politely.

While Murray and the Sultan were going back and forth with their proposals, Chinese traders came alongside Murray’s two ships.

The British learned from the Chinese that some Europeans – probably Englishmen – were being held prisoner in Kutai.

They were most probably captured when the sultan pirated an English ship recently.

Murray sent his men to investigate but the local people showed up and warned them away before they could find anything.

Meanwhile, tension was rising between Murray and the sultan with guns being stationed within a few hundred yards of the ships and many armed men began to assemble near the palace.

B.R. Pearn wrote in his paper “Erskine Murray’s Fatal Adventure in Borneo 1843-44” that Murray considered several solutions to get himself out of the sticky situation. In the end, he chose to withdraw but not without some extreme demands.

“The solution, in his view, was to obtain hostages from the Sultan to ensure a safe withdrawal downstream. He must also, as a matter of duty, seek the release of the European prisoners. He wanted as well recompense for the losses incurred through the treatment the expedition had received, probably meaning the lose imposed by the unprofitable trip to Tenggarong. He therefore proposed to address the Sultan, making these demands and saying that if the hostages were not sent aboard he would open fire.”

The battle between James Erskine Murray and Sultan of Kutai

On the morning of Feb 16, Murray sent the letter to the Sultan demanding that the hostages should be the prime minister, the Shahbandar (port officer) and the secretary.

Along with the European prisoners, these men should be sent aboard Murray’s ships within two hours.

The letter was sent to the palace at 8.30am. By 11 o’clock, there was no reply from the palace.

Murray then proceeded to fire a shot over the sultan’s palace.

Immediately, the batteries on shore and the war boats which had been hiding not far from the ships fired back.

The two ships began to retreat downstream after suffering damage and casualties.

As they made their way downstream, about 50 war boats pursued them.

Down the river, several hidden batteries opened fire on the two vessels.

The death of James Erskine Murray

The battle continued throughout afternoon.

At about 6pm as the sky started to get dark, the two vessels were now lashed together.

While the fires continued to exchange, men from both sides began to feel tired.

Murray himself then took over one of the guns and start to fire, while doing so he was fatally shot.

A bullet stuck him in the left breast and before he died, his last words were “My God”.

Besides Murray, two other men were killed and five other were wounded during the fight.

After nearly thirty-six hours of violence of battle, the locals abandoned their pursuit and the two ships made their escape.

Murray was buried at sea on Feb 18, 1844.

The aftermath

According to Pearn, Murray’s disaster evoked little sympathy from his contemporaries in Borneo waters.

Many criticised him for his “imprudence and unguarded conduct” which “brought upon himself the attack.”

Pearn stated, “It is evident that Murray acted on inadequate information and so was led to visit particularly dangerous area. His ignorance of local conditions thus caused him to commit himself to very unfriendly country.”

Murray’s tragic fate had an unexpected effect. The incident made the Dutch cautious over British presence in Kalimantan.

By 1845, the long-reigned Sultan Muhammad Salehuddin was obliged to sign a treaty with the Dutch, acknowledging their overall sovereignty over Kutai.

A year later, the first Dutch Resident was appointed for Eastern Borneo covering the Kutai region.

In 1883, the Sultan of Kutai formally conceded the absorption of his realm into the Dutch East Indies.