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Legend of Melanau hero Tugau against the first sultan of Brunei

According to Melanau folklore, Tugau is a demigod chief whose cough could be heard 60km away.

There are several accounts written about this legendary hero. In the Oya Melanau by Stephen Morris, Tugau was said to be the son of Rajah Kiangan, the ruler of the sky. Meanwhile, Tugau’s grandmother was the daughter of the Rajah Yang, ruler of the world below.

He emerged from an egg along with a white fighting cock with one black feather at its tail and a cobra.

A human couple found him by accident and raised him as their own child.

He grew up to be a warrior and the chief of his people in Rutus river, the tributary of Igan.

Here is an article about Tugau by A.E. Lawrence who was the Bintulu resident in the early 20th century.

In this version of the legend, it tells the story of how Tugau went against Alak Betatar. Also known as Muhammad Shah, he was the first sultan of the Brunei Sultanate possibly from 1363 to 1402.

This legend of Tugau was first published in the Sarawak Museum Journal in January 1911 and republished again in the Sarawak Gazette on Sept 1, 1948:

Batang Igan.

Tugau lived in the Rutus, a large tributary of the Igan. To this day many stories and legends about Tugau and his relations are told by the Melanaus from Matu to Bintulu, especially in those families which are descended from or any other chiefs famous in his day – of his miraculous birth, his size and strength- of his death at the hands of his own people, etc.

Remains of the belian post of Tugau’s house are still to be seen on the banks of the Rutus, and below them, if any man is brave enough to dig there, is hidden an enormous treasure of gold, besides the bones of the slaves sacrificed according to custom when the posts of a new house are erected.

Besiong, a near connection of Tugau, was also a famous person, and had many adventures, miraculous and otherwise.

Besides ruling over his own people at Rutus, Tugau had great influence in many other districts along the coast.

Kedahat, Chief of Oya, was related to him and acknowledged his supremacy. The Mukah chief, Busi whose burial post is still to be seen in the Tillian river, although the run at the pot containing his bones has long since been lost, was married to a near relation Tugau, who could count on the Mukah people following him to war if he required them.

Tutong (currently one of the four districts in Brunei), under its chief Beniban, and Belait (the largest district in Brunei) then ruled by a man named Jam, were also friendly to Tugau, so that he really had a quite a large and powerful, if somewhat scattered, following.

Tugau against Alak Betatar

Thinking that he was strong enough to overcome the rising Brunei power, Tugau sent a message to Alak Betatar demanding tribute and submission from him.

This was refused, and Alak Betatar in return made the same demands from Tugau, with the alternative of war if he did not yield to them.

The answer was prompt enough, as, without waiting for Brunei to take the aggressive, Tugau’s brother-in-law, Besiong, raised Tutong and Belait, and made a raid into the territory.

Here they met a Brunei force under Pateh Berbi and Semaun, also said to be a brother of Alak Betatar, and were repulsed, falling back again on Tutong and Belait.

There the Bruneis attacked and beat them; but Besiong, with a few followers, made his escape by boat, and sailed down coast as fast as he could to get back to his brother-in-law at Rutus, report his failure, and raise the country.

Besiong reached the Rutus safely, but before he and Tugau could collect all their followers or send word to the neighbouring districts, Pateh Berbi and Semaun, who had followed by sea from Tutong with all their people, were upon them.

Thus taken by surprise Tugau was beaten and made full submission to Alak Betatar through his brothers, promising to pay the tribute demanded.

Alak Betatar’s men conquer Mukah and Oya

Mukah river

Having got Tugau into their power, Pateh Berbi and Semaun did not give time for any possible combination of the neighbouring Melanau chiefs, but went straight for Mukah, the most populous Melanau settlement remaining.

There, they were again successful, beating the chief, Busui and receiving his submission also.

These two decisive victorious countries, as Kedahat Oya and several other chiefs submitted without attempting resistance.

Alak Betatar therefore was now ruler, at least nominally, over all the coast districts from Brunei to the Igan, with the exception of Bintulu, the story of whose submission is somewhat different.

It appears that none of the Bintulu villages were very near the sea and it so happened that when Pateh Berbi and Semaun returned to Brunei from their conquering expedition, no Bintulu people were about in their boats off the mouth of the river, so that the Brunei fleet, although on the lookout for other settlements to conquer, did not guess that the place was inhabited.

Alak Betatar conquers Bintulu

Later on Alak Betatar sent an expedition along the coast by sea with express orders to find and subdue any settlement they might come across.

Even then they would have sailed past the mouth of Bintulu river, thinking it uninhabited, but for an accident.

As they passed by, someone saw fresh banana leaves and stems floating out to sea, and called attention to them.

The leaders decided to go upriver and find out who had planted those bananas, and paddling inland for some time, came across on a large Melanau village, finding several more later on.

The Bintulu people would seem to have been shyer and wilder than other coast Melanaus, for whenever the Bruneis came near a village to land, all the inmates took to the jungle.

However, the Brunei people gradually coaxed them back and gained their friendship by presents and other means finally making them subjects of Alak Betatar, and appointing a man to rule over the district, which before had been divided up among several petty chiefs, each holding his own village.

The aftermath

Under the Brunei rule, Tugau, Busui, Kedahat and other chiefs were allowed to go on ruling their own people. However, there were some conditions. Above all, they had to acknowledge Alak Betatar as their supreme ruler and pay him a yearly tribute.

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Some time later, Alak Betatar and his country converted to become an Islamic state. Then, the native Melanau chiefs were slowly replaced by the Pangerans (princes) from Brunei who married into the families by the men they superseded.

If it weren’t for Tugau challenging Alak Betatar in the first place, would these areas of Igan and Oya rivers fall under Brunei rule? Or even without Tugau being so ambitious, had Alak Betatar always aimed to conquer the northern coastline of Borneo? Is there really gold buried under the remains of Tugau’s house? We may never know.

Regardless, the areas which Tugau once had influence over continued to be under the Sultanate of Brunei until James Brooke took over in 1860.

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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