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The Brunei Civil War and how it led to Sulu’s claim over Sabah

The Brunei Civil War took place centuries years ago from 1660 to 1673. However, the consequences from this particular warfare seems to have an effect even to this day.

Adding on to the element of disbelief of this piece of history, the Brunei Civil War had, in fact, started from a cockfight.

The Brunei Civil War, a warfare which started from a cockfight

Pengiran Muda Bongsu, the son of Brunei’s 12th sultan, Sultan Muhammad Ali, had been indulging in a round of cockfighting with Pengiran Muda Alam, the son of the chief minister (only second to the sultan), Bendahara Abdul Hakkul Mubin.

The innocent cockfight turned bloody when Pengiran Muda Bongsu was defeated by Pengiran Muda Alam.

Pengiran Muda Bongsu, either being a super sore loser or entitled as the sultan’s son (perhaps both?) was so enraged by the loss that he stabbed Pengiran Muda Alam in the chest with his keris, ultimately killing him.

When a cockfight turns bloody. Credit: Pixabay.

The wrath of a father

The bendahara was furious upon learning the death of his beloved son, marching his men to the palace to confront the sultan.

‘A tooth for a tooth’, Abdul Hakkul Mubin told the sultan, wanting to avenge his son’s death.

To this demand, various sources cite the sultan’s responses differently.

One source stated that Abdul Hakkul Mubin was denied the right to search the palace for Pengiran Muda Bongsu, while another source stated that the sultan had allowed him to do so.

Either way, the prince had made his escape and the bendahara could not find Pengiran Muda Bongsu.

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Furious, Abdul Hakkul Mubin went amok, going into a killing spree which took the lives of everyone in the palace, including the royal family.

With the help of his men, Abdul Hakkul Mubin killed the sultan by garroting him to death.

The place where the sultan was slain is now known as ‘Marhum Tumbang Dirumput’, as his body was left lying on the grass.

Meanwhile, the bendahara took the throne, becoming sultan as he crowned himself the 13th Sultan of Brunei.

Sultan Abdul Hakkul Mubin’s reign

Naturally, the people were not happy that their new sultan had killed his way to the throne. In order to gain their trust, Sultan Abdul Hakkul Mubin installed the late sultan’s grandson – Pengiran Muhyiddin – as the new Bendahara.

It was not enough. The loyal followers of the late Sultan Muhammad Ali were not happy, imploring the now Bendahara Muhyiddin to fight against Sultan Abdul Hakkul Mubin.

A rebellion started by ‘mengarok’

Muhyiddin and his followers planned to create a disturbance at the palace and the houses in the area.

They started to ‘mengarok’, poking spears through the floors of the palace and houses.

When Sultan Abdul Hakkul Mubin turned to Muhyiddin for advice on what to do, he advised him to move his palace to Pulau Chermin.

The moment the Sultan moved out from the mainland to Pulau Chermin, Muhyiddin declared himself the 14th Sultan of Brunei.

No country can be ruled by two kings. Therefore, the battle between the two sultans began.

The war begins

After repelling several attacks from Muhyiddin, Abdul Hakkul Mubin eventually retreated to Kinarut, Sabah.

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With help of local Bajaus and Dusuns, he managed to defend himself from Muhyiddin.

Abdul Hakkul Mubin reportedly lived in Kinarut for 10 years to defend his title.

In the final attack at Kinarut, however, Muhyiddin still failed to defeat Abdul Hakkul Mubin.

Then, Abdul Hakkul Mubin decided to return to Pulau Chermin.

It turned out to be a great strategic move for Abdul Hakkul Mubin. From there, he was able to control the food supply going into the mainland as the island is located near the mouth of Brunei river.

In the meantime, the people of Brunei were suffering as they could not go out to fish during the civil war.

Worried that the war would drag on, Muhyiddin decided to seek the Sultan of Sulu for help.

In return, Muhyiddin promised to hand over the eastern part of north Borneo as a reward.

Finally, Muhyiddin’s men successfully attacked Pulau Chermin, launching the final assault on Abdul Hakkul Mubin and his men.

Knowing that he would be defeated, Abdul Hakkul Mubin threw himself into the sea along with his crown.

Territory in the 1878 agreement from the Pandassan River on the north west coast to the Sibuco River in the south. Copyright: Public Domain

The Sulu Sultanate and their claim over eastern Borneo (current-day Sabah)

Meanwhile, the Sulu Sultanate was like that classmate everyone used to have who did not contribute to the group assignment but still had his share of the mark.

They reportedly did not help much in the final battle except by showing up at the last minute.

Regardless, the Sultan of Sulu still claimed his reward of eastern Sabah.

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Meanwhile, Brunei, on their side, never recognised the claim and never released any official document to legitimise Sulu’s sovereignty of the area.

Fast forward to December 1877, Baron Gustav von Overbeck managed to convince the Sultan of Brunei to concede some territories to him to form the British North Borneo Company.

From there, he found out about the Sulu’s claim to the eastern territory of the area. Hence, he proceeded to obtain that part of territories from Sultan of Sulu.

Some historians believed that was when the real trouble of the North Borneo dispute began. Many believed that the eastern part of Borneo was never officially ruled by Sulu sultanate in the first place.

Overbeck reportedly wanted to ‘avoid’ future problems with Sulu Sultanate. Therefore, he had the Sultanate of Sulu to sign an agreement on January 22, 1878.

The problematic agreement which, depending on the translation, stipulated that North Borneo was either ceded or leased to the British company.

Today, the Philippines, presenting itself as the successor state of the Sulu Sultanate, retains a dormant claim on Eastern Sabah on the basis that the territory was only ‘leased’ to the British North Borneo Company in 1878.

Can you imagine how these international claims today, had originated from a cockfight?

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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