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The local Kanowit version of the Fox and Steele murders

After two of Brooke’s officers – Charles James Fox and Henry Steele – were murdered in 1859, the government named two suspects behind the crime.

They were Saweng (sometimes spelled Sawing) and Sakalai (sometimes spelled Sekalai).

So who were they and what drove them to kill the officers?

Here is what the local Kanowit people believed happened in the Fox and Steele murders:

This version of the story was told by Jaro Lamit who was a former chief of Kampung Bedil, Kanowit. He told the story to The Sarawak Gazette in September 1963 when he was already in his mid-eighties.

In the olden days, there were many tribes living in Kanowit, including the Kanowit tribe. The Kanowit people were more populous in this area than the other tribes.

Two of their chiefs were Saweng and Sakalai. Sakalai, however was a Melanau from Matu by birth.

According to Jaro, the site of the secondary school at Kanowit in the 1960s used to be where two longhouses stood.

“In those days the Kanowit people were divided into three ranks; Raja (aristocrats), Panyin (middle class) and Dipan (slave). The aristocrats lived in the middle apartments of the longhouse; the middle class (panyin) lived on either side and the slaves (dipan) lived with the families of the aristocrats. They worked for the aristocrats and everybody lived at peace,” Jaro stated.

Then a beautiful girl named Nyalade came into the picture. Saweng only had eyes on Nyalade and wished to have her hand in marriage.

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However, Nyalade had her own mind, telling Saweng, “If you are really a brave man and invulnerable, you go and cut off the heads of the two white fowls on the other side of the river.”

Nyalade was actually refusing to marry Saweng because he already had a wife and two children.

Saweng, nonetheless, felt ashamed and threatened with Nyalade’s dare. He then told his people to pack all their belongings and make refuge at Kabah river (Nanga Kabah) where they built a stronghold.

Determined to prove his bravery, Saweng and a few of his men – including Sakalai – went to the fort where Fox and Steele stayed.

Jaro told the gazette, “Before they reached the Fort, Saweng said to Sakalai and his friends, ‘When I begin to chew betel nut, you will kill those Europeans.’ When they reached the Fort, Saweng began to chew betel nut, and Sakalai and his friends took their parangs and killed them.”

Kanowit bazaar in 2016.
The aftermath of the murders
The double homicide of the Brooke officers had led the Brooke government to send punitive expedition against the Kanowit people. Credit: Pixabay.

After the news of the murders reached the White Rajah, the Brooke government sent a punitive expedition to Kanowit.

They made the fort into a stronghold and attacked the surrounding villages with their guns and cannons.

Meanwhile, Saweng and his followers made their escape to Kabah river to their stronghold.

The Ibans that the Brooke recruited knew about this so they followed them to the stronghold. Some of these Ibans were once allies to Saweng.

After a ferocious fight between Saweng and his men against Brooke and his Iban warriors, Saweng’s troop started to break apart.

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As many of his followers died during the battle, those who came from Matu, Igan and Mukah to fight went back to their own homes.

Even some of the Kayan and Bukitan people who helped him perished during the battle.

Saweng, however did not falter. He attempted to escape up the Rajang river to the Iran river. There, he fought another fierce battle with the Brooke troops.

Jaro said, “The water of the Iran river became red with blood. After a long fight at the Iran river, Saweng and his followers could not longer stand the heavy fire of the Rajah’s party, and escaped to the Pelagus river where they again made a stand.”

Saweng and his followers continued to fight through the Brookes as they made another escape to the Kejaman longhouse at Tuju Metahap, near the Belaga bazaar today.

There, he made the Kejaman longhouse as his stronghold. Legend has it that he hung a mat in front of the house in order to protect it. It was said that none of the bullets fired on the longhouse were able to penetrate the magical mat.

Nonetheless, many of the Sekapan and Kejaman people paid the price for harbouring Saweng and his men.

Saweng’s final escape to Anap

After staying with the Kejaman people Tuju Metahap, Saweng then went to Anap.

When Saweng and his followers fought against the Rajah’s expedition, his children Gadap and Metalai were actually still living in Kanowit.

Upon learning about this, the Rajah reportedly sent a letter to Saweng in Anap telling him that his children were under arrest.

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In order to free his children, Saweng decided to surrender himself to the Rajah in Kuching. There, he was put in jail.

They tried to put him to death by different kinds of methods such as stabbing and shooting but all failed.

The Kanowit people believed he had some power that made him invulnerable.

According to Jaro: “In the end Saweng said to the Rajah, it is painful to have your men trying to kill me like this, and it will be better for me to die quickly. Saweng then asked the Rajah to kill him himself and the Rajah took his dagger and killed Saweng.”

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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