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What sparked the Bau Rebellion?

Located approximately 30 km from Kuching, the peaceful town of Bau, mostly inhabited by the Bidayuh people, was once famed for being a gold mining town and is now known as a popular weekend destination.

In the early 1800s, the Bau District was referred to as ‘Ulu Sarawak’ or ‘Upper Sarawak’ while Kuching was referred to as ‘Hilir Sarawak’.

According to urban legend, the town of Bau got its name back in 1857 during the Chinese rebellion when the wives and children of Chinese miners hiding in the Ghost Cave were burnt alive or died of smoke inhalation from the fire set by Rajah James Brooke’s forces.

It was said that their decaying bodies caused the whole area to smell and thus the name of the town ‘Bau’ which means ‘smelly’ in Malay.

Contrary to this, it is said that the town actually got its name from the Bidayuh word ‘bauh’ which means ‘new’, referring to a new town created by Chinese settlers who came from Sambas, Kalimantan.

Old Bau Town was known as ‘Mau San’ or ‘Bukit Mau’ and the settlement was established due to the discovery of gold and antimony.

A time of discontent

When Brooke was given the title ‘Rajah of Sarawak’ by the 23rd Sultan of Brunei, Sultan Omar Ali Saifuddien in 1841, he started to impose taxes on the gold, antimony, and opium, enraging the miners who had settled there from Sambas.

Originally from Sambas, the Hakkas came in separate batches to Bau.

According to Harriette McDougall in her book, Sketches of Our Life at Sarawak, the first batch came by land in the 1820s to escape the battle between the Dutch and a kongsi clan in Kalimantan. The second batch came to Lundu area by sea in the 1850s before joining their relatives in Bau.

Kongsi or clan halls are organisations formed among overseas Chinese communities with individuals of the same surname.  

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Headed by Liu Shan Bang (刘善邦) who brought his fellow miners and farmers from Kalimantan, they established themselves in Bau as the Samthiaokloe Kongsi, or ‘Twelve Kongsi’.

They were running away from the oppression by the Dutch and the fighting against the Lanfang kongsi (which was the largest kongsi clan in West Kalimantan at the time). It would take the Dutch three campaigns throughout the 1820s to 1880s to defeat what was the first modern republic in the world in 1884.

The reason that sparked the rebellion

While it is believed that the Bau Rebellion was ignited when the Chinese miners were upset with James Brooke for imposing taxes on opium, Desmond Leong in his 2011 book called ‘The White Rajahs … Myths Retold: The Massacre of the Bau Hakkas’ claimed that the case of a woman’s adultery was central to what sparked off the uprising.

According to Leong, the incident was told in detail by Daniel Owen, a Hakka speaking ‘principal teacher’ of the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel (SPG) Mission, a 300-year-old Anglican missionary organisation.

Owen wrote that one day before the rebellion occurred on 18 February 1857, three men from the kongsi were arrested and whipped by the police.

After that, about 500 men came and burnt down the houses belonging to Brooke, Joseph Middleton and Arthur Crookshank, all while shouting ‘Assie Moi’.

According to Leong, the kongsi only wanted to burn down the houses of the British officers, but McDougall wrote that they left the church and the Bishop’s house alone for he had been good to the Chinese.

The assault on their houses resulted in the deaths of two adults and Middleton’s two children.

Brooke had (even in an ill state) escaped by diving into the Sarawak River. The kongsi would behead another British officer and parade his head around on a pole, believing they had actually killed Brooke.

Who was Assie Moi?

Assie Moi, which means ‘little sister’ in Hakka, was reportedly a woman from Bau who had run away from her husband. She reportedly had gone to Crookshank for protection in Kuching as he was then the chief constable, and Middleton a police magistrate.

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While Crookshank initially wanted her to return to her husband, she threatened to commit suicide and so the chief constable had no choice but to take her under custody.

Here, Leong speculates that Assie Moi would have been executed as an adulteress if she had returned to the kongsi, which is also why Crookshank took her into custody in Kuching.

Assie Moi, in a bid to escape, left her slippers at the jetty by the river, which were miraculously spotted by members of the kongsi, giving the impression that she had indeed committed suicide when actually she had managed to escape to Muara Tebas by ‘sampeiong’ or a large cargo boat.

Unfortunately, she was spotted by somebody from the kongsi and 50 men were sent to catch her. The boatmen were beaten and the boat destroyed.

The boat operator then reported the incident to the police which resulted in those three men from the kongsi getting arrested and whipped for taking the law into their own hands, thus sparking off the rebellion.

The aftermath

It was reported that Brooke then came back days later and commanded the operation aboard the Borneo Company steamer, the Sir James Brooke together with his nephew, Charles Brooke, with bigger army and guns.

Most of the Chinese miners were killed in Jugan, Siniawan where they set up their defence while some managed to escape to Kalimantan.

Meanwhile, the wife and children of the miners hid in the Ghost Cave where Brooke ordered to have set fire to the brush at the cave mouth, thus killing hundreds of women and children who died from suffocation.

Was Liu Shan Bang part of the uprising?

It was said that the rebellion against Brooke was headed by Liu Shan Bang who was believed to have been tragically killed during the battle in Jugan, Siniawan. But Leong claimed that there were no records found on the man himself taking part in the uprising.

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In The White Rajah: Myths Retold, Leong said that Harriette McDougall and Daniel Owen both said the name of the leader was actually ‘Kaming’ and not Liu Shan Bang.

Benevolent ruler or bloodthirsty colonist?

It was widely known that Kuching was given to James Brooke by the Sultan of Brunei when he helped to eradicate rebellions that the Sultan faced in those days.

During the Commission of Inquiry in Singapore in 1854 on the controversial Beting Marau incident where thousands of Dayaks were killed in what were alleged to be anti-piracy activities, findings from the investigation found that under the ruling of James Brooke , Sarawak was not an independent state, but was actually a vassal state of Brunei, where the White Rajah had to pay annual rental for mining the gold and antimony.

Aside from that, Leong states that the title ‘Rajah’ was actually a title for an officer with the Brunei sultanate.

Meanwhile, in the book Chinese Pioneers On The Sarawak Frontier by Dr. Daniel Chew, for 100 years the Brooke family was profiting from opium sales, which comprised more than half of the annual revenue of Sarawak.

Leong writes that 3,500 Chinese miners related to the kongsi, including the 100 or so women and children in the Ghost Cave, were killed during and in the aftermath of the rebellion as part of Brooke’s stamping out of a future uprising.

But, with the loss of the Chinese miners during the rebellion, who had either died during the skirmish or were lucky to have escaped and return to Kalimantan, Brooke essentially lost his source of income from selling opium as well as mining gold and antimony.

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