Here is a piece of Sarawak history that could inspire the next movie installment of Pirates of the Caribbean.
It is called The Battle off Mukah, a naval engagement fought in 1862 between the Sarawak navy and the notorious Illanun pirates.
Sarawakian citizens along the coast of Mukah were kidnapped by the pirates, most probably to be sold as slaves. In response, the then heir apparent of the first White Rajah, the Rajah Muda Captain John Brooke led his force in two small warships to defeat these pirates.
The preparation for the Battle off Mukah
Harriette McDougall, the wife of the first Bishop of Labuan and Sarawak Francis Thomas McDougall, recorded the Battle off Mukah in her 1882 book called the Sketches of Our Life at Sarawak.
Though she herself was not there during the battle, her husband was one of the eight Europeans on board. There were two warships; one 80-foot steamer named Rainbow and a gunboat called Jolly Bachelor.
To prepare the vessels, planks were hung over the railing to raise the rear part of the ships where there were no bulwarks.
Then, they laid mattresses inside part of the ships to receive the shots and spears from the enemy.
Together with a few dozen soldiers and sailors, the two vessels began their journey from Kuching.
The Battle off Mukah
When they were somewhere off Mukah, they came across three of the Illanun perahus.
The water along this coastline was shallow and the Rainbow had the Jolly Bachelor in tow. Brooke’s battle plan was to release the smaller ship as soon as they were in a good firing position.
After confirming with his Sarawakian Malay chief that the vessels were pirates, both Rainbow and Jolly Bachelor went after them.
Brooke described the battle in a letter to James Brooke, his uncle and the first White Rajah “The first boat, a very large and fast one, took the lead and it soon became evident that she would cross our course and get ashore before we could be up to her.”
Then, the offence against the pirates began. The first pirate perahu got away. Brooke led the steamer to sink the second one. The Rainbow was about to chase the third pirate boat when it was ran aground.
But the guns onboard were still working so they pointed them to the third boat. This forced the pirates to abandon the ship without fighting.
Brooke ordered his men to rescue the survivors hanging on to the wreckage. Some of the Illanun pirates were so relentless; continuing to fight and attack the captives with weapons even in water.
During this time, one of the rescued pirates told them that there were another three boats on the way.
True enough after an hour or so, three enemy boats approached Brooke and his ships. The two parties exchanged fire.
In the end, two of the vessels were split in two as the Rainbow ran them over. Meanwhile, the final vessel was destroyed by gunfire and sank with a valuable cargo of gold and jewels.
The rescue of the captives
After the pirate boats were destroyed, they finally could focus on the rescue.
Brooke wrote, “In a moment, the steamer was surrounded by the unhappy captives floating on pillows built of planks and every thing that came to hand. Those that were Chinese holding up their tails to show their nationality, women with children clinging to them.”
According to Brooke, it was not difficult to distinguish the captives from the pirates as the captives had ropes around their necks.
Meanwhile, the bishop who busy treating the wounded captives said they were almost living skeletons.
When the Bishop asked them if their wounds hurt, the captives answered, “Nothing hurts so much as the saltwater the Illanuns gave us to drink. We never had fresh water; they mixed three parts of fresh with four of saltwater; and all we had to eat was a handful of rice or raw sago twice a day.”
And the wounds that these captives received were even more horrifying.
Harriette wrote, “One man came on board with the top of his skull as cleanly lifted up by a Sooloo (Sulu) knife, as if a surgeon had desired to take a peep at the brain inside! It took considerable force to close it in the right place. This man had also two cuts in his back, yet the next morning he was discovered eating a large plate of rice, and he ultimately recovered. Another poor fellow could not be got up the ladder because he had a long-handled three-barbed spear sticking in his back.”
The horror in Illanun’s captivity
The survivors also shared their horrific experiences on how they were attacked and taken captive by the pirates.
The Illanun pirates usually attacked those with valuable cargo. If the ships offered resistance, they killed everybody on board and burnt the vessels.
If the pirates spared their lives, they beat them with a piece of flat bamboo over the elbows and knees, and the muscles of arms and legs. The beating continued until the captives were unable to move.
When the pirates deemed the captives sufficiently meek and obedient, they were made to row.
They put one of their own fellow captives to keep them in check. But if he did not do his job properly, they would knife him and thrown him overboard.
If the captives tried to escape and jump into the sea, the pirates speared them in the water. The poor captives rowed day and night in relays.
To keep them awake, the pirates would rub cayenne peppers into their eyes and wounds.
The Aftermath of Battle off Mukah
Overall, there were about 165 people rescued from the pirates, including two British subjects. Among them were nine women and six children, most of them from Mukah or Oya. In every pirate boat, there were 40 to 50 pirates with 60 to 70 captives.
Sadly, many of them were killed by the pirates when they realised they were about to be defeated. The captives were taken from various locations; some were on their way to Terengganu from Singapore and some at the mouth of Pontianak river.
The Illanun pirates who survived the battle and washed ashore were reportedly killed by the Melanaus along Mukah and Bintulu shorelines. Meanwhile, the Brooke government ordered the locals to give help to the captives who survived.
Of the Illanuns, 32 were taken alive with 10 of them were boys. Brooke gave the boys away to people to bring up with hopes they might be reformed. For the adults, some died because of their wounds while some were taken to Kuching to be tried and then executed.