Saturday, November 20, 2010

Pirates of the Saribas

Who really were the pirates – the Rajah Brooke’s men or the fearsome natives of Saribas and Skrang? History books paint the Brookes as the good guys because they were the government while the other faction was made out to be the bad guys. But could it be that the natives, described as pirates were simply a bunch of patriotic souls trying to free their homeland from the clutches of the whites? Whether the so-called pirates of Skrang and Saribas are really pirates is an issue for historians to determine. The war basically came about because the Brookes were eager to expand their territories and the warriors of Skrang and Saribas were seen as a threat to their ambitions. It is possible that the natives were merely defending their territory against invasion by the Brookes. The fierce battle as a historic moment in the annals of Sarawak because its outcome determined who was in control of the State.
The bloody Battle of Beting Maro between the Rajah’s forces and the so-called pirates took place on July 31, 1849. On July 24 of that year, an expedition led by Rajah James Brooke comprising three steamers, seven men of war and 18 war canoes set sail from Kuching to ambush a fleet of Saribas and Skrang natives. They had heard that the natives had left Saribas two days earlier and headed north. The Rajah’s invading forces were determined to intercept the natives on their return. The British sailors were promised a bounty of 20 pounds for every pirate killed. On the evening of July 31, sentinel boats signaled the return of the natives, who fell into the trap. The ensuing battle lasted about five hours. Both sides shot at each other with guns and rockets. By midnight, everything was over, but a few native leaders managed to escape up the Saribas amidst the confusion. A few days later, the Rajah’s forces in a mopping up operation, burnt and destroyed longhouses and homes of the pirates on the Saribas river.
Acoording to the Rajah’s estimates, 300 “pirates” were killed out of 3,700 at the battle. Five hundred more died later of wounds, either trying to walk home or at the hands of the Rajah’s Iban allies. The Admiralty Court in Singapore later concluded that 2,140 “pirates” manning 88 boats took part in the battle of whom 500 were killed. The court awarded 20,700 pounds in bounty – 10,000 pounds for 500 pirates “destroyed” at 20 pounds per head, and 2,140 pirates “dispersed” at 5 pounds per head.


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