Only Brunei can rightfully claim Sabah
Published on: Sunday, July 17, 2022
By: Avtar Singh and Shari Jeffri
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The Brunei Palace: Parts of Philippines is also said to belong to Brunei.
THE Brunei Sultanate ruled over most of Borneo, the Philippines and many of the kingdoms in the Sulu archipelago going back to the 14th century, including the Sulu Sultanate.

Brunei depended on administrators and tax collectors along all of the rivers that were linked to the Sabah coastline and a Bajau Samah army and naval force who were spread along the coast in small communities that still exist even till today.

The Sulu Sultanate had some influence in some areas on the east coast of Sabah which served mainly as bases for their pirates to operate from and collected tribute from some native villages on the east coast such as birds nest and jungle products as well as slaves for a period of between 100 years to 150 years before the agreement of cessation was signed.

Brunei’s influence over Borneo declined between the 16th and 17th Century due to the arrival of the Spanish in the Philippines and the Pulau Chermin civil war which led to a divided Brunei kingdom for a period of time.

The claim over Sabah from the Sulu Sultanate originates from the Pulau Chermin Civil War and Kinarut Wars which was an internal civil war within the Brunei Sultanate that lasted for 12 years from 1661 to 1673 between two opposing members of the royal household who claimed the throne; Sultan Abdul Hakkul Mubin and Sultan Muhyiddin.

The claim over Sabah from the Sulu Sultanate is that either all of Sabah (or some territories within Sabah) was promised to them for aiding Sultan Muhiyiddin in the war.

During the final battle in 1673 at Pulau Chermin, Sultan Mubin was defeated but there are conflicting versions as to if the Sulu warriors did indeed fight in the battle or if they merely waited for the battle to be over before ransacking the royal palace at the end of the battle.

Prisoners were taken by the Sulu including a son from Sultan Mubin before they departed back for Jolo Island. No demands were made until 15 years later in 1688 when the very same son, named Datu Dakula was sent back to Brunei to claim what was promised to the Sulu Sultanate.

There is also a suggestion that the Sulu claim over Sabah comes from Datu Dakula’s heritage as being a surviving son of Sultan Mubin, who therefore inherited all of Sabah as including six territorial dependencies since his father had died and Sabah was presented as a gift to Sultan Mubin’s parents during his wedding by the previous Brunei Sultan, Sultan Saiful Rijal.

Sadly, there exists no historical evidence or agreements to support these claims by the Sulu Sultanate that Sabah was given to them by Brunei or if promises were indeed made by the Sultan of Brunei. And so, the Sulu claims appears to have no merit historically in this respect.

The Sulu Sultanate were responsible for encouraging bands of pirates under the leadership of various datu’s loyal to the throne to commit acts of piracy, kidnapping and the capturing of natives from coastal villages along the shores of Sabah from the mid-1700s till the late 1800s to be sold as slaves at slave trading markets in the Sulu archipelago.

Kidnapping of natives and selling them as slaves was part of a greater economic trade that was incredibly profitable and a lucrative business; slaves provided manpower for plantations, manpower as rowers on war ships, house maids as well as skilled craftsmen for many traders in the Sulu Archipelago as well in foreign lands. And slaves could be used to settle personal debts between various datu’s and businessmen in the Sulu region.

The British avoided conflict with the Spanish in the Borneo and Philippine regions but did attack and capture Manila for a short period of time in 1763. They were happy to trade with the Sulu by selling them guns and ammunition which helped them sustain their war with the Spanish until their defeat in July 1878.

Balambangan and Labuan islands served as important trading posts for the British to sell guns, ammunition and to barter trade with the Sulu for jungle products and opium.

The Spanish, who had ruled much of the Philippines since 1570 had struggled to end the Sulu insurgency in the south for 300 years. They had previously signed many peace treaties after defeating the Sulu Sultanate in battles between the 1600s till the late 1700s but in every instance, once the Spanish had left, the treaties were torn up and completely ignored.

The Sulu Sultanate then went back to committing acts of piracy, kidnapping and slavery against not only native villages in Sabah under Brunei rule as well as against Filipino villages in the Philippines under Spanish rule.

All this changed by 1875 as the Spanish navy decimated villages loyal to the Sulu Sultan on islands surrounding Jolo Island and then introduced a naval blockade which prevented trade access to the Sulu Kingdom. The Sulu Sultanate were no longer the naval power they once were as the Spanish defeated them comprehensively in many battles and they suffered heavy losses in men and ships.

The Sulu were not able to commit acts of piracy, kidnapping and slave trading as the British Navy were directed to stop these pirate attacks in Sabah and to destroy the pirate bases at Marudu Bay and on the east coast of Sabah in the mid-1800s. 

This too contributed significantly to the decline of the Sulu economy which in turn saw reduced wealth in the royal treasury.

For the Sultan of Sulu, he only had two options in January 1878; surrender to the Spanish as he was on the verge of total defeat or surrender Sabah to Dent and Overbeck and negotiate a deal to re-arm and to be able to continue fighting the Spanish.

By establishing a relationship with Dent and Overbeck, he also hoped to have a territory to escape to in the event of defeat and a yearly payment of 5000 pesos to sustain himself and his family for the rest of their lives.

By signing the agreement of cession in January 1878, it meant the sultan was willing to sacrifice any claims he may have had on Sabah at a time when the Sultanate was desperate for money and weapons to continue the war against the Spanish as the terms offered by Dent and Overbeck were for a total cession and not for a lease on the territory.

It is for these reasons we now understand the pressures the Sulu Sultan faced in 1878 and why he agreed to give up all claims of ownership over territories he claimed in Sabah.

Baron Von Overbeck and Alfred Dent saw a business opportunity and signed the agreement to purchase Sabah from the Sultan of Brunei. 

They then negotiated a similar agreement with the Sultan of Sulu who had overlapping claims over Sabah for 5000 pesos including three shiploads of guns and ammunitions which included a modern American weapon called the gatling gun that could fire 1000 rounds per minute.

These historical facts are well documented by Don Carlos Cuarteron, the prefect of Borneo who documented these historical events in his personal diaries which can be viewed today in a book published by Mike Gibby titled “Crowned with the Stars.”

It is because of his diaries that have been translated by Mike Gibby that we are now able to establish the real intentions of the Sultan of Sulu with regards as to why he agreed to the terms proposed by Dent and Overbeck and signed the agreement in 1878.

The Sultanate of Sulu was forced to surrender to the Spanish in July 1878 after 300 years of bloody war and bloodshed. This final surrender brought about an end to any influence the Sulu would ever have again in the region.

So, on what basis did the Sulu Sultanate ever have any claim to Sabah as the royal household were neither originally from Sabah, never lived in Sabah nor had any ancestorial claims to the territory in any capacity going back in time.

There were no palaces, no cities and no centres of administration of the Sulu Sultanate in Sabah unlike the Brunei Sultanate who were based in Borneo and historically ruled most of Borneo for almost 6 centuries and had vassals and administrators and Bajau Samah armies based in Mengkabong, Putatan, Abai, Kinarut and even in Marudu. Until the cessation of Sabah in 1877, the entire west coast of Sabah was controlled by the Brunei Pangerans and their Bajau Samah warriors.

In the 18th century, any Sulu claims over the east coast of Sabah was simply by the force of arms after the decline of Brunei hegemony with no proper transfer of sovereignty.

Much of the controversy of “was it a lease or cessation” begins with Jamalul-Kiram II, the son of Sultan Jamal ul-Azam who had signed the agreement on 22nd January 1878. He replaced his elder brother as Sultan after the passing of Sultan Jamal and began to challenge the British by stating the agreement was a lease agreement and so this confusing narrative that the agreement of cessation was a lease begins, especially within the Philippines.

But in the eyes of the Chartered Company and the British Government, there was never any question of the validity of the cessation: Sabah was not the property of the Sulu Sultanate any longer and there was nothing more to discuss on the matter.

One aspect of history that further erodes arguments that the Sulu had some form of ownership over Sabah is that is the question of kidnapping and slavery; why would any royal household who claimed to rule over a people subject the very same people to a life of misery and slavery for the rest of their lives?

The other historical issue we have found with claims made by the alleged claimants of the Sulu Sultanate today is that the identities of these Sulu claimants are also considered to be very doubtful as they do not allegedly come from a lineage that is linked directly to the Sulu Sultan from the 1800s.

Having translated the agreements of cessation signed by the Sultan of Sulu from Jawi into English and Bahasa Malaysia in 2020 whilst researching the agreements, our discoveries were as follows:

1: There does not appear to be an escape clause or exit clause in the agreement, meaning the Sultanate is bound by the agreement forever.

2: There are no penalties for late payment(s) of the annual 5,000 pesos and/or the ability for the Sultanate to cancel the agreement if there is a breach of the agreement due to non-payment by Dent and Overbeck.

It is an agreement that does not in any way suggest it is an agreement of lease but rather, what we would today call a “sale and purchase agreement.”

In our opinion, the agreement did not appear to favour the seller but favoured the buyer as all rights are given to the buyer for as long as he desires, which essentially means, forever.

So, if this agreement was a lease agreement as what has been suggested, it is, in our humble opinion, a poorly negotiated lease agreement on the part of the Sultan of Sulu that does not favour the owner in any way.

It is in our opinion that it is the Brunei Sultanate who ruled over Sabah for almost 600 years who have a greater claim of ownership over Sabah given they were a kingdom based in Borneo and had historical ties and links to Sabah for almost six centuries and have abided by and respected the terms of the agreement of cessation they signed in 1877 with Overbeck and Dent.

- Research on this paper involved the collaboration of Uwe Aranas.

- The views expressed here are the views of the writer Avtar Singh, Shari Jeffri and Uwe Aranas and and do not necessarily reflect those of the Daily Express.

- If you have something to share, write to us at: [email protected]


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