Mat Kilau

Mat Kilau was born in 1847 in Kampung Masjid Pulau Tawar, near Jerantut, Pahang, son of Khatib Rasu (later Imam Perang Indera Gajah) or Tok Gajah, who was one of the district chiefs of Pahang. He married Yang Chik binti Imam Daud of Kampung Kedondong, when he was 20 years old, and had three children, one of whom, Omar, was to help him when he re-emerged from silence in 1969 to reveal his true identity.

It was said that Mat Kilau learnt the finer art of silat and spiritual knowledge only after his marriage and one of his masters was his father. His father, Tok Gajah or Imam Rasu bin Shahrom, himself a great warrior, fought many victorious battles for Sultan Ahmad of Pahang, and is reputed to be able to lift a house by himself.

Mat Kilau also studied religion and spiritual matters under the tutelage of Haji Osman, also known as Haji Muntuk, the religious man who later was to be appointed as Mufti of Pahang. He joined the rebellion against the British imperialism (Pahang Rebellion 1891 – 1895) when he was 44 years old. Tok Gajah (his father) and the Panglima Kakap and later Orang Kaya Pahlawan Perkasa Semantan, Datuk Bahaman bin Dato’ Imam Noh, were some of his famous comrades-in-arms against the British during the period.

Mat Kilau was perhaps the greatest of the Malay warriors who were resisting the British colonial interlopers in what came to be known as the ‘Pahang War’ in the 1890s. The British, already with a foot in the door in Perak, were keen to extend their control over Pahang, which was reputed to have abundant gold and tin. Their opportunity came with the victory of Sultan Ahmad over his brother Mutahir in a succession war. Amidst rumours of an impending British attack, Ahmad chickened out and ‘invited’ the British in, although his chiefs were ready to fight. The British Resident, J.P. Rodgers, later set up his office in Kuala Lipis, immediately raising the ire of the local chief, Haji Wan Daud and the powerful Dato’ Bahaman.

Mat Kilau enters the scene after the British attack on Kg. Budu on the Lipis River. With 100 men, he attacked Kuala Lipis in 1892. But just as the peasant uprising looked like it was quickly gaining ground, Sultan Ahmad caved in to British pressure and withdrew his support for the rebels.  Mat Kilau and Dato’ Bahaman had to flee after the British put a prize on their head and branded them a traitor to the Sultan. But it wasn’t long before the rebels regrouped, believing now that they were fighting a jihad (holy war) against the British. In 1894, they overwhelmed the British fort at Kuala Tembeling, killing several Sikh policemen and a British soldier. Mat Kilau, Datuk Bahaman, Mat Kelubi, Awang Nong, Teh Ibrahim, Haji Mat Wahid and Mat Lela staged a formidable resistance that unnerved the British. Mat Kilau and Datuk Bahaman’s names are etched in the nation’s annals as those responsible for the Lubuk Terua war where they attacked a police post set up by the British and fatally wounded two British policemen. They even conquered Temerloh. However, with more reinforcement and a clever ploy of accusing the group of betraying the Sultan, the British succeeded in stopping more locals from joining the group and isolated it from the community. This eroded the group’s strength that at one time reached 600. The British later overran the rebels’ stronghold at nearby Jeram Ampai, forcing Mat Kilau and Dato’ Bahaman to again flee north.The British continued to hunt them.

Records show that his father Tok Gajah who was also involved in the resistance took refuge in Hulu Terengganu and died there, while Datuk Bahaman and several of his followers surrendered to the Siamese rulers. In 1896, the British received information that Mat Kilau had died in Thailand.

There the story would have ended. But in December 1969 a frail white-haired man made a startling proclamation at the Pulau Tawar mosque. ‘I am Mat Kilau,’ he had said after Friday prayers. Could this be the legendary guerilla fighter whose hit-and-run tactics seven decades earlier were keeping the British expeditionary forces at bay. The news caused a wave of excitement throughout the land. Detailed investigations over several months by the Pahang government upheld the revered warrior’s claim. The investigators had based their decision partly on tell-tale marks on his body and his bullet wounds.

Asked how he could still be alive well past 100 years, Mat Kilau was reported to have said: ‘ Even prophets and saints die, but if God wills it, then He can surely prolong the life of one of His servants.’ Unfortunately 10 days after the committee’s announcement, Mat Kilau died on Aug 16, 1970 at his home in Kampung Batu 5. He is said to have died at the age of 122 based on his estimated birth year of 1847.He was buried with full honours befitting a national hero at his birthplace not far from the mosque, Kampung Masjid Pulau Tawar, Jerantut.

Out of the many Malay warriors of Pahang who stood up against the British in the late 1880’s, only one lived to witness with his very own eyes the nation’s independence. Mat Kilau even had the opportunity to shout the magical word ‘Merdeka!’ on 31 Aug, 1957, something that his contemporaries like Datuk Bahaman, Haji Abdul Rahman Limbong and Tok Janggut or the earlier ones like Datuk Maharaja Lela and Dol Said did not live to do so. But on the historic day, none of the hundreds who turned up at the state mosque field in Kuantan realised that the high-spirited but frail-looking centenarian standing among them was Mat Kilau, the man who once tormented the British. the declaration of Merdeka was probably the most defining moment for the warrior who once tried to defend his race, religion and the sovereignty of his nation from occupation by foreign powers.


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