Mat Salleh

The supernatural powers possessed by Mat Salleh and his principal wife, Dayang Bandang, are legendary.

Mat Salleh was the son of Datu Balu, a Sulu chief who controlled part of the Labuk and Sugut area prior to the CC (Chartered Company) days. His mother was Bajau and he spent part of his childhood in Inanam and Gaya Island. He married Dayang Bandang, a Sulu princess, from the Court of the Sultan of Sulu. Mat Salleh himself was a pangeran. It has been claimed that Dayang Bandang never set foot on ground but was carried everywhere in a litter. There were other claims too that she was a witch.

Mat Salleh has been described as a tall, slim and pockmarked man. His personality, by all accounts, was a commanding one. Mat Salleh had been rated with above-average intelligence, a military affairs genius and it has also been said that as a youth he had been able to throw a buffalo by its horns. Other tales of Mat Salleh say that his mouth produced flames, his parang a lighting flash and rice scattered by him became wasps. A belief was also held by the people that Mat Salleh had performed the kebal rite.

In 1893 CC Sabah’s financial position weakened. This resulted from overspending by the early administrators when the Company policy of stringent spending had not been enforced. Added to this was the general poor world economy. In the following year W.C. Cowie, a Scottish was elected to the Court of Directors in London as the managing director. He decided to do away with the idea of just running an administration that was not going to yield any profits. In London a group of shareholders rallied behind him in -his ambition for dividends. Thinking he could expand the state’s weakening economy Cowie launched two grand projects, a railway line from Brunei Bay to Cowie Harbour and a telegraphic line from Labuan to Sandakan. Both these projects cost the CC a great deal of money. To help pay for these two projects new taxes were imposed, among these was a new tax on rice, a staple food of many of the people. The duty on rice added about 5% to its cost, and it produced a loud outcry from the native chiefs. This also was one of the irritants which undoubtedly influenced supporters of Mat Salleh. In retaliation, Mat Salleh started attacking the CC administrative offices.

The first records of Mat Salleh were in 1894 when he impose taxes on the traders who used the Sungai Sugut. He had a band of followers even then. The first clash that Mat Salleh had with the authorities was when two lbans were killed by Mat Salleh’s men in the same year. The CC attacked Mat Salleh at Jambongan and destroyed Fort Mat Salleh at Sungai Sugut between 1896 and 1897. However, Mat Salleh managed to escape during these attacks. In retaliation, Mat Salleh started attacking the CC from July 1897. Mat Salleh and his followers attacked and destroyed the administrative office of the CC (Chartered Company) at Pulau Gaya. They looted the place and burnt it down, completely destroying it. It is said that people from across the mainland in Sembulan, Tanjung Aru and as far as Putatan could see great flames over Pulau Gaya. In the same year, Mat Salleh attacked and burned the CC Resident’s office at Ambong. On December 1897, the  CC (Chartered Company) troop attacked Mat Salleh’s Fort at Ranau, but they were defeated and many of the CC soldiers were killed in the attack.

It was Cowie’s belief, from the start of Mat Salleh’s anti-government activities, that the Bajau leader should be made to come to terms with the CC (Chartered Company). He felt it illadvised to hunt down Mat Salleh for punishment. So strongly did Cowie think about this that he personally came to Sabah to negotiate with Mat Salleh in 1898. After a personal meeting with Mat Salleh Cowie verbally agreed to grant a pardon for Mat Salleh and his followers on condition they stopped fighting and to make their homes in Tambunan. The Tambunan people would therefore come under his authority. The area at the time had not come under CC rule. When the terms of submission were drawn up for Mat Salleh’s signature however, the Bajau felt he had been double-crossed. The verbal agreement reached was that he and his followers were all to be pardoned. The written agreement stated that some of his followers who were escaped prisoners were not pardoned. For this he immediately started building a fort in Tambunan. In the same year, Cowie opened a station in Tambunan. Mat Salleh was given the message that he should work side by side with F.W. Fraser, the Keningau District Officer. Understandably Mat Salleh viewed this as a breach of faith. Once more he and his followers went about raiding and killing.

Mat Salleh’s plan of undermining CC (Chartered Company) rule in Sabah consisted of raiding and retreating to a fort. If the fort did not prove safe enough he would slip into the jungle. This was a method commonly used by warring chiefs in Borneo. His geography of Sabah was astounding, looking at the many slips he gave the authorites. He would attack at one point, disappear and surface again at the other end of the country.

On January 1898, the CC again attacked Mat Salleh’s Fort at Ranau with a bigger troop. However, Mat Salleh managed to escape and built a new fort at Tibabar, Tambunan that was stronger and more stable than his previous fort. Mat Salleh new fort at Tambunan was very difficult to attack as the fort was built from stones, wood and bamboo which prevented the bullets from penetrating the walls of the fort. Each corner of the fort was guarded and there were many secret underground tunnels for them to seek assistance for firearms and food from outside the fort. These secret underground tunnels were also used for retreat when they were surrounded by the enemies. This was also the last fort he used for defence in his struggle to rebel against the Chartered Company. The fall of this fort in 1900 was a result of all out attack from the Chartered Company. Mat Salleh’s death, it has been said, resulted from a fluke shot from a maxim bullet during the seige of his Tambunan fort. 31 prisoners were taken from the fort. They included three of Mat Salleh’s wives, a son and a daughter. Dayang Bandang was sent back to the Court of the Sultan of Sulu.


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