Sabah, Sulu and the Kirams (Part 1: Ceded or Leased?)

“It would be most difficult, if not impossible, to negotiate with munafiqoons.” That was my impromptu response when first asked to elaborate my thoughts on Jamalul Kiram III’s claims on Sabah.

(Munafiqoons are those whom when they speak they’ll lie; when promise, they’ll break them; and they tell you not truthfully what are in their hearts, instead, what would please you. Behind your back, they’ll secretly plan to bring you down.)

Does it matter whether the word used to translate the North Borneo 1878 Treaty is, ‘ceded’ or ‘leased’? If I were to tell you that you have grey hair, but you insisted that your hair were silver or white in color, does it really make any difference?

To translate a word, one must understand the context to which the word was chosen. To understand the word, we must first understand the event. To understand an event that occurred nearly 300 years ago, we must first study the events leading to and prior to it.

The last Sultan of Sulu died in 1936. He left no male heir. In 1898, a near-bankrupt Spain ceded the sovereignty of the Philippines and all the neighbouring islands (including the Sulu Archipelago), over to United States, for a lump sum of 25 million, under the Paris Treaty. In 1899, Philippines was made a Republic, and hence, no longer recognize royalty. (The background of the Sulu-Sabah conflict is best summarized by a Brunei author, Rozan Yunus here: How Brunei Lost Its Northern Province.)

The Sulu heirs main contentions were based on the alleged intrepretation that the 1878 North Borneo Treaty signed between Sultan Jamalul Alam and Baron Overbeck was a LEASE and for PERPETUITY. Since the Treaty was a lease, therefore, it carried a time limit. Further, they (the remnants of Sulu sultanate heirs, and shared by most Filipinos) vehemently argued that ‘perpetuity’ meant 99 years.

There is just one major problem. North Borneo belonged to the sultanate of Brunei. The Sulu sultanate claimed that the Sultan of Brunei ceded North Borneo to them some time in 1658 or 1704 (two different versions have been found), in return to the acceptance of military assistance to quash hereditary rivalries to Brunei’s throne.

According to Rozan, no such thing happened. The Sulus were promised, but the agreement became void, when the fighting went ahead without help or intervention by the Sulus. By the time the Sulus arrived at the war zone, fighting was over. The Sulus, had instead treated themselves, with the loot. Therefore, to the Bruneians, no parts of North Borneo was ever ceded to the Sulus. Claimed but not ceded.

In fact, when the same Sultan of Brunei ceded Sarawak to Maharajah Brooke in 1847, it was made in exchange to Brooke’s protection against Sulu and Mindanao pirates.


Treacher, the first governor of North Borneo did mention in his book, Sketches of British North Borneo, of Brunei Sultan’s denial of the cession to the Sulus.

If indeed the Sultan of Brunei had ceded North Borneo or any part there off to Sulu, he would not have granted Baron Overbeck with a North Borneo Treaty signed in 1877. In return to annual tribute of 15,000 Malayan Dollars, Baron Overbeck was conferred the title, “The Maharajah of Sabah“, as well as, the “Rajah of Gaya and Sandakan.”

Whereas, a year later, in 1878, Overbeck signed yet another treaty with the Sultan of Sulu, Jamalul-Alam who granted the former with the title, “Datuk Bendahara and Rajah of Sandakan,” only this time, in return to an annual tribute of 5000 Malayan Dollars. (An additional 300 Malayan Dollars tribute was added  later, upon the signing of the 1903’s Confirmation of Cession Treaty.)

In addition, as early as in 1753, the Spaniard colonists too believed that the Sultan of Sulu have been usurping parts of Sultan of Brunei’s territories, as his own (refer to article, The Sulu Character).

But Joseph Hatton’s 1881 journal entitled, “The New Ceylon” said it best. “The territory granted by the Sultan of Sulu (1 grant) is part of that granted by the Sultan of Brunei (4 grants). Such portion of the territory as purports to be granted by both was considered as under the control of Sultan of Sulu, but Sultan of Brunei asserted an ancient claim to the sovereignty of it.

An examination of the validity of this claim would have seriously delayed the arrangements; it was therefore thought, expedient on behalf of the Association, to have grants from both the Sultans.”

What can we conclude from the above?

1. The Sultan of Brunei most likely did not receive the assistance he had bargained for, from Sulu. He, thus, did not cede any part of North Borneo to Sulu.

2. The Sultan of Brunei, had in fact, strongly believed that he maintained supreme ownership of North Borneo, and therefore had the sovereign power to confer a Maharajah status to anyone he pleased. (A Maharajah is a king of kings; a Rajah, a King; whereas a Datuk Bendahara, a second or third ministerial position in command.)

3. The Sultan of Sulu, on the other hand, may have felt, that he had kept his end of the bargain, by the mere fact that ‘he had arrived’. The fact that the war was over by the time his entourage reached the war zone, was immaterial. He felt that he kept his end of the bargain, hence forth, North Eastern Borneo was automatically ceded to him.

4. The Brunei-Sulu agreement, which failed to materialize, did not include the entire North Borneo, but only a fraction of North Borneo.

5. Even though the Sultan of Brunei had repeatedly insisted sovereignty over North Borneo, Overbeck may have ignored it to save valuable time.

Overbeck’s operations in North Borneo, particularly in Sandakan, might have been met with regular ‘resistance’ from the Sulu sultanate or followers. If you are a business person, with limited capital, wouldn’t it be to your best interest to pay a token sum to a hostile party, so that you can proceed with your business, in peace? Thus, Overbeck could have been indirectly forced to commit more money to rid of the nagging ‘irritations’.

So, does it matter as to whether the Sulus ceded or leased a small part of North Borneo or Sandakan to Overbeck? North Borneo and Sandakan were never theirs, to begin with.

– DM


One thought on “Sabah, Sulu and the Kirams (Part 1: Ceded or Leased?)

  1. Brilliant article now hopefully the Filipinos will get it through their skulls they seem to be biggest trouble makers

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