British Empire Article

Courtesy of OSPA

by Peter Burbrook
Fish Bombs and Copra
Jesselton War Memorial
After 4 years in the Indian Army in Persia and Iraq, followed by attendance at the First Devonshire Course in Oxford, I, with my young wife, arrived in January 1948 at Jesselton, capital of North Borneo, otherwise known as The Land Below the Wind. We loved it from the moment we first saw it in the early morning light, with Mount Kinabalu's 13,300 foot peak as a backdrop.

Five months later I was posted as Cadet-in-Charge, Semporna, a tiny isolated, mainly fishing community on the south east coast of the Colony. To the south lay the Celebes Sea, to the east the Sulu Sea and beyond that, the Phillipines.

I had spent six months in London learning the rudiments of Malay, so as nobody in Semporna except my wife, the Medical Dresser, my clerk and I spoke English, my knowledge of Malay blossomed rapidly.

Fish Bombs and Copra
Semporna Mangrove Bark
The township consisted of a couple of dozen Chinese shops, and an "eating shop" run by a local Moslem. A large number of fish-drying platforms stood out over the water and countless small boats housed the Sea Bajau community. The hinterland was sparsely populated by Bajaus who had 'come ashore'. An old fort with its six inch thick iron-wood walls dominated the scene. It housed the six man police contingent, my office and our only contact with the outer world - an ex-army, two-way radio. Our house, rough-hewn timber with a palm thatch roof, stood by the sea-shore. Its covered verandah faced east, out over the sea. An idyllic setting in a place well-named "Semporna", which in Malay means "beautiful".

It was at a period when copra (the dried inner flesh of the coconut) was a prohibited export. Coconuts abounded in the Sub-District. Post war shortages included vegetable oils; copra produces that commodity, hence the prohibition.

Fish Bombs and Copra
One day, about six months after our arrival, I had an unexpected visit by the Commissioner of Customs (Martin), the Preventive Officer (Tom, together with his drug sniffing Alsatian, Cobber) and the new High Court Judge (Sir Ivor). They all arrived on the large sea-going customs launch, the Malawali. Our intrepid cook, under my wife's anxious eye, produced a wonderful Malay curry dinner for the occasion. Our kerosene frig did us proud with a plentiful supply of ice-cold beer. Martin explained that he and Tom were on a tour of inspection and Sir Ivor on a familiarisation tour of the Colony.

"Since you've been here you've been very successful collaring several copra smugglers, I hear,'' he went on.

I, of course, was a jack-of-all-trades; Admin Officer, fledgling Magistrate, Assistant Collector of Land Revenue, Customs Officer - you name it - I only had to reach behind me for the appropriate hat.

Embarrassed I stammered, "nothing much really-"

"Come off it Peter," laughed Tom, "nearly had yourself blown up for your trouble by a fish bomb a few weeks ago".

"What on earth's a fish bomb?" Sir Ivor wanted to know.

"Black powder and small pebbles," I explained, "well wrapped in tough brown paper and bound with rattan cane. A detonator and a short fuse sets it off. Thrown in the water it will stun a shoal of fish - easy fishing, but ecologically devastating.

"Nasty," commented the judge, "obviously it missed its target, though."

I nodded, hoping to change the subject. Martin came to the rescue.

"I'd like you to take us out, Peter - catch some smugglers for us. What do you say?" I pondered that unhappily for a moment then had an inspiration.

"Can't guarantee anything, but I suspect Si Amil Island is making hay, so to speak. I can't get there in my little outboard, but the Malawali could."

Fish Bombs and Copra
Si Amil Island
"Right then," said Martin, making up his mind at once, "we sail at dawn. Tom, would you please tell the skipper?" Tom nodded.

"I suggest we take an armed constable also." I suggested.

And so it was. We set off at six. Margaret came with us as well as PC Abdul with his .303 rifle. We sailed past beautiful islands with names like Bohi Duland, Menampilik and Nusatonga before arriving several hours later at Si Amil, 30 miles offshore. As we motored into the lagoon, to my amazement and delight, round behind a headland lay two Philippine kumpits in the shallows, shored up obviously awaiting the high tide. A quick look through the binoculars confirmed my suspicions. They were loaded to the gunwales with sacks, almost certainly copra. Tons of it. As the launch felt her way cautiously into the lagoon, we saw the villagers running along the beach, still about a mile away. They would stop every now and then, bend over then run on again.

"Curious," commented Martin, "what the hell are they up to?"

None of us could offer any suggestions.

Fish Bombs and Copra
The inflatable dinghy was launched and into it piled Martin (handling the motor), Tom and Cobber, Sir Ivor, PC Abdul and his rifle and myself up in the bows getting very wet. By the time we reached the shore the beach was deserted - something of an anticlimax. I led our party to the shade of the palm trees which lined the beach. A few moments later Ali Yusof, the Village Headman, attracted by all the noise and excitement joined us. After the usual exchange of greetings I introduced him to the others. We sat smoking and chatting quietly in Malay for a while, before I casually asked the headman about the two foreign craft in the lagoon. And about the extraordinary behaviour of the villagers on the beach earlier. After exchanging a few quiet words with his henchmen he turned to me with a rather bleak smile.

"Al-hamdu-lillah my people are happy. We have been doing some trading with our friends from Mindanao, Tuan."

I sat silently puffing at my pipe - waiting for him to go on.

"Nothing much you understand." His lower lip was thrust out to emphasise the triviality of the matter. He drew out his words slowly. "Some dried fish, a few turtle eggs, some trochus shells, in exchange for - um - a few trinkets ..." he ended lamely.

"Rather a lot of dried fish, turtle eggs and shells for a few trinkets?" I suggested looking pointedly at the overladen kumpits.

Ali Yusof continued to sit there, silent, his eyes down-cast, drawing idle patterns in the sand with his left foot. Meanwhile Tom, accompanied by PC Abdul and Cobber, who had wandered down to the beach, sauntered back towards us, a couple of shining aluminium saucepans in his hand and a bolt of bright red cloth under one arm.

"Astonishing what you find beach-combing. Wonder where this lot came from?" he asked, holding up his trophies with a broad smile.

PC Abdul, likewise grinning, was laden with more stuff. Assisted by Cobber they had found all sorts of goods lightly buried under the sand along the beach. This explained the villagers' earlier behaviour. Ali Yusof sighed and told the villagers to dig up up all the bartered goods and deliver them to him. Out of the sand came a great selection of goods; iron cooking pots, brightly coloured sarongs, cartons of cigarettes, oil lamps, knives to name but a few of them. The village children, hesitant at first, soon got the idea and joined in the game. Their bright eyes shone above their delightful smiles as they dumped yet another heap of contraband at Ali Yusof's feet before rushing off excitedly for more. Their parents, gathered glumly in the background, were not quite so amused. Martin, in his capacity as Commissioner of Customs, speaking in Malay, took over.

Fish Bombs and Copra
Copra Drying
"These are clearly smuggled goods and are therefore seized by Customs. Likewise the copra and the two kumpits. You know what's loaded in the kumpits don't you, Ali Yusof? My colleague here will confirm this shortly," he ended with a nod to Tom standing nearby.

Ali Yusof made no comment but just sighed. I then stepped in wearing my police and magisterial 'hats', having already quickly discussed the situation with Martin.

"As Village Headman you are aware of the law, are you not, Ali Yusof?" He nodded glumly.

"Well, we have decided seizing the copra and all the goods will be enough punishment. The matter will not be taken any further, but don't get caught again".

"Tuan is generous and we must accept his decision. With Allah's help we shall try to mend our ways," the Headman said looking rather solemn which, I thought, he had every reason to.

"Good." Martin ended the discussion. "Please send for the kumpits' crews and get your people to help load all the contraband goods onto the Malawali. We must set off for Sempoma on the tide."

Later, with all the contraband stowed away in the Malawali's hold, together with seven very surly captive Bugis crewmen, the convoy moved out of the lagoon with the two copra-laden kumpits in tow. Sitting on the raised stern deck of the last vessel PC Abdul looked very pleased with himself, his rifle across his knees and a large torch on the deck beside him. A young Bugis seaman, the eighth member of the smugglers' crews, sat by him quite cheerfully as steersman. The disgruntled villagers lining the beach looked anything but happy. The raiding party, having said their farewells, shook hands with Ali Yusof who managed a bleak smile, as if to say. "Insha Allah, you'll not catch me again!"

"No," I thought, interpreting his look, "probably not, Allah willing."

On the way back to Semporna well after sunset, we ran into foul weather in the shape of a Sumatra, a vicious line squall, feared by small vessels in those waters. It caught us unawares and in the confusion the captive crews escaped, fought their way to freedom, leapt onto the leading kumpit and cut the two ropes. Our two prizes, carrying with them PC Abdul, vanished down-wind into the night.

These storms are short lived but the wind remained strong enough for the smugglers to be unable to hoist their sails. With order restored and our fears for PC Abul's life driving us into hectic action, we set off at full speed in pursuit. In the darkness ahead we suddenly saw a few quick torch flashes and distinctly heard the sound of a .303 rifle being fired. With the launch's search lamp on it was not long before we spotted a kumpit wallowing in the sea a short distance ahead of us. As we drew alongside it there, to our intense relief, was PC Abdul on the after-deck. He stood, torch in one hand, rifle in the other, legs astride the tiller, facing an unhappy looking group of Bugis seamen cowering in the bows.

I"Allah Akhbarl You've arrived only just in time, I have only one round left and they have their parangs out ready to cut me into fish bait," he laughed.

We never saw nor heard of the second boat again, but Martin, like Tom, was delighted with what we had achieved, though the near loss of PC Abdul cost Martin a few white hairs, he had to admit. Had I been older than my 26 years I would probably have ended up with completely white hair.

Sir Ivor and Margaret seemed to have thoroughly enjoyed themselves, and my reputation as 'smuggler hunter' was raised.

British Colony Map
North Borneo Map, 1973
Colony Profile
North Borneo
Originally Published
OSPA Journal 84: October 2002


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