Pirates of the eastern isles

Why Illanun and Balanini were names that struck fear into the hearts of sailors

By Rahul Goswami (COCHINCHINA)

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Published: Sat 19 Jul 2014, 11:35 PM

Last updated: Tue 7 Apr 2015, 9:38 PM

THEY ARE still called ‘lanun’ in bahasa (Malaysian or Indonesian), and where once their forefathers raided vessels for what was bounty then — spice, rubber, mahogany, opium, slaves, gold, tin, gunpowder or gemstones — today it is most usually fuel, to be sold on the black market. They ply speedboats, they use GPS, they arm themselves with everything from sharp ‘parangs’ to semi-automatic guns, and they lurk within the constellation of tiny islands, reefs, and shoals that is the Strait of Melaka, the busiest waterway in the world.

Nineteenth century maritime chronicles are rife with tales heroic concerning the pirates of the great Indo-Chinese archipelago, and there’s little doubt that the encounters must have been blood-curdling. They were everywhere sail could catch wind. They were Malay, Illanun and Balanini; they were Sulu, Papuan and Bajow; they were every kind of reckless marauder who made it his life’s cardinal mission to infest the straits and seas, channels and bays of the archipelagos of South-East Asia and rejoiced in ruling the labyrinth of reefs, shoals, gulfs and creeks over which the circumference of the twelve thousand (and more) islands is broken up.

And that is why, in the mid-nineteenth century, the despatches and formal accounts of voyages and expeditions almost all have passages such as: “The navigators and mariners who frequent those seas find it difficult to comprehend from whence can issue those myriads of war ‘prahus’ (large and fast canoes) which they encounter everywhere, threading the most tortuous passages, standing up and down the rivers, or stealing round the sandpits and headlands which diversify every shore. But if we unroll before us a map of the archipelago, and institute inquiries respecting the haunts of the pirates, our surprise will cease or, if we wonder at all, it will be at the fact that, in spite of so many enemies and obstacles, an immense and perpetually increasing trade should still be carried on.”

The immense and perpetually increasing trade suited very much the ambitions and desires of many of the patrons of the pirate bands, and these were the rulers and chieftains, the lesser princes and rogue generals by the score who, having set through insurrection and rebellion small fiefdoms, often outfitted with a rude port or two, lent both shelter and market to the pirateers, in need of both. And that is how they spread their net of seaborne influence northwards and eastwards from Java, obtained dominion over the seas of the Moluccas, insinuated themselves into the coasts of Borneo, established trading firms in the Celebes, made rowdy settlements on the great island of Magindanao, attempted even the annexation of the Sulus (a lunatic ambition thwarted by the Sulu themselves, who gave to Indo-Chinese piratedom its most celebrated corsairs), but still rode their brazen luck to extend their claims to Palawan and Northern Borneo.

The power of the sea kings of the archipelago made its appearance everywhere, usually when least expected, from the northern extremity of Sumatra to the most south-westerly province of New Guinea, and from the Philippines to Sandalwood Island (the Sumba of today). Scorning the sedentary life (except during their season of compulsory leisure, when they repaired to their pleasant settlements along a secluded river and protected by dense forest) they lusted for opulence beyond the dream and grasp of any insular rajah. Nor is it the merchant vessels and weakly defended principalities alone that they attacked, for the annals of the reigns of the sultans of Malaysia and Indonesia recount in detail how buccaneer admirals landed boldly in thickly-peopled districts, assaulted towns and even laid siege to capital cities.

From all accounts, in magnitude and appearance the piratical fleets differed widely from one another. Those of the Sea Dyaks (as fearsome as those so beloved of the White Rajah of Sarawak) and of some other tribes consist of small light boats, rudely built and armed, which are propelled rapidly with long paddle and sail within view of the coast, to plunder trading boats or the capture of slaves. On the other hand, the fleets of the Illanun and Balanini, on their departure from their island homes upon long marauding expeditions, present a spectacle of wonderful magnificence, consisting sometimes of a hundred heavy war ‘prahus’ with numerous banks of rowers, double decks, warriors clad splendidly in scarlet and blue, bright brass guns, flashing spears and scimitars, lofty masts, broad sails, and particoloured streamers waving and snapping in the equatorial gusts.

On nights of the waning moon they say, in hidden haunts far from the electric hubbub of new South-East Asia, you can still hear their strange music carried over the foamy swells of a cobalt sea.

Rahul Goswami is an expert on intangible cultural heritage with UNESCO and studies agricultural transformation in South Asia

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