Friday, November 21, 2008

History - Sarikei River

This blog started with the first post on this 1840 picture.Thanks to the fast developing internet and reader Ikan Sembilang, now we can connect the dots.

Sarikei River, 1840.
House and village of Datuk Patinggi Abdul Rahman

The Rejang River was a key source of wealth in Sarawak in the 1840s with products like rice, beeswax, jungle products, fine clothes and dried fish. The trade was controlled by the affluent Malays at Sarikei and the ruler was Datuk Patinggi Abdul Rahman (the most powerful man along the coast). His mother was a Kayan from upriver and he had the support of the Kayan chiefs. (Source: 1).

It's documented in history books that the village of Datuk Patinggi was on the Sarikei River, not the Rejang River. This location may be chosen initially to shield the village from the sight of the pirates operating along the main Rejang River.

The tall house shown was influenced by the Melanau tall house. Melanaus traditionally lived near the sea and can still be found in villages like Rejang and Belawai. They had to protect themselves from pirates with 40-foot high houses. A replica can be seen at the Sarawak Cultural Village in Kuching.

Sarikei River, Feb 2007
Downtown side on left
View from Sarikei River bridge

His ally was the Kayan chief, Akam Nipa, who brought his people down the Rejang River to trade in Sarikei in big numbers. He guarded against Akam Nipa's commercial interests with other down river Malays that competes against him. Akam provided him with military resources and this helped him to control the Malays of the neighbouring river, Kalaka, which produced salt for trading with upriver natives. (Source: 1)

Rajah James Brooke wanted to use the Rejang River to fight against the Ibans of Skrang and Saribas who had migrated to Kanowit and other lower Rejang tributaries. By 1845, Abdul Rahman could not contain the Ibans. James Brooke sailed to Sarikei in 1846 in his British steamer, Phlegethon and wanted Abdul Rahman to control the Dyaks of Kanowit so that they didn't make boats for the Ibans' raiding expeditions down the Rejang River. (Source:1)

Sarikei River, Feb 2007
Downtown side on right
Kampung Seberang on left
View from Sarikei River bridge

Sarikei River is a tributary of the Rejang River. If you stand on the Sarikei River bridge, the river breeze blows inland away from the Rejang River. I have tested the direction of the breeze twice at different times of the day. The direction of the river flow is also inland away from the Rejang River. Can someone explain why the tributary flows away from the Rejang River instead of towards Rejang River which heads towards South China Sea?

Sarikei River, Oct 2007
Kampung Seberang side in the background

Now what is the significance of the direction of the river breeze? Look at the 1840 picture. There's a man waving with his right hand. The 2 flags were blown from left to right. Think of the direction of the breeze away from Rejang River. This showed that the original Sarikei village was on the downtown side of the Sarikei River, not on the Kampung Seberang/Petalit side of the Sarikei River! That location was probably the CTC sawmill hill next to Merudu Bridge because that's the nearest hill on this side by the Sarikei River to the Rejang River.

Sarawak Map 1879
Printed by
J Bartholomew of Edinburgh
Click to enlarge. Click back arrow to come back
Source: The Life of Sir James Brooke, Rajah of Sarawak.
By Spenser St. John, 1879
Submitted by: Ikan Sembilang

For further proof, if you enlarge the map, the dot that marks the site of Sarikei was located on the downtown side of Sarikei River. (Source: 2) Sarikei then was just a small kampung (village), comprising most likely a cluster of Malay and Melanau houses. The Sarikei downtown on the Rejang River, as we know it today, was only settled and developed by the Hokkiens in 1864 (Source: 3) and followed later by Cantonese traders. The Foochows came in 1910 (Source: 4)

Sarikei River, Oct 2007
Downtown side on the right.
Sarikei River bridge in background

Ladies and gentlemen, as per the earliest documented history of Sarikei, the downtown side of the Sarikei River was the cradle of Sarikei (downtown) civilisation. It's intriguing, isn't it?

1. Power and Prowess, JH Walker, 2002. p146-155. Submitted by Ikan Sembilang.
2. The Life of Sir James Brooke, Rajah of Sarawak. By Spenser St. John, 1879. Submitted by: Ikan Sembilang
3. Interview with Sarikei Hokkien pioneer 林片登 in 1984. Submitted by Ikan Sembilang.
4. Chinese Pioneers, Sarawak Frontiers (1841-1941), Daniel Chew. p160-161


Daniel Yiek said...

Apologies for the late post. Just came back from leave. Hope you like this History post.

Ikan Sembilang,
Pls send me the high resolution file of the map so that I can post it. The embedded file (.png format) that you sent in MS Word could only be saved in low resolution as .jpg

nelson said...

good observation by u daniel regarding those flags

then who introduced pineapples to sarikei? =)

sarawakiana said...

This is really good stuff!!


Ikan Sembilang said...


Will send you a higher resolution copy of the map as soon as I can find the original jpg file. The old map was printed by J Bartholomew of Edinburgh most likely in the 1860s when the boundary of Sarawak had been extended up to Tg Kidurong in Bintulu. The map was prepared to indicate the towns in Sarawak where James Brooke had built his forts. The fort in Sarikei was built by him in January, 1856 but was burnt down five years later by the Sarawak force sent by Charles Johnson Brooke to capture Sherif Masahor. Charles Brooke in his book “Ten Years In Sarawak” described how in June, 1859 he brought the headless bodies of Fox (the then Resident of Sarikei district) and Steele from Kanowit back to Sarikei and buried them near the fort.
The pic of Datu Patinggi Abdul Rahman’s tall house was most likely drawn by one of James Brooke’s ship officers when they visited Sarikei in the 1840s. It clearly shows that the Melanau-style tall house was built on top of a small hill. Where along the right bank of the Sarikei River can we find such a hilly terrain? It is definitely not at the existing Malay/Melanau kampung near the Sarikei River bridge because we all know that the terrain there is flat and swampy. Two very senior Sarikei citizens whom I met recently provided a clue. According to them, if you go further upstream somewhere after the old Sarikei Hospital, you will find a very old abandoned Malay/Melanau cemetery located on a small hill by the Sarikei River. I have a hunch that the tall house of Datu Patinggi Abdul Rahman and the Sarikei fort where Fox and Steele were buried must once be located in the vicinity of this old cemetery.
In your next trip back to Sarikei, maybe you can do a bit of exploration and try to locate the old cemetery. If there is indeed such an old cemetery and if you manage to find it, you could have discovered the birthplace of Sarikei!!

nelson said...

this is so cool! it's like treasure island!

Daniel Yiek said...

Ikan Sembilang,
I have posted the high resolution map. Thanks! It's interesting to note:

a) Sarikei is denoted with Serikei.

b) Serikei is not denoted with "Serikei Ft" (Ft for fort). This could mean that the map was before 1856 (when the fort was built)or after 1861 (after the fort was burnt)

This then begs the question on why there's a Jalan Kubu Lama in downtown facing Rejang River.

c) Kaluka River nearby should be the Kalaka River mentioned above
that Datuk Patinngi controlled.

d) It's beneficial for ancient times to set base up on a hill to fight against enemies below. Sun Tzu's Art of War has that tactic.

e) Does any Malay readers know of a Malay graveyard further up river from the old Sarikei Hospital by the Sarikei River? I don't know of any road behind the Hospital that can go upriver. There's a squatters village behind the Hospital and a dilapidated wooden jetty. Pls ask your elders.

Daniel Yiek said...

To answer my own question (b) above, this map should be after 1879 because you can track some of the forts shown on the map and cross reference to year it was built below:

Fort Lingga (1849)
Fort Emma, Kanowit (1853)
Fort Sarikei (1859) Burnt down.
Fort Mukah (1861)
Fort Keppel, Bintulu (1862)
Fort Alice, Simmangang (1864)
Fort Margherita, Kuching (1879)

Sarawakian has a good blog post on Sarawak forts. Search for fort at

Daniel Yiek said...

Check out this possible explanation on the direction of Sarikei River flow away from the Rejang River.

Date: Sat, 27 Dec 2008 08:16:25 +0000
Subject: Re: Sarikei

Hi Daniel,

I'm still working my way through your extensive blog. I think if I had found this when I was living in the UK, I would have emulated your blog, for my own local history. One of the items in your blog that has really caught my attention is the question you raised at the end of the following item. I have not discovered if you have answered and posted your answer to your own question yet?

"Sarikei River is a tributary of the Rejang River. If you stand on the Sarikei River bridge, the river breeze blows inland away from the Rejang River. I have tested the direction of the breeze twice at different times of the day. The direction of the river flow is also inland away from the Rejang River. Can someone explain why the tributary flows away from the Rejang River instead of towards Rejang River which heads towards South China Sea?"

A possible answer occurred to me. I was living on a houseboat on the River Itchen, Southampton, UK, when I first became interested in local history research. Where I lived was within the tidal reaches of the river and read that, when the tide comes in it flows over the top of the fresh water river. Perhaps at the confluence of the two rivers in question, the level of the Rejang River and its volume is higher and stronger than the Sarikei River. That the Rejang River actually floods over the top of the Sarikei River for some distance past the Sarikei River Bridge. Until it loses its strength when it will flow back under the oncoming surge.

I hope this will prove to be the answer, which you could prove by a small boat journey up the Sarikei River.

My Russian wife was not aware of - the white Raja of Sarawak - and was entranced by this part of your history.

I trust you had a Merry Christmas and will enjoy a Happy New Year.
Our Best Wishes for 2009
Terri & Sveta

Jeph said...

Hello Daniel, had you find out who was the Datu Patinggi Abdul Rahman??

Daniel Yiek said...

Hi Jeph,
If you have any new finding, please email me at


Related Posts with Thumbnails