KOTA KINABALU: Mat Salleh, the storied Sabah warrior is well known throughout Malaysia, but many have probably never come across the name of another local warrior: Si Gunting.
In fact, even many Sabahans probably have not heard of him either.
Si Gunting was born in 1859 in Mumus, now known as Serinsim, in Kota Marudu.
He was one of the first Dusun warriors to rebel against the British colonialists for what he saw as their indifference to the traditions and customs of local tribes.
The incident that led to his rebellion may seem insignificant to some. A British North Borneo Chartered Company (BNBCC) clerk, probably Western, asked for the hand in marriage of a Rungus girl but refused to pay a dowry as required by tribal tradition.
The young Si Gunting was appalled at this lack of respect. From his reaction it seems likely that he was a Rungus himself, a sub-group of the Dusun.
He complained to a native community leader appointed by the BNBCC. He in turn reported it to the British Resident who decided that the Dusun should handle it themselves. This was relayed to Si Gunting.
Incensed by the perceived British snub, he rallied a band of followers and attacked a police post in his birthplace Mumus.
Seven Sikh policemen were killed in the attack and the clerk who had wanted the maiden for free also paid with his life.
His violent defiance caused him to be branded as a rebel by the British and led to the start of what was called the Gunting War or Perang Si Gunting, which lasted for seven years from 1894 to 1901.
The BNBCC retaliated by sending a police party to his village where the residents surrendered without resistance, but Si Gunting escaped with his followers to Kampung Sayap in modern day Kota Belud.
Pursued by fifty BNBCC policemen, the fugitives set up a fort on top of a steep hill and surrounded it with sharpened bamboo stakes.
The police attacked and were pelted with stones and spears by Si Gunting and his men. Two company policemen were killed and 18 others injured including the group’s captain.
The police attacked for a second time and managed to breach the defences, killing seven of Si Gunting’s men, forcing the Dusun leader and his remaining followers to retreat to a mountain near Mount Kinabalu.
From his new location, Si Gunting managed to wreak havoc on the British by adopting guerrilla tactics.
The BNBCC had to send more policemen to the district to maintain peace as well as to keep Si Gunting from joining forces with Mat Salleh.
Finally, after many brushes and escapes, but causing little substantial damage, he surrendered in 1905.
The accounts get somewhat blurry at this point with some saying Si Gunting decided to surrender because of old age but 46 is hardly old even by the standards of the time. Others maintain that the British took his wife and children hostage and threatened to kill them.
Whatever the reason, Si Gunting gave up the fight.
As a reward, he was officially pardoned and appointed as a leader for his community. He became a solid supporter of the government.
He used his new position to expose a plan by a Dato Undok who plotted to attack the British Timbang Batu station and kill a district officer. For this he was also rewarded.
He lived to a ripe old age, and was said to have died of natural causes, either in 1905 or 1906.
Si Gunting was dwarfed in height and legend by another rebel chieftain during his time, a certain Mat Salleh who gained notoriety as a warrior, or as some descendants of his enemies say – a bandit and extortionist.
Mat Salleh’s rebellion against the Orang Putih began two years after the start of Si Gunting’s war, and was considered more significant.
While some argue over Mat Salleh’s real reasons for fighting the British, Si Gunting’s motives appear to have been entirely altruistic, and people who remember his exploits regard him as a defender of his people and protector of their age-old traditions.
Alas, it seems few remember Si Gunting these days.
Former Sabah museum senior curator Judeth John Baptist says the new Sabah government should look into carrying out further study of Si Gunting and other dimly-remembered local heroes such as Si Langkap and Si Korom.
“Each one of them contributed to stirring a desire for independence,” she says.
“The uprisings were also because when the British took over, they divided up the tribal areas according to their own requirements, and imposed their own laws such as the cukai kepala or head tax.
“Christianity was also making its way into North Borneo at that time and Si Gunting and the others would have seen this as a threat to their native culture.”
Baptist notes that future generations are in danger of not knowing who these people were unless something is done now to give them due recognition.
“I think the new government is on the right track especially with the setting up of the Law and Native Affairs Ministry, and we have the Heritage Act which they can use,” she says. “Maybe the state museum can also look into it.”
How should we commemorate these freedom fighters? Baptist suggests that maybe we can name a road, school, hall or office in a state ministry after them.
“They can also track down their descendants and give them some kind of recognition.”
As yet, it appears there are no roads even named after Si Gunting.