The most famous Msian pirate was created by an Italian writer in 1883. Turns out he’s real

When we think of pirates in Malaysia, we usually think of a guy who squats the tepi jalan with the latest movies a week before it hits theaters.

“Gerenti clear boss”. Image created with DALL-E.

But ackshually…there is a series of super femes adventure books written in the late 1800s about a Malaysian pirate called Sandokan, nicknamed the Malaysian Tiger. Most of us probably haven’t heard of him because it’s Sabahan the stories are mainly translated from his native Italian into other European languages who are not English, like spanish and germanbut the series are quite popular in Europe.

While researching the pirate, we found out that a few scholars have looked into Sandokan, and the conclusion is that he was a very real person – but of course the fictional version is more Hollywood than History Channel lah.

So, before we get into the historical version, let’s get to know the fictional Sandokan first.

The Malaysian Tiger was created by an Italian sailor turned writer

Cover of ‘The Tiger of Momracem’. Image by Libringioco.

Sandokan was created by the Italian writer Emilio Salgari, a failed sailor (hehe) who later became a journalist. Set in Borneo, Sandokan’s story first emerged as a named newspaper serial The Tiger of Malesia (The Malayan Tiger) in 1883with the complete version published in book form in 1890 renamed Momracem’s Tigri (The Tiger of Momracem).

For a TL; DR of his story: Sandokan was the Prince of Malludu, a rapidly expanding kingdom bordering the Kingdom of Brunei as well as Sarawak, which was under the control of the White Rajah, James Brooke. Worried about Malludu’s growing powers, Brooke made a joint playbook to justify an invasion – he said the Malludu people were pirates and used that as an excuse to attack the kingdom – which is essentially the 18th century way of colonialists saying that an Arab country has terrorists so we should invade and bomb them (not because they have oil!).

Screenshot of Crusader Kings 3 by Gamertweak.

With the Sultan of Brunei, they destroyed Malludu and killed Sandokan’s family, making him an anak yatim. He then fled to the island of Mompracem, rounded up a group of local men and basically said, “Oh, you said I’m a pirate? Well guess what I’m a pirate now”, and plotted revenge while doing pirate things like attacking British ships along the coast of Borneo, its red pirate flag with an image of a tiger blowing in the wind – which earned him the nickname of the Malayan Tiger.

(Note: the term “Malaysia” refers to the general region in ancient timesNOT the country Malaysia which was formed in 1963)

The first book was so popular, Salgari ended up writing 11 books featuring Sandokan which have been widely translated in Europe until today.. It’s only recently that the books have been translated into English, and it’s assumed that’s because his books were anti-colonial – where the natives would fight against their colonial masters – so an English translation of an Asian Jack Sparrow kicking James Brooke’s ass might be the reason it’s not picked up by English publishing houses.

One would think that the writer would be Rowling in Harry Potter a little dough after being so successful, but Salgari died almost penniless. He was so broke that he decided to end his life by committing seppuku (I’m not even kidding) and left a shading note to his editors for taking advantage of him while making him a broke man.

This tiger flag looks a bit suspicious. Image from IMDB.

Although the books were not translated into English until 2007, many live-action versions have been made in the US and UK since the 1940s. Arguably the most famous is the miniseries starring Indian film star Kabir Bedi, which became the most iconic version of Sandokan. While Sandokan’s story seems heavily romanticized…

The books were based on a True Story™ about a war in North Borneo

Just as Hollywood movies based on true stories are highly dramatized versions featuring incredibly photogenic people, the same can be said of Sandokan. But at the time, it was assumed that Sandokan was completely made up because Salgari never even left Italy (despite the contrary) and that the name was composed on the basis of the town of Sandakan, in the north of Borneo.

However, there is a historical record of a war similar to Sandokan’s origin story, where Sarawak, under James Brooke, allied with the Sultan of Brunei to defeat a pirate king in 1845. He was known as name of The Battle of Marudu.

The White Rajah. Image by Kajomag.

If we were to trust the British historical records (which might be a bit biased), the summary is that the peaceful and selfless Brits had trouble with evil pirates in the seas of Borneo, disrupting trade and commerce in the then British colony of Sarawak, which was heroically ruled by the valiant White Rajah, Sir James Brooke. In case you think we’re exaggerating, here’s a snippet on James Brooke:

“The romantic story of how this gallant gentleman became Rajah of Sarawak is too well known to need repeating here.” – from the British North Borneo Herald, 1886.

The worst pirate was Syarif Osman, a “mixed-race Arab” pirate king who had marriage ties to Sulu royalty and ruled his pirate kingdom from Marudu Bay. He is said to have personally led his band of diehards on piracy expeditions and extorted tribute from the natives, in addition to robbing merchant ships and then enslaving those they captured. There was probably a whole appendix filled with his crimes, including but not limited to:

“… [Syarif Osman] tribute extorted from nearly 5,000 indigenous families in Marudu and Kudat districtflouting Brunei’s power and mocking European threats.

There are many black actions to the credit of this pirate leader in 1845. Peaceful traders on the high seas have seen their ships seized and plundered; he had sold into slavery twenty men from the merchant ship Sultana which had been burnt off Palawan…” – from the British North Borneo Herald, 1886.

When Brunei made a treaty with the British to end piracy, Syarif Osman openly threatened to attack Brunei. After the British finally send reinforcements across the sea to aid James Brooke in his just battle against the pirates, Syarif Osman announced that he had put up his defense in his stronghold at Marudu Bay and challenged the British to attack it.basically telling them: if you don’t have the balls to fight me here, I will personally go and destroy the Sultan of Brunei for asking you for help.

There was no camera back then, so uh… here’s an AI-generated image of the battle. Image by Crayon.

The British did not need to be warned twice and sent their entire army to Marudu Bay. At the end, the righteous british army won the war because the pirates could not sustain the fight against their firepower, but they noted that the Malay pirates fought bravely and were well dressed. In stereotypical British chivalry, they also applauded pirates for their bravery, such as when Syarif Osman’s flag – a red banner with a tiger painting – was pulled down, a volunteer went to reassemble it despite the bullets whizzing around him.

“…a volunteer climbed the stump of the flagpole; he erected the broken part, clung like a monkey until he had the colors solidly whipped, heedless of the bullets whizzing around his head, then slipped coldly unscathed. Pirate or no pirate, it was a gallant act.” – Extract from the British North Borneo Herald 1886

Syarif Osman himself was seriously injured during the war and stories are divided on what happened to him. Some say he escaped, but later died from his injuries and was buried in Kudat. Another says he died in the war; however, his corpse was never identified on the battlefield. But that’s not all…

Sandokan was based on Syarif Osman…as well as the real Sandokan

Kabir Bedi in the Sandokan mini-series. Image via Radio Prague.

At first it was assumed that Sandokan was based on Syarif Osman – both were fierce pirates with the same tiger flags, and their hometowns were destroyed by James Brooke who was allied with the Sultan of Brunei.

But Sandokan was actually a real person – a close confidant of Syarif Osman who resembled him in appearance and personality, and fought alongside him against the British.. According to Sabahan’s oral history, Sandokan, who in some versions is called Sindukung or Sandukar, came from the east coast and was the last person to own the Gomantong caves. It may have been named after its place of origin which shared the same root: an ancient word Sulu meaning “pawn”, as Sandakan originally belonged to the Sultan of Sulu, who pawned it to a debtor when he was unable to pay a debt.

According to researcher Dr. Bianca Gerlich, it is likely that Emilio Salgari heard the stories about North Borneo during his time as a sailor’s apprentice (hehe) to sailors in Venice, and mixed it as material for his novel. This has been theorized as Salgari began writing his histories much earlier – in 1883 – while the written British records of the Battle of Marudu were not published until 1886, nearly 40 years after the war.

Whatever the truth, Sandokan and Syarif Osman may be remembered as fierce pirates of the outside world, but for those in Sabah they were seen as freedom fighters who fought against British rule despite the odds. Thus, the story will always depend on which side you are seen on: on one side, you might be seen as a hoarder of sea resources, constantly plundering in your shameless quest for endless wealth and power. But on the other hand, you might be considered British.




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