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Mat Salleh Rebellion was a series of major disturbances in North Borneo, now Malaysian state of Sabah, from 1894 to 1900. It was instigated by Datu Muhammad Salleh, or better known as Mat Salleh.


Causes of the rebellion

North Borneo during the late 1800s was under the administration of British North Borneo Company. The Company was trying to transform North Borneo into a producer of various agricultural products, especially tobacco. As the Company introduced new cash crops, North Borneo underwent inevitable economic and social changes.

The Company tried hard to preserve local cultures but certain local practices had to be regulated to ensure the Company's control. For instance, slavery was abolished. More disrupting changes brought about by the Company were the introduction of taxes and the need for firearms and boat licenses. Many locals disagreed with the new rulings.

Mat Salleh and the rebellion

One of the more influential dissenting local chiefs was Mat Salleh. He was born in Inanam, Sabah, the son of the leader of the Inanam and became a governor at Sugud River. A member of the Bajau and Suluk tribes, he married a Sulu princess.

In 1895, Mat Salleh entered into a long running dispute with the Company. Salleh had taken issue with the Company imposing new rules on the Sugud River region, but the Company ignored his complaints. For their part, the Company was unhappy with Mat Salleh collecting taxes from the local populace without their approval. Soon after the dispute began, the Company burnt down Salleh's village, and in 1897, he retaliated by razing the Company's harbor at Pulau Gaya. As the rebellion grew, Salleh ordered a fort to be constructed in Ranau. The Company tried to capture the fort but they met with heavy resistance and resorted to setting fire to it instead. After skirmishes near Pulau Gaya, Inanam and Menggatal, this phase of the conflict ended with Mat Salleh's forces retreating into North Borneo hitherland.

In due course the Company offered Mat Salleh peace, which Mat Salleh agreed to. Unfortunately for him, this truce with the British so outraged his own people that he was forced to flee to Tambunan. The British granted Mat Salleh control of Tambunan, and he built a new fort there which still stands today. Despite the peace treaty, the Company decided to take back Tambunan from Mat Salleh in 1899 - Mat Salleh refused and fighting recommenced. On January 31, 1900, he was shot dead in Kampung Toboh, Tambunan. His death left the rebellion movement leaderless and effectively ended it.

However kindly be informed that in most part of Malaysia and even now in the state of Sabah, when one mention the word "Mat salleh", they would refer to Caucasians generally, which is something like Farang or Gringo and the said word might have been derived from "mad sailor".


  • Zainal Abidin Bin Abdul Wahid, Khoo Kay Kim, Muhd. Yusof Bin Ibrahim, D.S. Ranjit Singh. 1994. Sejarah Tingkatan 2. ISBN 983-62-1009-1

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