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April 23, 2014

Kampong Panglima Seman

Tom McLaughlin

Kuching, Malaysian Borneo – The history of Borneo is entwined in legend and fact. The story of Panglima Seman is one such story where the mythology and the reality become entangled in a web. The mythology is believed and, therefore, it must be part of the history.


Where Panglima was born, his parents and his early years are not known. We do know, if the myth is real, that he turned up at Santubong, a riverine community separated from two beaches now occupied by hotels that claim to be, but really aren't, five star properties.


But, back then it was a prosperous fishing village at the confluence of the Kuching River and the open sea. During high tide the waters move up the river about 30 kilometers before it meets the downward flow of the "other" Kuching River which drains the surrounding mountains.


Panglima is not a name but a title. It is earned through a deed that cannot be accomplished by others. The title is given for something where by the owner has shown a task that sets him apart from all the rest.


The day, what day is not clear but lets us say in the 1840's, the old Panglima had died and it was time to find a new one. A parang (machete) (at least I think it was a parang) was stuck in a tree. How it got stuck there, why it was stuck there or any number of questions that one would logically ask, are moot. It was stuck there.


The idea was to pull the parang out of a tree. One would normally think this would be easy but the myth has it over 20 (maybe 30) people lined up to try and dislodge the knife. None were successful except for Seman who pulled the blade out of the tree. He acquired the name of Panglima and became chief of Kampong.


Why he would move up the river to work for the White Rajah is not known, but he did. His first task, again dates are not important but I would say around 1850, he saved the town from a pirate attack. He paddled his canoe next to some rocks. He hid in the stones and as the boats came up the river (it was dark) he swam out and quietly pulled each person out of the canoe and bashed their head against the rocks. He managed, single handily, to force the entire fleet of three to four canoes depending on your perspective, to return backup the river in great fear, never to attack Kuching again.


The third and final tribute to this great man was his battle against another local hero, Rentap. He was on land leading a column of men alongside a flotilla of British forces moving up the river. This was the third, fourth or fifth attempt to dislodge the man who was a bane to the English.


As the force neared a fort where he was staying, the cannon from the British ship boomed out and tried to dislodge the malcontent. He held fast, with only bows, arrows and spears against the military. Finally, when the sun began to set, the light shined in their eyes and Panglima Seman charged. Blinded, the men defending the fort could not see enabling the pursuers a victory, led by Panglima Seman. This one is true, I kid you not.


The Rajah (which one nobody seems to be sure) grateful for this help, gave him a sword, a paper announcing his heroism and several acres of land due east of Kampung Surabya. (See last week's column) The kampong was divided into lots and sold. The Panglima had a house there and the present house standing may or may not be the one where he lived.


In a foot note to the story, HRH the wife of the Rajah, which one nobody seems to know, was taking a buggy ride and asked if this was the Kampong Panglima Seman. They all said yes and the festivities began. It was not, however, Kampong Panglima Seman but Kampong Arjuna (which means lady, flower or soldier, take your pick) which had somehow managed to insert itself between Kampong Surabaya and Kampung Panglima Seman. Anyway, they changed the name to Panglima Seman Hilir, to differentiate the two.


Such is the story of Panglima Seman and the kampong named after him.


...Life is good. . . . .


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