Thursday, 23 July 2015

Ghost Cave of the 1857 Bau Massacre, Sarawak

The Bukit Young Goldmine premises in Bau holds a secret which few people are able to share the once feared but now much revered Ghost Cave of the James Brooke era. It was here that in this dark cavern between 400 to 500 Chinese men, women and children were massacred during the Chinese insurrection in February 25, 1857.

Thanks to Bukit Young Goldmine's liaison manager Tan Hock Hee, the Borneo Post was able to visit the site of cave and discover many more stories related to the cave and its infamous incident.

I was also accompanied by former Bau District Officer and author-cum historian Dr Chang Pat Foh and renown American geographer Professor Dr Joseph J. Hobbs from the University of Missouri.

Sited in the Bukit Young goldmine which is at the back of the Bau Civic Centre, we passed through the fenced up (and security tight) premises and just at the back of the office block was Bukit Young a hill named after R.A. Young, a Borneo Company gold mine manager who worked in Bau in the early 1900s.

For reasons best known to the White Rajahs, the Ghost Cave was a forgotten relic. It was not until almost 80 years that the Chinese community in Bau explored the cave.

In 1983 when the Bukit Young Goldmine took over the premises surrounding the Ghost Cave (which is in a hill called Bukit Young) that interest in the subject of the ghost caves grew.

"When we took over the surrounding area the condition of the cave was apalling. The entrance to the cave was covered with undergrowth. It had become a jungle," said Tan whose office is 100 feet from the cave's entrance.

Added Tan: "From what I understand, the Ghost Cave story became public just before the war. Initially the people were too embarrassed to talk about it let alone investigate the cave.

"It was not until the 1930s that the Chinese Kapitan Liew Nyan Foo organised his people to carry out investigations into the cave system and found the bones of hundreds of people. Their bones were later removed and buried at the Bau Chinese cemetery, not far from the site of the massacre."

Slowly, with the help of the local community leaders and Chang who was District Officer in the mid 1980s, they began to restore the cave premises.

Inside, a brick wall was built about 200 feet away from the entrance to prevent people from entering the cave (some people believe that the cave hold artifacts and even valuables as well as gold deposits).

"We decided that something had to be done to appease the spirits. A temple called Shak Bong Jar (God of the Rock) was restored to ensure that the spirits of the victims would remain entombed in the cave and not let loose.

"Imagine what would have happened if the spirits were let loose in Bau town?" said Chang, an expert on Bau and the author of "Freedom Fighters of Sarawak", in which a large section is devoted to the Chinese insurrection and its leader Liu Shanbang.

According to the story, Liu had led the Chinese rebellion against James Brooke, the first white Rajah of Sarawak (who had a narrow escape), on February 18 because he disliked the interference of the colonials in Sarawak's affairs. History books link the rebellion to the refusal of the gold miners to pay exorbitant taxes.

All went well until the Malays and natives were persuaded to team up with the Rajah's several hundred-strong Iban forces led by Charles Brooke, the nephew of James, to bring down the Chinese rebellion.

Thereafter, Liu, a six-footer with a long pigtail he was fond of curling around his neck and armed with a sword and pistol, and his forces retreated upriver and back to Bau; they were ambushed along the river, chased when they landed and escaped on foot and finally cornered at a spot called Jugan near the village of Siniawan (on the way from Kuching to Bau).

In his last stand at Jugan on February 24, China-born Liu fought bravely despite being outnumbered and "died on his feet".

When the Rajah's soldiers left, those who managed to escape found Liu's dead body leaning on his sword. It is said that they buried Liu on the same spot where he was killed together with a large amount of gold which belonged to him.

After the killing of Liu the Rajah's forces arrived at Bau and trapped the Chinese families who had fled into the "ghost cave" a complex which is said to be at least one mile long. They lit a huge bonfire at the entrance, and all either suffocated to death or were killed as they tried to escape.

The Sarawak government recently honoured Liu Shanbang and other gallant Sarawakian warriors by building a heroes' monument at the Sarawak museum gardens.

But the Ghost Cave may still be a resting place for the forgotten ones. Even today it is common practice for the Chinese seeking good fortune to visit a temple (named after Liu Shanbang at Jugan) to commemorate the death of this Chinese hero.

In fact, the locals have uplifted his status to a "deity" as it is believed that some who prayed to his spirit have received good fortune. The nameless hundreds who perished in the cave, on the other hand, remain largely forgotten.

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