Semporna before the war
Published on: Saturday, April 03, 2021
By: British North Borneo Herald
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Scenes from the past: Japanese troops handing in their weapons in Jesselton (now KK). Pic: Australian War Memorial. - Pic for illustration only.
JUNE 1. 1938 

Semporna is a very small town on the East Coast, but although she may be behind other progressive towns of the State, she is proud to be a place which everyone likes to visit. 

The first thing that attracts the eye in the distance is the Jetty, the longest in the country, which is 1,090 feet long, and which looks a lovely sight. It is made of piled coral stones and at the end at the point of anchorage is the usual wooden wharf. 

On the right side are the houses of those they call the sea people Pala-o. Formerly this tribe did not live in houses for they thought that the roofs would fall upon them. Also when they stayed long ashore they felt sea-sick; but now they are accustomed to towns and civilisations. 

They used to live in small boats, sleeping, eating, cooking and doing all the things usually done in houses. They are the best fishermen among the natives of the country, and they seem always to be happy, night and day, for they play drums and agong. When the houses are silent it means that the owners have gone out far to fish and will return laden with their catch. 

Visiting the town means walking down the main street, the only one Semporna has. By the side of the road there are houses and apartment buildings where the stores are. A glance inside the shops will reveal the presence of dried sotong, not often found elsewhere. If the visit is in the morning, the shops are filled with native buyers — all seeming to belong to the same tribe. 

If one is lucky one may see some long haired male, a remnant of the old-timers of this locality. These are Sikobong from a faraway island, far from civilisation. One may look in vain for motor cars and buses, but Semporna has now an ancient privately owned baby Austin which arrived in the early part of 1937. 

Going further north, the road leads to a coconut plantation. Inside the kebun is the only wooden modern bungalow of Semporna, which is surrounded by flowering plants and has a tennis court at the side. It is the only building of its kind kept up to date with Borneo decorations. This house is owned by A.K. Abu Bakar, General Contractor and Merchant.


Returning along the main street, if it is about noon, a strong odour of fish will be noticed. Hundreds of pikuls are continually being brought in by the fishermen, and these are constantly being salted at the big godown opposite the apartment buildings. That’s Semporna town. 

But visitors usually want to know something about what is outside the town proper, and it is of these surroundings that Semporna is proudest of all. Going through the trusan by motor boat one reaches Pakalangan, where the Borneo Pearl Company is working. Down by the sea a house is to be found and around it are baskets and baskets of small pearls under water. These pearls are kept inside the shells and cared for about three years, by which time they will be of saleable sizes. 

The next stop would be at Karindingan island to the eastward. This island has a white sandy soil and mangrove forest around it. In the distance many different kinds of birds are to be seen, flying together in great numbers. Strewn around on the shore are lokans (edible clam shells) in great quantities. This island is rightly noted of its birds and clams.

Next, to Si Amil, where the Borneo Fishing Company is packing fish. Here there is a modern canning factory run by electricity. There is also an ice factory. The process of the work is usually explained to visitors from the very arrival of the fresh fish. 

The last step will be to Sipadan island. This island is noted for its turtle eggs. In one night thousands and thousands of eggs could be collected. Take a note of a turtle seen during the evening and when they go away at midnight or dawn you will find that each turtle has laid not less than one hundred eggs. The size of these turtles is so great that they can carry any ordinary man who ventures to sit on top of them.

Death of Mr Alexander Cook (JULY 18TH, 1938)  

It is with great regret that we record the death of Mr Alexander Cook, which took place at his home at Bedford on the 16th June, 1938. He leaves a widow to whom we offer our respectful condolences. 

The Herald of the 16th November 1908 announced the approaching retirement of Messrs. Cook and Walker, both of whom were then on furlough, in Mr Cook’s case this was to take effect on the 7th December 1980, after some 28 years’ service. The Herald wished both of them “a long enjoyment of their pension” and though Mr Henry Walker died some years ago, it will be agreed that for Mr Cook the wish has been fulfilled, in spite of the fact that when he actually left Borneo he was in very bad health, so much so that many doubted whether he would even live to reach England. 

Mr Cook’s signature, original or lithographed, is still to be seen on some of our old currency notes of the larger denominations, but the Europeans and Chinese still in Borneo who can remember him personally may now perhaps be numbered on the fingers of one hand many however of his friends and acquaintances amongst the Natives of Sandakan and the. East Coast must still survive, for he was well known to great numbers of them, and a visitor to his Office would often find it crowded with parties of gaily dressed Sulus and Bajaus, for to his main official Treasury duties he added, in February 1893, the duties of “D.O. and Officer in Charge, Native Affairs, Sandakan”. 

There was no “Resident, Sandakan” in those days, and the District Officer would correspond direct with the Secretariat. Mr Cook was an older institution in Sandakan than the Chartered Company itself for he joined the “Provisional Association” as Auditor’s Assistant on the 15th October 1880, and with the exception of a short period as Private Secretary to Governor Treacher in 1881 he retained substantive appointments in the Treasury Department as a Financial Officer up to the end of his service.

Beside his additional duties, already mentioned, as District Officer, he was given some Magisterial duties, and, in 1883, charge of the Sandakan Customs and Farms, and in 1892 he acted for six months as Government Secretary. On several occasions he was Acting or Deputy Governor, and he was Chief of the Triumvirate which administered the Government in the years 1889-1890. 

Mr Cook was a typical “Sandakanite”, as most of his time was spent there — in latter days’ at all events, he seldom went on tour round the country — and his interests were mainly centred there. Officers in those days were allowed to hold private investments in the country, and Mr Cook proved his faith in its future by his ownership of some town property and the planting of a small coconut estate at Bokara, a few miles from Sandakan, a favourite destination for the afternoon riding parties of those days. 

His great height and big build gave him an imposing appearance, and a cadet on his first arrival in his Office would feel rather like a pygmy before Gulliver, but the kindly manner of the giant soon dispelled this feeling, helped by the generous hospitality for which he was so well known. 

Readers of a later time may feel but scant interest in such ancient recollections, such raking over of the dim embers of the past, but in those few who do still remain in England or in Borneo, who were his contemporaries even if not for a year of two, memories may still be fanned once more into a glowing flame and even the modern generation may hope that should occasion arise, they too would be capable of showing the enterprise, the ready decision and the patience of an early pioneer.

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