Baron Overbeck: Sulu’s white “datu bendahara”

HISTORY MATTERS - Todd Sales Lucero - The Freeman

This week on January 22, 1878, Baron Gustav von Overbeck was conferred the title of datu bendahara by the sultan of Sulu. A month prior to this, he was also appointed as maharaja of Sabah and rajah of Gaya and Sandakan in a December 29, 1877 treaty with Sultan Abdul Momin of Brunei, who claimed ownership of northern Borneo. Baron Overbeck’s role in the Sabah issue remains pivotal, but hardly anyone in the Philippines today remembers him, let alone knows who he was or what his role was in a controversy that continues to plague both our country and Malaysia, today.

Our country’s claim over Sabah has been going on for more than a century. There are many origins to our claim, but the most recent being that we claim it as a continuation of the sultan of Sulu’s historical claim of ownership of the territory. Sabah remains unresolved, with both sides having their own documentation to prove each other’s claims. A recent ruling from a Spanish court that awarded the heirs of a former sultan of Sulu the amount of $14.9 billion (?832,679,000), was overturned by a Paris Court of Appeal’s judgment which found that the arbitral tribunal that heard the petition filed by the Filipino heirs of the last sultan of Sulu, and which awarded them the settlement, did not have jurisdiction over the case.

It was this week in 1878 that Sulu’s Sultan Mohammed Jamalul Alam granted a portion of North Borneo to British financier Alfred Dent and the Austrian Baron Gustav von Overbeck. A few weeks before this grant was made, the Sultan of Brunei had ceded North Borneo, which included the area claimed by Sulu, to Overbeck and Dent. A few years later, Overbeck decided to sell his shares to Dent, who had requested for a charter from the British government and in 1881 formed the North Borneo Company to manage Sabah.

One interesting factoid about this man was his being conferred with several local titles which elevated him among the locals in Brunei and Sulu. Sultan Jamalul Alam of Sulu’s gift of the title Datu Bendahara to Overbeck was an indication of great respect for the man. A brother of Rajah Humabon of Cebu was listed in the accounts of Antonio Pigafetta as his bendahara. Traditionally in Malay states, the bendahara was the chief minister, second only to the sultan in rank, power, and authority. This position grew in importance during the Malacca sultanate after 1400, with its functions including executing the sultan’s commands and acting as prime minister and commander in chief. But more than this title, it was Overbeck’s use of the title maharajah as given by the sultan of Brunei that generated much controversy. Just like the Sabah issue, there was a possibility that the title given to Overbeck was also lost in translation. Overbeck took every advantage of his new title and flaunted it, which he understood as that of the title of a monarch, but in reality was probably just “maha rajah” and not “maharajah”, the former a job description of the chief supervisor acting as a “tax farmer” throughout Sabah. And, clearly, it was always a position related to taxation; nevertheless the native chiefs still accepted Overbeck’s use of the title whether it was actually bestowed by the Sultan as intended.

Baron von Overbeck married American Romaine Madeleine Goddard whose father was the first assistant secretary in the United States Department of the Interior, while her mother was from a socially-prominent and wealthy family. Their wedding was a social event in Washington, D.C., and no less than US President Ulysses S. Grant, his wife Julia Grant, Chief Justice Salmon P. Chase, and numerous ambassadors, attended it. While he was in Hong Kong, Overbeck sired four children with a Chinese woman named Lam Tsat-Tai, most of whom have descendants today.

Like most successful men in history, Overbeck was not successful as a family man, often gone from the family home. His constant absences caused marital problems, and Overbeck and his wife later separated. The man who used to flaunt around his title of maharajah would eventually fall into obscurity after his estrangement from his wife, and died at the age of 64 in London, mostly a forgotten man. And so, while Overbeck did not see the development of and eventual conflict in Sabah, and he would later become an almost forgotten man, he is still remembered today as being an important and contributing actor in our history.

vuukle comment


  • Latest
Are you sure you want to log out?

Philstar.com is one of the most vibrant, opinionated, discerning communities of readers on cyberspace. With your meaningful insights, help shape the stories that can shape the country. Sign up now!

Get Updated:

Signup for the News Round now

or sign in with