Joseph William Torrey.

Col. Joseph William Torrey, Rajah of Ambong and Marudu, (April 22, 1828 in Bath, Maine; – June 22, 1885 in Boston) was an American merchant, president of the American Trading Company of Borneo and co-founder of the American colony "Ellena" (in present-day Kimanis) together with Thomas Bradley Harris on the island of Borneo. He was known as "Yankee Rajah" and served as a U.S. vice-consul to Siam.[1][2]

Early lifeEdit

Torrey was born on April 22, 1828 in the American small town of Bath in Maine. He was the son of Joseph Gendall Torrey and Emily Houghton. His father practiced the craft of a printer and was also the founder of the Maine Gazette, which is the town first newspaper.[3] In 1834, the family moved to Roxbury, a district of Boston. Torrey graduated from the Boston High School under Rev. Dr. Leach. At first, he also learned the printing business and worked for several years in the company of his father, which brought him into contact with the satirical magazine, Carpet Bag by Benjamin Penhallow Shillaber.[2][4] Torrey served in several companies and was a member of the Ancient and Honorable Artillery Company of Boston. However, the authenticity of his military grade "Colonel" is questioned.[1][4][note 1]

Further careerEdit

In 1853, he left Boston and went to Melbourne, Australia, where he worked as a clerk at Caldwell, Train & Co., Commission Merchants and Steam Packet Agents. He was also a member of Torrey & Foodrich and Company, Discharging Clerks. In addition to his work, he began studying law; although it was not known if he received an academic degree in law.[4] In Melbourne, he joined the Masonic lodge and later became the Grand Master. On September 22, 1854, during his time in Australia, he married his first wife, Eliza Lydia Ewer in Victoria. The couple had two children, Emiline Eliza (born in 1856) and Cordelia Grace (born in 1858). One year after the birth of their second children, Eliza however died young after battling with a short illness at the age of 27 years. Torrey returned with his two children to Roxbury in 1860, where they grew up with their grandparents.[4]

In 1860, Torrey moved to British Hong Kong, where he became the editor of The China Mail, the first British daily newspaper in Hong Kong. He later took over the publication of the Hong Kong Times. In 1862, he joined Montgomery & Parker as a ship broker and commissioner.[4][5] In 1863, Torrey married again. His second wife, the first fifteen-year-old Charlotte Ann "Lemon" Mills, bore him a son Joseph Gendall (born on September 16, 1864) and a daughter named Elena Charlotte (born in 1867).[6] He later bought his own ship from the ship broker company, which he baptized as Ellen - probably named after his newest youngest daughter.[4]

Foundation of the Ellena ColonyEdit

Thomas Bradley Harris (standing left) and Torrey (sitting right).

In August 1865, the American consul in Brunei, Charles Lee Moses[note 2] concluded a 10-year lease with the Sultan Abdul Momin and his successor, Pengiran Temenggung who guaranteed land rights in various areas in the north of Borneo. Looking for a quick profit, the consul immediately sought buyers for his concessions following the signing of the lease. Moses bid raised the interest among his countrymen including Torrey himself and Thomas Bradley Harris. Blessed with exuberant reports of a land rich in gold, diamonds, precious stones, spices and treasures waiting to be delivered to the markets of Hong Kong and China, they bought the concessions of Moses in September 1865.[7]

In October 1865, Torrey and Harris, together with Chinese lenders Lee Assing and Pong Ampong under the American Trading Company of Borneo decided to build a colony in the area of today's Kimanis. Taking note of the fact that the acquisition of the concession of Moses was also recognized by the Sultan of Brunei, Torrey made a new concession letter drawn up on November 24, 1865 at the Brunei Palace provided with the seals of the Sultan and three of his ministers.[8] The document confirms his concession acquisition which is not only guaranteed for Torrey to be the ruler of life and death, but the Sultan even gave him the title of "Rajah of Ambong and Marudu".[1][note 3]

Page 2 of the concession of Torrey with his appointment as Rajah by the Sultan of Brunei.[1]

In December 1865, Torrey with 12 Americans and 60 Chinese founded the colony of "Ellena" and appointed himself as the governor, and Harris as vice-governor. His plans to make Ellena attractive to further settlers by cultivating sugarcane, tobacco and rice failed soon after. This was mainly caused by the unfortunate choice of the position of Ellenas; in the mouth of the sluggish Kimanis River which favored the outbreak of malaria and other diseases. The colony also lacked a solid financial base which meant that Torrey was forced to temporarily leave his own colony to his deputy, Harris to look for investors in Hong Kong and Shanghai.

While Torrey desperately tried to raise additional funds in Hong Kong for his colony in Borneo, his friend Harris died of malaria on May 22, 1866.[9] Torrey buried his business partner on the top of a nearby hill in his colony area in Borneo, now known as Governor's Hill. Torrey made the following inscription to his tombstone:

In Memory of Thomas Bradley Harris, Hon. Chief Secretary of the Colony of Ambong and Maroodu. By Birth a Citizen of the U.S.A. Died 22nd May, 1866. Aged 40 Years. Erected by the Rajah. A Tribute of Respect to the Memory of An Old, Faithful and Esteemed Friend. “After Life’s Fitful Fever, He Sleeps Well.”

As early as 1866, the American colony was abandoned because of a lack of capital, a lack of labor, riots among the workers and serious diseases.[10] The end of Ellena left Torrey penniless. Driven on the one hand by the predominantly Chinese investors, unlike Charles Lee Moses who was still waiting for the payment of the purchase price, he tried to continue selling his rights profitably. However, only nine years later, just before the ten-year term expired, Torrey succeeded in selling all rights to Baron von Overbeck from Germany in January 1876 in Hong Kong. The purchase price of $15,000 was linked to the condition that within nine months it was necessary to obtain an extension of the concessions from the ruler of Brunei.

Diplomatic serviceEdit

From 1877 to 1880, Torrey was a vice-consul at the U.S. Consulate in Siam (present-day Thailand).[2][11] In his capacity as a vice-consul, he also belonged to the American delegation who accompanied ex-President Ulysses S. Grant during his visit to meet Chulalongkorn, the king of Siam.[12] It seems, however, that Torrey presence was not well-liked by all, as he could not arrange with his superior.[13] After his resignation as vice-consul, he remained a member of the American Legation in Bangkok.[14]

Later life and deathEdit

Torrey returned to America in 1883. A few days before his death, the news from the King of Siam reached him, telling that he should be appointed as the king's chief adviser. Before he decided whether to take office or not, Torrey died suddenly on June 22, 1885, at his home on Wabon Street in Roxbury. Although he already died, he still recognized by the government for representing his lost kingdom as his body was dressed in the uniform of a high oriental dignitary for three days before his black coffin of walnut wood was taken to the St. James Episcopal Church. A large crown of flowers in the colors of the flag of Ellenas-yellow and red-formed the central view, a half-moon with thirteen stripes on a blue background, and thirteen stars which testified the American origin of the rajah.[15] He was buried at the Torrey Family Cemetery of the Forest Hills Cemetery.[16][17]


Torrey, "the only American Rajah" also got his entry on the title page of the January issue of Ripley's Believe It or Not! in the year of 1950.[1]


  1. ^ The very detailed genealogy of the Torrey family, which also provides very precise evidence for the military career of the family members, also leave the issue on his involvement in military in questions.
  2. ^ In the literature, there is also the name Claude Lee Moses; but in the treatise with Sultan Abdul Mumin, which was notarially attested by Moses, he himself uses the first name Charles.
  3. ^ The decisive section on page 2 of his license certificate is: and do hereby nominate and appoint Joseph William Torrey Supreme Ruler and Governor of the above named territory with the title of Rajah of Ambong and Maloodoo with power of life and death over the inhabitants with all the rights of property vested in us over the productions of the country whether mineral (with the exception of coal at Benoni and Kimanis only) vegetable or animal – with the rights of making laws, coining money, creating an army and navy for their own protection, or for the suppression of piracy in their area or adjacent waters and commissioning the officers thereof, levying custom rates on foreign vessels or people and other dues on the inhabitants as to him may seem good and expedient, together with all other forces and rights usually and exercised by, and belonging to Sovereign Rulers: - and we call upon all foreign nations with whom we have formed friendly treaties and alliances to acknowledge the said Rajah as ourself in the above territories and to respect this authority therein – and in case of the death or retirement from office of this said Rajah then his successor in the office of President of the above Company shall succeed.


  • Joseph William Torrey: American Trading Company of Borneo Organized Under Special Concession from His Highness the Sultan of Borneo, and the General Laws of the State of New York. 1868


  1. ^ a b c d e Frank Tatu (1990). "The United States Consul, the Yankee Raja, Ellena and the Constitution : A Historical Vignette". Archipel 40. Persée. 40 (1): 79–90. doi:10.3406/arch.1990.2667. Retrieved May 20, 2017.
  2. ^ a b c "Death of Colonel Joseph William Torrey". Boston Evening Transcript. June 22, 1885. Retrieved May 20, 2017.
  3. ^ "Maine Gazette (Bath, Maine) Newspaper Archives (1820 - 1830)". GenealogyBank. Retrieved May 20, 2017.
  4. ^ a b c d e f Torrey, Frederic C. (Frederic Crosby) (1924). "The Torrey families and their children in America : v. 1-". Lakehurst, N.J. Internet Archive. p. 522. Retrieved May 20, 2017.
  5. ^ A. V. M. Horton (January 1, 1999). A Biographical Dictionary of Negara Brunei Darussalam: (1841-1998). A. M. V. Horton. ISBN 978-1-900789-25-7.
  6. ^ "Charlotte Ann Mills". Ancestry. Retrieved May 20, 2017.
  7. ^ Ranjit Singh (2000). The Making of Sabah, 1865-1941: The Dynamics of Indigenous Society. University of Malaya Press. ISBN 978-983-100-095-3.
  8. ^ Bachamiya Abdul Hussainmiya (2006). Brunei: revival of 1906 : a popular history. Brunei Press. ISBN 978-99917-32-15-2.
  9. ^ K. G. Tregonning (1965). A History of Modern Sabah (North Borneo, 1881-1963). University of Singapore.
  10. ^ K. G. Tregonning (1960). "North Borneo". Her Majesty’s Stationery Office, London. Abe Books. Retrieved May 20, 2017.
  11. ^ "List of members of the diplomatic corps in Bangkok". Straits Times Overland. National Library Board, Singapore. November 2, 1877. p. 4. Retrieved May 20, 2017.
  12. ^ "From the Daily Times 6th May. General Grant in Bangkok". Straits Times Overland. National Library Board, Singapore. May 7, 1879. p. 3. Retrieved May 20, 2017.
  13. ^ Benjamin A. Batson (1976). "American Diplomats In Southeast Asia In The Nineteenth Century: The Case Of Siam" (PDF). Journal of the Siam Society. Retrieved May 20, 2017.
  14. ^ "Topics of the Day. (Col. Brine's Journey overland from Tavoy to Bangkok)". Straits Times Weekly Issue. National Library Board, Singapore. February 26, 1883. p. 4. Retrieved May 20, 2017.
  15. ^ "Funeral of Joseph W. Torrey". Boston Daily Globe (1872–1922). June 26, 1885. Missing or empty |url= (help)
  16. ^ "Obituary Notes" (PDF). The New York Times. June 23, 1885. Retrieved May 20, 2017.
  17. ^ "Joseph William Torrey". Find a Grave. Retrieved May 20, 2017.