Welcome to Sandakan!

The History of Sandakan

Sandakan is a captivating town with its very own charm, friendly people and many fabulous places to eat seafood. Sandakan has also its own intriguing history and traces its roots back to the early 1870s, when William Clarke Cowie, a Scottish adventurer and engineer was trading guns and ammunition with the Sultan of Sulu so that he could protect his territories from the Spanish. In return, the Sultan granted Cowie permission to settle on Pulau Timbang in the Sandakan Bay, where there was a small Suluk village. Cowie called his base Sandakan, deriving the word from Suluk "sanda" and the suffix "kan", and Sandakan translates roughly into "the place that was pawned". Cowie's settlement soon became known as "Kampung German" because a lot of Germans called at his trading post.

In 1879 the settlement was relocated to Buli Sim-Sim, which at that time was a narrow, uninhabited coastal fringe of jungle and mangroves. However, Cowie found that the natural harbour was one of the most beautiful in the world, and he renamed his new settlement "Elopura", meaning Beautiful Town. But eventually the name Sandakan prevailed, and in 1883 the BNBCC moved its capital in North Borneo from Kudat to Sandakan. The trading post developed into a striving little town, but all business came to an abrupt end when the Japanese invaded Borneo during WWII. To liberate the town Allied bombers nearly flattened Sandakan towards the end of the war, and in retaliation the Japanese burnt whatever had survived the bombings. Sandakan virtually ceased to exist in June 1945.

After WWII, and faced with the impossibly expensive task of rebuilding Sabah, the BNBCC relinquished its rights to the British Crown, and in 1946 under colonial administration Sabah's capital was moved to Jesselton (now Kota Kinabalu).

Nevertheless, Sandakan was rebuilt and became Sabah's first and foremost port for the export of timber. Thus, after the war Sandakan grew bigger and stronger, and prospered with revenge! During its heydays, it is said that Sandakan had the greatest concentration of millionaires in the world! This prosperity naturally led to an influx of people from all over the world, from China over India to Arabia and Europe, from Indonesia to the Philippines and even to Japan. However, the seemingly inexhaustible supply of tropical timber dwindled fast and today most natural resources are depleted, with the reminders in protected reserves for plants and animals. Sandakan developed much of the former jungle into palm plantations, but due to the jungle reserves and vast conservation areas of one of the world's oldest rainforest it is famous now as the gateway to Sabah's unique and rich flora & fauna.