The Kingdom of Brunei

Before the 16 century, the area we now know as Sabah, Brunei and Sarawak centred around the kingdom of Brunei. In this region the kingdom of Brunei was also the centre of trade with China. This region was in tum controlled by two great empires of that period; first by the Sri Vijayan of Sumatra and then by the Majapahit of Java. However, early in the 15 century, the Malacca empire under Parameswara spread its influence and took over the trade of Brunei. Through its traders, Islam spread to Brunei by the end of the 15 century. Leadership of the Islamic faith passed to the Brunei Sultans after the fall of Malacca to the Portuguese in 1511. Under Sultan Bolkiah, the kingdom of Brunei extended its influence as far north as Luzon and Sulu, and south and west of Bomeo.

Except for the Europeans, other foreigners who have had dealings with Sabah or Bomeo left no written records of their activities in the region. The indigenous peoples of Bomeo have no written records except oral history and traditions.

The Chinese appeared to have had trade and diplomatic ties with Bomeo as early as 600 A.D. The Brunei Annals recorded the existence of a Chinese province in the Kinabatangan area. Archaeological evidence from ceramics unearthed in Bomeo revealed that for centuries the Chinese had barter-traded their ceramic wares for spices.

The Coming of the Europeans

1521: Pigafetta, chronicler of Ferdinand Magellan arrived in Brunei and was received with great pomp and royalty.

1526: The Portuguese under Menezes visited Brunei.

1577: The Spaniards conquered Philipines; also attacked Brunei; the Sultanate of Sulu was brought under the Spaniards.

1609: The Dutch set up a trading post in Southem Bomeo. 1619 :The Dutch set up a trading post in Batavia (Jakarta) in Java.

1658 : Sultan of Sulu given the north east coast of Borneo by the Sultan of Brunei in retum for his help in settling a civil war dispute between the Sultan Abdul Mubin and Pengeran Bongsu. Intemal quarrelling in the Brunei Sultanate was one of the factors that led to the decline of the empire.

1665 : The first Englishman to visit Bomeo - Captain Cowley.


In 1761, Alexander Dalrymple, an officer of the British East India Company at Madras, India concluded an agreement with the Sultan of Sulu which permitted him to set up a trading post in the North Bomeo region. He chose Balembangan island, about twenty miles to the north of Kudat town. In 1763, Dalrymple hoisted the British flag on Balembangan and renamed the island 'Felicia'. Another of ficer, John Herbert was sent to build a settlement in Balembangan. The settlement was doomed to failure from the start. Maladministration and piracy brought the trading post to a fiery end in 1775. An attempt was made to revive it in 1803, this time by the Governor-General of India, Lord Arthur Wellesley through his appointed officer, Robert J. Farquhar, Resident at Amboina. This time the attempt was to tum Balembangan into a military station. Again, it was a failure and it was finally abandoned in November 1805.

British attention was then increasingly fumed towards other regions of the Malay Archipelago.


British interest in North Borneo was revived 40 years later in Labuan, an island situated north west of Bomeo. In 1844, James Brooke approached the Sultan of Brunei regarding the cession of Labuan island to be used by the British as a coaling base, to act against piracy and to increase trade.

On 18 December 1846, a treaty was signed in which the Sultan ceded in perpetuity Labuan and its islets to the British Crown. Brooke became the first Govemor of Labuan and her Majesty's Consul-General in Bomeo. The Deputy Governor was William Napier, Hugh Low the Colonial Secretary and Spencer St. John, Brooke's private secretary. Labuan did not live up to expectations as a mini-Singapore or Penang as the founders had hoped. An enervating climate, a malaria prone region and lack of basic amenities were not conducive for growth. Its chequered history can be seen in its administration which changed hands several times. In 1890, Labuan came to be administered by the British North Borneo Chartered Company, in 1907 it was placed under the government of the Straits Settlements. After the War, Labuan became part of the colony of North Bomeo and most recently, Labuan became part of the Federal Territory of Malaysia on 16 April 1984.

The American Trading Company and the British North Borneo Chartered Company

After the disappointment with Labuan, British interest in North Bomeo waned until 1881, when a commercial enterprise, the British North Bomeo Chartered Company (BNBCC), began administering the country. Their presence was however preceded briefly by American influence and interest.

In 1865, the American Consul of Brunei, Claude Lee Moses obtained a 10-year lease from the Sultan of Brunei on North Bomeo. He then sold it to the American Trading Company owned by J.W. Torrey, T.B. Harris and some Chinese merchants. Torrey chose Kimanis, an area south west of North Bomeo as his base, and began a settlement there, naming it 'Ellena'. Attempts to find financal backing for the settlement were futile and the settlement was thus abandoned.

With the imminent termination of the territorial lease at hand, Torrey managed to sell his rights to the Austrian Consul in Hong Kong, Baron Von Overbeck. Overbeck managed to get 10-year renewal of the lease from the Tumonggong (Temenggong) of Brunei. To finance his plan for North Borneo, Overbeck found financial backers in the Dent brothers (Alfred and Edward). Later he, together with Count Montgelas of the Austro-Hungarian Embassy in London and A.B. Mitford, a politician transferred their rights to Alfred Dent.

In 1881, Dent fommed the British North Bomeo Provisional Association Ltd. On the 1 November, the British Crown officially granted a Royal Charter to the Association. In 1882, the British North Bomeo Chartered Company was fommed. It took over all the rights of the Provisional Association. Sir Rutherford Alcock became the first President and Alfred Dent the Managing Director.

In 1888, North Bomeo became a British protectorate, that is, British would defend it if it were attacked, making North Bomeo a British sphere of influence.

The Company's rule in North Bomeo had the greatest impact on the development of the region. A system of indirect rule was established in the administration of North Bomeo. The rule was generally peaceful except for small pockets of resistance, the most serious being the Mat Salleh War from 1894-1900 and the Rundum resistance by the Muruts in 1915.

The BNBCC effectively ruled up to 1942, after more than 60 years in Sabah, when the Second World War rudely interrupted on peaceful North Borneo. Japanese forces landed in Labuan on 1 January and occupied Sabah until she was liberated by the Ninth Division Australian Imperial Forces (A.I.F) in 1945. After the Second World War, North Borneo was administered by the British Military Administration until civil govemment was restored on July 15, 1946.

Crown Colony

In 1946, Sabah was placed under the British Crown as the BNBCC could not afford to rebuild Sabah, after the devastation of the War. The destruction of the capital Sandakan by allied bombing was so complete that Jesselton was chosen as the altemative post-war capital - it has remained so to this day. The colonial system of administration after the War was not dissimilar to the Chartered Company era. The rule was generally peaceful. Reconstruction and development of the country were the main focus of the administrators.


The population was generally placid and it was not until the 1960s that political conciousness emerged. The winds of change - the tide of independence being experienced by other countries had arrived in Sabah. It began with an announcement in 1961 by the Prime Minister of Malaya, Tunku Abdul Rahman, regarding the formation of the Federation of Malaysia which were to include Malaya, Sabah, Sarawak, Brunei and Singapore. Malaysia was formally established, without Brunei, on 16 September 1963 and North Bomeo's name was changed to Sabah. Preceding this, North Bomeo obtained self-govemment from the British on 31 August 1963. However by 1965, Singapore was out of the Federation.

As a state within a Federation many changes occurred, administratively, politically, socially, etc. The pace of development was hastened and Sabah entered a new and challenging era when she became part of the Federation of Malaysia.