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North Borneo (Sabah)

National History - North Borneo

North Borneo was a British  protectorate  under the sovereign  North Borneo Chartered Company  from 1882 to 1946. After World War II, it became a  crown colony  of the  United Kingdom  from 1946 to 1963, known as British North Borneo. Currently, it is known as the state of  SabahEast Malaysia .

Formation of the North Borneo Protectorate

Foreign interest in the region can be traced as far back as 1761, when Alexander Dalrymple, an officer of the  British East India Company, entered an agreement with the Sultan of Sulu to set up a trading post in the region. However, this plan, together with other attempts to build a settlement and a military station centering around  Pulau Balambangan, proved to be a failure. Over the next century, most parts of north Borneo seems to have remained loosely under the Sultanate of Brunei, with the exception of  Labuan island on the west coast of Sabah, which was ceded to Britain in 1846. This future Crown Colony was to become a base for British operations against piracy in the region.

American interest sparked in 1865, when the United States  Consul to Brunei, Charles Lee Moses, obtained a 10-year lease for the territory of North Borneo from the Brunei Sultanate. However, the post- Civil War United States wanted nothing to do with Asian colonies, so Moses sold his rights to the Hong Kong-based American Trading Company of Borneo owned by Joseph William TorreyThomas Bradley HarrisTat Cheong and other Chinese merchants. However, the proposed settlement initiative at the Kimanis River mouth (christened Ellena) was in vain due to a lack of financial backing. Consequently, disease, death and desertion by the immigrant labourers led to abandonment towards the end of 1866.

With the imminent termination of the lease at hand in January 1875, Torrey managed to sell his rights to the Hong Kong-based Austrian Consul, Baron  Von Overbeck, who later obtained another 10-year renewal of the lease from the Temenggong of Brunei, and a similar treaty from the Sultan of Sulu on January 22, 1878.

Overbeck found financial backing from the Dent brothers (Alfred and Edward), but was unable to interest his government in the territory. After futile efforts to sell the territory to Italy for use as a penal colony, Von Overbeck withdrew in 1880, leaving  Alfred Dent in control. Dent was supported by Sir Rutherford Alcock, and  Admiral Sir Harry Keppel.

In July 1881, the Dent brothers formed the British North Borneo Provisional Association Ltd and obtained an officialRoyal Charter on November 1. In May 1882, the sovereign  North Borneo Chartered Company replaced the Provisional Association, with Sir Rutherford Alcock acting as first President, and Alfred Dent as  Managing Director of the newly-formed North Borneo protectorate.

Based in Kudat and later Sandakan, the Company sought to boost economic growth by importing foreign labourers to work the land. Chinese people, mainly Hakkas, from the Guangdong province, were contracted to work as labourers in plantation farms. Most of the migrants settled in Kudat and Jesselton (now  Kota Kinabalu). Moreover, in the early 20th century, economical stagnation led to an alteration of immigration policy so that more Chinese migrants were brought in from the provinces of Guangdong,  Fujian and even Hebei. Besides this, active Javanese migration had existed since 1891 and subsequent recruitment of laborers by the British took place from 1907 onwards. Other significant migrants from present-day Indonesia into Sabah consisted of the Bugis people beginning mid-19th century and the Florenese people from  Flores beginning early 1950s. Through the combined effort of the locals and immigrants, towns, farms, a timber industrytobacco  and rubber plantations began to thrive.

In 1885, United Kingdom, Spain and Germany signed the Madrid Protocol of 1885, which simultaneously recognized the sovereignty of Spain in the Sulu Archipelago  and dismissed any claims it previously owned over North Borneo. In spite of these and other diplomatic tussles propogated by the DutchSpanish and  Sarawak governments, the North Borneo Chartered Company proceeded to organize settlement and administration of the territory. The company progressively acquired further sovereign and territorial rights from the sultan of Brunei, expanding the territory under control to the Putatan river (May 1884), the Padas district (November 1884), the Kawang river (February 1885), the  Mantanani Islands (April 1885), and additional minor Padas territories (March 1898).

A British Protectorate

In 1888, rights to North Borneo were transferred over to Great Britain, but its administration remained entirely in the hands of the North Borneo Chartered Company, with the crown reserving only control of foreign relations.

From 1890 to 1905 the British government placed the colony of Labuan under the administration of North Borneo.

The Company's rule in North Borneo had great impact on the development of the region. Although was generally peaceful, the local resentment at the imposition of taxes and the loss of land to European plantations occasionally manifested. Significant incidents include the Mat Salleh (Mahomet Saleh) War from 1894 to 1900, and the Rundum Uprising by the  Murut in 1915.

Administration was based on standard British colonial administration structures already developed in the Peninsula region, where land was divided into Residencies, and sub-divided into Districts. Initially, there were only two Residencies: East Coast and West Coast, with Residents based at Sandakan and  Jesselton respectively. Each Residency was divided into Provinces, later known as Districts, which were run by District Officers. By 1922, there were five Residencies to accommodate new areas that were opened up for development. These were the West Coast, KudatTawau, Interior and East Coast Residencies, which were sub-divided into 17 Districts.

Under this system, British dominated top posts, while native chiefs managed the people at grassroots level. This was a convenient arrangement for the District Officers who were unfamiliar with local customs and politics.

World War II

On 1 January 1942, Japanese forces landed in Labuan, invaded and occupied the rest of North Borneo. The North Borneo Armed Constabulary with only 650 men hardly provided any resistance to slow down the Japanese invasion.

Resistance to Japanese military occupation took place mainly on the west and north coast of North Borneo. In Jesselton, forces were led by Albert Kwok and Jules Stephens of the  Kinabalu Guerillas. Their efforts were mirrored by Panglima Alli from Sulug Island, off the coast of Jesselton and Tun Datu Mustapha in Kudat. On October 10, 1943, the Kinabalu Guerrillas together with followers of Panglima Alli staged a surprise attack on the Japanese. The attack however was foiled. The 324 local residents who participated in the attacks, including Albert Kwok and Panglima Alli, were detained in Petagas and later executed on January 21, 1944.

Japanese brutality was showcased in the POW camps established in North Borneo, in which prisoners suffered under notoriously inhumane conditions, and particularly in the forced marches of 1945. Allied bombardments caused the Japanese to relocate the POW camp to inland Ranau, 260 km away. All prisoners, were forced to march to the new site in the infamous  Sandakan Death March. Sickness, disease, exhaustion, thirst, hunger, whipping, and shooting killed most of the prisoners, except for six Australians who successfully escaped, were never caught, and survived to tell the horrific story of the death march. The fallen of this march are commemorated each year on Anzac Day (Memorial Day) in Australia and in Sandakan, at the original POW campsite.

The war ended with the official surrender by Lieutenant-General Baba Masao of the 37th Japanese Army in Labuan on September 10, 1945.

British Crown Colony

As the Company lacked the financial resources to address post-war devastation, control of North Borneo was passed over to the  British Military Administration until the restoration of civil government in 1946, when it became a British Crown Colony together with Labuan.

The destruction of the former capital Sandakan was so complete that  Jesselton was chosen as the new post-war capital. The colonial system of administration was in most ways similar to rule during the Company era, retaining the same Residency and District structure.

The role of Governor was incorporated into the system. Much like the duties of the High Commissioner in the Peninsula, he oversaw the administration of colony of North Borneo and was assisted by an Advisory Council consisting of three ex-officio members: a Chief Secretary, the  Attorney-General, and the Financial Secretary, together with other members both official and unofficial whom the Governor chose to appoint. In 1950, the Advisory Council was replaced by the Executive and Legislative Councils, the former functioning as a Cabinet and headed by the Chief Secretary. The Governor presided over both Councils.

High-ranking administrative posts continued to be held by the British, it was only in 1957 that the first non-European filled an administrative officer's post.

British North Borneo was granted self-government on August 31, 1963. A little over two weeks later, on 16 September 1963, the state united with MalayaSarawak and Singapore, forming the  Federation of Malaysia.

Independence and formation of Malaysia

Following the 1957 formation of the Federation of Malaya, North Borneo was included in a subsequent proposal for a union of the former British colonies to form the independent Federation of Malaysia.

The idea was mooted by Malayan Prime Minister Tunku Abdul Rahman, but was supported by the British. Complete independence, however, was denied by the British Governor who remained in power until the establishment of the Malaysian federation in 16 September 1963.

In 1962, the Cobbold Commission launched a census to determine whether the laity was in favour of the proposed union. From this, it was found that, apart from minor opposition, there was general agreement from the people provided the common interest would be safeguarded. The Commission published its report on August 1, 1962 and made several recommendations. A majority of ethnic leaders in Sabah, namely Tun Mustapha representing the Muslims, Tun Fuad Stephens representing the non-Muslim natives, and  Khoo Siak Chew representing the Chinese, also eventually supported the formation.

To safeguard the interests and autonomy of its people, the North Borneo state government drew up a 20-point agreement for incorporation into the federation. Some of these were incorporated, to varying degrees, into what became the Constitution of Malaysia; others were merely accepted orally, thus not gaining legal status.

The union was legalized by means of a joint agreement signed by Tunku Abdul Rahman, Harold MacMillan, the British Prime Minister, and William Goode, the last  Governor of North Borneo on August 1, 1962. Although the original intention had been to form Malaysia on 31 August 1963, antagonism from Indonesia and the Philippines caused the event to be postponed to 16 September.

The North Borneo Dispute: Indonesian Konfrontasi, the Brunei Revolt and the Philippines Claim

Throughout the period of Malaysia’s formation, Indonesian President Sukarno adopted a hostile policy towards Malaya and subsequently Malaysia, which was backed by British forces and thus perceived as an expansion of British influence in the region. Sukarno’s intention was to wrest control over the whole of Borneo for the Indonesian republic.

Concurrently, his aims received support by certain parties, particularly by the Brunei People's Party, for the formation of a North Borneo Federation consisting of Sabah, Sarawak and  Brunei. In 1962, rebel attacks were launched in Brunei and some parts of Sabah and Sarawak, but were effectively quelled by the Bruneian Army with the help of British colonials.

Meanwhile, the Philippines maintained a somewhat more dormant claim over the sovereignty of eastern Sabah. This was based on the assertion that in 1658, the Sultan of Brunei had originally ceded the northeast portion of Borneo to the Sulu Sultanate. It was further argued that the 1878 territorial lease agreement between the Sultanate and Overbeck further proved that the area was historically under their ownership.

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