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A political unit emerges

Millennium markers - Borneo-Sabah-Sarawak

NORTH Borneo, as Sabah was known as in the 19th century, became a separate political entity in November 1881 when it was officially ruled by the British North Borneo (Chartered) Company. Prior to this, North Borneo had been under the sovereignty of two powers: the Brunei Sultanate and the Sulu Sultanate. Following the granting of the charter, the company established an administrative system based on a British one that was enshrined in the charter. North Borneo remained under the company's rule until 1941 when the Japanese occupied the territory until its liberation in 1945. On July 15, 1946, after negotiations between the Japanese and the British, North Borneo was ceded to the British Crown and was called the Colony of North Borneo. In 1963, North Borneo, together with Sarawak and Singapore, secured its independence by joining the Federation of Malaya to form Malaysia (Singapore left Malaysia in 1965).Before 1881, North Borneo did not exist as a political unit. In the 16th century, North Borneo was under the suzerainty of the Brunei Sultanate when Brunei emerged as an empire during the reign of the fifth sultan, Sultan Bulkiah. North Borneo was then divided into many territories by Brunei authorities and ruled separately according to the political administrative system of Brunei. Although Brunei claimed de jure control (control by right) over the Sibuku river in the east, it was only along the coastal areas that de facto authority was exercised.

In the 17th century, Brunei experienced constant disputes partly because of weaknesses in the empire's political structure, particularly the dynastic struggle. In the early 18th century, the north-east territories were given to the Sulus by Sultan Muaddin in return for assistance in fighting off his rival to the throne, Abdul Mubin, at Pulau Chermin. From that moment, therefore, the territory of North Borneo was claimed by both the Brunei and Sulu sultanates.

On the West Coast, the land between Kimanis and Pandasan was under the Brunei sphere of influence; on the coast, the area between Marudu Bay and the Sibuku river become the Sulu sphere of control. As for the rest of the area, the interior, it was in the hands of various indigenous ethnic groups while the coastal areas between Pandasan and Marudu were controlled by several semi-Arab sharifs. As a result of the intense imperialistic rivalry amongst the Western powers, each sought to extend their influence in Borneo waters that had yet to be colonised. The Philippines was already occupied by the Spanish, James Brooke - who became Sarawak's first White Rajah after he was granted the fiefdom of that state by the sultan of Brunei in 1841 - had taken control of Sarawak, Labuan was under British control, and the Dutch were in Kalimantan. Britain was, however, reluctant to openly infringe Dutch treaties with Malay-Muslim rulers, lest this destroyed its alliance with the Dutch in Europe. If Britain was to interest itself in the archipelago, it had to, if possible, be in an area where the European powers had no direct influence. Hence, the Sulu-Brunei region was a possibility.The first Westerner to be involved in the contest for the region was an American, Charles Lee Moses, the first Consul-General in Brunei who had earlier served in the American Navy. The British had established themselves in Balembangan in 1762 when it was ceded by the Sultan of Sulu to Alexander Dalrymple in return for helping the sultan against the Spanish. The British occupation was, however, temporary, for in 1775 the territory was attacked by what was then known as the ''Sulu pirates''. After the attack, there was no attempt to set up a base and in 1805, Balembangan and the surrounding areas were abandoned. Following that, the British made no attempt to claim that island. The Spanish too made no claim on North Borneo which was under the sovereignty of the Sultan of Sulu. The Spanish only paid serious attention to this question when they took full control of the Sulu Island in 1878.

Between 1805 and 1878, the Sultan of Brunei signed a number of treaties with certain individuals and the British government. According to the terms of a treaty signed in 1847, Brunei was not allowed to cede Labuan or other territories (in Brunei) to any power without the consent of the British government.

Meanwhile, between 1845 and 1865, the Americans had been rather active in the Borneon waters. Like the other Western powers, the United States, too, was keen to participate in the colonial push for territories in South-East Asia and to sign trade agreements with local rulers in pursuit of economic interests. Among the Americans to pursue this interest was Moses.

Brunei then was ruled by Sultan Abdul Mumin who was considered to be more experienced and dynamic than his predecessor, Sultan Omar Ali. At this time, Abdul Mumin was disappointed that the British had not been making the annual payments they had agreed to when Brunei ceded Labuan to them. The Labuan Coal Mine Company, too, had stopped payments to the sultan as it was making losses. Hence the sultan was waiting for an opportune time to rid himself of the unprofitable British presence.

This opportunity surfaced when Moses arrived in Brunei; in 1865, the American succeeded in obtaining a 10-year lease of territory in North Borneo in return for an annual payment of $4,500 (Mexican silver) to the sultan and $4,000 to Pengiran Temenggong, the heir to the throne. Moses was also allowed to open a consular office in Brunei.

Economic gain

Moses' intention was to exploit the leased land for economic gain. He then transferred his rights to two American merchants in Hong Kong, Joseph W. Torrey and Thomas B. Harris. These merchants left for North Borneo with about 60 Chinese labourers, seven Americans and Canadians, a Swede and $7,000 as investment capital. Torrey was appointed Raja of Ambong and Marudu and given the rights to agricultural and mineral resources. In North Borneo, 90 acres (36ha) of land was opened up and they ventured into cultivating rice, sugar cane and tobacco. A settlement was established at Sungai Kimanis and named Ellena.

Torrey's business venture, undertaken by the American Trading Company, however, failed due to a lack of capital and food. In fact, the company faced losses, was unable to pay the workers, and Thomas Harris, the main partner, died in Kimanis. Under these circumstances, Torrey was forced to return to Hong Kong and Moses did not receive any payment. Thus, the sultan himself did not receive the annual rentals he had been promised. Faced with mounting problems, Moses turned to the US State Department for assistance but the United States, in the midst of the Civil War at the time, was reluctant to get involved. The country denied any responsibility for Moses' activities since he had acted in his own interest in securing the cessions.

Before the expiry of the 10-year lease, however, Torrey tried to renew negotiations with the sultan but, due to financial constraints, he found it difficult to renew the 1865 concession. He then set out to find a new buyer and eventually sold his rights in the American Trading Company of Borneo to the Austrian-Hungary Consul General at Hong Kong - Baron Von Overbeck - in January 1877 for $15,000. Overbeck, on his part, succeeded in renewing the lease for 10 years, until 1885. Once the lease had been renewed, Overbeck sought to interest Austrian traders in opening up land in Northern Borneo. When his efforts failed too, he left for London where he persuaded his former employer, Alfred Dent, to be his partner.

Earlier, the sultan, on the advice of the then British Governor of Labuan, Hugh Low, had refused to renew the lease but after Overbeck agreed to join forces with Dent, the situation changed. Overbeck, together with Torrey from the American Trading Company, went to Labuan to meet the Acting Governor, W.H. Treacher, to solicit his support for the renewal of the lease. Treacher had requested that the agreement should contain a clause that the concession should get the approval of the British government and that the rights could not be transferred to non-British citizens without the consent of the British government.

However, the fresh agreement between Overbeck, Dent and the sultan of Brunei did not include that clause. According to the terms of the new treaty - signed on Dec 29, 1877 - however, the territories in question were given in ''perpetuity'' and not as a lease as had been done previously.

With the new agreement, the sultan of Brunei granted all the territories in the north-west, including Papar and Benoni, for $4,000 a year; all the territories from Sungai Sulaman in north-west Borneo for $6,000 a year; all the territories within Paitan, Sugut, Bingaya, Labuk, Sandakan, Kinabatangan, Muming/Memiang and as far as Sungai Sibuku in the east for $2,000 a year.

In a separate agreement with Pengiran Temenggong, Overbeck and Dent obtained Kimanis and Benoni in the north-west for $3,000 a year. A proclamation by the sultan also appointed Overbeck as the Maharajah of Sabah and the Raja of Gaya and Sandakan.

Overbeck later learnt that parts of the territory granted to him by the sultan of Brunei were in fact under the sovereignty of the sultan of Sulu. To solve this problem, Overbeck approached Treacher for assistance. Treacher promised to intervene only if Overbeck included the terms that Treacher had originally suggested.

Sulu then was under threat from the Spanish, and Treacher used this opportunity to exhibit superior British naval power by taking gunships to Jolo to intimidate the sultan of Sulu. Sultan Jamal Al Alam ultimately, at the advice of Treacher, consented to transfer all his sovereignty from Sungai Pandasan in the north to Sibuku in the south for $5,000 a year. The agreement signed on Jan 22, 1878, also contained the terms suggested by Treacher earlier.

Opening up land

Overbeck had intended to place the territories acquired under Austrian sovereignty but the terms of the agreement dashed his hopes. Treacher's intervention and the fact that he failed to master enough capital forced Overbeck to sell all his rights in North Borneo to Dent. Dent, bound by the terms of the agreement, was not able to act independently without British approval. In the interest of his company, Dent opted to develop the territories obtained under British protection. He also acquired the interest of the American Trading Company from Torrey. On the acquisition of all the territories in North Borneo, he formed the British North Borneo Provisional Association Ltd to raise capital for opening up land. Subsequently, in order to strengthen the company and to enhance its image, Dent applied to the British government for a Royal Charter so the company would be able to operate better once government protection and recognition was offered.

With the support of influential individuals like Richard Biddulph, Sir Henry Keppel and Sir Rutherford Alcock, Dent managed to convince Sir Julian Pauncefote, the Legal Assistant to the Permanent Under-Secretary at the British Foreign Office to get the charter. They appealed to the Foreign Secretary, Lord Salibury, arguing that North Borneo was a strategic location for a naval base. If the British Government failed to provide official recognition of Dent's company, there was a possibility that other powers, like Spain, Germany and the Dutch, would move in and that would result in the British losing out on trade in Borneon waters.

Despite the British Government's initial reservation towards proposal, the Royal Charter was finally granted on Nov 1, 1881. Dent had helped persuade the government by giving his assurance that he would abide by the conditions of the charter. For example, the company would remain British in character, foreign relations would be in British hands, the British government could veto any alienation of territory by the company, appointment of senior officials would have to receive the government's blessings, and the company would provide all possible facilities for the Royal Navy.

With the charter granted, the British virtually gained control of North Borneo and other powers were kept out - which was the main reason the charter had been granted. For the company, the driving force was profit. Hence, the treaties of 1865 between Moses and the sultan of Brunei proved a precursor to the subsequent treaties of grants and cessions through which Overbeck and Dent acquired their footing in North Borneo. And it was from these manoeuvres that North Borneo emerged as a political unit governed by the British North Borneo Chartered Company.

* Sabihah Osman is currently Dean of the Faculty of Social Sciences in Universiti Sabah Malaysia.Millennium Markers is a weekly series that looks at events and happenings that shaped Malaysia and the surrounding region over the last 1,000 years; it is coordinated by Dr Loh Wei Leng, of Universiti Malaya.


Notes: STF - : In the first article in a special Millennium Markers focus on Sabah, SABIHAH OSMAN looks at how North Borneo, as Sabah was called at one time, emerged as a political entity.

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