Prehistory and Early History
Not much is known of Sabah's early prehistory.
Archeological finds are rare but it must be presumed that as early as
40,000 years ago modern man has already roamed the jungles of North Borneo.
By the 9th century AD., Sabah, then under various
chieftains, traded with China and later the Spanish and Portuguese.
During the 15th century, Sabah was a vassal of the Sultan of Brunei. In
1521 Ferdinand Magellan's ships sailed into Brunei Bay and later repaired
their vessels in Banggi and Balambangan, islands in the very north of
Sabah. In 1704, the Sultan of Brunei ceded the lands east of Marudu Bay to
the Sultan of Sulu, while the west coast remained under his rule.
The Sultans of Brunei and Sulu exercised a nominal control over north
Borneo, especially the coasts, while headhunters roamed the forests and
pirates infested the seas. The headhunters were Kadazandusun, as well
as Murut tribesmen, and of the two the Kadazandusun were the first to
give up headhunting. The pirates were Illanun, Iranum, Balanini, Obian,
Bajau and Suluk living in the Southern Philippines and on islands off the
coast of North Borneo. Their vessels were of large size, mostly
out-triggered, measuring approximately ninety feet long and heavily armed.
In Sabah, their strongest lairs were in Marudu Bay and the Tunku Island
near present day Kota Kinabalu.
In 1685 the first Englishman visited Sabah. It was
Captain Cowley, and he visited the islands on the northern end of Borneo (Banggi,
In the 1760’s Alexander Dalrymple and James Rennell came to Borneo and
In 1773 the East India Company founded a trading post on Balambangan
Island, but two years later the settlement was attacked and destroyed by
It was not until Raja Brooke of Sarawak, with his personal contacts to the
Sultan of Brunei, persuaded the Government to suppress piracy and in 1846
the Sultan of Brunei ceded Labuan Island off Sabah's south-west coast to
serve as a base for the anti-piracy operations of the British. The last
pirate stronghold in Sabah, at Tunku Islands, was destroyed in 1879.
The North Borneo Chartered Company
In 1865 Claude Lee Moses, an American
trader and then the United States Consul in Brunei, obtained a lease over Sabah from the Sultan of Brunei. In 1881 the
lease eventually passed to Alfred Dent, head of an
important firm in Hong Kong and was converted into a cession. His
associates included Baron de Ovenbeck, the Austrian Consul General in Hong
Kong; Sir Rutherford Acock, who became the chairman of their provisional
association to make terms with the British Government; and Mr Richard
Martin, a member of the well-know banking house of that name. The Sultan
of Brunei appointed Sir Alfred Dent to be supreme ruler, with the titles
of Maharaja of Sabah and Rajah of Gaya and Sandakan. The Sultan of Sulu
added the titles of Datu Bandahara and Rajah of Sandakan, both granting
absolute power of life and death over the inhabitants of North Borneo.
When Mr Gladstone, Prime Minister of the Liberal Government advised Queen
Victoria to grant a Charter to the British North Borneo Company, the
company acquired the sovereign rights of Sir Alfred.
The Governors of the British North Borneo Company were appointed with the
approval of the Crown and several civil servant of the colonial office
served in North Borneo as Governors before moving to higher posts. The
list of Governors includes distinguished administrators such as Sir Hugh
Clifford, Sir Ernest Birch and Lord Milverton in their younger days.
The Chartered Company was of purely British character. It could not
transfer its territories without consent; it could trade but not grant a
general monopoly. It undertook to abolish slavery, administered law and
justice with regard to the Native Laws and Customs and did not
interfere with the religion of the people.
William C Cowie stands out amongst the many associates of the Chartered
Company. He was a young Scotsman, a ship engineer by profession who aspired to acquire lands
in North Borneo very much like Rajah Brook had done in Sarawak. He came from his
native land with a few friends on a steam launch and made friends with the
Sultans. This enabled him to establish trading posts at Labuan and Sandakan. He
subsequently supplied the Suluk with arms and ammunition in their fight
against the Spaniards, who then ruled over the Philippines. Many years
later, when the Chartered Company was securely established, he joined the
company and rose to be its chairman. His resource and enterprise did much
to advance the interests of the company and his personal relationship with
the Sultans proved of great value.
Jesselton (see also
The North Borneo Chartered Company has been remarkably free from unrest.
Trouble arose when younger relatives of the Sultans protested against the
loss of their birthright. The most important of these was Mat Salleh, of
the family of the Sultan of Sulu by marriage into it. Mat Salleh’s origins
itself are confused, some say he was a Suluk from the Philippines, others
an Orang Sungai of Sabah (from the Kinabatangan area) or even a
Suluk-Bajau from Inanam.
For sure is that Mat Salleh was a courageous, however often ruthless rebel
who revolted against the British. Those were fast acquiring land and
imposing taxes on the native people – amongst others there was a tax on
tapai, the locally brewed rice and cassava wine or beer. Mat Salleh was
again and again able to motivate and recruit large gangs from the ranks of
the Kadazan and Dusun, even though they were from different ethnic back-grounds.
He promised to liberate them from the British, in which he ultimately
failed and many natives lost their lives in the battles against the
well-equipped purchasers of their land.
One of Mat Salleh’s best remembered deeds was the attack and the
subsequent complete destruction of the English trading post on Gaya
Island in 1898. The island is now part of the Tunku Abdul Rahman Marine National Park, just off
Kota Kinabalu. He and his gang looted the place and burnt it down,
completely destroying it. It is said that people from across the mainland
in Sembulan, Tanjung Aru and as far as Putatan could see great flames over
Pulau Gaya. Everybody shouted “api, api (fire, fire)”!
new settlement the English built on the land opposite Gaya Island became
to be known, informally, as Api-Api: after the incident, in 1899, the English decided to move to the mainland,
and installed themselves between Tanjung Aru, Sembulan and the area just
opposite Pulau Gaya. Sir Henry Walker, commissioner
of land, established the township which was named in memory of Sir Charles Jessel, one of the directors of the Chartered Company managing the area:
‘Jesselton’. However, the name Jesselton was difficult for locals to
pronounce, and Api-Api remained the preferred name for the new town (now
still to be found in ‘Api-Api Centre’ etc, and in the Chinese translation
of Kota Kinabalu: ‘Yapi-Api -
Mat Salleh’s hideout was in the area of Kampung Mengkabong, not far away
from Tuaran, or some 25 km from the present day State Capital of Sabah,
Kota Kinabalu. Mat Salleh met his death in Tambunan, where he was besieged
in his fort until he had to give up. After his death, which was witnessed
by one of the English, the fort was razed to the ground and only a mound
betrays to-day it position. Legends still abound around Mat Salleh, who in
the eyes of the locals was not entirely a hero then. Many had to die for his
ideas and private wars, which had not improved the native’s position. He
remains as historical as mystical, and some claim he was actually not
shot, but made it away safely to his home in the Kinabatangan area. He
holds now the title of 'Sabah's first freedom fighter'.
British Colonial Ere
British North Borneo (Sabah's old name) was administered by the Chartered Company of British North Borneo until the
Japanese occupation. In 1945, after World War II, Sabah became a British
Crown Colony since the company was not able to rebuild the country after
the ravages of the war. The destruction of the former capital of Sabah,
Sandakan, by allied bombing and Japanese ransacking was so complete that
Jesselton was chosen as the new post-war capital - it has remained so to
this day. The colonial system of administration after the war was not
dissimilar to that of the Chartered Company era, and the rule was
generally peaceful. Reconstruction and development of the country were the
main focus of the administrators.
The inhabitants of Sabah have based their societies on kinship and by
tribal affiliations. Under the British Chartered Company headhunting was
outlawed, and the native codes of law (adat) were 'modernised'. Life went
at a generally placid pace and it was not until the 1960s that a 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 was to include
Malaya, Sabah, Sarawak, Brunei and Singapore. Malaysia was formally
established, without Brunei, on 16 September 1963 and North Borneo's name
was changed to Sabah. Preceding this, North Borneo obtained self-government
from the British on 31 August 1963.
As a state within the Federation many changes occurred, administratively,
politically and socially. The pace of development was hastened and Sabah
entered a new and challenging era when she became part of the Federation
of Malaysia. Though some initial struggles and conflicts with its neighbours, Indonesia and the Philippines, and interesting internal
government politics Sabah remained a peaceful nation where the many
different ethnic groups from various belief systems live in harmony