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The island of Borneo, the third largest in the world after Greenland and Papa New Guinea, has been discovered by Chinese Explorers even before the first Century AD but no attempts have been made to conquer it. There was, however, a powerful Brunei Sultanate which ruled over most of Borneo.

In 1521, Magellan’s fleet visited Brunei thus establishing the first recorded contact between Westerners and the people of Borneo. Between 1521 and 1764, changes in the Sultanate of Brunei eventually let to the handover of North Borneo (first English name for Sabah) to the British East India Company in 1764.

In 1881, the Dent brothers of London signed all rights to a company which was granted a royal charter. Kudat became the first capital of British North Borneo. The British North Borneo Chartered Company was officially formed in 1882 and Sandakan became the first capital of British North Borneo.

Jesselton (now Sabah’s capital Kota Kinabalu) was founded in conjunction with the constreuction of the Trans Borneo railroad, and developed into a flourishing trading post until the Japanese occupied the whole of Borneo during the Second World War. Jesselton and Sandakan were, like many towns, destroyed in Allied air raids targeted at the Japanese. After the Second World War the British Chartered Company was not able to rebuild the war devastated country and ceded it to the British Crown, and Sabah became a colony.

In 1963, North Borneo became independent and reverted to its pre-colonial name, Sabah, on becoming the 13th state of the Federation of Malaysia. In 1967, Jesselton, originally named after a director of the North Borneo Company, was renamed Kota Kinabalu.


The beginning of Sabah’s existence as an administrative entity was certainly dominated by personalities who were at once daring and adventurous as well as gamblers at heart. Men like Gustavus Baron Overbeck and his partner Alfred Dent, who put up £ 10,000 to finance his purchase of the whole of North Borneo; William Clarke Come, a swash-buckling adventurer who rose from being manager of a small Singapore firm called the Labuan Trading Company to the post of Chairman of the British North Borneo Chartered Company; and William Pryer, the first Resident of Sandakan. Like many other early explorers they have the most interesting and thrilling biographies of challenges, adventures, misfortunes but also incredible luck and opportunities.

North Borneo’s first native hero, Mat Salleh, (not to be confused with the Peninsular Malaysian term for Caucasians), had his first fort at Ranau but was later captured in Tambunan by the North Borneo Constabulary on February 1st, 1900. A stone memorial is erected in Tambunan Town to commemorate the capture of Mat Salleh. Those who wish to visit his memorial can stop by Tambunan town, on the way from Kota Kinabalu City to Keningau, Batu Punggul, and Tenom Agricultural Garden.


The growth centres of any country are its townships and cities. In British North Borneo, “settlements” was the preferred terminology and it was in such places that the new owners of the land installed themselves.

The first established settlements in British North Borneo were on Balambangan Island, and Kudat was the first capital. However, Kudat and Balambangan did not turn out to be ideal locations and under William B. Pryer, the first Resident, Sandakan became the seat of the BNBCC. Baron de Overbeck himself was proclaimed Raja of Sandakan, and the town flourished until the Japanese occupation at the onset of WWII. After the Second World War North Borneo was ceded to the British Crown and the Colonial Government took over the administration and made Jesselton the capital. Labuan, of course, was already well-established, having been part of the Straits Settlement of Singapore under the British Colonial Office since 1846.

Chronologically, Sandakan should come first but since Kota Kinabalu (Jesselton) is the State Capital and the prime growth centre in this day and age, our picture will begin with Jesselton. The town of Jesselton, named after the Vice Chairman of the BNBCC, Sir Charles Jessel, was first established as a trading post at Gaya Island, in a bay directly opposite the present marine jetty. The settlement was called Api-Api, due, some people say,* to the fact that the settlement was ransacked and burned down by pirates led by Mat Salleh. After the ransacking by Mat Salleh the British administration was able to lease land opposite Gaya Island, where the present Royal Customs and Excise has its headquarters. This part also became the terminal for the railway which was started in Weston in 1896.

Most of Jesselton and present Kota Kinabalu is built on land reclaimed from the shallow sea. The first reclamation was at the northern part of Jesselton where the present Hong Kong and Shanghai Banking Corporation building is. This was carried out around 1900. In the early 1950’s Kampong Air was also reclaimed together with the areas opposite the present GPO. Other areas such as Segama and Sinsuran were reclaimed after Malaysia (1969).

There are numerous versions to this story. One goes that it was because of the abundance of fireflies, which the natives here call “api-api”, and another again because the township was prone to periodic fires due to the many celebrations in which fireworks were used, and which ignited the thatched roofs of the buildings…


Communications are the sine-qua-non of development in any country, and more so in Sabah where rich fertile lands abound but are inaccessible save through hostile jungles and rugged mountain ranges.

One of the first priorities of the British North Borneo Chartered Company had been to develop the vast natural resource potentials of its territory and turn them into profits for its shareholders. In the early days the only means of communications were by sea, river and by trekking on foot through time-worn native tracks.

It was obvious that if the potentials of the territory were to be tapped, the BNBCC had to build roads and railways. Thus, in the townships, roads were built from the wharves to points where produce were collected. In 1896, William Clarke Cowie managed to persuade the Board of Directors of the BNBCC in London to build a railway line from a point in Kimanis Bay to the township of Beaufort. A Mr West, a Scottish engineer, was engaged for the project and work began the same year from Bukau not far from what is now called Weston. The Weston terminal itself was closed at the end of 1963.

When the waters off Weston were found not to be deep enough for a sea wharf, the line from Beaufort was extended to Papar in the belief that the Papar Bay might be suitable for a deep sea harbour. Here again, it was found that it was not suitable and thus the railway was extended to Gantisan, which was the northern boundary of Jesselton (now Kota Kinabalu).

The opening of the railway to Beaufort, which was later extended to Melalap through Tenom, led to the opening of the interior areas which became extremely attractive for the planting of rubber.

As early as 1900, a railway line was contemplated to run from Beaufort over Tenom to Tawau. Another ambitious project which was undertaken by the BNBCC was the over-land telegraph line which started from Menumbok to Sandakan. The telegraph line was started a few years earlier than the railway and was completed in 1896.

After World War II, the British colonial administration embarked on the reconstruction of all roads. By 1949, the Governor was able to report that there were 130 miles of metalled roads with asphalt surface, 23 miles of “other metalled roads”, 225 miles of earth roads and 578 miles of “bridle paths” (6ft to 8ft wide, where ponies would carry rubber sheets and other produce).

In the late 1950’s, a significant effort was made to connect Kota Kinabalu with Papar by road and this was completed in 1964. After independence within Malaysia, road communications became a top priority so that by the 1970’s, Kota Kinabalu was linked by road to Kudat in the north, to Keningau via Tambunan in the interior, and to Ranau and Sandakan on the East Coast. Sandakan was linked with Lahad Datu, Sempoma and Tawau.

Airports and wharves were also upgraded ensuring better communications with the outside world and especially with Peninsular Malaysia.

In the field of telecommunications, Sabah is now linked with the rest of Malaysia through satellites which enable Sabah to have instant direct-dialing telephone and telex connections with Peninsular Malaysia, as well as simultaneous or direct telecast of television programmes. These developments were achieved through the attainment of independence within Malaysia, otherwise they might not have been so fast in coming to the people of Sabah.


One of the earliest problems of the owners of North Borneo had been to maintain peace amongst the various tribes and security for the company officers. The British North Borneo Chartered Company (BNBCC) officials soon found that owning 30,000 square miles of territory was only one aspect of the story. Keeping it and deriving beneficial income was another.

Thus when W. B. Pryer became the Resident of Sandakan, one of his first tasks was to establish law and order. In order to do this, he had to have a police force. But since the local natives, although cowed by the guns of the British Navy, considered the British as transgressors in their land, hostility towards the authority of the BNBCC was natural.

Hence Pryer had to import his police from India or Singapore. His first contingent of police was, therefore, made up of Indian Sikhs whose stature alone must have been quite frightening to some of the natives. The Indian police were probably from the Sepoy Company in India and were generally called “Sipai” by the locals. Even today the older folks would frighten their children or grandchildren by saying “be careful don’t wander about or the sipai will catch you”.

In time, however, expedience and economics necessitated the recruitment of local natives into the constabulary. The Murut, Dayak and Kadazan/Dusun communities became good sources for recruits and all proved excellent policemen. Even today, the Murut and Kadazan/Dusun policemen form the bulk of the Sabah Constabulary.


The Liberation of North Borneo, Brunei & Sarawak began during the early months of 1944 during the second World War when the Ninth Division Australian Imperial Forces (A.I.F.) mounted a determined attacked on Japanese positions in this areas. The campaign continued for more than a year – and might have continued indefinitely, even though the AIF were gaining footholds everywhere – had not his Imperial Majesty the Emperor of Japan announced his nation’s unconditional surrender after the first atomic bombs fell on Nagasaki and Hiroshima.

Memorials of the Japanese surrender and War Memorials are on Labuan Island, where one finds the WWII Memorial and the Surrender Point. On the 10th of September, 1945, Lieutenant General Masao Baba, Commander of the Japanese Army (in North Borneo, Brunei & Sarawak and Natoena Islands) was escorted by Australian Soldiers to the Surrender Point in Labuan, and signed the Instrument of Surrender. The actual surrender date was September 9, 1945.

Immediately after the liberation of North Borneo by the 9th Division of the Australian Imperial Forces, the British Military Administration took charge of administering the state.

The British North Borneo Chartered Company, faced with the gigantic task of reconstruction decided to relinquish its ownership of North Borneo to the British Colonial office for a certain financial consideration. Thus, in June 1946, the BNBCC transferred its sovereign rights and assets in North Borneo to the British Crown and North Borneo thereby changed its status from that of a British Protectorate to a Crown Colony. The proclamation in the Council of the North Borneo Session Order was made 10 July 1945. (Sarawak too became a Crown Colony at the same time when the last of the Raja Brookes decided not to return to Sarawak).

The job of reconstruction in North Borneo was, therefore, undertaken by the British Colonial office. Because of the extent of the Japanese occupation and subsequent devastation in the war the reconstruction was at first painfully. War reparations were made and the state became steady and by the early 1950’s much had been done to reestablish law and order, and commerce.

The first Colonial Governor of North Borneo was Sir Edward Twining who relinquished office as Governor and Commander in Chief on the 5th May, 1949. He was succeeded by Sir Ralph Hone who set in motion the machinery for the reconstruction of the Colony. Temporary offices made of timber, attap roofs and nipa palm walls were built in various places and Jesselton was made the new Capital of North Borneo.

War reparation offices were set up along the Tanjong Aru beach. Some of “the pre-war buildings” which were not damaged by the bombings were re-built and re-used. These included the General Post Office (which is now Sabah Tourism’s Office), the Lands & Survey Department and the Treasury. In the early 1950’s the new Secretariat was constructed at the junction of the Penampang and Tanjong Aru Road. This place was known as “Puku Mangga” as there was a large mango tree growing by the side of the hill. Unfortunately, the tree was cut down to accommodate the new Secretariat. The police headquarters at “Batu Tiga”, opposite the State Mosque were moved to Kepayan, while the Jesselton Police Station was moved to its present site. The old building became later the District Office, located next to the Resident’s office – the site of the present State Library.

Sir Ralph Hone was succeeded by Sir Roland Tumbull as Governor and the latter continued the work of reconstruction and reviving the economy. Rubber plantations along the railway lines, along Tuaran Road and elsewhere enjoyed an unprecedented boom in the early 1950’s and helped much in boosting the economy. War reparations from the proceeds of Japanese properties in North Borneo were used by the Colonial Government to rebuilt the townships that were devastated. Sir Roland Tumbull was succeeded by Sir William Goode as Governor. The latter saw the fast rise of nationalism and ended his Governorship by granting self-government to Sabah on 31 August 1963.

Pic: Sir William Goode, the last Governor, biding farewell to Datuk Harris bin Mohd. Salleh on his return to Great Britain at the Kota Kinabalu wharf.


In 1961, the then Prime Minister of the Federation of Malaya, YTM Tunku Abdul Rahman Putra Al-haf, mooted the question of a confederation of the three Borneo states (Brunei, Sabah and Sarawak), together with Singapore and the Federation of Malaya to form Malaysia.

The proposal initially received only lukewarm reception from the leaders of the three Borneo territories but after considerable talks, they became enthusiastic because the proposal meant faster independence for them.

Pic: Tun Fuad Stephens, the first Chief Minister of Sabah, reading the proclamation of Independence of Sabah through Malaysia. With him are Tun Mustapha, Yang di-Pertua Negeri (Head of State) of Sabah, and Tun Abdul Razak, Deputy Prime Minister of Malaysia, representing the Federal Government of Malaysia.

However, much work had yet to be done before Malaysia became reality. First there was the Cobbold Commission set up by the British Government to determine the wishes of the people of the territories. Next came the United Nations Team set up by the Secretary-General U. Thant at the request of Indonesia and the Philippines. Both the Cobbold Commission and the United Nations Assessment Team found the people of Sabah overwhelmingly in favour of Malaysia.

The birth of Malaysia was actually delayed for 16 days since the U. Thant Assessment Team had to submit its report to the United Nations General Assembly.

The Proclamation of the Malaysia Act was, therefore, made on 16 September 1963. However, on 31 August 1963, Sabah was granted self-government status which was only 16 days away from full independence within Malaysia.

Source: Sabah State Government