Brief History of
Early history of Sabah goes back to about 28,000
years ago. Stone tools were found on the lake bed which was once
result of damming of the Tinkayu River by lava flow from the now
extinct Mostyn Volcano. Archaeological findings indicate that these
early settlements produced some of the finest tools in South East
Asia at that time.
Modern history begins with Chinese barter trading
with the local people around the 10th century during Sung Dynasty.
These traders exchanged ceramic wares with spices and exotic jungle
produce and the much sought after birds’ nests (saliva from
swiflets). In the 14th century, Ong Sum Ping led an expedition to
North Borneo and settled on the Kinabatagan River.
Although, there were no evidence of these Chinese settlers found,
but the name Kinabatagan has its origins from them.
Magellan’s fleet in 1521 recorded the
first contact between the westerners and Borneo. With this, Borneo
attracted many western interests from Spain, America, Dutch, Italy,
Austria and Great Britain. North Borneo later then came under the
control of both the Sultanate of Sulu on the East and Sultanate
of Brunei on the West. In the 1760s the British began their trading
activities with The British East India Company signing agreement
to settle on Balambagan Island and later Labuan Island. Then came
the American Trading Company settling on Kimanis in 1865.
Baron Von Overbeck, an Austrian acquired rights
from the Sultans of Brunei and Sulu for North Borneo, and together
with the Alfred Dent from London obtained Royal Charter to administer
North Borneo as a territory. Together they formed North Borneo Chartered
Company (BNCC). BNCC made Kudat the first capital
of North Borneo in 1881 but was later moved to Sandakan
Despite constant opposition from local warriors
like the famous Mat Salleh, North Borneo saw growth in trade, commerce
and development under the administration of BNCC.
Japanese army landed on Labuan Island on 1st
January 1942, by 16th May 1946 Sabah was completely under Japanese
occupation. Guerillas led by Albert Kwok and Datu Mustapha resisted
the Japanese. Albert’s group were killed in 1944 ending their
movement. The first attack on the Japanese came from the 9th Australia
Imperial Force Division who landed on Labuan Island on 9th June
1945. Thanks to the combine forces of the Allied Forces (Australia,
British, United States and New Zealand) war finally ended with the
surrendering of Lieutenant General Masao Baba, Colonel Elimus and
Major Akashi on 10th September 1945, 15th September 1945 and 17th
September 1945 respectively. Today, the Sandakan Memorial Park was
erected to commemorate the many deaths of Australian and British
By the end of World War 2, BNCC could
not afford to rebuild the country therefore North Borneo was made
a British Crown Colony and administered by the Bristish government.
In 1946, Jesselton was made the new capital as
Sandakan was practically destroyed. Finally in 1963, North Borneo
joined the Federation of Malaysia becoming the 13th state and was
renamed Sabah, its pre-colonial name and the state
capital renamed Kota Kinabalu.
Sabah is Malaysia’s most diverse
state. Besides boasting at least 30 different ethnic groups, Sabah
is also home to settlers from China (mainly the Hakka & Cantonese
group) and West Malaysia, and small populations of Caucasians, Japanese
The largest ethnic tribe belongs to the Kadazandusuns who formed
around 30% of the population. The tribe are mainly agricultural
and rice farmers who live primarily on the west coast, mountainous
and interior regions. The Kadazandusuns in reality consists of many
other subgroups with at least 10 distinct languages. Every year
during the important rice Harvest Festival, priestesses (bobohizan)
conduct rituals in chants that were passed down from generations
Rungus is one of these subgroups famous for communal lifestyles
in longhouses on the northwestern region of Sabah. The Rungus women
are known for their skillful hands which produces high quality weaved
baskets, fabrics and beaded jewellery, one of the finest traditional
crafts in Sabah. One can experience the traditional Rungus lifestyle
by staying in a longhouse just south of Kudat.
They are better known as “Cowboys of the East”. These
coastal people are renowned buffalo farmers and horsemen who originally
sailed from the Philippines. An important part of their weekly routine
is the market also known as tamu. During the annual tamu besar,
grand market, the Bajaus trade water buffalos, cattle, horses and
other products. Kota Belud, just north of Kota Kinabalu is where
you can find the weekly tamu on Wednesdays. Another group, Bajau
Lauts or Sea Gypsies settled on Sabah’s east coast speaks
a different dialect. They are mainly fishermen, found mainly around
The Muruts settled further inland into the more remote southwestern
region close to the borders of Kalimantan and Sarawak. This tribe
is renowned for their great hunting skills. They were blowpipe hunters
using poison and were feared for their headhunting practices. Most
of them dwell in communal longhouse.
Although the Chinese have come to this part of the world as early
as the 10th century, but the first wave of settlers were Cantonese
from Hong Kong in the 1880s who were brought by the British. The
next wave brought the hard working Hakka farmers from Southern China.
Many of the Hakkas were driven from their homeland due to feudal
and land disputes. Today Hakkas are found throughout the world even
as far as the Polynesian Islands and Mauritius. Hakkas are the largest
Chinese dialect group in Sabah. Today, Chinese have also intermarried
with the ethnic tribes making Sabah diverse in its heritage.
Malays, Indians and smaller tribes like
Suluk, Tausug, Lundayeh, Orang Sungei, Ida’an, Bisaya, Kelabit
also form part of Sabah’s diverse & colourful culture.