Brief History of Sabah

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 in 1884.

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 POWs.

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.


Her People

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 & Koreans.

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 to 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 Semporna.

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.




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