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A Month of: Brief Histories of British Empire Territories – North Borneo

North Borneo


North Borneo was a British Protectorate under the sovereignty of the North Borneo Chartered Company from 1882 to 1946 after which it became a Crown Colony until 1963.

In July 1881, the British North Borneo Provisional Association Ltd, formed by Alfred Dent and his brother obtained a Royal Charter. A year later the Association was replaced by the North Borneo Chartered Company which proceeded to organize the settlement and the administration of the territory despite protests by the Dutch, the Spanish and the Sarawak governments. Borneo, like Malaya, was a small fragile independent state who were keen to obtain British ‘friendship and armed assistance’.[i]

The Company acquired further sovereign and territorial rights from the Sultan of Brunei.


James Brooke, ‘another romantic swashbuckler’ established a foundation which would enable economic growth by restoring peace to a land where piracy and tribal feuds had dominated.[ii] Anti-piracy operations were an extension of the wider effort to break into the Far Eastern markets (like Borneo and others).[iii] But the suppression of coastal piracy was not an easy task, as the Borneo and Malay pirates were ‘persistent and elusive’.[iv] It abolished slavery, set up transport, health and education services. Local and immigrant (mainly Chinese) labour worked hard to allow the towns and farms to thrive. Industries such as timber, tobacco and rubber boomed.

The Company oversaw the administration of the Protectorate from 1881, with only foreign relations being in the control of the crown.

Although the Company had had a great impact on the region by predominantly restoring peace, the local population sometimes resented the imposition of British rule. They opposed the taxes and the loss of land to European plantations. It was the British, not the native chiefs, who held the top posts, with the chiefs managing people at the grassroots level. However, this was not an attempt at indirect rule.

The Company continued to rule until part way through the Second World War, when from January 1st 1942 the Japanese invaded and captured the region. As the Company only had 650 men at their disposal in the North Borneo Armed Constabulary, the Japanese swept through the region with very little resistance.

During the military occupation by the Japanese from 1942 to 1945, the Europeans were interned, public services ceased and poverty, disease and malnutrition became widespread concerns.

Before the end of the war the Australian 9th Division landed in Brunei and liberated much of North Borneo. Until the restoration of the civil government at the end of the war, North Borneo was placed under British Military Administration.

As the Company could not afford to reconstruct Borneo which had been devastated by the war by Allied bombing, the Company sold its interests to the British government and the territory was transferred under the control of the Colonial Office, becoming a Crown Colony on July 15th 1946.

The system of administration remained much the same as under the Company with the added benefit of having access to the British government funds needed for reconstruction.

High ranking posts continued to be held by the British. In fact it was not until 1957 that the first non-European filled an administrative officer’s post.

British North Borneo was granted self-government on August 31st 1963. Just over two weeks later the state united with Malaya, Sarawak and Singapore to form the Federation of Malaysia. This took place on September 16th 1963.


[i] James, Lawrence The Rise and Fall of the British Empire, 1994 page 244

[ii] Ibid page 245

[iii] Ibid page 177

[iv] Ibid page 245

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