History of Sabah Borneo is made of three different countries; Indonesia, Malaysia and Brunei. On the Northeastern peninsula, tribal communities occupied the rivers and coastline, frequently battling and giving rise to the island’s famed headhunters. Politically united civilization began in the 15th Century, with the Sultanate of Brunei as the ruling faction. Power was given over to the Sultan of Sulu, centered in the southern Philippines, until the late 18th century when enterprising British sailors arrived on Sabah’s shores and saw the vast opportunities provided by the region’s natural resources.
In 1882, the British North Borneo Company was established and led the peninsula forward into the 20th century. The colony was ruled as a British Protectorate until 1942, when World War II spilled into the forests of Sabah. The Japanese Imperial Army led a series of Death Marches from the eastern port city of Sandakan, over the mountains to the western foothills of Mount Kinabalu ending at the town of Renau. Over the course of Japan’s two-year occupation, 2,345 Allied Australian and British soldiers died, with only 6 survivors living to tell the story of their escape. There are incredible memorials built in both Sandakan and Renau, ask a Trip Planner about adding a day tour from Kota Kinabalu to learn more about Sabah’s WWII history.
Following Japan’s defeat, Britain established North Borneo as a Royal Crown Colony, moving the capital from Sandakan to present-day Kota Kinabalu. British rule was maintained until 1963, when North Borneo joined with Malaya, Sarawak, and Singapore to form the Federation of Malaysia. Two years later, Singapore was expelled from the Federation and the newly united country became, simply, Malaysia. In recent decades, Sabah has been the center of tension between native peoples and mainland Malaysia. The Sabah United Party, a movement of the Kadazan indigenous group, gained footing in 1985 and joined Malaysia’s ruling coalition, Barisan National. Combining forces against the mandates of the federal government, Sabah was poised to take a leading role in the country. Unfortunately, only days before the general election, Barisan National abandoned the alliance and left Sabah United to bear the consequences. Today, only a small fraction of the revenue from Sabah’s timber and other resource industries make it back to the state, the vast majority going to Kuala Lumpur’s mainland endeavors. This has left Sabah the poorest of Malaysia’s 13 states, despite its substantial wealth of resources.
Eco-tourism is by far Sabah’s most profitable industry, creating jobs, providing resources and incentive for higher education, and bringing a steady source of income to locals. While the road ahead will not be easy for the people of Sabah, supporting tourism in this region is an excellent way to promote its continued development.