Sunday, June 8, 2008

A neglected Island of Borneo

Written by Arimi Sidek

Ellena of Kimanis Borneo 1, 1865 – 1881

In the year of 1865 Borneo was an almost completely neglected island. For several hundred years various European powers had attempted to establish trading posts on its immense coastline.

Kimanis map

Nearly all of them had failed. Unfriendly, unfertile it seemed, there were greater riches elsewhere, and Borneo had been passed by. But not completely. On the south coast the Dutch maintained a few animated “keep off” signs, and the British, after failures at Soekadana, Banjermassin, and Balambangan, were in possession of the minute island of Labuan in Brunei Bay1.

Apart from Great Britain, the only other European power to enter into a treaty with the decaying and shrinking sultanate of Brunei in North Borneo was the United States of America. There had been American interest in Southeast Asia as early as the close of the revolution; idle privateers had found a market in Amereica for Asian produce, and by 1801 some thirty-four ships came within the year to Canton2.

A few years later, American ships were reported busily selling powder to the numerous pirates in the Malacca Straits3, and by the 1830's diplomatic relations with Far Eastern countries were being established.

An American visit to Brunei seeking a lease of Labuan coal in 1845 had been fruitless, due largely, said Rajah Brooke, to the drunken servant he loaned as an intrepreter4.

End note

1J. Willi, The Early Relations of England with Borneo (Langensalza, 1922); J. Craufurd, A Descriptive Dictionary of the Indian Islands (London, 1856), 63 – 66.

2Thomas A. Bailey, A Diplomatic History of the American People (New York, 1950) 320.

3“The pirates of Borneo were supplied with munitions from American craft, usually lying off Penang. And here perhaps our transatlantic brethren have done some good, as the gunpowder they sell will not explode ...” J.H. Moor, Notices of the Indian Archipelago (Singapore, 1837), 23.

4G.L. Jacob, op. Cit., 288. The Raja of Sarawak. An Account of Sir James Brooke, K.C.B., Ll.D., Given Chiefly Through His Letters and Journals, 2 vols., by Gertrude L. Jacob. London: Macmillan, 1876. With Portrait and Maps. She was the great admirer of the Rajah.


Tregonning, K.G., 1954. American Activity in North Borneo, 1865-1881 by K. G. Tregonning. The Pacific Historical Review, Vol. 23, No. 4. (Nov., 1954), pp. 357-372.

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