This paper examines human relations in early British North Borneo.
Working Paper No. 45
Institute of Asian Studies, Universiti Brunei Darussalam
This paper seeks to understand how it is that a small number of Europeans were able to extend their authority and control over the northern region of the island of Borneo in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries to establish a state known as British North Borneo, as well as to understand why the multi-ethnic society there remained largely peaceful during that time period. Often mentioned only in passing in histories of the colonial era in Southeast Asia, British North Borneo came to share many similarities with the colonial states in the region, particularly with the development of plantations and the importation of laborers. British North Borneo was also similar to other colonial societies in that a very small number of Europeans controlled a much larger local population. That said, while the concept of the “plural society,” which posits that shared economic interests can enable diverse populations to find common ground, has been employed to explain the relative stability of colonial possessions such as British Malaya and the Netherlands East Indies, in this paper we argue that such an “economic factor” was not yet present in the early years of British rule in North Borneo. Instead, this paper argues that the theory of the “stranger-king,” the idea that some societies welcome an outside ruler to resolve their internal divisions, can also be of benefit in understanding early British North Borneo. Ultimately, however, any historian who wishes to understand the reality of life in early British North Borneo faces the challenge of having to rely on sources that reflect a clear colonial bias, a mindset that saw “Asiatic” societies as inherently different. This paper takes on that challenge, but also recognizes that we cannot help but be left with a great deal of ambiguity in our understanding of human relations in early British North Borneo. This paper also argues, however, that it is precisely the ambiguity of the relations between “strangers” and “stranger-kings” that might be key maintaining of that relationship.
British North Borneo, human relations in British North Borneo, colonialism, stranger king, plural society, ethnic relations
Dr. Liam C. Kelley is an Associate Professor of Southeast Asian Studies at the Institute of Asian Studies, Universiti Brunei Darussalam. His main research focus is on Vietnamese history and historiography.