Considering Borneo's remote location it comes as no surprise that the island has rarely served as a major commercial or cultural crossroads. But neither has it been isolated from Asia's trade routes and religious currents. India and China have influenced Borneo's people for 2000 years, and since the 15th century the island has been a meeting point of Islam and Christianity. For centuries Borneo was buffeted by the epic rivalries between Dayak tribes and among the European powers.

Borneo Becomes an Island

Borneo was connected to mainland Southeast Asia – as part of a land mass known as Sundaland – from 2.5 million years ago until some 10,000 years ago, when global deglaciation turned it back into an island. Archaeological evidence suggests that human beings arrived in Sarawak – overland – at least 40,000 years ago. More migrants arrived about 3000 years ago, probably from southern China, mixing with earlier inhabitants to form some of Borneo's indigenous groups.

Traders from India and China began stopping by Borneo – as a sideshow to their bilateral commerce – around the 1st century AD, introducing Hinduism and Buddhism. From about AD 500 Chinese traders started settling along Borneo's coasts. It is believed that the influence of the Sumatra-based kingdom of Srivijaya (7th to 13th centuries) extended to Borneo. During this time Brunei emerged as a centre for trade with China; some historians believe that the first Muslims to visit Borneo came from China in the 10th century.

The Arrival of Islam & the European Powers

Islam was brought to present-day Peninsular Malaysia, including Melaka, by traders from South India in the early 15th century. Over time diplomacy, often cemented by marriage, oriented Borneo's coastal sultanates towards Melaka and Islam.

In the late 15th century Europeans began to seek a direct role in the rich Asian trade. In 1511 Portugal conquered Melaka in its bid to control the lucrative spice trade. As a result Muslim merchants moved much of their customs to Borneo's sultanates, and Brunei succeeded Melaka as the regional Islamic trading centre.

The British and Dutch began sparring over Borneo in the 17th century, extending a regional rivalry that began in Java and spread to the Malay Peninsula. The Anglo-Dutch Treaty of 1824 carved the region into spheres of commercial, political and linguistic influence that would turn into national boundaries in the 20th century. The Dutch got what became Indonesia, while Britain got the Malay Peninsula and Singapore. At the time neither seemed much interested in Borneo.

Brunei: Empire in Decline

Under Sultan Bolkiah in the 16th century, Brunei was Borneo's most powerful kingdom, its influence extending from Kuching all the way to the island of Luzon, now in the Philippines. In subsequent centuries, however, facing internal strife, rebellions and piracy, Brunei's rulers repeatedly turned to foreigners, including the Spanish, for help. In exchange for assistance in suppressing an uprising in 1701, Brunei ceded Sabah to the Sultan of Sulu (an archipelago between Borneo and Mindanao). That cession is the basis for ongoing Philippine claims to Sabah.

Brunei's decline in the late 18th century led Sarawak to assert its independence, emboldened by a flourishing trade in antimony (sarawak in old Malay). In 1839 Brunei's sultan dispatched his uncle, Rajah Muda Hashim, but he failed to quell the separatists. Seeing a chance to be rid of Bruneian rule, the rebels looked south for Dutch aid.

Sarawak's White Rajahs

In a case of impeccable timing, James Brooke, the independently wealthy, India-born son of a British magistrate, moored his armed schooner at Kuching in 1838. Rajah Muda offered to make the Englishman the rajah of Sungai Sarawak if he helped suppress the worsening revolt. Brooke, confident London would support any move to counter Dutch influence, accepted the deal. Backed by superior firepower he quashed the rebellion and held a reluctant Rajah Muda to his word. In 1841 Sarawak became Brooke's personal fiefdom. The White Rajahs would rule Sarawak for the next 100 years.

Unlike British colonial administrators, Brooke and his successors included tribal leaders in their ruling council and respected local customs (except headhunting). They battled pirates (a policy that boosted trade), were disinclined towards European immigration and discouraged European companies from destroying native jungle to create rubber plantations. They also invited Chinese, many from Fujian and Guandong, to work in Sarawak as miners, farmers and traders. Despite a bloody rebellion by Hakka immigrants in 1857, Chinese came to dominate Sarawak's economy.

When Brooke died in 1868, he was succeeded by his nephew, Charles Johnson, who changed his surname to Brooke. During his long reign, which lasted until his death in 1917, Charles Brooke extended the borders of his kingdom (at the expense of the sultan of Brunei), developed Sarawak's economy and slashed government debt.

In 1917 Charles Vyner Brooke, son of Charles Brooke, ascended to the throne of Sarawak. A veteran of government service, he professionalised Sarawak's administration, preparing it for a modern form of rule.

Brunei's Continuing Decline

In 1865, 15 years after Brunei and the United States signed a Treaty of Peace, Friendship, Commerce and Navigation, Brunei's ailing sultan leased Sabah to – of all people – the American consul in Brunei, Claude Lee Moses. His rights eventually passed to an Englishman, Alfred Dent, who also received Sulu's blessing. In 1881, with London's support, Dent formed the British North Borneo Company (later called the North Borneo Chartered Company) to administer the territory. Once again Britain managed to bag a slice of Borneo on the cheap.

In 1888 the prospect of further territorial losses led the Sultanate of Brunei, tiny and in danger of becoming even tinier, to become a British protectorate. But British 'protection' did not prevent Brunei from losing Limbang to Sarawak in 1890, absurdly chopping the sultanate into two discontiguous parts (Brunei still claims the Limbang area). Ironically Brunei's colonial status in the 19th century paved the way for its transformation into Borneo's only independent country a century later.

The Dutch in Kalimantan

The presence of the British along Borneo's northern coast spurred the Dutch to beef up their presence in Kalimantan. Dutch commercial exploitation of the Indonesian archipelago, begun in the very late 1500s, reached its peak at the end of the 19th century with thriving rubber, pepper, copra, tin, coal and coffee exports, plus oil drilling in East Kalimantan. This assertiveness sparked disputes with indigenous groups, culminating in 1859 in a four-year war between the Dutch and the Banjarmasin sultanate; resistance continued until 1905.

World War II

Imperial Japan, in need of Borneo's natural resources to power its war machine, seized Sarawak's Miri oilfields on 16 December 1941; other targets in the poorly defended region quickly fell. The retreating British sabotaged oil rigs and other key petroleum installations, but the Japanese soon had the oil flowing again.

As elsewhere in Asia, the Japanese occupation of Borneo unleashed local nationalist sentiments, but at the same time Japanese forces acquired a reputation for brutality. At Mandor (about 90km north of Pontianak in West Kalimantan), 21,037 people – sultans, intellectuals and common people, all accused of plotting against Japanese rule – were murdered. In Sabah the infamous labour camp at Sandakan's Agricultural Experimental Station housed Allied captives from across Southeast Asia. Of the 2434 Australian and British POWs incarcerated there, only six survived the war.

In 1944 a primarily British and Australian force parachuted into Bario in the Kelabit Highlands and allied with indigenous Kelabits against the Japanese. In 1945 Australian troops landed in East Kalimantan, fighting bloody battles in Tarakan and Balikpapan. But Japanese forces in Borneo surrendered only after the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Colonisation & Decolonisation

After the war, which left many of Borneo's cities in ruins (mainly from Allied bombing), the North Borneo Chartered Company ceded authority over what is now Sabah to the British Crown. In Sarawak the White Rajah returned briefly under Australian military administration but, overwhelmed by the cost of rebuilding, it transferred sovereignty to the British government.

Local opposition to Sarawak's transformation from an independent kingdom into a Crown colony was widespread. Those demanding continued rule by the White Rajahs included not only Anthony Brooke, Charles Vyner Brooke's nephew and heir apparent, but also many indigenous Sarawakians. The White Rajahs may have been of British stock, but after three generations in Borneo, they weren't considered outsiders by many Sarawakians, but rather an integral part of Sarawak's cultural and ethnic patchwork.

In 1949, after a four-year war, the Dutch – facing tremendous international pressure, including an American threat to cut off postwar reconstruction aid – withdrew from the Dutch East Indies. Indonesia, including Kalimantan, which had remained on the sidelines during the conflict, gained independence.

Later that year Sarawak's second colonial governor, Duncan Stewart, was stabbed to death in Sibu. Secret British documents uncovered in 2012 indicate that the assassins, hanged in Kuching in 1950, were not partisans of Anthony Brooke, as long suspected, but rather were seeking an Indonesian takeover of Sarawak. Anthony Brooke, who spent his life as a self-appointed ambassador of peace, died in New Zealand in 2011 at the age of 98.

Malaysian Independence

When the Federation of Malaya, consisting of the states of Peninsular Malaysia, was granted independence in 1957, Sarawak, British North Borneo (Sabah) and Brunei remained under British rule.

In 1962 the British proposed incorporating their Bornean territories into Malaya. At the last minute Brunei pulled out of the deal, as the sultan (and, one suspects, Shell Oil) didn't want to see the revenue from its vast oil reserves channelled to the peninsula. In September 1963 Malaysia, made up of the Malay Peninsula, Singapore, Sabah and Sarawak, achieved merdeka (independence). Singapore withdrew in 1965.

Konfrontasi & Transmigrasi

In the early 1960s Indonesia's increasingly radicalised, left-leaning President Sukarno laid claim to all of Borneo. His response to the incorporation of northern Borneo into Malaysia was an undeclared war dubbed the konfrontasi (literally, 'confrontation'; 1962–66), to which Indonesians were rallied with the bellicose slogan ganyang Malaysia (smash Malaysia). Soviet-equipped Indonesian armed forces crossed into Sabah and Sarawak from Kalimantan. At the height of the conflict, 50,000 troops from Britain, Australia and New Zealand patrolled Sabah and Sarawak's borders with Indonesia. Hundreds of soldiers and civilians on both sides were killed. When Sukarno's successor, President Suharto, came to power in 1967, he quickly quieted tensions.

Suharto also expanded the transmigrasi (transmigration) policies initiated by the Dutch in the 1930s, which moved millions of people from densely populated islands such as Java, Bali and Madura to more remote areas, including Kalimantan. From 1996 to 2001 hundreds of Madurese migrants were killed in attacks by Dayaks, joined at times by local Malays and Chinese. The conflict made international headlines because of the many reported cases of headhunting. In 2010 tensions flared again in a riot at Tarakan in which four people died. Long-term, the most insidious effect of transmigrasi has been to marginalise Kalimantan's indigenous communities.

Bruneian Independence

Brunei achieved self-government, except in matters of defence and foreign affairs, in 1971. In 1984 Sultan Haji Hassanal Bolkiah reluctantly led his country to complete independence from Britain. A graduate of the Sandhurst Royal Military Academy, he continues to maintain close political and military ties with the UK and rules under a system of Melayu Islam Beraja (MIB; Malay Islamic Monarchy). This 'national philosophy' of Brunei emphasises Malay language, culture and customs, Islamic laws and values, and the supreme rule of the sultan.

Changing of the Guard

Since Malaysia's declaration of independence in 1963, the country has been ruled by a single political party, Barisan Nasional (BN). Yet in a shock upset BN was ousted in May 2018 by the opposition party, Pakatan Harapan (Alliance of Hope), albeit led by Mahathir Mohamad, a former prime BN prime minister of 22 years. This radical change in political fortune has led Malaysians to hope that the corruption allegations that long dogged the ousted prime minister and his party will be addressed.