Early human presence in Northern Borneo is still the subject of scientific debate, with stone tools discovered in sites which have been accorded an age of at least 200,000 years.

Other early settlements such as those found at the Niah Caves in Sarawak are dated to 40,000 years ago, and the various ethnic Orang Asli groups found in the region today are descended from these inhabitants.

Several waves of migration from around 3,000 BC to 1,000 BC brought new influences to the prehistoric landscape, during which the ancestors of the present day Malays also arrived.

Small Malay kingdoms are known to have thrived in the region in the early centuries AD, before the ancient Hindu-Buddhist culture emanating from India, so much a feature in many of these nation’s histories, swept across Southeast Asia.

The first great empire of this tradition was that of Srivijaya, later in turn subsumed by the Majapahit who brought their culture to Borneo. With the collapse of Majapahit, the wave of Islamic conversion which established itself in Indonesia and the Malay Peninsula also took root in northern Borneo, which largely came under the rule of the Sultanate of Brunei.

The arrival of European powers, which would widely shape the future course of the entire region began in 1521, with the Portuguese, followed by the Spanish and Dutch seeking trade.

The battle for dominance in the region fell in favour of the British in Malaya, following the fall of Malacca, and northern Borneo too came under their influence.

In Sarawak, British adventurer Sir James Brooke arrived in 1839 and, in 1841, assisted in the suppression of a local rebellion, for which the Sultan of Brunei, Omar Ali Saifuddin II, bestowed territory upon him, and appointed him Raja, a post he held until his death in 1868. The title then passed to his family in a period of private rule known as the ‘White Rajas’, which remained in place up until the Second World War.

In Sabah, Labuan Island was ceded to the British in 1846, becoming a crown colony under direct British rule, while the rest of the territory was leased in 1865 by the then Sultan, Abdul Momin, to the American Consul General Charles Lee Moses, which in turn was then passed over to American commercial interests.

In 1888, North Borneo became nominally a British protectorate, but administration remained largely in the hands of private enterprise.  

The Japanese occupation of Borneo from 1941 – 1945 would overturn this cosy world of private trade monopoly and expose the local populace to the brutality of their rule, during which many Malay intellectuals were executed.

At the End of the Second World War, northern Borneo, came under direct British Rule for the first time, and remained so even after the peninsula gained its independence in 1957. However, having been granted self-determination in 1963, Sabah and Sarawak chose to join the Malaysian Federation, while oil rich Brunei would chose a wholly independent path.

The Initial period under the Malaysian Federation was characterised by strife with Indonesia, which persisted until 1966.