Alfred Dent

North Borneo (now known as the State of Sabah) was a British protectorate located in the northern part of the island of Borneo. The territory of North Borneo was originally established by concessions of the Sultanates of Brunei and Sulu in 1877 and 1878 to a German-born representative of Austria-Hungary, a businessman and diplomat, von Overbeck.

Overbeck had purchased a small tract land in the western coast of Borneo in 1876 from an American merchant Joseph William Torrey, had promoted the territory in Hong Kong since 1866. Overbeck then transferred all his rights to Alfred Dent before withdrawing in 1879.

In 1881, Dent established the North Borneo Provisional Association Ltd to manage the territory, which was granted a royal charter in the same year. The following year, the Provisional Association was replaced by the North Borneo Chartered Company. The granting of royal charter worried both the neighbouring Spanish and Dutch authorities and as a result the Spanish began to stake their claim to northern Borneo. A protocol known as the Madrid Protocol was signed in 1885 to recognise Spanish presence in the Philippine archipelago, in return establishing the definite border of Spanish influence beyond northern Borneo. To avoid further claims from other European powers, North Borneo was made a British protectorate in 1888.

North Borneo produced timber for export; along with agriculture this industry remained the main economic resource for the British in Borneo. As the population was too small to effectively serve the economy, the British sponsored various migration schemes for Chinese workers from Hong Kong and China to work in the European plantations, and for Japanese immigrants to participate in the economic activities of North Borneo.

Based on an agreement between the British Government and the British North Borneo Company for the establishment of a British Protectorate signed at London, 12 May 1888. The State of North Borneo comprises the territories specified in the said Royal Charter, and such other territories as the Company have acquired, or may hereafter acquire, ‘under the provisions of Article XV of the said Charter.

I. The State of North Borneo is divided into nine Provinces, namely:
• Province Alcock;
• Province Cunliffe;
• Province Dent;
• Province Dewhurst;
• Province Elphinstone;
• Province Keppel;
• Province Martin;
• Province Mayne; and
• Province Myburgh.

II. The State of North Borneo shall continue to be governed and administered as an independent State by the company in conformity with the provisions of the said Charter; under the protection of Great Britain; but such protection shall confer no right on Her Majesty’s Government to interfere with the internal administration of the State further than is provided herein or by the Charter of the Company.

III. The relations between the State of North Borneo and all foreign States, including the States of Brunei and of Sarawak, shall be conducted by Her Majesty’s Government, or in accordance with its directions; and if any difference should arise between the Government of North Borneo and that of any other State, the Company, as representing the State of North Borneo, agrees to abide by the decision of Her Majesty’s Government, and to take all necessary to give effect thereto.

IV. Her Majesty’s Government shall have the right to establish British Consular officers in any part of the said territories, who shall receive exequaturs in the name of the Government of North Borneo. They shall enjoy whatever privileges are usually granted to Consular officers, and they shall be entitled to hoist the British flag over their residences and public offices.

V. British subjects, commerce, and shipping shall enjoy the same right, privileges, and advantages as the subjects, commerce, and shipping of the most favoured nation, as well as any other rights, privileges, and advantages which may be enjoyed by the subjects, commerce and shipping of North Borneo.

VI. No cession or other alienation of any part of the territory of the State of North Borneo shall be made by its Government to any foreign State, or the subjects or the citizens thereof, without the consent of Her Majesty’s Government; but this restriction shall not apply to ordinary grants or leases of lands or houses to private individuals for purposes of residence, agriculture, commerce, or other business.

Jesselton (Now Kota Kinabalu circa 1911)


North Borneo was founded in 1877–1878 through a series of land concessions in northern Borneo from the Sultanate of Brunei and Sulu to an Austrian-German businessman and diplomat, von Overbeck. A former American Trading Company of Borneo territory in the western coast of northern Borneo had already passed to Overbeck, requiring him to go to Brunei to renew the concession of the land he bought from Joseph William Torrey. William Clark Cowie played an important role as a close friend of the Sultanate of Sulu in helping Overbeck to buy additional land in the eastern coast of Borneo. Meanwhile, the Sultanate of Bulungan’s influence also reached Tawau in eastern southern coast, but came under the influence of the more dominating Sulu Sultanate.

William Clarke Cowie with the Sultan of Sulu and his court in 1883. Also present at the porceedings were Baron Gustav Von Overbeck, William Hood Treacher and William Burges Pryer, though not in the picture, should be somewhere in the background. 

To complete the process and with the help of William Cowie, he met up with the Sultan of Sulu at Jolo a few weeks later in early 1878. The Sultan who has been under constant siege by the spanish was happy to sign away the eastern part of North Borneo for a yearly rent before he loses everything to the spanish. The other European male person in the picture apart from Cowie was Alexander Cook, later to be treasurer general of North Borneo.  

The Agreement with the Sultan of Sulu.

Following his success in buying large tract of lands from both the western and eastern part of northern Borneo, Overbeck went to Europe to promote the territory in Austria-Hungary and Italy as well as in his own country of Germany, but none showed any real interest. Only Great Britain, which had sought to control trade routes in the Far East since the 18th century, responded. The interest of the British was strengthened by their presence in Labuan since 1846. As a result, Overbeck received a financial support from the British Dent brothers (Alfred Dent and Edward Dent) and diplomatic and military support from the British government. Following the entrance of support from the British side, a clause was included in the treaties that the ceded territories could not be given to another party without the permission of the British government.

A North Borneo 1909 stamp – 4 Cents British Protectorate 

Unable to attract the interest of the governments of Austria and Germany, Overbeck withdrew in 1879; all his treaty rights with the Sultanates were transferred to Alfred Dent, who in 1881 formed the North Borneo Provisional Association Ltd with the support of countrymen Rutherford Alcock, Admiral Henry Keppel, Richard Biddulph Martin, Admiral Richard Mayne and William Henry Read. The Provisional Association then applied to Queen Victoria for a royal charter, which was granted on 1 November 1881. William Hood Treacher was appointed as the first governor, and Kudat at the northern tip of Borneo was chosen as the Provisional Association administration capital. The granting of royal charter had worried both Dutch and the Spanish, who feared that Britain might threatening the position of their colony.

In May 1882, the Provisional Association was replaced by the newly formed North Borneo Chartered Company with Alcock acting as the first President and Dent becoming the company managing director. The administration is not considered as a British acquisition of the territory, but rather simply as a private enterprise with government guidelines to protect the territory from being encroached upon by other European powers. Under Governor Treacher, the company gained more territories on the western coast from the Sultanate of Brunei. The company subsequently acquired further sovereign and territorial rights from the sultan of Brunei, expanding the territory under control to the Putatan river (May 1884), the Padas district (November 1884), the Kawang river (February 1885), the Mantanani Islands (April 1885) and additional minor Padas territories (March 1898).

At the early stage of the administration, there was a claim in northern Borneo from the Spanish authorities in the Philippines when an attempt to raise the Spanish flag over Sandakan was met interference by a British warship. To prevent further conflict and ending the Spanish claim to northern Borneo, an agreement known as the Madrid Protocol was signed in Madrid between the United Kingdom, Germany and Spain in 1885, recognising the Spanish presence in the Philippine archipelago. As the company did not wish to be involved in further foreign affairs issues, North Borneo was made a protectorate on 12 May 1888. In 1890, Labuan was incorporated into the administration of North Borneo before returned to British government rule in 1904.


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