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Sabah ~ History & People

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• History • People & Culture • Handicrafts •

As early as the 9th century AD., Sabah, then under various chieftains traded with China and later the Spanish and the Portuguese. During the 15th century, Sabah was part of the Sultanate of Brunei. In 1704, the Sultan of Brunei ceded the land east of Murudu Bay (north-east portion of Borneo) to the Sultan of Sulu as a "gift" in return for the latter's help in settling a civil war.

In 1761, the British East India Company, concluded an agreement with the Sultan of Sulu to allow him to set up a trading post in the region. Attempts to build a settlement and a military station proved to be a failure due to minimal foreign interest in this region. Control came again under the Sultanate of Brunei. the American Consul of Brunei, Claude Lee Moses. Their attempts to set up a base and settlement also turned out to be a failure due
to financial reasons.

[Badge of the British North Borneo Company 1882-1948 (North Borneo, Malaysia)]The rights was subsequently obtained by Alfred Dent, an Englishman, in 1881. In the following year, the British North Borneo Company was formed. In 1888 North Borneo became a protectorate of Great Britain. Administration and control over North Borneo remained in the hands of the Company despite being a protectorate and they effectively ruled until 1942. until the Japanese occupation.

In 1945, after World War II, Sabah became a British Crown Colony. In 1963, it gained independence and on September 16, 1963, North Borneo together with Malaya, Sarawak and Singapore formed the Federation of Malaysia and from then on it became known as Sabah.

People & Culture
The indigenous people of Sabah are friendly and possess rich traditions and cultures. There are over 30 different ethnic groups and more than 80 local dialects in the state. The three main indigenous groups of Sabah are the
Kadazan-Dusun, Murut, and Bajau.

The largest, the Kadazan-Dusun, make up about a third of the population. These are the prosperous rice producers of Sabah, although in recent times many have ventured into other trades. Living in the interior plains they are well known for their unique customs that feature female priestesses called ‘bobohizan’ presiding over still practiced ancient rituals. One way you can gain insights into their culture and dances is to visit the Monsopiad Cultural Village in Kota Kinabalu.

Skilled fishermen as well as rice farmers they are also experts in rearing ponies and water buffaloes. The Bajaus live mainly on the east and west coasts. East coast Bajaus are sea nomads, coming ashore only to bury their dead. The West-coast Bajaus are farmers and being dubbed as ‘The cowboys of the East’, they are renowned for their horsemanship.

Being agriculturists and hunters, they live in the interior region near the borders of Sarawak and Kalimantan. Once feared for their head hunting, the Muruts are great hunters with spears, blowpipes and poisoned darts. Many still reside in their traditional communal longhouses and they are well known for their elaborate displays of bride-wealth, dancing and feasting.

The Heritage Village located on the Sabah Museum grounds is a good place to visit for an introduction to these ethnic groups’ way of life. Those who would like to take things a step further and experience life in a longhouse should visit the Rungus tribe (near Kudat) because they have opened up their homes to visitors. Longhouses are typically found in the northern and interior parts of Sabah and each longhouse is divided into apartments for individual families.

It’s little wonder that an assortment of festivals is celebrated, given the ethnic diversity here. The people celebrate through music, dance and food that are uniquely their own. Among the festivals are the Regatta Lepa Semporna (April), Pesta Keamaatan (May), Pesta Rumbia (July), Pesta Kelapa (September) and Pesta Jagung (October).

The Chinese are the largest non-indigenous group and are major contributors to the state’s economic development.


Like Sarawak, this East Malaysian state’s handicrafts bear the unique stamp of its many indigenous peoples. In particular look out for beads, hand woven baskets. Pua-weaving indigenous to the states of Sabah and Sarawak, is distinguished by ruddy hues and a predominance of
plant and animal motifs







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