Sarawak Proper: Trading and Trading Patterns from Earlier Times to the Registration of the Borneo Company in 1856

By Porritt, Vernon L. | Borneo Research Bulletin, Annual 2012 | Go to article overview

Sarawak Proper: Trading and Trading Patterns from Earlier Times to the Registration of the Borneo Company in 1856


Porritt, Vernon L., Borneo Research Bulletin


The prosperity of any community is largely a function of trade and commerce. This short paper seeks to address a perceived lack of research on this subject in Sarawak's early history and to serve as an introduction to a work-in-progress volume on the Sarawak branch of the Borneo Company Limited (BCL), the company given sole rights over all Sarawak's minerals, excluding gold, in 1856, together with the right to operate as merchants, ship owners, miners, agriculturists, and planters.

Sarawak Proper had been involved in international trading some centuries before 1856, the year in which the BCL was first registered in London. Sarawak Proper was the name used to distinguish the Sarawak of 1841 that covered some 7,770 square kilometers from the present day Sarawak, which by 1890 reached its present area of some 124,450 square kilometers. The origin of the name Sarawak is unknown, although it is derived from the Sarawak River, which was known by that name when the area was part of the Brunei Sultanate. (1) In the absence of any early written records from the immediate Sarawak Proper area, trading and trading patterns have to be adduced from other sources.

In 1856, Sarawak Proper was a little-known minor domain on the northwest coast of Borneo over 11,000 kilometers from London, then colorfully described in A Descriptive Dictionary of the Indian Islands and Adjacent Countries as follows:

      Sarawak is the name of the most southerly district of the
   western seaboard of Borneo, and of the territory of the sultan of
   that island, bounded to the south by the Sambas, at the projecting
   head-land called by the Malays Tanjung Datu, meaning "elders" or
   "chieftain's promontory." It is described by its present possessor
   as extending along the coast for sixty miles with an average
   breadth of fifty, so as to give it an area of 3000 square miles,
   which would make it by about one-fifth part larger than the West
   Riding of York. With exception of a few specks, it is a vast
   forest, without any signs of having ever been otherwise, with the
   ape, the deer, and the wild boar for it most numerous inhabitants.
   The climate is moist and hot, the average temperature of the year
   being 83[degrees] of Fahrenheit. The geological formation consists
   of sandstone and granite, but it possesses neither the gold of the
   southern districts of the island, nor the coal of the northern, its
   only discovered mineral hitherto, being antimony. This previously
   little known country, was brought into notice in 1842, by the
   accidental discovery within it of the richest, the most easily
   worked, and the most easily transported supply of sulphuret of
   antimony in the world, and which has ever furnished Europe and
   America with their principal supply. There are three considerable
   rivers within the territory, or forming its boundary. The chief of
   these which bears the name of the place itself, is formed by the
   union of two streams proceeding from the mountains of the interior,
   which after their junction pass in a course of 20 miles, through
   the territory, and at 12 miles from the sea divide into two braches
   entering it by the same number of considerable mouths with several
   small ones. The eastern of these channels called the Morotabas is
   the navigable one, and is about three quarters of a mile broad,
   with a depth of from 3 1/2 to 4 fathoms at low water spring-tides,
   which makes it a short distance navigable by large ships. On the
   banks of this river stood the only Malay settlement, distant about
   fifteen miles from the sea. This was called Kuching (the cat), and
   contained a population of about 2000, of a rather miserable kind.
   It is now the town of Sarawak, with a population of 15,000. The
   primitive inhabitants of the soil are the wild tribes known to the
   Malays under the common appellation of Dayaks. These are not a
   homogenous people, but however small the tribes, really distinct
   and independent nations. … 

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