British North Borneo (now the state of Sabah, Malaysia) and Sarawak (now the state of Sarawak, Malaysia), were two British Protectorates on the island of Borneo, in South East Asia. British North Borneo, in the north-east of the island, was declared a protectorate in 1888, and was administered by the North Borneo Company. Sarawak, on the west coast, was ruled by the ‘White Rajahs’ under a system similar to the princely states of India.

The countries were not greatly affected by the war.

British North Borneo

CO 1069/542 (5)

Officers of the British North Borneo Company in Sandakan, 1914-1918. CO 1069/542 (5)

At the outbreak of war, the defence force of North Borneo consisted of an armed constabulary made up of 824 men (CO 874/357). Town guards were enrolled when war broke out, and were incorporated in the British North Borneo Volunteer Rifles in 1915. Service in this force was compulsory for all male British subjects, who could go on active service, join the reserve or enrol in the civil guard (CO 531/8). It was mobilised six times over the course of the war: four times on the west coast, and twice in the harbour of Sandakan, which was used as a base for torpedo-boat destroyers (CO 531/12).

Government officers joined the active service, and volunteers from the Railway Department enrolled for service in Mesopotamia (CO 531/11). North Borneo’s contribution to the war effort was acknowledged at the end of the war by the awarding of the order of St Michael and St George to the Governor, Aylmer Cavendish Pearson (CO 855/33).

Like other colonies, British North Borneo contributed to various war charities. Between June 1915 and July 1919, £29,923 was collected through the North Borneo War Relief Fund (CO 531/13).

North Borneo wasn’t much affected by the war. The lack of shipping did make it difficult to obtain foodstuffs, notably rice, but any serious shortage was avoided thanks to the assistance of the Strait Settlements (CO 531/12). Whilst the exports of some goods, such as tobacco and timber, decreased, the coal trade flourished due to heavy demand. The whole output of the Silimpopon mines in the south east of the colony, about 60,000 tons per year, was allotted to the war effort (CO 531/6).


CO 1069/542 (6)

Officers of the British North Borneo Company in Sandakan, 1914-1918. CO 1069/542 (6)

The war was described as a ‘temporary inconvenience’ rather than a major disaster in the annual report for 1917 (CO 802/1). An ordinance was passed to set fixed prices on foodstuffs, notably milk, rice and flour, but thanks to the help of the Straits Settlements, no serious shortage of food occurred.

Sarawak contributed to the war effort to the extent of its ability. Out of a European population of 450, 65 went on active service. This included schoolboys, but most were male government officers or employees of the two main companies (Borneo Company, which provided gold, antimony, rubber and pepper, to Britain throughout the war, and Anglo-Saxon Petroleum, which contributed 265,000 tons of liquid fuel to the British Navy and its allies) (CO 604/6) (ADM 188/708/30616).

The Rajah, HH Charles Anthoni Johnson Brooke, pledged £5,000 per year for six years, and the war charities were widely supported, in particular the Prince of Wales National Relief Fund, the British Red Cross and the Blue Cross Fund for Horses (CO 604/5).  

Key figures

Right Honourable Sir West Ridgeway

President of the Court of Directors of the British North Borneo Company, 1910-1926

Cecil William Chase Parr

Governor of British North Borneo, 1913-1915

Aylmer Cavendish Pearson

Governor of British North Borneo, 1915-1922

HH Charles Anthoni Johnson Brooke

Rajah of Sarawak (August 1863-May 1917)

HH Charles Vyner de Windt Brooke

HH Charles Vyner de Windt Brooke

Rajah of Sarawak (May 1917-July 1946)

Detail of NPG x150286 , Sir Charles Vyner de Windt Brooke, © National Portrait Gallery, London.

Key documents

  • Colonial Office: British North Borneo original correspondence, 1907-1951 CO 531
  • British North Borneo (Sabah) sessional papers, 1914-1919 CO 648/7-8
  • British North Borneo and Sabah: Government Gazettes, Herald and Official Gazette CO 855/28-32
  • Sarawak: Government Gazettes, 1913-1919 CO 604/4-6
  • Sarawak: Sessional papers, annual reports, 1900-1924 CO 802/1

Preview images