The Crown Colony of Labuan was a British Crown colony on the northwestern shore of the island of Borneo.
It came under the British after the Treaty of Labuan was signed between the empire and Sultanate of Brunei.
Apart from the main island, Labuan consists of six smaller islands; Burung, Daat, Kuraman, Papan, Rusukan Kecil and Rusukan Besar.
The island had belonged to the sultanate even since the reign of the first Sultan of Brunei Muhammad Shah (also known as Awang Alak Betatar).
Labuan originally was uninhabited but often used by Malay and Chinese sailors to shelter their ships from storms.
For the Brunei, Labuan was economically important as it was the gateway to the outside world.
Besides serving as a safe shelter, Labuan was strategically located to protect Brunei interest in the region.
As the trading activities and taxes in Labuan increased, the island’s revenues also increased.
Here are 5 things you should know about the Treaty of Labuan:
1.Why the British Empire was interested in Labuan?
The whole acquisition of the island was started by a man named James Brooke.
After he established himself as the first Rajah of Sarawak in 1841, Brooke began to assist in the suppression of piracy along the coast of Borneo.
During this time, he had persistently promoted Labuan to the British government. Brooke urged the British to establish a naval station, colony or protectorate along the northern coast to prevent other European powers from doing so.
The British government heard Brooke’s plea; it sent Admiral Drinkwater Bethune to look for a site for naval station and specifically to investigate Labuan.
Along with Admiral Edward Belcher with his HMS Samarang, the British envoy went to survey the area in November 1844.
In 1845, the British Foreign Office then appointed Brooke as a diplomat to Brunei and instructed him to cooperate with Bethune.
Basically, Labuan was considered as a safe shelter. Furthermore, it was strategically sited to protect the British interest in the region especially the China trade route.
Thanks to Brooke, the Great Britain start eyeing to take over Labuan.
2.Other foreign powers interested in Labuan
Besides the British, the United States (US) also showed interest in the island. In 1845, the US sent USS Constitution to Brunei in 1845 to discuss a Trade and access to coal deposits for American ships and business.
Then in November 1846, Captain Rodney Mundy, who was in-charge of the British Naval vessels on the northwest coast of Borneo, received instruction to proceed to Brunei. He soon arrived there with Brooke to discuss the acquisition matter.
3.Under the Treaty of Labuan, the island was ceded to Great Britain and the Sultan of Brunei on Dec 18, 1846. Did the British threaten the Sultan of Brunei to sign the Treaty of Labuan?
Sultan Omar Ali Saifuddin II officially signed the treaty on Dec 18, 1846, surrendering Labuan to Great Britain as a crown colony.
Brooke and Mundy signed it on behalf of the British.
The infamous part of the Treaty of Labuan is that the British convoy allegedly used threats to get the Sultan’s signature.
The sultan, of course had no choice to sign the treaty because there were cannons pointing at his face.
Frank Maryyat, the English sailor serving on HMS Samarang recorded what happened during the treaty signing in his book Borneo and the Indian Archipelago (1848).
At that time, the British entourage had already stayed in Brunei for a week and Brooke was getting restless.
Here is Marryat’s account of the Treaty of Labuan:
“Every day an interview was had with the sultan, but no definite answer had been obtained to our demands. On the 6th, however, it was resolved by our diplomatists that no more time should be wasted in useless discussion, but that the sultan must be once brought to terms; indeed, our own safety demanded it, for the popular feeling was so much excited, and the people were so indignant at our attempt to coerce their sultan, that we were in hourly expectation of an attack.”
At seven in the evening the party repaired to the audience chamber, leaving their arms behind them, for they felt that any effort from five Europeans to defend themselves against so many hundreds, would be unavailing, and that more would be gained by a show difference.
They landed at the platform, and the barge, in which were Lieutenant Baugh (since dead) and myself, was ordered to lie on her oars abreast of the audience chamber, and to keep her 6-pounder in which there was a fearful dose of grape and canister, pointed at the sultan himself during the whole of the interview.
It was an anxious time: the audience chamber was filled with hundreds of armed men, in the midst of whom were five Europeans dictating to their sultan.
The platforms outside was crowded with the wild and fearless Muruts; not a native in the city but was armed to the teeth, and anxious for the fray.
We, on our parts, were well prepared for fearful vengeance; the barge was so placed that the assassination of Mr. Brooke and the Europeans would have been revenged on the first discharge of our gun by the slaughter of hundred; and in the main street lay the steamer, with a spring on her cable, her half ports up, and guns loaded to the muzzle, awaiting, as by instruction, for the discharge of the gun from the barge, to follow up the work of death.
The platform admitted one of the steamer’s guns to look into the audience chamber, the muzzle was pointed directed at the sultan, a man held the lighted tow in his hand. Every European on board had his musket ready loaded, and matters assumed a serious appearance.”
4.The day that the British flag was hoisted in Labuan on December 24, 1846
Owen Rutter in British North Borneo: an account of its history, resources, and native tribes narrated what happened on the day Labuan was officially declared as a British crown colony.
Rutter wrote, “To crown, all after many delays, the British flag was hoisted in Labuan on Dec 24, 1846, by Captain Mundy, the Sultan having concluded a treaty by which the island was ceded forever to Great Britain.
It was a gala day. The Iris and Wolf dressed ship and fired royal salutes; a party of bluejackets and marines was landed, and Pengiran Mumin, the Prime Minister of Brunei, together with many chiefs and a multitude of natives, watched the proceedings, their boats, anchored near the beach, being bedecked with flags and banners.
A clearing had been made in the jungle, and Captain Mundy in a short speech explained to all assembled that the objects of Great Britain in taking over Labuan were the suppression of piracy and the encouragement of commerce.”
5.Labuan becoming a free port after the cession
After the signing, Brooke was knighted and later became the first British governor of Labuan.
On July 13, 1848, Brooke announced in the Singapore Gazette on the opening of the new colony of Labuan.
According to the announcement, Labuan was to be a free port without duties on imports or exports.
Here is the part of the announcement:
It is hereby notified, that her Majesty’s colony of Labuan will be opened to settlers and other immigrants from and after the first day of August next, and that all persons being well and peaceably disposed thereafter coming to reside within the said colony and its dependencies shall receive the protection of the laws, as subjects of the Crown of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland.
While the British’s method of convincing the sultan is considered an extortion and illegal at the present time, Labuan in the end of the day fell into the hands of Great Britain.
From 1890, Labuan came to be administered by the North Borneo Chartered Company before been reverted to British government rule in 1904.
By Oct 30, 1906, the British government proposed to extend the boundaries of the Strait Settlements to include Labuan.
The proposal took effect from Jan 1, 1907 with the administration area being taken from Singapore which was the capital of the Strait Settlements.