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The meanings behind Dum Spiro Spero and Pergo et Perago

Long before there were Malaysian states of Sabah and Sarawak, there were North Borneo and the Kingdom of Sarawak.

Like many European administrations of the 19th century, these two regions adopted Latin phrases as their states’ mottos.

Sarawak’s motto was Dum spiro spero while North Borneo embodied the phrase Pergo et Perago.

Sarawak’s Dum Spiro Spero

Charles I of England was the monarch over the three kingdoms of England, Scotland and Ireland from 1625 until his execution in 1649.

During his final imprisonment, he wrote “Dum spiro Spero” on a copy of The Faerie Queene which was one of the books Charles I read before he died.

Historians believed it was his personal motto.

This Latin phrase means “While I breathe, I hope”. It is a modern paraphrase of ideas that comes from two ancient writers, Theocritus and Cicero.

It makes the perfect motto for those who refuse to quit until the very last breath, much like our own Sarawak phrase “Agi idup, agi ngelaban”.

After the Kingdom of Sarawak was established in 1841, the motto can be found on its Coat of Arms.

On Sept 26, 1928, the third Rajah of Sarawak Charles Vyner Brooke established The Most Excellent Order of the Star of Sarawak as the highest order of chivalry within the Kingdom of Sarawak.

The motto of this order was “Haraplah Salagi Bernafas”, which was the translation for Dum Spiro Spero.

Fast forward to 2019, the order no longer exists and Sarawak’s motto now is “Bersatu, Berusaha, Berbakti” (United, Striving, Serving).

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Besides Kingdom of Sarawak, it was also the motto of South Carolina in US, St Andrews in Scotland and many others.

North Borneo’s Pergo et Perago

Meanwhile, the North Borneo Chartered Company (NBCC) was formed on Nov 1, 1881 to administer and exploit the resources of North Borneo.

The company motto was Pergo et Perago, which means “I persevere and I achieve” or “I undertake a thing and go through with it” in Latin. NBCC’s founder and first chairman was Alfred Dent.

Just like Sarawak, North Borneo’s motto was found on the first arms of North Borneo.

Besides that, Pergo et Perago was initially found on North Borneo’s one-cent and half-cent coins.

Nowadays, this Latin phrase becomes the motto of many educational institutions.

As for Sabah the present-day North Borneo, its motto has now changed to “Sabah Maju Jaya” or Let Sabah Prosper.

Patricia Hului
Patricia Hului is a Kayan who wants to live in a world where you can eat whatever you want and not gain weight. She grew up in Bintulu, Sarawak and graduated from the University Malaysia Sabah with a degree in Marine Science. She worked for The Borneo Post SEEDS, which is now defunct. When she's not writing, you can find her in a studio taking belly dance classes, hiking up a hill or browsing through Pinterest. Follow her on Instagram at @patriciahului, Facebook at Patricia Hului at or Twitter at @patriciahului.

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