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What you need to know about the first Sarawak Chamber of Commerce

This is part of Sarawak that no longer exists, which is the first Sarawak Chamber of Commerce:

After 30 years of Brooke rule in Sarawak, the end of 1871 saw how vastly the import and export trade of the country had increased.

The previous 10 years showcased a steady rise of $100,000 a year until it reached $1,680,000.

Trivia: Did you know the Sarawak Dollar (1858-1953), symbolised by $, was on par with the Straits Dollar? It was used by the Straits Settlements which included a number of territories including Singapore.

In October 1872, the second Rajah of Sarawak proposed to the Supreme Council to have a Mercantile Committee to deal with the increase in trade.

The committee consisted of leading merchants who worked as a consultative body. They met once a quarter year (once every four months) to discuss commercial affairs.

Additionally, they discussed if there were any reforms, improvements or suggestions for the government.

From Mercantile Committee to Sarawak Chamber of Commerce

In February 1873, the Rajah had already completed his plans and drawn up rules to set up the organisation. He eventually called it the Sarawak Chamber of Commerce.

Back in those days, the chamber was made up of European, Chinese, Indian and Malay merchants.

How did these merchants earn their wealth? They mostly owned large vessels that enabled them to trade in Brunei, Labuan, Sabah and even the Philippines.

The Dayaks at that time had not yet earned enough to enable them to join as a member.

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In order to join, one had to have land, house or other property amounting up to $2000. If it was a company, the entity must be worth at least $10,000.

According to historian W.J. Chater, the chamber had several functions. “The objects of the Chamber, then laid down by the Rajah, were to facilitate all operations of trade, monetary transactions, traffic, freights, suggesting town and thoroughfare improvements from a commercial point of view; also in settling weights and measures and in giving opinions in matters relating to the Creditors and Debtors’ Court.”

The discussions took place in Malay but the records were kept in English.

The first meeting of Sarawak Chamber of Commerce

Sarawak Chamber of Commerce’s very first meeting was held on May 1, 1873 in a meeting room in the Government Offices.

The first major issue that the Chamber had to deal with was the fact that there were no vessels other than Government steamers to carry freights between Sarawak and Singapore.

Therefore, the Rajah urged members of the Chamber to persuade the leading businessmen to form a shipping company.

In order to avoid unfair competition, he even offered to sell the government steamer, Royalist.

Subsequently, the Singapore and Sarawak Steamship Co. was formed in July 1975. The company then changed its name to Sarawak Steamship Co., Limited. It first operated using the Royalist and a new steamer was built in England called the Rajah Brooke.

Chater stated, “Although the Chamber was expected to meet once a quarter, this was at first unnecessary and for some years they met only once in six months, when their main duty was to decide the value to be placed on rattans; apparently a very valuable item of export in those days.”

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Later, the Chamber decided the value and export duty to be levied on other important exports of the time such as sago, gambier, birds’ nests and pepper.

Overall, there were little records of activities of Sarawak Chamber of Commerce.

The end of Sarawak Chamber of Commerce

According to Chater, the Sarawak Chamber of Commerce was shut down in January 1900 without any given reason.

Eventually, most of the chamber’s duties were taken over Kuching Municipal Office in 1906 as well as Chinese Chamber of Commerce a few years later.

Chinese History Museum now which was used to be Chinese Chamber of Commerce.
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 Kajomag.com or Twitter at @patriciahului.

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