- The History of Logging in North Borneo by Ross Ibbotson
Kota Kinabalu: Opus Publications, 2014. pp. i–xix, 1-650. ISBN 978-983-3987-50-4. RM275.
Ross Ibbotson has provided what will undoubtedly prove to be the authoritative work for many years to come on the history of logging in North Borneo, from its earliest years in the 1870s to the time when British North Borneo achieved its independence as Sabah, as part, with Sarawak and initially Singapore, of an enlarged Malaysia.
The early chapters of the book provide the historical setting for the formation of the Chartered Company of British North Borneo, together with revealing sketches of the dramatis personae. Many of these individuals were freebooters and characters with dubious backgrounds. A minority, such as W. B. Pryer, founder of Sandakan (as Elopura), were men of ability, distinction and deep commitment to the Company and country. The early chapters also give valuable accounts of the various forest products which provided livelihoods to the sparse population of the east coast of the state.
The early pioneers were greatly assisted by a number of Japanese. The earliest was one Koichiro Masuda, a former sailor from San Francisco. Discussions in the first decade of the twentieth century led to the decision to establish a state forest department. By early 1914, a Japanese professional forester, Fusaji Goto, was [End Page 116] appointed. Contacts with the Philippines led to the involvement of the distinguished American botanist E. D. Merrill and the appointment of D. M. Matthews as Chief Forestry Officer, with Goto as his assistant. Their job was to prepare a forest inventory on the east coast with the further assistance of Filipino forest rangers. Matthews was shortly therefore joined by another American with Philippine experience, one D. D. Wood. It was this American involvement with North Borneo’s timber industry which led to the appointment of H. G. Keith, who later became Conservator of Forests in North Borneo, and was married to Agnes Keith, whose Land Below the Wind has become a Borneo classic.
The eminence grise of the North Borneo timber industry was Walter George Darby, who arrived in Sandakan to run the China-Borneo Company in 1888. By 1895 he was arguing vehemently (and ironically in the light of his later role) against allowing the timber industry to be consolidated into the hands of two or three large companies, at the time when most timber companies were making a loss. Over the years Darby consolidated his position in the timber industry, such that eventually Darby, ably backed by Harrisons & Crosfield (H & C), managed to close the market in timber to all competitors, particularly the Japanese. This was much to the detriment of the Chartered Company. Darby had built a major business empire in North Borneo, so the news that he had sold out to H & C in July 1917 was received with great surprise. The ultimate result of this corporate exercise was that H & C had, by the end of 1918, obtained from the Chartered Company ‘an effective monopoly on the terms recommended by Darby’. H & C were to operate this monopoly through the British Borneo Timber Company (BBT), advised by Darby, until the Second World War. There appears to have been some form of unsavoury dealing involved for, as late as 1958, the contents of a key file on Darby now held in the Sabah Archives were destroyed. As the author asks: ‘What was covered up?’
Certainly Darby’s subsequent influence on BBT induced a disagreeable level of arrogance in that company’s dealing with the Chartered Company in preservation of the monopoly which they had recognized but failed to exploit.
While the book provides much information on the machinations of H & C in the colonial era, it is somewhat coy on more recent developments since independence, more particularly in the 1960s and 1970s, when the state was essentially looted of its timber. That perhaps is the subject for another book in 20 years’ time.
Meantime Ibbotson’s work is unparalleled in the detail he has extracted from the records, particularly the British North Borneo...