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  • The Building of the North Borneo Railway and the Founding of Jesselton by Ross Ibbotson
  • Henry S. Barlow
The Building of the North Borneo Railway and the Founding of Jesselton, by Ross Ibbotson. Kota Kinabalu: Opus Publications, 2018, 1-8, 1-536 pp. ISBN 978-983-3987-61-0

Ross Ibbotson has produced a remarkable volume. This chronicles the history of the west coast of Sabah, and in particular Jesselton and the North Borneo railway. It starts from the origins of the British North Borneo Chartered Company (BNBC), following the story up to the time Sabah joined Malaysia in 1963.

Serious interest in the northern part of the island of Borneo arose in Europe from rival British and Dutch colonial interests, spurred on no doubt by James Brooke's success in establishing control of Sarawak. Nominal control of the northern part of Borneo lay between the equally ineffective Sultanates of Brunei and Sulu, the latter under pressure from the Spaniards who were establishing control over the Philippines.

Wheeling and dealing in the 1870s, involving trade with Sulu out of Labuan, culminated in agreements signed by the Sultan of Brunei (29 December 1877) and the Sultan of Sulu (22 January 1878) under which North Borneo was acquired by Baron Overbeck and the Dent brothers. Their plans almost immediately to sell off the territory were thwarted by Treacher, at that time Governor of Labuan, acting on behalf of the British government.

In response the Dent brothers formed the North Borneo Provisional Association Ltd in July 1881. They acquired a Royal Charter on1 November 1881 leading to the formation of BNBC.

Lurking behind these machinations was William Clark Cowie, an adventurous young Scotsman who first came to Singapore and Borneo in 1870 at the age of 21. Very much a soldier of fortune, he wheeled and dealed in ships and their sometimes dubious cargoes around Borneo and Sulu for the next ten years. His precise role is difficult to identify from the various self laudatory reports which he published in later years, when no one was left to contradict him. Certainly, however, he was involved in coal mining operations in Brunei and Labuan. These activities earned him the reputation of being 'a very slippery customer'. It was a reputation which was to stick.

Cowie returned to UK in mid-1881 and at once began to busy himself with the affairs of BNBC, in which he bought stock. It was at this period that he began drumming up support for building a railway across North Borneo. It was unclear from where he got the idea, but it was to become little short of an obsession for him till he died in 1910. He ruthlessly badgered the Court of BNBC with various railway proposals, raising the matter at company annual general meetings, and making increasingly hostile attacks on the board. Eventually he was elected to the Court in February 1894.

Cowie rapidly consolidated his position, and by mid-1895 plans were already afoot, under his direction, for a railway from Sipitang on the coast to Tenom. By early 1897 he was confirmed as Managing Director, a post he held until his death in 1910.

The pattern was now set: the Governors of BNB on the ground were continually outflanked and overruled by Cowie—so much so that several resigned in disgust, [End Page 172] including both Clifford and Birch. In this arrogant and high-handed approach he was ably supported by Arthur Joseph West, an English engineer. West was involved in 1891 in the construction of the Labuan railway connecting the coal mine with Port Victoria. The work apparently brought him to Cowies' attention. His terms of appointment required him in the interests of speed, to report direct to the Board, only copying in the unfortunate Governor. Given that West was described as cantankerous and uncivil, it is not surprising that the next fifteen years working with Cowie proved fractious and unsatisfactory for all concerned. Allegations of incompetence and at times corruption abounded.

Ibbotson describes in considerable detail all these twists and turns, skilfully showing how railway and hence port terminal considerations dictated the early development of Jesselton. (Initial port proposals for Sipitang...


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