History of Sabah
As early as the 9th century AD., North Borneo [now Sabah], then under various chieftains traded with China and later the Spanish and the Portuguese. During the 15th century, North Borneo was a vassal of the Sultan of Brunei. In 1704, the Sultan of Brunei ceded the land east of Murudu Bay to the Sultan of Sulu. In the early 1880’s, Moses, an American trader, obtained a lease over North Borneo from Brunei. The lease eventually passed to Alfred Dent, an Englishman. In 1881, he signed a treaty with Brunei and Sulu, converting the lease into a cession.
Thus British North Borneo was born. It was administered by the Chartered Company of British North Borneo until the Japanese Occupation. In 1945, after World War II, North Borneo became a British Crown Colony. In 1963, it gained independence, became known as Sabah and joined Malaysia. Today Sabah is an integral part of Malaysia.
Early Missionary Attempts
According to early documentations, the first missionary attempt to reach Borneo was in the 7th century by the Nestorian Missionaries. However, they only landed in Java and Sumatra in Indonesia.
The second attempt was by John of Monte Corvino. In 1289 he was sent by Pope Nicholas IV to lead a group to the Far East. However, only one of John’s member, Odoric of Pordenone, a Franciscan friar was successful when he visited the shores near the present-day Mukah in Sarawak in 1322.
The third attempt was made in the 16th century but out of the many Portuguese merchant fleets, only Antonio Pereira, a Jesuit priest reached Borneo accidentally. In 1608, on his way to Manila, a sudden storm wrecked his ship along the coast of North Borneo. He and his crew landed in Tempasuk, Kota Belud but were captured by the Illanuns who enslaved them. After four months the Sultan of Brunei heard about the incident and rescued them. They were also allowed to preach the Gospel to the people in Brunei. Nothing much is known about the missionary work of Fr Pereira except the fact that the Bruneians appreciated and admired him for his gentle approach. After one year, Fr Pereira was drowned when the ship he was in sank on its way to Manila.
Next came Fr Antonino Ventimiglia, a member of the Italian Theatine Religious Order, who landed at Banjirmasin, Indonesia in Feb 1688. By 1689 he baptized some 1800 people of the Ngadju tribe. He died two years later.
In the next two hundred years, there were other missionaries from Europe who tried to set foot on Borneo. They came along with the Spanish and Portuguese colonizers. However, their efforts in Borneo were thwarted either by frequent interruption in re-assignment to other mission lands, failure to communicate with the local people or political development in their homeland. Records of their activities were not available. Nevertheless, it has to be noted that missionary activities during this period were merely exploratory in nature. It was only toward the turn of the late 19th century that the Borneo Mission underwent a complete new start.