18 September, 2013

History of Sarawak

Here's a brief account of our ancient history summarized from my various readings. I also stand to be corrected ... About 5,000 BCE, Borneo was connected to mainland South East Asia by a land bridge which became covered with water as the Ice Age ended. Since early settlements have been found in Vietnam that dated back to 10,000 BCE, it is possible that Borneo was inhabited then, but no remains have been found. Since the early inhabitants tended to build settlements near the coast, rising waters would probably have destroyed any indications of settlements from that time.

The ancestors of modern South East Asians came from two dominant language families, both of whom were Southern Mongoloid types who had dispersed around 4,000 BCE from the region of what is now the southern part of Yangtze River in China.

One linguistic group, the Austro-Asiatic, migrated into Mainland South East Asia and is represented today in Kampuchea and Vietnam, and in some of the minorities in Myanmar, Thailand and Laos. The second group, the Austronesian, was seafarers and migrated first to Taiwan. Their descendents moved mostly through the islands reaching Borneo about 2,000 BCE. The Austronesians today are represented in Sarawak by the Ibans, Bidayuhs and Melanaus.

In about 400 BCE Mongoloids from Yunnan in Southern China pushed or were pushed south and mixed with the indigenous peoples of the region including the Austro-Asiatic. By 800 BCE, a distinct Malay (technically Malayo-Polynesian) culture had developed which was greatly influenced by Sumatra and by India. These Malays were fishermen, hunters and farmers concentrating in villages near the mouths of rivers. Malays moved into the area that would become Sarawak about 800 BCE making themselves the dominant peoples of the area by pushing the earlier arrivals into the interior of Borneo. This Malay dominated area later became part of the Sri Vijaya trading system which was centered in Sumatra controlling trade between India and China from 800 to 1400 BCE.

In the early part of 15th Century, Brunei which first appeared as an independent was seen controlling most of the North-western coast of the Borneo entity at the end of the century including what is now Brunei and the Malaysian states of Sarawak and Sabah. It established trade with Melaka which had replaced Sri Vijaya as the center of trade. Islam entered the Malay Peninsula in mid 15th Century via traders from India and the Middle East although it did not reach Sarawak at that time.

In 1498, the first Europeans arrived in South East Asia. Until this time, goods to Europe from the East were shipped to ports in the Middle East and then overland to ports in the eastern Mediterranean en-route to Italy and the rest of Europe. Both Spain and Portugal were trying to get a part of this business by sailing west (Columbus) and south around Africa and the East respectively. In addition to trade, Portugal also believed that it had a score to settle with the Muslims. The area had been occupied for years by the Muslims from North Africa who had just been eliminated from the Iberian Peninsula 10 years earlier. In India and Sumatra, the Portuguese fought the Muslims killing large numbers of them in retribution. Because of their superior naval technology, the Portuguese by 1510 were able to set up forts in India and along the Straits of Melaka, destroying the Melaka Sultanate and rupturing the Malay political world immensely. Nonetheless, many Muslims were not interested in trading with Portuguese because of their anti-Muslims policies.

At about this same time, the Brunei Sultanate having converted to Islam had lured mass migration of Muslims in their vicinity to their kingdom and encouraging them to abstain from doing business with the Portuguese. In the 16th Century while there was almost constant war between the Portuguese and one of the other Malay groups from the western part of Malaya; and later between Portuguese and Dutch; then Dutch and British, the North West coast of Borneo was peaceful and became an important distribution center for textiles, jungle produces and spices from neighboring islands with both the Portuguese and the Muslims. At its great extent, the Brunei Sultanate included parts of the Southern Philippines to its territory. It was distant enough to be safe from the continual wars on the other side of the region.

Nothing seemed to last forever and in the 18th century, Brunei control over its empire declined by the 19th Century with the rise of the sultanate of Sulu (The Philippines); meaning a transfer of the spice trade from Brunei to Sulu. The increase of the Dutch and British power in the region also meant a steady decline in trade for Brunei resulting in its financial deficiency leading to loss of control over its subjects who have turned to piracy to make ends meet.

(contributed by Louis Jap)

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