1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Labuan

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LABUAN (a corruption of the Malay word labuh-an, signifying an “anchorage”), an island of the Malay Archipelago, off the north-west coast of Borneo in 5° 16′ N., 115° 15′ E. Its area is 30.23 sq. m.; it is distant about 6 m. from the mainland of Borneo at the nearest point, and lies opposite to the northern end of the great Brunei Bay. The island is covered with low hills rising from flats near the shore to an irregular plateau near the centre. About 1500 acres are under rice cultivation, and there are scattered patches of coco-nut and sago palms and a few vegetable gardens, the latter owned for the most part by Chinese. For the rest Labuan is covered over most of its extent by vigorous secondary growth, amidst which the charred trunks of trees rise at frequent intervals, the greater part of the forest of the island having been destroyed by great accidental conflagrations. Labuan was ceded to Great Britain in 1846, chiefly through the instrumentality of Sir James Brooke, the first raja of Sarawak, and was occupied two years later.

At the time of its cession the island was uninhabited, but in 1881 the population numbered 5731, though it had declined to 5361 in 1891. The census returns for 1901 give the population at 8411. The native population consists of Malay fishermen, Chinese, Tamils and small shifting communities of Kadayans, Tutongs and other natives of the neighbouring Bornean coast. There are about fifty European residents. At the time of its occupation by Great Britain a brilliant future was predicted for Labuan, which it was thought would become a second Singapore. These hopes have not been realized. The coal deposits, which are of somewhat indifferent quality, have been worked with varying degrees of failure by a succession of companies, one of which, the Labuan & Borneo Ltd., liquidated in 1902 after the collapse of a shaft upon which large sums had been expended. It was succeeded by the Labuan Coalfields Ltd. The harbour is a fine one, and the above-named company possesses three wharves capable of berthing the largest Eastern-going ocean steamers. To-day Labuan chiefly exists as a trading depôt for the natives of the neighbouring coast of Borneo, who sell their produce—beeswax, edible birds-nests, camphor, gutta, trepang, &c.,—to Chinese shopkeepers, who resell it in Singapore. There is also a considerable trade in sago, much of which is produced on the mainland, and there are three small sago-factories on the island where the raw product is converted into flour. The Eastern Extension Telegraph Company has a central station at Labuan with cables to Singapore, Hong-Kong and British North Borneo. Monthly steam communication is maintained by a German firm between Labuan, Singapore and the Philippines. The colony joined the Imperial Penny Postage Union in 1889. There are a few miles of road on the island and a metre-gauge railway from the harbour to the coal mines, the property of the company. There is a Roman Catholic church with a resident priest, an Anglican church, visited periodically by a clergyman from the mainland, two native and Chinese schools, and a sailors’ club, built by the Roman Catholic mission. The bishop of Singapore and Sarawak is also bishop of Labuan. The European graveyard has repeatedly been the scene of outrages perpetrated, it is believed, by natives from the mainland of Borneo, the graves being rifled and the hair of the head and other parts of the corpses being carried off to furnish ornaments to weapons and ingredients in the magic philtres of the natives. Pulau Dat, a small island in the near neighbourhood of Labuan, is the site of a fine coco-nut plantation whence nuts and copra are exported in bulk. The climate is hot and very humid.

Until 1869 the expenditure of the colony was partly defrayed by imperial grants-in-aid, but after that date it was left to its own resources. A garrison of imperial troops was maintained until 1871, when the troops were withdrawn after many deaths from fever and dysentery had occurred among them. Since then law and order have been maintained without difficulty by a small mixed police force of Punjabis and Malays. From the 1st of January 1890 to the 1st of January 1906 Labuan was transferred for administrative purposes to the British North Borneo Company, the governor for the time being of the company’s territories holding also the royal commission as governor of Labuan. This arrangement did not work satisfactorily and called forth frequent petitions and protests from the colonists. Labuan was then placed under the government of the Straits Settlements, and is administered by a deputy governor who is a member of the Straits Civil Service.