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Kota Kinabalu to Labuan


No messing about today. An early rise was required for the express boat back to Labuan from whence I had originally arrived here. Crazily there was no dodgy student discount to be had here in this direction though one could be had from Labuan, I was just happy for the availability and early 8am deprture though and Ekonomi class proved to be better than the deep freeze of First Class air-con previously endured. 3 hours of uneventful slumber got me back into Labuan harbour for 11. I had anticipated an immigration check here since Labuan was distinct from Sabah, actually a federal territory goverened directly from KL, but my by now tatty, sadly smudged and quickly filling passport went unchecked.

Even the brothels werent cheap in Labuan Town (previously Victoria) and so after a pointless sweaty price checking slog I ended up at an overpriced dive only fit for sleep. Since Labuan was a duty free outpost and therefore the place for nightly decadence from rampant Bruneian hypocrites with too much money, I had considered just going hardcore and opting for a reinvestment of funds in an all night beer fest instead but I'd had too many short nights of late. Wary of unpredictable opening hours I promptly made a beeline for the newly founded Labuan Museum, and hallelujah for once it was open. First of all though I was distracted by a series of memorials outside it facing across to the large grassy expanse of Labuan Square, the first testifying to the possession of Labuan in 1846 by Capt. G.R. Mundy RN, interestingly noted as being "under the direction of his excellency Rear Admiral Sir Thomas Cochrane" of Culross fame. Another related the visit here by the then Prince of Wales in May 1922, "from HMS Renown. From here HRH visited Jesselton (present day Kota Kinabalu), British North Borneo and the State of Brunei".

In contrast there were a couple of Japanese inspired plaques too, telling how during their occupation they had renamed it Maida Island to commemorate their Commander in Chief who was killed in an air crash en route from here to open Bintulu airport. It was also duly explained that Labuan's present day airport was originally constructed as a Japanese wartime airfield by forced labour form Java. Finally, respect was paid to Australian forces who landed here on 10th June 1945 to effect its liberation. Another sadly damaged inscription handily explained the islands derivation from the Malay word "labohan" meaning anchorage and 3 large trees surrounding the small memorial garden were also noted as having been planted in celebration of the coronation of Big Liz II in 1953.


A stone mortar on display here discoverd on one of Labuan's offshore islets is considered to be the finest artifact of its era found in all of Borneo, having been used for grinding haematite into red powder for decoration and ceremonial duties. A comprehensive history of Brunei was then related, pertinent since Labuan had long been a part of that realm. Though the Chinese, Arabs and Portugese may have hitherto poked around in this neighbourhood the first point of note in Labuan's history does not arise until 1775 when survivors of an attack by natives on the British East India Company factory on Balambangan Island situated off the northern tip of Borneo took refuge here. It may have partly been that inadvertant encampment which prompted its eventual charting, with the first map of the island only being produced by the British in 1844. Of all the maps I had managed to acquire of the island myself it had been a complication that none betrayed any sense of its scale, yet now I learned that it was only 92Ks square and had a history out of all proportion to its size.

What really put it on the map however was the discovery of sizeable coal deposits at that time, a revelation which destined the island to become an important waypoint founded to supply British ships on the India-China run. In return for safeguarding the region from imperial rivals and the ever present threat of piracy, the Sultan of Brunei duly signed it over in 1846 as a British Crown Colony, placed under the administration of Raja James Brooke of Sarawak, with a subsequent Treaty of Friendship and Commerce eventually passing all powers of trade within all of Borneo to the Brits. In a similar manner to Sarawak, James Brooke encouraged the island's development through Chinese immigration as ever, establishing Victoria Town to replace Ramsay Point as the major settlement. His propensity to concentrate on distant Sarawakian affairs however deemed it necessary to pass on control to first the British East India Company and by 1890 the British North Borneo Chartered Company, during which time such milestones were reached as the founding of Malaysia's first coal mine in 1847 and the laying of Borneo's first railway. This transformed Labuan, with an infrastructure of 10 miles of track opening in 1893 for the transportation of coal, together with associated docks and chimneys, with production peaking at 5,000 tons a week. Though it was not exploited at that time, Malaysia's first oil was also noted here as early as 1852 and by 1879 Labuan was issuing her own currency and postage stamps. That it had grown at all was due to the successful governance of Sir John Pope Hennessy whose enlightened approach eradicated racism and a repressive poll tax for example. Submarine cables were also laid as far as Hong Kong and Singapore during this era but the BNBCC's control eventually succumbed to the effects of privation, disease, inefficiency, fat cats, labour shortages and flooding. Discontent at their rule compounded by the necessity of consulting London over any matters of legality finally prompted the government to assume direct control, incorporating Labuan into the Straits Settlements in 1907, forming a chain with the important colonies of Penang, Malacca and Singapore. Labuan continued to prosper due to her duty free status.

Colonial artifacts on display here were unusually interesting, with first a truncheon and uniform badges of the North Borneo Police bearing the state motto "Pergo et Perago" (I Undertake and I Achieve), and a currency collection was also atypically alluring in its exotic offerings. The history was told in coins of the State of North Borneo (1890-1906), the largest coin being 2 cents, reverting to the Dollar of the Straits Settlements (1907-1941). The coins also quirkily dubbed George V as "King and Emperor of India". The banknotes of this time bore George V and George VI and were annotated either with "The Government of the Straits Settlements", then later "Board of Commissioners of Currency, Malaya" Post war notes bearing Big Liz II had been amended with the addition of "and North Borneo" thereafter.

Labuan also holds the ignominious distinction of being the first territory in North Borneo to be occupied by the Japanese upon their invasion on New Years Day 1942, Brunei and parts of Sarawak having already been attacked 2 weeks previous in a bid to quickly seize their oilfields. The excellent museum related the whole background to Japanese expansionism. During the Meiji Period (1868-1912) Japan began a strategy of modernisation after years of seclusion, and in 1931 the military assumed control and grew to become the strongest force in all Asia. It was the desire for raw materials which provoked a policy of conquest, pursued under the promise of mutual development and propaganda of the "Asia for Asia" campaign and the "South East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere". Tellingly, they also promised the ousting of colonial masters. After securing the Malay peninsula, Japanese forces invaded Sarawak and Sabah from southern Vietnam, finding them to be poorly defended. An excellent map detailing her expansionist strategy showed how eventually Japan grew to control all of South East Asia, as well as Manchuria, Korea, the entire coastline of China and the majority of New Guinea. The British Resident on Labuan surrendered the island without resistance, the Japs securing it in 3 days with a view to using it as a beachhead for attacking mainland North Borneo. Progressively attacking settlements east and west around the coast, they had advanced as far as Tawau and Balikpapan in 3 weeks, then seizing Pontianak and Banjarmasin to close the circle.

3 and a half years later Labuan was also destined to be the first territory on Borneo to be liberated by the 9th Australian Military Division under General McArthur. Commensurately it took a hammering and so lost all of its colonial relics in the bombardment. Codenamed "Oboe 6", the Ozzie invasion force which landed on 10th June 1945 was comprised of hundreds of ships and 25,000 troops, coming all the way from Morotai near the Molukkas. A storyboard suggested Labuan's importance in allowing early recovery of oil, rubber and timber resources as well as being within striking distance of Singapore. By 10th September the Japanese had finally relinquished all of Borneo, 2 days before that of Malaya yet notably purportedly after the armistice. The original Labuan beach upon which the Australians had first landed was subsequently chosen for the site of the surrender acceptance and the pursual of war crimes trials, a spot now dubbed Surrender Point. Bomb casings, anti-submarine projectiles and depth charges were unusual exhibits and a showcase presented finds from the USS Salute, a minesweeper lost offshore to a mine 8/6/45. Notes on the Labuan WWII war cemetery here also professed it to be the largest in Malaysia, holding 3,908 graves of mainly Australian and British troops who died in battle or captivity here, there are also some Punjabi and Kiwi unfortunates and many of those who perished on the Sandakan Death Marches. Tellingly, more than half are unidentified.

The resulting British military administration upon the surrender lasted until Labuan was declared no longer part of the Straits Settlements but now part of the British colony of North Borneo. In losing its free port status in this vain it struggled to prosper and so was reinvested as such in 1956. Most recently, for reasons the museum failed to elicit, Labuan was withdrawn from the State of Sabah and created a federal territory ruled directly from KL in 1984. It now holds aspirations of becoming Malaysia's first International Offshore Financial Centre.

An upstairs cultural gallery was the stereotypical collection of costumary and ceremonial garb, though it did teach me about the Kedayan. Better known as the "land people" in neighbouring Brunei, they are a mainly muslim Malay race who constitute around half of Labuan's population and have curiously been linguistically linked to the Banjarmasins on the other side of Borneo.

Subsequent traipsing out of town took me via a mammoth duty free shopping mall where I loaded up on my habitual Roti Telur Bawang (egg and onion flat bread) with Dhal, before crossing a park area boasting a fine square plan clocktower, which although a reconstruction was notable in being one of the few colonial vestiges remaining around town. The main impetus for yet another sweaty scorching trek had been the nearby Marine Museum however, which in hindsight proved to be a disappointment and an investment of time I could have better utilised. At least that meant that it didnt detain me very long, it was all I could do to scoot round it before its imminent closure in any case, proving to be just an aquarium with few large specimens beyond the 3 foot long Black Tipped Reef Sharks placed in an irksome "touch pool" by the entrance. Wonders of the deep were more often than not plastic models, but brightly coloured reef fish set amidst coral and anemone gardens were nice. Outside in more conventional gardens a series of plaques once again related the islands history, this was Ramsay Point where it had all begun, now rather different with tankers and tugboats sitting offshore here.

It was a further long slog up to my next point of interest, fortunate in that the 2 maps I possessed managed to relay just enough information between them to suffice, and so I traced the WWII Memorial without difficulty, what was actually the war cemetery. In typically pristine condition as per the standards of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, a bronze plaque here presented another angle from the museum on the fight for Borneo, with the Japs electing to take it in order to secure oil and protect that approach to Singapore. The single Punjabi battalion based there in their defence promptly destroyed the oilfields at Miri before moving to defend Kuching and its airfield. A fighting withdrawal saw them come under Dutch command as they surrendered more of Borneo, finally being forced to capitulate in March 1942 having endured 524 casualties but inflicting many more. The memorial contradicted local enthusiasm by stating that Tarakan Island in eastern Kalimantan was the first toehold in Borneo regained by the Allies, invading there 1st may 1945, though not completely quelling it until some weeks later. Despite the presence of 4 Japanese battalions the landings on Labuan and at Brooketon went unopposed, though subsequent resistance continued until the 21st. An ensuing campaign was then unleashed on Balikpapan again in eastern Borneo and obviously focused at securing more oilfields during the course of July. Though Australian casualties numbered less than 700, they inflicted Japanese losses estimated at around 5,000.

Clearly it wasnt going to be a realistic approach to view all of nearly 4,000 grave stones and so I elected just to wander the cemetery at random and see what small historical intrigues I might chance upon, paying particular attention to any RAF casualties, of whom surprisingly none were officers. Though besides the Australian and British soldiers there was the odd local volunteer and merchant seaman, the token Scotsman was perhaps most likely to grab my attention. C. Carle of the Gordon Highlanders had made his sacrifice here aged 35. A more practical consideration was the roll call of all those known to be present, and so in my obvious strategy of searching out any errant Hay's, the listings revealed that there was only one in the whole cemetery, the same C.G. Hay whose name I had first gleaned at the Death March memorial at Kundesang. This now betrayed him to have been a sergeant of the Australian Army Ordnance Corps.

Labuan was surprisingly dead once the sun went down but I made what I could of the promised party scene in first an Irish Bar which was so quiet I had to sneak the door ajar to check if it was open, finding it to be the present preserve of an Italian guy intent on turning into a pizza den. Then I availed myself of a typical Chinese food joint which took an age to produce a beer before forgetting my food order for good measure. Almost in desperation I got sucked into a karaoke joint next door where I immediately had to shirk off a bar girl. At least the beer was cheap, I drowned my sorrows shall we say.

Posted by andyhay2 00:00 Archived in Malaysia

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