On account of the small white population and insufficient means of communication, which is nearly all by river, the natural resources of Dutch Borneo are still in the infancy of development. The petroleum industry has reached important proportions, but development of the mineral wealth has hardly begun. In 1917 a government commission, having the location of iron and gold especially in view, was sent to explore the mineral possibilities of the Schwaner Mountains. In the alluvial country along the rivers are vast future possibilities for rational agriculture, by clearing the jungle where at present the Malays and Dayaks pursue their primitive operations of planting rice in holes made with a pointed stick.
The early history of Borneo is obscure. Nothing in that regard can be learned from its present barbarous natives who have no written records, and few of whom have any conception of the island as a geographical unit. Although the Chinese had early knowledge of, and dealings with, Borneo, there seems little doubt that the country was first colonised by Hindu Javanese from Modjopahit, the most important of the several kingdoms which Hindus began to found in the early centuries after Christ. Modjopahit enclosed the region round the present Soerabaia in East Java, and it was easy to reach Borneo from there, to-day distant only twenty-seven hours by steamer. These first settlers in Borneo professed Hinduism and to some extent Buddhism. They founded several small kingdoms, among them Bandjermasin, Pasir, and Kutei, also Brunei on the north coast. But another race came, the Malays, who with their roving disposition extended their influence in the coast countries and began to form states. Then Islamism appeared in the Orient and changed conditions. Arabs, sword in hand, converted Java, and as far as they could, destroyed temples, monuments, and statues. The Malays, too, became Mohammedans and the sway of Islam spread more or less over the whole Malay Archipelago. With the fall of Modjopahit in 1478 the last vestige of Hindu Javanese influence in Borneo disappeared.
The Malays established sultanates with the same kind of government that is habitual with Mohammedans, based on oppression of the natives by the levying of tribute with the complement of strife, intrigue, and non-progress. In the course of time the Malays have not only absorbed the Hindu Javanese, but also largely the Bugis, who had founded a state on the west coast, and in our time they are gradually pushing back the Dayaks and slowly but surely absorbing them. The Chinese have also played a prominent part in the colonisation of Borneo, having early developed gold and diamond mines and established trade, and though at times they have been unruly, they are today an element much appreciated by the Dutch in the development of the country.
As regards the time when European influence appeared in Borneo, the small sultanate of Brunei in the north was the first to come in contact with Europeans. Pigafetta, with the survivors of Magellan's expedition, arrived here from the Moluccas in 1521, and was the first to give an account of it to the Western world. He calls it "Bornei," which later, with a slight change, became the name of the whole island. The ever-present Portuguese early established trade relations with the sultanate. Since the Napoleonic wars, when the East Indian colonies were returned to Holland, the Dutch have gradually extended their rule in Borneo to include two-thirds of the island. In the remainder the British have consolidated their interests, and in 1906, the European occupation of Borneo was completed. The distribution of territory has roughly been placed thus: Dutch Borneo, seventy per cent; Sarawak and Brunei, twenty per cent; British North Borneo, ten per cent.
To the world at large Borneo is probably best known through the romance surrounding the name of James Brooke, who became Raja of Sarawak, in 1841. His story has often been told, but a brief account may not be out of place. He had been to the Far East and its fascination, together with an impulse to benefit the natives, drew him back again. After resigning his commission in the army of the British East India Company, he built his own yacht of 140 tons, practised his crew in the Mediterranean and then set sail for the Malay Archipelago. In his Proposed Exploring Expedition to the Asiatic Archipelago, 1838, are found these stirring words which strike a responsive chord in the heart of every true explorer:
"Imagination whispers to ambition that there are yet lands unknown which might be discovered. Tell me, would not a man's life be well spent - tell me, would it not be well sacrificed in an endeavour to explore these regions? When I think of dangers and death I think of them only because they would remove me from such a field for ambition, for energy, and for knowledge." [*]
[Footnote *: The Expedition to Borneo of H.M.S. "Dido" for the Suppression of Piracy, by Captain H. Keppel, p. 374. Harper's, New York, 1846.]
Mr. Brooke arrived at Sarawak where he remained some time, surveying the coast and studying the people. In those days Malay pirates rendered the country dangerous to approach and several ships had been lost and their crews murdered. One of the chronic rebellions against the Sultan of Brunei was raging at the time, and Mr. Brooke was asked to suppress it, was made Raja, and defeated the rebels, cleared the river of pirates and established order.