Borneo is surrounded by the South China Sea to the north and northwest, the Sulu Sea to the northeast, the Celebes Sea and the Makassar Strait to the east, and the Java Sea and Karimata Strait to the south. To the west of Borneo are the Malay Peninsula and Sumatra. To the south is Java. To the east is Sulawesi, and to the northeast, the Philippines.
With an area of 743,330 square kilometres (287,000 sq mi), it is the third-largest island in the world, which is also the largest island of the largest continent in the world (Asia). Its highest point is Mount Kinabalu in Sabah, Malaysia, with an elevation of 4,095 m (13,435 ft).
The largest river system is the Kapuas in West Kalimantan with a length of 1,143 km (710 mi). Other major rivers include the Mahakam in East Kalimantan (980 km long (610 mi)), the Barito in South Kalimantan (880 km long (550 mi)), and Rajang in Sarawak (562.5 km (349.5 mi)).
Borneo has significant cave systems. Clearwater Cave, for example, has one of the world’s longest underground rivers. Deer Cave is home to over three million bats, with guano accumulated to over 100 metres (330 ft) deep.
Before sea levels rose at the end of the last Ice Age, Borneo was part of the mainland of Asia, forming, with Java and Sumatra, the upland regions of a peninsula that extended east from present day Indochina and Thailand. The South China Sea and Gulf of Thailand now submerge the former low-lying areas of the peninsula. Deeper waters separating Borneo from neighboring Sulawesi prevented a land connection to that island, creating the divide between Asian and Australia-New Guinea biological regions known as Wallace’s Line.
The Borneo rainforest is 130 million years old, making it the oldest rainforest in the world. There are about 15,000 species of flowering plants with 3,000 species of trees (267 species are dipterocarps), 221 species of terrestrial mammals and 420 species of resident birds in Borneo. There are about 440 freshwater fish species in Borneo (about the same as Sumatra and Java combined). It is the centre of evolution and radiation of many endemic species of plants and animals. The Borneo rainforest is one of the only remaining natural habitats for the endangered Bornean orangutan. It is an important refuge for many endemic forest species, including the Asian elephant, the Sumatran rhinoceros, the Bornean clouded leopard, the Hose’s civet and the dayak fruit bat. The World Wide Fund for Nature has stated that 361 animal and plant species have been discovered in Borneo since 1996.
The World Wide Fund for Nature divides the island into seven distinct ecoregions. The Borneo lowland rain forests cover most of the island, with an area of 427,500 square kilometres (165,100 sq mi). Other lowland ecoregions are the Borneo peat swamp forests, the Kerangas or Sundaland heath forests, the Southwest Borneo freshwater swamp forests, and the Sunda Shelf mangroves. The Borneo montane rain forests lie in the central highlands of the island, above the 1,000 metres (3,300 ft) elevation. The highest elevations of Mount Kinabalu are home to the Kinabalu mountain alpine meadow, an alpine shrubland notable for its numerous endemic species, including many orchids.
One of the earliest evidence of Hindu influence in Southeast Asia were stone pillars which bear inscriptions in the Pallava script found in Kutai along the Mahakam River in East Kalimantan, dating to around the second half of the 300s AD.
Dutch and British control
Subsequently HM Sultan Jamalul Ahlam Kiram (1863–1881), the 29th reigning Sultan of Sulu, leased North Borneo in 1878 to Gustavus Baron de Overbeck and Alfred Dent, representing the British North Borneo Company in what is now the Malaysian state of Sabah. The company also exerted control on inland territories that were inhabited by numerous tribes.
In 1842 James Brooke was granted large parts of Sarawak, as a result of helping the governor quell a local rebellion. The Brooke dynasty were to end up ruling Sarawak for a hundred years and became famous as the White Rajahs.
A large log being placed on a railroad car at Batottan, British North Borneo in 1926
In the early 19th century, British and Dutch governments signed the Anglo-Dutch Treaty of 1824 to exchange trading ports under their controls and assert spheres of influence, which indirectly set apart the two parts of Borneo into British and Dutch controlled areas. China has had historical trading links with the inhabitants of the island. Some of the Chinese beads and wares found their way deep into the interior of Borneo. The Malay and Sea Dayak pirates preyed on maritime shipping in the waters between Singapore and Hong Kong from their haven in Borneo.
World War II
During World War II, Japanese forces gained control of Borneo (1941–45). They decimated many local populations and killed Malay intellectuals. Sultan Muhammad Ibrahim Shafi ud-din II of Sambas in Kalimantan was executed in 1944. The Sultanate was thereafter suspended and replaced by a Japanese council. During the Japanese occupation, the Dayaks played a role in guerilla warfare against the occupying forces, particularly in the Kapit Division, where headhunting was temporarily revived towards the end of the war. Allied Z Special Unit provided assistance to them. After the fall of Singapore, several thousand British and Australian prisoners of war were sent to camps in Borneo. At one of the very worst sites, around Sandakan in Borneo, only six of some 2,500 prisoners survived. In 1945 the island was liberated from the Japanese.
Borneo was the main site of the confrontation between Indonesia and Malaysia between 1962 and about 1969 in which the British Army was deployed against the Indonesians and against communist revolts to gain control of the whole area. Before the formation of Malaysian Federation, the Philippines claimed that the Malaysian state of Sabah is within their territorial rights based on historical facts of the Sultanate of Sulu’s leasing agreement with the North Borneo Company.
Borneo has 19,800,000 inhabitants (in mid 2010), a population density of 26 inhabitants per square km. Most of the population lives in coastal cities, although the hinterland is occupied at most in small towns and villages along the rivers. The population mainly consists of Malays, Banjar, Chinese and Dayak ethnic groups. The Chinese, who make up 29% of the population of Sarawak and 17% of total population in West Kalimantan, originally migrated from southeastern China. The majority of the population in Kalimantan is either Muslim or practice animism. Approximately 91% of the Dayaks are Christian, a religion introduced by missionaries in the 19th century. In Central Kalimantan there is also a small Hindu minority. In the interior of Borneo are also the Penan, some of who still practice a nomadic hunter-gatherer existence. In some coastal areas of marginal settlements are also found Bajau, who were historically associated with a sea-oriented, boat-dwelling, nomadic existence. In the northwest of Borneo, the Dayak ethnic group is represented by the Iban with about 710,000 members.
Kalimantan was the focus for an intense transmigration program that financed the relocation of poor landless families from Java, Madura, and Bali. In 2001, transmigrants made up 21% of the population in Central Kalimantan. Since the 1990s, violent conflict has occurred between some transmigrant and indigenous populations; in Kalimantan, thousands were killed in fighting between Madurese transmigrants and the indigenous Dayak people.
The Dayak or Dyak are the native people of Borneo. It is a loose term for over 200 riverine and hill-dwelling ethnic subgroups, located principally in the interior of Borneo, each with its own dialect, customs, laws, territory and culture, although common distinguishing traits are readily identifiable. Dayak languages are categorised as part of the Austronesian languages in Asia. The Dayak were animist in belief; however many converted to Christianity, and some to Islam more recently. Estimates for the Dayak population range from 2 to 4 million.
Iban or Sea Dajak boy and girl in traditional clothing
The Dayak people of Borneo possess an indigenous account of their history, partly in writing and partly in common cultural customary practices. In addition, colonial accounts and reports of Dayak activity in Borneo detail carefully cultivated economic and political relationships with other communities as well as an ample body of research and study considering historical Dayak migrations. In particular, the Iban or the Sea Dayak exploits in the South China Seas are documented, owing to their ferocity and aggressive culture of war against sea dwelling groups and emerging Western trade interests in the 19th and 20th centuries.
Raden Demang Béhé, head of the Ot-Danom-Dayaks in Ambalu (Upper-Melawi river), Central-Borneo. Photographed between 1890 and 1920.
During World War II, the Japanese occupied Borneo and treated all of the indigenous peoples poorly – massacres of the Malay and Dayak peoples were common, especially among the Dayaks of the Kapit Division. Following this treatment, the Dayaks formed a special force to assist the Allied forces. Eleven United States airmen and a few dozen Australian special operatives trained a thousand Dayaks from the Kapit Division to battle the Japanese with guerrilla warfare. This army of tribesmen killed or captured some 1,500 Japanese soldiers and were able to provide the Allies with intelligence vital in securing Japanese-held oil fields.