A Brief History of Kota Kinabalu

Sunset over Kota Kinabalu (flickr/Graeme Tozer)

by Uwe Fischer

The sunset conjures spectacular facets of gold, yellow and orange into the cloudy skies, mirrored in the soft waves of the South Chinese sea, while two fisher boats float gently towards the harbour of Kota Kinabalu. The picturesque snapshot of the “land below the wind”, as Sabah is poetically dubbed referring to its location south of the typhoon belt, wouldn’t have looked much different in days long gone by, when the present capital of Sabah was nothing more than a small settlement called Api Api.

During that time, most of Sabah was governed by the Brunei Sultanate which reached its largest extend in the early 17th century. After that, its relevance slowly declined due to power struggles and rebellions. In the second half of the 19th century, the British Crown and Western business men started acquiring rights to large parts of Sabah’s coastal areas in order to use them as staging posts on the trade route between India and China.

In 1882 the British North Borneo Chartered Company (BNBCC) was formed. Immediately the company started to develop the area economically and in terms of infrastructure while at the same time extending its territory. In 1886 the whole of North Borneo was made a British protectorate. Its administration remained entirely in the hands of the company, with a Governor reporting to the company’s Court of Directors.

The reign of the British, although legitimised by legal treaties, met the resistance of indigenous freedom fighters. In 1897, the first British settlement on Gaya Island was burned and destroyed by a group of rebels led by Mat Salleh. Therefore, the company decided to move its business to Gantian but soon found the area unsuitable.

Charles Jessel, 1899 (wikipedia)
Charles Jessel, 1899 (wikipedia)

In 1899 they built their new post in Api Api due to its proximity to the North Borneo Railway and its natural port. The new administrative centre was renamed Jesselton after Sir Charles Jessel, the Vice-Chairman of BNBCC.

The foundations for sustainable growth had been laid. While a picture of Jesselton from 1904 shows nothing much but a few miniature infrastructures built along a gravel road, over the course of time the city became a major trading post of North Borneo, dealing in rubber, rattan, honey, and wax.

World War II changed everything.

In 1942, North Borneo was invaded by the Japanese, marking the beginning of a period of immeasurable suffering, torture and brutality. Amongst the local population, the phrase ‘Ukim jipun’ (Japanese Justice) became synonymous with punishment out of all proportion to the offence. The war in North Borneo ended with the official surrender of the Japanese on 10 September 1945, after massive bombardments undertaken by the Allied Forces. Jesselton was completely devastated, with only three buildings left standing.


After the Japanese surrender, North Borneo was administered by the British Military Administration and in 1946 it became a British Crown Colony. The same year Jesselton was chosen to replace Sandokan as the capital of North Borneo.

In 1963 Malaysia gained its independence and North Borneo was renamed Sabah. Four years later Jesselton was renamed Kota Kinabalu.

Today, Kota Kinabalu is one of the major industrial and commercial centres of East Malaysia and among the fastest growing cities in Malaysia. Its chequered history however is still evident in street names and places reflecting the past, such as Api Api Centre, Jesselton Point or Atkinson Clock Tower.

The terminal Jesselton Point is one of the major tourist attractions, offering access to nearby islands while serving up an open-air dining space by the sea breeze. Along the walkway visitors can find old photos of the city exhibited on the walls and a signature English telephone booth featured on the side serving as a popular motive for a quick photo.

Atkinson Clock Tower, Kota Kinabalu (flickr/side78)
Atkinson Clock Tower, Kota Kinabalu (flickr/side78)

The Atkinson Clock Tower is the oldest standing structure in Kota Kinabalu. It was built in 1905 in the memory of Francis George Atkinson, Jesselton’s first district officer who in 1902 died of Malaria or ‘Borneo Fever’ at the age of only 28. Looking at it now, it is hard to imagine how this relatively small tower could ever be any ship’s point of reference as tall commercial buildings block the views of the clock tower to the sea. Only on early photos of Jesselton township we can recognise how vital the clock tower was as a reference point. Today it stands as a witness of a period of time in which a former British Colony township known as ‘Jesselton’ transformed into a bustling modern Malaysian city called Kota Kinabalu.


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