David Saunders

National Archives of Australia/Australian Historical Association postgraduate scholar, 2018-19


Intra-imperial connections: Australia’s involvement in North Borneo’s post-war reconstruction and colonisation, 1945–63.

Biographical note

David Saunders is a PhD candidate researching South-East Asian, global and imperial history at the University of Hong Kong. His dissertation examines the history of British North Borneo after the Second World War and its transition towards decolonisation and merger with Malaysia. He has previously studied at the University of St Andrews, and has spent time as a visiting research student at King's College, London.

Project summary

David's project examines British North Borneo after the Second World War, focusing primarily on the under-studied impact of Australian military, administrative and later economic involvement in the territory between 1945 and 1963. North Borneo's liberation, official incorporation into the British Empire as a crown colony before eventually merging with Malaysia, reveals a pattern of shifting administrations and ever-extending foreign incursion.

Through an analysis of documents pertaining to the post-war British Borneo Civil Affairs Unit (primarily staffed by Australian administrators), as well as files relating to trades of commodities such as oil, rubber, copra and tobacco, this project will show how Australia's involvement in North Borneo after the war represented a significant yet under-examined period of intra-imperial connection.

The loss of colonial power during the Second World War provided Australians with an opportunity to further participate within Britain's declining imperial system. Similarly, the geographic positioning of Borneo, as a focal point within South-East Asia, rendered the territory important to Australian politicians in a way that differed to typical British colonial policy. Upon liberation in 1945 it was seen as a potential buffer zone against future Japanese aggression, and later as a key point of entry into South-East Asia's rapidly growing economies.

Using files held in the National Archives' collection, this project will build upon a wider PhD thesis considering the history of North Borneo after the Second World War, and the various forms of competing foreign involvement in the territory.

Copyright National Archives of Australia 2019