The original inhabitants of Kudat are the native Rungus people, a sub-group of the Dusun people, who traditionally lived inland in longhouse communities to stay beyond the reach of the pirates who frequented the coastline.
In the late 19th century, Franz Witti, an explorer in the employ of the British North Borneo Chartered Company, discovered oil 26 km outside the present-day Kudat town. This may have been a reason why the Company chose Kudat as the site for their first settlement in British North Borneo. The town of Kudat was officially founded on 7 December 1881. Company officers began clearing the land with the aid of several Brunei Malays in preparation for the declaration of Kudat as the first capital of British North Borneo. This was eventually made official in 1882. The British settlers ensured that they would live in peace with their native neighbours by signing a peace agreement with Temenggung Kurantud (then Chieftain of the Rungus people) and Datu Harun (then leader of the Muslim community of Kudat).
British colonial officers in Kudat were quick to ensure that their recreational needs were satisfied by creating the Kudat Golf Club, which is the first golf club in Sabah. The original nine-hole, 3075m course was completed in the early 1900s. It is recognised as a challenging course due to the close proximity of roads and buildings around it.
Importation of Chinese labourers
The Company’s next step was to bring in Chinese migrants to work the land. It resorted to bringing in foreign workers for the purpose because it felt that “the productive and industrial value of the alien races is… far greater than that of the natives of Borneo… it will be a very long time before the natives become, individually, as valuable assets to the State as the alien races”. In 1882, the then Governor of North Borneo, William Crocker, requested the help of Walter Medhurst, who had just been appointed as immigration commissioner in China, to send Chinese migrants to British North Borneo. Medhurst offered free passage to British North Borneo to any Chinese people interested in seeking employment there. Most of these migrants disembarked and settled in Kudat and Sandakan, which were then the largest towns in the colony. By the time Medhurst returned to the United Kingdom in 1885, 348 of the 937 residents of Kudat were Chinese. Of these, 222 worked as shopkeepers. During this time, Kudat’s significance had waned significantly as the Company moved the capital of British North Borneo to Sandakan. However, Chinese migration to Kudat continued, albeit at a slower pace.