Fort Keppel in 1868
James Brooke was appointed the White Rajah of Sarawak by the Bruneian Empire in 1841. In 1861, the Sultanate of Brunei ceded the Bintulu region to Brooke. Bintulu was a small settlement at that time. A wooden fort named Fort Keppel was built in the village, named after Sir Henry Keppel, who was a close friend of the Rajah James and Charles Brooke. Sir Henry Keppel was responsible for crushing the Dayak piracy in the Saribas between 1840 and 1850. Meanwhile, Charles Brooke was a nephew of James Brooke and would later become the latter's successor as the second Rajah of Sarawak. Odoardo Beccari, an Italian botanist, visited Bintulu in 1867. On 4 August, he started his journey on a gunboat named "Heartsease", which was to send $6,000 to Brunei for concessions being made to James Brooke in the Mukah and Bintulu regions. He went to Labuan before coming back to Bintulu. He dropped off at Kemena River on 13 August 1867. His observations of the village were recorded as follows:
The houses of the Melanau people were built in rows on both sides of the Kemena River, mostly furnished by Nipah and Sago palms. Each house had its own shed projection into the entrance of the river, which was used for the processing of Sago palms. On 8 September 1867, the first Sarawak General Council meeting (now Sarawak State Legislative Assembly) took place here. It was made up of 21 elected local community members (five British officers and 16 Malay and Melanau local chiefs). The Council was formed by Raja Muda Charles Brooke under orders from Rajah James Brooke. The Council is the oldest state legislative assembly in Malaysia.
During World War II, Rajah Charles Vyner Brooke ordered the construction of airstrips in Kuching, Oya, Mukah, Bintulu, and Miri. Construction of the Bintulu airstrip was started in 1934 under the direction of C.W. Bailey, a Works and Building Inspector for the British Royal Air Force . All the airstrips were completed except for the Bintulu airstrip, where construction was discontinued in October 1938 due to financial reasons. Japanese forces landed in Miri on 16 December 1941. Sarawak fell into Japanese hands when they conquered Kuching on 24 December 1941. When the Japanese invaded Sarawak, Charles Vyner Brooke already left for Sydney (Australia) before the attack while his officers were captured by the Japanese and interned at the Batu Lintang camp. During the Japanese occupation, the Japanese used the airstrip for military purposes. However, the airstrip was heavily bombed by Allied forces. The British began reconstruction of the airstrip after the war; during the project many unexploded bombs were unearthed.
On 5 September 1942, Japanese Field Marshal Prince Maida (前田利为) boarded a plane from Kuching to Labuan to officiate an airport that bears his name. However, he never arrived. One month later, the plane was found to have crashed off the coast of Tanjung Batu, Bintulu. The cause of the plane crash was not known. The Japanese later set up a wooden pole memorial made up of Belian wood in Bintulu. The wooden pole was later taken back to Japan by the family of Prince Maida.
Chinese sawmill owners at Sibu and Bintulu were instructed by the Japanese to produce timber for repairs at oil fields and ship building. During the Japanese occupation, sawmills at Bintulu produced a total of 4,000 tons of sawn timber.
Bintulu fishing village in the 1950s. Behind the fishing village was the airstrip.
In the 1950s, major economic activities in Bintulu were the timber extraction industry, fishing, and Sago processing. In the 1960s, Bintulu was still a small fishing village, with a population of 5,000. No roads were constructed in Bintulu until 1969 when the first untarred road was built to connect Bintulu to Miri. The first bus that serviced the MiriBintulu route was owned by Majlis Amanah Rakyat . The MARA bus line was an initiative by the Malaysian federal government to provide public transportation for the people. The Iban villagers paid the bus driver with "vegetables, chickens, bamboo shoots, and other items". Before 1960, Bintulu was connected to Kuching by sea through a ship named "Swee Joo". After 1960, the ship "Chin Chin" was added to the route. It took around 36 to 48 hours to reach Bintulu from Kuching, depending on the sea conditions. Due to lack of food supplies from Kuching, the villagers had to make do with limited food, and several villagers resorted to hunting in the jungles to supplement the food supply.
In 1960 there were only three primary schools in Bintulu. These schools provided classes until Primary3 level. There were no secondary schools. Villagers could pursue their secondary school studies at either Miri or Kuching by using small boats as there were no roads connecting Bintulu to either Miri or Kuching. Bintulu Government Secondary School was opened in 1964. In 1967 Bintulu celebrated the first 100 years of the Council Negri meeting (Sarawak State Legislative Assembly). A stone monument was built in front of a government rice storeroom to commemorate the event. Bintulu was a sub-district of Miri Division in the 1970s. The sub-district was upgraded into a district in 1987.
Discovery of oil and gas reserves
Bintulu downtown in 2011
CC BY-SA 3.0
Large reserves of natural gas were discovered off the coast of Bintulu in 1969. Following this, a feasibility study was done in 1975, and Tanjung Kidurong was found to be a suitable site for a deep-water port. On 14 June 1978, Malaysia LNG Sdn Bhd was established by Petronas, a Malaysian national oil and gas company for Liquefied Natural Gas (LNG) processing at Bintulu. On 8 July 1978, the Bintulu Development Authority (BDA) was established by the Sarawak state government for infrastructure development and to promote industrial investment in the area. On 15 August 1981, the Bintulu Port Authority was established at Tanjung Kidurong, starting operation on 1 January 1983. Since the establishment of Sarawak Corridor of Renewable Energy (SCORE) in 2008, Bintulu become the gateway to Samalajau Industrial Park, which is located 62km away from Bintulu. The industrial park is a centre of heavy, energy-intensive industry. Among the companies that started their operations in the industrial park are Tokuyama Malaysia Sdn Bhd, Press Metal Bintulu Sdn Bhd, and OM Materials Sdn Bhd.
Ruralurban migration is significant in Bintulu because of greater job availability in the town. Since 2007, new residents have started several squatter areas in Bintulu due to inability to find affordable housing, around Kidurong Industrial estate and Sungai Sebatang. To address the issue, several low-cost housing projects were initiated by BDA and Sarawak state government to relocate the squatters. The state government planned to achieve zero squatters status by the year 2020. Bintulu also saw the rise in the number of residential and commercial properties such as double-storeyed terraced houses, terraced shopoffices, Kidurong Commercial Centre, and Time Square Shopping Mall. Residential properties has shown a 20% price increase from 2011 to 2013.