O is for Overbeck

Maharajah of Sabah

by Kon Cze Yan

Image credit: Dennis Ong

Gustav Overbeck appears in Muzium Negara because of his involvement in Sabah. He was a German businessman, adventurer and diplomat. This man had ADVENTURES! Overbeck was born 1830 in Lemgo (Germany) and died in London 1894 aged 64. His father was a pharmacist and medical councillor.

As a young lad, Overbeck apprenticed with his uncle in the family business. At age 20, he immigrated to the United States. Starting a trading business in San Francisco, he undertook trade journeys to Hawaii, South Seas, Alaska, and other locations. By 1854 at age 24 Overbeck was in Hong Kong and working for the English trading house Dent & Co. In 1856, he was appointed Prussia’s Vice Consul in Hong Kong, and in 1864, he became Consul for the Austrian Empire. In 1867, Overbeck was made a Baron.

Information board on Sabah at Muzium Negara

The Adventurers

James Brooke’s success in Sarawak encouraged a number of other adventurers to attempt similar ventures, albeit for more commercial reasons. From the 1860s, Northern Borneo was caught up in the great land grab starting with the Americans in the first wave. First on the scene was American Consul Charles Lee Moses, who was more of an adventurer and less of a diplomat. In 1865, Moses convinced the Sultan of Brunei to cede him the northern end of Borneo. The Sultan of Brunei was desperate for revenue, but he also hoped that the Americans could act as a counterweight to the British and Brooke’s growing dismemberment of his sultanate.

Moses had no money to finance his venture and he sold his rights to another American, Joseph William Torrey, who established the American Trading Company of Borneo. The Sultan of Brunei proclaimed Torey the Raja of Ambong and Maruda! Unfortunately, Torrey was not a good businessman and his venture failed.

A decade later, the newly created Baron von Overbeck, the Austrian Consul General at Hong Kong, showed up. In 1877, Torey sold his interest to the Baron. The Baron entered into partnership with British businessman, Alfred Dent, to develop the resources of North Borneo. Overbeck also negotiated treaties with both the Sultans of Brunei and Sulu. The Sultan of Brunei appointed Overbeck as Raja of Gaya and Sandakan and Maharajah of Sabah! Later, the Sultan of Sulu added the title Datu Bandahara and Rajah of Sandakan.

Concession from the Sultan of Brunei, 29th December 1877 (left) and Sulu, 22nd January 1878 (right). Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Alfred Dent requested for a charter from the British Government and in 1881 formed the North Borneo Company to manage Sabah. Overbeck was bought out and he withdrew, transferring all his titles to Dent.

The Maharajah Mystery

Something may have been “Lost in Translation”. There is much controversy over the English translation of the Sultan’s proclamation and Agreements. The ‘Maharajah’ title flaunted by Overbeck may not have been the title of a monarch, but rather it was “maha rajah”, the job description of the chief supervisor acting as a “tax farmer” throughout Sabah! However, it is clear that the native chiefs accepted Overbeck’s use of the title whether or not it was actually bestowed by the Sultan.

A senior member of the Foreign Office in London noted that “Raja Brooke is evidently incensed with jealousy of Raja Overbeck” but apparently over land and not rank.

Personal Life

Overbeck had four daughters with a Chinese woman named Lam Tsat Tai in Hong Kong. I have not been able to find a photograph of Gustav Overbeck but I found a photo of one of his daughters, Oi Moon, on geni.com.

Oi Moon Chan, one of Overbeck’s daughters. Image from geni.com, https://tinyurl.com/rd46cu4b

When Overbeck was 40 years old, he married Romaine Madeleine Goddard who came from a well-connected political family in America. Their wedding was a Washington DC society event and attended by President Ulysses Grant. The couple had three sons.

Not bad for a son of a pharmacist!


Baker, Jim. (2008). Crossroads: A Popular History of Malaysia and Singapore. Marshall Cavendish.

Cheah Boon Kheng. (2001). Sarawak & Sabah. In Cheah Boon Kheng (Vol. Ed.), The Encyclopedia of Malaysia. Vol. 7, Early modern history (1800-1940). Archipelago.

Gustav Overbeck. Prabook. https://prabook.com/web/gustav.overbeck/2323724

Gustav Overbeck. (2021, 28 September). In Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gustav_Overbeck

Rivers, P.J. (2004). The Origin of Sabah and a Reappraisal of Overbeck as Maharajah. Journal of the Malaysian Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society.

(2016, November 26) Baron Gustav von Overbeck. Geni. https://www.geni.com/people/Baron-Gustav-von-Overbeck/6000000013491512307

In this Series

Click HERE for a list of articles in the ‘A-Z at Muzium Negara’ series.


Author: Museum Volunteers, JMM

Museum Volunteers, JMM Taking the Mystery out of History

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