Historic Role of the Bandar Seri Begawan Wharf

I was reading the letters in Borneo Bulletin about the defence of the Customs Building being listed as a historical building. The building is fairly new (1950s) but then most buildings in Brunei were built in the 1950s. Most of the earlier ones were obliterated by the Allied Forces when trying to capture the town from the Japanese. I wrote about the Bandar Seri Begawan wharf in Brunei Times more than one and half year ago so I thought I will bring up that article:-


There are two important reasons for the rise of Brunei in the past. One is its location along the northern coast of Borneo which exposed us to the monsoon winds blowing across the South China Sea.

Traders from China sailed towards the Malay Archipelago during the northeast monsoon (November to April), and returned to China during the southwest monsoon (May to October). These monsoon seasons determined the traders’ sailing patterns.

Brunei became a meeting place for international traders to exchange spices, silk, textiles, and other items. Thus Brunei’s capital at Brunei Bay became a major center that attracted Muslim traders, Chinese merchants, and even Portuguese trade.

Francisco de Sande, the Commander of the Spanish Fleet in the Castillean War of 1578 wrote that Brunei “… is an important port of call due to its location in the middle of the sailing route between Malacca and the islands of Maluku and Manila. It has a good port for trading ships sailing to Malacca, Petani, Siam and other countries ...”

The second reason is the riverine location of Brunei in the Brunei Bay. In Brunei, rivers formed the major means of transportation from the coastal areas to the inland forests. Brunei developed into a trading center due to its interaction with visiting foreign traders as well as with people from the interior. By serving as the key center for the exchange of foreign goods and local products from the inland forest, Brunei Town grew in size and importance. Two Portuguese traders, Vasco Lourenco in 1526 and Concalo Periera in 1530 described Brunei as having “… many rich traders who engaged in trading to many places …”

Ships plying trade to Brunei through the Brunei River in the 15th and 16th century have to go through a fortification at Kota Batu before being allowed into Brunei. The ships then dropped anchor at the Kampong Ayer area and small boats will be coming to the ships to take down whatever goods they are selling as well as take in goods being sold by the local Bruneians.

Some places in Kampong Ayer are historically believed to be where the ships used to be. Kampong Lorong Sikuna was one. It was said that Sikuna comes from the English word Schooner - British ships which used to berth around that area.

Ships that ply trade to Brunei also have to pay a duty to the Brunei Ruler. Those early forms of duties were more regulated when the British Resident introduced modern government machineries beginning 1906.

This first Customs Office was opened at Kampong Pekan Lama (Old Town Village) which used to be called Kampong Bakut China (Chinese Sandbank Village). This is where the commercial area used to be - built on a sandbank in the middle of the Kampong Ayer. It was known as Bakut China as many Chinese traders lived and run shops there.

By the turn of the 20th century, there was still no wharf. Early photographs showed ships dropping anchor at the Kampong Ayer area and that where the wharf is currently located was used as a gathering place for padians and pengalus. It was also known as Labuhan Kapal (Ships’ Berth/Port) even though there was no actual wharf there.

Aerial photographs taken during the World War II showed that the wharf was already in place. It must have been built around 1920s or 1930s. It was about 200 feet long and joined to the mainland by three gangways. In 1953, that 200 feet was extended to 400 feet and by 1968, that gap between the wharf and the mainland was paved over making the wharf area bigger.

The Customs House itself was completed in the late 1950s in the colonial flat roof style and boxy form of Rafflesia style popular in Southeast Asia then. It was a concrete building with Victorian style iron windows replacing temporary buildings on the site.

It was constructed at about the same time as the Sultan Omar Ali Saifuddien Mosque by the same contractor Sino-Malayan Engineer. In 1958, the whole area was fenced, turning it into a secured area. The wharf became known as the Royal Customs and Excise Wharf (Dermaga Kastam dan Eksais Diraja).

The agents and the names of their ships that ply through Brunei River were as familiar to the residents of Kampong Ayer as the names of Airlines that fly through Brunei International Airport today. In the 1950s, a few companies were household names such as Messrs Harrissons and Crosfield who are agents for Straits Steamship Company, Lam Hing Nong, Borneo Company and Brunei Lighterage Limited, an associate of Malayan Stevedoring and Transportation Limited.

These companies handled ships such as Perak, Lipis, Ubi, Merudu, Rajah Brooke, M.V. Maimunah, Jerantut, Perlis, Jitra, Timberli, Subok, Bubut and Anggang among others. Whenever the ships arrived, it would be a colourful festival, Bruneian traders in small boats would mill around the ships bringing their own wares to sell to the sailors. For other Bruneians, this too would also be an occasion for them to buy those wares too. During busy periods when a number of ships came, each had to wait in turn for it to berth thus turning the Brunei River into a busy international port.

However the shallowness of the Brunei River was a concern to many as ships become bigger and heavier. As early as the 1840s, in his book, ‘Life in the Forests of the Far East’ published in 1861, Sir Spenser St. John wrote “… no ship of any size can enter the river, as eight feet at low water, and fourteen at high, is what the bar affords, which is also rendered more difficult by a long artificial dam of stones thrown across the stream in former times to prevent the approach of hostile squadrons … it is one of the worst rivers for commercial purposes in Borneo …”. Though much improved by the 1950s, the shallowness of the river remained a major obstacle to big ships.

In the 1950s and 1960s, a number of bigger ships calling on Brunei had to drop anchor at Sapo Point which is off Pelumpong Spit at the Brunei Bay and have barges bringing in the goods from the ships.

In 1958, the government had two options – to develop a deep sea port at Muara or to dredge the Brunei River to allow bigger ships to come in.

By 1960s, the government had decided that a deep sea port should be developed at Muara and the bells started to ring for the end of the Brunei Wharf. In 1972, Muara Port was declared open officially by Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II during her official visit to Brunei bringing to a halt the usage of the wharf for goods importation.

However local goods especially from Temburong still go through the wharf as late as 1987. Ships from Labuan and Lawas also came in through the Immigration Checkpoint at the end of the wharf until January 1997 when the ferry terminal at the Marine Department opened.

Today the wharf is unused and is now a prime waterfront area. The Customs Building is a protected building under the Antiquities and Treasure Trove (Ancient Monuments and Historical Site) Order. What should be remembered about the wharf and the Customs building is not so much about its architecture but its historical role as the gateway to the lifeline of our country, Brunei Darussalam.

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