[This article was published two weeks ago in my Golden Legacy column in Brunei Times]
About fifteen years ago, there was an article about a book which the UBD Library had just purchased. It was described as the only book that was written about Brunei around the end of the nineteenth century. The article was written by C.H. Gallop, who was an expatriate teacher in Brunei writing under the pseudonym of Penggembara.
The book entitled “A City of Many Waters” was written by Peter Blundell and published by J W Arrowsmith and Co in 1923. There is also an American edition published by Robert M McBride and Company of New York in 1924 with a slightly different title “On the Fringe of Eastern Seas: The City of Many Waters”. Other than the title, the contents of the two books are similar.
The book described the writer’s life in Brunei around the end of the nineteenth century and the narration ended just as when Mr. M.S.H. McArthur became the first British Resident in Brunei in 1906.
The book described how the writer got his job in Brunei. He almost did not get the job as the letter inviting him for an interview arrived one day later as the letter went to Kennington instead of Kensington.
However the trained engineer was accepted despite being late for the interview and a few days later saw him leave Southampton. And from then on, we managed to get his story about Brunei. Paradoxically, had he not the job, we would certainly have lost a big piece of our history.
Peter Blundell or his real name Frank Nestle Butterworth, came to Brunei as an engineer working for the Island Trading Company which had sole rights to the production and export of cutch from Brunei.
He described his arrival through Brooketon (Muara). Muara at that time was run by Rajah Brooke in his capacity as the holder of the coalmine concession. However Rajah Brooke treated Muara as an extension of Sarawak and Muara was not ‘returned’ to Brunei control until 1921.
He described the picture of Brunei as he saw it then which he described has remained with him as follows – “the town itself built almost entirely over the water, stood in the middle of a large, shallow lake. Its huts shone brown and yellow in the heavy sunlight. It seemed asleep. On every side, cuplike, rose gently from the quiet gleaming water ranges of low, graceful, wooded hills”.
He worked with two Europeans at the cutch factory. The cutch factory was located at the now Jalan Residency very near to where the current Handicraft Centre is located. Cutch made from boiling barks from mangrove trees are used for tanning leather and dying cloth khaki colour.
Blundell learnt Malay which he said is the easiest of languages to pick up, ‘an average man can learn enough to rub along with in three months.’ As a result, Blundell was able to learn more about Brunei as he narrated about Brunei as he saw it.
Brunei was described as a country with no roads. From the factory, to go everywhere else was by canoe. Blundell bought a dug-out canoe and learnt how to paddle. He spent much of his spare time in paddling about the surrounding creeks and waters and getting to know the Brunei Malays and their homes. This was totally against the expectations of the other expatriates who deemed that by paddling his own canoe, will ‘lessen the white man’s privilege’.
One day, Sultan Hashim commanded for him to come to the palace. He described the Sultan as an old man with a face full of character, broad shouldered of middle height.
His first job was to help him read letters in English to the Sultan. The first letter was addressed to the Chief of the Fire Brigade from America. Other letters include one wanting a monopoly of gin in Brunei and were prepared to pay a most inadequate sum for it. Blundell also gave the Sultan a telescope for which he received a kris. After that Blundell got invited quite often to the palace. Blundell’s description sounded as if both him and the Sultan got on quite well and enjoyed each other’s company.
Blundell also wrote a short history of Brunei in his book. He also described the tension at that time with Sir Charles Brooke trying to acquire all of Brunei. Sir Charles Brooke already had acquired territories all around Brunei and Blundell was pessimistically thinking that it would be ‘difficult to see what could keep him out.’
Blundell’s description of life in Brunei then is the most valuable part of the book. He described the Hari Raya celebrations. His description of the feasts sounded just like the Hari Raya Open Houses of today. ‘Feasts are held in every house, the hospitable invite all their friends to share the good thing.’ Weddings too were described and sounded exactly like that of today.
He also described Brunei’s every day to day life. The descriptions of the padians trading in and around the water villages of Brunei. Other trades were described which included silversmiths, boat builders, weaving and potters. He talked about the brass foundries in the Kampong Ayer. The silversmiths made their silver work out of old dollars melted down. The one dollar coin was issued by the Straits Settlement government based in Malaya.
He spent an entire chapter on describing Brunei women. Though his too honest descriptions of the women would have made him very unpopular with the women had they known about the descriptions. But it gave us a good insight of social life as it was then.
Towards the end of the book, Blundell assisted McArthur when he came to make a report on Brunei. That report on Brunei in 1904 proved to be a life saver for Brunei. He reported that Brunei was a proud nation despite its diminishing size and that should be protected from Rajah Brooke. It was McArthur’s report that led to the arrival of the British Resident in Brunei to ‘advise’ the Sultan.
Blundell was a visionary. He foretold the existence of many bureaucrats with the coming of the modern government brought by the British Resident.
The book is indeed fascinating. Gallop described it “as a quirky and intensely personal ‘orang putih’ account of Brunei” but despite the quirkiness and the personal statement, the book provided the one and only account of Brunei as it was at then and without it, we would never know about what happened to our own Brunei people more than a hundred years ago.
At its height, the company produced some 3,000 tonnes per year and employed more than 1,000 Bruneians. The cutch factory closed down in 1938. By then, all the mangrove barks were obtained from North Borneo. The company concentrated on its new factory in Rajang and thus ended Brunei’s export of cutch.