Through Other People's Eyes

I am away to Ulu Temburong for the next 3 days and there will not be any telephone or internet connections for the next 3 days. I leave last Sunday's article in the Brunei Times on the history of Brunei through other people's eyes:-


BRUNEI’S recent history from the 18th century onwards is well documented. We can go to the British records and use those records. But as we go further into the past, historians have to rely on many sources. Some of them are not entirely accurate especially those that was passed down the generation or word of mouth or oral tradition. However, other sources are hard to find and not as easily available as one would have like. Brunei’s ancient history in most cases is written by somebody else.

Luckily for anyone interested in the Brunei history, compilation of all known materials relating to one source have been done. Two of the most widely available are the “European Sources for The History of The Sultanate of Brunei in the Sixteenth Century” edited by Robert Nicholl and published by Brunei Museums and the other is “The Collection of Historical Documents Related to Bilateral Relation between China and Brunei Darussalam” edited by Liu Xinshe and published by World Affairs Press of China.

The latter was published and launched fairly recently (2006) but the former was first published in 1975 and reprinted relatively recently in 1990. However taken together, from both volumes, we can actually piece Brunei’s history right from ancient times to the 16th and 17th centuries.

The Chinese book recorded the long relationship that Brunei has with China. The bilingual book kept the actual texts of those written records. The earliest records suggested that China and Brunei had friendly relationship going back as far as 2,000 years ago.

According to the records of Western Han Dynasty (206 BC – 23 AD), commodity trade relations existed between Brunei and China. It was in 669 AD in the Tang Dynasty (618 – 907) that official exchanges between the governments of both countries existed.

Brunei described as ‘Poli’ was some 50 days travel from China. Brunei exports among others were gambello (camphor) and produced two rice crops per year. The King’s family name was Kaundinya. The King said that Prince Suddhodana’s wife was a native of his country. It is said that Prince Suddhodana was the father of Sakyamuni or Buddha, the founder of Buddhism.

Another book of the Tang Dynasty noted that the Poli King is surnamed Shaliyejia and Hulannapo is his first name. His first rank officials are called Duhexiena and the second rank officials are called Duhehiqie. The Brunei customs are comparable to Chenla (Cambodia).

With the Song Dynasty (960 – 1279), official and non-governmental commercial and cultural exchanges became more frequent and with the development of navigation, exchanges of envoys started.

During the Ming Dynasty, Brunei was listed a country among those countries exempted from China’s military actions. In August 1370, high-ranking official Zhang Jingzhi visited Brunei.

It was in November 1405 when the King of Brunei, Maharaja Karna (Sultan Abdul Majid Hassan) sent people to pay tribute to China. Brunei around that time had just thrown off being under the Majapahit rule.

It was in 1408, when the Sultan decided to visit China for himself together with a delegation of 150 people including his wife, brothers, sons and accompanying officials. Unfortunately he died and he was buried in Nanjing. His burial site is now one of Nanjing’s parks and is well looked after.

Brunei continued to send tributes to China in 1412, 1415 and1421. The tributes continued until 1530.

In the sixteenth century, the rise of the western powers in the region affected the Brunei-China relationship as both became preoccupied with these new powers.

The story of Brunei’s history can be picked up in the other book written by Robert Nicholl. The texts during that period were not in English but entries from Italian, Spanish, Portuguese and Dutch sources. However they are presented in English translations in the book.

One entry dated 1505 by Ludovico Varthema of Bologna, an Italian who arrived at the island of Bornei described that justice is well administered in the country. The Portuguese too made contact with the Brunei people. In one letter from Rui de Brito Patalim, Captain-General of Malacca to King Manuel I, described three ships from Brunei arriving in Malacca bringing seed, pearls and provisions. The Brunei traders were said to be ‘good people and clever merchants’.

In 1514, Jorge Alvares, a Portuguese reported that the King of Brunei had sent presents to the King of Portugal made of three cates (kati), seventeen taes (tahil) and one half of good camphor and three arrobas (23 pounds) of wax.

In 1521, it was Antonio Pigafetta, another Italian, who arrived with the Magellan Expedition described Brunei. It was his description that many historians quoted quite extensively. His description is very comprehensive and covered many areas including the first description the city entirely built in salt water.

Brunei forces apparently fought in other places and not just in Brunei. In one battle, when the Achinese fought against the King of Aru (in Sumatra), one Portuguese writer described that among the fighting men were 2,000 men including Turks, Abyssinians, Malabaris, Gujeratis and Lucoes (Bruneians). Bruneians also feature in the war between the Emperor of Java and King of Passarvao (Pasaruan) where they formed the ninety lancharas.

The Sultan of Brunei was also said to own parts of the Moluccas Islands. One text stated that in many parts they are owned by the King of Borneo.

There are many documents involving the Spanish. The Spanish were in Manila at that time and they were trying to stop the Bruneians from preaching Islam to the outlying Philippines islands. The attack on Brunei generated many reports and documents as well as letters.

Brunei was also involved in the attack on Manila in 1572 but was unable to reach Manila because of severe storms. But despite that the Spanish recorded that the Moros (Muslims) of Manila was instigated by Borneans, took occasion to revolt at this time (1574).

The Spanish however attacked Brunei in 1578 and occupied the city in April 1578. The Spanish were driven out later.

It was not until 1599 that the Spanish sought to have peace between Brunei and Manila.

The Dutch too arrived in Brunei at the end of the 1600. Admiral Olivier Van Noort arrived in Brunei.

In the 17th century, more visits were described by the various western powers including visits by princes of Borneu to Malacca. Other documents described Brunei colonizing Luzon as well as tales of missionary activities in north Borneo before finally describing that the Brunei had sent an envoy to Manila in 1684.

These two books more or less described many of the important information that a historian could look at. Their descriptions about Brunei are quite vivid that we can tell what Brunei look like in the ancient times up to the 17th century.



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