[Note: I wrote this when I was attending the ASEAN Senior Environmental Officials Meeting in Hanoi last week. I brought one book with me as a reference but luckily there was enough references on the net. It was published in The Brunei Times on 9th August 2010.]
THE GOLDEN LEGACY
The Early Brunei Conquests
A.E. Lawrence writing in the first edition of the Sarawak Museum Journal of 1911 in an article entitled “The First Brunei Conquests on the Sarawak Coast” stated that Awang Alak Betatar enlarged the newly founded Brunei territory by first defeating the Melanau hero Tugau, thus advancing his frontiers from the Tutong River to the Rejang delta.
According to Brunei’s own epic poems, Syair Awang Semaun, this happened during the rule of Brunei’s first ruler, Awang Alak Betatar, who was later renamed as Sultan Muhammad Shah when Brunei battled against the Melanau Government. When Melanau lost, Brunei conquered all its territories stretching from Mukah to Tutong.
This short article will illustrate how Brunei began its first conquests thus enlarging the newly founded Brunei.
At the beginning, both Brunei and Melanau were territories that paid tributes to the Majapahit. According to the ancient document Nagarakretagama, territories that paid tributes to the Majapahit included “Kadangdangan, Landa Samedang dan Tirem tak terlupakan Sedu, Barune(ng), Kalka, Saludung, Solot dan juga Pasir Barito, Sawaku, Tabulang, ikut juga Tajung Kuteri, Malano tetap yang terpenting di Pulau Tanjungpura”. Brunei described as Barune(ng) and Melanau known as Malano were both vassal states of the Majapahit.
However, with the fall of the Majapahit Empire, Brunei suddenly had a chance to expand its fledgling empire. The first target that came into its view finder was the nearby Tutong river territory.
Awang Alak Betatar appointed a Brunei noble known as Pembakal Bangis to lead the delegation and to request that Mawangga, the leader in the Tutong river territory presented himself at the capital. Mawangga replied that he and his people could not do so as they were conquered slaves. Tutong was under the control of the great Melanau Leader named Basiung and his in-law Tugaw living at Igan.
Mawangga directed Awang Alak Betatar’s men to go to Igan. Mawangga informed Bangis that If the great Melanau leader will submit to the Brunei King’s authority, the Tutong territory will do likewise.
In Igan, the leader of the Brunei forces told Basiung that Awang Alak Betatar wanted him and his men to come to Brunei to submit to his authority at Junjungan. The Igan leader unamused. He was used to people coming to see him and not the other way round. Basiung in fact told Bangis that Awang Alak Betatar should come to see him and if he is slow in coming, Igan will attack Brunei.
Undeterred, Bangis gave Basiung nine days to make up his mind but Basiung was still confident. He told Bangis that if Awang Alak Betatar came over as soon as possible and bring gifts, he would make sure that Awang Alak Betatar would not be harmed.
Awang Alak Betatar was very offended and his ministers advised him that Brunei should attack Igan to put this Basiung in his place. Awang Semaun, Awang Jeramabak and Pateh Damang Sari all agreed to attack.
The Igan Valley of Sarawak, became the first arena of battle between Brunei and other forces. The Igan Valley contained a short river named Igan which is located in the traditional territories of the Melanau-speaking people.
There were two versions of the battle. The first version is more of a fairy tale. The battle was said to be between the three Brunei heroes against not another three Melanau warriors but against a jihin (genie) named Bilanapura. The fight lasted nine months. It was Jerambak who was finally able to kill the genie by employing a magic fish skin which he obtained from an ogre.
The second version was much gruesome. This other version described how the Brunei forces left Brunei and met their foes Basiung and his forces from Igan. Basiung had help from his allies from Smbas, Matu, Sadung and Sarikei.
Basiung had assembled more than 9,000 soldiers at Igan. However the 9,000 soldiers were no match for the soldiers from Brunei. They attacked in their hundreds, thousands, tens of thousands. Thousands died and the remaining Igan soldiers fleed. By the time the battle ended, Basiung and Tugaw realized that they had lost. The Brunei soldiers had the Dayaks on their sides. Houses were burnt, potteries were smashed and there were lots of war treasures captured by the Brunei forces. Awang Jerambak called on Igan to acknowledge the overlordship of Awang Alak Betatar as the new power.
The Brunei forces went on to plunder and conquer the rest of the historically Melanau areas of Oya, Matu and Mukah. They also defeated the allies of Igan including Sarikei, Rajang, Sadung, Sarawak, Tanjung Datu and Lingga. They went all the way to Sambas thus conquering Sambas, Pontianak and Sanggau thus conquering the South and South Western Part of the Borneo Island.
The Brunei Forces also defeated and conquered territories on the east coast of Borneo such as Banjar (today Banjarmasin) as well as territories over the north of Borneo Island.
The Brunei conquests over the north of Borneo took a much longer time. This is not because the forces there were much stronger but unlike Melanau which was a dominant military centre, the territories in old Sabah were scattered. Brunei forces had to attack more than 20 times on about 15 different territories. Their foes included the Bajaus, Ilanuns, Bugis, Suluks and Dusuns.
The territories that were conquered or acknowledged Brunei’s authority included Kuala Panyu, Membakut, Bungawan, Kimanis, Binunih, Papar, Putatan, Manggatal, Tuaran, Sulaman, Ranau, Tampasuk, Lingkabu, Kinabatangan, Tungku, Silam, Bulungan, Kuran, Sandungan, Mutu, Banjar. In addition, the Brunei forces also captured or had territories that acknowledged Brunei which included Suluk, Manila, Simbatu, Papan, Rantungan, Lantay and Oti in Sulawesi.
Though the Salasilah Raja-Raja Brunei (Manuscript 9B) stated that when Sultan Muhammad became the first Sultan of Brunei, Yang Di-Pertuan Johor gave the new Sultan, several items including the five territories which are ‘negeri Kalaka’, negeri Saribas, negeri Semarahan, negeri Serawak and negeri Mukah.’
Dzulfawati Haji Hassan in her paper entitled ‘Hubungan Melanau-Brunei’ published as part of the 10th Anniversary of Universiti Brunei Darussalam in 1996 theorized that the difference between the battle accounts of the Brunei-Melanau forces and the gift accounts from the Sultan of Johor was that despite the conquests and the invasion, the Melanau people refused to acknowledge Brunei rule and rebelled against Brunei. These territories aligned themselves to the Sultanate of Johor. However with the marriage of Sultan Muhammad Shah and the Johor Princess, those states were returned back to Brunei.
By 1890, with the forcible annexation of the Limbang river by the Brookes of Sarawak being the last loss of Brunei’s territories, most of these conquests have gone with only the original rivers of Brunei, the rivers of Tutong, Belait and Temburong that remained as the modern Brunei of today.