[Note: Muara developed independently than the rest of Brunei. I wrote and published this article on Brooketon as it was known then in my column on Brunei Times and published it last Sunday, 2 May 2011]
Independent Development of Muara
Everyone in Brunei knows that there are four districts in Brunei. The largest being the Belait District and the smallest being the Brunei-Muara District.
One can also be curious and wonder why is that the Brunei-Muara District, small enough as it is, comprised of two different parts – that of Brunei and Muara. If these two are split, the resulting new districts would even be much smaller. Why then is Muara given a special place in the name of the district? The best answer to that is that from the beginning, Muara has developed independently of the rest of the district.
Before the 1900s, the hamlet of Muara was inhabited by a small group of Malay fishermen. However it was the coal at Serai Pimping in Muara that attracted the Europeans to come here.
The coalmine at Muara was described and quoted in the book ‘British Borneo Sketches of Brunai, Sarawak, Labuan and North Borneo’ published in 1891 written by W.H. Treacher, the Reverend J.E. Tennison-Wood, well known in Australia as an authority on geological questions, thus describing the Muara coalfields:
“… About twenty miles to the South-west of Labuan is the mouth of the Brunai river. Here the rocks are of quite a different character, and much older. There are sandstones, shales, and grits, with ferruginous joints. The beds are inclined at angles of 25 to 45 degrees. They are often altered into a kind of chert. At Muara there is an outcrop of coal seams twenty, twenty-five and twenty-six feet thick. The coal is of excellent quality, quite bitumenised, and not brittle. The beds are being worked by private enterprise. I saw no fossils, but the beds and the coal reminded me much of the older Australian coals along the Hunter river. The mines are of great value ...”
Most historical accounts only noted one W.C. Cowie who worked the mines before being taken over by Rajah Brooke. However according to G. Irwin in his book ‘Nineteenth Century Borneo: A Study in Diplomatic Rivalry’ published in 1965, the coal at Muara was worked by four different companies between 1848 and 1880. It was only in March 1882 that W.C. Cowie obtained a concession to work coal in Muara. The Reverend J.E. Tennison-Wood said that the mine is “…rented for a few thousand dollars by two enterprising Scotchmen, from the Sultan of Brunai ...”
In his notes, in the book ‘Report on Brunei in 1904 by MSH McArthur’, AVM Horton noted that it was in March 1882 that W.C. Cowie obtained a concession to work coal in Muara Damit. Modifications were made to his lease in 1884 and 1887 by which he obtained the monopoly of coal working throughout Brunei east of the River Tutong. On 6 September 1888 these rights were purchased by Sir Charles Brooke for $25,000.
Rajah Brooke renamed the site as Brooketon. Brooketon gradually lent its name to the area. McArthur in his 1904 Report on Brunei noted that he was unable to find in the archives of the Consulate any complete record of the concession on which the Rajah’s claims in Brunei are based; but he believed that these concessions for coal only were purchased by His Highness in a private capacity and not as Rajah of Sarawak and that he has since acquired the rights of jurisdiction at Brooketon.
Even though he only had economic rights, Brooke became the de facto ruler of the area. The colliery employed hundreds of miners and that required him to introduce a police force, post office and roads transforming Muara effectively into an extraterritorial settlement an extension of Sarawak.
The development of the coalmine also lead to transport and infrastructure development at Muara. A post office was opened and postal services of Sarawak was extended there. Envelopes and packages sent from Brooketon would use Sarawak stamps. A wooden railway was built to transport the coal to the safe deep-water anchorage at Muara, and wharves and jetties were built to allow steamships and barges to berth. By 1911, the Brunei Annual Report of the same year noted that more than 1,447 people lived in Muara and some 30 shops had opened in the town.
McArthur in his report noted that ‘the place gives every appearance of prosperity, possessing good wharves and sheds, a stone sea wall, a line of light railway running to the mine about a mile inland, and heaps of coal.’ According to G.E. Wilford, during the years of 1891 to 1924 more than 650,000 tonnes of coal was produced, exports after 1906 totalled 315,396 tonnes valued at $2,688,400.
However the mines by 1904 did not do that well. McArthur reported that the appearance belie the fact that the mine did not pay. In 1903, the Sarawak Report indicated that the mine had a net loss of $108,747, $34,532 more than the previous year. Despite the continuing loss, Rajah Brooke continued to maintain the loss making mine.
It was not until 1924 that the mine and the entire area was ‘returned’ to Brunei. The Brunei Annual Report of 1924 described the return as follows:
“… in March, after protracted negotiations lasting for nearly 3 years, an agreement was concluded whereby the Trade and Farm Rights held by the Rajah of Sarawak were redeemed by the Government of Brunei, in return for an annual payment of $6,418. These rights, together with certain land rights which are retained by the Rajah of Sarawak, were originally granted by the Sultan of Brunei to Mr. W.C. Cowie in perpetuity for a total payment of $5,000. Five months after the new agreement came into operation the Rajah announced his intention to cease working the Brooketon Coal mines as from the 1st January, 1925, and the work of dismantling the machinery, etc, had commenced before the end of the year ...”
Pengiran Shahbandar was appointed to act as Malay Magistrate in charge of this district.
Until the Second World War, Muara was physically separated from the rest of Brunei. The only way to get there was via the Brunei River. Even the Australian Army arriving as the Allied Forces freeing Brunei from the Japanese Occupation in 1945 had to walk from Muara to Brunei Town.
Captain T.S. Monks in his book ‘Brunei Days’ described the situation during the early days of the liberation. He noted that the map ‘showed an actual road from Brooketon to Brunei Town’ and was marked as ‘suitable in all weathers and wide enough to take two vehicles abreast’. Monks said that it was wildly inaccurate information. His description of the road goes as follows:
“… at first it was a reasonable but unpaved narrow road, but within a mile it deteriorated into just a jungle track with deep pot-holes and soon we were bogged down in soft slushy mud … as we went on, the jungle thickened …”
The journey took three hours before they reached paved road and was finally able to reach Brunei Town.
Of course by the 1970s, Muara was connected with proper paved road. By 1970, Muara housed Brunei’s only deep water port and today is an integral part of the modern nation of Brunei Darussalam.
[Illustration: A very rare 1920s Brunei postcard showing the Coal-Wharf at Brooketon. (Source: Rozan Yunos Private Collections)]