Administration of the Law and Justice in Brunei before the British Part III

The opening folio No 73 in the Boxer Codex describing Brunei
Colour painting of a Tagalog couple featured in the Boxer Codex – 1590 CE
Facsimile of the front page of the Boxer Codex 
A Manila Galleon – foldout painting in the Boxer Codex  -  Photos courtesy of Indiana University, USA, the Digitisation Project


Significance of 'Boxer Codex' for Legal History of Brunei
by BA Hussainmiya, PhD

THE 19th century Brunei may have given the impression to the visiting Westerners as a weak state with a fledgling legal system. But it was not so during Brunei’s halcyon days in the 16th century; the vibrant Sultanate practised a rather sophisticated and model system of justice.

The definitive proof comes from an authentic Spanish manuscript dated 1588 CE  referred to nowadays as the ‘Boxer Codex’ which is by far the best source that portray the workings of Brunei penal system, the courts, the forms of law, and the punishments meted out to various offences including theft, murder, adultery and so on.

The description of the legal situation indicates that the Brunei’s justice system was home grown probably through a multitude of influences.

Firstly, it derived from Hindu-Buddhist, a legacy of its original Majapahit connections having used the Laws of Manu from India, a feature common in most contemporary Southeast Asian states.

Secondly, the practice of indigenous customary laws was superimposed on a Melakan mode.

Thirdly, under the spate of Islamisation dating back to the 14th century, the Syariah-compliant laws had been incorporated gradually.  Only a well-trained legal historian can distinguish such varied input in Brunei’s ancient legal system.  This is the picture one gets from reading the Boxer Codex, and before I highlight the actual meaty description on Brunei laws and practice at that period, it is necessary to enlighten the reader on the significance of the Boxer Codex.

The Codex and its importance

So what is the Boxer Codex? The existence of the Boxer Codex manuscript had been known since the middle of the last century.

The manuscript is called after the late Professor C R Boxer, who purchased it from Lord Ilchester’s library at Holland House. Professor Boxer was the renowned historian of Portuguese period at the Kings College, University of London.

The manuscript is in Spanish language containing vivid historical descriptions of many parts of Asia including Japan, China, Formosa, Luzon, Panay, Cebu, Mindanao, Sulu, New Guinea, Java, Sumatra, the Malay Peninsula, and other places and not the least on Brunei.  Boxer translated part of it about China in 1953.

Tom Harrisson, the former Curator of the Brunei and later Sarawak Museum in 1960 took a special interest on the Brunei section in the folios from 71-86  of the manuscript and asked John Carroll to translate and publish it in English which was done in 1982.

As Carroll has admitted that, ‘To my knowledge, no other extant document tells so much about Berunai in the late 16th century’. (John Carroll, 1982:1)

The Brunei chapter was translated into English by John S Carroll and published in the Journal of the Malaysian Branch of the Royal Society in 1982.

Surprisingly there has not been much attention given by local scholarship to the contents of this published manuscript despite its invaluable insights into the old Brunei kingdom.

The Codex highlights among other things geography, history, law, religion, government, protocol, commerce, weapons and calendar of Brunei. Its description amplifies in many ways the oft-quoted Italian Pigafetta’s description of Brunei and Kampung Ayer in 1521.

Unlike Pigafetta’s account, the former’s description hardly has entered into Brunei school textbooks, nor has this crucial information forms part of other local historical narratives.

Much attention is paid in contrast to the local chronicle Silsilah Raja-Raja Berunai or the historical chronicle of Brunei Kings edited and published by late Amin Sweeney.

However, it is only helpful to highlight the dynastic succession the past rulers starting from the founder Alak Betatar onwards.

It is not a testament on the social history of Brunei when it is also important for the historians to comment on people’s history of those indigenous communities and the immigrant communities who lived under the guidance of monarchic rule.

The Universiti Brunei Darussalam’s (UBD)  historical studies programme has initiated a special study of this Boxer Codex in a module taught on Brunei’s historical sources.

The next step perhaps is for serious Bruneian scholars to learn European languages like Spanish and Portuguese in which much of early Brunei history is hidden.

I myself had occasion to visit the Spanish Archives in Seville along with the Brunei History Centre officials and collected some records for preservation at the centre. The records need translation and further analysis.

With those slight diversionary comments let me return to the description of the Codex properly for the benefit of the readers.

The authorship of the Codex

The author of this Codex still remains anonymous. It is attributed to various persons including Gomez Perez Dasmarinas, Governor of the Spanish colony in the Philippines 1590-1593, or his son Luis.

Both of them sailed from Acapulco in Maxico on a Manila Galleon in 1590.

Since the manuscript explains Islam without condemning it, the author perhaps was a high-ranking Spanish secular official who had no apprehension about the Holy Inquisition.

According to Carlos Quirino and Mauro Garcia (1958) who translated the parts about the Philippines, the Ms was the work of Antonio de Padua, a soldier-turned priest, but the calligraphy seems to match that of Juan de Cuellar, a soldier who became the secretary to Perez Dasmarinas.

The termino ad quem of the Ms is 1590, but the Brunei sections carry the dates of 1588 and 1589.

Thus it was composed some 10 years after the infamous invasion of Brunei in 1578 by the Spanish forces from Manila led by its Governor, Fransisco de Sande who destroyed Brunei’s magnificent five-storey mosque situated close to Kota Batu, famous even among the Madrid royal circles.

Apparently some veterans who participated in the attack were still residents in Manila.

But they probably would not have been able to witness the things so realistically described in the Codex.  It is likely, therefore, that the Brunei part was written by someone who had actually lived in Brunei for a longer period of time.

The informant used both Malay and Tagalog words and was in Manila, and he substituted the Tagalog ‘l’ for Malay ‘r’ and the Tagalog ‘r’ for the Malay ‘d’.

The Codex account is therefore as valid as the Pigafetta description and an authentic description of Brunei legal system in the 16th century.

John Carroll, its translator, believes that it is the work of a Malay-speaking Tagalog residing in Manila, a trader who had visited Brunei as recently as 1589.

As early as 1578, Governor de Sande interrogated Muslim Tagalogs from Balayan to Luzon who had been in Brunei.

Like the imperialist Sande, Governor ‘Dasmarinas also would have wanted current information about trade and the potential enemies and allies of Spain, and perhaps the Boxer Codex was a notebook compiled for him by Cuellar for that purpose’.(Carroll 1980:1)

Like some other medieval manuscripts, Boxer Codex is also difficult to decipher as it is unparagraphed and malpunctuated while the calligraphy itself is unreadable in places.

Words often are not separated and spaces come in the middle of words and so on.

This is a challenge for Brunei researchers, state-sponsored or otherwise for they must be prepared to do painstaking research texts written in a foreign language if any meaningful history has to be written on Brunei long before the advent of the British at the end of the 18th century.

In fact, Professor Donald E Brown, a familiar name for Brunei scholars who pioneered many important research topics from anthropology to history since 1970s himself was sceptical to accept any historical truth about Brunei’s past well before the 19th century due to the paucity of critical sources.

The Boxer Codex therefore would change the perceptions of weaknesses in early Brunei History written uncritically mainly on the basis of legends and myths.

At least now we have something solid by way of an authentic source on Brunei rendered as BURNEY in the Boxer Codex to elucidate the actual situation in the 16th century especially in the field of law making and practice which we will highlight next week.

(To be continued)


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