The First Dutch Visit to Brunei in 1600

It has been a while since I last wrote an article for my column, The Golden Legacy in The Brunei Times. I finally found the time to write this one entitled 'The First Dutch Visit to Brunei in 1600' and it was published on Sunday, December 22, 2013.


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Captain Oliver van Noort






The First Dutch Visit to Brunei in 1600

by Rozan Yunos

ON December 26, 1600, four hundred and thirteen years ago, people in Brunei saw two ships with Dutch crewmen sailing into the Brunei Bay. They were the remnants of a Dutch fleet of four ships which had set out two years earlier on September 1, 1598, from Rotterdam trying to circumnavigate the world.

The fleet was originally made up of two vessels, the Mauritius, the Hendrick Frederick and two smaller yachts, the Hope and the Eendracht. The Mauritius was captained by Oliver van Noort who financed two of the four vessels and the other two were financed by an Amsterdam syndicate. The other three captains were Pieter Calesz, Jan Huydecooper and Pieter Esias de Lindt.

By the year 1600, Brunei has had enough of Europeans. Brunei and Spain had just fought the Castile War in April 1578 which resulted with the Spanish burning down the big mosque and the Spanish occupying Brunei shortly before retreating back to Manila. It was only in July 1599 that the Sultan of Brunei and the Spanish Governor and Captain-General of the Philippines Islands exchanged letters of peace. It was not surprising that by 1600, Brunei has had her fair share of Europeans coming to Brunei.

Oliver van Noort was 44 years old when he decided to go round the world. Though his intention, as noted by Waldon R Porterfield writing for The Milwaukee Journal on March 31, 1972, was not to be an explorer but Van Noort was “more a would-be buccaneer than global explorer, sought Spanish gold and cargo in the Spice Islands”.

When he left Rotterdam with his four ships, he planned to attack Spanish possessions in the Pacific and to trade with China and the Spice Islands.

Despite his ships being poorly equipped, poorly armed and manned by unruly crews, Van Noort sailed through the Magellan Strait, and was able to capture a number of Spanish and other ships in the Pacific Ocean.

Along the way he lost two ships due to a storm and the other lost in an engagement with the Spanish near the Manila Bay in the Philippines. The Spanish lost their flagship, the galleon San Diego, the wreck of which was found in 1992 and yielded a treasure in porcelain and gold pieces.

Van Noort returned to Rotterdam via the Dutch East Indies and the Cape of Good Hope on August 26, 1601, with his last ship, the Mauritius, and 45 of his original 248 men. His venture did not make a profit and barely broke even, but it became the inspiration for more such expeditions. The United Dutch East India Company was formed a few months later.

There were other European explorers and much better known circumnavigators before Van Noort which included the Portuguese Ferdinand Magellan and Englishmen Francis Drake and Thomas Cavendish. Despite ‘blundering’ around the world as described by Porterfield, his achievement in being able to circumnavigate the world brought pride to his country who were then able to consider themselves the equal of the English and the Portuguese.

Van Noort’s voyage was printed in the third person in the book “Description du Penible Voyage Faict entour de l'Univers ou Globe Terrestre” and was published by Cornelis Claes in 1602. The book is believed to be Van Noort’s own log.

Van Noort’s description of Brunei can be found in several other translations of his work. One in particular was translated by Reverend Fr J Heuschen from “Historische Beschrijving der Reizen”, Amsterdam 1758.

The inhabitants of Borneo were described as robust, well-built and intelligent. The men and women are like the other Indians brown in colour, but they have no uniformity in their dress, which consists of pieces of cloth covering their bodies in various fashions, but all of them wear a turban of very fine cotton cloth.

Nobles, especially those linked with the king by blood relationship, and other important dignitaries belonging to the court, are dressed in very precious clothes and live in great luxury. Midships in their praus, which are reasonably well covered for protection from the heat of the sun, they have tables garnished with silver dishes, perfumes and betels, which they chew continually.

Their palaces could be called beautiful houses, albeit they are made of wood, and built on such light piles that when there is a storm or some other untoward event these houses can be removed from one side of the river to the other.

The Brunei people had no desire for the Dutch cloth brought by Van Noort. It was described that the islanders were very desirious of Chinese cloth, of which Van Noort had brought from Manila, they had no wish for the Dutch cloth.

In another account in “Nederlandsch Reizen” Amsterdam-Harlingen 1784, Reverend Fr J Heuschen translated several paragraphs with vivid description about Brunei.

The island of Borneo is one of the largest in the whole of East India. The capital, which has the same name, is in a swamp so that the inhabitants have to from from one house to another in praus. There are between two and three hundred houses, but the inhabitants have more further inland.

There are many people on the island. The men are strong and religious and all of them, the farmers and fishermen not excepted bear with them their weapons, which consist of bows and long javelins tipped with iron. In their quivers they have between 20 and 30 arrows, which are tipped with poison. They are able to blow these with great power, and if any is wounded by these so that blood flows he is sure to die for the poison forthwith mixes with the blood.

They profess the Mahommetan religion. They would rather die than eat pork. That is the reason why on their island no pigs are to be found. Their clothing is of cloth, which they wind about their bodies several times. The heads are covered with turbans of fine cotton.

The Oliver van Noort visit brought pride to his country. However his visit also added to our knowledge about how Brunei and how its people used to look like more than four hundred years ago.

The writer of The Golden Legacy column - the longest running column in The Brunei Times - runs a website about Brunei at bruneiresources.com.

Courtesy of The Brunei Times

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