Wednesday, December 25, 2013

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.


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The fleet was originally made up of two vessels, the Mauritius, the Hendrick Frederick and two smaller yachts, the Hope and the Eendracht.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

Courtesy of The Brunei Times


Sunday, December 08, 2013

The Administration of the Law and Justice in Brunei before the British Part V

The Borneo Bulletin on December 7, 2013 continued with BA Hussaimiya's article on the Legal History of Brunei Darussalam.


Shifting sands of Brunei history: Issues of genealogy & chronology

Posted date: December 07, 2013 In: Features

B A Hussainmiya PhD

(Continuation of ‘On the travails of writing Brunei’s early history and the Boxer Codex’, published on Page 44 of the November 30, 2013 edition of the Weekend Bulletin)

ALTHOUGH Brunei’s official history scarcely refers to the 16th century Boxer Codex, its many revelations significantly buttress the fact that Islam originated much earlier than some Western writers like Father Robert Nicholl opines. According to him, the date of Islam in Brunei is somewhat coterminous with the advent of the Europeans in the early 16th century.

The problem of early Brunei historiography is not confined to the date of the coming of Islam only. Still some confusion prevails as to the chronology of the early Brunei Sultans as well. The conventional sources do not agree on this. The much cited Silsilah Raja-raja Berunai, the royal historical chronicle comes in two redactions, but both have placed the legendary ruler of Brunei Sultan Bolkiah as the 5th ruler. Now that list is under scrutiny. And thus, Pusat Sejarah, the official history centre now constrained to admit that Sultan Bolkiah, in fact, must be counted as the 6th ruler of Brunei. (See Letters to the Editor by Brunei History Centre published in the Weekend Bulletin on November 27, 2013)

A modern painting of old (16th century) capital of Kota Batu  in Brunei

Guardian figure at the tomb of Maharaja Karna (Ma-na-je-chia-na of P’oni) – (From Nicholl 1984b)
Genealogical tablet of the Sultans of Brunei – 1807  -  COURTESY OF PUSAT SEJARAH
As is well known the transmission of the official royal genealogy underwent deliberate distortions due to several reasons. The most important being the infamous civil war in the history of Brunei that started in 1661 CE involving two contenders, namely Sultan Muhiyiddin and Sultan Hakkul Mubin which sapped Brunei’s strength and led to its slow decline later. The civil war also affected the writing down of the Brunei royal genealogy that later underwent certain degree of doctoring in support of each other’s rights to the throne.

Sultan Hakkul Mubin, one of the contenders, thus is omitted from the first list of Sultans in the first of Silsilah transcribed and edited by late Professor Amin Sweeney (1968), and also from the list on Batu Tarsilah carved in 1807.

In fact “the Brunei History Centre is actually holding on the genealogy of the Kings of Brunei written by Datu Imam Yaakub that derives information and evidence obtained from Sultan Muhiyiddin, the 14th Sultan of Brunei (1673-1690 AD), and Sultan Husin Kamaluddin, the 16th Sultan of Brunei (1710-1730 AD).” (See Letters to the Editor by Brunei History Centre published in the Weekend Bulletin on November 27, 2013).

The Brunei sources also name two sultans – Nasruddin and Husin Kamaluddin – of whom little is known as Graham Saunders (1994:64) admits. The problem of writing early Brunei history, hence, gets further complicated.

For a long time, Sultan Bolkiah was deemed to be the 5th Sultan in Brunei. Now he is pushed back to the 6th spot because of recently revised official history. The old Brunei oral traditions never mentioned that the first Sultan Muhammad Shah begot a son, namely Sultan Abdul Majid alias Manajekana) which does not occur in the Batu Tarsila (the Genealogical tablet) located in the Royal Mausoleum, Jalan Tutong. The issue came up with the information of one Maharaja Karna rendered as Manajekana from Brunei on his mission to the Chinese court passed away there in 1408 CE. The new researches carried out by the by the Brunei’s History Centre based on a discovery of a tombstone (situated at Jalan Residency, Bandar Seri Begawan) dated 826 AH, corresponding to 1422 CE of one Rokayah claims that she was the daughter ‘binti’ of Sultan Abdul Majid Hassan ibnu Muhammad Shah Al Sultan.

If the deceased Rokaya’s tombstone is properly documented scientifically and proven without any doubt it certainly is a big breakthrough in the writing of early Brunei history.

Into this confusion is thrown in evidence from the Boxer Codex in regards to the original founder of the Brunei kingdom.

The Boxer Codex is a description of Brunei affairs as witnessed in the late 16th century did not list kings as other Brunei sources do. Nonetheless, the Codex mentions a few names of the rulers who are not directly mentioned in the local sources. Among these are Sultan Ari Lula, Sultan Soliman (Sulaiman), Sultan Salan, and Sultan Nula Alan (Nurul Alam?). Apparently the writer of the Codex derived these information from ‘the information they (the Borneys) are able to remember’.

But the most important revelation from the Codex is the occurrence of the name Sultan Yuso (Yusuf) as one of the founders of the Brunei kingdom. It is better to give below the translation from the Spanish verbatim from the John Carroll Edition of the Codex (1982:4):

“… It begins three hundred years (ago), a little more or less, when from the parts and provinces of the Malaya language which lie toward Meca (came) a lord of a city called Cauin. The name of this one was Sultan Yuso (Arabic Yusof), who according to what they say was king of that said city of Cauin, and he and his subjects departed from his kingdom and land bringing with him a great quantity of people in many ships, discovering many lands, and calling himself always king and lord of all the people he brought and calling them slaves. Following his voyage he arrived at the island of Borney on which they had some battles with the native Uisayas (Bisayas) so that they occupied them [the lands]; and having succeeded them (the Uisayas) well, he was settled some days in which he took a tongue of land and the fruits of it and found camphor, which is now to exist in other parts except this kingdom.

“… At the end of some days, he made port in the land of China: and asking permission in order to go ashore, he disembarked and went to see the king of China, whom he recognised as a superior king; and the said king of China conferred in him the title of king and gave him the insignia and royal (coat of) arms which nowadays the said king of Borney has; And seeing that the said Sultan Yuso was a bachelor, he married him to a Chinese woman. Accordingly it appears that the reason he persevered in the said kingdom of (Borney) was that she was a relative of the king of China. The said Chinese woman was lord of a city which was called Namtay in the kingdom of China, and the said Sultan Yuso made this marriage. He bade (farewell) to the king of China; and bringing his wife and the people with him, he returned to Borney, leaving in the said city of Namtay (one) who had charge of the rent as and property of his wife; and so (it is) nowadays although the natives of Namtay do not come with anything (for) the kings of Borney, not because the lords of the said city of Namtay have quit holding them (the rents), and they say the current rents are being held guarded for when some king of Borney might go there for it, the legacy.

“The said Sultan Yuso went to Borney. He settled there with his said slaves or vassals that he brought, and he put the native Uisayas (into) subjection, making them pay tribute. He had sons with the said (Chinese) wife. He died very old: and when he died, he left a tablet of gold. According to what they say it would be a fathom square and thin, on which he left mandates and they inscribed and wrote the kings of descended from him; and so they inscribed this said tablet which the same king kept and by his hand he inscribed his name. This tablet was lost when Doctor Fransisco de Sande, the governor who went from (these) Philippine islands, sacked Borney. It is understood that the old king, father of this one in whose possession it was, buried it or threw into the sea; and since the said king died at that time, he left no clarity (clear information) about what he did with the tablet.”

So the Boxer Codex goes on. Needless to say that Brunei history, as it is currently written, needs to be amplified further with the statement about the origin of the Brunei kingdom as quoted above. It need not necessarily contradict the current versions of the third Sultan Sultan Sharif Ali’s story, but some adjustments can be made to reconcile his personality with that of Sultan Yusof mentioned in the Codex as the person who introduced Islamic way of life in Brunei.

(To be continued: Next part will resume in January 2014)


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