A 16th Century Spanish Account of Brunei

Rozan Yunos
Bandar Seri Begawan
Sunday, January 17, 2016

MANY Brunei history enthusiasts are very familiar with Pigafetta’s narratives about Brunei. Antonio Pigafetta was the Italian chronicler who was part of Ferdinand Magellan’s expedition around the world in the 16th century.

It was his description of Brunei that many historians quoted quite extensively. His description is very comprehensive and covered many areas including the first description of the city entirely built on salt water. Parts of his description of Brunei include the following description of Kampong Ayer complete with its padians:

“The city is built in the sea, the King’s palace and the houses of the principal persons excepted. It contains twenty-five thousand hearths or families. The houses are built of wood upon large piles, to keep them from the water. When the tide rises, the women, who are chief venders of necessaries, traverse the town in boats. In front of the King’s place is a large wall, built with bricks of great size, with embrazures, or rather port-holes, as in a fortress; and on the wall are mounted fifty-six bombards of brass, and fix of iron: in course of two days we passed in the city, they made several discharges from these guns.”

Pigafetta described the Sultan as: “the King, who is a Mahometan, is called Rajah Siripada. He is very corpulent and may be about forty years of age. He is waited upon by women alone, the daughters of the chief inhabitants of the island. No one is allowed to address him otherwise than in the manner I have described, through a sarbacane. He has ten secretaries constantly employed on different matters of state, who write on a very thin epidermis of certain trees which is called chiritoles. He never leaves his palace upon any occasion other than to hunt.”

According to historian, John S. Carrol writing in “The Brunei Museum Journal 1985”, there were others who also wrote about the expedition. He focused on one in particular which was written by a Basque who was a priest, an ecclesiastical censor of books for the Holy Office (Inquisition) by the name of Rodrigo de Aganduru Moriz.

Carrol noted that Aganduru Moriz was part of a mission arriving in Manila in 1606 where he was stationed in Zambales. It was probably around 1622 or 1623 when he visited Brunei and penned his chapter about Brunei. In 1626, Aganduru Moriz died in Spain after completing his book ‘Historia general de las islas occidentales of la Asia adyacentes, Hamadas Philipinas’.

Aganduru Moriz’s book published in 1882 tells about the exploits of the Magellan expedition as well as another expedition by Juan Garcia Jofre de Loaisa. Aganduru Moriz also quoted extensively the expedition of another Basque Juan Sebastian del Cano to Brunei where he described the Sultan of Brunei and the people of Brunei as follows:

“The king of the island is powerful and a great lord. The people are Muslims. In their customs they are like the rest, and this sufficies for now until we describe them when Doctor (Francisco de) Sande, governor and captain general of these Philippine Islands (1575-1580) conquered the city where the king is.”

The conquest of Brunei was when the Spanish in the Philippines attacked and conquered Brunei in 1578 before the Spaniards were driven out again. In those days, Brunei was seen as a big threat to Christianity. The destruction of Brunei became the Spaniards primary objective in the mid-16th century. After the Sultan of Brunei refused to accept a treaty with the Spaniards in 1573, a Spanish armada with 40 warships had arrived off Brunei in 1578.

The Spaniards sent a letter to the Sultan demanding among other things that “preachers of the holy gospel, who may preach the law of the Christians in your lands in all security”, and that Brunei not “send no preachers of the sect of Mohama to any part of these islands” and that Brunei must “forbid its people from asking tribute in these islands.”

Dr Francisco on learning that the Sultan would not agree to his demands, immediately attacked the 50 Brunei warships surrounding him. The Bruneians were caught by surprise and outgunned by the Spaniards, were not able to defend Brunei.

Aganduru Moriz continued to describe the visit of Juan Sebastian del Cano in Brunei where they were brought into the city by elephants. Even though Brunei did not have any elephants, Juan Sebastian del Cano noted that the elephants in Brunei were from the kingdom of Jor (probably Johore) which the kingdom of Pan (probably Pahang) follows and then that of Patan (probably Petani), and from here they brought ‘the king of Burney those which he had’.

The Castillians were brought into the city on the elephants and waiting “in the streets there were at one place or another four thousand Burneyes in ranks with cutlasses and shields, lances and naked creeses. Among this guard the Castillians arrived at the royal house.”

“They entered a hall where a very rich carpet was placed on the floor where they commanded our men to sit and to put the present next to themselves. They then opened certain doors or sliding windows, whereupon another hall higher than in which they were was discovered, which was incorporated with it, and it appeared to be all one, except for being a cubit more elevated, It was all hung with silk, and at its crest the king was seated with a son of his on a rich rug of gold and silk with its cushions.”

“It is the custom for this king to talk through a tube in this manner. He who talks to him takes the tube and talks with his secretary and the secretary has another tube which he talks to the king and receives the responses, and in the same order he gives them so that it seems to be a dance of sticks as they raise and lower the tubes.”

The visitors were well treated. It was described that ‘they took a collection of cloves and cinnamon and nutmegs.’ They were then taken from the palace and brought to a ‘very well decorated house, where they brought them a very splendid supper of capon, chicken, veal, pork, venison, peacock and other birds they noticed having been served thirty two different dishes, without appetisers or desserts.’

The visitors described Brunei as a city of ‘thirty thousand fires ’ which is equal to about thirty thousand families. ‘Many of the houses are very large although of very well carved boards, set on very thick posts of a fathom to a fathom and a half in circumference and of a wood so strong that they stay one hundred years under the ground’.

Brunei’s land was described as ‘most abundant with rice. The ordinary bread of these regions, chickens, deer, pigs, buffaloes and goats. They harvest much sugar. There are cinnamon, camphor, saltpetre, ginger, mirabolans, oranges, limes, and many other esteemed things.’

It is indeed interesting to read about the descriptions of the palace and of Brunei more than four hundred years ago.

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

The Brunei Times


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