What happened to the Brunei Shipwreck?

If you remember, one of the most interesting discovery in recent times in Brunei was the Chinese junk wreck which sank some 40 kilometers off the shores of Brunei. This 1997 discovery of what is now known as the Brunei Shipwreck is probably one of the most important in Brunei's archaeological history. Some 13,000 artefacts recovered originated from Thailand, Vietnam and China showed just how successful and flourishing was the Brunei trade with the region some 500 years ago. The Brunei harbor was once one of the most active in the South China Sea, strategically located not far from the thriving commercial markets of Thailand, Vietnam and China.

The shipwreck was discovered by Elf Petroleum (now TotalFinaElf) on 24th May 1997 but excavations only started from May to August 1998 which brings more than 130 specialists from around the world. Most artefacts recovered and dated from late 15th to early 16th Century CE (Common Era). If you remember, this excavation work was shown on the Discovery Channel from time to time.

According to experts, the Brunei junk sank about 50 years after the great Chinese explorer, Zheng He's expedition. China at that time was isolating itself and had banned all forms of seafaring trade. So most foreign merchants had to come and deal directly with China. Most foreigners come bearing tributes to the Chinese Emperor and trade in China. For Chinese traders, they had to smuggle if they want to export anything. The smuggling was quite prosperous as the Emperor had to keep issuing edicts against it every few years.

One of the most prized items recovered was the Chinese blue and white porcelain which was said to be so desirable and completely different from other ceramics. When you hit it, it made a bell-like sound which the people then considered as a magical sound. But to be ble to afford such luxuries, Bruneians then have to export our rich natural resources then such as wood, turtle shells, gold and camphor.

The sinking of the junk then was almost towards the end of the Asian era. By 1511, the first Portuguese ships arrived thus ending the time when only Asians rule the Asian waters and in some sense marked the beginning of the end of the then Brunei Empire.

The only problem with this story is we seemed to have lost track of what is surely the greatest recovery in Brunei's archaeological history. I am not sure how many of us remember it anymore. I only have one book entitled "Sunken Treasures of Brunei Darussalam" printed in 2003 especially for the Australian tour of the Sunken Treasures in Sydney, Canberra and Fremantle and nothing else. I know there is another book entitled "The Brunei Shipwreck" produced by Elf (illustrated cover). I don't have that one. Other than an exhibit in the Museum, nothing seemed to have come out of this great recovery - not even a peep from the Tourism people. Have we forgotten about it? Are we not marketing this? Strange. Or am I imagining things?


Anonymous said…
This is certainly interesting. Where are all these artefacts kept now? Are they being displayed at Brunei Museum?

Zul-Fadly said…
Indeed Mr BR and good morning to you and everyone. You have to wonder why there is no follow up on this important discovery? Its not a 'one hit wonder' this is part of our heritage.

Have the other government agencies taken interest in to these artefact? Like perhaps MOE could put that in the syllabus and if there was a proper museum students could go on a field trip and do some 'research based' exercises as it was highlighted last night in the news.

Perhaps we should look into having a separate museum for these artefacts.

I am in the midst of drafting a blog about the 'Majlis Ilmu' exhibition that has been extended till the end of August and question wot is going to happen to it after that? It would be a great idea to perhaps put it in a museum dedicated to Our Majesty.

We have so many interesting things to share but seems like only during special occasions will these things 'pop' up.
Anonymous said…
I am totally agree with you 'sirtambak' and I have the same question as what happens to all these exhibitions after all the great efforts, time and money spent on them? I really love to see the Exhibition again and again and for our future generation to know better the history of our own Sultans. Make it a permanent exhibit so that not only us but also tourists to come and look.
Anonymous said…
B.R, There is another book published in 2000 by Brunei Museum bout the ship wreck: A Catalogue of Selected Artefacts from the Brunei Shipwreck. Or a visit to Brunei Museum Building, Kota Batu : Gallery 6- The Brunei Shipwreck Gallery. (Australian Version) :). Insyallah, It'll be exhibited by the Tourism and Museum ppl in Naning, China during the 3rd CA-EXPO and Festival to be held in October 2006.
Anonymous said…
B.R, Just wondering how much is the Brunei Shipwreck cargo worth? And how much does it generated during the France and Australia exhibition... hmmmm...
Anonymous said…
everything is free, so no income generated... hahah.. :P

Wish the Brunei Museum would continue publishing the Brunei Museum Journal... but I guess since archealogists are "barred" from digging in Brunei, then no new and interesting find can be written...

"pessimist"... heheh
Anonymous said…
Is it true that archealogists are barred from digging in Brunei?
Anonymous said…
Here is a link which might be of interest:

Bruce Rhind said…
I am not sure if this blog is still active? But I visited the Regalia Museum shop and found a 2015 publication, "The Brunei Shipwreck: a catalogue..." which has illustrated descriptions of the cargo. And I think I heard that the Maritime Museum is finally open. On the other hand, there should be a Wikipedia entry for this famous (but unknown) wreck.

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