Brunei in London Papers in 19th Century

I wrote this for my "The Golden Legacy" column on Brunei Times published about three weeks ago.


Brunei in the Illustrated London News

ONE interesting source for those interested in Brunei’s history is found in the pages of a London newspaper “The Illustrated London News” (ILN). The ILN has often been described as the world’s first illustrated newspaper.

It published its first issue on 14 May 1842. On its front page was the picture of a disastrous fire in Hamburg which broke out on 5 May. The news had arrived in London via the steamship Caledonia on 10 May, so an artist ran to the British Museum, borrowed a print of Hamburg, redrew it on a wood block and added smoke, flames and sightseers. Then the picture was engraved and, accompanied by a full descriptive text, made a dramatic feature for the ILN’s first front page.

The ILN was the first newspaper to make illustration of news events a regular feature of the newspaper. Herbert Ingram, who realized that additional copies of London newspapers were sold whenever they contained a picture of a topical event, working together with Henry Vizetelly who had an engraving and publishing business, launched ILN.

The sale of ILN’s first issue exceeded 26,000 copies and remained steady at around 24,000 weekly. It reached 66,000 by December by covering Queen Victoria’s fortnight tour to Scotland on the Royal Yacht. The magazine was published weekly until 1971, when it became a monthly. From 1989, it was bi-monthly, then quarterly. The magazine is no longer published, but the Illustrated London News Group still exists today.

During its life, ILN made quite a number of coverage of events in Brunei and in Borneo in general. Even though the coverage was not complete and one has to rely on other sources to complement their coverage, what had been published on Brunei was valuable and added to the understanding how life was like in Brunei in the mid 19th century.

ILN’s reports are not necessarily accurate or objective. It was a London based newspaper after all and its coverage on Brunei and Borneo is only when they impinged on British interests and concerns.

Borneo and Brunei was to some extent, considered the exotic image of the world complete with its Sultan, adventurer turned Rajah, headhunters, pirates, monkeys and giant trees.

But what it covered of Brunei is indeed priceless. The coverage of ILN was focused on the shipping and trading of British interests in Borneo. Attacks against whom the British defined as ‘pirates’ made up quite a big proportion of ILN news.

The earliest stories on Brunei were the stories of James Brooke. With the backing of the British Navy, he managed to crush those who were against him and gained for himself, not just a foothold over Sarawak but he managed to establish the modern Sarawak state of Malaysia today. Not only that, Brunei also lost Labuan, the story of which was also contained on the Illustrated London News.

There were four major expeditions led by the Brooke together with the British Navy against ‘sheriffs’ or the officers appointed by the Sultan of Brunei. Surprisingly the first of the four expeditions against Sahap of Sadong, Mullah of Undop and Ahmad of Linggi in June 1843 was not chronicled in ILN. HMS Dido commanded by Captain Henry Keppel published his accounts on the attacks at Saribas in his book “The Expedition to Borneo in HMS Dido” published in 1846.

The attacks against ‘pirates’ must be seen in the context of Rajah Brooke trying to gain control over Sarawak. His emergence in Sarawak caused great consternation to many. James Brooke attracted by the richness of the area was offered the governorship of Sarawak in replacement of Pengiran Indera Mahkota by Pengiran Muda Hashim, the son of Sultan Muhammad Kanzul Alam. Pengiran Muda Hashim had a long standing resentment against Pengiran Indera Mahkota.

Pengiran Indera Mahkota had given his active support to the Sheriffs of Saribas, Patusan and Sekrang and their opposition to Brooke. So the attacks by Brooke and the British Navy on them cannot be viewed in terms of piracy.

The next attack against Brooke’s enemies was against Sheriff Osman at Marudu in August 1845. This was covered in great detail because it was carried out by Sir Thomas Cochrane, the Commander-in-Chief of the British Navy, Far Eastern Station. Rear Admiral Cochrane on HMS Agincourt destroyed Sherif Osman and the ‘Lanun Base’ at Marudu. Sherif Osman was also a supporter of Pengiran Indera Mahkota and removing him removed the most dangerous opponent to James Brooke.

The massacre of Pengiran Muda Hashim in 1846 led the British to attack Brunei itself. Pengiran Muda Hashim was a strong backer of Rajah Brooke and the British and Rajah Brooke forcibly installed him as the Bendahara which caused major unhappiness in the Brunei royal court. ILN reported that Rear Admiral Cohcrane after his arrival off the river of Borneo Proper tried to arrange matters with the Sultan in an amicable manner but found that all his efforts were met with suspicion.

So, on 6 July, HMS Spiteful towed HMS Agincourt, HMS Iris, HMS Ringdove, HMS Hazard and HMS Royalist into the river about twelve miles below the town of Brunei (spelt as Brune in the book). On 8 July when they proceeded up the river, the Bruneians opened fire and Captain Mundy of HMS Iris landed and stormed the fort. Sultan Omar Ali Saiffuddin had to flee to Damuan. The British stole many guns and cannons. One of these was said to be described as a magnificent Spanish piece of the reign of Charles III.

Subsequently Sultan Omar Ali Saifuddin II was forced to sign a treaty to end the British occupation of Brunei Town. In that treaty, James Brooke was recognised as the Rajah of Sarawak and given the right to rule Sarawak without interference including naming his own successor.

Due to British pressure, Sultan Omar ‘Ali Saifuddin II also ceded Labuan to the British under the Treaty of Labuan signed on 18 December 1846. James Brooke was subsequently knighted and appointed as the first British Governor of Labuan in 1847. The loss of Labuan was a big blow to Brunei as it was its gateway to the outside world.

The ILN carried many illustrations and even included a personal sketch of Admiral Cochrane which was very frank. In it he described how he should have “… pity upon the better portion of the community and though the conduct of the Sultan is detestable in the eyes of God and the Queen; I have likewise, for this once, some pity for the Sultan, because I understand he has been instigated by wicked advisers …”

Even though the ILN carried many of the sketches of these ‘visits’ and ‘attacks’ but their ‘news’ stories did not tell the whole story. For that historians had to refer to other books such as Henry Keppel’s book “The Expedition to Borneo in HMS Dido” published in 1846, Frank Maryatt’s book “Borneo and the Indian Archipelago” published in 1848 and Mundy’s book “Narrative of Events in Borneo and Celebes down to the Occupation of Labuan” published in two volumes in 1849. But ILN was certainly one of the few interesting sources which one has to rely on for news about Brunei in the 19th century.


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