Brunei in the 1850s

[My article below was published in Brunei Times on Monday, 28th February 2011.]


The Golden Legacy

Brunei in the mid 19th Century
by Rozan Yunos

One of the best descriptions about life in Brunei in the mid 19th century was written by Sir Spenser St John. Sir Spenser St John was the British Consul in Brunei in 1856 when he was 31 years old. His diplomatic career began when his father introduced him to James Brooke who then was the first White Rajah of Sarawak. St John was appointed as the Private Secretary to James Brooke before being appointed as the British Consul to Brunei.

In 1863, he was appointed as the charge d’affaires to Haiti. From his stint in Borneo he wrote three books, the first, “Life in the Forests of the Far East” (in two volumes) were written in 1862 and two biographies of James Brooke which were produced in 1879 and 1899. He died in 1910 at the age of 85.

St John wrote extensively on Sarawak, Brunei and North Borneo and travelled extensively in the region. It is in his honour that the lower of the two peaks of Mount Kinabalu was named after him, St John’s Peak. St John’s peak is about 4 metres short of the Low’s Peak.

St John wrote about Brunei and her conditions as well as the lives of the Brunei people.

St John noted that Brunei’s population estimated to be around 25,000 inhabitants maybe an under estimate. According to him, the under estimates occurred because of the assumption that each household in Brunei then only averaged around five people. He had made more than a hundred inquires of different men as to the amount of inhabitants in each of their houses, and the highest was the Sultan with seventy in his palace and the lowest was seven in a small fisherman’s hut. He placed the average at fifteen and he estimated that the Brunei population to exceed forty thousand.

Even though the central authority at that time was relatively weak, St John noted that the country was ‘only kept together by the sort of local self-government which obtains in all the kampongs of the city, and by the strong feelings which unites all the branches of a family.’

St John was the first person to ever describe the names of the water villages. It is from his description that studies of the water village today can be compared with what it looked like more than 160 years ago.

The first village he described was reached by ascending the river and entering the city, was known as Pablat or Pabalat. This name is no longer in use to day and the village according to those who studied Kampong Ayer history is now known as Kampong Saba.

However then, it was a village, as described by St John, residence of some of the most sturdy of inhabitants. They were mostly fishermen, who have their fixed nets on the banks of the rivers and on the extensive sandbanks which stretched across the bay, inside Muara Island. Pabalat refers to the instruments which the fishermen actually used to catch their fish. Their nets were made of split bamboo, and were of various heights. The lower ones were fixed near the bank. The longer ones were added on as they enter into deeper water so that the summits were of uniform heights. The fish swimming upstream or downstream the river, on meeting this obstruction, simply follow it to the end and enter a very simple trap. The fish were then placed into baskets by the fishermen.

The next village was known is Perambat. The name Perambat was again derived from another method to catch fish which was using a rambat or a casting net. According to St John, the fishermen using the net can cast a thirty feet spread net and would be able to catch a large amount of fish and prawns.

One village was known as Membakut Pangeran Mahomed which then contained the houses of many of the principal nobles as well as the residence of the late sultan’s widow. At their back is another village called Pem-proanan, which was a village of blacksmiths and kris makers.

Membakut was another village which had a few Chinese and Indian houses. Kampong Saudagar was where the merchants used to stay. It was said that a Portuguese trader from Makau used to reside there. The village had the residence of Mahajarah Lela and Sura.

Other villages include Kampong Padaun, derived from ‘daun’, a leaf used in converting the leaf of the nipah palm into roofing mats; Kampong Pasir made of rice cleaners and makers of rice mortars; Kampong Sungai Kuyuk made up of wood workers and prawn fishers; and Kampong Pemriuk were for workers in brass and the name came from periuk or a brass cooking pot.

Two more villages again refered to the method of catching fish are called Menjaling and Pemukat. Burong Pinge, today’s Burong Pingai was inhabited by the principal traders and the wealthiest men in town.

In ascending the river, St John described the first village as Kampong Terkoyong which was derived from the word koyong or shell. The villagers collected pearl oysters as well as collected the contents of the oyster for food.

The next village was the Labuan Kapal, or the ships’ anchorage. The water up to the wharves was deep so that ships could load without using boats. The villagers themselves made kajangs or mats used to cover boats and walls of houses.

Other kampongs were known as Kampong Jawatan Jeludin and Khatib Bakir made up of traders and blacksmiths; Peminiak, from minyak or oil; Kampong Pengiran Ajak and Kampong Ujong Tanjong were made up of general traders. Sungai Kedayan was the resident of the Temenggong and Pemancha and various other government officers and the villagers themselves cast brass guns, goldsmiths and the women made gold brocades (jong sarat). Two mosques were built here.

The palace was next to the village together with houses for the attendants, the Bendahara and his people and another village just after this, called Pasar.

Other kampongs were small then namely Tamui, Panchur Brasur, Kandang Batu or Prandang, Alaugan, Blanak and Tamasik made up of traders, gardeners and a few blacksmiths with the exception of Kampong Pangeran Daud which was made up of villagers engaged in making mats.

St John described other aspects of Brunei lives including the lives of the wives, concubines and women of the old Brunei world. With his description, we were able to peek a glimpse into the past.



Aynur said…
Dear Rozan,

I'm doing a research project on a school in Brunei and would much appreciate your advice.

I would be grateful if you could get in touch with me by email

Looking forward to hearing from you,
Faiq said…
Salam BR,

This is such an extraordinary insight unto life Brunei in a certainly revolutionary epoch in history, where Europe is on the brink of Industrial Revolution and with it radical ideas. Can you tell me the names of those books by St John about his endeavours in our part in the world? That would be so much appreciated.
vivienateng said…
Could anyone confirmed that Sir Spencer St John's Malay wife by the name of Dayang Kamariah is a Bruneian?

best regards.

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