Brunei: End of 16th Century

[I wrote the following article for my Golden Legacy column on Brunei's national newspaper The Brunei Times published this morning.]


Brunei: End of 16th Century

IN the Brunei Museum Journal of 1986 was an article written by John S Carroll entitled "Francisco de Sande's Invasion of Brunei in 1578: An Anonymous Spanish Account". The article is quite intriguing as it highlighted one particular documentation which also described the Castille War. The Castille War was the war between the Spanish from Manila and Brunei.

Brunei's Golden Age continued after the death of Sultan Bolkiah in 1524. Sultan Abdul Kahar was also able to increased Brunei's territories which included the whole of Borneo, Palawan, Sulu, Balayan, Mindoro, Bonbon, Balabak, Balambangan, Bangi, Mantanai and Luzon.

With the Brunei traders, Islam spread far including to the southern Philippines islands and Brunei was recognised as a centre of Islamic propagation.

This was widely acknowledged that the Governor of Manila, a Spanish by the name of Dr Francisco de Sande wrote to the son of Sultan Abdul Kahar, Sultan Saiful Rijal imploring him not to send any more Islamic preachers to the Philippines islands. In 1578, one Joan Ochoa Ttabudo wrote in his report that Islam had spread to Balayan, Manila, Mindoro and Bonbon.

The Spaniards came to the Philippines in 1565 and captured Manila by 1571. Manila was used by the Spaniards also as a trade centre but also to spread Christianity. However with the strong influence of Sultan Abdul Kahar and later Sultan Abdul Rijal, Islam remained strong in the southern Philippines.

Brunei was seen as a big threat to Christianity. The destruction of Brunei became the Spaniards primary objective in the mid 16th century.

In 1573, a Spanish delegation was sent to Brunei to seek an audience with Sultan Saiful Rijal. The Spaniards offered Brunei a treaty with the intention that Brunei be placed under Spanish protection. The Spaniards also wanted the Sultan to receive Christian missionaries so that they could spread Christianity in Brunei. However Sultan Saiful Rijal did not accept the treaty and reacted angrily to the suggestions.

Five years later the Spaniards returned back to Brunei. Spain's armada with 40 warships was headed by the flagship Santiago. The armada left in March 1578 and by April 1578, the armada had arrived off Brunei. 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".

Sultan Saiful Rijal tore the letter and rejected the proposals outright. 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.

It was this episode that the anonymous Spanish account wrote. These unpublished accounts were kept in the Archivo General de Indias in Seville, Spain. The eleven-leave manuscript is probably not the final document as Carroll reported that it contained a lot of abbreviations. Carroll speculated who the author was. He was definitely on board and he was highly ranked enough that he was able to transmit his own version of the accounts to the King unsigned.

For the interest of this column, the writer will focus on the description of Brunei and its people in the document.

The island of Borneo was described as Burney. Islam had been the religion for quite some time as he described that the "natives say that for up to three hundred years there were a mosque there and six Moorish (Islamic) kings of the lineage of this king now ruling, Saif-ul-Rijal."

The Brunei people according to the natives were "people who settled on the river of Borney were first from China and afterwards people who came from Mekah and they preached to them and taught them to be Moors and made a sumptuous mosque so that with the religion their rule was confirmed."

Brunei then ruled from Sambas all the way to Chinabatanga (Kinabatangan) and all the way to Jolo, Cagayan and Paraguan (Palawan) and many others nearby. Burney was said to be about four leagues farther up from where the Kampong Ayer was which makes it somewhere near Limbang. According to AC Watson writing an article entitled "Letters from Limbang Inche Mohamed's Consular Reports 1866-1890" was able to quote that until 1890, there is a canal connecting the Brunei River and the Limbang River.

The Kampong Ayer was described as a large settlement, "the largest that the Spaniards have seen here, so that almost at a glance it appears that there are five or six thousand houses and very large ones and important ones".

Water was apparently piped to the houses, "from the summit of the mountains at a stone's throw or less run pipes of most excellent water in large quantity, much of which the Moors carry in canes to the upper floors of their houses, and all can be carried easily".

The foundation of the city is by its streets, and it has principal exits like streets on the island. Along the skirts of the said mountains there are very pleasant meadows to the slopes planted with palms and fruits trees.

The description of the mosque is that the mosque is like the rest of the houses made of wood but the mosque was tall, "of five storeys, the roof of straw and the highest posts of a black wood that appears to be and they say it is ebony, very dark and unclean. The mosque has a large quantity of tambours for their activities". Most likely the mosque was not five storey high but has five layer of roofs. The description of the king and the people of Brunei was as follows, "the king has many important houses, a house of munitions, many arms, a die for money, dockyards of galleys and ships, munitions of artillery, captains to whom he gave fiefs designated as captains of the armada enjoyed the tribute from the country, sepulchers of his ancestors and of his own, gilded and roofed, well distinguished from the rest of the important ones, and then many books of his sect."

"They write in the Arabic language of those of Mekah and of the Malay and that of this country the Tagalog language of Manila".

The document certainly opened up to us what Brunei looked like at the end of the 16th century. However due to limited space, the rest of the documentation would have to wait another time.


Funnyguy said…
Salam, I'm currently studying Christian-Muslim Relations in University of Birmingham and my research pertains much to the relations of christian and muslims in brunei..So far the resources are hard to find and i'm wondering if u have ever come across any books or articles relating to my research.Thanks

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