Brunei 300 Years Ago

[My article below was published in my column, The Golden Legacy on The Brunei Times 8th May 2012 edition. It is based on a blog entry I wrote about a couple of weeks earlier.]


Brunei 300 Years Ago
by Rozan Yunos

There are many descriptions of Brunei in the past. Before the 15th century, historians would find many of them in the Chinese and Arabic records. After the 15th century, with the arrival of the Europeans in the region, the European also wrote extensively about the Southeast Asian region and Brunei. The most famous was the description of Brunei written by Antonio Pigafetta, the Italian Chronicler on board of Magellan’s ships circumnavigating the world.

Pigafetta’s famous description of Brunei’s Kampong Ayer 500 years ago “…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 ...”

However there were other equally useful descriptions as well though written later. One of them was by a Dutch minister by the name of Francois Valentijn. He was born on 17 April 1666 in Dordrecht, Netherlands. He studied Theology and Philosophy at the University of Leden and University of Uterecht.

Valentijn worked with the Dutch East Indies Company known by its Dutch initials VOC as a missionary first at the age of 19 and served from 1685 to 1694 before returning back to the East Indies later on as an Army Chaplain at the age of 39 where he served from 1705 to 1713. He was a minister of the Dutch Reformed Church. He died in 1727.

In the total of the 16 years that Valentijn spent in the East Indies, he collected a lot of information about the East Indies and the Far East including Borneo and Brunei.

Before he died, he wrote a massive work comprising of five parts and published them in his 8 volume book entitled “Oud en Nieuw Oost-Indien” (“Old and New East-India”) where he described about the history of the Dutch East India Company and about other countries of the Far East. In those eight volume works, there were also many illustrations including the most up to date then map of the Indies which he had accessed from the company VOC. He also referred to many other writers’ research and works. Valentijn’s work was published between 1724 and 1726.

A part of his works which contained information and description about Borneo and Brunei was translated by S.A. Dovey and was published in The Brunei Museum Journal Volume 4 Number 2 (1978). These were obtained from the first three chapters of Vol. III Pt. 2 from a photostat copy provided by the London University. It is not known whether Valentijn himself came to Brunei or whether he obtained the information from another traveler.

Of Borneo, Valentijn wrote that “… there are four or five kings and the same number of capital cities. They are known as the Kingdoms of Banjar Massin, of Sucadana, of Landa, of Sambas, of Hermata, of Jathoe and of Borneo …”

Valentijn noted that the King of Banjar Massin thought himself to be the “… most powerful and well known …” as the “… King of Banjar Massin calls himself Emperor of Borneo … although he has no power over the other kings … from time to time he has tried to overpower the King of Succadana …”

For Brunei, Valentijn wrote “... further north or rather N.N.W. resides the King of Borneo in a village of the same name. This village is also situated on a very large river with a collosal bay, protected to the east and west by a reef with 3 small islands just in front of it. There are another three islands 12½ miles outside the reef, Poelo Tiga and another one named Monpaciam as well as a small unnamed island. Near these island is another reef extending itself in northeasterly-northwesterly directions …”

According to the notes in The Brunei Museum Journal, Valentijn mistakenly identify Poelo Tiga or Tigaon for Labuan when he described Poelo Tiga. Monpaciam according to the same notes in The Museum Journal referred to Pulau Keraman.

Valentijn also wrote that the King of Borneo was considered by some people as “… the head king of the island and his village the capital city. This village is situate in a large swamp, which is inundated most of the time, so that it is necessary to use boats to reach the houses, about 2,000 – 3,000 in number, which are made of wood. The people are armed with bows and arrows. Whoever gets hit by their arrows is usually a dead man. They are strong, well-built men …”

According to Valentijn, Brunei was considered the richest kingdom in the whole island of Borneo. He wrote that “… the general opinion is that the people of the village of Borneo are the richest of the whole island, not only because of the presence of large quantities of gold, but also because the quality of this gold is higher, being of a purer and better alloy then found anywhere else. They also have the best camphor in the whole of Indies and other sought after riches, which are profitably traded, either for money or cloth …”

Valentijn also noted that the boats or perahus of Brunei were beautiful and strong and had an interesting design with a large tent in the middle. His description runs as follows “… the people of Borneo also have extremely beautiful strong prahus some of them 8 to 10 feet in width and 40 to 50 feet long with a large tent built in the middle and manned by 30 to 40 seamen …” This boat design is reminiscent of the Sultan Bolkiah ship design which is depicted at the lagoon of the Sultan Omar Ali Saifuddien mosque.

The most significant change between what was identified by Pigafetta and Valentijn is the number of houses in Kampong Ayer. Pigafetta in 1521 said that there were about 25,000 families but by 1700, Valentijn recorded only about two to three thousand houses.

Valentijn also wrote about another much earlier visit by another Dutchman by the name of Olivier van Noord in 1600. That visit will be covered in a future column.

S.A. Dovey, 1978. Valentyn’s Borneo. Translated from Oud en Nieuw Oost Indien published 1724 – 1726. The Brunei Museum Journal Volume 4 Number 2, 1978.

Rozan Yunos, 2011. Antonio Pigafetta, Brunei’s 16th Century Chronicler. The Brunei Times, 13th June 2011.

Wikipedia, 2012. Francois Valentijn. Wikipedia article retrieved on 5th May 2012.



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