Kampong Ayer Past and Present

Kampong Ayer in the 1950s. Source (Rozan Yunos Collection)

Kampong Ayer - Past and Present

Bandar Seri Begawan
Sunday, December 6, 2015

IF YOU are a Kampong Ayer aficionado or a former resident, the destruction of all the old houses by the Brunei River bank, will surely bring back memories. Over the years, many villages in Kampong Ayer have disappeared and many familiar villages names remain only in memories.

These names include Sultan Lama, Khatib Sulaiman, Ujong Pemukat, Bakut China, Menjalin, Sungai Panga, Bakut Berumput, Sungai Kuyuk, Kuala Peminyak, Pandai Amas, Sungai Siamas, Sumbiling, Sumbiling Baru, Sungai Kedayan, Ujung Tanjung, Pemancha Lama and Bukit Salat.

If we want to compare the changes with what Brunei used to have in Brunei’s Water Village of the past, the one book which must be read is the book written by Sir Spenser Buckingham St John entitled “Life in the Forests of the Far East” first published in 1862 in two volumes by Smith, Elder and Co in London.

In an introduction to a 1986 reprint of the book, Tom Harrison, a former curator of the Brunei Museum noted that St John enjoyed an unusual position in the history of Borneo as “he was trusted by both the Brookes and the Bruneis; and at the same time, by HM Government in London.” He was able to remain balanced and wrote at what Harisson described as “one of the most formative, volatile times: when much of what is present day Borneo life was being politically and economically initiated, with far-reaching consequences.”

St John spent 13 years in north and west Borneo and he was appointed as the British Consul in Brunei during 1856 to 1858. He was Rajah Brooke’s private secretary when his father introduced him to James Brooke. He actually climbed up the Mount Kinabalu and had one of the mountain’s peak (St John’s Peak) named after him. After Borneo, He went to the Carribean Islands and South America before retiring in 1896.

In the one and only chapter that St John wrote about Brunei entitled “The Kingdom of Borneo Proper”, St John thought that Brunei’s population which was estimated to be around 25,000 inhabitants maybe an under estimate.

According to him, the under estimate occurred because of the assumption that each household in Brunei averaged around five people. However, he had made more than a hundred inquiries of different men as to the number of inhabitants in each of their houses, and he found that the highest was the Sultan with seventy in his palace and the lowest was seven in a small fisherman’s hut. Based on that poll, he placed the average at fifteen per household and he estimated therefore that the Brunei population to exceed forty thousand(40,000) which is a fairly large number as this was in the mid-18th century.

Even though the central authority at that time was relatively weak, St John noted that the country was “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.”

Most importantly, St John was the first person to ever describe the names of the villages in Kampong Ayer. It is from his description that studies of the water village today can be compared with what it looked like more than 165 years ago.

The first village he described was reached by ascending the left side of the river and entering the city, was known as ‘Pablat’. This name is no longer in use today 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.

Pablat refers to the men who used the ‘balat’ instrument which the fishermen 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.

The next village after Perambat was known as ‘Membakut Pangeran Mohamed’ which then contained the houses of many of the principal nobles as well as the residence of the late sultan’s widow.

Above and at the back of Membakut Pangeran Mohamed was another village called ‘Pemproanan’, which was a village of blacksmiths and kris makers.

Next was a village called simply ‘Membakut’ which was built on firm ground which had a few Chinese and Indian houses. The next village was ‘Saudagar’ was where the merchants used to stay. It was said that a Portuguese trader from Makau used to reside there.

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

Two more villages again referred to the method of catching fish are called ‘Menjaling’ and ‘Pemukat’ and; finally ‘Burong Pinge’ inhabited by the principal traders and the wealthiest men in town.

In ascending the river from the right, St John described the first village as ‘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 kampungs were known as ‘Jawatan Jeludin’ and ‘Khatib Bakir’ made up of traders and blacksmiths; ‘Peminiak’, from minyak or oil; ‘Pengiran Ajak’ and ‘Ujong Tajong’ were made up of general traders. Sungei Kedayan was the residence of the Temenggong and Pemancha and various other government officers and the villagers themselves cast brass guns, goldsmiths and the women made gold brocades (jongsarat). 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 kampungs 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 ‘Pangeran Daud’ which was made up of villagers engaged in making mats.

With his description, we were able to peek a glimpse into what Kampong Ayer used to look like in the past.

The writer of The Golden Legacy column – the longest running column in The Brunei Times – also runs a website about Brunei at bruneiresources.com.

The Brunei Times


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