Brunei's Maritime Trade in the Past

A file photo of Kublai's Kahn, a 27-metre Chinese junk anchored in the Hong Kong Harbour. Chinese traders have been trading with Brunei since the early centuries. Picture: EPA

Rozan Yunos
Bandar Seri Begawan
Sunday, April 24, 2016

THE Maritime Executive website on February 24, 2016, had this news headline “Brunei: Asia’s Newest Trade Hub” as the website reported about the 25th anniversary of diplomatic relations between Brunei and China, and that the sultanate has voiced her interest in becoming part of China’s Maritime Silk Road as Brunei attempts to reduce its dependence on oil and gas revenue.

The silk road refers to the ancient trade route with China dating back to the 14th century of which Brunei used to be a part of. The modern Maritime Silk Road is now officially known as the 21st Century Maritime Silk Route Economic Belt, a Chinese initiative to increase investment and foster collaboration across the historic Silk Road.

What role did Brunei play in the maritime trade route in the past?

The maritime trade played and continue to play a very important part till today. Before the era of the airplanes, shipping was the dominant transportation being used for everything, especially trade. Goods were able to be moved about and shipped from one port to another that resulted in many foreign products being available in many parts of the world.

Southeast Asia is an equally important region which is rich with many products required by the international market. Southeast Asia itself is split into the Southeast Asia mainland and the Southeast Islands. Both areas produced high quality and exotic trades made up of minerals such as gold and diamond, forest produce and agriculture such as the sandalwood and spices and marine products such as pearls. These produce made the Southeast Asian region an important part of the maritime trade route which began from around the end of the century BC to the early part of the AD including up to now.

For regions around the Borneo Island, Brunei was an important port and was known by many names in the past. In Sanskrit, Brunei was known as Bhurni which means earth or country. In Arabic, Brunei was known as Barni, Burnai and Barani. Under the Javanese, Brunei was known as Buruneng.

In the Chinese records of the 9th to 15th century, Brunei was known as P’o-ni and Wen Lai and among the Western records, Brunei was known as Bruni, Brunai, Brune, Brunee, Bruney, Borneo, Borney, Bornei, Borne and Burni. These multitude of names depict the importance of Brunei as an important trading place in Southeast Asia in receiving travellers and traders of multi-ethnicity to for them to stop and trade.

Reasons for Brunei to be the centre of trade

Firstly, its geographical location. Its strategic position at the northeastern part of the Borneo island enables trading ships to berth. This allowed Chinese traders to deal directly with traders in Borneo. During the 12th century, Brunei was known by the Chinese traders as the Small Eastern Ocean. During the 13th century, the Eastern Trade Route linking Taiwan, the Philippines and Brunei with the major ports of China especially Quanzhou was formed. During the Ming Dynasty Brunei was also known as The Eastern Ocean and Beginning of the Western Ocean.

Secondly, Brunei like other countries in Southeast Asia benefitted from having a two wind monsoon system which affected many aspects of the people’s life. The first wind is the west or south winds during May to August and the second is the northwest or southwest winds in December to March. This allowed ships to travel to and fro China following the monsoon winds. The trade allowed many ports in Southeast Asia to benefit from preparing the ports and warehouses to providing services such as provisions and workers.

Thirdly, Brunei’s position in the Brunei Bay. The bay is the largest in the northern part of Borneo facing the South China Sea. Its calm waters and location in being a shelter from the strong monsoon winds enabled ships to berth and unload or load their wares. At the same time, the Brunei River which connects to the Brunei Bay is also a wide, deep and calm river. This river also connects to the interior of Brunei such as Limau Manis, Mendaun, Gadong, Damuan and the likes. Archaeologists have found a number of archaeological sites along these rivers with some dating to the early 8th century.

Fourthly, Brunei and its surrounding areas produced many exotic trading items of high quality and much demanded especially in China. Brunei was known for its produce such as camphor, rattan, sago, betel nuts, sandalwood, beeswax, birds’ nests and tortoise shells. Among all these, camphor was highly demanded, not just in China but also in the Middle East. According to Zhou Rugua, in the early 13th century, traders would bring items such as gold, silver, cloth, silk, glass bottles, beads, tin, ivory bracelets, lacquer plates and bowls and celadon vases.

In the 16th century, Brunei was said to export to Malacca, food products such as meat, fish, rice, sago and produce from the forest such as honey, beeswax and resin. Cowries and pearls were also traded as well as poor quality gold dust. Traders would bring in cotton cloth, brass bracelets, colourful beads and pearl beads.

Fifthly, Brunei has its own trading system. Before the arrival of Islam, Brunei was said to have its own trading system which had been put into place and controlled by the government. It was said that for each trading ship, they will be greeted by the King and the dignitaries and the operation of the trading will be arranged by the Ports manager especially with regard to prices and the way for the wares to be sold. It was only after everything has been agreed, that the traders were allowed to market their products. They will also be protected by the law. After they had sold their wares, a token of appreciation will be given.

Finally, the fall of Malacca. When Malacca fell to the Portuguese in 1511, Brunei became the Islamic centre and new maritime centre in Southeast Asia. In 1530, Goncalo Pereira wrote that in 1530, Brunei was a very important port and had trades with Malacca, Siam and China as well as other ports.

According to a Spanish report, Brunei was a cosmopolitan city in 1578 with inhabitants from China, Cochin-China, Cambodia, Siam, Patani, Pahang, Jawa, Sumatra, Acheh, Mulaku, Sulawesi and Mindanao.

The most important golden period of the maritime trades for Brunei was during the Song Dynasty in the 12th century. Before this period, the trades were controlled by traders from India, Persia and Arab, the three maritime powers.

It was only when the Southern Song Dynasty (1128-1279) wanted to increase their revenues by encouraging traders to China as well as encourage Chinese traders to go overseas that they became the best in the shipping world and able to overcome those three earlier maritime powers. The Chinese ships were much larger and were able to carry much more compared to all the other ships. The trades to Brunei naturally increased even in the 14th century during the period of the Yuan Dynasty (1296 - 1368) in China when the East Trading Route was introduced which benefitted most nations on the islands region of Southeast Asia including Brunei and the Philippines. Brunei continued to receive more trades in the 15th and 16th centuries during the Ming Dynasty (1364 - 1644).

Brunei also saw its own seafarers going overseas in large numbers and they were involved in the maritime trade in Southeast Asia up to the Gulf of Siam and China. One Portuguese report cited that they saw a number of Brunei ships in Malacca including among them a ship belonging to the Temenggong and an official ship from the Sultan of Brunei to the Portuguese authorities in Malacca.

The Brunei Times


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