History of Brunei Through Spanish Eyes Part II



A DOCUMENT found by a historian by the name of CR Boxer in 1947 may have a profound effect on Brunei’s history. The manuscript called the ‘Boxer Codex’ is described as a manuscript dating from the late 16th century and containing about 270 pages of text, written probably by a Spanish and possibly by a Filipino clerk, and drawn from a variety of sources.

The most important is that the text of this single volume manuscript consists of contemporary accounts describing these places, their people and customs, and the European contact with them.

Many other European accounts about Brunei and the surrounding areas in the 15th and 16th centuries have been found and analysed decades if not centuries ago. Robert Nicholl published a book entitled European Sources for the History of the Sultanate of Brunei in the Sixteenth Century through the Brunei Museums which contained all that was known about Brunei that was already written and published.

However the Boxer Codex despite it being written in the 16th century, it was only after 1947 that it was thoroughly researched and the Brunei chapter in the Codex was only translated in 1982 when John S Carroll translated and published it in English in the Journal of the Malaysian Branch of the Royal Society (JMBRAS).

The entire Boxer Codex including the Brunei chapter has also now been translated and published in a book form entitled The Boxer Codex: Transcription and Translation of an Illustrated Late Sixteenth Century Spanish Manuscript Concerning the Geography, Ethnography and History of the Pacific, South-East Asia and East Asia by Jeffrey S Turley and edited by George Bryan Souza and Jeffrey S Turley and published this year.

Brunei Darussalam had one chapter to itself. The Brunei chapter had no named author unlike the other chapters of the book. So, it is not known who actually wrote the chapter on Brunei and why he remained anonymous.

In the entire codex, Brunei Darussalam were also mentioned in the other chapters. But that one stand alone chapter means that Brunei was important enough to warrant special attention by the Spanish authorities in Manila at that time.

However reading the Brunei chapter can be quite confusing to non-historians.

One can be constantly referring to the names of the current officially used royal genealogy table to find the comparison between who was named in the Codex versus who was listed genealogically and trying to decipher who has the correct name or even list.

The first line of the Brunei chapter read as follows:

“The island of Brunei, which is presently ruled by Sultan Nur Alam, who while prince went by a different name, Sultan Rijal, is 280 leagues to the southwest of Manila.”

In the comments, the editors of the Boxer Codex noted the following with reference to Sultan Nur Alam and Sultan Lijar as follows:

“Nula Alam and Sultan Lixar, respectively. Actually, these names have probably been inverted, since the Sultan in question, Sultan Saiful Rijal, was known to the Spaniards as Sultan Lixar. Indeed, this Saiful Rijal was the Sultan of Brunei during the so-called Castilian War, the 1578 Spanish Invasion of Brunei under the command of Francisco de Sande. Nothing more is known about Saiful Rijal’s princely name. While the chronology regarding the reigns of the Brunei sultans is problematic, it is probable that Saiful Rijal ruled from 1535-1581.”

According to Brunei’s History Centre, Sultan Saiful Rijal ruled from 1533 to 1581 and on his death in 1581, he was replaced by the Crown Prince Pengiran Muda Besar Shah Brunei.

“Sultan Saiful Rizal (TM 1533 - 1581). Baginda naik takhta pada TM 1533. Pada TM 1578, Brunei telah diserang oleh Sepanyol di Manila. Serangan itu termasyhur dengan sebutan ‘Perang Kastila’ tetapi berjaya diundurkan oleh Pengiran Bendahara Sakam bersama Orang Kaya Harimau Padang, 100 orang pahlawan terbilang dan rakyat yang taat kepada Sultan. Pada tahun ini juga Masjid Jame’ Brunei dibakar oleh Sepanyol. Baginda lindung pada TM 1581 dan digantikan oleh putera Baginda, Pengiran Muda Besar Shah Brunei.”

However the editors of the Boxer Codex further noted that:

“Below, the author of this section of the MS states that he saw this Sultan in 1589; the problem is that the MS refers to him as rey, meaning ‘king’. Unless we are to ascribe gross error to the MS, it must be assumed that Sultan Saiful Rijal was co-regent with his grandson, Mohammed Hassan just as his father Sultan Abdul Kahar had been co-regent with him.”

However the Brunei History Centre clearly stated that Sultan Saiful Rizal died in 1581. It cannot be that he was still alive in 1589 to be co-regent with his grandson, Sultan Mohammed Hassan. Who was then that Sultan?

As we go deeper into the Brunei Chapter, the chapter had a description and origin of the Malays and Islam in Brunei. On the origin of the Malays and Muslims in Brunei, the author of the Brunei Chapter wrote that the ‘Islams’ mean people who do not eat pork are called Bruneians. Their origins and lineage is as follows:

“They say that 300 years ago – a little more or less – there arrived the lord of city called Cavin, located in those regions and provinces where the Malay Language is spoken, on the Mekah side. This man’s name was Sultan Yusuf, who was reportedly king of the city of Gavin. He left his kingdom bringing a multitude of people with him in many ships. And after coming here, he discovered many lands, always retaining his title of king and lord over all the people, calling them his slaves.”

“And continuing his voyage, he reached the island of Borneo, where he fought several battles with the native Visayans who inhabited them. And because their endeavour had a favourable outcome, they remained a few days, making enquiries concerning the land and fruits they found there, including camphor, which in our day is not known to exist anywhere else but in this kingdom and is highly prized among the Visayans, as it is among many nations. They also found goldmines and placers above the southern boundary, as well as several pearl fisheries.”

“Not content with this, and being youthful and given to exploration, he determined to push ahead in search of more lands, and taking his ships again with all his people, he sailed north by north-east.”

“And after a few days, he made port in the land of China and requesting permission to go ashore, he disembarked and went to see the Chinese Emperor, whom he recognised as the supreme king. The Chinese Emperor conferred him the title of king and authorised his use of his royal insignias and coat of arms, which the king of Brunei possesses to this day. And seeing that this Sultan Yusuf was a bachelor, he gave him a Sangley woman to wife, who, as is told to this day in this realm, was a relative of the Chinese Emperor. This Sangley woman was the ruler of a city called Nantay in the kingdom of China.”

“After the wedding, Sultan Yusuf bade farewell to the Chinese Emperor, and taking his wife and entourage with him, returned to Borneo, leaving someone behind in the city of Nantay to keep accounts of the revenues and estates belonging to his wife. And so today, even though the kings of Brunei have no dealings with the residents of Nantay, they still consider themselves lords of the city of Nantay, and they say that they have treasured up the revenues over all these years in the event that some king of Brunei comes asking for them.”

If that description is true (the Codex was written in 1589, and Sultan Yusuf came 300 years earlier from the Mekah region), the first Muslim Sultan of Brunei was established by the end of the 13th century, which is much earlier than current history which is at the end of the 14th century.

We will explore other aspects of the codex related to Brunei in the next few articles.

This is the end of part two. The next article on the Boxer Codex will appear next Sunday.

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

The Brunei Times


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