Looking At Brunei Through Spanish Eyes



THIS week’s article continues on the narratives of the chapter on Brunei as written in the Boxer Codex. The Boxer Codex is a book written about Philippines and the surrounding region during the Spanish administration around the late 16th century. The Boxer Codex was found in 1947 by a British Historian named Professor Boxer.

The Boxer Codex noted that the current Sultan of Brunei was Sultan Nur Alam, who used a different name when he was a prince, Sultan Rijal. The Codex also noted that Brunei had two different people, one was the Visayans, who were not Muslims and the other people was the people of the Islamic religion and these people were not originally from Brunei.

According to the Boxer Codex, the Muslims in Brunei came originally with another ruler named Sultan Yusuf who originally came from Cavin, a city from the Mekah region around the late 12th century. Sultan Yusuf went to China and married a Chinese noblewoman, a Sangley from Nantay City in China. We continue with the Codex narrative as follows.

“After Sultan Yusuf arrived in Borneo, he settled in with his slaves or vassals and subjugated the natives Visayans of the island, forcing them to pay tribute to him. He bore children on the island by his aforementioned wife. He died a very old man and bequeathed the throne to his eldest son, according to customs.

“At his death he left a golden tablet that was reportedly thin and which measured a fathom square; he ordered that the names of all the kings who descended from him be set down in writing on it. And thus they have been recorded on this tablet, which the king himself kept and on which he wrote his name with his own hand.

“This tablet was lost when Francisco de Sande sacked Brunei while governor of those island. It is surmised that the old king, the father of the present king, who had possession of the tablet, buried it or threw it into the sea.

“And because this king died around the time and left no clues as to the fate of the tablet, the names of past kings of Brunei are not known, save those who have been preserved by memory, which are as follows.

“The great grandfather of the current king was named Sultan Sulaiman, and his grandfather was Sultan Salan. And the father of the present king, the one who lost the plate, was called Sultan Aril Lula. The current king, as I have said, is Sultan Nur Alam, and his son, who has been named his successor is called Raja Berunai.

“The Kings who have reigned in Brunei have always been legitimate heirs to the throne without interruption, but the eldest son have always been the successors and this has been the manner of succession from Sultan Yusuf and his wife.”

When we looked at all the names, we see a number of names which are not listed on the Tarsilah.

Sultan Nur Alam. Sultan Aril Lula. Sultan Salam and of course the name of Sultan Yusuf himself. Of the names which are also listed on the Tarsilah are Sultan Sulaiman and Raja Berunai. Sultan Sulaiman is the fourth Sultan listed in the Tarsilah and it was said that he reigned from 1432 to 1485 and he abdicated to let his son, Sultan Bolkiah ascend the throne as the fifth Sultan.

According to the footnotes in the book, it is possible that Sultan Salan was actuallly Sultan Bolkiah, the son of Sultan Sulaiman, the fifth Sultan of Brunei. Carrol hypothesises that the name Salan could stem from Malay-Arabic Salam, meaning ‘peace’ and we add that he could have been borned this name while prince.

Sultan Aril Lula could refer to the father of Sultan Saiful Rijal who was the sixth ruler of Brunei. He is known as Sultan Abdul Kahar who reigned from 1524 to 1535.

Raja Berunai could refer to Sultan Shah Berunai, the eighth Sultan of Brunei who reigned from 1581 to 1582.

That lost genealogical table is very precious. It could have told us many things about the origin of the kingdom and the origin of the ruling family and could have told us so much about life in those days.

The rest of the Brunei Chapter in the Boxer Codex deals with the country, the laws, its customs and its people. The Boxer Codex described the country as follows:

“The King of Brunei’s palace and seat of government is a league and a half up river from the coast; as I have mentioned, this main river is called the Brunei. This city has about 8,000 households. And because it was built on water, the only way to travel in the city is in small boats called ‘bangkas’ of which they have a great quantity to supply this need.

“Outlying the capital there are many other towns on up the rivers and along the coast; indeed, the island is heavily populated, especially the interior. All the houses are made of timber and are thatched with nipa leaves. They are constructed very close together and hence the people are wary of fires.

“The city’s waterways are all salty, thus the city is more an arm of the sea than a river, though it is true that there is fresh water two leagues upriver. This arm of the city is approximately 250 paces wide. The city is protected on two sides by high mountains ranges.

“The inhabitants go to great lengths to bring the fresh water they consume to their houses at low cost. It flows day and night into a kind of basin, as follows. There is an abundance of very good water in these two mountain ranges. They take big bamboo canes, split them and place supports under them so that they function like troughs that carry the water from the two mountain ranges to their houses.”

The extent of Brunei’s reign in those days was described as follows:

“The jurisdiction of this realm extends to a river that is near the end of this island of Borneo; the river, called the Sambas, runs toward the south-west. It once belonged to this kingdom but is now in the possession of the queen of Java because she seized it.

“There are many other islands besides this one that are subject to the said kingdom, such as the island of Jolo on the opposite coast. All these islands obey and pay tribute to Brunei.”

Brunei around the late 16th century had started to lose some of its territory especially in the southwest of Borneo such as Sambas. However Brunei still retained the north east of Borneo and the islands around the Sulu were still controlled by Brunei.

Perhaps we can look into the other subject matters mentioned in the Boxer Codex for our future articles.

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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