Brunei in 1776

Thomas Forrest wrote about Brunei in 1776

The Golden Legacy, The Brunei Times 21 May 2012

Brunei in 1776 - As Seen Through The Eyes of European Travelers
by Rozan Yunos

Most European writers who wrote about Brunei in the past can be identified easily. However one in particular called Thomas Forrest was not as easily identifiable.

Thomas Forrest wrote about Brunei in his book with the typical long title for books during those period entitled “A Voyage to New Guinea and the Moluccas from Balambangan: including an account of Magindano, Sooloo and other Islands and Illustrated with Thirty Copperplates belonging to The Honourable East India Company during the Years 1774, 1775 and 1776”. The book was printed by G Scott in London in 1780.

Printed in the old English style, he described Brunei very vividly in February 1776: “… the town of Borneo is fituate, as has been faid, about ten miles up the river from Pulo Chirming. The houses are built on each fide the river upon pofts, and you afcend to them by ftairs and ladders, as to back doors of warehoufes in Wapping. The houfes on the left fide, going up, extend backwards to the land, each in a narrow flip. The land is not fteep, but fhelving: every houfe has therefore a kind of ftage, erected for connexion with the land. There is little intercourfe from houfe to houfe by land, or what may be called behind: as there is no path, and the ground is fwampy: the chief communication proves thus in front, by boats …”

He continued, “… on the right, going up, the houfes extend about half a mile backwards, with channels like lanes, between the rows; fo that it would feem, the river, before the houfes were built, made a wide bafon of fhallow water, in which have arifen three quarters of the town, refembling Venice; with many water lanes, if I may fo fay, perpendicular and parallel to the main river, which is here is almoft as wide as the Thames at London bridge, with fix fathom water in the channel; and here lie moored, head and ftern, the China junks; four or five of which come annually from Amoy, of five or fix hundred tons burden. The water is falt, and the tide runs about fiour miles an hour in the fprings. Some of the houfes on the right fide of the water, are two ftories high, which I never faw in any other Malay country, with ftages or wharfs before them, for the convenience of trade …”

Judging by the description, Captain Thomas Forrester most likely had visited Brunei himself and did not rely on other people’s accounts. However despite his contribution describing in vivid detail and adding to our knowledge about Brunei in the 1770s, he is not widely known.

A search in ‘The Dictionary of National Biography’ published in 63 volumes between 1855 and 1890 showed an entry about him that appeared in Volume XX: From Forrest to Garner. That particular volume was edited by Leslie Stephens and published by Macmillan, Smith, Elder & Co in New York and London in 1889.

According to the entry in the biography, Captain Forrest served for some time in the Royal Navy, and served as a midshipman in 1745. A midshipman is an officer in the Royal Navy in the 17th century and was so named because the officer was stationed amidships. He ranked above naval cadet and below sub lieutenant.

Reading his book, it was most likely that he was stationed in Indian waters from 1753 almost continuously. He said that during the Seven Years War, he was on the royal navy ship Elizabeth under Admiral Charles Steevens although the paybook of the time did not contain his name. The Seven Years War was a global military war between the great powers of the time.

It was not until 1762 that Captain Forrest commanded one of the British East India Company ships and by 1770 he was in Balambangan and in 1774 he was engaged to form the new settlement there. British East India Company concluded an agreement with the Sultan of Sulu 13 years earlier to allow British to occupy the island which is situated off the coast what is now known as Kudat in Sabah. The port eventually failed and British left in 1805.

Captain Thomas Forrest after forming the new settlement went on to explore more areas in New Guinea, the Sulu Archipelago and the southern coasts of the Philippines. He commanded a ship called ‘Tartar’, a local boat weighing about ten tons fully loaded, with a crew of two English officers and eighteen Malays.

Forrest visited other places in 1780s and 1790s before dying in India in 1802. Before he died he published a few books including the book which interested us the most “A Voyage to New Guinea”.

Forrest’s descriptions about the Kampong Ayer market makes for vivid imagination, “… in thofe divifions of the town, made by the water lanes, is neither firm land nor ifland; the houfes ftanding on pofts, as has been faid, in fhallow water; and the public market is kept fometimes in one part, fometimes in another part of the river. Imagine, a fleet of London wherries, loaded with fifh, fowl, greens &c. floating up with the tide, from London Bridge towards Weftminfter; then down again, with many buyers floaing up and down with them; this will give fome idea of a Borneo market. Thofe boats do not always drive with the tide, but fometimes hold by the ftairs of houfes, or by ftakes, driven purpofely into the river, and fometimes by one another: yet in the courfe of a forenoon, they vifit moft part of the town, where the water lanes are broad. The boat people (moftly women) are provided with large bamboo hats, the fhade of which covers great part of the body, as they draw themfelves up under it, and fit, as it were, upon their heels …”

Forrest described the international trade then at Brunei Bay, “… confiderable is the commerce between China and Borneo, fome what like the trade from Europe to America. Seven junks were at Borneo in 1775. They carry to China great quantities of black wood, which is worked up there into furniture, &c. it is bought for about two dollars a pecul; and fold for five or fix; alfo ratans, dammer, a kind of refin, clove bark, fwallo, tortoifhell, birds nefts &c. articles fuch as are carried from Sooloo to China …”

Not many may know this but in those days, ships were also built in Brunei, “… at Borneo town, the Chinefe fometimes build junks, which they load with the rough produce of the ifland Borneo, and fend thence to China. I have feen a dock clofe to the town, in which a China junk of 500 tons had lately been built, worth 2500 taels, and 8000 in China …”

Forrest had other entries about Brunei and Borneo, perhaps this subject can be visited again in the future.


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