Life in Brunei at the Turn of the Century

The Golden Legacy, The Brunei Times 4 June 2012

Life in Brunei at the Turn of the Century
by Rozan Yunos

THIS writer recently came across an interesting book entitled "The Sea Road to the East: Gibraltar to Wei-hai-wei" written by A J Sargent and published in London by George Philip & Son Ltd exactly 100 years ago in 1912.

The book contained six lectures prepared for the Visual Instruction Committee of the British Colonial Office. Most interestingly it contained a description about Brunei in Lecture Five entitled the Malay Region.

What does it say about Brunei? This is an excerpt from the lecture:

"If we cross the wide bay between the island and the mainland, we shall get a glimpse of past history, and better appreciate the reason for the failure of Labuan."

"At the southeast corner of the bay we enter the Brunei river. The forest comes right down to the river bank, and the trees appear to be growing in the water, with a tangle of interlaced roots showing above the surface; we are passing a swamp of mangroves, or bakau, as the natives call the tree. Then the land begins to rise in low hills covered still with forest, and the mangrove gives way to the coconut palm. We pass native canoes with their double rows of paddles, and here and here on the bank a group of native houses among the palms."

"Finally we round a sharp bend in the river and come upon the old native town of Brunei. It is a kind of eastern Venice, with its houses built on piles driven into the mud, and. its streets all waterways. Here, is one of these streets, fin Brunei, as all over Borneo, the bamboo, the palm and the creeping rattan, provide the builder with material free of charge for post's, flooring, roofs and lashings for the houses are tied, not nailed together."

"There is fish in abundance in the river, and we pass a fleet of market boats, with women in large sun hats, bringing the catch for sale in the town; while in the forest all round there is fruit to be had for the picking. Nature has supplied the Malay with most of his necessaries at his very door."

"Centuries ago Brunei was a large city, the capital of a kingdom. It gave its name to the whole island and its rulers extended their sway across the neighbouring seas. Early voyagers from Europe seem to have been much impressed by its barbaric magnificence. Most of the territory shown on the old maps has been ceded to the British North Borneo Company or to Sarawak."

"One local industry of some importance Brunei still possesses; this is the working of brass, particularly of brass gongs, which still pass as a kind of currency in the interior."

"We can visit a whole village of brass workers, on a creek close by, and see them working in the open air with primitive bellows made of bamboo, and producing castings of old-fashioned design. This is merely a survival; internal decay and attacks from outside have left Brunei only a shadow of its former power."

"The trade with China and the Malay Archipelago, which contributed to its former power, was destroyed by the attacks of the fierce pirates from the islands to the north; and British influence came too late to save the kingdom from its own internal weakness."

The description is familiar enough to most people who are knowledgeable about Brunei in the early 20th century.

The more interesting question is who is the Colonial Office Visual Instruction Committee for whom the lecture about Brunei and other parts of the Malay Region?

James R Ryan in an article entitled "On Visual Instruction" published in "The Nineteenth-Century Visual Culture Reader" in 2004 wrote a short piece about the Colonial Office visual Instruction Committee (COVIC). COVIC started life in 1902 and ended after the World War One.

It developed an Empire-wide scheme of lantern-slide lectures together with illustrated textbooks to teach "first, the children of Britain about their Empire and, second, the children of the Empire about the Mother Country".

COVIC was composed of representatives of both imperial and educational organisations chaired by the Earl of Meath with two mainstays, Charles Lucas from the Colonial Office who was then an influential figure in geographical education and Halford Mackinder who prepared the lectures and at that time was the Director of the renowned London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE).

There were several sets of lantern-slide lectures. The first set was of the Eastern Colonies of Ceylon, the Straits Settlements and Hong Kong which was shown in 1904. Between 1905 and 1907, there were more sets for Mauritius, West Africa, the West Indies, India, Canada and South Africa. By 1907, over sixty four lantern-slide sets made up of about 23,000 individual slides were sent around the British Empire.

These were also published in book form. The first seven lectures on the United Kingdom was the first book to be published written by H J Mackinder in six editions namely the Eastern Colonies Edition (1905), Mauritius Edition (1906), West African Edition (1906), West India Edition (1906), Indian Edition (1907) and Indian Edition for use in the United Kingdom (1909). The second was the Eight Lectures on India published in October 1910 and the third is the six lectures on the Sea Road to the East published in 1912.

The six lectures are made up of Gibraltar and Malta in Lecture One, Malta to Aden in Lecture Two, The Indian Ocean in Lecture Three, Ceylon in Lecture Four, the Malay Region in Lecture Five and the Chinese Stations in Lecture Six.

Brunei was in Lecture Five with two slides of illustrations of Brunei, both being pictures of scenes of Kampong Ayer. The first showing "Market Boats, Brunei" where a group of padians were gathering in the middle of Kampong Ayer and the second entitled "A Street in Brunei' showing a few houses on water.

Brunei obviously then was in the backwaters. The British government took over the reign of governing Brunei via the 1906 Agreement which government via the residency system. The first British Resident was Malcolm McArthur in 1906 who introduced a new administrative system.

We do not know when the article was written but obviously by then not much progress had taken place in the new town. It was also very unlikely that these lantern slides were ever shown in Brunei then.

However the lecture obviously was proud of the imperial achievement "though, under the guidance of British officials, and by the help of British capital, the fragment which remains seems likely to recover some of its prosperity ".

Rozan Yunos, the writer of The Golden Legacy the longest running column in The Brunei Times also runs a website at

The Brunei Times


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