Brunei in 1888

Brunei in 1888
By Rozan Yunos

Sometime in 1888, Vice Admiral Sir Nowell Salmon, VC, KCB, was cruising off the coast of Borneo according to the newspaper The Illustrated London News on 13 October 1888. He stopped in Brunei and met Sultan Hashim Jalilul Alam Aqamaddin ibni Sultan Omar Ali Saifuddin, the 25th Sultan of Brunei. Sultan Hashim ascended the throne in 1885 after the death of Sultan Abdul Momin. Vice Admiral Sir Nowell Salmon was the commanding officer of the British Naval squadron on the China station.

The newspaper also reported that the island of Borneo had not yet been thoroughly explored. It noted that there were three states, that of Rajah Brooke’s Sarawak, the area occupied by the British North Borneo and Brunei. It also reported that the Dutch Government has formed settlements in the southern and western parts of Borneo, which are administered in connection with Java, but the interior, with its “primitive tribes of natives” is pretty much left to itself.

The Illustrated London News ran a number of articles on Brunei during that century. On 13 December 1845, it wrote about the capital of the “kingdom of Borneo Proper, or Brunai” which contained “a considerable number of houses, built on posts, four or five feet high, which, at the rise of the tide, allow the water to pass freely under them. The streets are formed by canals, either natural or artificial, which facilitate communication; and they are always covered with boats, which are managed by women with great dexterity… the Chinese find it advantageous to build their junks here; for, though the island has no teak, it produces other kinds of good ship-timber, among which is the camphor tree.”

On 27 June 1857, it ran another article entitled ‘Bruni’ and it described the capital of Brunei which the Europeans then refer to as Borneo Proper. It described Brunei, “most of the houses are built on piles, the remained being erected on the ground. At the back of these tenements the hills gradually rise, with their upas and other trees growing on them … at a distance the locality is miserable to behold, but on a near approach the lively and busy aspect which usually pervades the town produces a very different impression.”
“There being no shops in Bruni, bargaining in many sort of articles is pursued in the little craft which lies off the town. Several Chinese junks navigate the river … there are two streets in the town, intersecting each other, forming an irregular cross, and dividing it into four sections. The palace is large but as incommodious as the houses. Iron is so scarce as to be sufficiently valuable to be used as money. The lower orders of people wear a conical straw hat, with a very wide brim; and others are but slenderly clothed. The population (whose number is uncertain) chiefly consists of Malays, who indicated their citizenship by calling themselves Brunese.”

In the 1888 article, the newspaper described the town of Brunei, as the place “where the Sultan resides, is situated at the head of the Gulf of Labuan, only thirty miles from the little island of Labuan, with its British official residents, and is regularly visited by steamers from Singapore.”

“The inhabitants of the town, numbering 12,000, are Malays, with some Dyaks, and there are no Europeans living there. Our correspondent, the Rev. O’Donnell Ross Lewin, naval chaplain to H.M.S. Audacious, who has favoured us with Sketches of Borneo describes Brunei as a town actually built in the water, the houses being erected on piles. It stand in the estuary of a river, and can be approached only by small vessel.”

“The Sultan’s palace is entered by a ladder. The Sultan is a stout old Malay, of a reddish-brown complexion. He wore a blue jacket, a very large girdle, with an ornamental creese stuck in it; a sarong or short gown, and white trousers. His velvet cap was worked with gold embroidery to resemble a crown. His Prime Minister attended to him.”

By the1880s, Brunei’s situation was quite dire. More territories had been lost to both Rajah Brooke’s Sarawak and the British North Borneo company. Sultan Hashim in 1887 appealed in a letter to Queen Victoria not to allow the cession of more territory and Sir Frederick Weld, the Governor of the Straits Settlement was sent to investigate the situation in Brunei. 

Sir Frederick Weld was sympathetic to the case put forward by Sultan Hashim. He recommended that the solution was to be similar to that already applied to the Malay states which was to appoint a British Resident to assist the Sultan in administering the state. However Sultan Hashim while welcoming the protectorate was not as enthusiastic in accepting a Resident. At the same time the British Government also considered placing a Resident in pre-oil Brunei as too expensive.

The Treaty of Protection was signed on 17 September 1888. The Agreement gave the British Government no right to interfere with the internal administration of Brunei. Similar agreements were also signed by the British Government with Sarawak and British North Borneo. 

The Agreement prohibited Brunei from ceding or alienating territory to any foreign state, or the subjects or citizens thereof, without the consent of the British Government. The British Government was also anxious to prevent a situation in which the German or the French might interfere.

The Illustrated London News had often reported about Brunei and the disintegration of Brunei throughout the 19th century can be read throughout those years in the newspaper. However, its British readers may not realised it at that time. 

DJM Tate in the book ‘Rajah Brooke’s Borneo’ (1988) which compiled all The Illustrated London News articles about Borneo and Brunei noted that “it would be difficult for the ILN reader to detect that, as far as the Malays of Brunei were concerned, they were engaged in a desperate if silent struggle to preserve their political identity. Ever since the fatal cession of Labuan in 1846, they had watched as the various districts of Brunei fell piecemeal into the hands of the Brookes to the west, and, in the late 1870s, into the newly-formed British North Borneo Company to the east.”

Tate credited Governor Weld for the survival of Brunei, “by the time of Admiral Salmon’s visit to the Brunei Court in 1888, the ‘Scramble for Brunei’ was in full swing and matters were reaching a crisis. In fact, it was only the last minute intervention of Sir Frederick Weld, Governor of the Straits Settlement, that prevented the Sultanate from disappearing under the sway of either, but placed under direct British protection, an event which took place in the year of Salmon’s visit.”

During the years after 1888, despite the treaty, Sultan Hashim felt that the British were not much interested in really protecting Brunei. Limbang was taken by Rajah Brooke in 1890. 

Sultan Hashim tried to seek help from Sultan Abdul Hamid of Turkey. It was then the British sent Malcolm McArthur to look into Brunei’s situation. In 1906, the first British Resident was in Brunei after the Supplementary Agreement to the Treaty of Protection was signed in 1905/1906. Sultan Hashim died in May 1906.

/End of Article


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Anonymous said…
Great blog! please keep it up :) is there anyway to subscribe for newsletters/notifications for when you post?

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