History of Brunei

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History of Brunei
Bruneian Empire
to 1888
House of Bolkiah
(15th century – present)
Sultanate of Sulu
to 1578
Kingdom of Maynila
to 1571
Kingdom of Tondo
to 1571
Castille War 1578
Civil War 1660–1673
15th century
to 1841
15th century
to 1846
Sabah (North Borneo)
15th century
to 1865
British protectorate 1888–1984
Japanese occupation 1942–1945
Borneo campaign 1945
Revolt 1962

The Sultanate of Brunei ruled during the fourteenth to the sixteenth century. Its territory allegedly covered the northern part of Borneo and the southern Philippines. European influence gradually brought an end to this regional power. Later, there was a brief war with Spain, in which Brunei was victorious. The decline of the Bruneian Empire culminated in the nineteenth century when Brunei lost much of its territory to the White Rajahs of Sarawak, resulting in its current small landmass and separation into two parts. Brunei was a British protectorate from 1888 to 1984.

Before the Sultanate

A stone tortoise with a stele in memory of Ma-na-jih-chia-na in Nanjing

The history of Brunei before the arrival of Magellan's ships is based mostly on speculation and the interpretation of Chinese sources and local legends. Historians believe that there was a forerunner to the present day Brunei Sultanate. One possible predecessor state was called Vijayapura, which possibly existed in northwest Borneo in the 7th century.[lower-alpha 1] It was probably a subject state of the powerful Srivijaya empire based in Sumatra. Another possible predecessor state was called Po-ni (pinyin: Boni).[1] By the 10th century Po-ni had contacts with first the Song dynasty and at some point even entered into a tributary relationship with China. By the 14th century Po-ni also fell under the influence of the Javanese Majapahit Empire. The book of Nagarakretagama, canto 14, written by Prapanca in 1365 mentioned Berune as a vassal state of Majahpahit.[2] However this may have been nothing more than a symbolic relationship, as one account of the annual tribute owed each year to Majahpahit was a jar of areca juice obtained from the young green nuts of the areca palm

Chinese settlement and the Kinabatangan

Main articles: Kinabatangan and Kinabatangan River

The greater part of the official historical record for early Brunei until the arrival of Pigafetta is based on legends and assumptions. The historical account – lacking any real evidence – has been constructed in such a way that around 1370, Zhu Yuan Zhang sent representatives to Brunei via Indonesia, and Brunei paid tribute to the Ming Chinese. This signified the strong influence of the Ming Dynasty, and accounts for the combination of Ong Sum Ping's influence in Brunei. In these 30 years, the two main powers combined quickly. The Chinese expanded their influence from the East of the Kinabatangan River to Northern Borneo. They built Chinese towns and villages, among which was present-day Kota Kinabalu.

In 1402, after the death of Sultan Muhammad Shah ( or known before converting to Islam, Awang Alak Betatar), his son Abdul Majid Hasan ascended the throne. Ong Sum Ping and Pengiran Temenggong became regents. Bruneian history has seldom treated Hasan as the second Sultan. In 1406, after the death of Sultan Majid Hasan, there existed a two-year power vacuum. In these two years, Bruneian nobles started a power struggle; in the end, Sultan Ahmad won out, and Pengiran Temenggong failed. Ahmad became the second Sultan in Bruneian History. Ong Sum Ping consolidated his power again. He didn't forget China after the immigration to Brunei, but continued to perpetuate Chinese cultural identity under the new Ming Dynasty. Thus, he sent a representative with his armies to China. He landed on the coastal region of Fujian; emperor Yong Le was pleased and asked for the official to organise a welcome party for Ong Sum Ping. In this trip, they saw the changes in China.

At his advanced age, Ong Sum Ping could not make the long journey back to Brunei, so he missed the happiness of returning to his homeland, and he died in Nanjing. Before his death, he asked Emperor Yong Le that (1) Brunei and Sungai Kinabatangan be made (or annexed as) Chinese territories, (2) named Gunung Kinabalu, and (3) that he himself be buried in China. Emperor Yong Le agreed and titled Ong's son Awang as the new ruler, and named the mountain of Brunei as Chang Ning Mountainجبل السلام – mean Jabel Alsalam ("mountain of peace") in Arabic.

In 1408, Awang came back to Brunei under the protection of Imperial eunuchs and officials. Awang succeeded to the influence of Ong Sum Ping in Brunei, and continued to exercise political power. The Chinese still called them Chung Ping – General. In 1412, he paid tribute to Emperor Yong Le. The wife of Ong Sum Ping was also buried in Brunei at a location which the local Malays called Bukit Cina. The sister of Ong Sum Ping and Sultan Ahmad gave birth to a daughter, who married Sultan Sharif Aliسلطان شريف علي(so he was Sayyidina-سيدنا); the man came from Arabian Peninsulaالشبة الجزيرة العربية, and was the descendant of Nabi Muhammad SAWالنبي محمد.

Even today, because of their influence, Bruneians still believe that Ong Sum Ping was the ancestor of the Brunei royalty. Even though the Bruneian royal family stressed more the theories of Melayu Islam Beraja ملاي إسلام براج, but they didn't disagree with it; obviously they gave him positive criticism, and recorded Ong Sum Ping under the genealogy of the Sultans of Brunei. In the capital of Brunei—Bandar Seri Begawan (similar with श्री भगवान् in Sanskrit) بندر سري بغاوان, there was a Jalan Ong Sum Ping (Arabic: سارع ونغ سوم بينغ), and the Muzium Brunei also contained artefacts of Ong Sum Ping. The tomb of Ong Sum Ping's son is also protected by the Bruneian government.

To prove the existence of Ong Sum Ping, the Silsilah Raja-raja Sulu could provide the best evidence. According to the record of the Silsilah Raja-raja Sulu, when Ong Sum Ping first arrived at Brunei with many Chinese, he said that he was ordered to collect jewellery in Sabah, and the mountain was named Gunung Kinabalu. The legend said that some attractive animal might appear in the forest, and they ate some people. Ong Sum Ping brought the candle with his colleague, and got the jewellery at last. Ong Sum Ping got a daughter, who married Sultan Ahmad in 1375 (during the Ming Dynasty in China). The kingship was handed down 20 times until now; the daughter of Sultan Ahmad married with Sultan Sharif Ali, and came to the throne. He was the ancestor of today's Sultan Haji Hassanal.

According to this record, Ong Sum Ping didn't become Sultan, but his daughter was married to the Sultan, and he became the Sultan's father-in-law. Bruneian royal houses adopted the maternal succession system; it is known for certain that his maternal granddaughter became the Queen of Sultan Sharif Ali. However, it is believed that the year might be in 1375, not in the Yuan Dynasty, but in the 8th year of Emperor Hong Wu.

Conversion to Islam and the "Golden Age"

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The tomb of Sultan Bolkiah near Kota Batu. He was the fifth sultan of Brunei and his reign was a golden Age in Brunei's history.

The later history of Po-ni, or Borneo, remains somewhat obscure. By the middle of the 15th century Po-ni had entered into a close relationship with the Muslim kingdom of Malacca. This era also saw the origin of the ruling dynasty, which continues to this day. According to the Syair Awang Semaun (also spelled Simawn), Brunei's national epic poem, the present-day sultanate originated when Dewa Emas Kayangan descended to earth from heaven in an egg. He had children with a number of aboriginal maidens, and one of these children converted to Islam and became the first sultan. However, the state continued to be multicultural. The second sultan was either Chinese or married a Chinese woman. The third sultan was said to be part Arab, who are seen in South and Southeast Asia as the descendents of Muhammad.

The sultanate oversaw a gradual expansion of the state's influence and borders. This was accelerated with the conquest of Malacca by Portugal in 1511. Brunei benefited from the scattering of Muslim merchants and traders who were forced to use other ports. These merchants probably also helped to speed the conversion of the general population to Islam.

The sultanate was a thalassocracy, a realm based on controlling trade rather than land. Situated in a strategic location between China and the trading networks of southeast Asia, the state served as an entrepot and collected tolls on water traffic. The society was hierarchical, with the sultan serving as despot. His powers were limited, however, by a council of princes of royal blood. One of the council's duties was to arrange for royal succession.

The reign of the fifth sultan, Bolkiah (1485–1521), is often described as Brunei's "golden age". The sultanate's control extended probably over the coastal regions of modern-day Sarawak and Sabah, the Sulu archipelago, and the islands off the northwest tip of Borneo. The sultanate's influence also spread north into the Philippines, where colonies were planted in Manila Bay. The sultan also visited Java and Malacca. At the end of Bolkiah's reign, in 1521, the first Europeans visited Brunei when Ferdinand Magellan's expedition arrived at the port. Antonio Pigafetta, a navigator on the trip, described an amazing city. The Europeans rode to visit the sultan on top of "elephants, caparisoned in silk-cloth". The inhabitants of the palace "had their loins covered with gold-embroidered cloth and silk, wore poniards with golden hilts, ornamented with pearls and precious stones, and had many rings on their fingers". The visitors were served meals on porcelain dishes.

Pigafetta described a city of 25,000 families living in wooden houses built on stilts to raise them above the water. At high tide, women would ride in boats selling merchandise. The sultan's palace was surrounded by brick ramparts and protected by numerous brass and iron cannons.

This prosperous era continued through the reign of the ninth sultan, Hassan, who is credited with developing an elaborate Royal Court structure, elements of which remain today.

Relations with Europeans

Brunei's relations varied with the different European powers in the region. The Portuguese, for the most part, were more interested in economic and trading relations with the regional powers and did little to interfere with Brunei's development. This does not mean that relations were always cordial, such as in 1536 when the Portuguese attacked the Muslims in the Moluccas and the ambassador to the Brunei court had to leave because of the sultan's hostility. The Portuguese also noted that the sultanate was heavily involved in the region's politics and wars, and that Brunei merchants could be found in Ligor and Siam.

Relations with Spain were far more hostile. From 1565 on, Spanish and Brunei forces engaged in a number of naval skirmishes, and in 1571 the Spanish succeeded in capturing Manila from the Brunei aristocracy that had been established there. Brunei raised several large fleets with the intention of recapturing the city, but the campaigns, for various reasons, never launched.[lower-alpha 2] In 1578, the Spanish took Sulu and in April attacked and captured Brunei itself, after demanding that the sultan cease proselytising in the Philippines and, in turn, allow Christian missionaries to be active in his kingdom. The Spaniards withdrew after suffering heavy losses due to a cholera or dysentery outbreak.[3][4] They were so weakened by the illness that they decided to abandon Brunei to return to Manila on 26 June 1578, after just 72 days.[5] The short-term damage to the sultanate was minimal, as Sulu regained its independence soon after. However, Brunei failed to gain a foothold in Luzon, with the island firmly in Spanish hands.

The long-term effects of regional changes could not be avoided. After Sultan Hassan, Brunei entered a period of decline, due to internal battles over royal succession as well as the rising influences of European colonial powers in the region, that, among other things, disrupted traditional trading patterns, destroying the economic base of Brunei and many other Southeast Asian sultanates.

During Sultan Omar Ali Saifuddin II’s reign, disturbances occurred in Sarawak. In 1839, the British adventurer James Brooke arrived in Borneo and helped the Sultan put down this rebellion.

As a reward, he became governor and later "White Rajah" of Sarawak and gradually expanded the territory under his control. Brooke never gained control of Brunei, though he did attempt to. He asked the British to check whether or not it would be acceptable for him to claim Brunei as his own; however, they came back with bad news—although Brunei was poorly governed, it had a definite sense of national identity and could therefore not be absorbed by Brooke.

In 1843 an open conflict between Brooke and the Sultan ended in the latter's defeat. The Sultan recognised Sarawak's independence. In 1846, Brunei Town was attacked and captured by the British and Sultan Saifuddin II was forced to sign a treaty to end the British occupation of Brunei Town. In the same year, Sultan Saifuddin II ceded Labuan to the British under the Treaty of Labuan. In 1847, he signed the Treaty of Friendship and Commerce with the British and in 1850, he signed a similar treaty with the United States. Over the years, the Sultans of Brunei ceded further stretches of territory to Sarawak; in 1877, stretches to the east of the capital were leased (later ceded) to the British North Borneo Chartered Company (North Borneo).

See also


  1. Not to be confused with the Indian state of the same name.
  2. Interestingly, the Chinese pirate Limahon attacked Manila in December 1574, but Brunei was unable to take advantage of the Spaniards' distraction.
  1. This view recently has been challenged. See Johannes L. Kurz "Boni in Chinese Sources: Translations of Relevant Texts from the Song to the Qing Dynasties", paper accessible under http://www.ari.nus.edu.sg/article_view.asp?id=172 (2006)
  2. "Naskah Nagarakretagama" (in Indonesian). Perpustakaan Nasional Republik Indonesia. Retrieved 13 October 2014.
  3. Frankham 2008, p. 278
  4. Atiyah 2002, p. 71
  5. Saunders 2002, pp. 54–60


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Secondary sources

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