The Sultanate of Brunei ruled during the fourteenth to the nineteenth 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.[a] 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. The Ming dynasty resumed communications with Po-ni in the 1370s and the Po-ni ruler Ma-na-jih-chia-na visited the Ming capital Nanjing in 1408 and died there; his tomb was rediscovered in the 20th century, and is now a protected monument.

Chinese settlement and the Kinabatangan

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.

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. During this two years, Bruneian nobles were locked in a power struggle; in the end, with the clever maneuvering of Ong Sum Ping, Sultan Ahmad came out victorious and Pengiran Temenggong's faction lost. Ahmad thus became the second Sultan in Bruneian official History. Sultan Ahmad was married to a sister of Ong Sum Ping. To further cement his influence on the new sultan, Ong Sum Ping advised the sultan that a visit to China, a regional Asian power at that time was good. Thus, the new sultan sent Ong Sum Ping and several court officials as representatives to China to assure the new Ming Dynasty of continued tributary relationship. Ong Sum Ping and his entourage landed on the coastal region of Fujian; emperor Yong Le had officials organised a welcome party for Ong Sum Ping.

Advanced in age, Ong Sum Ping could not make the long journey back to Brunei, and died in Nanjing. Prior to his death, he had pleaded with Emperor Yong Le to grant several wishes among which (1) that Brunei continued to be a tributary kingdom, (2) Sungai Kinabatangan and the surrounding area, decades ago under the province of the Mongol Yuan dynasty of China, be re-annexed as Chinese territory, (3) that the highest mountain in the territory be named "Kinabalu" or "new China" or alternatively some say "Chinese Widow". Emperor Yong Le granted his wish and further conferred upon 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 returned to Brunei under the escort of Chinese Imperial eunuchs, officials and soldiers. Awang succeeded to the position of Ong Sum Ping in Brunei, and continued to exercise political power and influence upon the sultan. The Chinese still referred to him as 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, who was the wife of Sultan Ahmad gave birth to a daughter. This daughter later inherited the throne and her consort became Sultan Sharif Aliسلطان شريف علي(so he was Sayyidina-سيدنا), who came from the Arabian Peninsulaالشبة الجزيرة العربية,. Sultan Sharif Ali was a descendant of Nabi Muhammad SAWالنبي محمد. The granddaughter and the Arabian were the ancestors of today's sultan of Brunei.

Bruneians today, still believe that Ong Sum Ping was an ancestor of the Brunei royalty. Even though the Bruneian royal family stressed more on the concept of Melayu Islam Beraja ملاي إسلام براج, but they do not discpunt the Chinese connection. Ong Sum Ping's name was recorded 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 exist a street named 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 under the Bruneian government heritage protection.

The historical "Silsilah Raja-raja Sulu" provide further evidence of Ong Sum Ping's existence. According to the record of the Silsilah Raja-raja Sulu, Ong Sum Ping arrived at Brunei with several Chinese soldiers on a commission to collect a certain precious Jewell, called Gomala, in North Borneo, assumed to be on the highest mountain and said to be guarded by a dragon. Ong Sum Ping and his men later landed on the eastern coast of North Borneo. The Chinese explorers knew from vast experience that to reach a high mountain they had to logically start from the big river mouth and move ever upwards to the source of the river. Ong Sum Ping set up a staging station on the Kinabatangan river and sent men upriver. Unfortunately, the source of the Kinabatangan river is not on Mount Kinabalu. After the demise of Ong Sum Ping, Awang the new raja of Kinabatangan sent an expedition, this time up the Labuk River. It only managed to set up another staging station at the confluence of the Liwagu Kogibangan and Liwagu Kawananan.

The Nunuk Ragang Connection

Among Ong Sum Ping's men were native Formosan porters and soldiers, tribes people of Taiwan. Under the Ming dynasty rule soldiers were prohibited from bringing along their wives and family on long overseas campaign. Most of Ong Sum Ping's men married local natives, and their children became ancestors of today's Kadazan-Dusun who started the staging station longhouse, later to become the settlement at Nunuk Ragang. In 1411, 36 years after Ong Sum Ping's arrival, the soldiers and porters sent by Awang, the son of Ong Sum Ping, moved up the correct river, Labuk. Arriving at the confluence of the two rivers, Liwagu Kogibangan (left fork) and Liwagu Kawananan (right fork), a staging station was established for the final assault up the mountain summit to take the jewel purportedly guarded by a dragon. Exploratory scouts were sent up each fork of the river to ascertain the sources. The left fork had its source on Mount Trus Madi Range and the right fork on Mount Kinabalu. Later this staging station became the permanent settlement now known as Nunuk Ragang the original home of the Kadazan-Dusun race. At the staging station the Chinese hung red colored pieces of fabric and red colored banner to indicate their presence to any followup parties. Red is an important symbolic color in Chinese culture, and even today whenever the Chinese set up a new project such as land development, they never neglect to set up a red coloured altar and offer sacrifice.[3] There is no zoological record of a red coloured Banyan Tree so it can only be assumed that to the simple native mind the Banyan tree has turned red, hence the name Nunuk Ragang. The offspring of the soldiers, porters and local natives women became the ancestors of the Kadazan-Dusun race. This explain the reason behind the many similarities in language between the natives of Taiwan and the Kadazan-Dusun language. The ethnic Tagahas, warlike and aggressive claim they are the descendants of soldiers. Additionally, the local native women were themselves descendants of previous waves of migrations of Austronesian people from mainland China and Taiwan to Sahul, and also during the Mongol Empire Yuan dynasty under Kublai Khan, in 1292, during which Sulu and Northern Borneo became a province under the Mongol Empire.[4] When, on a visit to China with the sultan of Brunei in 1408, Ong Sum Ping died, his son, Awang returned as the new Raja of Kinabatangan three years later. Meanwhile, the settlement at Nunuk Ragang had already been well established and thriving. The new raja, having converted to Islam was no longer interested in Jewell and dragon, but more concerned with court affairs having been appointed an important adviser to the Brunei sultanate. Trading in the abundant resources at Kinabatangan became his most primary concern and the men at Nunuk Ragang was abandoned and left to fend for themselves.

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.

now, 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. 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.[b] 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.[5][6] 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.[7] The short-term damage to the sultanate was minimal, as Sulu regained its independence soon after. However, Brunei failed to regain 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. ^ On, Low Kok (2006). Reading Symbols and Mythical Landscape in the "Tambunan Dusun Origin Myth" Kota Kinabalu:Universiti Malaysia Sabah. pp. 38–40.
  4. ^ Rutter, Owen (1922).British North Borneo: An Account of its History, Resources and Native Tribes.London: Constable and Company Limited. p.84-85
  5. ^ Frankham 2008, p. 278
  6. ^ Atiyah 2002, p. 71
  7. ^ Saunders 2002, pp. 54–60


Primary source

  • The Philippine Islands: Explorations by Early Navigators, Descriptions of the Islands and their People, their History and Records of the Catholics Missions, as related in contemporaneous Books and Manuscripts. Vol. IV-1576-1582. Eds. Emma Helen Blair and James Alexander Robertson. Cleveland: The Arthur H. Clark Company, 1903.

Secondary sources

External links