Reinterpretation of Brunei’s Golden Age in Contemporary Society

(Pic credits to The Daily Brunei Resources)

The famous period that marked the golden era of Brunei in the 15th century is renowned to every individual in society. The golden age was seen at a time when Brunei reached its height in both power and wealth in the region. It’s influence and holdings encompass the entire Borneo island, the Palawan and Sulu island, and as far as Selurong (Manila). At the same time, Brunei was seen as an axel of trade in the region bringing in traders from as far as Taif (modern day Saudi Arabia), China, Siam, Nam (Vietnam), Java, and more. Its capital at that time was Kota Batu and it oversaw a Venetian-like water canal namely Kampong Ayer where traders from all over the region and beyond flock together and traded commodities such as silver, spices, porcelain vases, camphor, and much more.

The first Western power that arrived on the shores of the capital was Ferdinand Magellan. In his famous account, he wrote of a powerful sultan who hosted him and his expeditionary crew in his journey to the East. He also wrote the presence of a tightly knit force of soldiers and elephants surrounding the city, as well as large brasses of canons outfitted along the fortress walls of Kota Batu (which could be translated as “Stone Fortress”). According to oral history, the Sultan and the noblemen would reside on the high hills of the fortress whereas the commoners and traders lived by the water villages. Little is certain, however, of how the society operates. But the Malaccan empire, prior to its fall by the Portuguese, can give us a hint at how the power structures are established.

The paramount ruler was obviously the Sultan. He above all is the most powerful and respected of the society. Acting on his behalf is the Begawan, a person who functions as the modern day Prime Minister. He is also in charge of the imperial military force. In addition, there is the Vizer (or advisor), a person who serves the important function of consulting and advising the Sultan and his council. Next is the Laksamana, someone who is entrusted by the Sultan to manage and collect taxes from the harbour. Finally, there is the Singa, who is responsible for managing the internal affairs of state. In this council, they serve as the executive, legislative, and jurisdiction body of the state. Reporting to this council are the combination of the representatives of the commoners and noblemen, who would put forth their ideas, complaints, and suggestions to the council with the Sultan himself presiding the meeting.

The main commodity that brought riches to the Sultanate includes the Champor. It is a white powder material that can be sold at high prices to the regional market. However, this does not explain how Brunei became so immensely rich. Speculation has it that after the fall of the Malaccan empire, the nobleman and followers of that empire mass migrated to Brunei brought their riches with them. They gradually resettled in the area and assimilated to the Bruneian society, therefore adding to the wealth of the Brunei society. They may have also bought skilled craftsmen who were exceptional in their abilities in building and expanding the copper, silver, and gold foundries in Brunei. If we study the modern map of Kampong Ayer, we can see different villages named after different processes.

This suggests that Brunei had an assembly line where it could have potentially churned mass production of goods that is then marketed and sold at the market centre. Not only that, perhaps, with the skilled craftsmen they probably have taught the Bruneian society how to produce canons and firearm. There is a legend that when James Brooke, the British adventurer who later became the Rajah of Sarawak in the 19th century, was fighting against the Brunei forces he and his men were terrified when a loud and earth-shaking blast was heard from miles away. When the fight ended, they realise that it was a canon. The Bruneians called it “Alam Gentar”, which in English could be translated into “Earth Shatterer/Shaker” because if it was fired it literally shook the earth.

That is how advanced the weaponry system of the empire in the day and could have contributed to the strings of strategic battles won during the first five Sultans of Brunei that have expanded the mini tributary state of Majapahit into an independent sovereign imperial power stretching beyond the Borneo island. But was it just the Malaccan empire that has contributed towards the technological leap of Brunei? That would be simplistic to say.

In canon production, one can speculate that external and big powers played a role too. These powers include China and Turkey (yes). Given that China invented gunpowder and was known to have utilised it in their navy, added with the strong Brunei-China relationship (trade between the two nations go back over a thousand years) meant that China imparted the technological knowhows to the people of Brunei too. In fact, it was thanks to the Chinese expertise that enabled Kota Batu to be built during the time of Sultan Saiful Rijal (third sultan of Brunei). It could have been argued that China saw Brunei at that time as an especially strategic point in the region to conduct trade (and it did) so safeguarding their golden nest was a paramount importance to them. Building the fortresses and the military prowess in the form of the transference of canon technology enabled Brunei to fortify itself from any powers that may rival itself in the region.

Brunei-China history will not be complete without the mentioned of two great Chinese admirals who visited Brunei. The first one is the famed Zheng He, who literally brought with him the largest navy on earth at that time. He may not have landed his entire navy ashore (due to the shallow waters of Kampong Ayer) but he may as well parked his navy by the deepwater Brunei Bay. From there he took a smaller but elegant boat with dragon carvings and designs (arguably one which may have looked like the floating boat within the vicinity of SOAS mosque) where he was accompanied by his companions and followers to meet the then Sultan.

There and then negotiations may have occurred on how to improve and promote maritime trade, security, and development between the two powers. It could have probably been suggested that Zheng He or his predecessors of the past made an active decision to turn Brunei into a regional hub where Chinese sailors and traders can conduct and do business in the region. Thousands if not hundreds of thousands of boats might have flowed in and out of the waters of Kampong Ayer. It would have been an amazing spectacle that is truly comparable to the Venice of its day, which in its time saw traders from all over the world to haggle, negotiate, and do businesses with one another. Zheng He’s arrival might not have initiated the plan to turn Brunei into a conduit, but may as well intensify it along the way.

The next Chinese admiral is none other than Ong Sum Ping. Known as a powerful navy commander, he founded the modern day Kinabatangan at Kota Kinabalu. Much like Kota Batu, Kota Kinabalu (see the key word Kota) was made as the central capital of the admiral. A well-known folklore has it that when Brunei was attacked by a dragon, Ong Sum Ping came to the rescue of what was then a very small Kingdom. The dragon proved impossible to defeat in a frontal confrontation so he hatched a plan. In one of the islands of Brunei, Ong Sum Ping shipped a sizeable flock of goats and cattles to bait the dragon. When the dragon came, Ong Sum Ping ordered his men to heat a canon ball to its highest degree. He then shot the canon ball at the dragon where it then ate it. With the hot canon ball in the stomach of the dragon, it lost its nerve and flew far away, never to come back again.

The story may have been an allegory of the Majapahit empire (being the Dragon) which have for so long wanted to completely subdue the Brunei kingdom. Brunei, being a weak power and perhaps on the verge of defeat at that time, probably enlisted Ong Sum Ping’s help to drive the invaders out. Ong Sum Ping, who probably saw this as a strategic decision to gain a foothold in Brunei and Borneo, answered.

With the combined army of Brunei and Ong Sum Ping, the Majapahits was finally drive out for good. With that victory, Brunei claimed its “independence” from Majapahit. Although now Brunei paid a tribute to Ong Sum Ping, the Sultan then knew that it was better to him than the Javanese empire. For the Sultan realises that trade, security, and development will be forthcoming. The Sultan took the step further by fortifying the relationship between the two Kingdoms (Kinabatangan and Brunei) by marrying his daughter to Ong Sum Ping. Little is known of what happened after. Sources said that Ong Sum Ping mobilised his troops and rushed back to serve his emperor in China.

What is the implication of Ong Sum Ping’s leaving Kota Kinabalu (Kinabatangan empire)? That power was transferred to the Bruneian Kingdom, and so too perhaps along with the Chinese naval might and technology that may have served as a stepping stone to expand Brunei’s power in the island. So when Sultan Bolkiah the 5th, known as the “Singing Captain”, mobilised his entire navy to conquer the entirety of his conquest, there is a high likelihood that the navy that he commanded are Ong Sum Ping’s navy. In fact, the period range between the two figures are not that far away from each other, so there is indeed the possibility that Brunei utilised Ong Sum Ping’s navy to champion conquest in the region.

When one imagines of conquering such a vast territory like Borneo, one may have considered that all it takes are tiny boats or mini galleys with small sails installed. If that is the case then how did the Bruneian empire could have possibly mobilised thousands of armies and probably dozens if not hundreds of canons across the naval routes of Borneo? The ship could have then be the size of a modern day military frigate docked in Muara navy base. Or the main naval ships could have been as large as the size of Brunei’s Times Square commercial complex, with mini naval ships following it from behind. No power would have been frightening to the people back in the day than the sight of hundreds if not thousands of naval ships heading your beachfront. This is probably why many choose to conduct diplomacy instead of all out war with the ever growing and ever powerful Brunei Kingdom.

On the subject of Golden Age, no one is as influential in that period of Brunei history than Sultan Bolkiah the 5th – in fact, he is considered as the most influential man in Brunei history, arguably after the current Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah. According to oral history, he was an enlightened Sultan who constantly advised his people to study outside his Kingdom in order for them to bring back ideas and implement development for the Brunei people. He was probably a modernist and realist too. Akin to Russia’s Peter the Great, he brought about much needed cultural and technological changes to transform the society of his day. There is a reason why Javanese musical instruments still exist to this day, not because he was a traditionalist per se but rather he wants to keep up to date Brunei’s standing among one of the most powerful empires of his day, namely the Majapahit or whatever remained of it. Had he been alive today, he would have shifted Brunei’s cultural gravity towards the West. He was pragmatic.

He can also be referred to as the combination of Alexander the Great and Cyrus. Sultan Bolkiah the 5th, through long campaigns to enlighten the people of the island and beyond. took himself the herculean effort to conduct elaborate campaigns to subdue pirates and enemies that threaten to destroy innocent communities. Why can he be compared to Alexander the Great? Because his ambition knows no boundaries. He was not content in conquering the neighbouring territories of Brunei, he conquered the entire Borneo island. And once the island was conquered, he set his sights to Palawan. Once that, Selurong (modern day Manila). When one stands at Manila boulevard, one can see a vast expanse of sea that stretches as far as the eyes can see.

Now imagine hundreds if not thousands of ships suddenly appeared out of nowhere heading our way. If Brunei came with a hundred ships only, the results would have been laughable to the Selurong community. But as history would have it, Brunei conquered and subdued the territory. probably using the full might of the Bruneian naval empire. Previously the Selurong territory was contested by three different powers, but now they were unified and consolidated under one polity thanks to Sultan Bolkiah the 5th. Sultan Bolkiah the 5th then appointed X to rule under Brunei proxy. Although the territories were lost in less than a hundred years to the Spaniards, forever changing the history of the people of the Philippines, we can just imagine the imprint and influence we had on the people there, as did Alexander did to the territories he conquered from Greece to as far as Eastern India.

Comparing him to Persia’s Cyrus – a magnificent and illustrious ruler known to the Persians as the father of the Persia – is not off the mark either. Had he not been smart, the entirety of his kingdom would have fallen apart by revolts, intrigues, etc. There are possibly hundreds of thousands of people under his rule after all. To do so requires intricate and careful diplomacy starting with his appointed governors, and then to the vast tribes, kingdoms, sultanates, and other powers in the region. We must also consider that a level of diplomacy was needed to combine the entire polity into one unified force. The forces that included the Bruneian armies were the Dayaks,  Chinese, Ibans, Muruts, Melanau, Javanese, Sulus, Bisayas, and more. At the core centre of his army were the Bruneians themselves, who was then known to be enlightened and pragmatic people.

It is arguable that Brunei society during the Golden Age was a multicultural and multiracial, as opposed to what some scholars may argue. To succeed, Sultan Saiful Rijal and Sultan Bolkiah the 5th might have followed the formulae of the caliphate of Baghdad and Grenada, where regardless of one’s religion, culture, and other hosts of differences, one is treated as equals under the rule of law. One cannot possibly say that there were no racism or discrimination back in the days, but we must consider that Brunei did not become an axel of trade by becoming a withdrawn and closed-off society. It was an open society that cherished open adventure, and this must invariably demand people to be more open to other religion, culture, language, differences, etc. The policy was set in place so whereas Brunei succeeded in becoming a Southeast Asian model of Grenada or Baghdad.

That is why people from all over the island came and conducted trade in Brunei. The Dayaks,  Chinese, Ibans, Muruts, Melanau, Javanese, Sulus, Bisayas, and more were treated respectfully under his rule. Such harmony inevitably added to the strength of Brunei in the region. How is this familiar to Cyrus’ rule? He was a Persian King who successfully consolidated hundreds of tribes and small kingdoms under Persian rule. According to Xenophon’s account, he can equally inspire fear and respect to the people he ruled. Between fear and respect, we know now that posterity respects him even to this day. Not because he was just a brilliant ruler but because he introduced the world to Human Rights where the main tenant is that everyone, regardless of religion, language, cultures, and other differences are treated under the rule of law and that no one (especially the majority) will use his Kingdom to discriminate against the minority.

Sultan Bolkiah the 5th can arguably be considered as the Cyrus of Brunei too because under his rule, he emulated the caliphs of Baghdad and Grenada (who may have been inspired by Cyrus themselves) to introduce such measures that would enable everyone to be treated equally under the law regardless of differences, as well as to ensure that no one will use his Kingdom to prosecute or discriminate minorities. This most probably adds to the reason why his Kingdom and his subjects of such a vast expanse of empire remain united and loyal under his rule. One of the tribes that were fiercely loyal to the Bruneian empire was none other than the Javanese or known today as the Kedayans.

The history of the Kedayans is scattered across many pages of Brunei history. In total, they make up a majority percentage of those living in Kampong Ayer today. As a tribe, the Kedayans are known to be greedy, wealthy, honest, and rough. Indeed they are both the prominent traders and farmers of the Brunei empire then. According to the sociological history of Brunei, the Kedayans came from the island of Java – which is then the heart of the Majapahit empire. Sources have it that Sultan Bolkiah the 5th invited and shipped two thousand Javanese into the heart of the Bruneian empire so they can put their agricultural skills to use in order to produce rice.

Other sources said that the Kedayans came to Brunei under the command Javanese noblemen who had the title of “Raden/Radin”. The title is equivalent to Brunei’s nobility title, “Pengiran”. It could have probably been speculated that the Raden/Radins were generals or commanders of the Majapahit Empire whose duties were to supervise, control, and collect tributes from the Brunei kingdom. Regardless of these speculations, they were there in Brunei territory along with their followers. Throughout the centuries of being in Brunei, their generations intermarry and assimilated into the Brunei polity. Centuries upon centuries of progressive assimilation might have made them Bruneian Malays, however, the Kedayans (Javanese) remains distinctive by the language, intonation, pronunciation (they can’t spell ‘R’ properly), and even behaviours (greedy, wealthy, honest, and rough) that they possess.

Their stay and assimilation to the Bruneian society would have also contributed to the transference of Javanese and Buddhist culture to the Bruniean polity. These include the traditional musical instruments that Brunei has, the traditional dances with the set costumes they use, the installation of candles during wedding ceremonies and much, much more. On the subject of “Raden/Radins”, being possibly the nobleman or leaders of the Javanese community, perhaps after realising the fall of the Majapahit, they quickly adjusted to the changing power dynamics and aligned themselves to the Sultanate.

These people could be fierce warriors who were formerly commoners of the Majapahit empire who then rose up the ranks through years or decades long conquest under the famed leadership of Gajah Mada. At the peak of the Majapahit empire, after all, the empire saw its greatest expansion in its history far beyond today’s Indonesian border. Its expansion can be traced back to one of the Indonesian epics, which arguably included Brunei as a tributary state. It just also happens that their reach did not extend beyond present-day Sabah.

Could it be their march to power was broken by none other than the Kinabatangan Kingdom? Could it also be that the reason why Brunei was successful of securing its power from the Majapahit grip be traced back to the help of the Kedayans? Could the imperial fall of the Majapahit Empire created a power vacuum in the region which the Bruneians were successful at securing, potentially with the help of the Kedayans (among many other tribes) Perhaps these things are true, perhaps they are not. But one has to consider that the Kedayans of today are synonymous to Bruneian Malays and, yet, somehow they are “different” especially in origins notwithstanding the language, pronunciation, culture, etc.

We must also consider the irony of the people who promotes closed-door policy, especially in regards to border control and immigration flow, because there is a higher chance that their ancestors were themselves immigrants (Javanese who migrated to Brunei), who had they stayed in their original place would not have led the people here today. If true, then, we may have to accept the reality that Bruneian Kedayans (who happens to run the political and economic system of Brunei today) were potentially from Java, whose former ancestors served under Javanese noblemen. As the saying goes, we are all immigrations or Pendatangs.

Nonetheless, it is good history to review as we understand out society better because these Kedayans end up doing a lot of good to Brunei history than otherwise imagined. They were instrumental (arguably) in expanding the political, economic, military, and social powers of the Sultanate due to their experience under the Majapahit court. When they ultimately severed their ties to Jave, they went full loyalist to the Sultanate even to this day. It was also these people who end up serving as the court council that directed the state machinery in the Sultanates of the past that have enabled Brunei to survive as a polity today. However, there is a lot to study and debate that has to get into this subject, especially as we dive into what had happened during the Golden Age of Brunei history.

Knitting such a vast and complicated web of factors that add up to reinterpreting the Golden Age of Brunei in the 15th century in contemporary view has been the preeminent goal of this story. There are admittedly weaknesses in the theoretical development of this thesis, but what can be studied on what has occurred are as follows: Brunei did not just “attain” the Golden Age in a vacuum. Brunei, much like any upstart empires, was a small community that existed under the threats of big powers around it.

Geopolitical key decisions were made that involved securing military and diplomatic support (Ong Sum Ping) from big powers (Majapahit) that ultimately enabled Brunei to become an independent power. Zheng He or his predecessors, on the other hand, could be seen as a crucial element that paved the way for Brunei to become a trading centre in the region.

Later, a host of factors such as resources, technological, weapons development was crucial in preparing Brunei for conquest. This can be seen with the arrival of Mallacan that came to settle after the fall of the Malaccan empire.

Next, it took a bright leader as Sultan Bolkiah the 5th did to truly expand the powers of the empire. From a combination of Alexanderian strength and Cyrucian diplomacy, the empire remained loyal and in tact during his rule. At the core of his army were the Bruneians, who most probably were not ethnic Bruneians at all but rather a combination of other ethnic groups with the Javanese potentially making a prominent mark in the rise of Brunei.

Ultimately, what can be learned are these: Brunei has gone a long way to secure its place in modern history to be an independent sovereign kingdom. We have to appreciate the fact that the long lines of those who came before us have fought to get where we are today. What we must do is to try and to reinterpret philosophically the Golden Age beyond what is just presented in our textbooks or oral history simply because they are just not enough.

This essay does not serve as a historical piece but rather a philosophical piece to understand what and how Brunei attained its Golden Age in the first place. We have a unique history that stretches back to over a thousand years (our ‘official’ history started in the 13th century). We did not arrive here because of an accident, indeed it is because of the decisions that were taken by them that made us who we are today. We may also consider that we are living in a period of Golden Age thanks to the abundance of Oil and Gas (our contemporary Champoor).

But these resources are not going to last forever. What can and will last forever is the destiny that we independent Bruneians can carve for ourselves as we shape the story of the Bruneian future. Are we going to let ourselves be left behind or are we going to strive forwards to attain a victory in the 21st Century. One which will brighten the posterity of tomorrow and the future as it brightened us today by those in the 14th century. And much like our ancestors have attained prosperity in that illustrious period, so too shall we gain prosperity, if not even greater.

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