About Brunei

Brunei's early history is obscure, but although precise dates have been muddied by time, there is no doubt that the sultanate's early prosperity was rooted in trade. As far back as theseventh century, China was importing birds' nests from Brunei and Arab, Indian, Chinese and other Southeast Asian traders were regularly passing through. Links with Chinese merchants were strongest: they traded silk, metals, stoneware and porcelain for Brunei's jungle produce: bezoar stones, hornbill ivory, timber and birds' nests. Chinese coins dating from the eighth century have been unearthed at Kota Batu, 3 km from Bandar Seri Begawan. Large quantities of Chinese porcelain dating from the Tang, Sung and Ming dynasties have also been found. The sultanate was on the main trade route between China and the western reaches of the Malayan archipelago and by the 10th to the 13th centuries trade was booming. By the turn of the 15th century there was a sizeable Chinese population settled in Brunei.

It is thought that some time around 1370 Sultan Mohammad became first sultan. In the mid-1400s, Sultan Awang Alak ber Tabar married a Melakan princess and converted to Islam. Brunei already had trade links with Melaka and exported camphor, rice, gold and sago in exchange for Indian textiles. But it was not until an Arab, Sharif Ali, married Sultan Awang Alak's niece that Islam spread beyond the confines of the royal court. Sharif Ali - who is said to have descended from the Prophet Mohammad - became Sultan Berkat. He consolidated Islam, converted the townspeople, built mosques and set up a legal system based on Islamic Sharia law. Trade flourished and Brunei assumed the epithet Darussalam (the abode of peace).

The golden years

The coastal Melanaus quickly embraced the Muslim faith, but tribal groups in the interior were largely unaffected by the spread of Islam and retained their animist beliefs. As Islam spread along the coasts of north and west Borneo, the sultanate expanded its political and commercial sphere of influence. By the 16th century, communities all along the coasts of present-day Sabah and Sarawak were paying tribute to the sultan. The sultanate became the centre of a minor empire whose influence stretched beyond the coasts of Borneo to many surrounding islands, including the Sulu archipelago and Mindanao in the Philippines. Even Manila had to pay tribute to the sultan's court.

On 8 July 1521 Antonio Pigafetta, an Italian historian on Portuguese explorer Ferdinand Magellan's expedition, visited the Sultanate of Brunei and described it as a rich, hospitable and powerful kingdom with an established Islamic monarchy and strong regional influence. Pigafetta published his experiences in his book, The First Voyage Around the World. He writes about a sophisticated royal court and the lavishly decorated sultan's palace. Brunei Town was reported to be a large, wealthy city of 25,000 households. The townspeople lived in houses built on stilts over the water.

In 1526 the Portuguese set up a trading post in Brunei and from there conducted trade with the Moluccas - the famed Spice Islands - via Brunei. At the same time, more Chinese traders immigrated to Brunei to service the booming trade between Melaka and Macau and to trade with Pattani on the South Thai isthmus.

But relations with the Spaniards were not so warm; the King of Spain and the Sultan of Brunei had mutually exclusive interests in the Philippines. In the 1570s Spaniards attacked several important Muslim centres and in March 1578, the captain-general of the Philippines, Francesco de Sande, led a naval expedition to Brunei, demanding the sultan pay tribute to Spain and allow Roman Catholic missionaries to proselytize. The sultan would have none of it and a battle ensued off Muara, which the Spaniards won. They captured the city, but within days the victors were stopped in their tracks by a cholera epidemic and had to withdraw. In 1579 they returned and once again did battle off Muara, but this time they were defeated.

The sun sets on an empire

Portugal came under Spanish rule in 1580 and Brunei lost a valuable European ally: the sultanate was raided by the Spanish again in 1588 and 1645. But by then Brunei's golden age was history and the sultan's grip on his further-flung dependencies had begun to slip.

In the 1660s civil war erupted in Brunei due to feuding between princes and, together with additional external pressures of European expansionism, the once-mighty sultanate all but collapsed. Only a handful of foreign merchants dealt with the sultanate and Chinese traders passed it by. Balanini pirates from Sulu and Illanun pirates from Mindanao posed a constant threat to the sultan and any European traders or adventurers foolhardy enough to take them on. In return for protection from these sea-borne terrorists, the sultan offered the British East India Company a base on the island of Labuan in Brunei Bay in the late 1600s, although the trading post failed to take off.

For 150 years, Brunei languished in obscurity. By the early 1800s, Brunei's territory did not extend much beyond the town boundaries, although the Sarawak River and the west coastal strip of North Borneo officially remained under the sultan's sway.

James Brooke - the man who would be king

The collection of mini-river states that made up what was left of the sultanate were ruled by the pangeran, the lesser nobles of the Brunei court. In the 1830s Brunei chiefs had gone to the Sarawak valley to organize the mining and trade in the high-grade antimony ore, which had been discovered there in 1824. They recruited Dayaks as workers and founded Kuching. But, with the support of local Malay chiefs, the Dayaks rebelled against one of the Brunei noblemen, the corrupt, Pangeran Makota, one of the Rajah's 14 brothers. By all accounts, Makota was a nasty piece of work, known for his exquisite charm and diabolical cunning.

It was into this troubled riverine mini-state, in armed rebellion against Makota, that the English adventurer James Brooke sailed in 1839. Robert Payne, in The White Rajahs of Sarawak
, describes Makota as a “princely racketeer” and “a man of satanic gifts, who practised crimes for pleasure”. Makota confided to Brooke: “I was brought up to plunder the Dayaks, and it makes me laugh to think that I have fleeced a tribe down to its cooking pots.” With Brooke's arrival, Makota realized his days were numbered.

In 1837, the Sultan of Brunei, Omar Ali Saiffuddin, had dispatched his uncle, Pengiran Muda Hashim, to contain the rebellion. He failed, and turned to Brooke for help. In return for his services, Brooke demanded to be made governor of Sarawak.

After he had been formally installed in his new role by Sultan Omar, Brooke set about building his own empire. In 1848 he said: “I am going in these revolutionary times to get up a league and covenant between all the good rivers of the coast, to the purpose that they will not pay revenue or obey the government of Brunei ... ” Brooke exploited rivalries between various aristocratic factions of Brunei's royal court, which climaxed in the murder of Pengiran Muda Hashim and his family.

No longer required in Sarawak, Hashim had returned to Brunei to become chief minister and heir apparent. He was murdered - along with 11 other princes and their families - by Sultan Omar. The sultan and his advisers had felt threatened by their presence, so they disposed of Hashim to prevent a coup. The massacre incensed Brooke. In June 1846 his British ally, Admiral Sir Thomas Cochrane, bombarded Brunei Town, set it ablaze and chased the sultan into the jungle.

Cochrane wanted to proclaim Brooke the sultan of Brunei, but decided, in the end, to offer Sultan Omar protection if he cleaned up his act and demonstrated his loyalty to Queen Victoria. After several weeks, the humiliated sultan emerged from the jungle and swore undying loyalty to the Queen. As penance, Sultan Omar formally ceded the island of Labuan to the British crown on 18 December 1846. The brow-beaten sultan pleaded proneness to sea sickness in an effort to avoid having to witness the hoisting of the Union Jack on Labuan Island. Although Brunei forfeited more territory in handing Labuan to the British, the sultan calculated that he would benefit from a direct relationship with Whitehall. It seemed that London was becoming almost as concerned as he was about Brooke's expansionist instincts. A Treaty of Friendship and Commerce was signed between Britain and Brunei in 1847 in which the sultan agreed not to cede any more territory to any power, except with the consent of the British government.

The sultan's shrinking shadow

The treaty did not stop Brooke. His mission, since arriving in Sarawak, had been the destruction of the pirates who specialized in terrorizing Borneo's coastal communities. Because he knew the Sultan of Brunei was powerless to contain them, he calculated that their liquidation would be his best bargaining chip with the sultan, and would enable him to prise yet more territory from the sultan's grasp. Over the years he engaged the dreaded Balanini and Illanun pirates from Sulu and Mindanao as well as the so-called Sea-Dayaks and Brunei Malays, who regularly attacked Chinese, Bugis and other Asian trading ships off the Borneo coast. As a result, Sultan Abdul Mumin of Brunei ceded to Brooke the Saribas and Skrang districts, which became the Second Division of Sarawak in 1853 and, eight years later, he handed over the region that was to became the Third Division of Sarawak.

But by now the sultan was as worried about territorial encroachment by the British as he was about the Brookes and, as a counterweight to both, granted a 10-year concession to much of what is modern-day Sabah to the American consul in Brunei, Charles Lee Moses. This 72,500 sq km tract of North Borneo later became British North Borneo and is now the East Malaysian state of Sabah.

With the emergence of British North Borneo, the British reneged on their agreement with the Sultan of Brunei again and the following year approved Brooke's annexation of the Baram river basin by Sarawak, which became its Fourth Division. The Sarawak frontier was advancing ever northwards.

In 1884 a rebellion broke out in Limbang and Rajah Charles Brooke refused to help the sultan restore order. Sultan Hashim Jalilul Alam Aqamaddin, who acceded to the throne in 1885, wrote to Queen Victoria complaining that the British had not kept their word. Sir Frederick Weld was dispatched to mediate; he sympathized with the sultan, and his visit resulted in the Protectorate Agreement of 1888 between Brunei and Britain, which gave London full control of the sultanate's external affairs. When Brooke annexed Limbang in 1890 and united it with the Trusan Valley to form the Fifth Division of Sarawak, while the Queen's men looked on, the sultan was reduced to a state of disbelief. His sultanate had now been completely surrounded by Brooke's Sarawak.

From sultanate to oilfield

In 1906 a British Resident was appointed to the sultan's court to advise on all aspects of government except traditional customs and religion. In his book By God's Will
, Lord Chalfont suggests that the British government's enthusiastic recommitment to the sultanate through the treaty may have been motivated by Machiavellian desires. “More cynical observers have suggested that the new-found enthusiasm of the British government may not have been entirely unconnected with the discovery of oil ... around the turn of the century.” Oil exploration started in 1899, although it was not until the discovery of the Seria oilfield in 1929 that it merited commercial exploitation. Historian Mary Turnbull notes the quirk of destiny that ensured the survival of the micro-sultanate: “It was ironic that the small area left unswallowed by Sarawak and North Borneo should prove to be the most richly endowed part of the old sultanate.”

The Brunei oilfield fell to the Japanese on 18 December 1942. Allied bombing and Japanese sabotage prior to the sultanate's liberation caused considerable damage to oil and port installations and urban areas, necessitating a long period of reconstruction in the late 1940s and early 1950s. Australian forces landed at Muara Beach on 10 July 1945. A British Military Administration ruled the country for a year, before Sultan Sir Ahmad Tajuddin took over.

In 1948 the governor of Sarawak, which was by then a British crown colony, was appointed high commissioner for Brunei, but the sultanate remained what one commentator describes as “a constitutional anachronism”. In September 1959 the UK resolved this by withdrawing the Resident and signing an agreement with the sultan giving Whitehall responsibility for Brunei's defence and foreign affairs.

Because of his post-war influence on the development of Brunei, Sultan Omar was variously referred to as the father and the architect of modern Brunei. He shaped his sultanate into the anti-communist, non-democratic state it is today and, being an Anglophile, held out against independence from Britain. By the early 1960s, Whitehall was enthusiastically promoting the idea of a North Borneo Federation, encompassing Sarawak, Brunei and British North Borneo. But Sultan Omar did not want anything to do with the neighbouring territories as he felt Brunei's interests were more in keeping with those of peninsular Malaysia. The proposed federation would have been heavily dependent on Brunei's oil wealth. Kuala Lumpur did not need much persuasion that Brunei's joining the Federation of Malaysia was an excellent idea.

Democrats versus autocrat

In Brunei's first general election in 1962, the left-wing Brunei People's Party (known by its Malay acronym, PRB) swept the polls. The party's election ticket had marked an end to the sultan's autocratic rule, the formation of a democratic government and immediate independence. Aware that there was a lot at stake, the sultan refused to let the PRB form a government. The sultan's emergency powers, under which he banned the PRB, which were passed in 1962, remain in force, enabling him to rule by decree.

On 8 December 1962, the PRB - backed by the communist North Kalimantan National Army, effectively its military wing - launched a revolt. The sultan's insistence on British military protection paid off as the disorganized rebellion was quickly put down with the help of a Gurkha infantry brigade and other British troops. Within four days the British troops had pushed the rebels into Limbang, where the hard core holed up. By 12 December the revolt had been crushed and the vast majority of the rebels disappeared into the interior, pursued by the 7th Gurkha Rifles and Kelabit tribesmen.

Early in 1963, negotiations over Brunei joining the Malaysian Federation ran into trouble, to the disappointment of the British. The Malaysian prime minister, the late Tunku Abdul Rahman, wanted the sultanate's oil and gas revenues to feed the federal treasury in Kuala Lumpur and made the mistake of making his intentions too obvious. The Tunku envisaged central government exercising absolute control over oil revenues - in the way it controls the oil wealth of Sabah and Sarawak today. Unhappy with this proposal and unwilling to become 'just another Malaysian sultan', Omar abandoned his intention to join the Federation.

Meanwhile, Indonesia's Sukarno was resolute in his objective of crushing the new Federation of Malaysia and launched his Konfrontasi between 1963 and 1966. Brunei offered itself as an operational base for the British army. But while Brunei supported Malaysia against Indonesia, relations between them became very strained following the declaration of the Federation in September 1963.

In 1975 Kuala Lumpur sponsored the visit of a PRB delegation to the UN, to propose a resolution calling on Brunei to hold elections, abolish restrictions on political parties and allow political exiles to return. In 1976 Bruneian government supporters protested against Malaysian 'interference' in Bruneian affairs. Nonetheless, the resolution was adopted by the UN in November 1977, receiving 117 votes in favour and none against. Britain abstained. Relations with Malaysia warmed after the death of Prime Minister Tun Abdul Razak in 1976, leaving the PRB weak and isolated. The party still operates in exile, although it is a spent force. Throughout the difficult years, the sultan had used his favourite sport to conduct what was dubbed 'polo diplomacy', fostering links with like-minded Malaysian royalty despite the tensions in official bilateral relations.

By 1967, Britain's Labour government was pushing Sultan Omar to introduce a democratic system of government. Instead, however, the sultan opted to abdicate in favour of his 21-year-old son, Hassanal Bolkiah. In November 1971, a new treaty was signed with Britain. London retained its responsibility for Brunei's external affairs, but its advisory role applied only to defence. The sultan was given full control of all internal matters. Under a separate agreement, a battalion of British Gurkhas was stationed in the sultanate. As Bruneians grew richer, the likelihood of another revolt receded.


Britain was keen to disentangle itself from the 1971 agreement: maintaining the protectorate relationship was expensive and left London open to criticism that it was maintaining an anachronistic colonial relationship. Brunei did not particularly relish the prospect of independence as, without British protection, it would be at the mercy of its more powerful neighbours. But in January 1979, having secured Malaysian and Indonesian assurances that they would respect its independence, the government signed another agreement with London, allowing for the sultanate to become independent from midnight on 31 December 1983 after 150 years of close involvement with Britain and 96 years as a protectorate.


In January 1984, Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah declared Brunei a 'democratic' monarchy. Three years later, he told his official biographer Lord Chalfont: “I do not believe that the time is ripe for elections and the revival of the legislature. What I would wish to see first is real evidence of an interest in politics by a responsible majority of the people ... When I see some genuine interest among the citizenry, we may move towards elections.” Independence changed little: absolute power is still vested in the sultan, who mostly relies on his close family for advice. Following Independence, the sultan took up the offices of prime minister, finance minister and minister of home affairs. In 1986, he relinquished the latter two, but appointed himself defence minister. He also took over responsibility for finance on the resignation of his brother, Prince Jefri.

In May 1985 the Brunei National Democratic Party (BNDP) was officially registered. Its aim was to introduce a parliamentary democracy under the sultan. But just before the Malays-only party came into being, the government announced that government employees would not be allowed to join any other political party. In one stroke, the BNDP's potential membership was halved. In early 1986, the Brunei United National Party - an offshoot of the BNDP - was formed. Unlike its parent, its manifesto was multi-racial. The sultan allowed these parties to exist until 27 January 1988 when he proscribed all political parties and imprisoned, without trial, two of the BNDP's leaders.

In the early 1990s, the sultan was reported to have become increasingly worried about internal security and about Brunei's image abroad. Eight long-term political detainees, in prison since the abortive 1962 coup, were released in 1990. The last political detainee, the former deputy leader of the Brunei People's Party (PRB), Zaini Ahmad, is said to have written to the sultan from prison following the releases. He apparently apologized for the 1962 revolt and called for the democratically elected Legislative Council - as outlined in the 1959 constitution - to be reconvened. To coincide with the sultan's 50th birthday in 1996, Zaini Ahmad was released from prison. The exiled PRB has been greatly weakened and increasingly isolated since Brunei's relations with Malaysia became more cordial following the sultanate's accession to the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) in 1984 and clearly the sultan and his adviser no longer feel threatened by the party.

Foreign relations

Brunei joined ASEAN on Independence in 1984. Prince Mohammed, the foreign affairs minister, is said to be one of the brightest, more thoughtful members of the royal family, but in foreign policy, Brunei is timid and goes quietly along with its ASEAN partners. Relations with Malaysia are greatly improved, but the sultanate's closest ties in the region, especially in fiscal and economic matters, are with Singapore. Their relationship was initially founded on their mutual distrust of the Malaysian Federation, which Brunei never joined and Singapore left two years after its inception in 1965. Singapore provides assistance in the training of Brunei's public servants and their currencies are linked.

As a member of ASEAN, on good terms with its neighbours, Brunei does not have many enemies to fear. But if its Scorpion tanks, Exocet rockets, Rapier ground-to-air missiles and helicopter gunships seem a little redundant, it is worth considering the experience of another oil-rich Islamic mini-state - Kuwait.

This is edited copy from Footprint Handbooks. For comprehensive details (incl address, tel no, directions, opening times and prices) please refer to book or individual chapter PDF
Products in this Region

Borneo Handbook: Sarawak - Brunei - Sabah

The third largest island in the world, Borneo screams adventure. Footprint's 4th edition Borneo...
PDF Downloads

  No PDFs currently available

Digital Products

Available NOW!