Brunei’s Ancient Exports



Today, Brunei’s main export is pretty well known even to non-Bruneians. Our oil and gas exports are the main items driving our export markets and the nation’s income. But oil was only discovered in 1929 in Seria. However, historians have indicated that Brunei had been very active in the ancient maritime trade for centuries. So, what was it that Brunei did in all those years to ensure that ships from China, Vietnam, Thailand, Indonesia, Malacca and other nations to come and trade with Brunei?

Brunei had geography on her side. Brunei was ideally located among the busy trade routes in Southeast Asia. Its sheltered bay protecting ships from the monsoon winds and positioned as a halfway house for the travel journeys from Korea and China to the Southeast Asian nation states all no doubt played a role in making ships come and stop by to trade with us here in Brunei. Geography alone is not sufficient.

Trading ships would only gladly come and navigate to Brunei if there was anything worth to buy and marketed. Pengiran Dr Karim in his book ‘The Brunei Shipwreck: A catalogue of some selected artefacts and Brunei’s ancient trade products’ published by the Brunei Museum in 2015. noted that “anything that was rare, and exotic was in demand and would bring big profit and fortune. Traders would rather risk their lives and belongings in favour of wealth.”

Pengiran Dr Karim (2015) noted that it was “Brunei’s fortune (that) depended on her rich in natural, jungle and sea resources, which was highly in demand in the international markets. During that time, Brunei was a big country with large territories. This was a bonus for Brunei because it was the bountiful resources essential for trade. Resources were also collected from neighouring states and distributed via the Brunei Port. The varieties of resources had influenced merchants and trading ships to come to Brunei and contributed Brunei into the helm of maritime trade.”

What were Brunei’s products?

Brunei was known to have a high quality of forest, sea and natural products which are needed by the Chinese and the Europeans. These were known to be in demand in the court of China and among the elites and wealthy families in Nanjing and Beijing as well as in the castles and mansions of Europe.

Not all of these products came from Brunei, but they were traded through the Brunei Port brought by the natives to the Brunei Port. The total exports of Brunei can be summarised as camphor, turtle shell, bird’s nest, yellow bees wax, gharuwood, lakawood, dammar, rattan, sago, pearl and gold as well as spices. Most of these originated from Borneo, but some were also obtained from the Sulu people and the people in Eastern Indonesia.

Many of today’s readers would not know what are these items. This article will deal with each one and explain what they are, where they come from and what they can be used for.

Camphor or kapur barus or kapura (in Sanskrit) or kafur (Arabic) was the most important of Brunei’s forest produce and had been regularly mentioned in the early historical records of nations dealing with Brunei. In the Chinese records, it was mentioned as one of Brunei’s tribute to China as early as the 10th century. In 1225 AD, Zhou Rugua mentioned that Brunei produced four different varieties of it.

Brunei’s camphor was of the highest quality in the South Sea and was worth its weight in gold. DF Lach in his book ‘Asia in the Making of Europe: The Century of Discovery’ (1965) said that the true camphor produced in Borneo is valued like gold in India and brings a higher price than the camphor of China.

Camphor is a waxy, flammable, white or transparent solid with a strong aromatic odour. It is found in the wood of the camphor tree. Camphor is the crystrallized camphor oil in the tree trunk of the Kapur tree. Camphor contains a chemical that is very useful for medicinal purposes and used extensively in ancient Chinese medicine. It was also very useful for preservative purposes especially in the embalming of the corpse. In India, it is used for incense making, cooking ingredient and used in religious ceremonies. Among the Arabs, camphor is used for embalming, food ingredient and medicinal remedy but also in ointment for the treatment of rheumatic diseases and muscle pains as well as for sprain and pulled muscle.

Turtle shell was also widely recorded as Brunei’s trade commodities. Turtle shell also formed part of Brunei’s tribute to the Chinese Court in the 10th Century. During the Ming Dynasty, pearls were also included in Brunei’s tribute to China. The Portuguese recorded that cowrie shells were part of Brunei’s exports to Malacca.

Pearls obviously are still popular even up to today. But turtle shells are no longer being traded. In the older days, turtle shell is an important part of Chinese culture because it symbolised long life and fertility, an emblem of strength, longetivity, and endurance and the universe. The shells can be used as serviceable and decorative items and used for a variety of things such as rattles in ceremonial dances, shamanic healing tools and even for divination purposes. Cowrie shells are used more ornamental purposes but can also be used as currency.

Bees wax was mentioned as another important ancient trade export. Bees wax is a natural wax produced in the bee hive of honey trees. It is made from the nectar of flowers thus giving it a sweet smell. Candles made from bees’ wax gave out sweetly smell without the need to add fragrance and perfume. The candles also lasted longer and do not drip.

Brunei’s gharuwood is still known till today. This was much exported in the past.  Their prices today can be in tens of thousands for a litre. Gharuwood is the the dark resinous heartwood of the Aquilaria and Gyrinops trees. The Egyptians used the wood as part of their death rituals more than 3,000 year ago.

Another wood known as the lakawood was also exported from Brunei mentioned in the Chinese records as far back as the 13th century. Lakawood is a scented heartwood and root wood of a thick liana, Dalbergia parviflora. Its strong and penetrating smells work to counteract bad smells. They are usually burned as incense.

One item exported from Brunei in the old days which is quite surprising is gold dust. Brunei has never been known as a producer of gold. But in the 13th century, foreign traders brought gold to Brunei to be traded in the local market. In the 16th century, a Spanish report mentioned that gold was among the trading items brought by Brunei merchants to Malacca. Gold was probably mined in the Kalimantan region such as in Sambas and Banjarmasin.

Sago deserved a quick mention as it was mentioned by Tome Pires in 1515 as one Brunei’s commodities in Malacca. Sago was considered by the Portuguese as food for the lower classes. Sago is the dried extract from the stem of a palm tree has been used in Brunei more than a thousand years ago and up to now is still being used locally.

Another tree produce, the dammar was part of Brunei’s exports as recorded by Pigafetta in 1521. Dammar is a kind of gum obtained from a type of trees and are used for many roles including incense burning, foods and medicines. The Chinese also used it to fasten blades onto wooden handles, to coat and seal earthenware pots, boats and other river or marine vessels.

Hopefully this article will serve as an introduction to what Brunei was able to produce and export in the past.

[1] This newspaper article was published in The Brunei Times on 15 May 2016

[2] Haji Mohd Rozan bin Dato Paduka Haji Mohd Yunos is the Executive Director, Centre for Strategic and Policy Studies. He had served in the Brunei Government since 1987. He had written for his column The Golden Legacy in the Brunei Times since 2007.

The Muara Coalmine in 1883

The Muara Coalmine in 1883

Bandar Seri Begawan
Sunday, February 14, 2016

IN SINGAPORE’S newspaper The Straits Times dated March 19, 1883, a short article was published entitled “The Muara Coal Mines (Brunei)” written by an unnamed correspondent who had visited the Muara Coal Mines in Brunei in the early 1880s.

The correspondent noted that, “on the 13th March 1882, these mines were ceded to Mr C by the Sultan of Brunei for 20 years. They had been surveyed and partly worked by the first Labuan Coal Mining Company. They extend about 30 square miles. Mr C has full mining rights, no duties to pay, and the right to wood, &c. He is allowed to erect buildings, wharves, and piers, which he can remove at the expiry of the lease should it be desirable to do so”.

The anonymous Mr C was actually Mr W C Cowie. In his notes, in the book “Report on Brunei in 1904 by MSH McArthur”, AVM Horton noted that it was in March 1882 that W C Cowie obtained a concession to work coal in Muara Damit. Mr Cowie obtained the concessions to the mine at a cost of $1,200 per year, quite a princely sum in those days.

Before the 1900s, the hamlet of Muara was inhabited by a small group of Malay fishermen. However, it was the coal at Serai Pimping in Muara that attracted the Europeans to come here.

The coal mine in Muara was described and quoted in the book “British Borneo Sketches of Brunai, Sarawak, Labuan and North Borneo” published in 1891 written by W H Treacher, the Reverend J E Tennison-Wood, well-known in Australia as an authority on geological questions:

“… About twenty miles to the South-west of Labuan is the mouth of the Brunairiver. Here the rocks are of quite a different character, and much older. There are sandstones, shales, and grits, with ferruginous joints. The beds are inclined at angles of 25 to 45 degrees. They are often altered into a kind of chert.”

“At Muara there is an outcrop of coal seams twenty, twenty-five and twenty-six feet thick. The coal is of excellent quality, quite bitumenised, and not brittle. The beds are being worked by private enterprise. I saw no fossils, but the beds and the coal reminded me much of the older Australian coals along the Hunter river. The mines are of great value …”

It was this mine that the article in The Straits Times was referring to. The correspondent began the article by describing the journey to the mine:

“On the morning of the 5th of this month, we left the s.s. Borneo, and embarked on board the steam launch of the Sultan of Brunei, which had been kindly lent us for the trip. We steamed away at a great pace, and were soon clear of the difficult and tortuous bar of the Brunei river, when we stood almost direct for Muara.”

“Muara is situated N.W. of the entrance of the river. By 11.30 we had moored alongside the long wooden pier on which were numerous baskets full of coal ready for shipment; a tongkang was on the shore being made ready for a voyage to Labuan with coal. The Royalist had not ayet (sic) arrived.”

The coals then were most likely to be exported to Labuan. The Royalist, a ship belonging to the Rajah of Sarawak or the Sarawak Government, must be at that point in time running a shipping line between Brunei, Labuan and Sarawak.

The correspondent continued: “On landing we were met by Mr D, the manager, a rather rough and ready sort of man, but one who appeared to know what he was about, and we started at once for the mines 1 1/2 miles distant. The commencement of the walk was rather heavy, through sandy soil, but as we advanced, we came to a slight ascent, and the ground became harder.”

The coal mine was located at Serai Pimping. Today that area is located where the big roundabout is at the end of the Muara-Tutong Highway. It is quite a fair distance from Serai Pimping to the Muara Port. The wooden pier referred to in The Straits Times’ article was left there, and modernised and then finally demolished when Muara Port was being built in the late 1960s.

According to the people who lived in Muara in the late 1960s, there were still remnants of a railway line running from the coal mine all the way to the wharf at Muara Port.

The correspondent noted that the mine operator of the railway line was needed as fast as possible. “We met some buffalo carts laden with coal toiling down to the shore. This is a slow mode of proceeding, but will soon be changed, as rails are now at Singapore and are to be sent immediately. Very slight traction power will then be necessary, and either buffaloes, horses, or steam can be used. Near the mines, a short line of rails is laid and trucks, each containing about 16 cwt, are running.”

There was actually not much physical description in print about the coal mine at Muara, despite it being written about extensively. The Straits Times’ correspondent did us all a favour by describing the coalmine: “On arrival at the pit’s mouth we descended a short ladder and were at once amongst the coal, which is good even at this short distance from the surface. Being provided with candles we explored the seams.

“Towards the hill was a fire which had been smouldering some months and the water from which, flowing towards us, was warm; we did not feel enough curiosity to penetrate far in that direction. On arriving at daylight we proceeded a little further and descended another and more worked mine, having coal seams branching in four directions.

“The sides and roof were in some parts propped with wood, but were in others simply hewn through the coal. Some of the passages were low and narrow, being barely sufficient for one man to pass at a time. It was very hot here, with a certain suffocating sort of feeling, and we were not sorry to regain the light and sun; the latter was however very powerful, but we considered ourselves bound to accept Mr D’s proposal to go to a certain ridge, which ran round the portion of the mines being worked, and gave a general view of the works, as well as of the low ground on the other side which is used as a paddy sawah.”

The article continued about the mine workers, who were a mix of Chinese and Malay, with some having the experience of having been working in the Labuan coal mines.

The coal mine managers had been having difficulty in finding workers then due to an extensive wedding festival, and was prepared to pay so much per tonne to enable them to mine faster.

The article also described the mine based on what they can observe: “… the supply of coal is almost unlimited. The first seam we explored was 22 feet thick, running parallel with the range of hills. The other was 16 feet thick at the thinnest part, and also ran in the same direction N. and S. north to the sea and south to Bukit Pisang 650 feet high. The present mode of working is economical, there being no necessity to go deep; the coal being excellent where it is being taken from, just a few feet below the surface. The engineers and stokers who have tried the coal speak very highly of it, and it is to be hoped the enterprising owner will meet the reward his energy deserves.”

The Muara coal mine lease was eventually bought over by Rajah Brooke from Mr Cowie. Rajah Brooke renamed Muara Damit as Brooketon and continued to operate it until Muara Damit was redeemed by the Government in 1925.

The Brunei Times

New Journey

The old website ‘The Daily Brunei Resources’ had been operating for more than 10 years. I have met many students who have come up to me and thank me for providing that site and all the information that I have put up in it. It’s time to retire it and set a new one up.

I welcome everyone on this new journey.