Bruneian Sultanate (1368–1888)

In the history of Brunei, the Sultanate of Brunei (Jawi: كسلطانن بروني) or simply Brunei (/brˈn/ broo-NY) was a Malay sultanate, centred in Brunei on the northern coast of Borneo island in Southeast Asia. Brunei became a sovereign state around the 15th century, when it grew substantially after the fall of Malacca to the Portuguese,[3][4] extending throughout coastal areas of Borneo and the Philippines, before it declined in the 17th and 18th centuries.[5] The first ruler or sultan of Brunei was a Muslim. It became a British protectorate in the 19th century.

Sultanate of Brunei
كسلطانن بروني (Jawi)
Kesultanan Brunei (Rumi)
The maximum territorial extent of the Bruneian Empire (yellow) with its vassals (light yellow) in 1521.
  • Vassal of the Majapahit Empire (1368–1408)
  • Sovereign state (1408–1888)
Common languagesBrunei Malay, Old Malay, Old Tagalog, Arabic and Bornean languages
Sunni Islam
Sultan Muhammad Shah
Sharif Ali
Muhammad Hassan
Omar Ali Saifuddin II
Hashim Jalilul Alam Aqamaddin
 Establishment of the Sultanate
 Became a British protectorate
CurrencyBarter, Cowrie, Piloncitos, and later Brunei pitis
Preceded by
Succeeded by
Sultanate of Sulu
Sultanate of Sarawak
Spanish East Indies
Dutch East Indies
Raj of Sarawak
Crown Colony of Labuan
North Borneo
Today part of


Understanding the history of the old Bruneian Sultanate is quite difficult since it is hardly mentioned in contemporary sources of its time, as well as there being a scarcity of evidence of its nature. No local or indigenous sources exist to provide evidence for any of this. As a result, Chinese texts have been relied on to construct the history of early Brunei.[6] Boni in Chinese sources most likely refers to Western Borneo, while Poli (婆利), probably located in Sumatra, is claimed by local authorities to refer to Brunei as well.[7]


Pre-sultanate history

In the 1300s the Chinese annals, Nanhai zhi, reported that Brunei invaded or administered Sarawak and Sabah as well as the Philippine kingdoms of: Butuan, Sulu, Ma-i (Mindoro), Malilu (present-day Manila), Shahuchong (present-day Siocon or Zamboanga), Yachen (Oton, once part of the Madja-as Kedatuan), and Wenduling (present-day Mindanao),[8] which would regain their independence at a later date.[9] It eventually evolved to be called Pon-i and it was a vassal-state to the Javanese-centered Majapahit Empire.[10]

In the 14th century, Brunei seems to be subjected to Java. The Javanese manuscript Nagarakretagama, written by Prapanca in 1365, mentioned Barune as the vassal state of Majapahit,[10] which had to make an annual tribute of 40 katis of camphor.

After Majapahit invaded Brunei, its' subject kingdoms in the Philippines which was formally under its' empire, rebelled against Brunei, chief of which was the former kingdom of Sulu which besieged and pillaged it.

Its (Brunei's) own empire gone, it would appear to have shrunk to its heartland by Brunei bay. It now paid an annual tribute of 40 kati of camphor to the Majapahit Emperor. But worse was to follow. 1369 marks the absolute nadir of Brunei's fortunes, for in that year its former subjects the Suluks put it to sack. So utterly helpless were the Bruneis, that they had to be rescued by the Majapahit fleet, which drove out the intruders, who departed laden with enormous booty and taking the two precious pearls.

Robert Nicholl, "Brunei Rediscovered: A Survey of Early Times"


Following the presence of Portuguese after the fall of Malacca, Portuguese merchants traded regularly with Brunei from 1530 and described the capital of Brunei as surrounded by a stone wall.[3][11]

During the rule of Bolkiah, the fifth sultan, the empire held control over coastal areas of northwest Borneo (present-day Brunei, Sarawak and Sabah) and reached Seludong (present-day Manila) and the Sulu Archipelago, including parts of the island of Mindanao.[12][13][14][15][16][17][18][19] In the 16th century, the Brunei empire's influence extended as far as Kapuas River delta in West Kalimantan. The Malay Sultanate of Sambas in West Kalimantan and the Sultanate of Sulu in southern Philippines in particular developed dynastic relations with the royal house of Brunei. Even the Muslim Rajahs of Manila, Rajah Matanda, for example had family-links with the Brunei Sultanate. Other Malay sultans of Pontianak, Samarinda as far as Banjarmasin, treated the sultan of Brunei as their leader. The true nature of Brunei's relationship with other Malay sultanates of coastal Borneo and the Sulu archipelago is still a subject of study, as to whether it was a vassal state, an alliance, or just a ceremonial relationship. Other regional polities also exercised their influence upon these sultanates. The Sultanate of Banjar (present-day Banjarmasin), for example, was also under the influence of Demak in Java.


Bruneian territorial losses from 1400 to 1890.

The rising power of the nearby Sultanate of Sulu occurred due to infighting between Bruneian nobles and the king. Brunei eventually lost its authority over the Bajaus and lapsed into a collection of riverine territories ruled by semi-autonomous chiefs.[20]

By the end of 17th century, Brunei entered a period of decline brought on by internal strife over royal succession, colonial expansion of the European powers, and piracy.[5] The empire lost much of its territory due to the arrival of the western powers such as the Spanish in the Philippines, the Dutch in southern Borneo and the British in Labuan, Sarawak and North Borneo. By 1725, Brunei had many of its supply routes had been taken over by the Sulu sultanate.[21]

In 1888, Sultan Hashim Jalilul Alam Aqamaddin later appealed to the British to stop further encroachment.[22] In the same year, the British signed a "Treaty of Protection" and made Brunei a British protectorate,[5] which lasted until 1984, when Brunei gained independence.[23][24]


The sultanate was divided into three traditional land systems known as kerajaan (crown property), kuripan (official property) and tulin (hereditary private property).[25]


  1. Hussainmiya 2010, pp. 67.
  2. Yunos 2008.
  3. Holt, Lambton & Lewis 1977, pp. 129.
  4. Andaya & Andaya 2015, pp. 159.
  5. CIA Factbook 2017.
  6. Jamil Al-Sufri 2000.
  7. Kurz, Johannes L. (1 January 2013). "Pre-modern Chinese Sources in the National History of Brunei: The Case of Poli". (published in Bijdragen tot de taal-, land- en volkenkunde / Journal of the Humanities and Social Sciences of Southeast Asia).
  8. Reading Song-Ming Records on the Pre-colonial History of the Philippines By Wang Zhenping Page 256.
  9. Quanzhou to the Sulu Zone and beyond: Questions Related to the Early Fourteenth Century By: Roderich Ptak. Page 280
  10. Suyatno 2008.
  11. Lach 1994, pp. 580.
  12. Saunders 2013, pp. 60.
  13. Herbert & Milner 1989, pp. 99.
  14. Lea & Milward 2001, pp. 16.
  15. Hicks 2007, pp. 34.
  16. Church 2012, pp. 16.
  17. Eur 2002, pp. 203.
  18. Abdul Majid 2007, pp. 2.
  19. Welman 2013, pp. 8.
  20. Andaya, Barbara Watson (1982). A History of Malaysia. New York: St. Martin's Press. pp. 76–77. ISBN 978-0-312-38120-2.
  21. de Vienne, Marie-Sybille (2015). Brunei: From the Age of Commerce to the 21st Century. National University of Singapore Press. pp. 39–74. ISBN 9789971698188.
  22. World Atlas 2017.
  23. Abdul Majid 2007, pp. 4.
  24. Sidhu 2009, pp. 92.
  25. McArthur & Horton 1987, p. 102.


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