On the Travails of writing Brunei’s early history and the Boxer Codex
Posted date: November 30, 2013 In: Features
B A Hussainmiya PhD
*Continuation of ‘Significance of ‘Boxer Codex’ for legal history of Brunei’, published on Page 16 of the November 23, 2013 edition of the Weekend Bulletin
AS EXPLAINED last week, the 16th century Spanish manuscript of the Boxer Codex holds great significance for a study of early history of Brunei. But there must be a word of caution here. Historians do not necessarily rely upon a single primary source. They look for corroborative evidence from other sources as well. Unlike the historians of modern times, the historians of ancient and medieval periods face insurmountable challenges. They don’t have the advantages of modern day historians who will have abundant resources at their disposal, and sometimes require selection to control flow of information from an avalanche of documentary evidence.
On the other hand, the historians of the ancient period have to work painstakingly and imaginatively with slender resources. And hence, it would be appropriate to devote some discussion on problems and prospects of writing Brunei history before actually presenting verbatim evidence from the Boxer Codex.
|An Ola, Palm Leaf historical manuscript from Sri Lanka|
|An Indian pillar inscription of the Mauryan Ruler Asoka the Great in the 3rd century BC|
|The archaeological remains of the Great Bath in Harappa-Mohenjadaro, circa 2,000 BC|
|A Stone Inscription from southern India belonging to the 12th century CE|
|The tomb of Sultan Bolkiah situated at Kota Batu, Brunei - PHOTOS: B A HUSSAINMIYA|
The old Brunei Kingdom too had manifested interest in leaving a history for posterity. But the material in which it came to be written was easily lost through ravages of time. Interestingly the Boxer Codex itself refers to the lost historical tablet of the genealogy of Brunei Kings. In fact, the original book of Brunei royal genealogy was inscribed in gold and was allegedly thrown by Sultan Saiful Rijal into the sea for fear of being fallen in the hands of his enemies in the late 16th century.
Brunei’s royal geneology that survived in the chronicle of Silsilah Raja-Raja Berunai had been transmitted orally for many generations until its contents were written down in the early 18th century. The European administrator Hughes-Hallet who had access to the original manuscript translated it and published it in the Straits Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society in the 1880s. Reference must be made also to a strong oral tradition of folk history as revealed from the Syair Awang Simaun, rhymed poetic tales of local heroes that were transmitted through many generations by the locals, the traditions followed in the neighbouring Sarawak and Sabah as well. On special occasions in the Kampong Ayer bards are known to have been reciting it from their memory. Professor Donald Brown and Dr Linda Cambell were among the early researchers who transcribed portions of the poems in romainised Malay despite resistance from many quarters.
It is well known that the Chinese Emperors had sponsored ‘History Centers’ from ancient period, right through the Song and Ming dynasties, to meticulously document imperial history of China. As a matter of fact, the Brunei historians are still grappling with Chinese derived information of nomenclature such as P’oni, Puni and B’oli, to identify the location of earliest Brunei kingdom in spite of disagreements among the historians if the terms Boni or Poli actually referred to Brunei of the olden times. Because such terms may be generic to territories lying far way in the Southern Seas or Nanyang from anywhere near Borneo to Sumatra, such controversies remain unresolved. Dr Johannes Kurz of UBD’s Historical Studies Programme recently presented a well-researched paper in the Institute of Asian Studies at UBD questioning the assumptions underlying the identification of the early Brunei Kingdom based on the Chinese imperial records.
Brunei indeed, unlike most other countries in the region, suffers from an acute lack of historicity due to the scanty sources. For that matter even modern period sources are in short supply in Brunei. The archival papers belonging to the Residency period (1906-) were mostly destroyed during the period of the Japanese occupation from 1941-1945. (Surprisingly some sections of the Brooke period documents purported to be lost during the war in Brunei had surfaced in Singapore recently). Apparently the then private secretary to the Sultan and a renowned public servant, Pehin Datu Perdana Menteri Ibrahim Jaafar was credited to have saved some important State files that had been passed on to the Brunei national archives.
The old Brunei’s historical documents, if written down in paper, must have suffered inevitable fate of destruction due to tropical weather and humid conditions. As for permanent material like stone inscriptions, unlike Vietnam and former Champa (Cambodia) and other Southeast Asian territories, Brunei lacked granite stones for inscriptional activities, and the lime stones of Brunei were not suitable material to inscribe indelible historical details.
Due to problems in documentation thus, some pioneer Western historians like Father Robert Nicholl, a former editor of the Brunei Museum Journal, refused to endorse the notion that the Brunei State came into existence any time before the sixteenth century. More significantly he argued that Brunei embraced Islam as a State religion only during the sixteenth century, something that runs counter to the views promoted by national historians who insist that the Islamisation of Brunei began since the 14th century onwards no sooner the founder of the present kingdom of Brunei namely Alak Betatar became a Muslim by adopting the name of Sultan Muhammad. Interestingly, many speakers in local MIB forums relish repeating the notion as if it was Alak Betatar, the first Muslim Sultan, as the pioneering architect of the Malay Islamic Monarchy ideology! In effect, it is a misguided effort to transpose modern realities into an uncertain past. It is in this context of non-existing historical documentation that the discovery of the Boxer Codex of 1590 CE assumes special significance for Brunei’s early history.
The importance of the Codex lies in its clear description of Brunei as a mature and a strong State besides corroborating the fact that Islam was vibrant in many aspects of life in the Sultanate. Historians agree that the infamous invasion of the Governor Captain Fransesco de Sande from Manila took place in 1578 because of the strong Islamic standing of the Brunei rulers. Not only in practising Islam, but Brunei had become an important Centre of Islamic propagation in the region. The kingdom sent out Islamic preachers to Borneo and the Philippines where Islam as an official religion had come to an end with the defeat of Raja Sulaiman under the Spanish onslaught. Governor de Sande was concerned that Brunei may again re-emerge as a powerful Islamic State and hence sent several warnings to Sultan Abdul Kahar to stop all Islamic propagation activities. When the Brunei King did not comply, de Sande brought a heavy fleet to defeat Brunei. Although initially a success, de Sande’s invasion could not be sustained, and within two years he pulled back his troops to the Philippines. Brunei escaped the fate of the Philippines which became a Catholic state.
And it is through the Boxer Codex that we understand that the Brunei kingdom has sprung back to thrive as an Islamic state to introduce at least some sections of Islamic penal code within a tradition bound legal system of the period.
(To be continued)