The early history of Brunei and its ruling dynasty is clouded in mystery, due not only to the paucity of records but also to attempts to construct an official Islamic version of history which blots out anything else. The officially published Royal genealogies are often at variance with verifiable foreign sources at certain periods in history, as well as with the national epic poem, the Syair Awang Semaun. Although parts of the latter have come to light, publication of the full text remains prohibited because it does not always confirm the published official texts.

According to the official version of events, Brunei was founded by a band of fourteen saudara (brothers and first cousins), who eventually settled in the Brunei river near the present capital and chose one of their number as the first ruler. Some known versions of the Syair Awang Semaun state that they were all the sons of Dewa Amas of Kayangan, a part supernatural being who descended to earth at Ulu Limbang in an egg. Discovered by the Sang Aji, he was married to that ruler's daughter by whom he fathered one son. He travelled to thirteen settlements in the region in search of an auspicious ox. At each of the villages, he fathered thirteen (or twenty-two) other sons by thirteen different aboriginal wives, daughters of the local penghulu. Official accounts attempt to Islamise his origins but several elements of the story clearly emanate from the Hindu concept of the cosmic egg, hiranyagarbha. The Islamised Silsilah Raja-Raja Brunei also mentions a ruler named Sang Aji. However, it is clear from the histories of other states in the region that Sang Aji is actually the title used by Hindu rulers in the region, not necessarily the name of any particular ruler.

The first ruler chosen by the saudara to rule the newly founded state was Awang Alak Betatar, the son of Dewa Amas and the Sang Aji's daughter. He was not necessarily the eldest among them, but chosen to rule because of his fitness to do so. The official account states that he journeyed to Johor, embraced Islam, married the daughter of a Sultan "Bahkei" of Johor and received the title of Sultan Muhammad Shah from him. Alas, these events are dated to 1363 AD, some 150 years or so before the sultanate of Johor came into existence. Neither the Malay Annals, nor other records, show any connection between the Johor and Brunei dynasties, nor do they make mention of any Sultan "Bahkei". The earliest mention of any marriage connection with Brunei is in the sultanate of Pahang, an offshoot of the Malacca-Johor dynasty, much later in the sixteenth century.

Excavations unearthed near the capital suggest that the Chinese may have controlled, or at least traded in the area as early as 835 AD. Camphor and pepper seem to have been prized objects of trade. Brunei hard camphor had a wholesale value equivalent to its own weight in silver. The kingdom was undoubtedly a very wealthy and cultured one. Ming dynasty accounts give detailed information about visits and tribute missions by rulers of P'o-ni during the late fourteenth and early fifteenth century. Their names and titles suggest either Hindu or Buddhist influence, not Islamic. The texts confirm that the state was tributary to the Hindu Javanese Majapahit Empire, but sought and received Chinese protection in 1408. Modern Bruneian writers make valiant attempts at trying to reconcile the official Islamised version of history with Western and Chinese sources. The Sinosized Sanskrit names are transliterated in such a way as to accord with Islamic names. Any names that cannot be arranged, are simply omitted from the Malay versions altogether. However, as one historian has shown by detailed references to Imperial banquet records, the kings who visited the Chinese court ate pork. One Brunei historian, confronted with the difficulty of this evidence, simply turns the tables and says that the historian concerned found the very opposite.

Islamic tombs have been found and dated to 1264, 1432 and 1499, and a letter from the ruler of P'o-ni to the Emperor of China dates from 1371 and is written in Arabic script. However, none of them has any inscriptions, names or indications that they belonged to rulers or members of the Royal family. As late as 1514 the Captain-General of Malacca reported that although the merchants of Brunei were Muslim, their king remained a pagan. The Temenggong of Malacca at that time was a Brunei Muslim and seems to have confirmed this information. In the following year, the Portuguese Superintendent of the Spice Trade reported that it was "not long since" the King had become a Muslim. Thus dating the conversion to ca 1515 not 1363. Such a date would also tally with mention of the part played by the Johore sultanate, established after 1511, in the conversion of the ruler.

Pinafetta, the Italian chronicler of the Magellan mission, visited Brunei in July 1521. He reported that there were two large towns on either side of the Brunei River. Each town with its own king, one a Muslim ruler and the other pagan. Later, in April 1578, the Spanish invaders who entered the mosque found "a block of marble containing painted and gilded pictures of idols", which they then looted. The paucity of Royal tombs and engraved headstones is also remarkable, until one realises that as Hindus or Buddhists they would have been cremated, not buried. It is obvious from this that contemporary foreign records do not corroborate the official chronology. The ruler of Brunei probably did not convert to Islam until ca. 1515. For a considerable period thereafter, a significant portion of the population, perhaps including a rival branch of the Royal Family, may have adhered to the old religion.

Chinese, Italian, Portuguese and Spanish sources from the fourteenth to the sixteenth centuries frequently tell of the wealth and power of the sultanate. By at least the fifteenth century, the Brunei sultan controlled virtually the whole of the coastal regions along the northern coastline of Borneo, Sulu, parts of Mindanao and even Luzon, in the Philippines. This wealth and power naturally brought European traders, of whom the Portuguese were content to trade. The Spanish, however, established themselves in Luzon. Proximity, religious differences, and trading aims soon caused friction between Brunei and Spain. Skirmishes turned to hostility and eventually war.

The Spanish invaded Brunei in 1577 and again in 1578, when they occupied and annexed the capital and its outlying parts to the Spanish crown. However, they were compelled to withdraw within a year and Sultan 'Abdu'l Kahar resumed control of the kingdom. Not long afterwards, a fractious civil war of succession erupted, continuing for several years. A resolution only emerged once the sultan of Sulu, in the Philippines, intervened in support of one of the parties and tipped the balance of power in his favour. The fractious civil war had been bad enough, driving away trade and compelling people to emigrate elsewhere. However, the price of that help turned out to be enormously high. The victorious sultan also had to surrender a large slice of territory on the Northeast coast of Borneo to his saviour. Thereafter, the sultanate fell into a slow, long and steady decline.

By the middle of the nineteenth century, the chief means of income were piracy and cattle raiding. As income had declined, taxation had increased to the point of extortion. This in turn drove more people away and encouraged rebellion in the provinces of the empire. It was not long before the session of territory became the main legitimate means of earning income. The remaining coastal regions and inland tracts of North Borneo were ceded to European adventurers and commercial interests. In the vast eastern territories, Sir James Brooke became first a vassal then independent Rajah of Sarawak. He embarked on a long process of annexation or seizure of provinces until at last, his territories encroached almost to Brunei town itself, and he made himself master of most of the Northern coast. Britain, needing a convenient coaling station, annexed the island of Labuan and its dependencies. By the late nineteenth century, the sultanate had shrunk to little more than Brunei water-town and the immediate hinterland.

An agreement with the British on 17th September 1888 halted the process of the shrinking sultanate up to a point and established a degree of protection. Alas, not enough to prevent the Brookes from encouraging a rebellion and wresting yet another slice of the sultanate, cutting the remaining territory in two. A new agreement with the British on 3rd December 1905 established a full protectorate, and prevented any further encroachment. The UK became responsible for defence and external affairs and appointed a permanent local Resident to advise the Sultan. Although this advice extended to the finer points of modern administration, the raising of revenue and fiscal control, interference in the internal administration of the sultanate was forbidden. Thereafter, attempts were made to develop the country but progress was painfully slow. Extremely limited resources and meagre revenues, resulted in just a few Malay schools being established, the creation of a police force, and departments of customs, lands and posts.

Exploration for oil had begun as early as 1911 at Labi and Bukit Puan, then shifted to Tutong in 1923, until final success at Seria in 1929. The discovery of oil came like manna from heaven, assuring the sultanate with a future as the wealthiest country in the world, for its size. Gradually, government revenues began to rise, then escalate rapidly. For a decade or more, surpluses were being built because the speed of growth exceeded the ability to administer controlled spending. The once impoverished sultanate became a net lender to the government of the Straits Settlements in the 1930s.

Japan occupied Brunei during the Second World War, helping itself to all the resources of the country. By the end of the war, the sultanate was in near ruin. Heavy fighting for control over Brunei Town saw much of it bombed out of existence. Food, materials and equipment were scarce until the late 1940s. The resumption of civilian rule after Japan's defeat witnessed a gradual loosening of Imperial controls. An amendment to the protectorate agreement on 29th September 1959, introduced the first written Constitution, ended the residential system and established an elected legislature with modern ministerial government.

Although there had been hopes during the late 1950's and early 1960's that Brunei would join Malaysia, the Sultan consistently remained aloof from all overtures. The sultanate advanced rapidly as oil production expanded and revenues increased during the 1960's. This brought unwelcome interest from Indonesia, already engaged in "confrontation" with Malaysia with the aim of annexing the resource rich states of Sarawak and Sabah. President Sukarno supported a left wing inspired rural insurrection against the Brunei government. Although flying in police units from British North Borneo and Gurkhas from Malaya swiftly put this down, a hidden jungle campaign continued throughout Borneo for several subsequent years. British troops led by a Gurkha contingent together with the Brunei police and the new Royal Brunei Malay Regiment, saw-off these erstwhile "liberators". Unfortunately, the experience proved a watershed for democratic reform. The experiment with democracy was ended and the legislature dissolved.

Sultan Omar 'Ali Saif ud-din, the architect of the modern revival of Brunei's fortunes, abdicated in favour of his eldest son in 1967. However, as in the sultanate of old, the Begawan Sultan as he was known after his abdication, continued to wield considerable power and influence until his death. His son, Sultan Hassan al-Bolkiah, only gradually emerged from his father's guidance in the 1980's. Nevertheless, the two Sultans negotiated complete internal self-government on 23rd November 1971. The British would have preferred to see the sultanate join Malaysia or else become independent, but neither sultan were keen to see them go quite yet. The sultanate somewhat reluctantly agreed to full independence and became a full member of the Commonwealth on 1st January 1984. Since then, Sultan Hassan has led his nation into the forefront of regional and Islamic states. His people enjoy a standard of living, educational, health and other benefits, unrivalled almost anywhere on the planet. The former Brunei Town, renamed Bandar Seri Begawan in honour of his revered father, has changed out of all recognition from the sleepy water-town of old. It now boasts some magnificent buildings and monuments of world architectural merit. In recent years, the experiment in democracy that had been abandoned after the rebellion of 1960, has been revived. The Asian financial crisis of the 1990's has long passed, and the recent sharp rise in world oil prices has returned the sultanate to a period of economic boom.

he Sovereign: Kebawah Duli Yang Maha Mulia Paduka Sri Baginda Sultan dan Yang di-Pertuan Negara Brunei Dar us-Salam, i.e. Sultan and Yang di-Pertuan of the State of Brunei Dar us-Salam, with the style of His Majesty.
Royal Consort: Kebawah Duli Yang Maha Mulia Paduka Sri Baginda Raja Istri, i.e. Raja Istri, with the style of Her Majesty.
Junior Consort: Duli Yang Teramat Mulia Pangiran Istri, i.e. Princess with the style of Her Royal Highness.
Heir Apparent: Duli Yang Teramat Mulia Duli Paduka Sri Pangiran Muda Mahkota, i.e. Crown Prince with the style of His Royal Highness.
Younger sons and grandsons of the Sovereign, in the male line: Yang Teramat Mulia Paduka Sri Duli Pangiran Muda, i.e. Prince with the style of His Royal Highness.
Daughters and granddaughters of the Sovereign, in the male line: Yang Teramat Mulia Paduka Sri Duli Pangiran Anak Putri, i.e. Princess with the style of Her Royal Highness.
Grandsons of the Sovereign, being the sons of daughters: Yang Amat Mulia Duli Pangiran Anak, unless their father's hold a senior Vizier title.
Granddaughters of the Sovereign, being the daughters of daughters: Yang Amat Mulia Duli Pangiran Anak, unless their father's hold a senior Vizier title.

Male primogeniture amongst the legitimate heirs and successors of Sultan Hashim Jalal ul-Alam. The sons of Royal wives take precedence over the sons of commoners.

Please see link below.

al-Haj: honorific used after the name for both males and females who have made the 'Haj', pilgrimage, to Mecca.
al-Marhum: the honoured deceased, prefixed to the titles of sovereigns and people of very high rank.
Astana  (or istana): palace.
Awang: style of address originally used for lesser nobles but now used as an equivalent for Mister (Mr).
Awangawang (or awang2): aristocrats.
Awangku: title of an unmarried son of a Pangiran.
Berkat: blessed.
Brunei: derived from Sanskrit Varunai meaning Sea people.
Cheteria: the third rank of official, after Vizier.
Dar us-Salam: 'Abode of Peace'.
Dato (also Datu or Datuk): part of the title for non-nobles, now also used for certain higher classes of the Orders of Chivalry, equivalent to Knight Commander.
Dayang: female of equivalent of Awang. Originally a title used for lesser nobles but now used as an equivalent for "Miss".
Dayangku: female equivalent of Y.M. Awangku, title used for unmarried daughters of a Pangiran, retained after marriage if the husband is a commoner.
Duli Paduka Sri Pangiran Muda Mahkota: Crown Prince.
Duli Pangiran Bendahara Paduka Sri Maharaja Permaisuara: the full style for the highest Vizier title, usually held by a senior member of the Royal family.
Duli Pangiran di-Gadong Sahib ul-Mal ul-Mulk ul-Adli: the full style for one of the senior Vizier titles, frequently held by members of the Royal family. Vacant 1900-1968.
Duli Pangiran Pemancha Sahib ul-Rai' wa ul-Mushuarat: the full style for one of the senior Vizier titles, frequently held by members of the Royal family. Sometimes translated as Minister for Home Affairs.
Duli Pangiran Shahbandar Sahib ul-Bandar Bait ul-Karib: the full style for one of the Vizier titles of the second rank, frequently held by members of the Royal family. Sometimes translated as minister for trade and commerce.
Haji: honorific used before the name for males who have made the pilgrimage, to Mecca.
Hajjah: honorific used before the name for females who have made the pilgrimage, to Mecca.
Hulun: slave.
ibni (ibnu): son of, used for persons of high rank only.
Istana: Palace
Kebawah Duli Yang Maha Mulia Paduka Sri Maulana Sultan: the full style of the Sultan.
Kebawah Duli Yang Maha Mulia Paduka Sri Raja Istri: the full style of the chief Royal wife of the Sultan.
Mentri (or Menteri): Minister.
Mentri Besar (or Menteri Besar): Chief Minister.
Orang (or urang): person, man.
Orang Kaya: literally "rich man", part of a title for non-nobles.
Paduka Sri Pangiran Anak Putri: style used for the daughters of a Sultan born of Royal wives.
Pehin: a non-noble official of high rank.
Pangiran (or Pangiran): title of married male descendants in the male line of a Sultan or great nobleman, or for any female descendant in the male line who has married a man of that rank.
Pangiran Anak: Prince or Princess, used for all daughters and all sons of Sultans by lesser wives, the sons of a Sultan's daughter, as well as the children of Viziers.
Pangiran Anak Istri: Princess Consort, a title used for the senior and royal wives of a Pangiran Muda.
Pangiran Muda: Prince, used for the (gahara) sons of the Sultan, Pangiran Bendahara, and the eldest gahara son of the Pangiran di-Gadong.
Mentri (or Mantri): minister, ranking below vizier.
Pangiran Laila Cheteria Sahib ul-Nabala: one of the Vizier titles of the third rank, frequently held by members of the Royal family.
Pangiran Maharaja Adinda: the full style for one of the Vizier titles of the second rank, frequently held by members of the Royal family.
Pangiran Maharaja Laila Sahib ul-Kahar: the full style for one of the Vizier titles of the second rank, frequently held by members of the Royal family. Sometimes translated as Admiral.
Pangiran Paduka Tuan: the full style for one of the Vizier titles of the second rank, frequently held by members of the Royal family.
Pangiran Perdana Cheteria Sahib ul-Nabala: one of the Vizier titles of the third rank, frequently held by members of the Royal family.
Pangiranpangiran (or pangiran2): nobles.
Persatuan Melayu Brunei: Brunei Malay Youth Association.
Pingat: medal
Puan Yang Terutama (P.Y.T.): Her Excellency.
Raja Istri: 'royal wife' or 'the ruler's wife', the usual tile for the senior wife and consort of the Brunei sovereign.
Raja Raja batas: high nobility.
Sri Paduka Duli Pangiran Temenggong Sahib ul-Bahar: the full style for the second highest Vizier titles, usually held by a senior member of the Royal family. Sometimes translated as Commander-in-Chief. Vacant 1885-1967.
Tuan Yang Terutama (T.Y.T.): His Excellency.
Vizier (or Wazir): the four highest noble officials, ranking immediately after the Sultan.
Yang di-Pertuan: (he) who is Lord, i.e. sovereign ruler.
Yang Amat Mulia (Y.A.M.): the style used for the daughter of a Sultan by a senior wife, the children of a Sultan by his junior wives, the children of the Pangiran Shahbandar, Maharaja Laila, Paduka Tuan, Maharaja Adinda, Cheteria Besar, Cheteria Pengalasan and Cheteria Damit.
Yang Teramat Mulia (Y.T.M.): the style used for the children of a Sultan by a Royal wife, the children of the Sri Paduka Duli Pangiran Bendahara, the di-Gadong, the Pemancha and the Temenggong.

Y.B. Pehin Orang Kaya Amar Diraja Sri Utama (Dr) Awang Haji Mohd. Jamil Al-Sufri bin Begawan Pehin Udana Khatib Dato Sri Paduka Awang Haji Umar. Syair Rakis, Karangan al-Marhum Pangiran Shahbandar Pangiran Md. Saleh ibnu Pangiran Sharmayuda. Pusat Sejarah, Brunei, 1983.
Bastin and Winks (comp.). "The early Malacca and Brunei Sultanates [selections]", Malaysia: Selected Historical Readings (1979).
Carrie C. Brown. "Two Ming texts concerning King Ma-na-je-chia-na of P'o-ni", The Brunei Museum Journal, 1974.
D.E. Brown. "Brunei: The Structure and History of a Bornean Malay Sultanate". Monograph of the Brunei Museum Journal, Volume 2, Number 2, The Brunei Museum, Brunei, 1970.
Simon Francis. Pictures of the Palace, travellers' accounts of the Brunei of Sultan 'Abdu'l Momin and Sultan Hashim between 1881 and 1906. Centre for South East-Asian Studies, University of Hull, Hull, 1993.
W.P. Groenveld. "Notes on the Malay Archipelago and Malacca compiled from Chinese sources", Verhandelingen van het Bataviaasch Genootschap van Kunsten en Wetenschappen, XXXIX (1880), p. 111.
A. V. M. Horton. Negara Brunei Darussalam: A Biographical Dictionary (1846-1998). Fourth Edition in two volumes. AVM Horton, Bordesley, Worcs. 1990.
Hasan Kulit and Awang Yahya bin Haji Mohamad. Daulat. Jabatan Pusat Sejarah Kementerian Kebudayaan dan Sukan Bandar Seri Begawan, 1992.
Hugh Low. "Selesilah (Book of Descent) of the Rajas of Brunei", Journal of the Malay Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society, No. 5, June 1880, pp.1-36.
Matassim Haji Jibah. "Pangiran Indira Mahkota Shahbandar Muhammad Saleh and James Brooke in the History of Brunei", Brunei History Journal, 1979.
Allen R. Maxwell. "Accessing the Epic Status of the Brunei Malay Sya'ir Awang Simawn. Paper presented at Tenth International Conference on Linguistics. 17-20 January 2006. Puerto Princessa, Palawan, Philippines.
Allen R. Maxwell. "Who is Awang Simawn?"in From Buckfast to Borneo: Essays Presented to Father Robert Maxwll on the 85th Anniversary of his birth 27 March 1995. Centre for South-East Asian Studies, University of Hull, England, pp. 178-206.
Robert Nicholl. European Sources for the History of the Sultanate of Brunei in the Sixteenth Century. Brunei Museum, Brunei Town, 1975.
Robert Nicholl. "Notes on some controversial issue in Brunei History", Archipel, Etudes interdisciplinaires sur le monde insulindien. Centre National dela Recherche Scientifique, 1980, pp. 25-41.
Pehin Orang Kaya Amar Diraja Dato Sri Utama (Dr) Haji Awang Muhammad Jamil al-Sufri. Tarsilah Brunei, Sejarah Awal dan Perkembangan Islam. Jabatan Pusat Sejarah Kementerian Kebudayaan Belia dan Sukan, Bandar Seri Begawan, 1990
D. S. Ranjit Singh. Brunei 1839-1983: the problems of political survival. Singapore, Oxford University Press (1984).
D.S. Ranjit Singh and J.S. Sidhu. Historical Dictionary of Brunei Darussalam. Scarecrow Press, Lanham, Md. (1997).
P.L. Amin Sweeney. "Silsilah Raja-Raja Brunei", ", Journal of the Malay Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society, No. 41 (2), December 1998.
W. H. Treacher. "The Genealogy of the Royal Family of Brunei", Journal of the Malay Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society, No. 15, June 1880.
Copyright© Christopher Buyers
I would be grateful to hear from anyone who may have changes, corrections or additions to contribute. If you do, please be kind enough to send me an e-mail using the contact details at:
 Copyright© Christopher Buyers  

Copyright© Christopher Buyers, January 2001 - January 2023