Bruneian Empire

The Bruneian Empire or Empire of Brunei (/brˈn/ brew-NYE), also known as Sultanate of Brunei, was a Malay sultanate, centred in Brunei on the northern coast of Borneo island in Southeast Asia. Bruneian rulers converted to Islam around the 15th century, when it grew substantially since the fall of Malacca to the Portuguese,[3][4] extending throughout coastal areas of Borneo and the Philippines, before it declined in the 17th century.[5]

Empire of Brunei
Bruneian Sultanate

Empayar Brunei
إمبراطورية بروناي
The extent of the Bruneian Empire in the 16th century
CapitalKota Batu
Kampong Ayer
Brunei Town[1]
Common languagesBrunei Malay, Old Malay, Old Tagalog, Arabic and Bornean languages
Sunni Islam
Sultan (until last empire) 
Sultan Muhammad Shah
Sultan Sharif Ali of Mecca
Sultan Bolkiah
Sultan Muhammad Hassan
Sultan Omar Ali Saifuddin II
Sultan Hashim Jalilul Alam Aqamaddin
Historical eraGolden Age
 Sultanate established
 Became protectorate of British
CurrencyBarter, Cowrie, Piloncitos and later Brunei pitis
Preceded by
Succeeded by
History of Brunei#Before the Sultanate
Sultanate of Sulu
Sultanate of Sarawak
Spanish East Indies
Dutch East Indies
Raj of Sarawak
Crown Colony of Labuan
North Borneo
Today part of Brunei


Understanding the history of the Bruneian Empire 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 Borneo as a whole, while Poli 婆利, probably located in Sumatra, is claimed by local authorities to refer to Brunei as well.[7]

Early history

The earliest diplomatic relations between Boni (渤泥) and China are recorded in the Taiping Huanyu Ji (太平環宇記) (978).[7] In 1225, a Chinese official, Zhao Rukuo, reported that Boni had 100 warships to protect its trade, and that there was a lot of wealth in the kingdom.[8] 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,[9] which had to make an annual tribute of 40 katis of camphor. In 1369, the Sulus attacked Po-ni, looting it of treasure and gold. A fleet from Majapahit succeeded in driving away the Sulus, but Po-ni was left weaker after the attack.[10] A Chinese report from 1371 described Po-ni as poor and totally controlled by Majapahit.[11]


The Government of Bruneian Empire was feudalistic in nature. The empire was divided into three traditional land systems known as Kerajaan (Crown Property), Kuripan (official property) and Tulin (hereditary private property).[12]


After the death of its emperor, Hayam Wuruk, Majapahit entered a state of decline and was unable to control its overseas possessions. This opened the opportunity for Bruneian kings to expand their influence. Chinese Ming emperor Yongle, after ascending to the throne in 1403, immediately dispatched envoys to various countries, inviting them to pay tribute to the Chinese court. Brunei immediately got involved in the lucrative tributary system with China.

By the 15th century, the empire became a Muslim state, when the King of Brunei converted to Islam, brought by Muslim Indians and Arab merchants from other parts of Maritime Southeast Asia, who came to trade and spread Islam.[13][14] It controlled most of northern Borneo, and it became an important hub for the East and Western world trading system.[15] Local historians assume that the Bruneian empire was a thalassocratic empire that was based upon maritime power, which means its influence was confined to coastal towns, ports and river estuaries, and seldom penetrated deep into the interior of the island. The Bruneian kings seem to have cultivated alliance with regional seafaring peoples of Orang Laut and Bajau that formed their naval armada. The Dayaks, native tribes of interior Borneo however, were not under their control, as imperial influence seldom penetrated deep into the jungles.

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][16]

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), Sulu Archipelago including parts of the island of Mindanao.[17][18][19][20][21][22][23][24] 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 Sultanate of Sulu in Southern Philippines in particular developed dynastic relations with the royal house of Brunei. Other Malay sultans of Pontianak, Samarinda as far as Banjarmasin, treated the Sultan of Brunei as their leader. The true nature of Brunei's relations to other Malay Sultanates of coastal Borneo and 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.


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. Sultan Hashim Jalilul Alam Aqamaddin later appealed to the British to stop further encroachment in 1888.[25] In the same year British signed a "Treaty of Protection" and made Brunei a British protectorate[5] until 1984 when it gained independence.[26][27]

Part of a series on the
History of Brunei
Bruneian Empire
to 1888
House of Bolkiah
(15th century – present)
Sultanate of Sulu
to 1578
Rajahnate of Maynila
to 1571
to 1571
Castilian War 1578
Civil War 1660–1673
15th century
to 1841
15th century
to 1846
Sabah (North Borneo)
15th century
to 1865
British protected state 1888–1984
Japanese occupation 1942–1945
Borneo campaign 1945
Revolt 1962
  • Timeline
  • Sultans



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Further reading

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