This is a commentary on the PROLOGUE chapter – AWANG SEMAUN – which you can read HERE.
We start from the beginning. And by beginning, I mean back to the time when the country of Brunei Darussalam was founded.
We all know the basic story: 14 brothers living in Garang (somewhere in Temburong) decided to search for a new place to settle. Their leader was Awang Alak Betatar – not the eldest but the smartest and the most handsome of the brothers. Two of the brothers – Pateh Berbai and Damang Seri – found the Brunei River. Pateh Berbai exclaimed ‘Barunah!’ which roughly is equivalent to the expression of ‘Found it! or Finally! or At Last!’ The term Barunah later became Barunai and eventually into Brunai/Brunei. One of the brothers was also Awang Semaun, a man with an extraordinary strength and was instrumental in expanding the Brunei empire throughout Borneo.
You may notice that the story told in my Prologue is different than the one that are popularly known. Here are some of the reasons:
- The legend of the founding of Brunei was primarily told in an epic poem called Syair Awang Semaun. What not a lot of people know is that there are at least six versions of it – not counting those that may be in private possession. And these six versions have different length and content.
- The standard list of the founding heroes is 14 brothers. But there is another version that omits familiar names like Damang Sari and included lesser known names such as Patih Bulu Mata Gajah, Harimau Taring, Panglima Kujal, etc.
- The figure known as Awang Semaun was not only just found in Bruneian legend. Variations of the Awang Semaun legend have at least appeared in the stories from Limbang, the Ibans, the Muruts, the Bisayas. I thought that it would make much more sense for Awang Semaun to be of a native Borneon (Murut or Lun Bawang) ethnicity rather than a ‘Melayu Brunei’.
- There is a theory that the Brunei royal lineage could be traced back to the old Cambodian Kingdom of Funan. It is believed that after the fall of Funan by the Khmers, the royal families of Funan fled to North Borneo and founded the state of Vijayapura in the seventh century – believed to be Brunei. In this story, I took the liberty to associate the names with ‘Patih’ on it with the Funanese royal lineage.
- In Syair Awang Semaun, our Bruneian heroes set out to conquer the Melanau kingdom after establishing a new state by the Brunei river. At Igan, Awang Semaun with Awang Jerambak and Damang Sari, fought with a djinn called Bilantapura. Bilantapura was a relatively minor villain in the epic poem but I decided to ‘expand’ his role in this story.
The version that I tell in this Prologue is definitely NOT historically accurate. BUT what is historically accurate? We don’t know.
It intrigues me that there is a lot of Brunei history that we don’t really know much. Specifically, the pre-1500s period (The time before the arrival of Antonio Pigafetta/the time of Sultan Bolkiah).
- The common story is that Awang Alak Betatar married with a Johor-Temasek (Singapore) princess (daughter of Sultan Bakhei) and converted to Islam – becoming Sultan Muhammad Shah, the first Sultan of Brunei. This is believed to have happened during the late 1300s. BUT the earliest known record of a Johor sultanate was in the 1500s.
- Sultan Muhammad Shah was the first Muslim King in Brunei (1363 – 1402) and Islam was consolidated by the reign of Sultan Sharif Ali (1425 – 1432). Sultan Sharif Ali was also the one that added ‘Darussalam’ (Abode of Peace) to the name of our country. But there are records by the Chinese that revealed that there were Muslim traders in Brunei/Borneo before the reign of Sultan Muhammad Shah. Not only Islam arrived earlier but Muslims held considerable influence before it became the official religion in Brunei.
- The Salasilah stated the second Sultan was Sultan Ahmad (formerly known as Pateh Berbai – one of the 14 Saudaras/Founding heroes). But Chinese records showed that Sultan Muhammad Shah had a son named Sultan Abdul Majid Hassan (1402 – 1408) that died young and buried in China. He had a 4 years old son which we can assume to never grew up to become a Sultan. But accounts from the Klias River (Sabah) tells a story about Sultan Koyoh, another son of Sultan Muhammad Shah.
- Sultan Bolkiah (1485 – 1524) is a well known figure in Brunei History. He ruled the country during her golden age when Brunei’s influence extended from Southern Borneo to Manila, the Philippines. But there are two versions of his genealogy. The Salasilah version – the officially accepted version – stated that he was the son of Sultan Sulaiman (1432 – 1485) and grandson of Sultan Sharif Ali (1425 – 1432).
Another version comes from Syair Awang Semaun where Sultan Bolkiah was the son of Damang Libar Daun. Damang Libar Daun was one of the 14 Founding Heroes (with Semaun, Alak Betatar, Pateh Berbai, Damang Sari, etc). He emigrated to Java and married with a local. His son, Sultan Bolkiah returned to Brunei and had adventures with Awang Asmara – the son of Awang Sinuai and grandson of Awang Jerambak, who was Awang Semaun’s warrior friend.
But I think that between the Salasilah and Syair Awang Semaun, the latter’s reliability is much more questionable because the Syair has more fantastical elements in it. For example, the Syair said that Awang Alak Betatar’s father hatched from an egg that descended from the heavens.
There are a lot of things in the history of Brunei that we are not clear about. If you’re interested, you can find tons of information on Brunei History all over the internet. Here are the interesting ones:
Tales from Syair Awang Semaun
Assessing the Epic Status of the Brunei Malay Sya’ir Awang Simawn: Place Names and Toponyms Allen R. Maxwell
(Where I obtained the extra names outside the standard 14 founding heroes – eg. Panglima Kujal, Harimau Taring, Tuan Sabtu, etc).
Headhunting and the social imagination in Southeast Asia
(Despite the title, there is a section about Syair Awang Semaun – notably on the near mythical conquest of Borneo by Awang Semaun, Awang Jerambak, Damang Sari. Also a bit on their fight against Bilantapura)
Brunei Sultanate expands empire
Awang Semaun: Tale of a Brunei warrior
There are also lots of books published by the Brunei History Centre that are valuable to those who are interested in the subject.
Tarsilah Brunei: The Early History of Brunei Up To 1432 AD
There is also this book which piqued my interest as well
The Collection of Historical Documents Related to Bilateral Relations Between China and Brunei Darussalam” printed by the World Affairs Press, Beijing, China
For more on my thoughts on Local Brunei Legends, head over to my main blog: http://trylobyte.wordpress.com/2013/01/31/thoughts-on-local-brunei-legends/