If we look at any recent list of the wealthiest men on earth, somewhere between Bill Gates and Merv Griffin is the Sultan of Brunei. You would not have foreseen this back in 1911. The Encyclopedia Britannica of that year refers to this Asian kingdom on the north coast of Borneo as, "an ancient and decaying sultanate". The tomb of former sultan Bolkiah, dating back to the early 1500s, is "constantly visited by Malays who leave money and various articles on the tomb as offerings to his memory. Others, again, come and take away anything they can find, which they keep as charms and mementoes." The current sultan, also Bolkiah, had the good fortune to be born after the discovery of oil in his kingdom, and to come into further wealth when natural gas was discovered. Which allows him, his 2 wives and his nine children to rattle around in a $400,000,000, 1788-room home. But what about his earliest predecessors? Where did this dynasty begin?

In one version of the land's origin, Malay traders exploring Borneo's northern coast around the sixth century came upon a region where rivers flowed out of distant hills and entered the South China Sea through gleaming coral sands. They were suitably impressed and exclaimed "Barunah", a classical expression roughly translated as, "Oh, Yeah". Settling there and opening trade with China across the sea to the north, they eventually became a vassal state of the Majapahit dynasty of Java. Apparently the yoke didn't sit too heavily on the Brunei people - the annual tribute was one jar of juice from the areca palm. But when conquering Islamic forces began entering the region in the 1470s and 80s, the local ruler Alek Betata saw which way the monsoon was blowing and converted, taking the name Mohammed. Brunei, having made it's peace with the new order, once again set out to expand it's trade and soon its routes extended to Singapore and Burma. Brunei now appended the name Darussalam, meaning Abode of Peace. (Yes, there's one in Tanzania as well). Once again the sultan's people could happily exclaim, "Barunah".

When Sultan Mohammed died without a male heir, his brother married the daughter of a Chinese officer and, in turn, his daughter married into the Arabian nobility, her husband Berkat becoming sultan. He was apparently a skilled diplomat for he remained on good terms with the increasingly powerful Chinese while still maintaining Islamic law in his own land. Relations were so good, that when Berkat decided to make some internal improvements and join two islands in the Brunei River, he worked with Chinese engineers, filled forty junks with rocks, strung them across the water, then sank them. The causeway was still visible into our own century. The gift of future sultans for coming to terms with their conquerors - first the Portuguese, followed by the Dutch and then the English - would also be tested and survive. But that's a story for another time.

For Classical ninety-one five, this is David Minor

© 1999 David Minor / Eagles Byte