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The Bruneian Empire was founded in the early 7th century on the island of Borneo in Southeast Asia. The empire was ruled by pagan or Hindu kings converted to Islam by Indians, Arabs and merchants from the other parts of the Malay Archipelago who came to trade and spread Islam. Since no local and indigenous sources exist to provide evidence for any of this, Chinese texts have been used to construct a history of early Brunei. Boni in Chinese sources refers to probably Borneo as a whole, while Poli 婆利, probably located in Sumatra, is claimed by local authorities to refer to Brunei as well. The earliest diplomatic relations between Borneo (Boni 渤泥) and China are recorded in the Taiping huanyuji太平環宇記 (978).
During the rule of Bolkiah, the fifth Sultan, Brunei expanded into a strong empire with its territory covering almost all of Borneo and parts of the Philippines, mainly the island of Mindanao. This was the Bruneian empire's symbol of might and therefore that time was its golden age. Brunei's army consisted of a strong naval force, many of whom worked as pirates in the South China Sea and the coastal areas of Borneo. The pirates could be summoned by the Sultan whenever they were needed in an expedition. Actually, they were also highly experienced sea captains called the 'Nakhoda'.
The earliest recorded documentation by the west about Brunei was by an Italian known as Ludovico di Varthema. Ludovico was at the time on a route to the Moluccan Islands when he landed in Borneo and met with the people of Brunei. The record of his documentation dates back to 1550.
"We arrived at the island of Bornei (Brunei or Borneo), which is distant from the Maluch about two hundred miles, and we found that it was somewhat larger than the aforesaid and much lower. The people are pagans and are men of goodwill. Their colour is whiter than that of the other sort....in this island justice is well administered..."
- Jamil Al-Sufri, Tarsilah Brunei: The Early History of Brunei up to 1432 AD (Bandar Seri Begawan: Brunei History Centre, 2000)
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