Vol. 6, No. 1, BOOK REVIEWS, SAKUMA Kyoko


Contents>> Vol. 6, No. 1

Brunei: From the Age of Commerce to the 21st Century
Marie-Sybille de Vienne
Singapore: NUS Press in association with Institute De Recherche Sur L’Asie Du Sud-Est Contemporaine (Research Institute of Contemporary Southeast Asia), 2015, xviii+345pp.

Brunei: From the Age of Commerce to the 21st Century is a translation of Marie-Sybille de Vienne’s book that was originally published in French, titled Brunei: De la Thalassocratie à la Rente (Paris: CNRS, 2012, index, 303pp., translated by Emilia Lanier). This fascinating work examines how Brunei, a tiny sultanate of 5,765 square kilometers in the South China Sea, became today’s extraordinarily rich state. Through the lens of economic history, de Vienne explores this transformation in terms of monarchy, Islam, and trade. Interestingly, although de Vienne deals primarily with the society and economy of modern Brunei (1984–2014 in this volume), the early history of Brunei is briefly explored in Chapters 1 and 2 (pp. 1–60). This is key, as the political, economic, historical, and religious aspects of Brunei cannot be explained without an understanding of the maritime “Age of Commerce” (Reid 1988/93) in Southeast Asia.

The most significant contribution of this book is that it provides the first published overview of the long-term history of Brunei. As an anthropologist and specialist in indigenous communities of the Baram Basin, Northern Sarawak, Malaysian Borneo, I have a keen interest in records of Brunei that describe the historical situation of Sarawak under the Sultan of Brunei. As de Vienne notes, “Brunei is thus the heart of a network in which all points on a north/south axis (from Canton at the top, down to Flores) correspond in pairs to the focal points of trade of the South China Sea” (p. 9).

Sarawak is well known as a major producer of jungle or forest products. By the early 1880s it was clearly outstripping its Bornean neighbors in its volume of such products, thus constituting a major proportion of the trade profile of all four countries: Brunei, Labuan, North Borneo, and Sarawak (Cleary 1996, 313), with Brunei being the most powerful polity. Carl Lumholtz writes that Antonio Pigafetta arrived in Brunei from the Moluccas in 1521, along with the survivors of Portuguese explorer Ferdinand Magellan’s expedition, and was the first to give an account of it to the Western world. Pigafetta called it “Bornei,” which later, with a slight change, became the name of the whole island (Lumholtz 1920, 19).

Given the importance of Brunei in the history of the Southeast Asian Archipelago, the lack of good English references on the country is surprising. To the best of my knowledge, this is the only academic publication that examines the long-term economic history of this sultanate from the Age of Commerce to the twenty-first century. Although historians have always been interested in Brunei in and around the Age of Commerce, the attention drops off afterward, with the exception of the national history written by D. S. Ranjit Singh, a historian of Brunei (Singh 1984). Singh’s book provides an overview of Brunei’s economic and political history up until the modern age.

The chapters are in chronological order, and all kinds of historical events are included in each. Chapters 1 (“Prologue: Brunei versus Borneo,” pp. 1–11) and 2 (“From Thalassocracy to Rentier State,” pp. 13–128) are in concert with the “rhythm” of the archipelago of Oliver Wolters (1982). These chapters describe how Brunei gained and developed a significant geopolitical advantage in the Southeast Asian Archipelago and how it reached its golden age through expansion and contraction of the Sultan’s territory. The references cited in the footnotes and bibliography provide useful historical references.

This translation is undoubtedly the best reference on the history of Brunei. It would be a useful title for anyone interested in Brunei and/or Borneo or anyone who seeks to understand the historical and current situation of the maritime trade of Southeast Asia and the South China Sea. This book does not take the high road of a historian’s work as it depends heavily on secondary sources. The author cites a large number of references, and the chronological historical descriptions tend to be lengthy. After Chapter 3, it becomes like any other impersonal history book. There is, of course, a major contrast between the past and present in a volume that is written in linear order with a single time line.

I have heard a wide variety of life stories from people in the Baram Basin of Sarawak who moved frequently and married across the border in Central Borneo. This is not the policymaker-centered history of nation-states like Brunei, but a history of how ordinary people, merchants, and immigrants have created their communities and built social networks in real life and in cyberspace. The political and economic position of the Chinese and Dayaks in Brunei, for example, is unclear. Although the history of Brunei has been reported to star the Malays and Western powers, the Chinese in the Southeast Asian Archipelago played a very important role. How have the Dayaks who emigrated from the Malaysian side of Borneo not been incorporated into the Islamic kingdom? Understanding Brunei in the twenty-first century requires examinations of such questions, and this book provides an excellent stepping-stone.

Sakuma Kyoko 佐久間香子


Cleary, M. C. 1996. Indigenous Trade and European Economic Intervention in North-West Borneo c.1860–1930. Modern Asian Studies 30(2): 301–324.

Lumholtz, Carl. 1920. Through Central Borneo: An Account of Two Years’ Travel in the Land of the Head-Hunters between the Years 1913 and 1917. Vol. 1. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons.

Reid, Anthony. 1988/93. Southeast Asia in the Age of Commerce, 1450–1680. 2 vols. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Singh, D. S. Ranjit. 1984. Brunei 1839–1983: The Problems of Political Survival. Singapore: Oxford University Press.

Wolters, Oliver W. 1982. History, Culture, and Region in Southeast Asian Perspectives. Singapore: Institute of Southeast Asian Studies.


DOI: doi.org/10.20495/seas.6.1_196