Brunei’s formal name is the Sultanate of Brunei, or Negra Brunei Darussalam, and it is a small country located on the island of Borneo. Formerly Brunei was very powerful and its borders stretched across much of the whole of Borneo, and even some southern parts of the Philippines, but the sultanate’s power declined and subsequently the country was split into two parts.

In 1888, Brunei became a British protectorate, gaining its independence from British rule less than 100 years later in 1984. Although Brunei is small, it is a very wealthy nation thanks to its oil and gas deposits. Visitors will find a country steeped in Muslim culture and natural beauty.

40,000 years ago: Brunei has a long history of settlement, with the first evidence of human life in Borneo dating back 40,000 years ago. Being an island, Borneo has received settlers from all over Southeast Asia and this makes the country’s cultural make-up very diverse.

6th century: Being an island nation, Brunei’s history is steeped in trade. As early as the 6th century, Brunei emerged as a major trading nation, trading sought-after spices and woods with countries such as India and China.

15th century-17th century: In 1405 Brunei’s ruler, Sultan Muhammad, introduced Islam to the country. He is the founding member of the Sultanate dynasty that rules today. This period marked Brunei’s strongest and most powerful time, when the ruling Sultan for a short period captured Manila and controlled the whole island of Borneo.

1888-1984: During this period Brunei was a British protectorate, which evolved primarily from the British trading companies that took over control of Sabah in the early 19th century. The Sultanate became independent from the British in 1984.

1984-present: Brunei has been ruled by a Sultan since its independence from Britain and this title has been passed down in the same family since the 15th century. The current Sultan is His Majesty Sultan Haji Hassanal Bolkiah and he is the 29th ruler of Brunei.

Key Dates

  • 1405: Islam is introduced into Brunei by the ruling Sultan who founded the monarchy that rules Brunei today.
  • 1473: The beginning of the rule of Sultan Bolkiah, the fifth Sultan, who took Brunei to the pinnacle of its power.
  • 1839: English explorer James Brooke arrived in Borneo and helped the Sultan quash a rebellion.
  • 1605: The ninth Sultan, Sultan Hassan, came to power and he urbanized Brunei and changed the structure of the royal family.
  • 1888: Brunei becomes a protectorate of Britain.
  • 1906: Brunei transferred executive power to the British, with the Sultan only overseeing local customs and religion.
  • 1959: New constitution was written, making Brunei a self-governing state.
  • 1906: The British Residential System is introduced.
  • 1967: Current Sultan, Hassanal Bolkiah, ascends the Sultanate.
  • 1970: Brunei’s capital was renamed Bandar Seri Begawan, from Brunei Town, in honor of Sultan Omar.
  • 1984: Independence from the British.

Historical Figures

Sultan Bolkiah (1473-1521): The fifth and probably most powerful Sultan of Brunei. He was known for his sea exploits and was able to expand Brunei’s sphere of influence to the whole of Borneo and as far as Manila for a short period. The period of his rule is considered to be Brunei’s golden period.

Sultan Hassan (1605-1619): The ninth Sultan, Hassan was known for changing the complex structure of the royal court, which is followed even today. However, he succumbed to the royal succession battles, which led to Brunei’s period of decline.

Sultan Omar (1967-1986): Best known for abdicating and letting his son, Hassanal Bolkiah become the 29th Sultan of Brunei. After abdicating, Sultan Omar took the title of Seri Begawan and he is memorialized in the name of the capital of Brunei, which was changed in 1970 from Brunei Town to Bandar Seri Begawan.

Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah: The 29th and current Sultan of Brunei. He is the head of state and government and has been an important ruler, bringing wealth to Brunei by selling Brunei’s oil and gas to international markets.