Culture

Brooketon, the extraterritorial extension of Sarawak during Brooke dynasty

Patricia Hului

Many Sarawakians today might not be familiar with Brooketon but about a century ago, it was a mining settlement that was once under the Sarawak government.

What made this settlement special was that it was located in Brunei, not in Sarawak.

During the reign of second White Rajah of Sarawak Charles Brooke, Brooketon was considered an ‘extraterritorial extension’ of Sarawak.

William Cowie and the mine in Brunei

Brooketon Colliery by the end of 1900. Credit: Public Domain/Copyright Expired.

Before going into how Brooke ‘acquired’ a territory outside of Sarawak, let us take a look into the history of William Cowie.

Cowie was a Scottish engineer, mariner and businessman born in 1849.

He was famously known for helping establish British North Borneo (present-day Sabah) and being the chairman of the British North Borneo Company.

In March 1882, Cowie purchased a 40-year concession for the exploitation of coal fields in Muara town in Brunei.

The Muara coalmine was first commercially mined in 1883.

At the same time, Cowie rented a shipyard in Labuan for 99 years from which he shipped his coal.

Some years later, he wanted to sell his concession rights in Muara and the person who bought the deal was Brooke.

On Sept 6, 1888, Cowie transferred his leases to Brooke for £25,000.

After the transfer, the coalmine in Muara incurred heavy losses from the outset and it was not until 1917 that even a minuscule surplus of $1,527 was shown on a year’s trading.

Rajah Charles Brooke, the de facto ruler of Brooketon

So why keep a mine that isn’t making money? Charles Agar Bampfylde, the Resident of the First Division of Sarawak (1896-1903) once explained that Brooketon without its coalmine “would be but a small fishing hamlet, that the mine found employment for a great many people.

And that it was “entirely on that account” that Brooke kept the mine open.

Meanwhile, English historian Steven Runciman believed that the Rajah bought the mine “perhaps more from fear that otherwise on the North Borneo Company might take it over than from any great faith in its potentialities”.

There is another possible theory on why Brooke bought the mine.

After Sarawak had acquired Limbang in 1890 from the Brunei sultanate, the purchase of the coal mine and its strategic location near the sea would give the Rajah a stranglehold on Brunei and and bring him closer to fulfilling his ultimate ambition, which was to incorporate Brunei within Sarawak.

According to writer Rozan Yunus in his article Before the Oil, It was Coal, the colliery was strategic as it was very near to Muara town where then and as well as now here is a safe deep-water anchorage to which the mine was connected to rail.

By 1911, there was more than 1,447 people lived in the settlement with about 30 shops.

Rozan wrote, “Politically too, even though he only had economic rights, Rajah Charles became the ‘ruler’ of the area. The mine employed hundred of miners and that required him to introduce a police force, post office and roads transforming Muara into an ‘extraterritorial’ settlement – an extension of Sarawak”.

Thanks to the post office, Brooketon became the first place in Brunei where a postage stamp was issued.

Who came up with the name Brooketon?

While many records claimed that Brooke was the one who named the settlement Brooketon, researcher A.V.M Horton pointed out it was Cowie who came up with the name.

In his paper Rajah Charles Brooke and Mining Concessions in Brunei 1888-1924, Horton wrote, “Mr Cowie had renamed the colliery settlement ‘Brooketon’ in honour of Sir Charles. Subsequently the latter was most touchy on this point: in early 1907, after a British ‘resident’ had been appointed to administer Brunei, he detected a (non-existent) British plot to suppress the name and complained to the colonial office.

“It might be observed, however, that if Brunei Malays were as well disposed towards as some writers have claimed, then it is somewhat surprising that the name ‘Brooketon’ no longer survives.”

The colliery which was known as Muara Coal Mine, was renamed as Brooketon Colliery.

The history of the mining settlement inspired the card game ‘Letters to Brooketon’

Bruneian game creator company Comet Games was so inspired with the rich history of the mining settlement that they created a card game called ‘Letters to Brooketon’.

The imaginary scenario idea behind the game is ‘What if there were local Bruneians who were against Charles Brooke and wanted to sabotage the coal mines?’

In order to play the game, each player is secretly assigned a role as either a Miner or a Mole.

Thus, it is the job of each player to find out who is who as the game progresses, lest they want the opponent to win.

The highlight of the game is deception and how you twist and play against your opponents in every round.

What is left of Brooketon Colliery

The mine was closed in 1924 due to financial losses driven by the decreasing price of coal during the world economic recession.

By then, the mine and its settlement had already returned to Brunei in 1921.

When the Japanese occupied Brunei during the Second World War (WWII) and tried to reopen the mine, they failed.

At the end of the war, the Australian forces landed at Brooketon as part of the Borneo Campaign 1945.

Today, the former fishing/mining settlement has now become Brunei’s primary deep water port with a population of 2,102 in 2016.

As for Brooketon Colliery, all that remains is an overgrown railway, locomotives, mine entrances and an abandoned Morris Minor.

Thankfully, it is currently a protected site under the Antiquities and Treasure Trove Act of Brunei Darussalam.

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