The rise and fall of Bulungan sultanate, a Muslim kingdom with Kayan roots

Today, the Kayan people of Borneo are known to practice mainly Christianity. Most of them have left their traditional belief called bungan and shamanism.

However, did you know that hundreds of years ago, a Muslim sultanate called the Bulungan sultanate was allegedly founded by a Kayan princess from Apau Kayan who had married a Bruneian?

Centuries ago, a great number of Kayans moved to east Borneo. There, they began the ethnogenesis of the Bulungan people when they converted to Islam.

The sultanate is located in the existing Bulungan Regency in the North Kalimantan province of Indonesia.

The center of the sultanate is today’s Tanjung Selor town which is the capital of both the North Kalimantan province and Bulungan regency.

During the peak of its reign, the sultanate territory spanned the eastern shores of North Kalimantan up to Tawau, now Malaysian Borneo.

The history of Bulungan sultanate

According to Bernard Sellato in his paper Forest, Resources and People in Bulungan, the history of the kingdom started from a group of Kayans who settled near the coast.

He stated, “This Dayak group, the Kayan Uma’ Apan, moved from Apo Kayan in the 17th century down the Kayan river, settled near Long Peleban (middle Kayan river), and then moved farther downstream to the Binai river, near the coast.

“There, a Kayan princess, marrying a visiting nobleman, Lancang, allegedly from Brunei (c.1650), started a dynasty of Indianised kings, which later was centered near Tanjung Selor. A century later (c.1750), this dynasty converted to Islam, and a long line of sultans, vassals to the sultan of Berau (himself a vassal to Kutai), followed until the 1850s, when the Dutch began interfering in local affairs, trying to eradicate piracy and the slave trade.”

Another account of the founding of Bulungan kingdom stated that it was founded by Kuwanyi, a Kayan aristocrat from Uma Apan of Usun Apau.

He was known for his leadership and bravery. Kuwanyi had a daughter named Asung Lawan. She then married a Brunei prince named Datu Mencang. It was under the reign of Asung Lawan and Datu Mencang, the kingdom became a Muslim sultanate.

Meanwhile, another origin story behind the Bulungan sultanate is more on the fantasy side.

Long time ago, there was a childless Kayan leader who found an egg and a bamboo.

He brought both home and the the egg and bamboo turned into a baby girl and and a baby boy respectively.

According to this legend, the boy and girl later founded the Bulungan kingdom.

Either way, it is widely understood that Bulungan sultanate is rooted from the Kayan people.

Kayan river
Kayan river in North Kalimantan.

A Norwegian’s visit to Sultanate of Bulungan

Carl Sofus Lumholtz (1851-1922) was a Norwegian explorer and ethnographer.

In 1913, he started an expedition to explore Dutch Central Borneo to learn about the culture in the area.

One of the few accounts about Sultan of Bulungan back then can be found in Lumholtz’s book, Through Central Borneo; an account of two years’ travel in the land of the headhunters between the years 1913 and 1917 (1920).

He wrote:

“Two days later, among mighty forests of nipa-palms, we sailed up the Kayan or Bulungan river and arrived at Tandjong Selor, a small town populated by Malays and Chinese, the number of Europeans being usually limited to two, the controleur and the custom house manager. It lies in a flat swampy country and on the opposite side of the river, which here is 600 metres wide, lives the Sultan of Bulungan.

I secured a large room in a house which had just been rented by two Japanese who were representatives of a lumber company, and had come to arrange for the export of hardwood from this part of Borneo.

Accompanied by the controleur, Mr. R. Schreuder, I went to call on the Sultan. He was a man of about thirty-five years, rather prepossessing in appearance, and proud of his ancestry, although time has so effaced his Dayak characteristic that he looks like a Malay. Dato Mansur, his executive, met us at the landing and escorted us into the presence of the Sultan and his wife, where were offered soda water and whiskey, and we were remained an hour. They are both likeable, but the Sultan appears rather nervous and frail, and it is rumoured that his health has suffered as a result of overindulgence in spiritualistic seances.

He gave an entertaining account of natives living in the trees on the Malinau river. As it had been impossible for me to obtain cartridges for my Winchester rifle, the Sultan was kind enough to lend me one of his before we parted, as well as two hundred cartridges.”

Lumholtz’s visit to the Sultanate of Bulungan took place sometimes in December 1913.

Sultanate of Bulungan under Dutch colonisation

The Dutch signed with the Sultan of Bulungan a Politiek Contract to impose their sovereignty over the kingdom in 1850.

By 1893, there was a Dutch government post set up in Tanjung Selor.

Under the Dutch control, the sultan was forced to hand over control of the remoter regions of the Bahau river, Pujungan river, and Apo Kayan.

Then in 1881, the British North Borneo Chartered Company (BNBC) was formed, placing North Borneo (present-day Sabah) under British jurisdiction.

Tawau, which was previously reigned over by Sultan of Bulungan, was claimed by BNBC.

After long negotiation with the British, the Dutch finally recognised the British borders in 1915 which is basically the border between Sabah and North Kalimantan now.

COLLECTIE TROPENMUSEUM Groepsportret met Maulana Mohamad Djalaloeddin Sultan van Boeloengan op zijn troon TMnr 60041528
The rulling class of the Bulungan Sultanate (taken c. 1925-1935). Credit: Creative Common

Bulungan sultanate during Indonesia-Malaysia confrontation

Ultimately, the connection between the kingdom and Malaysia played a role in the fall of Bulungan.

After World War II had ended and many countries were freed from Japanese occupation, Indonesia gained its independence from the Dutch.

Unlike many sultanates in Borneo which were abolished after independence partly due to many sultans and their families being executed by the Japanese, the Sultanate of Bulungan retained its power.

Then Indonesia-Malaysia confrontation took place in 1963 because Indonesia opposed the creation of Malaysia.

During this time, the Sultanate of Bulungan was accused of being supportive toward Malaysia.

In April 1964, it was reported that a document was found proving the ties between Bulungan aristocracy and Malaysia.

It stated that the Bulungan royal family would proclaim a merger with Sabah and subsequently Malaysia.

Furthermore, the aristocrats were seen to be visiting Sabah frequently. However, many believed the visits were just because they had relatives in Tawau.

In the same month, the Indonesian army allegedly found arms in the former palace of the sultan. By now, they strongly believed that sultan and his followers would take part in the Confrontation but would lean on the Malaysian side.

COLLECTIE TROPENMUSEUM De sultan van Bulungan en zijn echtgenote Borneo TMnr 10001599
Abdul Jalil of Bulungan with the Queen consort (1940). Credit: Creative Common

The massacre of Bulungan royal family

Later, an order came out to arrest all members of the Bulungan royal family.

When the army arrived at the Bulungan palace on July 2, 1964, they came under the pretense of just an ordinary official visit.

Naturally, the royal family provided a feast for the army that night to welcome their visit. The Sultan had no idea what the army had planned.

In the dawn of July 3 while the family and their servants were sleeping, the army surrounded the palace.

They then proceeded to capture everyone in the palace including the sultan.

Burhan Djabler Magenda in his book East Kalimantan: The Decline of a commercial Aristocracy narrated the fate of this aristocracy.

“The aristocrats were separated into several groups. All the male members were put into one group and into one boat, while the women and children were placed in a separate boat. They were supposed to be transported first to Tarakan and from there taken to Balikpapan. This plan never materialised,” he wrote.

Instead, off the shore of Tarakan, all about 30 of them in total were gunned down by their own guards.

There, their bodies were thrown into the sea. The soldiers also burned the palace to the ground and the fire lasted for two days and two nights.

Amal Beach Tarakan 2
Amal Beach of Tarakan

The end of the Sultanate of Bulungan

While there were many different accounts about the massacre, one thing for sure was that many members of the Bulungan royal family were executed in July 1964.

Among the immediate family of Sultan Bulungan, one son was in school in Malang during the incident.

However, he was later arrested in Balikpapan and was never heard of again.

Another two sons were able to survive because they managed to escape in time. They fled to Tawau and became Malaysian nationals.

In 2017, the descendants of the Sultan revealed to an Indonesian newspaper their intentions to return to their homeland by giving up their Malaysian nationalities and become Indonesian.

As dead men cannot speak, there was no definite proof that the Bulungan royal family was supportive of Malaysia to this day which cost their lives.

Even if they were, many agreed that killing the whole family including women and children was an extreme move by the army.

Regardless, the massacre of Bulungan royal family marked the end of the sultanate.

Patricia Hului is a Kayan who wants to live in a world where you can eat whatever you want and not gain weight.

She grew up in Bintulu, Sarawak and graduated from the University Malaysia Sabah with a degree in Marine Science.

She is currently obsessed with silent vlogs during this Covid-19 pandemic.

Due to her obsession, she started her Youtube channel of slient vlogs.

Follow her on Instagram at @patriciahului, Facebook at Patricia Hului at or Twitter at @patriciahului.

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