Brunei history seen through its coinage

Sunday, August 12, 2007

THE history of any country's coinage is interesting. Coins are the physical manifestation of the political power of any one country. For the last 2,000 years, coins throughout the world tend to depict the leader of that country, be it the Sultan or the King or the Queen or the President just as the days of the Roman Empire — that of the Caesars.

The history of Brunei's coins is no less fascinating. It started from the Chinese coins called duit kue all the way to today's shiny coins bearing the portrait of His Majesty Sultan Haji Hassanal Bolkiah Muizzaddin Waddaulah, Brunei's 29th Sultan.

In Brunei, Chinese coins were among those that were used very early in Brunei's economy. So much so that in 1521, Magellan's chronicler, the Italian Pigafetta wrote about Brunei's coins: "The money is made out of bronze pierced in the middle in order that it may be strung. On each side of it are four Chinese characters, which are letters of the Great King of China. We call the money picils." Picils refer to Pitis which historians consider to be a very ancient term.

These coins must have existed since Brunei's earliest contact with the Chinese, said to be as early as between the 9th and 12th Centuries.

The Chinese coins were generally termed locally as Duit Kue to differentiate from the pitis which are more confined to the type of coins issued much later by the Brunei Sultans. However, coins, especially Islamic ones tend to be called pitis to the confusion of some people. The Chinese coins circulated in Brunei until around the last half of the 19th century.

The next set of coins widely used in Brunei was the soft tin lead alloy issued by the various Sultans. These are further subdivided into about three sets — the first having names of known Sultans, the second of unknown sultans and the third with an anonymous flowery design that nobody knows who issued them. These coins were issued from about the 16th century to about the 19th century.

Coins of the unnamed Sultans have the honorific title of the Sultan minted on the coins. The titles included Sultan Al-Adil (The Just Sultan) and Malik Al-Thahir (The Victorious Sultan). The title is generic though it has been speculated that the coins belonged to that of Sultan Hassan who ruled between 1605 and 1620. However, this title has similarity to coinage of the Mamluk Dynasty of Egypt.

A more identifiable pitis coin was that of Sultan Abdul Momin's who rule from 1853 to 1885. The coin issued had a definite date on the coin (1868) and the principal metal of this coin is lead with some tin content. On the front, the coin shows the Royal umbrellas and other Brunei state insignia. The coin also has an inscription translated as "By order of the State Financial Administration of Brunei, in the year of the Prophet 1285".

However, the more interesting Brunei coinages do not look like coins. The first of these is the miniature Brunei cannons. These cannons are made out of bronze and between six inches and a foot long. They were used as dowry money as well as remittance for legal penalties.

The other non-coin was that of the iron strip. In the 1848 book, Brunei and the East Indian Archipelago, Frank Maryatt described the usage of iron stip metal: "Iron is here so valuable that it is used as money. One hundred flat pieces an inch square are valued at a dollar, and among the low classes these iron pieces form the sole coin."

One coin which transcends the boundary between the traditionally hand-made coins and the modern minted one was that of Duit Bintang or the Star Money issued by Sultan Hashim. This is so called because on the obverse or the front of the coin had a star. The inscription on the coins are both in English and Malay Jawi. More than a million of these were minted at Ralph Heaton and Sons in Birmingham, England around 1886. This coin was the very last issued by a ruling Sultan of Brunei. The next one would be that of Sultan Omar Ali Saifuddien in 1967.

In between those 80 years, Brunei, having accepted a British Resident, was also forced to accept notes and currency issued by the Straits Settlement Government in Singapore. The coins of Sarawak bearing the head of James Brooke, then Charles Vyner Brooke as well as those issued by the North Borneo (now Sabah) circulated freely in Brunei.

This continued until 1937 when Brunei joined the Board of Commissioners of Currency Malaya which later became the Board of Commissioners of Currency Malaya and North Borneo. The notes issued in 1941 had the portrait of King George VI and in 1953 the portrait of Queen Elizabeth II. The coinage released around this time also had the portraits of these two.

In 1967 Brunei, Singapore and Malaysia decided to issue their own currencies. Brunei issued its own paper notes and coins based on the portrait of Sultan Omar Ali Saifuddien. It wasn't until 1970 when the coins were replaced by those bearing the portraits of Sultan Haji Hassanal Bolkiah.

Interestingly the first issue of Sultan Haji Hassanal Bolkiah's first coins in 1970 had the inscription written as Sultan Haji Hassanal Bolkiah I (the first). This quirk was removed in subsequent releases.

The portrait remained unchanged until the last few years when a newer portrait of Sultan Haji Hassanal Bolkiah Muizzaddin Waddaullah was issued.

The author runs a website on Brunei at bruneiresources.com

The Brunei Times