The Bruneian Empire or Empire of Brunei /bruːˈnaɪ/, also known as Sultanate of Brunei, was a Malay sultanate, centred in Brunei on the northern coast of Borneo island in Southeast Asia. The kingdom was founded in the early 7th century, started as a small seafaring trading kingdom ruled by a native pagan or Hindu king known by the Chinese as Po-Li or Po-Ni (渤泥). Bruneian kings converted to Islam around the 15th century, when it grew substantially since the fall of Malacca to the Portuguese, extending throughout coastal areas of Borneo and the Philippines, before it declined in the 17th century.
Understanding the history of the Bruneian Empire is quite difficult since it is hardly mentioned in contemporary sources of its time, as well as there being a scarcity of evidence of its nature. No local or indigenous sources exist to provide evidence for any of this. As a result, Chinese texts have been relied on to construct the history of early Brunei. Boni in Chinese sources most likely refers to Borneo as a whole, while Poli 婆利, probably located in Sumatra, is claimed by local authorities to refer to Brunei as well.
The earliest diplomatic relations between Boni (渤泥) and China are recorded in the Taiping Huanyu Ji (太平環宇記) (978).
In 1225, a Chinese official, Zhao Rugua, reported that Boni had 100 warships to protect its trade, and that there was a lot of wealth in the kingdom.
In the 14th century, Brunei seems to be subjected to Java. The Javanese manuscript Nagarakretagama, written by Prapanca in 1365, mentioned Barune as the vassal state of Majapahit, which had to make an annual tribute of 40 katis of camphor. In 1369, the Sulus attacked Po-ni, looting it of treasure and gold. A fleet from Majapahit succeeded in driving away the Sulus, but Po-ni was left weaker after the attack. A Chinese report from 1371 described Po-ni as poor and totally controlled by Majapahit.
After the death of its emperor, Hayam Wuruk, Majapahit entered the state of decline and was unable to control its overseas possessions. This opened the opportunity for Bruneian kings to expand their influence. Chinese Ming emperor Yongle, after ascending to throne in 1403, immediately dispatched envoys to various countries inviting them to pay tribute to Chinese court. Brunei immediately got involved in the lucrative tributary system with China.
By the 15th century, the empire became a Muslim state, when the King of Brunei converted to Islam, brought by Muslim Indians and Arab merchants from other parts of Maritime Southeast Asia, who came to trade and spread Islam. It controlled most of northern Borneo, and it became an important hub for the East and Western world trading system.
The Bruneian empire, just like previous regional empires of Srivijaya, Majapahit, and Malacca, can be considered as a thalassocratic empire that was based upon maritime power, which means its influence was only confined to coastal towns, ports and river estuarines, and seldom penetrated deep into the interior of the island. The Bruneian kings seems to cultivated alliance with regional seafaring peoples of Orang Laut and Bajau that formed their naval armada. The Dayaks, native tribes of interior Borneo however, were not under their control, as its influence seldom penetrated deep into the jungles.
The earliest recorded documentation by the West about Brunei was by an Italian known as Ludovico di Varthema. Ludovico was at the time on a route to the Maluku Islands when he landed in Borneo and met with the people of Brunei. The record of his documentation dates back to 1550.
"We arrived at the island of Bornei (Brunei or Borneo), which is distant from the Maluch about two hundred miles, and we found that it was somewhat larger than the aforesaid and much lower. The people are pagans and are men of goodwill. Their colour is whiter than that of the other sort....in this island justice is well administered..."
During the rule of Bolkiah, the fifth Sultan, the empire controlled over coastal areas of northwest Borneo (present-day Brunei, Sarawak and Sabah) and reached Seludong (present-day Manila), Ma-i, Sulu Archipelago including parts of the island of Mindanao. In the 16th century, the Brunei empire's influence also extended as far as Kapuas River delta in West Kalimantan. The Malay Sultanate of Sambas in West Kalimantan and Sultanate of Sulu in Southern Philippines in particular has developed dynastic relations with the royal house of Brunei. Other Malay sultans of Pontianak, Samarinda as far as Banjarmasin, treated the Sultan of Brunei as their leader. The true nature of Brunei's relations to other Malay Sultanates of coastal Borneo and Sulu archipelago is still a subject of study. Whether it was a vassalised state, an alliance or just a ceremonial relationship. Since there was other regional polities also exercised their influence upon these sultanates. Sultanate of Banjar (present day Banjarmasin) for example, was also under the influence of Demak in Java.
By the end of 17th century, Brunei subsequently entered a period of decline brought on by internal strife over royal succession, colonial expansion of European powers, and piracy. The empire lost much of its territory due to the arrival of the western powers such as Spanish in the Philippines, Dutch in southern Borneo and the British in Labuan, Sarawak and North Borneo. Sultan Hashim Jalilul Alam Aqamaddin later appealed to the British to stop further encroachment in 1888. In the same year British signed a "Treaty of Protection" and made Brunei a British protectorate, until 1984 when it gained independence.