In the village of Kampong Junjongan, there lies a forgotten folklore of the legend of Sultan Bolkiah the 5th. Sultan Bolkiah the 5th was the great Sultan of Brunei who expanded Brunei’s territory and power to its greatest height in the 14th century. He was also renowned in the Malay world as one of its greatest conquers.
Before all that achievement and glory, he was just a young boy. But he was no ordinary boy. He was physically vigorous and mentally astute. He impressed everyone he met, including ambassadors and dignitaries from abroad. Sailing and hunting were his passion. Every morning he liked to sail along the rivers of Kampong Ayer. He was also skilled in hunting. Once he threw and killed a wild rabbit with a spear from very far away.
One day he sailed deep into the rivers of Brunei more than usual. His bodyguards were cautious and tried to follow him. He dismissed them. “I can take care of myself,” said the young aspiring conquerer. “I will be back in no time,” he continued. And so the prince went deep into the rivers with his small wooden boat.
After several hours, he reached a point in the river to take a rest. It was already late in the afternoon. He tried to find any rabbit or any animals to hunt but there were none. He was disappointed. But the moment was calm and peaceful.
Then suddenly his boat flipped and he was thrown into the water. He was shocked. He regained his composure and looked around. To his horror, there was the feared ‘Buaya Hitam’, a gigantic black-colored crocodile. According to the stories told to him by his elderlies, this ‘Buaya Hitam’ had consumed even the fiercest of Bruneian warriors. But what it liked the most was the flesh of small children, they said. Being in the water, he quickly swam to the shore as the crocodile tore apart the wooden boat. It was not until moments later the crocodile realized his meal was gone. Its eyes caught the young boy on the shore, who was now regaining his composure. It went after the young prince.
The future ruler ran as fast as he could into the deep jungle. And knowing that the crocodile was fast, he quickly ran up and climbed an unusually tall tree. He did not know what to do as the crocodile hungrily encircled the tree waiting for his lunch to come or fall down. Hours have passed and no one was present. The prince tried to shout for help but all to no avail. He was now hungry.
Darkness arrived. The prince knows that unless he escapes from the crocodile then he is forever doomed. Suddenly, he observed something. The tree that he climbed was different than any tree he ever saw. It had strange qualities about it. For one, it had an unusual amount of red flowers. The other is the tree’s durability and strength. He tried to break one small branch. It did not break until he took his entire strength to do so.
Then he had an idea.
With the knife he had in his pocket, he started to cut and then carve out a seemingly long branch into a spear. He then tied up his knife at the spear’s end. After hours of tedious hard work, he finally made his weapon. Attacking at night would be too dangerous, so he waited until early morning. He stayed awake the entire night with fear. The crocodile was still down there in the early morning, but it was now sleeping.
He slowly lowered himself from the tree with his weapon at hand. As careful as he was, however, he made accidentally made a loud noise when he broke an old branch of the tree. This woke up the crocodile instantly, now happy that his breakfast was now in his grasp. The crocodile snapped his jaw as the boy hung from the tree. It missed again. But the boy was ready. It was his plan all along to bait him out to attack. With his strength, the young prince stabbed the crocodile in its left eye. It screamed and ran away, fearful that its right eye might be stabbed next.
Then as he was about to lower himself from the tree, there was a shout from afar. “Bolkiah! Bolkiah!”. They were his bodyguards. When he heard of them he was relieved. “Hey, I’m here!” said the boy, waving his hand from the jungle. The bodyguards were both relieved and shocked at the same time. Relived because they would have gotten into trouble if the boy was never found, and shocked because they saw his body filled with bruises and scars.
Despite the dangers faced, the little boy was happy and soon shared his story to his men as they sailed him home. As he was about to embark he took a couple of red flowers from the tree with him as a memento of his adventure. Once he got home, he was scolded by his dad, Sultan Suleiman. His dad got even mad when he shared his dangerous adventure. As the boy was scolded, an elderly man, known for his wisdom interjected. “Your Majesty, this boy has blinded the ‘Buaya Hitam’. To my recollection, no one has ever hurt the crocodile let alone win!”.
“And what is that in his hands? A red flower…could it be that he has found the legendary Ragam Merah tree? By god’s will, this boy is destined for greatness! These are signs that he will lead our people to glory”. The father who was angry a few moments ago calmed down. “Bolkiah, if this man tells me the truth then, Bolkiah, Brunei in its current size is not big enough for you. I hope you will expand our power and might someday”
Years have passed and the small boy has now grown into a formidable and respected man. Versed in the arts of sailing and warfare, he soon consolidated his rule upon taking the throne. To solidify his rule, he punished others who may undermine his authority. With his authority absolute in what was then a small kingdom, he now set his sight to conquer the entirety of Borneo itself and beyond.
He amassed the greatest and finest navy Brunei has ever seen. Over two hundreds ships, many of which were equipped with canons was now in his hands to start his grand expedition.
But just before he was about to embark on his journey, he asked his men to accompany him to the location where he had the incident with the “Buaya Hitam”. Thirty of his fiercest men duly followed him as he sailed into the heart of the river jungle. When they arrived in the location, they immediately saw a big crocodile, blinded in its left eye, moving aggressively towards them. Men were at the ready to defend the king and to kill the beast.
But something strange happened, the crocodile stopped. When it did, the Sultan halted his men from moving. For a moment, the Sultan and crocodile stared at each other. There was silence. His men did not understand what was happening. But the Sultan knew better. From its eye, the Sultan can sense weakness in his foe. Then the crocodile swam away and was never to be seen again. He was not finished with his small expedition. He then led his men into the jungle to find that peculiar tree, the tree that miraculously gave him the wooden materials to fend himself against harm. He also took a bunch of red flowers, intending to use them as symbols of his victory in his upcoming conquests.
He ordered the men to cut a part of the timber down, but not too much to leave a section of it so the tree can recover back. With the logs ready, they transport it to the city. Once there he instructed his finest engineers and boat-makers to use the woods as protection outer layers to what would become the strongest and largest naval warship Brunei has ever built. It took them a few months to do so – delaying his entire expedition to his frustration. But when it was done it became his permanent center of command, his home, and the heart of the empire.
The expedition finally began with a prayer for victory led by the Sultan. He also scattered red flowers onto the sea as good luck. Hundreds of ships led by the Sultan quickly conquered nearby towns and cities. Battle after battle, sometimes against impossible odds, was won over thanks primarily to that ship. It was unbeatable and seemed to all his enemies as invincible. Legend has it that when the Sulu navies successfully surrounded and blasted the ship with their cannonballs, not one single breach was made to the warship. When it was time for the Brunei warship to retaliate, every enemy boats were decimated. It rendered the entire Sulu navy useless.
For every territory the Sultan conquered, he planted red flowers symbolizing his victory in conquest. Whenever people encounter these red flowers, one can be sure that is formerly under Bruneian territory. Red flowers sprouted across Borneo island and beyond.
As his victory followed victory, word quickly spread around. From small towns to big villages and finally across the Malayan archipelago, friends were filled with awe; enemies with fear. But it was its captain Sultan Bolkiah the 5th, who was now at his height of power, who was now looked up with respect and awe. Venetian travelers who heard of the story aptly described his achievements as one that is comparable to that of “Alexander the Great”. Ultimately, Borneo and territories as far as Palawan and Northern Philippines were conquered under his rule. It seemed that almost every territory had red flowers in their central town and villages.
With great power came great enemies. Brunei’s traditional enemy, the Sulus, envied Brunei’s growing power. Not having the courage to face Brunei in a direct battle, they sued for peace and offered their princess Lela Mencanai to marry the great Sultan. It was an unfortunate and suspicious incident when Sultan Bolkiah the 5th died soon after. The legend goes that Lela Mencanai “accidentally” poked the Sultan’s thumb with a golden needle. This quickly led to his death. The princess then threw herself off-board and drowned.
But some Bruneians have long suspected that the Sulu princess murdered him. Without hard evidence, it is hard to confirm this thesis, but given that Sulu declared itself “independent” soon after his passing may give weight to this belief. The Sulu was also notorious for ambushing and killing the first and only ‘Sultan’ of Sandakan (The ‘Sultan’ happens to be the grandchild of Sherif Alwi, more commonly known as Raja Junjongan) during a marriage ceremony – the most detestable of all acts.
Still, had it been proven that the Sulu was behind the act, Brunei would have sacked the entire city of Sulu into the ground. They would have also desecrated the bodies of the assassin princess, instead of burying it next to the great Sultan. But Brunei chooses not. Today, the Sulu is just a shadow of its former glory-seeking to restore its status as an independent state. But Allah is fair, and they deserve to lose everything they held dear as a clear sign of their deception and detestable crimes against Brunei.
Sultan Bolkiah the 5th passed away in 1524. He is and will be forever remembered as Brunei’s very own Alexander the Great.
And one of the defining moments that led to him paving the way for Brunei’s Golden Age, according to folklore (which might be true or might not), is his encounter and eventual victory over the “Buaya Hitam”. Even now the village river is infested with crocodiles – some regard them as descendants of the “Buaya Hitam”.
Out of it to is his discovery of the unusual tree, which is located deep inside the heart of Kampong Junjongan. No one knows where it exactly is, but the material is very much sought after that thousands of his loyal followers keep on “men-junjong” the place to find it – thus, how the name Junjongan may have come to be.
Many said how the red trees originally planted by Sultan Bolkiah were cut down when the Spaniards came to Brunei. James Brooke tried to annex Junjongan territory so he can find and possess the source of the tree for himself. Luckily, both of these colonial powers were defeated by the might of the Bruneian people. In spite of this, no one knows the exact location of the original tree and its red flowers…
Legend has it that it will only be rediscovered by someone worthy enough of its power. The possession of even a small branch of the tree or its flower has been said to grant the possessor with immense power. Now imagine owning the entire tree itself.
Could any of these stories be true? Maybe they are not. No one knows for sure. Perhaps it will just be as that, stories or legends… but one thing is for sure, the existence of Sultan Bolkiah the 5th cannot be disputed, as he is as real as Alexander, Caesar, and Napoleon. What is more, he is Brunei’s Alexander, Caesar, and Napoleon.
(Oh, if you enjoyed this work, come check out my new book, The Art of Learning, too. You can get it in your local bookstores! Thank you for reading!)