Prior to the establishment of Brooke rule in the upper Rejang, Malay traders from Brunei had established trading networks with the inhabitants of what is today the Belaga district.
These traders, according to Punan Bah narratives, ‘went from tribe to tribe on safe conduct’, albeit with the backing of Brunei’s Sultan (Nicolaisen 1983:197).
They came by way of the Kemena River in Bintulu district, up the Tubau, climbing the Tubau-Sepakau watershed, then going down the Sepakau to the Belaga River, and finally to the upper Rejang.
These traders brought with them items like brassware, ceramics, and beads. These items were exchanged with various jungle products such as camphor, aloe and bezoar stones that for centuries found their way into the network of global trade.
This trade network continued into the Brooke period where the resident of the Rejang Basin based at Mukah periodically traveled up the Kemena and Tubau and crossed the Tubau-Sepakau watershed into Belaga district to encourage trade and ensure the safety of traders, especially those from Brunei (de Crespigny 1881: 40-41)
Some of the Malay traders who had lived among local inhabitants married local women such as the Punan Bah, Sekapan, Lahanan, and Kayan. The completion of Fort Vyner in 1884 paved the way for a proper station to look after the affairs of what today is Belaga district.
With the establishment of an administrative station in Belaga, the Brooke government introduced measures to control trade, one was of which was to designate a proper place to trade.
In the 1 February 1893 issue of the Sarawak Gazetted, C.A. Bampfylde reported that ‘there are 14 shops in the bazaar and fifteen more will shortly be erected, 10 by Chinese, 5 Malays, before the fort was built there was only one Chinese here’.
Establishment of Malay village
Malay traders married to local women and living in longhouses were forced to move to the bazaar, paving the way for the establishment of a Malay kampung slightly downriver of the bazaar.
Today, the Malay kampung comprises of 60 households and a population of 353 people. Descendants of the Brunei Malay pioneers probably make up half of the population.
The current Penghulu of Malay community in Belaga is Awang Robert bin Awang Osman. His father, Awang Osman bin Awang Drahman, was the son of Awang Drahman bin Awang Japar, a Brunei trader from Kampung Tamoi, Brunei, who married Latifah, daughter of Ibrahim Sha, a Malay trader from Sumatra who married a Punan Bah in Belaga affectionately known as Aki’ Urun.
Awang Robert’s mother was Dayang Senol binti Awang Badar, daughter of Awang Badar bin Awang Tabib of Kampung Burong Pingai, Brunei. Awang Badar came to Belaga with his brother Awang Salleh bin Awang Tabib.
Awang Salleh and his wife did not have any children; they adopted a Kejaman boy and named him Awang Jalil bin Awang Salleh. This mean Awang Jalil was a first adopted cousin of Awang Robert’s mother, Dayang Senol.
This genealogy linking two families and their offsprings show in one branch an intermarriage between a Brunei trader and an offspring of a Sumatra Malay and a Punan Bah couple. And in another adoption of a local boy, a Kejaman, by a childless Brunei couple.
This genealogical structure is typical in a number of Malay families in Belaga. The village is essentially an interesting mix of multi-culturalism – Brunei Malay and locals – Punan, Kayan and Kejaman.
This is an excerpt from a book edited by King, Victor T., Zawawi Ibrahim, and Noor Hasharina Hassan. “Borneo Studies in History, Society and Culture.” (2016).