The City of Many Waters

Keen to know how the life was in Brunei in early 20th Century? Read The City of Many Waters, available at the ISEAS Library. Written by Peter Blundell, The City of Many Waters has been described by a bibliographer as the only pre-World War II book written about Brunei in English[i].  

Peter Blundell was the pseudonym for Frank Nestle Butterworth (1875-1953)[ii], a British engineer who served at Island Trading Syndicate’s cutch factory in Brunei, between 1905 and 1913.  Cutch (kachu in Malay) is obtained from the bark of the mangrove tree and used as a tanning material. The cutch industry was Brunei’s pioneer industry, operating even before the introduction of the Residential System in 1906. Until the late 1920s, the cutch industry was the main revenue earner for Brunei[iii].

The book, with 25 photographs, recounts Blundell’s life in Brunei, which he described as “a country with no roads” (p. 45). Brunei Town (now the capital Bandar Seri Begawan) was “built almost entirely over the water, stood in the middle of a large, shallow lake” (p. 35). The sole means for the writer to leave the factory was by canoe. The cutch factory was situated on the banks of Kampung Ayer (literally translated as “Water Village”)[iv], a settlement that “has existed since time immemorial and been the centre of political, economic, and social activities for centuries”[v] .

Blundell’s long stay in Brunei enabled him to observe not only the commercial life of the colony, but the everyday life of Bruneians. In his words, the average Brunei citizen is “a decent, honest fellow and a hard worker” (p. 85). The population of Brunei then was around 21,000, of whom 14,000 lived in the town of Brunei and its immediate neighbourhood. Blundell’s description of Bruneians in a multiplicity of settings such as people at work, at play, at weddings, and at a Hari Raya ceremony, is the most valuable part of the book.

In the book, Blundell also wrote about his interactions with Sultan Hashim, who he described as “an old man with a face full of character, broad shouldered and of middle height” (p. 58). He was first invited to the palace to read letters in English to the Sultan, and was subsequently granted many other interviews where he also met and interacted with the principal ministers of State.

The Sultan pays a surprise visit (p.62)

This is indeed a fascinating book not only because of the author’s lively narrative, but also due to the valuable photographs of scenes, houses, and people of Brunei at the turn of the century. The book published by J. W. Arrowsmith in 1923 is part of the ISEAS Library’s Antiquarian Books collection. Requests to view this book can be made at the Library Counter or via email to

Featured image: detail of book cover.

[i] Gunn, Geoffrey C. New World Hegemony in the Malay world. The Red Sea Press, 2000, p. 140.
[ii] Frank Nestle Butterworth (Peter Blundell). National Portrait Gallery, Retrieved on 30 June 2022.
[iii] Jatswan S. Sidhu. Historical Dictionary of Brunei Darussalam. Rowman & Littlefield, 2017, p. 116.
[iv] Bachamiya Abdul Hussainmiya. Brunei: Revival of 1906: a Popular History. Brunei Press, 2006.
[v] Sidhu, Historical Dictionary of Brunei Darussalam, p. 183.

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