Raja Bongsu of Sulu

Monograph 19
Raja Bongsu of Sulu
By Robert Nicholl
82pp. Size: 140x220mm. Hardcover

A slim and scholarly volume that sets out to render a factual account of the life and career of the eponymous semi-mythological figure, a princeling of Sulu who flourished in the first half of the seventeenth century. Hampered by a patent lack of clear biographical details, Nicholl succeeds in constructing a convincing account of the legendary figure remembered for his courage in repelling the Spaniards out to gain control of the strategic Sulu Archipelago in the seventeenth century. Armed with his formidable knowledge of mediaeval Brunei history, Nicholl also charts the early linkages shared between the royal kingdoms of Brunei and Sulu, two of the most powerful sultanates in Borneo at the dawn of European colonialism in Southeast Asia. What results is an exciting account of the first of the Moro Wars between the indigenous Muslims of South Philippines and the marauding Spaniards, set out against the backdrop of conflict between the Dutch, the Spaniards and the local Muslim kingdoms which began went on throughout the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Conflict has remained a persistent characteristic of this particularly turbulent region and has remained so to this very day, as seen in the ongoing demands for greater autonomy by the indigenous population of South Philippines from the Philippine Government.

About the Author:

Robert Nicholl was born Thomas Brian Nicholl in Dublin on Easter Sunday 1910 of a wealthy Methodist family. Following a period of private study in England and Paris, Nicholl enrolled at Trinity College Dublin where he became deeply involved in social work and converted, as was the fashion in those days among the cultured and literary elites, to Roman Catholicism. Nicholl left Trinity without a degree whereupon he joined the Benedictine community at Buckfast Abbey, Devon in 1929. Nicholl was ordained in 1936 and as Dom Robert (he had been christened so by his brethren) continued his education at St Benet's Hall in Oxford in 1936-1939. This time, Nicholl graduated with a degree in history which in time was converted to a Master of the Arts following the practice of that long-gone era. Following his appointment as chaplain to the British forces in 1939, Nicholl experienced a spiritual crisis - not altogether unusual in that class of men - involving a loss of faith which led him to resign his commission in 1944. For a time, he became attached to the British Army Intelligence as a staff captain in India and Singapore before reaching Borneo, which was to be the scene of his life's work, in 1946.

Soon after reaching Sarawak, Nicholl applied for and obtained the post of Education Officer in the newly-created Crown Colony, where he was to remain until 1969. This period in Sarawak marks the first half of his sojourn in Borneo. It was during his stint as Education Officer that Nicholl enrolled in 1948-49 at the Institute of Education, the University of London where he obtained his Diploma in Education. The second half of Nicholl's period in Borneo was spent as a historian and teacher in Brunei between 1970 and 1987. During most of this period, Nicholl served as honorary curator of the Brunei Museum. Much light was shed by him on the pre-Islamic history of Brunei during his sojourn in that kingdom.

After his retirement in 1987, Nicholl pursued his abiding research interest in mediaeval monasticism to the extent of being acknowledged by experts in the field. Nicholl's activities were severely curtailed from 1992 onwards as a result of a stroke. A subsequent reconciliation with the Roman Catholic Church resulted in the resumption of his priesthood. However, the greatest honour came perhaps in October 1995 when Nicholl was presented by Victor T. King and A.V.M. Horton of Hull University with a massive 600-page Festschrift entitled From Buckfast to Borneo, a magnificent tribute from about fifty scholars all over the world, from Auckland to Santa Barbara. Nicholl's final months were spent in a priory in Sussex, where he had been putting the finishing touches to his autobiography. He was remembered as a reliable correspondent, a generous book reviewer and loathed time servers and yes-men whom he trenchantly labelled "ciphers". Above all, Nicholl was remembered for his courtesy, asceticism and integrity. He died in March 1996, a week or two short of his eighty-sixth birthday.

Much of Nicholl's finest works could be found in the numerous articles which appeared regularly in the Sarawak Gazette, the Brunei Museum Journal and the Journal of Southeast Asian Studies. Nicholl's two important monographs were European Sources for the History of the Sultanate of Brunei in the Sixteenth Century, published by the Brunei Museum in 1975 and the present MBRAS volume. It is a source of irony that Nicholl's magnum opus - currently languishing at the Brynmor Jones Library of Hull University - should remain unpublished. This was the hefty two-volume Sources for the History of Brunei, completed in 1983 and in 1987, that has been described elsewhere as "...a monumental work of mature scholarship".

Maps and Illustrations

  1. The Sulu Scene
  2. The Moro Wars
  3. The Young King of Sulu
  4. The Gathering Storm
  5. The Tempest
  6. The Flight for Survival
  7. Peace by Exhaustion
  8. Twilight
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