[Note: I wrote about Kuala Belait in my Golden Legacy column on Brunei Times edition Sunday, November 18, 2007. I thought I had put this up on this blog but realised I have not.]
IN 1904, MSH McArthur was assigned by the British Government to assess Brunei. In his report he stated that "the principal villages and hamlets on the Belait (River) are Kuala Belait, Pengkalan Balei, Pengkalan Siong and Pengkalan Dato Bakong".
He then went on to describe Pengkalan Balei — today known as Kuala Balai — as the local centre with about 400 inhabitants. He did not say anything about Kuala Belait which we can infer not to be of significant importance in 1904.
A 1959 Borneo Bulletin article described Brunei in 1904: "In those days, Kuala Belait did not exist except as a little fishing hamlet".
Looking at Kuala Belait today, it is almost impossible to imagine that it was once a little fishing hamlet; just as in the 1900s, no one could imagine that it would become the administrative capital for the Oil District.
Until the beginning of the 20th century, Kuala Belait was a tiny fishing village. The people who lived there were Belait Malays. Most of them were fishermen.
Local folklore said that there used to be a community there, but a falling out occurred between two groups. One of the groups moved west and formed another community at the mouth of the Belait River, at Kampong Sungai Teraban.
The main community, however, was not at Kuala Belait. Until the 1920s, the old historic administrative capital of the Belait District was at Kuala Balai, a place further up the Belait River.
Kuala Belait was virtually unheard of at that time. It was only accessible by boats and not through land routes. Not until very recently was a road carved through the thick, dense jungle, allowing cars to reach Kuala Balai.
With the discovery of oil in Seria in 1929 (then called Padang Berawa and all filled with swamps), a new administrative center for the district had to be established at the mouth of the Belait River so as to be more accessible. The original district capital, Kuala Balai, was considered as inaccessible as there were no roads linking it to the rest of the country.
To support the new oil fields in Padang Berawa, most of the equipment had to be brought in from Miri, where oil had been discovered about a decade earlier. It was much easier to carry it across the river to Kuala Belait rather than Kuala Balai.
According to the Brunei Annual Report of 1927, a sizeable community had grown around the Kuala Belait area by then. The British Malayan Petroleum Company (BMPC, the forerunner to today's Brunei Shell Company) was also using the community as its entry port, bringing in equipment to the Belait District.
In 1928 the Government decided to move the capital from Kuala Balai to Kuala Belait. The following year BMPC decided to also move their administrative centre, which was then in Labi, to Kuala Belait. This was the birth of Kuala Belait as we know it today.
Official Kuala Belait began with the establishment of the Kuala Belait Sanitary Board in 1929. This marked the transition of the old village to a town. Administratively too, the post of Assistant British Resident was revived and the holder was posted at Kuala Belait.
It was much later that the Kuala Belait Sanitary Board, together with the town of Seria, became the Kuala Belait/Seria Municipality Board, the largest municipality area in Brunei Darussalam. Until the capital's enlargement in August 2007, Bandar Seri Begawan was actually smaller in size than Kuala Belait/Seria.
The first government building, an entirely wooden structure, housed government offices. This building was situated between Sultan Jamalul Alam Mosque and the new government office building in Kuala Belait.
Telephone services from Brunei Town to Tutong were extended to Kuala Belait in 1932. At the same time, several proper roads were built in the district for the first time. An English school — the first in the country — was also built, followed by another.
In 1931, the population had increased to 3,000 compared to only 1,193 people in 1911. By 1931, the town had a brand new hospital built by BMPC, which was said to be the best in the country. By 1936 it had a bank. By 1938, it had a specialised health centre for infants.
By the eve of World War II, Kuala Belait was a cosmopolitan town made up of many races because of the oil industry.
With the coming of the Japanese, the British ordered the oil fields in Seria burnt in December 1941 in order to prevent them from getting the spoils of oil. Nonetheless, the Japanese managed to get the pumps up and running again by forcing the people of Kuala Belait and Seria to help.
Towards the end of WWII, Kuala Belait and Seria suffered heavy bombardment, this time by the Allied Forces. During the war, Kuala Belait was used by the Japanese as its naval headquarters.
It was after the war that Kuala Belait was restored. Under the rule of His Majesty the late Sultan Haji Omar Ali Saifuddien, Kuala Belait blossomed as commercial buildings such as the current shophouses along Jalan Pretty and the local branch of the HSBC were built.
In December 1958, Kuala Belait was finally graced with a road linking Kuala Belait, Seria, Tutong and Bandar Brunei. Prior to the completion of the bridges across a number of rivers in the three districts, the original road only ran from Bandar Brunei to Tutong.
Those in Kuala Belait and Seria who wanted to go to Brunei Town had to brave rough driving along the beaches until they reached Danau before taking a ferry to Kuala Tutong and then going by road all the way to Brunei. It could take a whole day getting to Brunei Town from Kuala Belait in the 1950s.
By 1960, another building was built for the purpose of housing government offices, including the Municipal office, located opposite St James School in Kuala Belait, which still stands. The Municipal Hall was established in 1967.
After Brunei gained its independence in January 1984, a number of new government buildings were constructed to house the local services of the Brunei government.
The administration of Kuala Belait changed too. Originally, the Municipal Department was looked after by the Belait District Officer. By 1985, however, the Municipal Department had its own chief administrator.
Today, the total municipal area of Kuala Belait (22sq km) and Seria (0.6sq km) is about 23sq km.
At the turn of the 21st millenium, a number of hotels were built in the center of Kuala Belait, drastically changing its skyline.