Inventory no.: 633

Antique Brunei – Borneo – Sarawak Kettle, Iban Malay


Large Zoomorphic Bronze Kettle


19th century

height: 36cm

This extraordinary, large brass or bronze kettle was cast in the 19th century on Borneo island in either Brunei or Sarawak state (now a part of Malaysia). It stands on a wide, open-work foot. The body is cast with two Borneo-type dragons, crabs fish and sun motifs. On the shoulder of the base stand – Dongsan-like – four cast lion-like or fo dog figures and two cast climbing tree frogs. A lid, which sits in the base, has a lion / fo dog finial surrounded by four cast tree frogs. Crabs and fish motifs have been cast into the lid.

The fabulously elaborate handle has been cast with two crocodiles draped down either side. The spout is in the form of a snouted makara-like creature disgorging the spout which is topped with a movable cover surmounted by another cast tree frog.

The kettle was used not for heating or preparing beverages but for hand washing on ceremonial occasions, particularly by Iban people on Borneo.

A kettle as large and elaborate as this one would have been used for special feasts only, particularly for weddings where wealth and ostentation need to be on display, and only in wealthier households.

This piece has a lovely greenish patina.

Extant examples of old brassware from Brunei and elsewhere on the island of Borneo frequently exhibit strong Chinese influence such as dragons despite Islam being Brunei’s main religion today.

Children’s stories that are still told today in Brunei and Borneo feature tales of Chinese princes and dragons. One tells of a dragon that lives atop Mount Kinabalu (Borneo’s highest mountain) where it guards a magnificent precious stone the size of a peacock’s egg. The Emperor of China hears about the stone and tells his three sons that whichever one of them brings back the stone will be made his heir; the other two will be killed. One son manages to trick the dragon and captures the stone. But the other sons lie to their father that they were the ones to take the stone. Ultimately, the Emperor discovers this deception and the wayward sons escape China, one of whom returns to Brunei and founds a princely dynasty there.


a related example is in the collection of the National Museum of Singapore and illustrated in Singh, B., Malay Brassware, National Museum of Singapore, 1985, p. 22. See also Chin, L., Cultural Heritage of Sarawak, Sarawak Museum, 1980, p. 46.

Inventory no.: 633