Project Canterbury

Borneo: The Land of River and Palm

By Eda Green

[no place:] Borneo Mission Association, no date [c. 1909]

Chapter III. The People, Feuds, War, and Death

WE saw in the last chapter that the dwellings of many tribes were built "high" and "long" to ensure safety. Constant feuds between the races, attacks sudden and unlooked for, kept them always on the defensive. But besides attacks due to old tribal quarrels there was the "national" custom of head-hunting, which might bring an invader any day simply because he wanted to win a bride--not to carry one off, but to win the trophy which would gain for him the favour of his chosen one. Ghastly it seems to us that a human head, or heads, should be the love-charm without which no Dyak in old days could presume to hope for the acceptance of his addresses, yet, maybe, it was only carrying out into a gross realism and "evidence" the spirit of the days of chivalry when fair ladies smiled on the victor who overthrew his rival in the lists. It gives us at any rate the measure of the Dyak's value of human life.

To him human life has no sacredness; he knows nothing of the Maker in Whose image man was made, he knows not that the breath of life was breathed into him by God Himself; a trust to be guarded and used for His glory.

The practice of head-hunting is very ancient possibly it originated in the idea of a votive offering to the evil spirits, an idea which still exists, for not only is a head necessary as a love offering, but at the feasts held to propitiate the spirits of fertility, that they may give abundant crops to the ground, a newly killed head must be present, and the earth must be sprinkled with the water in which the head has been washed. The spirits of sickness, too, must be appeased in the same way, and the dead remain unburied until a head can be procured. There is a dumb instinct that in some way the shedding of blood is needed; they wait to learn, through us, that not sickness, not famine, are the true evils, but sin, for which, without shedding of blood, there is no remission, and that only the sacrifice of love upon the Cross can bring to them pardon and peace.

As in so many things, the tribes vary in their customs in disposing of the heads. The Sea-Dyaks, as we saw, hang them up over the fireplace in the ruai, or else they tie them up in rattan and string them in festoons. The Kayans do the same, but they carve the skull with elaborate patterns deeply incised into it; the heads are smoked over a wood fire, and when they are not carved the hair and teeth are preserved, and make them look even more horrible.

The Land-Dyaks build a separate round or octagonal house for their heads, and each village has always one such house, often two or three. This pangah is raised on posts, and sometimes the en trance is by a trap-door in the floor; the house serves a double purpose; first it is a storehouse for the heads, which are ranged round the steeply conical roof inside, or hung from beams by strings passed through the top of the skulls, so that they swing about and knock against each other in a wind, and then, too, it serves as quarters for all the unmarried men of the village, and for strangers, who wake up to see the fitful light from the central fire casting weird gleams on the uncanny company above.

In some cases heads belong to the chief or to the slayer who has brought them home in the head-basket worn at his side, in other cases to the tribe collectively; if in a war waged jointly by two tribes on another, only one head should be taken, it is cleft in twain, and half belongs to each tribe. But to the man who has taken many heads belongs a pride of glory; he carries himself with assurance as a "brave" before his chief, and he only is allowed to wear, pierced through the top of each ear, the tooth of the Borneo leopard-cat.

The reception of heads in a village is an occasion of many ceremonies; they may have food, sirih or betel-nut placed in their mouths, and be carried in procession; feasts are held, trophy poles raised up and pigs and fowls killed.

Of course the whole custom of head-hunting was dealt with by Sir James Brooke, and has been in great measure suppressed. The present Rajah wrote: "As soon as ever one of these (head-hunting) parties started, or even listened to birds of omen preparatory to moving, a party was immediately despatched by Government to endeavour to cut them off and to fine them heavily on their return, or, in the event of their bringing heads, to demand the delivering upon them, and the payment of a fine into the bargain. This was the steady and unflinching work of years, but before many months were over my stock of heads became numerous, and the fines considerable. Some refused to pay or follow the directions of the Government, these were declared enemies, and had their houses burnt down forthwith, and the people who followed me to do the work would be the Dyaks of some other branch tribe on the same river."

Head-hunting, of ancient use among the land tribes, was greatly fostered when some of the Sea Dyak tribes were drawn into piracy. The Malays and Lanuns were pirates of the worst type. In the Malay prahus, long boats, manned by thirty to forty rowers, with a flat roof from which the warriors fought, the Dyaks were found useful in the marauding expeditions, and their help was secured by giving them the heads of the killed, while the Malays took the plunder for themselves, and the captives for their slaves.

The bankongs, the Dyak boats, were larger than the prahus, some holding seventy or eighty men; they, too, had a flat roof on which the fighting men stood, while their comrades paddled below, a white shell bracelet marking each dark arm along the edge of the boat, as they pulled all together in measured stroke, the chief standing astern to steer. If they landed, a hut was built and each man slept, sword and shield in hand ready to spring upon the slightest alarm. The Kayans even strewed dead leaves around outside their huts so that any footfall might be heard.

Curious to us are the Balau boats, which have no nails but are simply lashed together with rattan; the keel has a ledge on each side, inside the margin, on which the edge of the next plank is rested; holes are pierced through and laced with rattan; each plank in its turn has a ledge on which the one above is placed, and so the boat is built up. If a landing is to be made, or when the expedition is over, the boat is unlashed, and laid up as a pile of planks. As a Dyak said to Sir Charles Brooke:

"Tuan, our (boats) are regulated for land, and there we beat yours, for we can walk away with ours and build them again in any other direction in the rivers on the other side of the mountains".

For these bankongs the useful nipa-palm again comes in: awnings (kadjang) are made of it, like the house roofs, in sections of six feet and a half square; folded in half they are easily rolled up and stowed away, or if opened partly out they form a tent-like roof. No oars or sails are used, only paddles, but each tribe has its own particular stroke, so that they can tell in the dark, by sound alone, whether friend or foe is coming. So strong are the boats and so enduring the men, that these bankongs used to be met with forty miles down the coast, until piracy was to a great extent put down. The paddles are most gracefully shaped, and the handles sometimes carved and inlaid with silver.

The war dress is a quilted jacket, covered sometimes by a goat skin, slit above the shoulders for the man's head to go through, so that the goat's head hangs down in front as a protection, and the back covers the wearer's shoulders, On their heads they wear a basket helmet covered with skins or metal plates. The only real defence is the shield of various shapes, generally oblong and convex, made of light wood and beautifully carved, with a handle held by the left hand. The arms are: the spear, made of bilian wood with a steel point, which is used in close combat; the lance, also of hard wood, the point hardened in the fire; this is thrown at the enemy before he is near enough for the spear to be used; then there is the parang (sword) made in different shapes; some are curved, but not, like a scimitar, from the hilt; the upper part is straight, and only the end is curved. These weapons are also much used for clearing and other jungle work.

The Kayans used to smelt their own ore, and though this is not done so much now, they still excel in ironwork and in the temper of their weapons. Some of these cost as much as £10, and one kind, a curious short sword, having convex and concave blades, is a treasure coveted by every Dyak boy.

But the most destructive weapon is the sumpitan, a blow-pipe, through which the natives project poisonous arrows. This is a tube six to eight feet long, made of dark red wood. A perfectly straight hole is drilled up the centre by an iron rod, made of the fine Kayan metal, and pointed like a chisel at one end. The exact evenness of the bore surprises those who see the means used, for the length of wood is simply fixed to one of the house posts, and the workman, standing below, bores his hole up wards. Afterwards the bore is smoothed down inside by a piece. of rattan drawn up and down and when that is finished the wood is pared down outside to an inch in diameter, polished and ornamented with a pattern inlaid with tinfoil. The arrows used are slips of nibong palm pointed, and their tips hardened in the fire and fitted with a small butt of light wood or dried pith; they are nine to twelve inches long and extremely light. Those used in war have a loose barbed point of tin or bamboo, which is dipped in poison and remains in the wound. Very elegant quivers are made of bamboo, carved and painted or finished by rings of coloured rattan with shells embedded in a layer of gutta percha; they have a long hook by which they are hung from the belt on the left side; in war they are kept open so that the arrows can be easily reached, but the Kayans often hold four spare arrows between their fingers and will shoot them five times as quickly as a musket could be fired. They use the sumpitan, of course, raised to the mouth, and can hit at a range of a hundred yards; at sixty yards the force of their "blow" is sufficient to kill a monkey, and at twenty yards to send the arrow half its length into the enemy's flesh.

The poison is got from the upas tree, in which incisions are made, and through them the poisonous gum is collected; this is heated over a fire till it becomes like thick wax, and is then spread on a plate and the arrow-heads rolled in it. Some of the natives carry a box of lime juice, into which they dip the arrows just before shooting in order to make the poison more virulent. A poison obtained from the ipoh tree is also used; in both the active agent is strychnine, which acts upon the heart and the spinal cord. According to the freshness or strength of the poison the person or animal hit may die in a few minutes, in some hours, or may only become feverish and ill; but in any case no outward sign is observed beyond a tiny prick where the arrow has pierced the skin.

The Dyak's absolute belief in the spirit world gives him the explanation of all sickness. In some way or other it is the work of the antus, the evil spirits who are so real to him. Either the spirit has struck the man, or has come into him and taken possession of him, or else it has enticed his soul away out of his body. There must, therefore, be two distinct courses of treatment, one to drive away the invading spirit, the other to capture and bring back the wandering one. For either of these only the medicine men and women can avail. The medicine men, among the Land Dyaks, are called daya bururi; their office is sometimes, but not generally, hereditary and they rank as priests. They claim to be able to see the spirits and so can recognise the vagrant soul, and rescue it from the clutches of the malignant spirits. They seldom give medicine internally, so perhaps the treatment does less harm than might be expected, though the noise, which seems a necessary part of it, would kill most Europeans.

If the patient does not recover after local applications of curious messes, such as pepper, chilis, fowl's blood and turmeric, or after the part affected has been stroked with a charm, out of which come pieces of stone, wood and cloths which the charm has extracted from the body, two treatments are offered:--

1. Punja.--For this a pig and a fowl are killed; portions of these animals with rice and betel-nut are placed in a paddy shovel outside the door, so that the antus may feast and depart; the house is under tabu or pemali, no stranger may come in the family may not go out of their room for four days, and the daya and four medicine women must be in attendance; the man beats a drum, and two of the women have a fierce fight outside the door. Singing and beating of drums and gongs goes on for two days; then at midnight the daya wraps up a cup in a white cloth and places it amidst the offering provided for the spirits; he waves his charm and a torch wildly about and calls on some one to look into the cup; there, to ordinary eyes, surely enough is a bunch of hair, but this the daya declares to be the recovered soul, which is then put back into the sick man's body through an imaginary hole in his skull, though there is no promise that it will not wander forth again. On the last day a chicken is wrapped up in the outer leaf of a pinang blossom, covered with red cloth, carried to a stream at some distance and let loose. If the bird returns to the village the patient may die, if it runs away into the jungle he may recover.

For the second treatment, Sesab, the house is tabu for eight days; the same animals are killed, and food provided for the antus on a bamboo altar; a continued tomtom of drums is kept up, and a wild dance carried on; the soul is said to be caught as in the other "treatment," and the man is washed in cocoa-nut water--a wholesome improvement on the general method which forbids washing or fresh air.

The medicine men of the Sea-Dyaks are called manang and hold very high rank, often becoming village chiefs. By the supernatural powers which they claim the people are kept in great awe of them, and they take good care to be well paid, and to feast plentifully during their stay at a house. They are supposed to have a good spirit always in attendance on them, and the cure of the patient depends on whether this good spirit or the sufferer's evil one is the stronger. The manang is very cunning, and besides herbs he often uses medicines which he has got from the Government dispensary. To cure pain, like the Land-Dyak dayas, he applies charms, and by sleight of hand pretends to bring some object, a ball of moss, a bone or rag, which he says has caused the pain, out of the body. They have also magic stones, quartz crystals into which they gaze to discover the reason of the ailing man's sickness.

The manang's degree is conferred on him by other manang in mystic ceremonies, described to the people as cutting open his head, taking out and washing the brains to give him clearness of insight, putting gold-dust into his eyes to enable them to see the soul, and fastening barbed hooks on to the end of his fingers by which he may catch it and hold it fast.

The sufferings of these poor people, deafened in their pain by beating of drums, swung sometimes violently to and fro for hours, stifled by bad air and crowded rooms, must surely appeal to us to give them physical relief by means of mission hospitals and dispensaries, and through these to bring them to the knowledge of the love of the Great Physician who went about healing those possessed of devils.

When the medicine man has failed and the person dies, among the Land-Dyaks the body is burnt, by some tribes in all cases; by others only in those of rich people; the bodies of the poorer classes being either buried in the earth, or placed on a covered stage erected for them, or rolled in a mat and carried out into the jungle. There is a great reluctance to perform the function of burning, and it is difficult to get any one to undertake the office of sexton. This man carries the corpse out of the village, followed part of the way by wailing women; at the burying-place a pile of wood is arranged, which surrounds and covers the body; wood, cloth, food, and sometimes a head, are laid beside it, and then the whole is set fire to.

The Sea-Dyaks bury their dead; the body is dressed in its best, and, in the case of a man, the arms and war weapons are laid upon it; it is then rolled up in mats tied together by rattan and taken to the burial-ground. The graves are very shallow, for the people will not get into them in making lest they should, later, die a violent death; they use no spades, but kneel or lie on the edge, cut the soil with a chopper, and throw it out with their hands; in this way they can only reach down two or three feet. Before they begin to make the grave they must kill a fowl and sprinkle the blood on the ground and on the feet of the dead man. The grave is covered by sticks eighteen or twenty-four inches high, kept in place by cross pieces of wood, and the coffin is formed simply of the trunk of a tree split in half.

Belief in some future state leads the friends to place articles of food and clothing in the grave, and outside it they leave some attributes denoting the former calling of the deceased. A warrior's grave will be marked by some of his arms, that of a hunter by some trophies of the chase, tusks or antlers, his sumpitan and arrows, while a woman's grave will be shown by a spindle or a water gourd.

When a Sea-Dyak child dies the body is put into a jar. Among those who have become Christians, and whose children are baptised, the jars are buried in the earth, but a jar holding an unbaptised child is not buried but is hung up on the branch of a tree, perhaps a fruit-tree!

The Kayans, like the Sea-Dyaks, bury their dead, but first the man is dressed in his finest clothes, seated upright on his mat, with a cigarette held to his mouth, and a betel box by his side, his friends sit round the room and talk to him, giving him instruction as to the road he should take. After a feast has been held the body is put into a coffin, and carried in procession to a high pole or tree on which it is raised; the man is told to go straight on when he comes to three roads, as the right one leads to Borneo, the left to the sea, but the centre one to his own country.

Bishop McDougall thus describes a funeral among the Milanaus: "The women kept up dismal weepings during the night. In the morning I went to see the young chief's things laid out preparatory to their being sent on their further journey after him. They were all arranged under a canopy made of his sarongs. Two [these] were of rich gold cloth (value about fifty dollars each), and the rest of his wardrobe was disposed under it, so as to represent a corpse on a bier, the gold ornaments alone, consisting of large buttons, a breastplate, and a very rich and handsome kris handle of ancient Japanese and Indian manufacture representing a figure of Buddha, cannot be worth less than 200 dollars; be sides this there were gongs, and two brass guns. Two women were lying by the bier, on either side the effigy, and the father (a very old man) sat beside it watching, the women every now and then raising a mournful howl. In three days these things will be launched down the river in a boat made for the purpose, and if any one were known to touch it he would be slain. If the body had been recovered it would have been launched with its former property in the boat. This is the invariable mode of burial with the Milanaus. The general fate of these funeral boats is to get capsized, when the things all go to the bottom."

The Kanowits also build "soul-boats," in which some of the dead man's property, and sometimes a slave, is sent adrift that he may have them to help him on his way.

Launching these "soul-boats" reminds one of the beautiful floating away of the old Vikings, lying in state in their high-prowed boats.

Elaborately carved houses called salongs with quaint roofs are raised by the Kayans to contain the coffins of their chief men and their relatives. One is described as having three rows of posts, three in each row; the two end ones going up to the pointed roof were twenty-six feet high, the others twenty-three feet; the room enclosed by them was thirteen feet by twelve feet; this contained four coffins, and the walls were lined by shields and paddles. Below the floor of the room, on shelves, rested the bodies of slaves or others belonging to the tribe, and there, too, was the chiefs war-boat. The house was built of bilian wood. The sloping roofs are made sometimes of branches of the sago palm, and the gables are decorated with painted strips of bark. An old custom was to drive the largest post in these houses into the ground through the body of a living slave.

The Sea-Dyaks raise single or double, round pillars, klierings, deeply carved all the way up, and having niches for the bodies of slaves and a hollow at the top to receive a jar holding the bones of the chief. This is covered by a square slab of stone. One very fine kliering is mentioned as thirty-two feet high; one pillar of this was four feet seven inches round, and the other seven feet.

Among the Dusuns there is a custom which recalls one of which our ancestors left us traces. They mark the place where their warriors fell by a stone circle, a cross stone on the top of one slab representing the chief.

The Muruts have a horrible custom of doubling up their dead bodies and forcing them into jars, which, after a time, are buried.

Callousness in regard to human life was shown, as well as in head-hunting, in the sacrifice of slaves, common in many tribes when a chief died, so that their spirits might wait on him in the other world. One curious account is given of the Ida'an, who think that to reach Paradise the dead pass over a long tree, a difficult task, to accomplish safely unless a man is killed to help them.

What an extraordinarily mixed population we see, then, in Sarawak alone, of many native races, of Chinese, Malays and Indians, with no national bond of union, no uniting force save of that of their revered Western ruler. Amongst them, native blood feuds of generations, the number of heads owed by a tribe carefully reckoned up for years, and the debt watched for and if possible taken at last--an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth. The Government has laid down and enforced that this Old Testament morality is not what may be permitted, and the Dyak has to submit, but to him it meant justice, and his blind obedience wonders why his "right" is "wrong" in the eyes of the white man.

The Chinese and the Indian, brought in solely as traders and workers, come to make money, and have no common interest with the Dyaks, whom they look down on as wild and uncivilised, and the Malay looks down on them all.

Only one force can weld these divergent interests and races, as Dane and Saxon were welded into one nation under the Cross of Christ; that alone can bring Chinese and Malay, Murut and Dusun, to look each on each as brother in the great family of God.

At one time or another the Church has been brought into contact with the people here described, but her chief work has been amongst the Dyaks and Chinese. Alas! at present there is only one English priest in Sarawak and one in British North Borneo, so that work which flourished in the past has now almost died out. Thirty years ago there were more than twice the number of missionaries now at work. The rebuilding of the waste places cannot be done unless the mother Church realises her responsibility for these children of nature, but given men, money and prayer, they can be gathered in and built up into the One Body.


1. Has the Dyak any conception of the sacredness of human life?

2. What was done with the "heads" won by Dyak warriors?

3. What do you know about (a) their boats, (b) their war-dress, (c) their blowpipes?

4. How does the Dyak's belief in a spirit world affect him in sickness?

5. What are the medicine men called amongst (a) the Land-Dyaks, (6) the Sea-Dyaks? Is their office held in veneration?

6. In what way are the dead treated?

7. What is the Kayan procedure after a death?

8. Suggest some of the blessings which might be hoped for if the Church of Christ were strong and vigorous in Borneo, and able to promote her work untiringly.

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