Project Canterbury

Sketches of Our Life at Sarawak

By Harriette McDougall

London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 1882.
New York: E. & J. B. Young, 1882.

Chapter IX. Continuation of the Trip to Rejang

AFTER two days' paddling from the mouth of the Rejang, the boats arrived at Sibou, where there is a manufactory for nepa salt. The nepa palm grows down to the edge of the banks, which are washed by a salt tide, and furnishes the Dyak with many necessaries.

The leaves make the thatch to cover the roofs of the houses, or shelter over their boats. Neatly fastened together with split rattans, they form the walls of the house. From the juice of the tree they make a fermented drink something like sweet beer, also brown sugar. The young shoots are eaten in curries and salads. The fruit is salted or pickled. When they have got all these good things out of it, they burn the stem of the palm with some of the leaves, and wash the burnt ashes in water. This water is then boiled until it is evaporated, and some black salt remains at the bottom of the pot. It [92/93] tastes bitter as well as salt; but the Dyaks prefer it to common salt, and if you ask why, they say, "It is a fat salt." I must now return to my husband's journal. "Arrived at Kenowit. A tribe of Milanows have been induced to settle here lately by the Rajah. Within the last few weeks they have built two long and substantial houses, raised thirty feet from the ground on trunks of trees, some two feet in diameter. There are in all sixty doors, or families. The tribe furnishes three hundred fight-ing men, and numbers from fifteen hundred to two thousand.

"The bachelors, as with the Dyaks, have a separate dwelling.

"Tanee's tribe, who are returning to Sibou on the Rajah's promise to build a fort at Kenowit, are of the same tribe, and number about three hundred men. They speak the Milanow language, and have the same customs of burial. The men and some of the women are tattooed in the most grotesque patterns. When you look at them closely the invention displayed is truly remarkable; but at a distance they give a dingy, dusky appearance to the men, as if they were daubed with an inky sponge. Nature having denied them beards, they tattoo curly locks along their faces, always bordered by a vandyke fringe, which must task their utmost ingenuity. Tanee, who has followed us with some of his warriors, is the very exquisite of a Kenowit. He is made like a Hercules, and is proud of showing his strength and agility. He piques himself [93/94] upon having the best sword, of fine Kayan make and native metal, and the strongest arm in his tribe. He sits most of the day sharpening one or another of these swords, feeling and looking along its edge to see that the weapon is in perfect order: then, to prove it, he seeks for a suitable block of wood, as thick as his arm, severs it at a blow, gives a yell, and with a grin of delight returns the weapon to its sheath. His jacket is of scarlet satin; his long hair is confined by a gold-embroidered handkerchief; his chawat is of fine white cloth, very long, and richly embroidered--the ends hang down to his knees. He wears behind an apron of panther's skin, trimmed with red cloth and alligator's teeth, and other charms; this hangs from his loins to his knees, and always affords him a dry seat. Tanee's boat is long, made out of one tree, like our river canoes, but much lighter and faster. His cabin is a raised platform in the centre of the boat, covered with a mat, and hung all round with weapons and trophies of war--Kyan fighting-coats of bear and buffalo hides, having head-pieces adorned with beads or shells, shields and spears all gaily decked with Argus' feathers, or human hair dyed red.

"On Sunday we moved from the boats into Palabun's house, and settled ourselves in part of the verandah. After breakfast I doctored the sick, and then we had the morning service, much to the surprise of the natives, who, however, did not disturb us. They sit round us all day, hearing and asking us questions. . . . Meanwhile the seven hundred men [94/95] who came in the flotilla of twenty boats, were busy building the fort. First they pulled down a temporary fort already set up by the Kenowits, and then cut wood to erect a substantial building. Four guns were mounted on the parapet, and there was a house inside for the Malay commandant, and a powder magazine. All the chiefs near Kenowit were assembled when the fort was finished, and had the same kind of address made them as at Sakarran, praising the benefits of peaceful trade instead of the miseries of wasteful war. They all listened with respect. That same afternoon, dismal howlings issued from Palabun's house. His brother, who had left him two years ago with a party of fourteen, to visit a friendly tribe at a distance, had been treacherously murdered. He and his party had been kindly received by their friends, and they had all gone out together on the war-path to seek heads. It is supposed that when they met no one, the hosts had turned on their visitors and taken their heads, rather than return home without any. Palabun vowed vengeance, and the whole tribe go into mourning for three months." (Bishop's Journal.)

A Dyak mourning is not a becoming black costume, made "cheerful," as the dressmakers say, by jet ornaments and bugle trimmings.. It consists in the abandonment of all ornament and their usual clothing, and the substitution of a kind of a brown cloth made of the inside bark of trees, which must be as rough and uncomfortable as it is ugly. [95/96] These people, being Milanows, have peculiar burial customs. They lay the dead in a boat, with all his property and belongings, and send it out to sea; for they imagine that in some way a man's possessions may be of use to him in another world, if no one claims them on earth.

"In this case there was no corpse to bury. The clothes were so disposed on the bier as to represent a figure, and laid beside it were handsome gold cloths and ornaments, gold buttons, krises, and breastplates, and weapons of Javanese manufacture, representing some hundreds of dollars. [A kris is a Malay dagger.] There were also gongs and two brass guns. Of course the fate of such boat-loads, sent adrift in a tidal river, is generally to be capsized and lost in the water. But if Malays encounter them they do not hesitate to appropriate the effects. Palabun knew this, so he did not send his brother's boat away until our fleet had departed." (Bishop's Journal.)

I remember our once meeting one of these boats. It had been caught by branches from the bank, and swayed idly to and fro in the stream. We could only see a heap of coloured clothes inside it, but there was a weird, ghastly look about the boat which made us shudder. An unburied corpse, left to the winds and waves, without a prayer or a blessing! how could it be otherwise? Even if we could delude ourselves into fancying the Dyaks happy during their lives without Christianity, there can be no doubt of their being miserable when [96/97] death comes. They all believe dimly in a future state, but their dread of spirits is so great that they can have no ideas of happiness unconnected with their bodies. "Having no hope, and without God in the world," describes the mental state of a heathen Dyak. In 1856, we were living for a few weeks on a hill called Peninjauh, some miles from Kuching, where the Rajah had built a cottage as a sanitarium after illness. The cool freshness of the mountain air, and the glorious view from See-afar Cottage, were indeed conducive to health. On the hillsides lived several villages of Land Dyaks, and I had a woman as nurse to my baby who belonged to one of these villages. The cholera was in the country at that time, and three men had died of the Sebumban Dyaks. Every night the most mournful wailing arose above the trees--a sad sound indeed, rising and falling on the wind as the friends of the dead walked all through the jungle paths near their homes, now near to our cottage, now far off. One night I found my little ayah seated in the nursery when she ought to have been in the cook-house getting her supper. "What is the matter, Nina? Are you ill, that you are eating no supper?" "No, I am not ill, but I dare not go to the cook-house to-night." "Why?" "I fear to meet the spirits who are abroad to-night in the jungle." "The spirits of the dead men?" "No, the spirits who come to fetch them." After three days the bodies of these Dyaks were burnt, for this was the custom of the Sebumbans. The [97/98] dead man is laid on a pile of wood, and they all sit round watching. Nina said, that when the fire has burnt some time the dead man sits up for a moment, whereupon they all burst into renewed wailings of sorrow and farewell. I am told that the heat swelling the sinews of the dead body may cause this curious phenomenon; but could there be a more mournful, hopeless story of death?

It is a relief to return to the party on the Rejang River. They were much entertained one day with a war-dance between two warriors, which was a graphic pantomime of their customs. "The two men appeared fully armed, and were supposed to be each alone on the war-path, looking out for a head. They moved to the beat of native drums, and seemed to be going through all the motions of looking out for an enemy, pulling out the ranjows (sharp pieces of cane stuck in the earth, point upwards, to lame an enemy). At length they descried one another, danced defiance, and, flourishing swords and shields, commenced the attack. The nimbleness with which they parried every stroke of the sword, and covered their bodies with their shields, was remarkable. In real combat, to strike the shield is certain death, because the sword sticks in the wood and cannot be withdrawn in time to prevent the other man from using his sword. After a time, one of the combatants fell wounded, and covered his body with his shield. The other danced round him triumphantly, and with one blow pretended to cut off his head; then, [98/99] head in hand, he capered with the wildest gestures, expressive of the very ecstasy of savage delight. But, on looking at his trophy closely, he recognized the features of a friend, and, smitten with remorse, he replaced the head with much solicitude. Then, moving with a slow, measured tread, he wept, and with many sighs of grief adjusted the head with much care, caught rain in his shield and poured it over the body; then rubbed and shook the limbs, which by degrees became alive by his mesmeric-like passings and chafings from the feet upwards. Each limb as it revived beat time to the music, first faintly, then with more vigour, till it came to the head; and when that nodded satisfactorily, and the whole body of his friend was in motion, he gave him a few extra shakes, lifted him on his legs, and the scene concluded by their dancing merrily together." (Bishop's Journal.)

Captain Brooke and my husband were a month away on this expedition. They would have liked to pay a visit to Kum Nepa, a Kyan chief, who lived much farther up the river,--six days in a fast Kyan boat, said the Dyaks, ten days in the boats our friends had with them. But Kum Nepa had just lost two children from small-pox, and, according to their custom, he and all his tribe had left their houses and taken to the jungle. The Dyaks dread small-pox to such a degree that, when it appears, they neglect all their usual occupation. The seed is left unsown, the paddy unreaped; they leave the sick to die untended, and support [99/100] themselves in the jungle upon wild fruits and roots, until the scourge has passed away.

From the time we lived at Sarawak a continual effort was made to introduce vaccination. It was difficult to get lymph in good order at so distant a place; the sea voyage often rendered it useless. The other difficulty was made by the Malays, who inoculated for small-pox; and, as they charged the Dyaks a rupee a head for inoculating them, made it answer pecuniarily. Some who were adepts in the art went about the country inoculating until they caused quite an epidemic of small-pox. Now, I believe, the Dyaks have learnt from experience the superior advantages of vaccination, and, by a late Sarawak Gazette, I gather that it is one of the duties of a Resident among the tribes up country to vaccinate his people as well as to judge them wisely.

When the guns were mounted at the fort, and a garrison of seventy men, under Abong Duraup, settled there to guard it, the fleet left the Rejang to return to Sarawak. Captain Brooke had persuaded Palabun to give up his ideas of retaliation for his brother's death, on condition that the Kapuas people who killed him should give satisfaction. The last afternoon was devoted to doctoring the sick and giving them a stock of remedies. One poor man had nearly recovered his eyesight during the week he had been under treatment. So the Sarawak flag was hoisted at the fort and saluted, and after some good advice and renewed promises [100/101] from the Sakarrans and Kenowits, the boats pulled away to the Jolly Bachelor, which had been left at the Serikei River; and a few days afterwards we heard gongs and boat music on the river, and my servant Quangho running into my room called out, "Our Tuan is coming," so we all went down to the stone wharf and welcomed them home. The lameness which had so long hindered my husband from moving about, did not yield to any remedies we applied, and at last we went to Singapore for medical advice. The doctors there sent their patient to China for a cold season, and he spent six weeks at Hongkong with the Bishop of Victoria, and at Canton with other friends, to the advantage of his knee. Afterwards we went together to Malacca, where there was a hot spring bubbling up in a field. Into this spring we put a large tub; and there, in the early morning, Frank used to sit, with no neighbours but the snipe feeding in the field, and, as he had his gun by his side, he occasionally shot some game for breakfast.

In 1853 we went home. My health was very much broken, and my husband was called to England by the necessary transfer of the mission from the Borneo Mission Society, whose funds came to an end, to the venerable Society for the Propagation of the Gospel, who kindly adopted us. We arrived at Southampton one grey November day. I wondered to see the sky so near the earth, and the trees almost like shrubs in height compared [101/102] to our Eastern forests. But it was sweet to hear the children speaking English in the streets, and their fair rosy faces were refreshing indeed. I never thought our school-children plain when we were at Sarawak, but the contrast was certainly very great when we looked about us in England.

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