Sunday, May 03, 2009

History - A Whiteman's Life Among Head Hunting Dayaks in Sarikei. 1910

"H. Wilfrid Walker, Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society, spent almost two decades wandering around the South Seas. Ostensibly, his purpose was to collect bird and butterfly specimens, but he became quite involved with the people too."




CHAPTER 13

Home-Life Among Head-Hunting Dayaks.


The Rejang is one of the many large rivers which abound in Borneo, and its tributaries are numerous and for the most part unexplored. The Rejang is tidal for fully one hundred and fifty miles, and at Sibu is over a mile in width. The banks of this river are inhabited by a large population of Malays, Chinese, Dayaks, Kayans, Kanawits, Punans and numerous other tribes. Thus it is a highly interesting region for an ethnologist.

It was with feelings of pleasant anticipation that I started down the river in the government steam-launch from Sibu just as dawn was breaking, on my way to spend several weeks among the wild Dayaks on the unexplored Sarekei River. I took with me my two servants, Dubi, a civilized Dayak, and my Chinese cook. After a journey of four hours we arrived at a large Malay village near the mouth of the Sarekei River. Here I disembarked and sought out the chief of the village and demanded the loan of two canoes, with some men to paddle them, and in return I offered liberal payment. Accordingly, an hour after my arrival I found myself with all my belongings and servants on board the two canoes, with a crew of nine Malays. Soon after leaving the Malay village we branched off to the left up the Sarekei River. It was very monotonous at first, as the giant plumes of the NIPA palm hid everything from my view. My Malays worked hard at their paddles, and late in the afternoon we left the main Sarekei River and paddled up a small and extremely narrow stream. There we found ourselves in the depth of a most luxuriant vegetation. We were in a regular tunnel formed by arching ferns and orchid-laden trees, giant PANDANUS, various palms and arborescent ferns and CALADIUMS. Here grew the largest CRINUM lilies I had ever seen. They literally towered over me, and the sweet-scented white and pink flowers grew in huge bunches on stems nearly as thick as my arm.

After the bright sun on the main river, the dark, gloomy depths of this side-stream were very striking. It was so narrow that sometimes the vegetation on both sides was forced into the canoes, and the "atap" (palm-thatched) roof of my canoe came in for severe treatment as it brushed against prickly PANDANUS and thorny rattans.

The entrance to this stream was completely hidden from view, and no one but these Malays, who had been up here before, trading with the Dayaks, could have discovered it. I had told the Malay chief that I wished to visit a Dayak village where no white man had ever been and where they were head-hunters. He had smiled slyly and nodded as if he understood. Thereupon he said, "Baik (good), Tuan," and said he would help me. Just as darkness was setting in we arrived at a Dayak village, consisting of one very long house, which I afterwards found to exceed two hundred feet in length. It was situated about one hundred yards from the stream. No sooner had we sighted it than the air resounded with the loud beating of large gongs and plenty of shouting. There was a great commotion among the Dayaks.

I at first felt doubtful as to the kind of reception I should get, and immediately made my way to the house with Dubi, who explained to the Dayak chief that I was no government official, but had come to see them and also to get some "burong" (birds) and "kopo-kopo" (butterflies). I forthwith presented the old chief with a bottle of gin, such as they often get from the Malay traders, and some Javanese tobacco, and his face was soon wreathed in smiles.

The Dayaks soon brought all my baggage into the house and I paid off my Malays and proceeded to make myself as comfortable as I could for my stay of several weeks, the chief giving me a portion of his own quarters and spreading mats for me over the bamboo floor. On the latter I put my camp-bed and boxes. I occupied a portion of the open corridor or main hall, which ran the length of the house and where the unmarried men sleep. This long corridor was just thirty feet in width, and formed by far the greater portion of the house; small openings from this corridor led on to a kind of unsheltered platform twenty-five feet in width, which ran the length of the house and on which the Dayaks generally dry their "padi" (rice).

The other side of the house was divided into several rooms, each of which belonged to a separate family. Here they store their wealth, chiefly huge jars and brass gongs. The house was raised on piles fully ten to twelve feet from the ground, the space underneath being fenced in for the accommodation of their pigs and chickens. The smells that came up through the half-open bamboo and "bilian"-wood flooring were the reverse of pleasant. The entrance at each end was by means of a very steep and slippery sort of ladder made out of one piece of wood with notches cut in it, the steps being only a few inches in width. One of these ladders had a rough bamboo hand-rail on each side, and the top part of the steps was roughly carved into the semblance of a human face.

In the rafters over my head I noticed a great quantity of spears, shields, "sumpitans" or blowpipes, paddles, fish-traps, baskets and rolls of mats piled up indiscriminately, while just over my head where I slept was a rattan basket containing two human heads, though Dubi told me he thought the Dayaks had hidden most of their heads on my arrival. This description of the house I resided in for some time, applies more or less to all the Dayak houses I saw in Borneo.

This house or village was called Menus, and the old chief's name was Usit. In spelling these names one has to be entirely guided by the sounds and write them after the fashion of the English method of spelling Malay. The village or house of Menus seemed to contain about one hundred inhabitants, not counting small children. Upon my arrival I was soon surrounded by a most curious throng, many of whom gazed at me with open mouths, in astonishment at the sight of an "orang puteh" (white man), as of course no white man had ever been here before and but very few of the people had ever seen one. One old woman remembered having seen a white man, and some of the older men had from time to time seen government officials on the Rejang River, but except to these few I was a complete novelty. Considering this, I was greatly astonished at their friendliness, as not only the men, but the women and children squatted around me in the most amicable fashion, and sometimes even became a decided nuisance. My first evening among them, however, I found extremely amusing, and as my Chinese cook placed the food he had cooked before me, and as I ate it with knife, fork and spoon, they watched every mouthful I took amid a loud buzz of comments and exclamations of delight.

Though by no means the first time I have had to endure this sort of popularity, or rather notoriety, in various countries of the world, I do not think I have ever come across a people so full of friendly curiosity as were these Dayaks. About midnight I began to feel a bit sleepy, but the admiring multitude did not seem inclined to move, so I told Dubi to tell them that I wanted to change my clothes and go to sleep. No one moved. "Tell the ladies to go, Dubi," I said, but on his translating my message a woman in the background called out something that met with loud cries of approval.

"What does she say, Dubi?" I asked.

"She says, Tuan," replied Dubi, "they like see your skin, if white the same all over."

This was rather embarrassing, and I told Dubi to insist upon their going; but Dubi, whose advice I generally took, replied, "I think, Tuan (master), more better you show to them your skin." I therefore submitted with as good a grace as possible, and took my shirt off, while some of them, especially the women, pinched and patted the skin on my back amid cries of approval and delight.

They asked if the skin of the Tuan Muda (note: Charles Brooke) was as white, and, on being told that it was, a long and serious conversation took place among them, during which the name of the Tuan Muda kept constantly cropping up.

The great naturalist, Wallace, met with much the same experience among the Dayaks, and as the natives of many other countries among whom I have lived never seemed to display the same curiosity about my white skin, I put it down to the Dayaks wishing to see what kind of a skin the great white Rajah, who rules over them, possesses.

The next two or three nights the crowd that waited to see me change into my pyjamas was, if anything, still larger, a good many Dayaks from neighbouring villages coming over to see the sight. But gradually the novelty wore off, to my great joy, as I was getting a bit tired of the whole performance. I had come here to see the Dayaks, but it appeared that they were even more anxious to see me.

For the next two or three weeks an odd Dayak would from time to time ask to see my skin, so that at length I had absolutely to refuse to exhibit myself any longer.

I had luckily brought several illustrated magazines with me to use as papers for my butterflies, and these were a source of endless delight to the crowds around me in the evenings. They behaved like a lot of small children, and roared with laughter over the pictures. They generally looked at the pictures upside down, and even then they seemed to find something amusing about them. With Dubi as my interpreter I used to make up stories about the pictures, and, pointing to the portrait of some well-known actress, described the number of husbands she had killed, and I'm afraid I grossly libelled many a well-known politician, general, or divine in telling the Dayaks how many heads they possessed or how many wives they owned, till it was quite a natural thing for me to join in their uproarious merriment, as I pictured in my mind some venerable bishop on the war-path.

As is well known, the Dayak women all wear rings of brass around their waists. They are called "gronong," and they are made of pliable rattan inside, with small brass rings fastened around the rattan. In the centre of each ring there are generally two or three small red and black rings of coloured rattan between the brass ones. Some wore only four or five, while others possessed twenty or more, and then they rather resembled a corset. Even the little girls of four or five wore two or three of them.

I noticed on my first arrival that the women and some of the men seemed to have their teeth plentifully filled with gold, but I soon found out that it was brass that they had ornamented their teeth with, a small piece being inserted in some way in the centre of each tooth. Their teeth are generally black from the continual chewing of the betel-nut, and I noticed small children of four or five years of age going in for this dirty habit, and still younger children smoking cigarettes, the covering of which is made out of the dried leaf of the sago-palm. The Dayaks are almost as dirty as the Negritos in the Philippines, and yet they are both certainly the merriest people I have ever met with. The heartiest and most unaffected laughter I have ever heard proceeded from the throats of Dayaks and Negritos. It almost seems as if dirt in some cases constitutes true happiness.

The Dayak women seemed to bathe more often than the men, but they never seemed to take off their brass waist-rings when bathing in the river. The women also have their wrists covered with brass bangles, which are all fastened together in one piece. The noise in the house was deafening at times, especially in the evening, when all come home from working in their "padi" fields, where the women are supposed to do most of the work, the men generally going hunting. The continual hum of conversation and loud laughter, with the noise made by the pigs and chickens under the house, the dogs and chickens in the house, and the beating of deep-toned gongs at times nearly drove me frantic, especially when I was writing.

They resembled a lot of small children and would beat their gongs simply to amuse themselves. Very often a Dayak, on returning from his work or a hunt in the jungle, would walk straight up to a large gong that was hanging up and hammer on it for a few minutes in a most businesslike way, looking all the time as if it bored him. Then he would walk away in much the same way as a man would leave the telephone (as if he had just got through some business). I suppose it soothed them after their day's work, but it irritated me.

The Dayak dogs are fearful and wonderful animals, both as regards shape and colour, and I could get very little sleep on account of the noise they made; yet the Dayaks seemed to sleep through it all.

One night I woke up after a particularly noisy fight, and saw what appeared to me to be a dog sitting calmly by my bed with its back turned to me. Lifting my mosquito net, therefore, very quietly, I let drive with my fist at it, putting all my pent-up indignation and anger for sleepless nights into the blow. Alas! it was a very solid dog that I struck against, being nothing more nor less than the side of one of my boxes, and I barked my knuckles rather badly. The laughter of the Dayaks was loud and prolonged when Dubi translated the yarn to them next day, and they remembered it long afterwards. Until I heard the roar of laughter that went up, the story had not struck me as being so very amusing!

All around the house for some distance was a forest of tall fruit-trees. They had of course all been planted in times past by the Dayaks' ancestors, and every tree had its owner, but they had become mixed up with many beautiful wild tropic growths which had sprung up between the trees. Some of these fruit-trees, such as the "durian," "rambutan," mango, mangosteen, "tamadac" or jackfruit, "lansat" and bananas, were familiar to me, but there were a great number of fruits that I had never heard of before, and I got their names from my Dayak friends.

Needless to say, I never before tasted so many fruits that were entirely new to me, and most of them were ripe at the time of my visit. The "durian" comes easily first. It is without doubt the king of all fruit in both the tropic and temperate zones, and is popular alike with man and beast, the orang-utan being a great culprit in robbing the Dayaks of their "durians." I never saw the "good" "durian" growing wild in Sarawak, but I tasted here a small wild kind with an orange centre which made me violently sick. No description of the "durian" taste can do it justice. But its smell is also past description. It is so bad that many people refuse to taste it. It is a very large and heavy fruit, covered with strong, sharp spines, and as it grows on a very tall tree, it is dangerous to walk underneath in the fruiting season when they are falling, accidents being common among the Dayaks through this cause. I myself had a narrow escape one windy day. I was sitting at the foot of one of these trees eating some of the fallen fruit, when a large "durian" fell from above and buried itself in the mud not half a yard from me.

Danna, the second chief, would always leave one or two of the fruit for me on a box close by my head where I slept, before he went off to his "padi "-planting early in the morning, so that I got quite used to the bad smell. The Dayak house was surrounded on three sides by a horrible swamp, the roads through which consisted of fallen trees laid end to end, or else of two or three thick poles, laid side by side, and kept in place by being lashed here and there to two upright stakes, so that I had to balance myself well or come to grief in the thick mud. The Dayak bridges, made chiefly of poles and bamboos, were in many cases awkward things to negotiate, and I had one or two rather nasty falls from them. While the Dayak women and children never showed any fear of me in the house, whenever I met them out in the woods or jungle they would run from me as if I were some kind of wild animal.

I saw several Dayak dances. The men put on their war-plumes and with shield and "parang" (mentioned above) twirl round and round and cut with their "parangs" at an imaginary foe, the women all the time accompanying them with the beating of gongs. Dubi one night showed them a Malay dance, which consisted of a sort of gliding motion and a graceful waving of the hands, quite the reverse of the Dayak dance. One night I noticed a general bustle in the house. The women seemed greatly excited, and the men passed to and fro with their "parangs" and "sumpitans" (blowpipes), and cast anxious looks in my direction as they passed me. They told Dubi they were going fishing; but it seemed strange that they should go fishing with these warlike weapons, and I told Dubi so. He himself thought they were going head-hunting, and I felt sure of it, as they left only the old men, youths, women and children behind. I did not see them again till the following evening, nor did I then see signs of any fish. I told Dubi that I thought it best that he should not ask them any questions, as it might be awkward if they thought we suspected them. At the same time, I am bound to admit that there was no direct proof to show that they had been headhunting; and for this I was glad, as there was no cause for me to say anything to the Government about it, and so get my kind hosts into trouble. Some months later I read in a Singapore paper that "the Dayaks in this district," between Sibu and Kuching, were restless and inclined to join form with the Dayaks at Kapit, who had sent Dr. Hose a spear, signifying their defiance of the Sarawak Government.

One evening, when out looking for birds, Dubi and I came across two Dayaks, who were perched up in trees, waiting for wild pigs that came to feed on the fallen fruit, when they would spear them from above. They seemed rather annoyed with us for coming and frightening the pigs away, and that evening they told everyone that we were the cause of their not getting a pig. I rather scored them off, by telling Dubi in an angry voice to ask them what "the dickens" they meant by getting up in trees and frightening all my birds away. This highly amused all the other Dayaks, who laughed loud and long, and my two pig-hunting friends retired into the background discomfited. I myself went out one evening with a party of Dayaks after wild pig, and stayed for two hours upon a platform in a tree while they climbed other trees close by. However, no pigs turned up, although two "plandok" (mouse-deer) did, though I did not shoot them for fear of frightening the pigs away. I took my revolver with me, to the great amusement of the Dayaks, who, of course, had not seen one before, and ridiculed the idea of so small a weapon being able to kill a pig. The Dayaks told me that there were plenty of bears here, but I never saw any myself in this part of Borneo. They told me the bears were very fierce, and had often nearly killed some of their friends. The Dayak dogs are fearful cowards, and I was told that they run away at the sight of a wild pig.

Animal life here was not plentiful, and quite the reverse of what I had seen in the forests of North Borneo, where it was very plentiful.

I noticed the prevalence of that horrible scurvy-like skin-disease among several of the Dayaks. It was common in New Guinea among the Papuans, where it was termed "supuma." I cured two little Dayak children of intermittent fever by giving them quinine and Eno's fruit salts. The result was that I was greatly troubled by demands on my limited stock of medicines. One old man had been growing blind for the last two years, and another was troubled with aches all over him, and they would hardly believe me when I said that I could not cure them. They told Dubi that they thought that the white people who could make such things as I possessed could do anything. So much of my property seemed to amuse and astonish them, that it was a treat to show them such things as my looking-glass, hair-brush, socks, guns, umbrella, watch, etc. I showed them that child's trick of making the lid of my watch fly open, and they were delighted.

The Dayak women. I saw one or two that were rather pretty, but they were very young and unmarried. Dubi fell madly in love with one of them and she with him, and when I left there were two broken hearts. Many of the little girls of about five and six years old would have been regular pictures if they had only been cleaner. I made the discovery that some of my Dayak friends were addicted to the horrible habit of eating clay, and actually found a regular little digging in the side of a hill where they worked to get these lumps of reddish grey clay, and soon caught some of the old men eating it. They declared that they enjoyed it. All my empty tins (from tinned meats, etc.) were in great demand, and so to save jealousy I actually demoralized the Dayaks to the extent of introducing the raffling system among them. Great was the excitement every evening when I raffled old tins and bottles. Dubi would hand the bits of paper and they would be a long time making up their minds which to take. One night Dubi overheard my Chinese cook telling some of the Dayaks that "the white tuan had no use for these tins himself, that is why he gives them to you."

This cook, whom I used to call Cookie, was a great nuisance to me, but he was the most amusing character I ever came across, and he was the source of endless delight to the Dayaks, who enjoyed teasing him and jokingly threatened to cut off his head, until he was almost paralyzed with fright and came and begged me to leave, as we should all have our heads cut off. After a week or two his courage returned and I learned that when I was out of the house he would stand on his head for the amusement of the women and children, though he was by no means a young man. He soon became quite popular with the women, who found him highly amusing, and who were always in fits of laughter whenever he talked. In the evenings he sometimes joined a group of Dayak youths and would start to air his opinions. Then it was not long before they were all jeering and mimicking him, and poor old Cookie would look very foolish and a sickly smile would spread over his yellow features. Finally he would go off and sulk, and when I asked him what the matter was, he would reply, "Damn Dayak no wantee." Whenever I called out for Cookie, the whole house would resound with jeering Dayak cries of "Cookie, Cookie." He and Dubi were always quarrelling, and Cookie would work himself up into such a state of excitement that the place would be full of Dayak laughter, though the Dayak understood not a word of what they were talking about. In my later wanderings in Borneo the quarrel between my two servants, Dayak and Chinaman, grew to such an extent that I feared it would end in murder.

The foregoing account, short as it is, will, I trust, give some idea of what my long stay among head-hunting Dayaks was like. All things must have an ending, however, and having finished my collecting in this neighbourhood I said good-bye to my Dayak friends, with deep regret, and I think the sorrow was mutual. I know well that Dubi and his little Dayak sweetheart were almost heartbroken. The Dayaks begged me to stay longer, but I had already stayed longer than I had at first intended.

Old Usit, the chief, and his crew of Dayaks paddled me all the way to Sibu. There is little to relate about the journey there, except that the canoe leaked very badly and the Dayaks had to keep bailing her out. At night we tied the canoe up to a small wooden platform outside a Malay house on the Rejang River, to await the change of the tide, and one of the Dayaks knocked at the door of the house so that we could cook some food, but the Malays thought that we were head-hunters, and there was great lamentation, and for some time they refused to open. While eating my food, with my legs dangling over the side of the wooden platform, I noticed a dark object that glistened in the moonlight noiselessly swimming toward me, and I pulled up my legs pretty quickly. It was a large crocodile, attracted, no doubt, by the smell of my dinner. The only objection I had was that it might have taken me for the dinner.


Source:
Wanderings Among South Sea Savages And in Borneo and the Philippines. Chapter 13. H. Wilfrid Walker. Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society. 1910

Free download at Project Gutenberg.

5 comments:

Daniel Yiek said...

I wasn't looking for "Sarekei" when I chanced upon this chapter in this fascinating book. I was reading about Sibu in Chapter 12. I won't have found Sarikei in Chapter 13 because Sarikei was spelled as "Sarekei".

I decided to paste the whole chapter for your reading pleasure about life then (minus 1 sentence which may be read as derogatory to the locals). There are some drawings in there but I don't have access in the free download.

nelson said...

fantastico!

Sarawakiana@2 said...

Yes indeed fascinating....typical writing style and viewpoint of those days.

Kristen said...

What an amazing experience. I must say I would have been terrified to stay with headhunters. I just read a book about Native Americans called Cannibalism, Headhunting and Human Sacrifice in North America by George Feldman. I must admit, I didn’t know our early pious settlers were head-hunters.

Bengbeng said...

i enjoyed this very much. i can so relate to him. things havent really changed much. Dayaks remain some of the most friendly people on earth and the sense of community is still strong. unlike the urban Chinese who tend to b more individualistic. ( right word? )

I found the character of cookie amusing :)

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