5 interesting Sarawak stories as recorded by H. Wilfrid Walker

Patricia Hului

During the 19th and early 20th century, many European explorers made their way to what they deemed as the “exotic” island of Borneo.

Some were looking for wealth while others were seeking knowledge, to be the first one to discover something new.

British novelist William Somerset Maugham for instance came to Sarawak in 1921 to explore and get inspiration for his writing.

Meanwhile, Scottish Robert Burns was considered the first European man who visited the Kayans in Borneo. His explorations were ended after he was caught by Iranun pirates during a trip to Marudu Bay in northern Borneo.

Another European who had an untimely death while exploring Borneo was Frank Hatton. He accidentally shot himself when his rifle got twisted in some jungle creepers.

Most of these explorers have one thing in common; they put their experience into writing, giving us a glimpse of what was it like in Borneo more than a century ago.

One of the lesser known writings about Borneo is written by H. Wilfrid Walker, entitled Wanderings Among South Sea Savages and in Borneo and the Philippines (1909).

Little is known about this British author except that he is a fellow of the Royal Geographical Society.

The book is actually a compilation of letters Walker wrote back home during his journey to Fiji, Papua, North Borneo and the Philippines.

He was visiting these places to collect birds and butterflies.

Walker explained that Wanderings Among South Sea Savages by no means is a scientific book and was not for naturalists and ethnologists.

Regardless, his experience – especially in Borneo – is still worth an interesting read.

After spending seven months in British North Borneo (present day Sabah), Walker made his way to Kuching.

He arrived as a guest of the Borneo Company and stayed at what he described as “the rather dilapidated government rest house.”

View of Kuching from the Rajah’s Garden. (Copyright expired -Public Domain).

During his visit to Bau, Walker came across the Land Dayaks. How he described the Bidayuhs in his writing is an indicator of the racism endemic in the science of the times as he wrote that they were “not to be compared to the Sea Dayaks, who are born fighters, and whose predatory head-hunting instincts give a great deal of trouble to the government.”

Besides coming to collect birds and butterflies, the purpose of his visit to Sarawak was to see the Sea Dayaks or the Iban. And he definitely reached his goal when he visited a longhouse called Menus somewhere at upper Rajang river.

Walker (left) with L. Dyke-Acland, and C. A. W. Monckton (Copyright expired -Public Domain).

After reading Wanderings Among South Sea Savages and in Borneo and the Philippines (1909) by H. Wilfrid Walker, here are five interesting stories which took place in Sarawak we think you should know about:

1.The first time Walker saw an Iban man

Walker was really excited to see the Ibans. Together with his two servants, a Chinese cook whom he called ‘Cookie’ and a ‘civilised Dayak named Dubi’, they made their way to Sibu onboard a steamer.

In Sibu, he stayed with the Resident/famed naturalist Charles Hose.

It was in Sibu that Walker finally met his first Iban and this was how he described his first impressions.

“My first real acquaintance with the Sea Dayak was in the long bazaar at Sibu, and I was by no means disappointed in my first impressions, as I found him a most picturesque and interesting individual. The men usually have long black hair hanging down their backs, often with a long fringe on their foreheads.

Their skin is brown, they have snub noses but resolute eyes, and they are of fine proportions, though they rarely exceed five feet five inches in height. Beyond the “jawat,” a long piece of cloth which hangs down between their legs, they wear nothing, except their many and varied ornaments. They wear a great variety of earrings.

These are often composed of heavy bits of brass, which draw the lobes of the ears down below the shoulder. When they go on the war-path they generally wear war-coats made from the skins of various wild animals, and these are often padded as a protection against the small poisonous darts of the “sumpitan” or blow-pipe which, together with the “parang” (a kind of sword) and long spears with broad steel points constitute their chief weapons. They also have large shields of light wood; often fantastically painted in curious patterns, or ornamented with human hair.”

Dayak in War-Coat. Photo by H. Wilfrid Walker (Copyright expired – Public Domain)
Dayaks and Canoes. Photo by H, Wilfrid Walker (Copyright expired -Public Domain)

2.The first time he sees heads fresh from the headhunters

After spending three or four days in Sibu, Hose received news that the Ibans from Ulu Ai had killed a group of Punans for their heads.

Hose immediately set out to go to Kapit to punish the headhunters and he allowed Walker to go with him.

After they had arrived at Kapit, Hose invited Walker to inspect the heads. Naturally as an explorer, Walker did not want to miss the opportunity.

This was how he described it,

“They were a sickening sight, and all the horrors of head-hunting were brought before me with vivid and startling reality far more than could have been done by any writer.

Only seven of the heads had been brought in, and two of them were heads of women, and although they had been smoked, I could easily see that one of them was that of a quite young, good-looking girl, with masses of long, dark hair.

She had evidently been killed by a blow from a “parang,” as the flesh on the head had been separated by a large cut which had split the skull open. In one of the men’s heads there were two small pieces of wood inserted in the nose. They were all ghastly sights to look at, and smelt a bit, and I was not sorry to be able to turn my back on them.”

Dayaks Catching Fish Photo by H, Wilfrid Walker (Copyright expired -Public Domain)

3.When a girl doubted a Christian Dayak’s manhood

Walker relates a story which was told to him, of how a girl had turned down a converted Christian man for not carrying on the practice of head-hunting.

In a certain district where some missionaries were doing good work among the Dayaks, a Dayak young man named Hathnaveng had been persuaded by the missionaries to give up the barbaric custom of headhunting.

One day, however, he fell in love with a Dayak maiden. The girl, although returning his passion, disdained his offer of marriage, because he no longer indulged in the ancient practice of cutting off and bringing home the heads of the enemies of the tribe.

Hathnaveng, goaded by the taunts of the girl, who told him to dress in women’s clothes in the future, as he no longer had the courage of a man, left the village and remained away for some time.

When he returned, he entered his sweetheart’s hut, carrying a sack on his shoulders. He opened it, and four human heads rolled upon the bamboo floor. At the sight of the trophies, the girl at once took him back into her favour, and flinging her arms round his neck, embraced him passionately.

“You wanted heads,” declared her lover. “I have brought them. Do you not recognize them?”

Then to her horror she saw they were the heads of her father, her mother, her brother and of a young man who was Hathnaveng’s rival for her affections. Hathnaveng was immediately seized by some of the tribesmen, and by way of punishment was placed in a small bamboo structure such as is commonly used by the Dayaks for pigs, and allowed to starve to death.

A Dayak Woman with Mourning Ornaments round waist. Photo by H. Wilfrid Walker (Copyright expired – Public Domain)

4.When some of Brooke’s soldiers mistakenly buried a prisoner alive

During his time in Sibu, Walker spent a great time with two of Hose’s officers named Johnson and Bolt, who then related this story to him:

A Chinese prisoner at Sibu had died, at least Johnson and Bolt both thought so, and they sent some of the Malay soldiers to bury the body on the other side of the river.

A few days later one of them casually remarked to Johnson that they had often heard it said that the spirit of a man sometimes returned to his body again for a short time after death (a Malay belief), but he (this Malay) had not believed it before, but he now knew that it was true. Johnson, much amused, asked him how that was.

“Oh,” said the Malay, “when the Tuan (Johnson) sent us across the river to bury the dead man the other day, his spirit came back to him and his body sat up and talked, and we were much afraid, and seized hold of the body; which gave us much trouble to put it into the hole we had digged, and when we had quickly filled in the hole so that the body could not come out again, we fled away quickly, so now we know that the saying is true.” It thus transpired that they had buried a live Chinaman without being aware of the fact.

5.This European who wanted to see the Dayaks, ended up becoming an exhibit himself

Dayak Women and Children on the Platform outside a longhouse. Photo by H. Wilfrid Walker (Copyright expired – Public Domain)

During his first night at an Iban longhouse, the natives who had never seen a white man before was curious to see Walker’s skin.

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.

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.

You can read the rest of Walker’s book here.