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5 stories about the Sihan people you should know about

Sungai Mujong

With less than 300 Sihan people in Sarawak (as of 2012), any stories about their legends, customs and histories are very precious and important.

As recorded by Benedict Sandin in “Notes on the Sian (Sihan) of Belaga” for the Sarawak Museum journal, the Sihan speak the same language with Punan Bushang and Punan Aput, and not with other Punans.

In ‘Language Vitality of the Sihan Community in Sarawak, Malaysia’ by Noriah Mohamed and Nor Hashimah Hashim, the Sihan people, who identify themselves as Punan, migrated to Belaga from Namang River, after moving from their original settlement in Mujong near the Baleh River.So here are 5 stories about the Sihan people you should know about:

1.The ancestors of the Sihan people

A Sihan man named Jingom Juroh once told a story to Sarawak Museum about the ancestors of the Sihan people.

“I know that a spirit begot our first ancestor called Kato’o. He was born overseas. Kato’o was a brave hero who fought and won many wars against other people. Upon seeing his bravery his children began to become afraid of his actions. Knowing that his children worried about him, he ordered them to use only bamboo spears, and not with other kinds of weapons so that they could not harm him.

However, they killed him with the bamboo spears. After his death the bamboo spears which pierced him grew to become a high mountain. We do not know where this hill is, but according to our history it is somewhere overseas.

Kato’o sons immigrated from overseas. Their names were Belawan Jeray and Belawan Tiau. The two brothers lived in the Mujong. From Mujong Belawan Tiau led his followers to migrate eastward to Kapuas. Therefore in the Kapuas quite a number of Sian (Sihan) lived.

Belawan Jeray died in the Mujong. After his death his son named Maggay migrated to the Pilla and died there. After his death his son Gawit moved to Seggam and died there.”

Mujong is a tributory of Baleh river and Pilla is a tributory of the Rajang river.

2.Life of the Sihan people before they settled in the longhouse.

Unlike most indigenous groups in Sarawak, the Sihan people originally lived in huts like the Penan people.

They did not live in longhouses.

Jingom was 56 years old when he shared this to the Sarawak Museum in 1961: “We Sihan have never joined other races to live in longhouses. I remember that we start to farm when I had already grown up to about the age of thirteen years. We started to live in longhouses from the time we were taught to farm by the Kejaman chief Akek Laing alias Matu.”

He added, “During our nomadic days we have no other tool to use other than the axes. We got iron by bartering with the Kejaman our jungle produce such as rattan baskets and mats. Till this day though our people still can make baskets and mats, but we do not keep them because we sell them to the Kayan and others.”

The Sihan people also did not make blow pipes. Only after they traded blowpipes from the Penan did they hunt for birds and animals. Before that, they relied on fish as their source of protein.

Additionally, the Sihan people did not rear domestic pigs but chickens. With regards to fruits, they collected wild fruits when they were nomadic. They started to plant fruit trees after they settled in longhouses.

3.The legend of Batu Balitang

When the Sihan people were still living at Mujong, there was a man who went out shooting animals with his blowpipe.

As he roamed the forests, he did not find anything.

When he was on his way home, he saw a huge shining animal standing on the bough of a tree. It looked like a rainbow.

The man shot at it several times with his poisonous darts, but could not kill it.

The hunter returned to his hut to bring his friends for help.

While explaining to his friends what happened, they heard a very loud sound as if something falling from the sky.

Everyone, men and women alike, ran toward the source of the noise and found an animal lying on the ground.

Rejoicing over the fresh meat, they cut the animal up and cooked it. Everyone in the village ate the meat, except a pair of brother and sister.

Unbeknownst to the villagers, the animal they feasted on was a demon. That night when they slept, the demon’s wife came.

As she came, she danced from one home to another, looking for the people who ate her husband.

She found that all except two, had eaten her husband. Hence, she ordered the brother and sister to escape instantly and never look back.

The demon’s wife ordered them to go to a certain stream not far away on the left of the Mujong above their village. In order that they may know this place, on her way to the village the demon’s wife had cut a certain small tree as a sign.

The two siblings fled as directed. After they had gone, a great wind blew and a heavy rain began to fall. During the storm, the houses gradually became stone, becoming what has become recognised today as Batu Balitang.

After all the villagers became stones and boulders, the siblings got married and became the ancestors of Sihan people.

4.The truth about headhunting among the Sihan people

While most indigenous peoples in Borneo have a long history of headhunting, the Sihan people tried their best to avoid them.

However, they did fight against Iban and Bukitan headhunters about a century ago.

Many people were killed on both sides of the war.

The Sihan people reportedly did not value the heads of the enemies as trophies, even throwing them away.

5.The burial customs of the Sihan people

Immediately after a Sihan person dies, their bodies are cleaned with water. After that, the deceased is dressed in clothes made of tree bark.

All of their possessions like axes and baskets must be buried with them.

Unlike the Kayan who used to erect Salong, or burial poles, to bury their dead, the Sihan people will cut a tree for the coffin.

When it is complete, the coffin is placed inside for burial. The burial usually takes place on the second day after death.

Then two nights after the burial, a fire will be lit outside the house. The Sihan people believed that in the nights after the burial, the soul of the deceased will wander about intending to return to the house. As for offerings, they place sago by the fire.

The Sihan traditional belief is that when one passes away, thunder is usually sounded. With the sound of this thunder, it is believed that the soul of the deceased is carried away to heaven above.

Numbul and Bedukun, the Bisaya traditional healing ceremonies

Before there were doctors and nurses, the people of Sarawak relied on traditional healing ceremonies to cure sickness.

Every ethnic group has its own healing ceremony, for example the Ibans have their pelian and the Melanau turn to berayun and berbayoh to heal the sick.

For the Bisaya people in the Sarawak, their traditional healing ceremonies are called numbul and bedukun.

The numbul ceremony

It is the custom of the Bisaya that if a woman is sick, a numbul ceremony is held in order to cure her.

According to Benedict Sandin in his paper The Bisaya of Borneo and the Philippines, the word numbul means a curing ceremony for a sick woman officiated by a female shaman.

Benedict wrote, “To carry out the ceremony, a female shaman wears a petticoat, sarong, cloak and bracelets. From the wrist to the elbow of her silver are nine silver buttons.”

As she starts her invocation chants, the shaman sits at the centre of the gathering of people who beat the gongs at the open veranda of the house.

The invocation chants last from dusk till dawn. As she chants her songs, she summons the soul of the patient to return quickly from where it has wandered away.

If the patient can be cured, her soul will come back as summoned by the shaman.

What happens if she cannot be cured? Then her soul will never again come back to her.

The moment the soul comes back, the shaman catches it with her hand and places it carefully on a white piece of calico cloth. Then she places it on the head of the patient.

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What happens if the numbul ceremony fails?

After the shaman has successfully performed her numbul over the patient, the latter and her family are assured that she will be cured from her current illness.

If her soul did not return to her, another numbul ceremony can be officiated by the same shaman.

The shaman before this can still perform the numbul over the same patient up to three times.

If the patient still cannot be cured, another female shaman should be called upon to perform the numbul ceremony for her.

In the meantime, many people are invited to attend the numbul ceremony. The whole night they will partake in food and drink at the house of the patient’s family.

At the end of the ceremony, the shaman declares that every member of the patient’s family and those who stay in the same house must not do any outdoor work for three days.

Besides this, the shaman also strictly prevents any visitor who come to the house to bring with him a knife which has resin (malau) in its handle.

Any visitor found bringing such weapon will be fined according to the customary rules of the numbul ceremony.

Bedukun ceremony for a sick man

If a man is sick, the Bisaya family usually calls for a dukun (medicine man) to come to cure him.

For this ceremony, the dukun does not necessarily wear ceremonial dress as does the female shaman and he recites no long chants for the patient.

The dukun performs the ceremony only for about one hour. During this time he only blows (taurik) the air to the painful spot of the sick man’s body. Additionally, he recites a special spell (puchau) over the place of the patient’s pain.

Just like the numbul ceremony, the dukun declares that all members of the patient’s family must not do outdoor work for three days.

At the same time, he forbids all visitors to the family’s house to bring with them a knife which has resin in its handle.

Although we may not practice Sarawakian traditional healing ceremonies, it is always important to at least remember them.

The Lun Bawang legend of a giant man named Temueng

Long time ago, there was a giant man named Temueng and his friend named Pengiran who first lived at Kemaloh in Kalimantan, Indonesia.

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According to legends, these people were believed to be the ancestors of Lun Bawang people.

Benedict Sandin in his paper The Bisayah and Indigenous Peoples of Limbang, Sandin recorded the life journey of this Lun Bawang legendary hero.

“Temueng and Pengiran were much ashamed that they could not defeat in battle chief enemy named Yada. Therefore Temueng moved from Kemaloh to Punang Trusan, and Pengiran also moved and settled at Illot, now in Indonesian Borneo,” Sandin wrote.

The life of Temueng

Legend has it that owing to the extraordinary size of the body, Temueng could easily eat one whole pig per meal. He was also rumoured to be a very strong man.

Meanwhile, Abdul Karim Abdul Rahman in his paper History of the founding of Brunei Kingdom Based on Oral Tradition (2016) pointed out that Temueng was Upai Semaring’s son.

He is another giant who is a Lundayeh legend from the Krayan Highlands, Kalimantan.

Upai Semaring 4
Upai Semaring hill, where he allegedly lived in Krayan Highlands.

When he lived in the Ulu Trusan, he carved a number of rocks and the posts of his house were all made of rocks which are still intact at that location to this day.

According to Sandin, while at Punang Trusan, Temueng lived at the present day Semado Nesab village.

His house there was surrounded by wide and deep drains for protection against invasion by his enemies.

While Temueng was living at Long Lopeng, hundreds of Kayan came to attack him. Also known as Luping, Long Lopeng is a settlement in the Lawas division.

When the enemy came, he was reportedly at ease smoking his pipe.

But when they came, he knocked each one of them on the head with his pipe and killed them all.

A giant bigger than Temueng?

Another story circles around Temueng; one day Temueng went out hunting animals in the forest.

He found a huge coil of rattan which could be used in a fish trap.

Thinking that the coiled rattan cane was a leg ornament, he put his leg into it.

But the coil was bigger than Temueng’s leg, and this frightened him. Temueng immediately thought there was a giant bigger than him living in the area.

While Temueng was not afraid of those who were smaller than him, he was afraid of people bigger than him.

Terrified, he fled from Long Lopeng and down the Trusan river to live at the foot of a mountain near Long Merarap. It is believed that is where he stayed until he died.

The Lun Bawang people after the death of Temueng

It is unsure how Temueng died but the Lun Bawang people still remember him even many years on after his death.

In memory of his settlements on the upper Trusan river, the Lun Bawang people from Kemaloh moved to the lands between the headwaters of Trusan and Limbang rivers.

They moved there in small groups, each group gradually followed by others.

Expanding their territory, they moved down the Trusan till they were attacked by the Kayans.

According to Sandin, the Lun Bawang successfully repulsed the Kayans, driving them away.

To this day, the Lun Bawang still settle in various areas of Lawas and Limbang regions.

A Bisaya legend of how a sago tree came into existence

A Bisaya legend of how a sago tree came into existence

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Every culture has its unique legends and most of these legends were used to explain things surrounding them.

These legends usually circle around how certain plants or animals were discovered or came into being.

Sometimes, they also explain why some creatures or plants are not found in the area.

For example here in Borneo, we have a legend of how paddy was discovered or why there are no tigers on this island.

Here is a Bisaya legend of how a sago tree was discovered as recorded by Benedict Sandin in his paper The Bisayah and Indigenous Peoples of Limbang (1972):

One day, there was a very poor Bisaya man who went into the jungle to look for anything to eat, as no one in the village would give him food.

After he had wandered for about 10 days in the jungle, he nearly died of starvation until he came across a woman who spoke kindly to him.

After staying with her for sometime, they got married.

(Now here is where things in their marriage get somewhat bizarre.)

When it was time to eat, the man was served sago pellets by his wife which came out from her private parts.

On seeing this, the man asked his wife, “Why do you give me dirty stuff?”

To this the woman answered, “You may kill me if you wish.” Furious, the man killed her with his knife.

But before she died, she advised him that whenever he wished to eat sago, he should make a small hole in the ground so that the sago pellets could easily come out from the earth.

After she had finished giving her advice, she died instantly in the hands of her husband.

Immediately after she had died, a small sago tree grew from that spot, becoming the first sago tree to grow in that part of Limbang region.

Think about this legend the next time you are having your sago.

How the human races were formed according to a Sihan legend

The Sihan people are among the few tribes in Sarawak that are vulnerable to extinction along with smaller tribes such as the Ukit and Kejaman peoples.

According to the Borneo Post in 2012, there are less than 300 Sihan people left in Sarawak.

Unfortunately, they have been assimilated into other Orang Ulu groups such as the Kayans and Kenyahs.

Their only unique legacy now is their own language and mythology which are different from other tribes.

Here is a folklore on how human races were formed according to a Sihan legend:

Long time ago, all human beings came from only one race.

At Ulu Kajang river, many groups of people wished to cross the river.

However, none of them were able to swim.

Therefore, they decided to build a huge bridge out of rattan.

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The groups of people started to build a bridge in order to get to the other side of the Ulu Kajang river. Credits: Pixabay.

After they built it, each group of people began to walk across the bridge.

The Punan, Kayan, Kejaman, Sekapan, Lahanan and the Sihan walked first.

After too many people crossing the river, the bridge broke.

The rest of these people such as the Iban, Malay, Chinese and the Europeans flowed down the river instead of using a bridge.

The Sihan people believed that the European who flowed furthest down the river became white, their hair silvery and their eyes blushed due to the coldness of the water.

The Sihan and the other groups who walked first who had already reached the other side of the river before the bridge was broken, remained in the upper part of the river to this day.

The source of this Sihan legend

The late Iban ethnologist Benedict Sandin recorded this particular legend on Feb 27, 1961 when he was working as the Sarawak Museum’s Research Assistant.

His informant for this legend was Salik Gawit, a Sihan headman from Menamang stream. Salik was 56 years-old when he was interviewed by Sandin.

According to Salik, he is not sure why his race is called Sihan (sometimes spelled as Sian).

He told Sandin, “There is no river of that name that had been inhabited by our ancestors. I can assure that my race are not foreigners. We are the people who are the origins of this place.”

7 things Kayan women were forbidden to do when the men left for headhunting trips

In the olden days, Kayan men were renowned as notorious headhunters. Their reputation as fierce warriors spread so wide and wild that they were often mistaken as cannibals.

Whenever the men went for headhunting trips, the women were left in the longhouses fending for themselves.

These headhunting trips usually took months before they could return to their loved ones.

In the meantime, the Kayan women would take care of the household and their farms, making sure their families had enough to eat.

Back in those days, the Kayan people also had their own traditional beliefs and shamanism.

Besides commencing their usual chores, the Kayan women were forbidden to do certain things due to their beliefs.

7 things Kayan women were forbidden to do when the men left for headhunting trips:

Ethnologist Benedict Sandin published his paper The Traditional Folklore of the Kayan of Upper Rajang when he was a Senior Fellow in Universiti Sains Malaysia.

From his interviews with the elders of Kayan from Upper Rajang river, he recorded seven things wives, sisters, mothers and close female relatives were not allowed to do.

  1. Eat the meat of barking deer, as this animal was believed to produce bad luck.

2. Eat the dongan fish (a type of freshwater fish) as the stripes on its body also could mirror the marks the warriors would receive on their bodies made by the enemy on their warrior son or husband.

3. Eat the cabbage of palm of any kind, in order not to blind the warrior’s eyes while fighting against his foe.

4. Hold a needle, so that the legs of the warriors were prevented from being pricked by thorns and spikes made by the enemy.

5. Have sexual intercourse with another man, in order that the warrior or husband mat not fall down under the body of his foe. Besides this, it was believed that the warrior would act as if he was having sexual intercourse in front of his foe.

6. Eat mekai leaves (Albertisia papuana), to prevent the eyes of the warrior from being unclear when drawing out his sword from its scabbard and thus give a chance to the enemy to cut him.

7. Wake up late in the morning, so that the warrior husband will not be slow to fight while on the warpath.

Henry Ling Roth in The Natives of Sarawak and British North Borneo

Anthropologist Henry Ling Roth recorded similar dos and donts for women in his book The Natives of Sarawak and British North Borneo.

However, he did not point out which tribe that practiced them and generalized them as Dayak women.

Regardless of what happened during the headhunting trip, the women would continue their daily activities as usual. Roth noted, “As long the men are away their fires are lighted on the stones or small just as if they were at home.”

Apart from carrying on with their daily jobs, the women carried out a couple of tasks symbolically to protect their men from afar.

For example, the women spread mats and kept the fires up till late in the evening and lit them again before dawn.

This was to ensure men during the war expeditions would not get cold.

Roth added, “The roofing of the house is opened before dawn, so that the men may not lie too long and fall into the enemies’ hands.”

It is good to know that women had their own roles when it came to headhunting and warfare.

Batu Bejit – an Iban legend of a monkey, a man and a wife turned to stone

When comes to petrification legend in Sarawak, it usually involves laughing at a particular animal and the sky turns dark and the people who laughed would turn into stones.

For example in the legend of Ikan Pasit, the girl is turned into stone after laughing at a fish.

Meanwhile in the Bidayuh Jagoi legend of Gunung Kapor, the villagers are turned into stones after laughing at a cat.

Similarly, the stones of Fairy Caves were believed once a group of villagers who were petrified after laughing at a cat.

In this legend of Batu Bejit, the animal which become the laughing stock is what the Iban people called bejit. It is a type of monkey that can be found in Sarawak.

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Cats or monkeys, petrification legends teach us to respect animals. Credit: Pixabay.

Here is Benedict Sandin’s version of the Batu Bejit legend which was published in The Sarawak Gazette, July 31, 1965:

There are two stones at Suri, Rimbas, Saribas situated between Rumah Chupong and Rumah Upu.

The reason why they are there relates to a story of a man and his wife who reared a bejit monkey long ago.

After the bejit had been tamed, they dressed it with a loin-cloth and on its wrists they put engkelai (shell armlets), and also the simpai (bone armlets).

Having done this they put on its head a turban and on its neck they put a necklace. After they had dressed it nicely, they asked it to dance. The bejit danced which made them laugh loudly.

While they laughed at the poor animal the clouds turned black, the wind blow strongly, with lightning darting everywhere.

The rain also fell heavily which caused their farm hut to become petrified, together with the monkey and the man’s wife.

On seeing this the owner of the farm hut descended to the ground being equipped with shield, sword and spear in order to fight the spirits which had caused this disaster.

He could not defend himself and turned into stone also.

It is because of this that there are two large stones now standing side by side, one being the petrified farm hut, a monkey and the man’s wife, while the other is the man himself. The petrified farm hut is bigger and higher, while the man’s stone is smaller and lower.

The Iban legend of Batu Indai Binjut you might never have heard of

Legend has it that in Paku river at Nanga Anyut, there is a stone of three petrified women called Batu Indai Binjut.

In ancient times before the Paku region was populated by the Ibans the area sparsely inhabited by an ancient tribe of people called the Baketan.

The last of their group who left Paku took place in the days of Iban chiefs Kaya and Bayans eight generations ago.

Long before Tindin the first Iban migrant arrived in the Paku from Skrang, one sunny morning three Baketen women went out to fish (mansai) at the mouth of the Ayut stream.

As they fished an empelasi fish jumped out of the water and touched one of the girl’s breasts.

On seeing this, the girl sigh and said, “Eh! If it were only a young man, even an empelasi fish been attracted by the beauty of my breasts”.

On hearing her words her companions started to laugh and joke with one another and said that, “Even a tiny fish had wanted to covet them, so what more if a young man should see her breasts”.

They continued joking and laughing.

Invoking the wrath of gods

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The sky turns dark and the women slowly turned into stone.

As they laughed the sunshine suddenly disappeared and the sky started to become overcast, the wind blew strongly and was followed by torrential rain. Due to the heavy storm the three poor women could not find where to go.

They stood where they were and they gradually turned into stone.

It was said that up to seven days after their petrification, their heads were still able to speak and ask food from those who happened to come to that place. No one dared to give them anything, and they died due to petrification as well as due to starvation.

Even now this stone can still be seen in the shape of human beings, lying at the left bank of the Paku river below the mouth of the Anyut stream.

The mention of Batu Indai Binjut in an Iban folk song

According to Benedict Sandin, a former Sarawak Museum curator who recorded this legend, there is a mention of Batu Indai Binjut in the Iban Pengan song.

The song is about when either Simpulang Gana and Sengalang Burong became puzzled on hearing the sound of wind which came to invite him to attend the feast of men.

Here is the lyric of the song goes:

“Who amongst us angers the land and the world?
Well try and burn the remains of our derris,
And crop the hair which falls over our foreheads!
But still the wind would not stop blowing,
And the hurricane blew continually!”
“Oh! Maybe the children have collected the red ants!,
In baskets with holes
Or maybe someone has dipped a frog into a wooden trough?”
The children would reply:
The stone of Indai Binjut
At the mouth of river Anyut,
Has long been known to us, Serit Mamut,
As caused by a disaster during fishing”.

The similarity between the legend of Batu Indai Binjut and the legend of Ikan Pasit

If you feel the legend of Batu Indai Binjut sounds familiar, it is because it is almost familiar with Ikan Pasit.

The first Ranee of Sarawak, Margaret Brooke recorded this legend in her book My Life in Sarawak.

According to the legend, there was a village called Marup.

One day there was a girl who went fishing and caught what the locals called ‘ikan pasit’.

As she was preparing the fish, one of them jumped up and touched her breast.

“What are you doing? Do you imagine that you are my husband?” she said, laughing at her own joke.

The people who were there also laughed and those who heard the commotion came over and also laughed.

Suddenly, the sky turned grey and a mighty wind blew accompanied by flashes of lightning.

Then a hail-storm began. Hail stones fell down non-stop and hitting everybody even their houses, turning them into stone.

Meanwhile, the girl who made fun of the ikan pasit was only partly petrified. Just like the three Baketan ladies, the girl’s her head and neck were unchanged while the remaining part of her body was turned into stone.

Together with the rest of her village, the whole longhouse and its residents fell into the river.

Living as part human, part stone

While the Baketan women died due to the petrification and starvation, sadly for the girl, she lived many years with a living head and stone as her body.

Many tried to end her misery by striking her with a blade but nothing worked. Until one day, a man who heard her cries came.

Like many who came before him, he tried to strike her head with an axe and a sword but neither worked.

Eventually he struck her with a spindle and her cries finally stopped while her head and neck slowly turned into stone.

It is believed, the group of rocks believed to be Marup village were not far from Lubok Antu.

Iban olden customary laws against adultery and elopement

Some people call it love, while others call it breaking the adat (custom).

Historically, many cultures consider adultery a very serious crime, subject to severe punishment such as capital punishment, mutilation or torture.

This includes the Iban people of Sarawak.

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According to Iban ethnologist Benedict Sandin, before Sarawak was under Brooke rule, if an Iban stole another man’s wife and he was caught, the woman’s husband had every right to strike him with a club.

He explained, “As a rule, therefore, in order to prevent this from happening, immediately after the incident, it was the duty of the longhouse chief to kill a cock as soon as possible. If the striking with a club had taken place before the cock was killed and the adulterer was killed in the process, his death would not be compensated by the killer. But if it occurred the killing of the cock, the striker would be heavily fined in accordance with the customary law of ‘Malu Mungkal’.

Furthermore, he would be ordered by the chief to pay the ‘pati nyawa’, the compensation for taking a life. The cost of ‘pati nyawa’ is one valuable jar in which the type is according to the rank of the deceased.

Charges for ‘berangkat’ or elopement

Let’s say if it was only an ordinary case of elopement, then both of the accused would be charged with adultery.

Writing for the Sarawak Gazette on May 31, 1964, Sandin stated, “They would be fined 30 catties which was equivalent to $21.60; the man twenty and the women ten.

“If they were to marry they would be charged with berangkat (taking someone’s husband or wife and vice versa). In due course the man would be fined 1 1/2 piculs or $43.20 and the woman one picul or $28.80.”

Meanwhile, the man was allowed to divorce his adulterous wife by paying the ordinary fine of twenty catties or $14.40. If they had children, they would be divided between the parties. If there was only one, according to Sandin, it would be given to the guiltless party.

Reminiscences of former Sarawak Museum Curator Edward Banks

Founded in 1888 and opened in 1891, the Sarawak Museum is the oldest museum in Borneo.

Since its inception until 1974, the head of the museum was called ‘Curator’. After this, the title for the head of the museum became “Director.”

Sarawak Museum has seen so many curators and directors passing through its doors since it was first opened. Each head of the museum has their own stories on how they ended up at their post.

After Sarawak joined to form the Federation of Malaysia in 1963, we’ve had our own Sarawakians as directors: Benedict Sandin (1966-1974), Lucas Chin (1974-1991), Dr Peter Mulok Kedit (1991-1996), Ipoi Datan (1996-1997, and then again in 2009) and Sanib Said (1997-2008). Currently, Suria Bujang is Acting Director.

Of course like any other working environment, Sarawak Museum has its own office stories or rumours to tell. Who better to tell the story other than one of its own curators, Edward Banks?

He served as the curator from February 1925 to 1945. Banks was interned at Batu Lintang camp during the Japanese occupation of Sarawak during World War II.

The former curator once wrote his experiences working at the Sarawak Museum. In the article, he roughly pointed out the contributions and achievement of all the curators that came before him.

Kuching Sarawak the museum building. Photograph. Wellcome V0037397 scaled
Kuching, Sarawak: the museum building. Photograph. Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Photograph c. 1896 By: Charles Hose.
Copyrighted work available under Creative Commons Attribution.

Here is the article written by Edward Banks which was published in The Sarawak Museum Journal in August 1983:

There are several stories about the origin of the Sarawak Museum. There is no doubt the idea first started from a suggestion from Alfred Russel Wallace when he visited the country. He became a close friend of James Brooke, first Rajah of Sarawak, in fact they went away together to his country house on Peninjau Hill behind Siniawan. It seems certain Wallace persuaded Brooke to have a museum and orders were given for this. Later events delayed the start but Charles Brooke, the second Rajah, took his uncle’s orders seriously and went ahead with the scheme for a Museum.

I have always been told that when looking through magazine he saw a picture of a girl’s school in Adelaide – “Just the thing for a museum”, said he, whistled up the PWD (Public Works Department) and so it was built. You can see a picture of it in Shelford’s book. The question of somewhere for the Curator to live came up and on looking at a picture book about Switzerland and he saw a photograph of Swiss Chalet – “Ha, just the thing for a Curator” and that is where I used to live.

A museum had to have glass cases and stuffed animals. To it came Bartlett, sometime assistant in the London Zoo. He was a very good taxidermist indeed, many of his mounted specimens are still on show. He also sent many specimens home to be mounted by Gerarrd in London and they are still probably home some of the main Museum today with a certain amount of artistic merit. Bartlett’s assistant was a Chinese gentleman named Chiang Jee Koo who became nearly as good as mounting birds as was his master.

Bartlett was replaced by Shelford, almost certainly recommended by Wallace. He brought order to the Museum, everything was catalogued and numbered so that what every specimen you wish could easily be found among the very large reference collection that he accumulated. The museum owes its firm foundation to his orderly mind. I believe Shelford was a cripple and there used to be in Museum a very large back basket in which he is said to have been carried up Mount Penrissen.

Shelford was followed by Hewitt, an indefatigable collector of insect and of plants but he did not stay very long before retiring to Natal.

Then came John Coney Moulton. His service to the museum was immense, he had another wing built on, started the Sarawak Museum Journal and became an authority on Cicada; with a foretaste of things to come the museum was soon full of files and of memos and all the signs of coming bureaucracy. Then can came the first War and Moulten went off to Singapore to join his regiment and when the war was over, he was appointed Director of the Museum in Singapore. Up to this time, Charles Vyner Brooke had been his own secretary, all outstation officers wrote to him and he wrote back to them. In about 1923 he made Moulton his Chief Secretary in Sarawak. It was not a popular appointment, most administrative officers thought they could have done the job better. (After the second war there was once a suggestion they might do worse than have another curator for Chief Secretary and I know what the anti feelings were like!)

The Curator at that time was a Swede named Mjöberg. He must have been the finest collector the Museum ever had. Nothing moved on foot or fin or wing but he had it, he knew what he was collecting too, a very able man. His manners aroused the dislike of many people, some D.Os (District Officers) would not have him in their district, in fact he was just not popular with anyone. He must have used his position as Curator to obtain large numbers of old jars and plates which did not reach the Museum collections. This led to a furious row with Chief Secretary Moultan and Mjöberg had to go. It is almost incredible that he packed up numbers of jars and of plates to take with him. They were of course confiscated by the customs and placed in the Museum. A furious correspondence followed, ordering me to send on his property which of course I could not do and we all got well shot at between the pages of his book “Durch die Insel der kopfjarger.”

I was the next Curator, arriving in February 1925, Moulton put me through it and was apparently satisfied and I was allowed to move in. Here I met an old Chinese gentleman named Chiang Jee Koo who became a lifelong friend. He had started with Bartlett, had seen Shelford, Hewitt, Moulton and Mjöberg come and go and now I must say he had picked up some astounding English from former Curators and it was quite exciting being taken around the Museum exhibits by him. But he was a dear, we got on famously and did not always work too hard, he loved talking about the past. The Sarawak Museum was his God and it owes a great deal to this old gentleman.

Moulton died shortly afterwards and I was on my own. Then came a slump and many officers more useful than I were made redundant, I have not the slightest idea why they kept on. The Museum was at its lowest when Mjöberg left and I remedied this as best I could. It soon became clear to me there could be no lasting support for an institution with just a lot of pin-ups and I began to apply Museum work to technical problems in public life. Sometimes it was the Turtles, the birds nest soup industry, I used to act for the Director of Agriculture or the Secretary for Native Affairs when they went on leave. I know this was often done in time that might have been spent in collecting or research but it gave the museum a very good name with the authorities -they even appointed G.T.M. MacBryan as Assistant Curator!

When the war came, I stayed behind with some idea of persuading the Japs to spare the Museum. I did not have to try very hard, they showed a great respect for the place and never touch a thing.

Finally when the Japs had gone, I rescued from the Printing Office another number of the Sarawak Museum Journal and gave them to my successor.

So who are the people mentioned by Banks in his article?

1.Alfred Russel Wallace (1823-1913)

Best known for independently conceiving the theory of evolution through natural selection, Wallace was a British naturalist, explorer, geographer and biologist.

He arrived in Kuching on Nov 1, 1854 after a brief spell recovering from a shipwreck on his return to England following his explorations of Brazil between 1848 and 1852.

During his stay in Sarawak as the guest of James Brooke, he wrote a paper while occupying a government lodge in Santubong.

Wallace first met James in Singapore in 1854. James invited him to continue his exploration of animal species and to discover the beauty of Sarawak nature.

Entitled “On the Law which has regulated the introduction of new species”, the paper was then published in The Annals and Magazine of Natural History in London in September 1855.

The paper was later known as the Sarawak Law which in it Wallace declared, “Every species has come into existence coincident both in space and time with closely allied species.

2.Edward Bartlett (1836-1908)

Bartlett was the Curator of the Sarawak Museum from 1893 to 1897. Prior to his stint in Sarawak, he had travelled to Palestine, Amazon basin and Peru. He was Curator of Maidstone Museum, England from 1974 to 1890.

Banks pointed out that Bartlett was a very good taxidermist. He perhaps learned the trait from his father Abraham Dee Bartlett. Abraham was a taxidermist and an expert on captive animals. As a superintendent of the London Zoo, he was known to bring the zoo into prominence. It was maybe under his father’s influence that Bartlett was able to work as an assistant in the London Zoo, as stated by Banks.

One of Bartlett’s publications is “The Crocodiles and Lizards of Borneo in the Sarawak Museum,” published in April 1894 in the Journal of the Straits Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society.

Gerrard that was mentioned by Banks is most probably referring to Edward Gerrard, another fellow taxidermist. He worked for the British Museum (Natural History) as the resident Taxidermist from 1841 to 1890.

3.Robert Walter Campbell Shelford (1872-1912)

Portrait Robert W C Shelford
Portrait of Shelford. Credits: Creative Commons

Shelford was a naturalist with a special interest in entomology and insect mimicry. His favourite insects? Cockroach and stick insect.

After graduating from Cambridge in 1895, he went to Yorkshire College as a demonstrator in Biology. He arrived in Sarawak in 1897 and held the post as Curator of the Sarawak Museum for seven years. During his tenure in Sarawak, he sent a number of specimens to his alumni at Cambridge.

Banks believed Shelford was a cripple and while it is a derogatory term, it is kinda true. He developed a tubercular hip joint as a child that incapacitated his mobility. After an operation, he became more mobile again but with some limitation. For instance, he could never participate in sports.

His best-known book A Naturalist in Borneo was published in 1916 after his death. It would be interesting if the Museum still has the basket which Shelford was carried around in.

Read more about Shelford here.

4.John Hewitt (1880-1961)

Banks pointed out that Hewitt did not stay very long in Kuching as the Curator of the Sarawak Museum, which is true. The herpetologist only served in Sarawak from 1905 to 1908.

5.John Coney Moulton (1886-1926)

Moulton was the Sarawak Museum Curator from November 1908 to January 1915. As per mentioned by Banks, he was the founding editor of the Sarawak Museum Journal in 1911.

Thanks to him, Sarawak has one of the oldest scientific journals of the South-east Asian region.

The Sarawak museum building in 1911
The Sarawak museum building in 1911. The construction of new wing of the museum was in progress. However, the brick work steps outside the old wing was demolished in 1912. Credits: Public Domain.

6.Eric Mjöberg (1882-1938)

While Mjoberg was not able to take the old jars and plates from Sarawak (thanks to the Customs Department), he did take material from Australian Aboriginal people illegally.

During his 1910 expedition to Australia, Mjoberg took the skeletons of the Aboriginal people without permission, passing them off as kangaroo bones to get them out of the country. This might make you wonder; how similar are human and kangaroo bones?

Anyway, he served only for two years as the Curator of the Sarawak State Museum from 1922 until 1924.

He died in poverty in Stockholm. Towards the end of his life, Mjoberg was reportedly being haunted by constant nightmares of Aboriginal people chasing him.

7.G.T.M MacBryan

Gerard MacBryan after his pilgrimage to Mecca. Credits: Public Domain.

G.T.M MacBryan was born Gerard Truman Magill MacBryan. He entered the Sarawak government service in 1920 at the age of 18.

He was the acting Curator for Sarawak Museum only for about two months from Dec 20, 1924 to Jan 24, 1925.

Some historians believed he was Sarawak’s equivalent to Rasputin.

Read more about MacBryan here.

8.Chiang Jee Koo

The most interesting figure mentioned by Banks is none other than Chiang Jee Koo. The only online record found about him is from National Herbarium Nederland.

According to the record, he was an employer of the Sarawak Museum since it was first founded. He was working as a clerk and taxidermist. Chiang retired from the museum in 1927 and died in 1932 in Kuching.

Despite some of their flaws and quirks, each of the curator had contributed significantly to the museum. Today, Sarawakians have the collections at Sarawak State Museum to thank them for.

If you have any information on Chiang Jee Koo let us know in the comment box.