Friendships, betrayals and manhunts: What you need to know about the Gaat expedition 1919

When Sarawak was an independent kingdom under the reign of three White Rajahs, the then government carried a number of punitive expeditions against its alleged rebels.

These include an expedition against the Ibans in Kedang and the infamous Cholera Expedition down Lupar river.

Reasons for these punitive expeditions varied; from punishing fleeing criminals to pacifying wars between different tribes.

Here is one of the last few punitive expeditions which took place before the peacekeeping ceremony between the Iban, Kayan, Kenyah and Kajang on Nov 16, 1924.

The expedition had Sarawak government forces together with locals went up Nanga Gaat, Baleh river to punish the Iban group living along Gaat river.

The cause of the Gaat Expedition

During the 19th century, headhunting practices and hostilities caused the Punans to leave Apau Kayan in search of new places to stay.

According to the book Beyond the Green Myth (edited by Peter Sercombe and Bernard Sellato), the Punan moved into uninhabited areas and divided themselves into three groups.

“One group moved to the Kihan, a tributary of the Kayan river in Kalimantan. A second group went to the lower reaches of the Kajang and the middle part of the Linau, tributaries of the Balui in Sarawak. A third group, comprising primarily Punan Vuhang, whose forefather had had no quarrel with the Kayan or the Kenyah, decided to return to the Balui headwaters.”

After the Punan Vuhang returned to the Balui headwaters, the Iban killed 14 of them.

For the Punans, the Iban had seemed to be the genuine forest exploiters and tapped gutta percha for a long period.

They came to the Punan area to collect forest products, appearing harmless and friendly towards the Punan Vuhang.

Hence the Punan Vuhang let their guard down and welcomed the Ibans to their homes.

Friends who turned into enemies

To prove their friendship, the Ibans even held a swearing ceremony whereby they became bound to the Punan Vuhang as blood brothers.

Unfortunately, the Punans had no idea that the Iban were actually planning to kill them.

One the eve of the attack, the Iban asked their hosts to hold a singing ritual in praise of the spirits. After feasting and dancing all night long, they fell into a deep sleep. It was then that the Ibans killed the Punans.

Seeking revenge against the Iban, the survivors and fellow Punans from Linau area sought help from the Kayan. However, the Kayan reported the massacre to the Brooke government. The government later set out a punitive expedition against the Ibans from Gaat who was responsible for the killings.

The Gaat Expedition according to Bertram Brooke

The expedition was joined by Bertram Brooke, the son of second Rajah Charles and the brother of third Rajah Vyner.

According to his report published in the Sarawak Gazette on May 16, 1919, the government force left Kapit heading to Nanga Gaat on Apr 5 that year with G.M. Gifford in charge.

On Brooke’s side, there were 200 government forces and unaccounted number of local people.

They received information that the rebels had prepared a final place of refuge on Bukit Tunggal.

Gifford’s main plan was to drive any of the rebels who might be lurking on the river banks towards Bukit Tunggal instead of allowing them to escape to the flanks.

With this, he hoped the rebels would be cornered into a fight or escape into the Dutch East Indies territory (Kalimantan).

Brooke’s force encountered their first fight with the rebels on the 10th. They fired at two boats, capsizing one of the them.

Fort Sylvia Kapit 5
A view of Batang Rajang from the first floor of Fort Sylvia.
Setting up base camp at Nanga Marang

Two days later, the force arrived and camped at Nanga Marang which was en route to Bukit Tunggal.

This was where the force divided themselves into two groups; one group pursued them to Bukit Tunggal via river in small boats and another to proceed through land.

Eventually, the two groups reassembled at Nanga Bulat where they found a large number of boats belonging to the rebels abandoned along with household stuff and paddy.

After a few hour of trekking, the force spotted a temporary house which the Iban Gaats built near Bukit Tunggal from a distance.

By the time they reached the house, it was already burning and there were no signs of the rebels.

So, the government force sent out a scout team to check out where the rebels had headed.

After awhile, the scout team came across a large river which they believed was a tributary river of Kapuas river. There, they found a large number of boats where they killed a small party of rebels.

The Gaat Expedition at Bukit Tunggal

The scout team returned to the new camp at Bukit Tunggal reporting what they found. Since speed was crucial, the government selected forty Sarawak Rangers which led by Penghulu Merdan and Gaui in pursuit of the rebels.

Together with them they carried two day’s provisions. The plan was if the river they encountered turned out to be Kaniou (a tributary of Kapuas river, meaning they were in Dutch East Indies territory), they should return.

If not, they were to proceed as far as as their supplies would allow, in hopes of overtaking some of the rebels.

Meanwhile, the rest of the forces would be at the burned house until the 19th when it would proceed slowly downriver collecting as much as food and property as possible on the way.

By Apr 22, the force reached Nanga Marang base where they were met with Merdan and Gaui who arrived previous evening via land.

The end of the Gaat Expedition

Bertram reported, “The rebels had evidently taken their women for safekeeping to the house on the ridge (the house that they burned), for these had abandoned their skirts upon the road. Mosquito curtains, Kayan mats, cooking utensils, baskets of provisions, valuable parangs, and even several guns were among the articles strewn along the route until all traces ceased, there being apparently nothing remaining to discard.”

After the expedition ended, Bertram considered the mission a successful one.

He wrote, “It is, however, satisfactory that such a severe lesson has been given with so small a loss of life. It would seem given with so small a loss of life. It would seem that the rebels having no property to return to in the Gaat, must choose between unconditional surrender and moving into Dutch East Indies territory. It is locally considered unlikely that they will take the latter course.”

The Gaat Expedition was not enough for the Punan

Te Punan Vuhang who had joined the government forces during the Gaat Expedition, however, were not satisfied despite the reported success.

They felt the victory belonged to Brooke’s forces, not to them, and so decided they would carry out further revenge.

They went to Iban territory in the Baleh river basin and killed four Ibans.

In return, the Ibans again used a friendship-betrayal scheme to take revenge. But they mistakenly killed a group of Penan Bunut.

Unsatisfied, they decided to seek revenge against the Punan Vuhang. At the meantime, the Punan Vuhang sought refuge among the Kenyah in Kalimantan who were also enemies of the Ibans.

A few years later in 1924, the Kapit Peace making ceremony finally forged peace between the Iban, Kayan, Kenyah and other tribes.

For the first time in a long time, peace finally came to the area and the Punan Vuhang returned to Balui headwater from Kalimantan.

Fort Sylvia Kapit 9
A memorial stone in Front of Fort Sylvia to commemorate the 1924 peace-making ceremony.

Patricia Hului is a Kayan who wants to live in a world where you can eat whatever you want and not gain weight.

She grew up in Bintulu, Sarawak and graduated from the University Malaysia Sabah with a degree in Marine Science.

She is currently obsessed with silent vlogs during this Covid-19 pandemic.

Due to her obsession, she started her Youtube channel of slient vlogs.

Follow her on Instagram at @patriciahului, Facebook at Patricia Hului at or Twitter at @patriciahului.

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