Gawai Betembang, when slaves were freed through adoption

Every ethnic group in Sarawak has a forgotten ritual or ceremony that is no longer practised due to several reasons. The main reason is usually because that ritual or ceremony no longer applies, especially if it is related to headhunting or slavery.

Here is an example of a ceremony that is no longer practised by today’s Iban communities in Sarawak. Iban ethnologist Benedict Sandin shared his research on Gawai betembang which was published in The Sarawak Gazette (Aug 31, 1964).

In Anthony Richards’ Iban-English dictionary, the word “tembang” means a token or pledge given at the formal manumission (which means the formal freeing) of slaves.

According to Benedict, “betembang” is a word used by the Iban to refer to the adoption of a slave or a lower class person by somebody from the upper class at a special feast held for that purpose.

“More than a century ago, the Ibans of Saribas and Skrang in the second division of Sarawak used to engage in piracy. Through these piratical pursuits they captured many slaves as victims of their raids,” Benedict stated.

“The other Ibans who lived further inland, especially in the Batang Lupar areas, did not join them in piracy in the Batang Lupar areas, but started to fight amongst themselves over all kinds of disputes, sometimes settled by a slave’s death.”

Iban slavery in the olden days

According to the Iban tradition, if a man incurred a debt which he could not pay when asked to do so, he also would be taken as a slave by his creditor.

If a trapper set a trap for wild animals (jerungkang) and it killed a person, the trapper would be required to pay compensation (pati nyawa) for the life lost.

Let’s say that he was unable to pay this fine, he then would have to become a slave to the deceased’s family. This rule also applied in any cases of accidental death.

If an unmarried woman became pregnant and did not name the father of her child by the fourth month and was unable to pay the required fine, she would be held responsible for anyone in the village who fell sick and died.

Generally, the Iban people did not treat their slaves (or “ulun”) cruelly. However, if necessary, the owner had the right to kill his slave if there was no fresh human heads for him to use at a ceremony to open the mourning period of a member of his family.

In weddings, if the son or daughter of a slave owner should marry, the father might present the child of one of his slaves for their own use.

Furthermore, many slaves were sold by the Ibans to Malay traders as the purchase price for old jars which they prized highly.

Benedict also pointed out, “Should a slave marry another slave in his or her master’s house, the offspring would automatically become the property of the master of the house but the slaves would have no claim on the master’s property.”

Slavery during the reign of Charles Brooke

When Sarawak came under the second White Rajah of Sarawak Charles Brooke, a proclamation was made to abolish slavery in the kingdom in 1886.

Following this decree, many slaves were freed by paying their masters a sum of $36 or its equivalent in the form of jars.

Surprisingly, not all of these slaves wished to be freed. Those who were well treated by their masters continued to live with them for the rest of their lives.

In those days, any slave owner who wished to adopt his slave as his own child was allowed to do so by holding a special ceremony called Gawai Betembang or adat betembang.

For this ceremony, the slave had to satisfy certain conditions such as brew a jar of tuak, produce a small pig (whose liver would be examined to judge its omens regarding the prosperity of the child’s future), produce a spear, buy eight yards of white calico and two yards of red calico with which to make a flag.

The feast of Gawai Betembang

Gawai Betembang was usually held during the night or after the end of other festivities. At this time, many influential chiefs and warriors in the area were invited as witnesses.

Benedict stated, “At the break of day, after the night feasting, a procession took place. In this, an influential chief carried the red flag. He was followed by another who carried the spear. Behind them walked the other chiefs, or their wives if the slave was a girl. Behind came others, members and relatives of the slave master’s family. The hands of those taking part in the procession must hold the length of white calico, called lalau.”

The procession then encircled the ruai (veranda) of the longhouse three times. On the third round, at each veranda, a speaker would ask them, “Chiefs and elders, you have walked three times encircling us. Now, may we be told the reason why you are carrying a flag and a spear and are followed by men and women?”

No longer a slave but a child
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After Gawai Betembang was held, a slave was no longer a slave but a “child”. Credits: Pixabay

To this, the chief carrying the spear answered something like this, “Yes, it is right for you all to ask me this question. We have a special reason for holding this procession. This is to mark the day for (so and so) to adopt (so and so) who is former slave and is now to become his own child. This ceremony therefore, is a mark of approval that this child now becomes the rightful heir to his new parents’ property. His ranks is now in line with that of his former master and he is no longer a slave.”

The chief then warned the attendees, “In future, if anyone of us should still call him a slave or a person of low birth, with this spear he shall raid our houses and loot our property. Please remember this, as this is the reason why this feast is being held.”

Shortly after the procession, the newly adopted child would lead the young men to offer tuak to all the attendees in honour of the adoption ceremony.

Then one of the chiefs would kill the young pig, whose liver was carefully examined to find the indications regarding future well-being of the adopted child.

When the ceremony came to an end, the spear was placed in the hands of the newly adopted child and the guests returned to their respective longhouses.

According to Benedict, Gawai Betembung must not be confused with the ordinary Gawai Ngiru ceremony.

“Gawai Ngiru is a ceremony for a man of the same rank to adopt the child of another, and should be witnessed by at least three longhouse headmen,” he added.

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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