How did Bintulu get its name?

Patricia Hului

Located in the central region of Sarawak, Bintulu was just a small village when James Brooke acquired it from the Brunei Sultanate in 1861.

Like most settlements ceded to Brooke, the first thing he did was build a fort in the area. In Bintulu, the Brooke government built a wooden fort name Fort Keppel named after the White Rajah’s friend Sir Henry Keppel.

In 1867, the first Sarawak Council Negri or General Council meeting was convened in Bintulu.

One of the earliest descriptions about Bintulu was written by Italian botanist Odoardo Beccari.

He arrived in Kemena River on Aug 13, 1867 using a gunboat named ‘Heartsease’.

After arriving in Bintulu, this was what he had to say about the town.

The fort of Bintulu which was built entirely of wood, was in somewhat ruinous condition. It stood nearly on the sea-shore, and just behind it, at a distance of few paces, the primeval forests commence.

Some chinamen had settled at the vicinity of the fort and had built a small bazaar; but the village is chiefly formed by the houses of the Melanau beyond the Chinese kampong (village).

These Melanaus used to live further up the river, but since the construction of the fort, and the installation of an officer of the Rajah near the mouth of the river, they came to settle near the sea – a thing they would never have dared to do in former days for fear of the attacks of the Lanun pirates and Dayak pirates.

Even during the 19th century, the area was known as Bintulu but how did the name come about?

Here are four legends on how Bintulu got her name:

In 1867, Kingdom of Sarawak’s first General Council meeting was held in Bintulu, making it the earliest legislative system in Malaysia. Today, a clock tower and a centenary stone remain as a reminder of where the meeting took place. 
1.Bintulu people had elongated heads?

One legend has it that in the olden days, Bintulu people had elongated heads. According to Chang Pat Foh in Legends and History of Sarawak, ‘bat’ means long and ‘ulau’ means head. Hence the name ‘bat ulau’ before the name Bintulu came about.

2.It was a place for drying skulls after headhunting

Additionally, Chang related another legend about Bintulu when headhunting was still a common practice.

The locals referred to headhunting as ‘milai’ while the process of drying and smoking the skull was called ‘betak’ in the local Melanau language.

There used to be site known as a place for drying the skulls in Bintulu where the locals called it ‘betak ulau’ or head drying place.

As time passed, the place’s name ‘betak ulau’ slowly evolved to Bintulu today.

3.A place to pick up skulls after headhunting

The third legend centered around headhunting. The act of picking up heads after headhunting was called ‘mentu ulau’. Sooner or later, people started to call the area ‘Mentulau’.

When the Brooke officials came, they allegedly interpreted the word ‘mentulau’ into ‘Bintulu’.

4.A place where sea and water mixed

“The fast running water from Sungai Jelalong and Sungai Tubau which flows into South China Sea mixes with the river water from Batang Kemana at the mouth of the river.

“Long ago, the people who stayed at Muara Batang Kemena gave the name ‘Ba Tulau’ to the place where they stayed. ‘Ba’ in Melanau Bintulu dialect means water whereas ‘tula’ means mixing. Hence, ‘Ba Tulau’ mean ‘mixing water,” Chang wrote.

Bintulu Night Market