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How did Sarawak headhunters conduct an ambush in the olden days?

An ambush was a favourite strategy among Sarawakians in the olden days especially when headhunting was still in practice.

The tactic had proven effective in winning tribal wars, including the Great Kayan Expedition in 1853.

Here are some records from the 19th century sharing how Sarawak headhunters carried out an ambush back then:
Punan heads taken by Sea Dayaks Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images [email protected] Punan’s heads taken by Sea Dayaks Pagan Tribes of British North Borneo Hose & MacDougall Published: – Copyrighted work available under Creative Commons Attribution only licence CC BY 4.0
1.Brooke Low in Catalogue of the Brooke Low Collection in Borneo
An ambush with luring

According to Low, one of the favourite defence strategies back then was to entice the leading boats of the enemy into an ambush on shore.

“As everybody in the attacking party is anxious to be foremost in the race for heads, there are sure to be one or two boats so far in advance of the rest as to make it worth the defenders’ while to put them to their mettle. Some convenient spot is selected and a strong defending party placed in ambush among the trees. One or two men are thrown out to stroll upon the shingly bed to lure the enemy to their destruction.”

The moment the bait is sighted, the boats give chase, and as the enemies leap ashore, the men in ambush spring from their covert to their feet and hurl stones to shatter the shields, and engage with spears and swords in what should be a short but desperate conflict.

“As the main body are seen winding up the river, whooping and yelling, and crashing up in clouds of spray and with a rush of waters, the defense plunge into the thicket with the heads they have obtained, and far away before the enemy have recovered from their discomfiture, and are prepared to follow.”

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An ambush without luring

Additionally, Sarawak headhunters also did ambushes without any baiting or luring.

The simplest ambush was laying in hiding until waiting for just the right moment before leaping in front of their unsuspecting (and hence unprepared) enemy and going straight into a hand to hand combat.

Dayaks always attacked from the right side of the enemy’s march. This was because it was the unprotected side of the enemy as the shield was always carried in the left hand.

2.Reverend Horsburgh in Sketches of Borneo (1858)

Meanwhile, Horsburgh recorded that some headhunters would go as far as hiding in the wells of their enemies, covering their heads with leaves and sitting for hours in the water waiting for a victim.

He added, “Then when any woman or girl came to draw water, they would rush out upon her, cut her down, take her head, and flee into the jungle with it before any alarm could be given.”

3.Captain Henry Keppel in A Visit to the Indian Archipelago in H.M.S Meander (1853).

Here is a more intricate way Sarawak headhunters carried their attacks back then, by disguising themselves as farmers and speaking in the local tongue.

They put broad-brimmed hats usually used by farmers to lure women to come out from hiding.

This method of ambush was recorded by Keppel when he was in the Sadong area.

He stated, “Thus disguised, these miscreants stealthily dropped down the river in the small canoes which they found on the banks; and imitating the Sadong dialect, they called to the women to come out of their hiding places, saying that they had come to convey them to a place of safety. In many instances the strategem was but too successful. And the helpless women, rushing down with their infants in their arms, became the prey of these wolves in sheep’s clothing.”

Patricia Hului
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 worked for The Borneo Post SEEDS, which is now defunct. When she's not writing, you can find her in a studio taking belly dance classes, hiking up a hill or browsing through Pinterest. Follow her on Instagram at @patriciahului, Facebook at Patricia Hului at or Twitter at @patriciahului.

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