One of the biggest misconceptions of Borneo in the 19th century was that it was a place where cannibalism was common practice.
Plenty of tribes in Borneo were depicted as cannibals in European writing, including the Kayans in Sarawak and Dutch Borneo (Kalimantan).
One account of alleged cannibalism practised among the Kayans was recorded by Sir Henry Keppel.
He received his information from three men named Kusu, Gajah and Rinong from Kapuas.
“I examined them myself, and entertain no doubt of the correctness of these statements, as far as their personal knowledge is concerned. The witnesses themselves stated over and over again, with the utmost clearness, how much they had seen, and how much heard. There was such perfect good faith and simplicity in their stories as to carry conviction of their truth,” Keppel wrote.
So here is the full testimony of the three men on how they encountered the “cannibalistic Kayans”:
We are of the tribe of Sibaru; which is likewise the name of a branch of the Kapuas river. The tribe of Sibaru contains 2,000 fighting men and is under the government of Pangeran Kuning, who resides at Santang, a Malay town on the Kapuas. We have none of us who resides at Santang, a Malay town on the Kapuas, where the Kayans live, but they often come down to Santang where we meet them. The Kayans are quite independent, very numerous and powerful: they are governed by their own Rajahs, whom they call Takuan. Some of these Kayan tribes are cannibals (makan manusia); it is generally reported, and we know it to be true.
Pangeran Kuning of Santang was at war a few years ago with Pangeran Mahomed of Sewite, a Malay town situated on the Kapuas between Santang and Salimbaw. A large force was collected to attack Suwite. There were Malays (laut) of Santang and Sakadow, and the Dyaks of Sibaru, Samaruang, Dassar and of other tribes; and besides all these, was a party of about fifty Kayans.
We never heard the particular name of this Kayan tribe, for we did not mix with them, not did we understand their language. Suwite was not taken, but a few detached houses were captured, and one man of the enemy was killed in the assault.
Kusu saw these Kayans run small spits of iron, from eight inches to a foot long, into the fleshy parts of the dead men’s legs and arms, from the elbow to the shoulder, and from above the ankle beneath the calf to the knee-joint: and they sliced off the flesh with their swords, and put it into baskets.
They carry these spits, as we all saw, in a case under the scabbard of their swords. They prize heads in the same way as the Dyaks. They took all the fresh off the body, leaving only the big bones, and carried it to their boats, and we all saw them broil and afterward eat it. They ate it with great relish, and it smelt, while cooking, like hog’s flesh. It was not we alone that saw them eat this, but the whole force (bala) saw it.
Men say that many of these interior tribes of Kayans eat human flesh- that of their enemies; most, however, do not, and all of them are represented to be good people and very hospitable; and we never heard that they ate other than the flesh of their enemies. It made us sick to see them, and we were afraid, horrified.
Spencer St John’s records of Kayans practising cannibalism
Just like Keppel, St John did not witness any Kayans practising cannibalism during his time in Sarawak.
However, according to St John, a Malay nobleman named Usup told him that he actually witnessed it.
In 1855, men from Mukah had been executed in Bintulu. A few of the Kayans who helped in their capture took portions of the bodies of the criminals, roasted and ate them.
St John wrote, “This was witnessed by himself and many others who were then present. The Kayans had not, as a body, joined in this disgusting feast; but, perhaps some of the more ferocious may practice it to strike terror into their enemies.”
Records that the Kayans did not practice cannibalism
Not everybody believed that Kayans practised cannibalism.
Sir Hugh Low wrote that the Kayans were hastily stigmatised as cannibals and added: “nor does any race practicing the horrid custom of feeding on the bodies of their own species, exist on the island.”
The Kayans might not have been the second Rajah of Sarawak Charles Brooke’s favourite tribe, but he never believed that they were capable of cannibalism.
Here is what he wrote about the Kayans and cannibalism in Borneo:
“This tribe are cowardly, untruthful, and treacherous, and are capable of committing many horrors, but the gravest attached to the Kayans, I feel confident, is without foundation, namely, that of cannibalism. For, during the expedition of 1863, there was no sign of it, and I had abundant opportunities of making strict enquiry in the very heart of the country.
“Many reports of this description are spread by the enemies of a people to degrade them in the estimation of Europeans. Such reports are purely fabulous, and I do not believe any tribes are cannibals in this part of Borneo, although stories go far to lead one to a contrary belief.”
However, a group of Malays told the Rajah that they did see pieces of human flesh in bamboo during a visit to Kapuas region and that they were used as provision.
“I regret that I am unable positively, to contradict such statements; but it is my firm conviction cannibalism is not practiced on any part of the island of Borneo,” Brooke wrote.
Do bear in mind that all written reports of alleged cannibalism among Kayans were written by the Europeans after listening to secondary sources. Thus, some information might have gotten lost in translation. None of these 19th century writers had actually seen any Kayans eating human flesh.
Another theory was that this rumour was spread by the local guides to discourage the Europeans from travelling further inland of Borneo.
Imagine refusing to bring your client to a place by telling them it is full of cannibals.