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How Sarawak, the Land of Hornbills, got its name

Located in the northwest Borneo island, the Malaysian state of Sarawak is the largest state in the country.

It is nicknamed ‘Bumi Kenyalang’ or ‘Land of the Hornbills’ as these birds are culturally significant for the native people of Sarawak.

Looking back at its history, Sarawak was first established as an independent kingdom from a series of land concessions acquired by a British former soldier and adventurer, James Brooke, from the Sultanate of Brunei since 1841.

Known as The Kingdom of Sarawak, it received recognition as an independent state from the United States in 1850 and from the United Kingdom in 1864.

But how does this former kingdom and today, a state that comprises part of the Federation of Malaysia, get its name?

Here are few versions of the origin of the name ‘Sarawak’:
1.The name of a mineral

First of all, there is no consensus on how the state got its name. However, the common understanding it was named after the Sarawak river.

But then what is the origin of the name of the river?

It is believed that the river was named after a type of mineral named ‘serawak’ or ‘serewa’, which was found in the area.

According to Chang Pat Foh in Legends and History of Sarawak, ‘serawak’ means antimony in old Sarawak Malay.

In 1823, there was a discovery of antimony in Siniawan area of Bau.

Chang stated, “Since Sarawak river flows through Siniawan, it is likely that people in the olden days referred the river which flows through antimony areas as ‘Serawak’ river. Even when Sir James Brooke wrote home while contemplating his navigational plans in 1839, he was aware of the antimony ore in Sarawak. He wrote, ‘My intention is first to visit Sarawak- a river whence they get antimony ore..'”

Sarawak may have been named after this river.
2.It is the name of a pineapple

Additionally, Chang shared another version stating it was the name of a pineapple.

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Back in those days, the pineapple planted along the river was extraordinarily sweet, hence the name of the river.

3.‘Serah kepada awak’

There is this legend that the name is derived from ‘Serah kepada awak’ or ‘Give it to you’.

In the 15th century when the Brunei sultanate took over the area, the locals reportedly welcomed the move.

They told the Bruneians, “Serah kepada awak”.

Another theory was when Brooke helped Pangiran Muda Hashim in pacifying the Brunei-led rebellion, he handed the area to Brooke saying “Serah kepada awak”.

However, this legend is definitely incorrect. This was because the river was named Sarawak before Brooke arrived in this territory.

Plus, the word ‘awak’ is not part of Sarawak Malay vocabulary.

Do you know any theory or legend on how the state got its name? Let us know in the comment box.

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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