Headhunting was rampant in 19th century Sarawak. In an effort to control the death toll brought on by headhunting, the-then Brooke government sent out punitive expeditions to suppress this activity.
Here is an account of a punitive expedition that took place at upper Batang Lupar in 1875. It was written by an unnamed writer and published in the Sarawak Gazette on Nov 3, 1875.
The Sarawak Government, finding peaceable negotiation of no avail with the upper Batang Lupar tribes – who have for the last four years made frequent raids on the Lemanak and Skrang people, causing these rivers to be nearly depopulated- organised a force to attack the upper country, which left Simanggang on the 6th, and arrived at Delok on the 11th, after experiencing hard work, ascending the river and passing the rapids, where it had been expected the enemy would make some opposition, but the way was found clear so far.
The Delok stream is on the left bank, and after ascending three reaches, the river was found to be so small and shallow, that a halt was called and an encampment made at a sharp point.
The force then set to work at clearing the ground for a considerable distance to avoid any hidden surprise.
After throwing up a strong fence which served as a stockade, a council of war was held, in which future arrangements were made for a land force to march against the enemy who were living at the head of the stream and on some of the hills that were within sight of the encampment.
The land force started on the morning of the 13th a pathway having been constructed by a strong party the day before, leading into the Dyak main road.
The country is a succession of steep hills, varying from 400 to 700 feet in height; and the paths leading to them are often so steep; that it is necessary for hands to be used in both the ascent and descent in addition to carrying rifle, forty rounds of ammunition and four days’ provisions – or in the case of Dayaks, a shield, three spears and food – makes the journey no easy matter.
The guides expected the force to come into collision with the enemy, between 9 and 10am the same morning, which some of the leaders did, having been led into ambush by the tactics of the enemy, against which they were specially cautioned.
The ambush tactic during the expedition to Upper Batang Lupar
The mode of ambush with Dayaks is as follows: a few active fellows are sent on, who appear before the leaders of the advancing force, then turn round as if surprised and run for their lives, throwing spears and shields away. This was too much for the young aspirants to glory in the Sarawak force who are not so much used to war as those experienced headhunters.
They broke away and pursued the fugitives until they had separated themselves from the main body; and after passing a ridge the enemy came on them in force; and killed 19 in the course of a few minutes, fighting hand to hand.
The enemy, when the main force came up, retreated, and it was found they had left five dead bodies among the slain.
Meanwhile, the houses of the enemy were mostly deserted and although they were strongly situated, there were not defended and were mostly burnt by themselves on the approach of the force, which early in the afternoon were in the heart of the inhabited country and during four days laid the place waste.
The women and children fortunately had been removed to a distance, and judging by the tracks, they had gone in the direction of Batu Bangkai, which is in the Dutch territory.
Large bodies of the enemy were seen on hills in the distance, and it was reported that all the Dayak of Lanjak and the Seriang had collected to assist their relations in the tribe to oppose the advance of the force.
The Dayaks of the force finding the houses contained little property, or were burnt, now spread in small parties to search, and it was not long before they came on goods and chattels of every Dayak description, either buried or secreted in their farming lands, as well as their paddy, these were all taken or destroyed, and thirsty houses, averaging about ten families in each were burnt in the Delok.
The battle continues
On the 15th, while a force of Dayaks were advancing to attack a village some distance off, under the chieftainship of a notorious enemy named Jumput, the leaders were surprised by a party of the enemy, and after a hand to hand encounter the Sarawak force lost 11 lives; the enemy suffered severely, but their loss was not known.
On the following day, the force was strengthened under the leadership of Minggat of Kalaka, who marched against the enemy and burnt down all the houses in the vicinity, the enemy did not make any opposition.
A good deal of plunder was brought in from Jumput’s country. A force was also sent from the main camp in Delok to the Menyang stream. And there, three houses and their property were destroyed.
This completed the work of the expedition which had encamped for nine days, had destroyed about 40 houses, and rendered the enemy houseless and foodless. The effect of the expedition remains to be seen. The only danger is that the Dayaks on the Dutch side will assist these rebels sufficiently to cause them to rise again to give trouble on some future day, unless an attack is made on the former also.
The expedition arrived at Simanggang on the 21st. It was under the command of H.H. the Rajah accompanied by Messrs T.S. Chapman and F.R.O Maxwell, and was composed of 300 Malays and 6000 Dayaks- who were raised and has started in boats with twenty days’ provisions, within six days from the time of the command being given. From first to last it has taken less than a month to complete the whole affair.
Where were these battles took place in upper Batang Lupar
The Delok River was where the government’s forces built their camp in 1875. Today, the river is part of Batang Ai National Park and Rimba Sarawak (Research for intensified Management of Bio-Rich Areas of Sarawak).
Seriang in the article refers to a river which is also located in West Kalimantan. As for the Menyang, the river was on the news for its orangutan population.
These places where heads were once hunted and villages were burnt are not only historically colourful but ecologically rich as well.