Melanau inheritance laws, and a case from the 19th century

When it comes to inheritance, the deceased usually leaves behind a written will to detail how their property is divided.

If there is no will, then the matter will go to court. Even if there is a will, unhappy family members sometimes will challenge the content of the will.

But what happens when there is no written will? Back in the olden days, Sarawak natives relied on adat or custom for such rulings.

Here is an example of a Melanau inheritance case recorded from the 19th century:

One of Brooke administration’s resident Claude Champion de Crespigny published some works on Sarawak including On the Rivers Mukah and Oyah in Borneo (1873) and On the Milanows of Borneo (1876).

During his stay in Borneo, he witnessed how a Melanau inheritance case took place.

There was once a man named Balang who lived happily with his wife Biam in a longhouse.

Before he was a married man, Balang took two young girls as his adopted children. As for Biam, she adopted a girl before she married Balang.

Since they could not have children on their own, the couple raised the three children as their own.

One day, Biam suddenly passed away. Her sister, Nipiak came in to claim her inheritance from Biam’s property.

Balang did not deny Nipiak’s right but still proposed the matter to be settled in a court. The court then decided the inheritance should be divided according to adat.

Firstly, the couple’s shared properties were divided between Balang and Biam. de Crespigny wrote, “The whole estate, consisting of guns, plantations, share of a house, share of a slave, ornaments, and even cooking utensils, to be sold, and the husband to take his one-half.”

If only the couple had biological children on their own, two-third of Biam’s share of the property could have gone to them. Then one-third of the property gone to the adopted children. Hence, Nipiak would have been left with no share of her sister’s property.

In this inheritance case, the court decided one-third of Biam’s property to be divided among her three adopted children while another two-third was left to Nipiak.

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de Crespigny’s thought on the inheritance case

In the end, Balang did not inherit anything from his wife’s property. de Cresigny pointed out, “That which appeared so curious to me, was the fact that the husband was entitled to nothing at all, and only got his half of all the property which belonged in common to him and his wife during the lifetime of the latter.

“I found upon inquiry that she might have made a will in favour of her husband or others, either in writing or verbally before witnesses, but this not having been done, had there been no relatives at all to claim inheritance of her share of the property, it would have gone to the state, and the husband, even under such circumstances, could claim nothing. The Tuahs (leaders) say that this has been custom from time immemorial.”

While many (especially men) might not be happy with this, there is one ancient inheritance law belonging to the Bidayuh that could never be practiced in present day.

James Brooke, in his diary which was published in Captain Rodney Mundy’s Narrative of Events in Borneo and Celebes down to the Occupation of Labuan (1848) wrote about “babukid”.

With babukid, if there were two parties in dispute over the inheritance of land and fruit trees, each party would go out headhunting.

The one who returns with a head will get to claim the inheritance. Meanwhile, if both parties succeeded, then the property would be divided between the two.

Headhunting to settle an inheritance just shows how there’s always a loser when it comes to settling a dispute.

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 is currently obsessed with silent vlogs during this Covid-19 pandemic.

Due to her obsession, she started her Youtube channel of slient vlogs.

Follow her on Instagram at @patriciahului, Facebook at Patricia Hului at or Twitter at @patriciahului.

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