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Penghulu Asun and the last revolt against the Brooke government

Back in the day, there were plenty of rebellions set against the Brooke government in Sarawak.

The major ones were led by Rentap (1853), Liu Shan Bang (1857) and Syarif Masahor (1860).

Would it surprise you to know that the last revolt against the White Rajah happened only less than a century ago?

Penghulu Asun’s economical reasons to revolt
A screenshot from Alaistair Morrison’s memoir Fair Land Sarawak: Some Recollections of an Expatriate Official showcasing a photo of Asun.

In 1931, a former Penghulu named Asun led the Ibans of Kanowit, Entabai and Julau along the Rajang river in a revolt against the White Rajah.

Chang Pat Foh in Legends and History Sarawak stated the cause of the revolt was economic rather than tribal.

He wrote, “Because of the World Economic Slump, the prices of rubber and jungle produce dropped and the Ibans could not pay their taxes.

“Besides, the government insisted on carrying out all regulations causing much discontentment among the people who blame the government for their hardships, resulting in the revolt.”

At first, the Brooke government tried to negotiate with Asun. The last White Rajah, Vyner even went to Kanowit to meet him.

But according to Steven Runciman in The White Rajah: A History of Sarawak from 1841 to 1946, Asun was truculent and decided to continue the revolt.

Vyner reported that the difficulties faced by Asun and his peoples were largely due to the shortage of responsible European officers in the outstation.

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Furthermore, there were too many clerks who insisted on all regulations being strictly carried out.

Runciman wrote, “With little or no money coming to them from the sale of their crops, the tribesmen found it hard to pay their taxes; and the clerks were not empowered to offer them a respite, nor were they people who could talk with friendly authority to them and explain matters with the easy good manners and jokes that the Dyaks loved.”

Kanowit bazaar.
The real reasons behind the revolt

George Washington once said, “Serious misfortunes, originating in misrepresentation, frequently flow and spread before they can be dissipated by truth.”

This might be the reason why Pengulu Asun’s revolt started in the first place. According to Dr Bob Reece in The Name of Brooke, the rubber price had caused some trouble among the Ibans in the upper Rajang district.

However, Reece added that “The more systematic collection of the annual door tax, together with the imposition of gun registration fees, had led to wild rumours of further taxes among these volatile upriver people.

“At the same time, the newly-created Forests Department had been establishing reserves where Ibans were not allowed to farm, hunt, or collect jungle produce. The issue of inland passes was tightened up, limits on up-stream settlement were enforced and a minimum size for longhouse was introduced in order to reduce mobility.”

Hence, these enforcement affected the Iban communities who were already short of virgin land for the cultivation of paddy hills.

Adding to the problem, the Brooke government was going through growing systemisation and centralisation in its administration affecting the personal relationship between the communities and the District Officers.

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Besides the rumour of increased taxes, there was a rumour of seizure of land by the government.

However, Reece believed that Asun and his followers never constituted a proto-nationalist, anti-Brooke movement, and hostility was directed rather towards particular Brooke officers.

Pacifying the rebellion

Regardless of the reasons, Vyner sent the Sarawak Rangers on an expedition to put down the revolt.

Finally in December 1932, Asun, after reportedly failing to persuade the Iban from Batang Lupar to join him, surrendered and was exiled to Lundu.

After World War II, he was allowed to spend his last years in his home area on the Entabai tributary of Kanowit.

According to former Sarawak Information Services director Alaistair Morrison in his 1993 memoir Fair Land Sarawak, even in old age, Asun struck Morrison as being a formidable personality.

The aftereffect of Asun’s rebellion

Runciman pointed out the aftereffect of Asun’s revolt was a series of headhunting cases by a group of less than 30 young Ibans.

There were some recorded and isolated cases. In 1934, there were three Chinese killed on upper Rajang river and a group of Malays and Kayans attacked on the Pelagus with some of their heads taken.

The Brooke government managed to capture and sentence a handful of the headhunters to death over the years while a few of these rebels hid in the jungle.

“The last four gave themselves in the autumn of 1940, trusting in the Rajah’s clemency. To the irritation of his law officers, he pardoned them, delighted that headhunting should have ceased before the centenary of Brooke rule should be celebrated.

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“By 1940, anyone could wander through Sarawak with no fear that his head would soon adorn a longhouse. It was no mean achievement to have eliminated a custom so deeply ingrained in the Borneo Peoples,” Runciman wrote.

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 Kajomag.com or Twitter at @patriciahului.
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