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Preparing for war expeditions in Sarawak during the 19th century

Be it a punitive excursion or a tribal feud, war expeditions way back in the 19th century Sarawak took a lot of time and resources to prepare.

Taking the infamous cholera expedition in 1902, the second White Rajah Charles Brooke brought 10,000 men to fight against the alleged rebels up Batang Lupar.

Imagine 10,000 men moving up one river and setting up camps at one large landing site.

And can you imagine the impact of these war expeditions on the environment and natural resources back then?

At the same time, preparing to feed up to thousands of men during these expeditions must have been a lot of work.

Panau, one of the Iban warriors who joined Charles Brooke on his punitive expedition to Batang Lupar.
Here at KajoMag, we look at different accounts on how war expeditions were prepared in Sarawak during the 19th century.
1.Charles Brooke in Ten Years in Sarawak (1866)

It is customary to announce a coming war expedition for such and such a season at one of the great feasts, when the village is thronged with guests from the country far and near, and when there is sure to be an unusual gathering of powerful chiefs.

The speaker, who must be a great chief, gives his reason, that his people wish to put off mourning, or that his people have been slain and he must have some revenge, and he ends by inviting all present to accompany him on an incursion upon an ancient enemy.

If he be a chief of any real influence he is sure to secure an ample following, in reality more than enough for his purposes, but his ambition expands as his numbers increase and his warpath assumes grander proportions.

The women lend their assistance to induce their husbands and lovers to join this warpath.

The details are then discussed, the amount of bekals (supply) necessary, the route, the character and number of enemy, etc.

Choosing the date

The period usually selected for any expeditions on a large scale is that immediately after the seed planting or after the harvest; the former time better, and have three months clear before they are required to gather in the harvest. In the latter case they would probably have no farms at all for that year, as they would have no dry the clearings, which, therefore, would not burn well.

The Dyaks are never in a hurry in setting off. They cook and feed at leisure, and commence walking about half-past seven, and the morning meal keeps them going until late in the afternoon; they certainly get over more ground by following this plan.

2.Brooke Low in Catalogue of the Brooke-Low Collection in Borneo

Occasionally, however, the delay is so great that the force becomes for the purpose for which it was called together.

The women are everywhere busy preparing the bekals, and the produce of the gardens are taken to the nearest market to exchange for tobacco, gambir etc. The men on their part have been busy in getting the war boats ready, launching them into the river, lashing on the planks and fitting them up with palm leaf awnings and bamboo floorings.

Those who are able to purchase the material, plane the bottom of their canoes to make them smooth and tar them to preserve them, make figure heads for the bows, and paint the side planks in various patterns. They take nets with them to fish by the way, and dogs to hunt with if the distance is so great that they are likely to run short of food, but their chief support on an expedition of this kind is what they find on the banks and in the forest-especially the wild sago. The men are very busy furbishing up their arms and sharpening their weapons and decorating their helmets and war jackets.

The chief is always the first to leave the village, and as the first and chief part of the journey is by the water, he pulls away in a his canoe, and at some convenient distance from the village, he bivouacs for the night to beburong- to consult the omen birds. If the omens by birds are favourable, he proceeds to the tryst and there awaits the force as it dribbles in one by one or few by few.

An Illustration of Iban war boat published in The Natives of Sarawak and British North Borneo (1896). Credits: Creative Common.
3.Spenser St. John in Life in the Forest Far East (1862)

They start with, perhaps, two days’ provisions, and trust to hunting for food. If they find a spot where game is plentiful, they stay there till it is exhausted; if the jungle produce no sport, they live on the cabbages taken from the palms, on the edible fern, on snakes, or anything, in fact that they can find.

If they come across bees’ nests, they stop to secure the wax and honey. If they come across bees’ nest, they stop to secure the wax and honey. Time is no value to them, as they generally start after the harvest, and many parties are said to have taken six months.

M0005506 Punan’s heads taken by Sea Dayaks Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images [email protected] http://wellcomeimages.org Punan’s heads taken by Sea Dayaks Pagan Tribes of British North Borneo Hose & MacDougall Published: – Copyrighted work available under Creative Commons Attribution only licence CC BY 4.0 http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/
So what happened to the women when men left for war expeditions?

After helping the men to prepare for their war expeditions, the women then were left defenseless at their villages.

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So what did they do? According to Henry Ling Roth in The Natives of Sarawak and British North Borneo, the women would continue their daily activities like usual. “As long the men are away their fires are lighted on the stones or small just as if they were at home.”

Additionally, the women carried out a couple of tasks symbolically to protect their men from afar. They spread mats and kept the fires up till late in the evening and lighted again before dawn. This was to ensure men during the war expeditions would not get cold.

He added, “The roofing of the house is opened before dawn, so that the men may not lie too long and fall into the enemies’ hands.”

Whether this symbolic gestures actually work for their men, we will never know. However, it is interesting to know how the women contributed without physically being there during war expeditions.

Every year or two the Iban Dayaks hold a feast called Gawai Antu in honour of the departed spirits which they believe surround the heads which hang in their houses. In this manner they hope to keep in favour with the spirits and so have good fortune. Photo by Charles Hose. Credits: Creative Commons.
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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