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Alexander Hare, the first ‘White Rajah’ in Borneo

James Brooke might be widely known as the first ‘White Rajah’ of Sarawak. However, did you know that he was not the first man to be known as the first ‘White Rajah’ in Borneo?

About 30 years before Brooke established his dynasty in Sarawak, British merchant and adventurer Alexander Hare founded an independent fiefdom in the south of Borneo called Maluka.

It was located around the Maluka river, southeast Banjarmasin on the Borneo island.

With the title of Rajah of Maluka, Hare’s kingdom even had a flag, coinage and custom duties.

Alexander Hare, the Merchant

Born in 1775 in London, Hare was the son of a watchmaker.

He joined a trading company in Portugal around 1800 and moved to Calcutta, India.

In 1807, he settled as a merchant in Malacca. During his stay in Malacca, Hare made acquaintance with Stamford Raffles of the British East India Company (EIC).

From 1811 till 1816, the Dutch briefly passed the control over Dutch Indies to Britain with Raffles as the newly appointed Lieutenant-Governor of Java.

Raffles, in turn appointed Hare as the Resident of Banjarmasin and Commissioner of the Islands of Borneo.

864px Nicolaes Visscher Indiae Orientalis
Indiae Orientalis, 17th century map of Southeast Asia. Credit: Public Domain.

Alexander Hare, the Rajah of Maluka

As for Hare, he was already familiar with Banjarmasin as he visited the place as a merchant.

On behalf of EIC, Hare arrived in Banjarmasin in 1812 to negotiate a treaty with the Sultan.

Somehow during the negotiation, the Sultan granted Hare a present.

According to Tim Hannigan in his book Raffles and the British Invasion of Java, a resident was not supposed to receive any kind of gift from a king.

But Hare accepted a gift from the Sultan of Banjarmasin – 1,400 square miles of territory, six times the size of Singapore.

He received it not as an accession to British domains but as a personal fiefdom in his own name.

By right, Raffles should have demanded Hares return the territory to the Sultan.

Instead, Raffles developed an even closer relationship with Hare as he hoped that an English fiefdom in the south of Borneo might provide a strong British foundation against the Dutch one day.

Hannigan stated, “The land that Alexander Hare ruled was swampy morass. It never had many native inhabitants and Hare’s habits seem to have scared off the last of the locals as soon as he moved in.”

Alexander Hare and his harem

So Hare was in need of ‘subjects’ in order his kingdom to flourish.

He turned to Raffles asking for ‘people’. Raffles being a good friend, provided Hare the people he needed.

“In early 1813, Raffles had signed an order that all convicts could legitimately be sentenced to transportation in Java were to be shipped to Banjarmasin for Alexander Hare to do with them as he saw fit. Hare even received a subsidy of 25 rupees a head for every criminal he received,” Hannigan stated.

Although Hare minted his own coins, he didn’t pay a single cent to his labourers, making them nothing more than unpaid slaves.

On top of the male convicts that were sent to Maluka, Hare demanded women so that he could breed more settlers.

He preferred women “of loose morals”, he said.

And again Raffles sent ‘women of loose morals’ to Hare. They were homeless women on the streets of Batavia or women who were caught for petty theft.

As it turned out, the women’s first duty was to satisfy the huge sexual appetite of the ‘White Rajah’.

Today, a handful of Indonesian web portals today refer to him as the man who owned a harem in Banjarmasin.

Alexander Hare and the Banjarmasin Enormity

Author Ferdinand Mount in his book The Tears of the Rajas: Mutiny, Money and Marriage in India 1805-1905 called Hare ‘the dissolute wanderer’ who ‘might have stumbled out of a Conrad novel’.

Mount added, “He was a Lord Jim without the good intentions.”

Lord Jim is a character in Joseph Conrad’s 1900 novel. The novel was inspired by English mariner Austin Podmore Williams and Sarawak’s first rajah, James Brooke.

Unlike Brooke, Hare’s dream of an independent state started to crash after the signing of the Anglo-Dutch Treaty of 1814.

After rounds of negotiations between EIC and the Dutch, Hare was at first allowed to keep his little kingdom in Banjarmasin.

However, Hare reportedly antagonised the Dutch. They believed that Hare was planning to use Maluka to enhance British intrusions in the region.

In the end, the Dutch government declared that Hare had no legal right in Borneo and the Rajah of Maluka was no longer a king.

Mount pointed out, “When Hare was finally kicked out by the returning Dutch, they forced him to total up the number of his wretched slaves. There were 907 men, 462 women and 123 children crouching in his filthy huts.”

These numbers did not include the possibly hundreds of others who died or were lucky to have fled into the jungle.

Making another reference to Conrad’s work, Mount stated, “If Hare had not yet plunged as deep into evil as Conrad’s Mr Kurtz, it was only because he did not stay there long enough.”

Kurtz is a character in Conrad’s 1899 novella Heart of Darkness. He is an ivory trader and commander of a trading post in Africa. The book was inspired by Congo Free State, a territory personally owned by Belgium’s King Leopold II from 1885 to 1908. It is also known for its brutal history; losing up to 50 per cent of its population due to forced labour system.

Hare’s four-year reign as the first White Rajah in Borneo came to be known to Dutch historians as ‘De Bandjermasinche Afschuwelijkheid’ or ‘The Banjarmasin Enormity’.

Life after Maluka

After being kicked out of Banjarmasin, Hare drifted around the archipelago bringing along some of his slaves and women while trying to get back to his properties in Java.

However, the Dutch banned him from entering the island. He then shipped around and found himself in Cape Town, South Africa.

According to Hannigan, what Hare really wanted was a desert island on which to live out his dreams of debauched despotism undisturbed.

Then in 1826, he brought his household to an uninhabited coral atolls called the Cocos Islands.

Located a thousand miles west of Java in the middle of the Indian Ocean, Hare first found out about the place from one of his former employees John Clunies-Ross.

Clunies-Ross eventually also moved to Cocos Islands bringing his family and workers.

The two did not see eye to eye with each other.

After five years in Cocos Islands, Hare left again and now headed to Bengkulu.

Some reports stated that most of his slaves left Hare to join Clunies-Ross, while others said it was because Hare’s money was dwindling and he could not afford to bring everyone to Bengkulu.

Either way, the former Rajah of Maluku died in Bengkulu in 1835 after falling off his horse.

Reportedly, his remaining estate went to a woman named Dishta – a dancing girl whom Hare picked up from Calcutta.

The rise and fall of Bulungan sultanate, a Muslim kingdom with Kayan roots

Today, the Kayan people of Borneo are known to practice mainly Christianity. Most of them have left their traditional belief called bungan and shamanism.

However, did you know that hundreds of years ago, a Muslim sultanate called the Bulungan sultanate was allegedly founded by a Kayan princess from Apau Kayan who had married a Bruneian?

Centuries ago, a great number of Kayans moved to east Borneo. There, they began the ethnogenesis of the Bulungan people when they converted to Islam.

The sultanate is located in the existing Bulungan Regency in the North Kalimantan province of Indonesia.

The center of the sultanate is today’s Tanjung Selor town which is the capital of both the North Kalimantan province and Bulungan regency.

During the peak of its reign, the sultanate territory spanned the eastern shores of North Kalimantan up to Tawau, now Malaysian Borneo.

The history of Bulungan sultanate

According to Bernard Sellato in his paper Forest, Resources and People in Bulungan, the history of the kingdom started from a group of Kayans who settled near the coast.

He stated, “This Dayak group, the Kayan Uma’ Apan, moved from Apo Kayan in the 17th century down the Kayan river, settled near Long Peleban (middle Kayan river), and then moved farther downstream to the Binai river, near the coast.

“There, a Kayan princess, marrying a visiting nobleman, Lancang, allegedly from Brunei (c.1650), started a dynasty of Indianised kings, which later was centered near Tanjung Selor. A century later (c.1750), this dynasty converted to Islam, and a long line of sultans, vassals to the sultan of Berau (himself a vassal to Kutai), followed until the 1850s, when the Dutch began interfering in local affairs, trying to eradicate piracy and the slave trade.”

Another account of the founding of Bulungan kingdom stated that it was founded by Kuwanyi, a Kayan aristocrat from Uma Apan of Usun Apau.

He was known for his leadership and bravery. Kuwanyi had a daughter named Asung Lawan. She then married a Brunei prince named Datu Mencang. It was under the reign of Asung Lawan and Datu Mencang, the kingdom became a Muslim sultanate.

Meanwhile, another origin story behind the Bulungan sultanate is more on the fantasy side.

Long time ago, there was a childless Kayan leader who found an egg and a bamboo.

He brought both home and the the egg and bamboo turned into a baby girl and and a baby boy respectively.

According to this legend, the boy and girl later founded the Bulungan kingdom.

Either way, it is widely understood that Bulungan sultanate is rooted from the Kayan people.

Kayan river
Kayan river in North Kalimantan.

A Norwegian’s visit to Sultanate of Bulungan

Carl Sofus Lumholtz (1851-1922) was a Norwegian explorer and ethnographer.

In 1913, he started an expedition to explore Dutch Central Borneo to learn about the culture in the area.

One of the few accounts about Sultan of Bulungan back then can be found in Lumholtz’s book, Through Central Borneo; an account of two years’ travel in the land of the headhunters between the years 1913 and 1917 (1920).

He wrote:

“Two days later, among mighty forests of nipa-palms, we sailed up the Kayan or Bulungan river and arrived at Tandjong Selor, a small town populated by Malays and Chinese, the number of Europeans being usually limited to two, the controleur and the custom house manager. It lies in a flat swampy country and on the opposite side of the river, which here is 600 metres wide, lives the Sultan of Bulungan.

I secured a large room in a house which had just been rented by two Japanese who were representatives of a lumber company, and had come to arrange for the export of hardwood from this part of Borneo.

Accompanied by the controleur, Mr. R. Schreuder, I went to call on the Sultan. He was a man of about thirty-five years, rather prepossessing in appearance, and proud of his ancestry, although time has so effaced his Dayak characteristic that he looks like a Malay. Dato Mansur, his executive, met us at the landing and escorted us into the presence of the Sultan and his wife, where were offered soda water and whiskey, and we were remained an hour. They are both likeable, but the Sultan appears rather nervous and frail, and it is rumoured that his health has suffered as a result of overindulgence in spiritualistic seances.

He gave an entertaining account of natives living in the trees on the Malinau river. As it had been impossible for me to obtain cartridges for my Winchester rifle, the Sultan was kind enough to lend me one of his before we parted, as well as two hundred cartridges.”

Lumholtz’s visit to the Sultanate of Bulungan took place sometimes in December 1913.

Sultanate of Bulungan under Dutch colonisation

The Dutch signed with the Sultan of Bulungan a Politiek Contract to impose their sovereignty over the kingdom in 1850.

By 1893, there was a Dutch government post set up in Tanjung Selor.

Under the Dutch control, the sultan was forced to hand over control of the remoter regions of the Bahau river, Pujungan river, and Apo Kayan.

Then in 1881, the British North Borneo Chartered Company (BNBC) was formed, placing North Borneo (present-day Sabah) under British jurisdiction.

Tawau, which was previously reigned over by Sultan of Bulungan, was claimed by BNBC.

After long negotiation with the British, the Dutch finally recognised the British borders in 1915 which is basically the border between Sabah and North Kalimantan now.

COLLECTIE TROPENMUSEUM Groepsportret met Maulana Mohamad Djalaloeddin Sultan van Boeloengan op zijn troon TMnr 60041528
The rulling class of the Bulungan Sultanate (taken c. 1925-1935). Credit: Creative Common

Bulungan sultanate during Indonesia-Malaysia confrontation

Ultimately, the connection between the kingdom and Malaysia played a role in the fall of Bulungan.

After World War II had ended and many countries were freed from Japanese occupation, Indonesia gained its independence from the Dutch.

Unlike many sultanates in Borneo which were abolished after independence partly due to many sultans and their families being executed by the Japanese, the Sultanate of Bulungan retained its power.

Then Indonesia-Malaysia confrontation took place in 1963 because Indonesia opposed the creation of Malaysia.

During this time, the Sultanate of Bulungan was accused of being supportive toward Malaysia.

In April 1964, it was reported that a document was found proving the ties between Bulungan aristocracy and Malaysia.

It stated that the Bulungan royal family would proclaim a merger with Sabah and subsequently Malaysia.

Furthermore, the aristocrats were seen to be visiting Sabah frequently. However, many believed the visits were just because they had relatives in Tawau.

In the same month, the Indonesian army allegedly found arms in the former palace of the sultan. By now, they strongly believed that sultan and his followers would take part in the Confrontation but would lean on the Malaysian side.

COLLECTIE TROPENMUSEUM De sultan van Bulungan en zijn echtgenote Borneo TMnr 10001599
Abdul Jalil of Bulungan with the Queen consort (1940). Credit: Creative Common

The massacre of Bulungan royal family

Later, an order came out to arrest all members of the Bulungan royal family.

When the army arrived at the Bulungan palace on July 2, 1964, they came under the pretense of just an ordinary official visit.

Naturally, the royal family provided a feast for the army that night to welcome their visit. The Sultan had no idea what the army had planned.

In the dawn of July 3 while the family and their servants were sleeping, the army surrounded the palace.

They then proceeded to capture everyone in the palace including the sultan.

Burhan Djabler Magenda in his book East Kalimantan: The Decline of a commercial Aristocracy narrated the fate of this aristocracy.

“The aristocrats were separated into several groups. All the male members were put into one group and into one boat, while the women and children were placed in a separate boat. They were supposed to be transported first to Tarakan and from there taken to Balikpapan. This plan never materialised,” he wrote.

Instead, off the shore of Tarakan, all about 30 of them in total were gunned down by their own guards.

There, their bodies were thrown into the sea. The soldiers also burned the palace to the ground and the fire lasted for two days and two nights.

Amal Beach Tarakan 2
Amal Beach of Tarakan

The end of the Sultanate of Bulungan

While there were many different accounts about the massacre, one thing for sure was that many members of the Bulungan royal family were executed in July 1964.

Among the immediate family of Sultan Bulungan, one son was in school in Malang during the incident.

However, he was later arrested in Balikpapan and was never heard of again.

Another two sons were able to survive because they managed to escape in time. They fled to Tawau and became Malaysian nationals.

In 2017, the descendants of the Sultan revealed to an Indonesian newspaper their intentions to return to their homeland by giving up their Malaysian nationalities and become Indonesian.

As dead men cannot speak, there was no definite proof that the Bulungan royal family was supportive of Malaysia to this day which cost their lives.

Even if they were, many agreed that killing the whole family including women and children was an extreme move by the army.

Regardless, the massacre of Bulungan royal family marked the end of the sultanate.

Mangkok Merah 1967, the Dayak-Chinese conflict in Kalimantan

Mangkok Merah 1967, the conflict between the Dayak and Chinese in West Kalimantan

Chinese and Indonesians stand together Impressions of the Fight ... in Indonesia p11
Slogan proclaiming that Chinese and Indonesians stand together. Circa 1946. Credit: Berita Film Indonesia / Public domain

The New Order in Indonesia is the term coined by the second Indonesian President Suharto to describe his administrative era when he came to power in 1966.

In the beginning of this New Order, one incident left a bloody mark in Indonesian history and it is called Mangkuk Merah.

The background factors of the conflict between the Dayak and Chinese

Suharto’s predecessor Sukarno denounced the new nation Malaysia back then, calling it a form of neo-colonialism.

He then secretly trained rebel communist troops from Sarawak known as the Sarawak People’s Guerrilla Army (Pasukan Guerrilla Rakyat Sarawak or PGRS).

They set up camps along the Kalimantan-Sarawak border with many Sarawakian Chinese crossing over to be part of the communist movement.

When Suharto rose to power, he ended the Indonesian-Malaysian confrontation and focused on fighting against communism.

By January 1967, the Indonesian military began to resettle 5,000 Chinese away from the Sarawak border.

The Chinese were no longer allowed to live within five miles of the border.

At that time, the Chinese, especially from West Kalimantan, were believed to be communist sympathisers. The military also believed that a number of them living near the border were from Sarawak not Kalimantan.

In Sarawak, a similar resettlement scheme was carried out in 1965 called Operation Hammer. The Chinese were resettled away from the Sarawak border in order to cut off the Communist rebels’ food and supplies.

The rumours that sparked the conflict between the Dayak and Chinese

In the book Malay and Chinese Indonesian, Dwi Surya Atmaja and Fazhurozi stated the anti-communism movement that began to take a bloody turn.

“A string of murders of Dayak people with unknown perpetrator happened in Ledo, Seluas and Pahauman, Bengkayang and almost all areas with sizable ethnic Chinese communities. This situation was used by the military to scapegoat PGRS as perpetrators of the murders,” they stated.

On top of that, the military allegedly spread rumours that the Chinese were anti-Dayak and all Chinese communists.

The military reportedly used the categories ‘Dayak’ and ‘Chinese’ to indicate loyal citizens and communists, respectively during this time.

Manipulated by the military and enraged by the murders, the Dayak asked for support from the former governor of West Kalimantan and a respected Dayak figure, Johanes Christomus Oevaang Oeray.

Then through a Radio Republik Indonesia (RRI) Pontianak broadcast on Sept 21, 1967, Oeray allegedly threatened the Chinese people to leave their areas and move to nearest district town.

Later, on Oct 11, 1967, the Dayak villagers attended a meeting to prepare for what was called a ‘Gerakan Demonstrasi’.

Some historians do not believe that it was Oeray who made the broadcast, but somebody using his name.

However, some believed that Oeray purposely cooperated with the Indonesian military to regain his political footing after he lost his influence over the Dayak community when Suharto came into power.

Regardless, the Dayaks took the broadcast as the announcement of Mangkok Merah.

What is Mangkok Merah?

Dwi Surya Atmaja and Fazhurozi explained in their book what Mangkok Merah meant in the culture of the Dayak of Kalimantan.

Basically, it is the traditional symbol of starting a war.

“Mangkok Merah was used to unite the Dayak tribes if they felt their sovereignty was in great danger. The tribal chiefs usually sent a red bowl (mangkok merah) filled with charcoal, chicken feather, pig blood, and juang leaves, to be passed around from one village to another quickly. A Dayak figure explained that Mangkok Merah was used to call for people, as a communication symbol used in emergencies. When someone brought it from one tribe to the other, it means: come and help us.”

The violence

Following the announcement, a string of massacres took place in West Kalimantan. The peak of violence happened in November 1967.

The attackers started to murder Chinese people using hunting weapons and burning their belongings.

Chinese shops were vandalised and the bodies were lined up on the streets.

Describing the violence in one of her papers, Nancy Lee Peluso stated, “Some Chinese turned their homes and possessions over the Dayak or other Indonesian neighbours for safe-keeping, not knowing they would not be allowed to return. Others ran into the forests and plantations, fearful but hoping to maintain a watch on their land, homes and possessions. From November to January, crowds of Dayak men and boys, wearing red headbands and carrying elongated bush knives (mandau), homemade hunting guns and military-issue firearms, violently evicted all remaining Chinese from the rural areas.”

Most historians estimated the deaths ranged from 300 to 500 with thousands more becoming refugees. The highest estimated number of refugees is 117,000.

By early 1968, the violence finally subsided.

How the Dayak and Chinese conflict lead to Dayak and Madurese conflict

With thousands of Chinese removed from rural areas in 1967, you might think that there would be more lands for the Dayak occupied.

Writing in the book Golddiggers, Farmers and Traders in the Chinese Districts of West Kalimantan, Mary F Somers Heidues stated, “The New Order actively encouraged migration of settlers from crowded areas of Java, Madura and Bali to less-populated spaces in the Outer Islands.”

She added if the Dayaks who participated in the 1967 Raids hoped that the emptied lands and properties would fall into their hands after the Chinese fled, they were to be disappointed.

“Although Dayaks moved into the area, Dayak hegemony did not last long,” Heidues stated.

Many settlers relocated from Java-Madura, Bugis and Bali into the area in stages. Heidues, further stated, “In the end, the Madurese were to become a focus of resentment in 1997.”

As for the Chinese refugees, many of them resettled in towns such as Pontianak and Singkawang.

How a liar caused the war between Luju, a Kayan warrior, and the Taman

Here is a story of how a war in ancient Kalimantan broke out due to mistaken identity:

Kapuas river
Kapuas river.

There was a Palin man named Baring Ma’ Bojang. He married an Embaloh woman and moved to the village of Belimbis in the upper Embaloh river of Kapuas Hulu.

Both Palin and Embaloh are Dayak groups in Indonesian Kalimantan.

Baring was the brother of Rombonang, a Palin raja or leader.

One day, Baring decided to go on a journey to the Mahakam river in East Kalimantan in search of valuable beads.

He went with a large number of followers and he set up good connection with Luju, a member of the Kayan royalty and a warrior in the Mahakam.

There in the Mahakam, he stayed for a long time with Luju, eventually managing to obtain the valuable ‘lawang lukut’ beads.

Baring also asked Luju for seven of his Kayan villagers to show him the way back to the Kapuas from the Mahakam.

In return, Baring promised that he would send these men back with some valuables such as jars and lamps.

Luju agreed and Baring made his trip back with Luju’s seven men.

Luju and Baring’s broken promise

Throughout Baring’s stay in the Mahakam, Luju was under the impression that Baring was a Dayak Taman not a Dayak Palin.

Meanwhile, Baring was a renowned liar, and could not be bothered to correct Luju.

Baring also never had the intention to give Luju what he had promised.

On their way to Embaloh, Baring declared that the seven Kayan men were now his slaves.

Although they were enraged, the Kayan men could not do anything as they were outnumbered by Baring’s men.

To make things worse for the Kayan men, Baring planned to sacrifice the men along their route from Mahakam to Embaloh to ensure a safe journey.

By the time they had reach Embaloh, there were no Kayan men left among his party.

Luju declared war on the wrong people

Eventually, the news of Baring’s treachery had reached Luju at Mahakam. Furious, Luju spent the next three years recruiting men from the Mahakam, Tabang and Oga’ rivers .

Together with the Kayan of Mendalam river near Putussibau, Luju and his warriors attacked the Dayak Taman longhouses at night.

They sacked their homes and burned them to the ground.

As Luju attacked all the Taman longhouses, he never got as far as Embaloh where Baring was hiding.

The Kayans, satisfied with their attack and felt that the Dayak Taman had punished enough.

The Dayak Taman take revenge

The following year, Luju’s brother Kule returned to the Kapuas river with a peacemaking force.

He explained that Luju was tired of war and wished to restore peace between Taman and Kayan.

After Luju had returned to Mahakam, the Taman people had sent some raiding parties to attack the Kayans, but they were not as strong as the Kayans.

The Taman made peace with the Kayan but were still determined that they would avenge themselves against Baring who was the cause of this problem.

Baring, who seemed unaware of the vendetta against him, had ventured into the Taman area, and was subsequently ambushed by the Taman warriors who then took his head.

This caused a war between the Taman and Embaloh as Baring’s son, Bojang sought revenge.

The tribal war between the Taman and Embaloh reportedly continued until the Dutch came into the area.

This story is recorded by Victor T. King in his paper Main Outlines of Taman Oral Traditions.

How did the Ibans near Kalimantan border cope with Konfrontasi

People have been living along the border of Sabah and Sarawak, Malaysia with Kalimantan, Indonesia for centuries.

When there was a conflict such as the Indonesia-Malaysia Confrontation which broke out between the two countries, it was unfortunate that they found themselves caught in between.

So how did the Sarawakians near Kalimantan border cope with Indonesia-Malaysia Confrontation or Konfrontasi?

On Sarawak’s side of the border, Commonwealth forces were flown in to help protect the border.

Besides this, they employed Iban and other border-dwelling Dayaks as scouts. They were a local auxiliary force, widely known as ‘Border Scouts’.

On the other side of the border, Indonesian army also employed Kalimantan Iban scouts to aid in patrolling their side of border.

Before the confrontation, the Iban communities from both side of the border had been living peacefully with each other.

Most of them had relatives across the border as intermarriages were common between different Iban longhouses, regardless of nationalities.

After they were employed by their respective countries, how did they do their work while still keeping their own relatives safe?

First of all, not all of the Ibans became scouts willingly.

According to Michael Eilenberg in the book At the Edges of States, most Kalimantan Iban had no particular interest in Indonesia-Malaysia confrontation.

However, a group of Iban from the Lanjak area were recruited by force as scouts.

These unwilling scouts did their uttermost to prevent clashes between the different border patrols Indonesian and Malaysian.

Eilenberg wrote, “Former Iban scouts in Lanjak recount how they purposely led the Indonesian military patrols in circles around the Malaysian patrols in order to prevent clashes. In doing so, they avoided being forced to fight Iban kin employed as scouts by the ‘enemy’.

One very common strategy employed by Iban trackers was to use different kinds of signals to warn the oncoming Iban trackers employed by the enemy.

For example, they imitated animal cries or simply wore their caps backward as a signal that regular soldiers were following close behind.

Life at Kalimantan border while coping with Indonesia-Malaysia Confrontation

Those who lived near the Kalimantan border during the confrontation remembered it as a period of restriction.

With military forces guarding both sides of the border, contact with relatives over the border was made difficult.

Even though the border was officially closed, some of the locals had reportedly continued their cross-border interaction such as trading and visiting relatives.

But of course, these were done at considerable risk of being caught in the line of fire.

Furthermore, several Kalimantan Iban families took more drastic moves.

They permanently immigrated to Sarawak to live with their Sarawakian families.

In the paper Straddling the Border: A Marginal History of Guerrilla Warfare and Counter Insurgency in the Indonesian Borderlands, 1960s-1970s which was also written by Eilenberg, the researcher came across many Kalimantan Ibans who had immigrated to Sarawak either during the Confrontation or during the later communist insurgency.

He wrote, “A senior Iban, originally from the Lanjak area but now a Malaysian citizen, conveyed during a visit to Kalimantan how, after immigrating to Sarawak, he was employed by British soldiers to fight the Indonesian army and later awarded an honorary military insignia by the Malaysian state for his courage in the fighting. Ironically before immigrating, the same person had been employed as a scout by the Indonesian forces.”

Malaysian Border Scouts comprising indigenous peoples of Borneo
Some 1,500 men from the indigenous tribes of Sabah and Sarawak were recruited by the Malaysian government as Border Scouts under the command of Richard Noone and other officers from the Senoi Praaq to counter the Indonesian infiltrations. Credit: Public Domain in Malaysia and US.

Getting close with the Sarawakians near Kalimantan border as a military strategy

Speaking of the British soldiers, blending in with the locals is part of the Commonwealth forces’ military strategy.

The Director of Operations in Borneo during the confrontation was General Sir Walter Walker.

General Walker once stated, “We set out to speak their language and respect their customs and religion. We sent small highly work among them, to protect them and share their danger, to get to know them and gain their confidence. These troops were as friendly, understanding and patient to the villagers as they were tough and ruthless in the jungle. We sought to give the villagers a feeling of security by day and night, through the presence of phantom patrols and through constant visits by the civil administration, the police and the army. We helped their agriculture, improved their communications and trading facilities, improved their water supply, provided medical clinics and a flying doctor service, established schools, provided transistor wireless sets and attractive programmes, and so on.”

Additionally, Walker saw winning popular support as ‘absolutely vital to the success of operations because by winning over the people to your side, you can succeed in isolating your enemy from supplies, shelter and intelligence.’

In the meantime, Captain David L. Watkins wrote in his paper Confrontation: the Struggle of Northern Borneo that unless villages along the border could be secure day and night from Indonesian intruders, they could be intimidated into providing the enemy aid.

“Although an armed patrol could not be posted in every village, frequent visits could be made, not only by soldiers, but by police and civil administrators as well. These visits had several purposes, two of which were to ‘encourage the loyal to give information and to discourage the few disloyal from doing anything that would disturb the uneasy peace’.”

The safety of the locals came first

At the same time, Walker emphasised that the security and safety of the local Sarawakians would always come first.

He once wrote his command, “went to any length to keep our hands clean. One civilian killed by us would do more harm than ten killed by the enemy.”

He added, “If the price a village had to pay for its liberation from the enemy was to be its own destruction, then the campaign for hearts and minds would never have been won.”

As much as the Commonwealth forces as well as the government wanted to protect its people, deaths are inevitable during war (although this war was never officially declared).

In the end of the Indonesia-Malaysia Confrontation, the total number of civilian casualties are 36 killed and 53 wounded.

How thousands of Dayak Taman people died due to a poisonous tree

Researcher Victor King recorded in his paper Main Outlines of Taman Oral Tradition (1975) that the Dayak Taman people once suffered a great setback in their population.

And it was all thanks to a tree.

So what was the poisonous tree and how did it kill thousands Dayak Taman people?

There was a man named Bai Upa who was so angry with life. If he lived in the 21st century, you might find him ranting on social media. But instead, he decided to fetch a special poison from the headwaters of the Kapuas river.

This poison was watery in appearance and only can be found in remote places.

Additionally, the poison oozed from the ground and in the center of the ooze stood a tree.

The poison was believed to be almost impossible to obtain. Any attempts in the past usually caused the death of the seekers.

Bai Upa was a wise man. Knowing the danger of fetching of this poison, he sent eight of his slaves instead.

It was said that nothing could live around the tree for a distance of 200 paces.

There were no grass, trees or flowers. Instead, they were bones of humans and animals scattered.

The locals believed that even its scent could kill.

Bai Upa’s slaves took turns to get the poison.

The first slave only got a few paces into the poison zone when he fell dead.

Meanwhile, the second got a little further and so on. Finally, the last slave managed to hold his breath and bit one of the lower branches of the tree.

Actually, biting the tree acted as an antidote for the poison. The slave managed to collect a small amount of the poison in a container with a tight cover.

After the slave got back to Bai Upa, he used the poison to kill his enemies.

When the corpses were thrown into the river, fishes ate the flesh.

When the Dayak Taman people downstream ate these fish, they died. According to King’s informant, that was how thousands of Dayak Taman died with many of their villages abandoned.

What is the poisonous tree?

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Antiaris toxicaria is a type of fig tree. Credit: Pixabay

Although King did not identify the poisonous tree, another researcher Richard B. Primack in his paper Moraceae Trees in the Religious Life of Borneo People wrote that the tree is ‘clearly about the Upas tree, Antiaris toxicaria.

Primack explained that only the latex of an Upas tree can be so poisonous.

He wrote, “There are certain inaccuracies in the exaggerated description, which was probably embellished to make the story more interesting. The poison does not ooze from the ground and does not fill the air. The vegetation under these trees is perfectly normal. People and animals can approach the tree without injury. The poison must enter the blood, generally by a poison dart, in order to be effective. Consequently, people downriver eating poisoned fish would not become poisoned. Also, biting the lower branches of the tree is not an antidote.”

It is fortunate that the poisonous tree in King’s story is not as powerful as it was said to be. Or else someone might turn it into a bio-weapon. And thankfully the antidote is not by biting the lower branches. People surrounding a tree and biting its lower branches would definitely be an interesting sight to see.

The Lun Bawang legend of a giant man named Temueng

Long time ago, there was a giant man named Temueng and his friend named Pengiran who first lived at Kemaloh in Kalimantan, Indonesia.

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According to legends, these people were believed to be the ancestors of Lun Bawang people.

Benedict Sandin in his paper The Bisayah and Indigenous Peoples of Limbang, Sandin recorded the life journey of this Lun Bawang legendary hero.

“Temueng and Pengiran were much ashamed that they could not defeat in battle chief enemy named Yada. Therefore Temueng moved from Kemaloh to Punang Trusan, and Pengiran also moved and settled at Illot, now in Indonesian Borneo,” Sandin wrote.

The life of Temueng

Legend has it that owing to the extraordinary size of the body, Temueng could easily eat one whole pig per meal. He was also rumoured to be a very strong man.

Meanwhile, Abdul Karim Abdul Rahman in his paper History of the founding of Brunei Kingdom Based on Oral Tradition (2016) pointed out that Temueng was Upai Semaring’s son.

He is another giant who is a Lundayeh legend from the Krayan Highlands, Kalimantan.

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Upai Semaring hill, where he allegedly lived in Krayan Highlands.

When he lived in the Ulu Trusan, he carved a number of rocks and the posts of his house were all made of rocks which are still intact at that location to this day.

According to Sandin, while at Punang Trusan, Temueng lived at the present day Semado Nesab village.

His house there was surrounded by wide and deep drains for protection against invasion by his enemies.

While Temueng was living at Long Lopeng, hundreds of Kayan came to attack him. Also known as Luping, Long Lopeng is a settlement in the Lawas division.

When the enemy came, he was reportedly at ease smoking his pipe.

But when they came, he knocked each one of them on the head with his pipe and killed them all.

A giant bigger than Temueng?

Another story circles around Temueng; one day Temueng went out hunting animals in the forest.

He found a huge coil of rattan which could be used in a fish trap.

Thinking that the coiled rattan cane was a leg ornament, he put his leg into it.

But the coil was bigger than Temueng’s leg, and this frightened him. Temueng immediately thought there was a giant bigger than him living in the area.

While Temueng was not afraid of those who were smaller than him, he was afraid of people bigger than him.

Terrified, he fled from Long Lopeng and down the Trusan river to live at the foot of a mountain near Long Merarap. It is believed that is where he stayed until he died.

The Lun Bawang people after the death of Temueng

It is unsure how Temueng died but the Lun Bawang people still remember him even many years on after his death.

In memory of his settlements on the upper Trusan river, the Lun Bawang people from Kemaloh moved to the lands between the headwaters of Trusan and Limbang rivers.

They moved there in small groups, each group gradually followed by others.

Expanding their territory, they moved down the Trusan till they were attacked by the Kayans.

According to Sandin, the Lun Bawang successfully repulsed the Kayans, driving them away.

To this day, the Lun Bawang still settle in various areas of Lawas and Limbang regions.

How the ancient Kingdom of Nanga Bunut in Borneo grew thanks to mythical creatures

Centuries ago, Kalimantan was made up many small ancient kingdoms, each with its own unique history and culture.

One of these kingdoms was Nanga Bunut, a small kingdom located at the intersection between Kapuas river and its tributary Bunut river.

It was founded by Raden Setia Abang Berita Kiyai Nadi Pati Jaya between the 16th and 17th centuries.

In 1909, the Dutch took over the sultanate, making it part of the Dutch East Indies.

Today, the former kingdom is a sub-district of West Kalimantan province, Indonesia.

Once upon a time, it was believed the kingdom was incredibly populous, not because of migration or human reproduction, but due to a supernatural reason.

The legend of Nanga Bunut and mythical creatures called tapok

Victor T. King in his paper A Maloh Myth, Augury and Cultural Comparison (1975) stated that it happened during the reign of Raden Setia Abang Berita Kiyai Nadi Pati Jaya or Kiyai Nadi.

“The story involves the emergence of humans from tapok. These are antu, like human beings in appearance, but usually invisible to man. Occasionally, however, one can catch a fleeting glimpse of them in the jungle.”

One day, Kiyai Nadi was out searching for honey near the Belitung lake somewhere in the area of Bunut.

He was waiting for nightfall before climbing a lalau tree which contained a large number of beehives.

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A lalau tree is known for having a number of beehives in its branches and is considered a commodity for honey hunters.

Suddenly, somehow like in a horror movie, he heard someone call out in the jungle. It was the voice of a child.

Just like in a horror movie in which the character goes out to look the source of the voice, Kiyai Nadi went in the direction in which the sound had come.

He eventually arrived in a large clearing and a longhouse.

People at the longhouse were busy doing their daily work while chatting and laughing.

Then a group of men came up to him and asked him what he was doing there.

Kiyai Nadi explained that he had heard a child’s voice and had followed the sound to their longhouse.

The tapok scared of Kiyai Nadi

After a while, Kiyai Nadi realised that the people were not real human beings but tapok.

The tapok were scared of Kiyai Nadi, begging him not to tell people about their whereabouts and identities.

The female tapok particularly were terrified of Kiyai Nadi, up to the point that one lady took refuge in a tree.

Suddenly, the old lady changed into a half-human, half-animal creature along with all the inhabitants.

Kiyai Nadi took the tapok in

After their transformations en masse, they were not able to return to how they were.

Kiyai Nadi took pity on them and led them back to Bunut as his slaves.

There he practiced powerful medicine and changed them into human beings. They multiplied very quickly and that is how Nanga Bunut grew its population.

How a magic mushroom caused people to speak in different languages

How everyone began speaking in different languages according to a Taman legend.

Have you heard of Psilocybin mushroom? Widely known as ‘magic mushroom’, this type of fungi is usually consumed for its hallucinogenic effects.

Once consumed, the person may experience euphoria and change in consciousness, mood and even perception.

They may even experience visual and auditory hallucinations.

As fascinating as this magic mushroom may sound, it is not as interesting as a type of mushroom found in a Taman legend.

The Taman people belong to the Dayak group of Kalimantan.

Though they are few in number (estimated at about 30,000 people), their culture and mythology are colourful.

How a magic mushroom caused people to speak in different languages

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An illustration by

Long time ago, the descendants of the first man and woman were numerous and they all spoke the same language.

Then one day, one of them came across some magic mushrooms. Everyone ate them and instantly fell into a drunken stupor.

When they woke up, they started to ask each other what had happened.

Oddly, nobody really understood each other.

They began to seek those who spoke the same language and started to form groups with them.

The dispersal

Not long after this happened, a great flood inundated the land.

The whole island of Borneo was covered by water except Mount Cemaru. It is a mountain located at Long Apari district of Mahakam Ulu at East Kalimantan, Indonesia. Standing at 1681m high, the mountain is the source of Mahakam river.

Many Dayak people took refuge there during the flood.

However, most people built rafts, sampans and other larger boats which took them to the four corners of the earth.

With these people migrating to the different parts of the world, that was how these languages became dispersed.

University of Hull researcher Victor T. King collected this legend during his trip to West Kalimantan from July 1972 to Sept 1973 and recorded it in his paper “Main Outlines of Taman Oral Tradition”.

How paddy came from a girl’s body according to a Dayak Taman legend

The Dayak Taman people is a small indigenous group found in West Kalimantan, Indonesia.

There are roughly 30,000 people in this ethnic group. Apart from the Embaloh language, the Taman language is not close to other languages in Borneo.

However, like any other Dayak groups in Borneo, the Taman people have many legends and folklore of their own.

Here is how the Taman people discovered paddy:

According to researcher Victor T. King in his paper “Main Outlines of Taman Oral Tradition”, before the discovery of paddy, the Taman people were nomadic like the Bukat and Bukitan. These two are also Dayak groups found in Borneo.

They had no knowledge of rice cultivation and lived simply off sago, jungle fruits, vegetables and fish.

So how did they discover paddy?

King, who went to a field trip to West Kalimantan from July 1972 to September 1973, interviewed a Taman elder named Bau.

Bau revealed to King a common legend known by most people of his tribe of how their people started rice cultivation.

Once there was a young girl who was an only child. One night her father dreamed that a spirit came to him and told him that his daughter must die.

It was to be the father’s job to kill her.

The spirit said that when her body disintegrated, it would became paddy and that if the father planted the paddy, it would grow and he would always have a plenty of food.

Just as in the Old Testament where Abraham was asked to sacrifice his son Isaac, the man’s decision echoed Abraham’s own.

The next day, the father called the girl to have a morning breakfast. He asked her, in a sad voice, to wear her best clothes, and after she finished her food, he asked her to lay down on a rattan mat with her eyes closed.

Killing the daughter

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Paddy. Credits: Pixabay.

The girl did not share the same fate as Isaac in the Bible.

The father then proceeded to cut his own daughter in half using a parang.

Her body started to decay and transform into paddy grains, which he then planted it in his field. However as time passed, nothing happened.

Then one day, he caught sight of an old, white-haired woman carrying a basket full of rice over her shoulder.

The old woman told him that the rice would not grow by itself.

Since it derived from a human being who has a spirit, the paddy too had its own spirit that must be pleased.

One had to perform various rituals to ‘feed’ and coax the rice.

The old woman, whose name was Piang Ambong, then taught the man different kinds of paddy ceremonies.

Since then, the Taman people have always offered gifts and prayers to paddy spirits so that they will be blessed with plenty of rice.

Read more:

Legends of how paddy came to Sarawak

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