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An old Bidayuh punishment for murder before the death penalty

If you are found guilty of murder today, the punishment is usually a life sentence in prison or the death penalty.

But how did Sarawakians in the olden days punish criminals who committed murder?

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What was the olden day Bidayuh punishment for committing a crime of murder?
Here is an example of Bidayuh punishment recounted by R. Nyandoh in The Sarawak Gazette on Sept 30, 1964:

Sharing the background of the murder case, Nyandoh wrote, “Mungang from Kampung Mayang in the Serian district married a woman from Kampung Engkaroh and they went to live at Mawang Mungang on the Krang river.”

After some time, the couple moved to Simpoh Rawih on the Jimun river. Mungang was a skilled craftsman, known for his talents for carving, boat-building and painting.

Additionally, he could make all kinds of knives and parangs. Even in the olden days haters were gonna hate, and Mungang was disliked by many of his relatives out of jealousy for his skills.

One day, two of his wife’s relatives, Bulo and his grandmother, came all the way from Kampung Engkaroh to visit the couple.

They asked Mungang to sharpen all their old knives, which he kindly did.

Before Bulo headed home, Mungang asked him to tell his two brother-in-laws not to visit him till the new paddy harvest. Due to the poor crop during the previous year, Mungang had no food to offer them if they came to visit.

Misinformation which led to a murder

However when Bulo returned to Kampung Engkaroh, he did not tell his brother-in-laws, Dibong and Bungan, the correct information.

In fact, he told the brothers that Mungang was getting his knives ready to fight them. Enraged, the brothers set to work to get their own weapons ready to defend themselves.

Several months later, Dibong and Bungan changed their plan. Instead of being on the defensive, they went on the offensive and decided to kill Mungang.

They went to their sister’s house, fixed on their intent to kill Mungang. When they arrived there, Dibong and Bungan found Mungang asleep in the bedroom.

Pushing past their own sister, the brothers stabbed Mungang to death.

The old Bidayuh punishment for murder

Mungang’s wife went back to her own village to report the crime to the headman of Kampung Engkaroh.

The headman then announced that the brothers Dibong and Bungan had to give her a list of items.

In the olden days, the headman of a village also served as a judge to settle any disputes among the villagers.

The fees and punishments for committing crimes might differ as they were according to the headman’s discretion.

As for the murder of Mungang, the headman of Kampung Engkaroh decided that these were the items needed to pay his wife as a punishment:

1.One large brass vessel to replace the head of her husband
2.One string of 30 small bells to replace his eyes
3.Four ounces of gold pieces for the teeth
4.Seven coils of different coloured silk thread to replace his hair
5.Two large silver plates for the ears
6.One large brass tray to replace the hat that belonged to her mother-in-law
7.One whole string of Bidayuh beads to replace her mother-in-law’s beads
8.Two large gongs to replace her husbands’ breasts
9.Two large cannons to replace his legs
10.One Iban loin cloth to replace the mother in-law’s nursing clothes
11.One large jar (Payan Rangkang) to replace his stomach
12.One large jar (Payan Eron) to replace the basket in which her husband had kept his soul

One top of these items, the two brothers also had to pay the woman two large round gongs called katawak and two small gongs called chanang.

They needed to pay her five kinds of jars namely payan botuh, payan lajur, payan jering, payan mandoh and tandok.

The woman, reportedly after receiving all these items from her brothers, left Kampung Engkaroh for good.

She went to live with her relatives in Kampung Ramun which now lies in Kalimantan, never to be heard from again.

5 things you need to know about dragons in Iban folklore

Despite being a mythical creature, the dragon appears in various folklore of many cultures around the world.

In Western culture, it is typically depicted as winged, horned, four-legged and capable of breathing fire.

Meanwhile, dragons in Eastern culture are usually wingless (but capable of flight) short-legged, serpentine creatures.

Would it be interesting to know that the dragon in Iban folklore is a bit of both worlds?

Here are at least five things you should know about dragons in Iban folklore:
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A dragon in Iban folklore has a luminous stone in the centre of its brow that works like a flashlight. Credits: Pixabay.
1.The physical appearance of a dragon in Iban folklore

According to an Iban legend, the dragon or naga is a huge snake with a horn protruding from its forehead.

Unlike its fellow dragons from other folklore, an Iban dragon has a luminous bezoar or gombala stone in the centre of its brow. It works like a flashlight for the dragon to lights its way at night.

It also has several pairs of wings, legs, arms, eyes and sharp claws and teeth.

2.There are two species of dragons.

According to Iban ethnologist Benedict Sandin, there are two species of dragons in Iban folklore. One species loves the water so it lives in the sea, pool or in the river. Meanwhile, another species prefer the mountain top.

The one which lives on the mountain top kills with its crested tail. It can also spit venom and breathe fire .

3.It is believed that a dragon protected the Ibans during the infamous Cholera expedition

Benedict wrote in The Sarawak Gazette on Nov 30, 1964, “It was said by the Ulu Ai Ibans during the Cholera Expedition against Penghulu Bantin of Delok in 1902, before the arrival of the Government forces at the mouth for Delok river in the upper Batang Ai, that they saw a huge dragon track going down from the hill to the river. During the following night Bantin had a dream. He dreamt that he met a huge dragon which told him not to worry about the enemy as he (the dragon) would fight for him.”

Eventually, one fifth of the 10,000 men recruited to fight the alleged rebels died of Cholera hence the name ‘Cholera Expedition’.

4.A dragon also helped fight the Japanese during World War II

When an Iban leader, the late Temenggong Koh fought against the Japanese during World War II, he gave offerings to the dragon god seeking its protection.

Benedict shared, “It was due to this that whenever the late Temenggong Koh was worried by the enemy he would throw an offering into the river to appeal for immediate help from his dragon god. He did this during the fighting against the Japanese soldiers at the own of Song during liberation days in 1945.”

5.There is a guardian dragon cited in a mourning song

In the olden days, according to Benedict, the Iban believed that whenever a person died in this world, thousands of their relatives who died before them will come from the other world to fetch their soul to live with them in Mandai Mati.

“On their way to Mandai Mati, on reaching the Pintu Tanah (Door to Earth) which separates this world from the next, a guardian dragon is mentioned in the following mourning song,” he added.

Here is the English translation of the song:

Then spoke the maiden Simba
Who, when she died was transformed into a hawk
“Where are you maiden Jawai
Who wears a single red pelaga stone,
And you maiden Iyak,
Who is lively and gay?
Please open the door of the dragon snake;
The door of red soil;
So that we can have a way to return to our country,
In the forest full of small mango trees;
With flowers all upside down.

We have no time!
Replied the dragon snake,
Because we are doing most important work,
Having been asked by Pungga and Laja,
To weave for them coloured petticoats,
Which they will wear on a short expedition,
To the mouth of the Kantu river
If they return from thence,
They will bring for us two lumps
Of precious (gombala) stones,
As big as areca nuts.

How were heads celebrated after headhunting trips in Sarawak?

While most Sarawakians know the practice of headhunting was part of our history, most of us are not informed about how the heads were received after being taken.

The common understanding is that headhunters were received with a heroic welcome and a great feast after a successful headhunting trip.

But how were the heads received by the villagers? What did the celebrations look like or who performed the ritual?

Here at KajoMag, we look at different accounts recorded in the 19th century on how old Sarawak communities received heads which were taken by their warriors:
1024px Sarawak Sea Dayaks with weapons and head dresses. Photograp Wellcome V0037431
Sarawak: Sea Dayaks with weapons and head-dresses. Credits: Creative commons.
1.Hugh Low in Sarawak, its inhabitants and productions (1848).

Low had no love for the headhunting ceremony, although he described that the Dayak viewed this ceremony with sentiments of satisfaction and delight.

“The fleet, returning from a successful cruise, on approaching the village, announce to its inhabitants their fortunes by a horrid yell, which is soon imitated and prolonged by the men, women and children, who have stayed home.

“The head is brought on shore with much ceremony, wrapped up in the curiously folded and plated leaves of the nipah palm, and frequently emitting the disgusting odour peculiar to decaying mortality.

“This, the Dyaks have frequently told me, is particularly grateful to their senses, and surpasses the odorous durian, their favourite fruit.”

Low added that the head was treated with the greatest consideration, lavishing it with all the terms of endearment.

After that, they offered sireh leaves and betel nut to the head while placing a cigar between its lips, “to propitiate the spirit by kindness, and to procure its good wishes for the tribe, of whom it is now supposed to have become a member.”

Then the ceremony continued with dancing, drinking and plenty of gong music.

2.Henry Keppel’s A Visit to the Indian Archipelago in HMS Meander (1853) on the Melanau community

Sir Keppel became the commanding officer of HMS Meander in November 1847. During that time, he was deployed in operations against pirates along the coast of Borneo.

He came across the Melanau communities of Sarawak and recorded what he observed.

“Although the Millanows do not preserve the heads of their enemies, a young warrior will occasionally bear home such a trophy with the same sort of pleasure a young fox-hunter takes home his first brush.

“On this occasion, a juvenile aspirant to love and glory, who had accompanied the expedition and wished to display a prize he had won, was met on landing by the women, who had already spied the relic from their elevated platform on the bank.

“They descended to meet it with a stick in each hand, and began to play on the unfortunate head, as if it had been a tom-tom. After this performance, each in turn rushed into the river, as if to cleanse herself from the pollution.

“Although these gentle creatures did not strike with any violence, it was as much as the young hero could do to prevent his trophy from being pummelled into a jelly.”

3.Henry Keppel on the people in Lundu

Keppel also witnessed the ceremony of receiving a head in Lundu.

He stated, “In one house there was a grand fete, in which the women danced with the men. There were four men, two of them bearing human skulls, and two the fresh head of pigs; the women bore wax-lights, or yellow rice on brass dishes. They danced in line, moving backwards and forwards, and carrying the heads and dishes. They danced in line, moving backwards and forwards, and carrying the heads and dishes in both hands; the graceful part was the manner in which they half-turned the body to the right and left, looking over their shoulders and holding the heads in the opposition direction, as if they were in momentary expedition of someone coming up behind to snatch the nasty relic from them. At times the women knelt down in group, with the men leaning over them.”

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Skulls on display inside the baruk at Sarawak Cultural Village.
4.Spenser St. John on the Land Dayak’s head feast in Life in the Forest of the Far East

St. John described the head feast for the Land Dayak was a great day for the young bachelor.

“The head house and village are decorated with green boughs and the heads to be feasted are brought out from their very airy position being hung from one of the beams. An offering of food is made to the heads, and their spirits, being thus appeased, cease to entertain malice against, or to seek to inflict injury upon, those who have got possession of the skull which formerly adorned the now forsaken body,” he wrote.

Then the young men cut a coconut shell to make a cup and dyed it in red and black colours. They decorated the cup to look like a bird and poured alcohol into it.

St. John recorded, “The cup is filled with arrack, and the possessor performs a short wild dance with it in his hands, and then with a yell leaps before some chosen companion, and presents it to him to drink. Thus the ‘loving cup’ is passed around among them, and it need not be said that the result is in many cases partial, through seldom excessive, intoxication.”

Punans heads taken by Sea Dayaks Wellcome M0005506
Punan’s heads taken by Sea Dayaks Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images 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

The life of Sibu historical figure Wong Nai Siong in Sarawak

Wong Nai Siong is perhaps one of the most famous Chinese pioneers to arrive in Sibu.

Born on July 25, 1849 in Fuzhou, Fujian Province of China, Wong was the eldest of four sons. His father was Wong King Po who worked as a farmer (although some records stated that he was a carpenter).

Wong Nai siong
Young Wong Nai Siong in an undated photo, but most probably in the late 19th century. Credits: Public Domain.
Wong Nai Siong was one of the first to convert into Christianity in his village in Fuzhou

Looking back on his life, Wong was an educated man. He first studied at a traditional Chinese village school. Then he took the Imperial examinations and was awarded the rank of Xiu Cai.

Back in old Chinese dynasties, Xiu Cai was the name for intellectuals who participated in the Imperial Examination. Later, Wong took his County Exam or Autumn Exam in which he passed and became a Ju Ren. As a Ju Ren, Wong was an official reputable member of the literati.

In 1866, missionaries from the Methodist Episcopal came to China. Wong was then baptised in November that year, becoming one of the few to become a Christian.

A year later, a priest named Xu Yang Mei took him in. It was during this time that Wong started to learn English and became exposed to Western culture.

Wong Nai Siong started the first Christian newspaper promoting political reform in China

Wong started to be interested in reforming Chinese politics after his third brother was killed in the First Sino-Japanese War.

Another report by author Lee Khoon Choy in Golden Dragon and Purple Phoenix, stated that Wong was frustrated with the decadent Qing dynasty and wanted a change.

“He was very much influenced by Kang You Wei’s reformist ideas. China, under the rules of Empress Dowager, was signing away unequal treaties to the Western Power. He went to Beijing and got in touch with the reformist leader Kang You Wei, who was advocating a reform movement similar to the Japanese Meiji Reform,” Lee wrote.

Kang was a Chinese scholar and political thinker of the late Qing dynasty.

Wong even started the first Christian newspaper promoting political reform.

Unfortunately for both Wong and Kang, their political reform movement failed. The failure forced Wong to flee back to Fujian and eventually to Nanyang (Southeast Asia).

Wong Nai Siong was responsible for bringing Chinese immigrants to Sibu in 1900

In September 1899, Wong arrived in Singapore to work as an editor for a local newspaper.

According to David W. Scott in Mission as Globalization, this was the year when Wong stopped by Sarawak while on his tour of Southeast Asia as part of visiting his daughter and son-in-law, prominent Singaporean Chinese leader Lim Boon Keng.

This visit led to a contract between Wong and the second White Rajah, Charles Brooke.

Reportedly, the Rajah gave him a loan of $30,000. This was to cover the cost of transporting the settlers from China to Sibu.

“This agreement stipulated that Nai Siong would bring 1,000 settlers to immigrate to Sarawak for the sake of developing an agricultural colony. To select these labour migrants, Nai Siong recruited heavily among his Methodist compatriots, especially his home county and two neighbouring counties in Foochow (Fuzhow),” Scott stated in his book.

Meanwhile, the loan was to be repaid over a period of five years. Wong undertook to recover the loan from the settlers by making them pay two-third of their annual produce as tax until the debt was fully repaid.

The Sarawak government once arrested Wong Nai Siong

On Feb 20, 1901, Wong brought in 72 Foochows from China to Sungai Merah and another 535 arrived on Mar 16.

That same year, Wong received a second loan of $10,000 from the Sarawak government to bring more settlers to Sibu.

Unfortunately for Wong, he gave the money to a man named Lik Chiang for safe-keeping, but the latter ran away with it to Taiwan.

Somehow, Wong still managed to bring another group of 511 settlers on June 7, 1902.

He then set up a custom office at Lower Rajang to collect tolls from farmers and traders.

Historian Chang Pat Foh in Legends and History of Sarawak pointed out that this landed Wong in trouble because he was accused of collecting taxes without the Rajah’s authority.

Chang wrote, “He was arrested but was released not long afterwards. Upon his release, he promised to pay the debts incurred but he failed due to poor harvests by the Fuzhow community. In the end, the White Rajah gave up hope to collect the repayment of loan.”

In June 1904, Wong decided to return to Fujian, China after passing his managing duties to American priest James Hoover. His departure was surrounded by different rumours including poor health, his reluctance to deal opium and his $40,000 debt to the Rajah.

Wong Nai Siong’s legacy in Sarawak
Foochow ymca board 1920
YMCA Board of Directors, Fuzhou, Fujian, China in 1920. Wong Nai Siong, front row, seventh from right. Credits: Public Domain.

Wong died on Sept 22, 1924 after suffering from liver illness. Although he only spent less than four years in Sarawak, his legacy continues to linger, especially in Sibu.

There you can find few sites built in commemoration of Wong including the Wong Nai Siong Memorial Garden at Sungei Merah, SM Wong Nai Siong and Wong Nai Siong Road.

1911 Fukien Cabinet
Fukien Cabinet – Fuzhou Protestants and the Making of a Modern China in 1911. Wong Nai Siong, first row, fourth from left. Credit: Public Domain.

How did the rumours of Kayans practising cannibalism spread?

One of the biggest misconceptions of Borneo in the 19th century was that it was a place where cannibalism was common practice.

Plenty of tribes in Borneo were depicted as cannibals in European writing, including the Kayans in Sarawak and Dutch Borneo (Kalimantan).

One account of alleged cannibalism practised among the Kayans was recorded by Sir Henry Keppel.

He received his information from three men named Kusu, Gajah and Rinong from Kapuas.

“I examined them myself, and entertain no doubt of the correctness of these statements, as far as their personal knowledge is concerned. The witnesses themselves stated over and over again, with the utmost clearness, how much they had seen, and how much heard. There was such perfect good faith and simplicity in their stories as to carry conviction of their truth,” Keppel wrote.

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Was cannibalism really being practised in Borneo?
So here is the full testimony of the three men on how they encountered the “cannibalistic Kayans”:

We are of the tribe of Sibaru; which is likewise the name of a branch of the Kapuas river. The tribe of Sibaru contains 2,000 fighting men and is under the government of Pangeran Kuning, who resides at Santang, a Malay town on the Kapuas. We have none of us who resides at Santang, a Malay town on the Kapuas, where the Kayans live, but they often come down to Santang where we meet them. The Kayans are quite independent, very numerous and powerful: they are governed by their own Rajahs, whom they call Takuan. Some of these Kayan tribes are cannibals (makan manusia); it is generally reported, and we know it to be true.

Pangeran Kuning of Santang was at war a few years ago with Pangeran Mahomed of Sewite, a Malay town situated on the Kapuas between Santang and Salimbaw. A large force was collected to attack Suwite. There were Malays (laut) of Santang and Sakadow, and the Dyaks of Sibaru, Samaruang, Dassar and of other tribes; and besides all these, was a party of about fifty Kayans.

We never heard the particular name of this Kayan tribe, for we did not mix with them, not did we understand their language. Suwite was not taken, but a few detached houses were captured, and one man of the enemy was killed in the assault.

Kusu saw these Kayans run small spits of iron, from eight inches to a foot long, into the fleshy parts of the dead men’s legs and arms, from the elbow to the shoulder, and from above the ankle beneath the calf to the knee-joint: and they sliced off the flesh with their swords, and put it into baskets.

They carry these spits, as we all saw, in a case under the scabbard of their swords. They prize heads in the same way as the Dyaks. They took all the fresh off the body, leaving only the big bones, and carried it to their boats, and we all saw them broil and afterward eat it. They ate it with great relish, and it smelt, while cooking, like hog’s flesh. It was not we alone that saw them eat this, but the whole force (bala) saw it.

Men say that many of these interior tribes of Kayans eat human flesh- that of their enemies; most, however, do not, and all of them are represented to be good people and very hospitable; and we never heard that they ate other than the flesh of their enemies. It made us sick to see them, and we were afraid, horrified.

Spencer St John’s records of Kayans practising cannibalism

Just like Keppel, St John did not witness any Kayans practising cannibalism during his time in Sarawak.

However, according to St John, a Malay nobleman named Usup told him that he actually witnessed it.

In 1855, men from Mukah had been executed in Bintulu. A few of the Kayans who helped in their capture took portions of the bodies of the criminals, roasted and ate them.

St John wrote, “This was witnessed by himself and many others who were then present. The Kayans had not, as a body, joined in this disgusting feast; but, perhaps some of the more ferocious may practice it to strike terror into their enemies.”

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Records that the Kayans did not practice cannibalism

Not everybody believed that Kayans practised cannibalism.

Sir Hugh Low wrote that the Kayans were hastily stigmatised as cannibals and added: “nor does any race practicing the horrid custom of feeding on the bodies of their own species, exist on the island.”

The Kayans might not have been the second Rajah of Sarawak Charles Brooke’s favourite tribe, but he never believed that they were capable of cannibalism.

1024px Sarawak four Kayan natives collecting gutta percha from a t Wellcome V0037406
Here is what he wrote about the Kayans and cannibalism in Borneo:

“This tribe are cowardly, untruthful, and treacherous, and are capable of committing many horrors, but the gravest attached to the Kayans, I feel confident, is without foundation, namely, that of cannibalism. For, during the expedition of 1863, there was no sign of it, and I had abundant opportunities of making strict enquiry in the very heart of the country.

“Many reports of this description are spread by the enemies of a people to degrade them in the estimation of Europeans. Such reports are purely fabulous, and I do not believe any tribes are cannibals in this part of Borneo, although stories go far to lead one to a contrary belief.”

However, a group of Malays told the Rajah that they did see pieces of human flesh in bamboo during a visit to Kapuas region and that they were used as provision.

“I regret that I am unable positively, to contradict such statements; but it is my firm conviction cannibalism is not practiced on any part of the island of Borneo,” Brooke wrote.

Do bear in mind that all written reports of alleged cannibalism among Kayans were written by the Europeans after listening to secondary sources. Thus, some information might have gotten lost in translation. None of these 19th century writers had actually seen any Kayans eating human flesh.

Another theory was that this rumour was spread by the local guides to discourage the Europeans from travelling further inland of Borneo.

Imagine refusing to bring your client to a place by telling them it is full of cannibals.

What does a bleeding corpse tell you in different cultures?

Do you know what happens to your body after your heart stops beating?

Within seconds of death, the oxygen in your body will be depleted. Then the blood collects in the most dependent parts of the body (liver mortis), and then your body starts to stiffen (rigor mortis).

Finally, the temperature of the body will decrease and this is when the body goes through algor mortis.

Since your heart stops pumping after death, the flow of blood around your body stops. This causes the blood to coagulate forming clots and becoming thick and lumpy.

But it does not mean that your body will entirely stop bleeding after you are dead.

Under normal conditions, the intestinal bacteria in the corpse produces large amounts of gas that flows into your blood vessels and tissues.

This gas is responsible for bloating in the dead body, making the tongue and eyes protrude and pushes the intestines out through the vagina and rectum.

It also causes bloodstained fluid to exude from the nose and mouth. Although a bleeding corpse is scientifically proven as part of the body’s decomposition process, this scene can be easily interpreted as other reasons in different cultures.

A bleeding corpse and cruentation in European countries

Cruentation was one of the medieval methods of finding proof against a suspected murderer. This was based on the common belief was that the body of the victim would spontaneously bleed in the presences of the murderer.

In the olden days, this practice was used in countries such as Germany, Poland, Bohemia, Scotland and European colonies in North America.

If there was suspicion of murder, the accused was brought before the corpse of the victim.

He or she was then made to put his or her hands on it. If the wounds of the corpse started to bleed, the accused would be deemed guilty of murder.

Can you imagine how many people couple had been wrongly accused of murder for the past of centuries just because of a corpse’s propensity to bleed?

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A body in its coffin starts to bleed in the presence of the murderer in an illustration of the laws of Hamburg in 1497. Credits: Public Domain.
In old Chinese superstition, a bleeding corpse meant a relative recognised the dead person.

There is an ancient superstition still believed by Sarawakian Chinese communities during the 1940s.

It was believed that when a dead body was recognised by a family member, blood would begin to come out from the corpse’s nose.

In November 1947, a dead body was found floating in the Sarawak river. According to a Sarawak Gazette report, the body was then dragged to the steps of Pangkalan Batu.

Soon enough, it was reported “an European police officer, of impeccable observation and indubitable integrity, took charge of the case.

“After a little delay a Chinese arrived who thought that he could recognise the corpse as that of his brother who, he understood, had been missing from his home for two days. He brought his sister to make sure. When the sister came she had no difficulty in identifying the deceased.”

Then, a curious thing happened to the dead body as blood began to trickle out of the corpse’s nose.

That was when the dresser informed the European officer that if blood flowed from the nose of the dead body, it meant that the deceased was recognised by a member of the family.

Do you know any more superstitions behind a bleeding corpse? Share with us in the comment box.

The Sarawak Museum curator who became a cockroach specialist

Back in the early days of Sarawak Museum, many of its curators became prominent zoologists, anthropologists and archaeologists.

Being posted here in Sarawak when it was almost unknown to the Western world allowed these curators to be among the first to discover a new plant or animal or formally write about unheard of cultures.

Many of them continued to have successful careers after their service in Sarawak. Interestingly, one of them became specialised in cockroaches.

Early life of Robert Shelford

Robert Walter Campbell Shelford was appointed as the Sarawak Museum curator from July 22, 1897 to Feb 2, 1905.

A British subject, he was the son of a merchant, born in Singapore Aug 3, 1872.

Shelford studied at King’s College and Emmanuel College, Cambridge.

After finishing his degree, Shelford first worked as a Demonstrator in Biology at the Yorkshire College in 1895.

Two years later, he left Europe to come to Borneo.

Since he was born in Singapore and spent most of his childhood there, Shelford was no stranger to the tropical climate.

However, according to his friend and colleague Edward Poulton, he was diagnosed with hip-joint tuberculosis at the age of 3. Hence, his disease limited physical activities.

“Prevented by a tubercular hip joint from taking part in the games and ordinary outdoor pursuits of a boy and young man, his active mind turned to observation, and he became a naturalist.”

Poulton also pointed out that his seven-year tenure in Sarawak gave Shelford the biggest opportunity to study topical insects and anthropology.

While in Sarawak, Shelford made several expeditions to different parts of the Kingdom. He visited Mount Penrissen (May 1899), Trusan (1902) and Sadong-Tebekang (1903). Shelford also frequented Matang mountain range and Mount Santubong.

He collected many specimens of insects in Sarawak and most of them were sent to his old university at Cambridge.

Robert Shelford and the study of mimicry and anthropology

Shelford did more than just collect these insects, he also used them to study insect mimicry. Mimicry is an evolved resemblance between an organism and another object, often an organism of another species.

Poulton wrote, “He found Borneo a very rich and imperfectly explored field for the study of this subject (mimicry), and before long he entered into a regular correspondence with me, sending large consignments of insects for investigation and determination.”

Shelford even wrote a paper on insects and mimicry which was published in the Proceedings of the Zoological Society of London.

Additionally, his works in Sarawak was not limited to insects. Shelford was also interested in anthropology.

Together with Dr Charles Hose, he contributed some insights on Sarawak tattoos which later published in Hose’s book Pagan Tribes of Borneo.

Robert Shelford’s life after Sarawak

When his tenure in Sarawak was about to end, Shelford started to find jobs back in England.

His love and interest for insects remained so he was eyeing for a job in the Hope Department at Oxford.

The Hope Department was a huge collection of insects in the university founded by Frederick William Hope.

He even wrote to Poulton that if the university was unable to pay him, he was even willing to work for free.

Fortunately, Oxford was able to offer him the post as an assistant curator which he gladly accepted.

After leaving Kuching for good, Shelton made his way home to Europe via Japan, Canada and the United States.

Before that, he managed to visit many islands in the Malay Archipelago where he collected insects.

Robert Shelford in Oxford

It was during his time in Oxford that this former Sarawak Museum curator became specialised in cockroaches.

Poulton stated, “It was also a special delight to him to show the high interest and in many species the extreme beauty of the universally despised cockroaches.”

Altogether, he had described 44 new genera and 326 new species of cockroaches.

He also described five new species of Phasmida (stick insects) and published a catalogue of Central American phasmid species.

Many of the phasmid specimens in both Oxford and Cambridge universities were collected by Shelford when he was in Sarawak.

Thanks to his works in entomology, he had a long list of species named after him. These include 17 species of cockroaches, two genera of cockroaches, one mantis and one phasmid.

Portrait Robert W C Shelford
Robert W C Shelford, British Entomolgist and Naturalist. Credits: Public Domain.
Robert Shelford’s death

Shelford’s promising career in entomology was cut short too quickly. In April 1909, he accidentally slipped causing his tubercular disease to return.

The disease limited his work for the next three years. However, he did not give up as he continued to help the Hope Department whenever he could.

Shelford once write, “I am so pleased to think that I can do something at any rate, even of small, for the Hope Department.”

He spent the last few moments of his life in Margate with hope the fresh air there would restore his health.

Sadly, Shelford never regained his health and died on June 22, 1912 at the age of 39.

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Illustrations of the stick insects Autolyca riveti Shelford, 1913 & Autolyca affinis Shelford, 1913. Credits: Public Domain.
Robert Shelford’s A Naturalist in Borneo

Before his untimely death, Shelford was working on a book based on his seven years’ experience in Sarawak.

Poulton suggested him to write it while he was battling his illness and as he was longing for a job to do.

As the pain grew stronger, Shelford was unable to finish his manuscript. Poulton stepped in to help finishing the book after his death. What he found that the manuscript was very far from ready for publication.

“Many references had been left blank or incomplete, many names of species omitted,” Poulton wrote.

In Shelford’s unfinished introduction chapter of the book, he commented about Sarawak saying, “This independent state is quietly prosperous, and, since it is very much off the track of the globe trotting tourist, it is never much in the public eye. The annual revenue now amounts to over 1,000,000 Straits dollars.”

Nonetheless, with the help of some friends and scholars, Poulton managed to have the manuscript published entitled A Naturalist in Borneo (1916).

How did the headhunting practice start in Borneo?

Headhunting is the act of taking and preserving a person’s head after killing that person.

Generally, scholars agree that headhunting practice’s primary function was for ritualistic and ceremonial purposes.

Some even theorized that the practice came from the belief that the head contained a life force which could be harnessed through its capture.

In Borneo particularly, some of the reasons for headhunting included it being a sign of manhood, as a dowry of sorts for marriage, as casualties during the capture of enemies as slaves, looting of valuable properties, tribal conflicts and territorial expansion.

But how did the olden communities first think of taking off someone’s head and preserving it afterwards?

Here are three different accounts on how the headhunting practice originated in Borneo:
Punans heads taken by Sea Dayaks Wellcome M0005506
Punan’s heads taken by Sea Dayaks. Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Copyrighted work available under Creative Commons Attribution only licence CC BY 4.0

Headhunting practice originated from the act of sacrifice

A.M. Phillips wrote a letter to The Sarawak Gazette which was published on Apr 30, 1958. There, he shared about a legend concerning the origin of headhunting practice in Borneo.

Long time ago, the Dayaks in Saribas were still living in upper Batang Ai. There was a Dayak man who had no child of his own.

One day, he decided to take a jar along with a small party to an area where current day Kalimantan, Indonesia is.

At one of the longhouses there, he found a family who was willing to give up their son for him to adopt. After some celebration, the man and his party together with his newly adopted son set to return to Batang Ai while leaving the jar to the family as a token.

On their way home, the group had some misfortunes and sickness that two of them died. The man who started the expedition had a dream one night.

In the dream, he was told to kill his adopted son and keep only his head to be taken back to the longhouse. There the head would need to be preserved to ward off anymore misfortunes.

Once he woke up, he told the rest of his group about the dream. The idea of cutting off someone’s head was unheard of at that time. Nonetheless, the group persuaded him to do what he had been told in the dream.

The man reluctantly killed his adopted son. He then returned to his longhouse with the rest of the survivors of his group in good health. Meanwhile, the head was kept and preserved and the longhouse prospered.

A tale of vengeance

Sometime after that, a visitor from the boy’s longhouse came to visit. He heard the story about how the boy was killed and his head was hung at the longhouse. The visitor returned to his longhouse and told the boy’s biological parents.

Phillips wrote, “They were extremely incensed, for they had trusted the stranger, despite the fact that he was from another group and had hoped that friendship would have resulted between them.”

In a classic tale of vengeance, the parents together with the rest of the longhouse people set out to the man’s longhouse.

They took back the boy’s skull, but not without killing their now sworn enemies. Vengeance followed vengeance, and that was how headhunting practices started in Borneo.

It was a frog who inspired the headhunting practice in Borneo

W.F. Alder’s Men of the Inner Jungle (1923) gave one interesting legend on how the headhunting practice started in Borneo.

“One time during the progress of a tribal battle one of the warriors was sorely wounded and went to a stream to wash his hurts,” Alder wrote.

While bending over the edge of the stream he heard a voice speak to him. When he turned around, there stood a frog.

“The frog warned him that he would never succeed in battle until he took the head of his enemy and hung it from the roof of his house.”

The frog added that, only then all would fear him and because of that fear, would fall easy victim to his sword.

The man laid in the cool water until nightfall. When night came and the jungle was dark, the man made his way to his enemy’s house. There, the man crept on his enemy, struck him with a club, killing him instantly.

Alder wrote, “He then silently dragged the body of his victim into the jungle and cut off the head and at daybreak placed it upon the roof pole of his own house.”

Crocodile mounds 8
A crocodile mound is where the Lundayeh people of Krayan Highlands celebrated after a successful headhunting trip.

The headhunting practice was started to please a woman

Guys, how far would you go to impress somebody? According to this legend from Skrang, one of the ‘chief incentives’ of collecting heads was the desire to please the women.

Harriette McDougall, wife to Bishop McDougall recorded an old legend about the daughter of the Skrang people’s great ancestor who refused to marry.

Well…not until her betrothed brought her a present worthy of her acceptance.

The legend goes, “The man went into the jungle and killed a deer, which he presented to her; but the fair lady turned away in disdain.” (Some women just can’t be pleased.)

So the man went out again, this time he returned with the body of an orangutan. Again, the woman was not happy with her gift. (What did these poor animals ever do to her?)

“Then, in a fit of despair, the lover went abroad, and killed the first man that he met, and throwing his victim’s head at the maiden’s feet, he exclaimed at the cruelty she had made him guilty of; but to his surprise, she smiled, and said, that she now had discovered the only gift worthy of herself.”

Hence, that is how headhunting practice originated – as part of a marriage proposal.

Do you know any legends on the origin of headhunting in Borneo? Let us know in the comment box.

A headhunting story told through ngajat in 1871

The ngajat is a traditional Iban dance in Borneo. It is traditionally performed as a welcoming dance, before and after a war or headhunting trip and to celebrate a bountiful harvest.

Just like the Kayan kajer, a ngajat performance usually tells a story or a theme. The common story for men’s ngajat or kajer is a man showing his story of the hunt through dance, all while displaying his gracefulness and agility. Finally, the performance ends with the dancer successful in his ‘hunting trip’.

Another common story told through ngajat is performed by two male dancers. These two dancers battle each other in a ‘dance’ combat with one of them emerging victorious.

Unfortunately, most ngajat or kajer these days by young dancers center around elegant hand movements and smooth hopping without telling any specific story or theme.

Here at KajoMag, we look back at an example of how Iban male dancers in 1871 performed their ngajat and the story they told:

The Sarawak Gazette dated Dec 15, 1871 reported a performance in Kuching led by 15 Iban fortmen.

“First came a solemn dance by two men in native costume, that is to say with a long chawat or waist cloth wrapped around them and hanging down to their feet and a tight jacket, who gyrated round at opposite corners of a square formed by laying down four long planks on the ground, in a shuffling step, keeping time to a monotonous beating of gongs; this was succeeded by a spirited combat with drawn parangs and shields,” the report stated.

“Whenever they thought they were coming to too close quarters, both combatants rapidly retreated.

“It was grotesque enough when matters came to such a pass that the dancers, crouched or lying on the ground, took furtive stabs at each other round the edges of their shields.”

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The ngajat for men usually have the dancer holds a wooden shield in his left hand and a sword in his right hand and dances facing the enemy with his body swinging to the left and to the right. Credits: Pixabay.
The ‘cutting of head’ during ngajat

According to this Sarawak Gazette report, the ngajat performed for Singaporean guests featured a headhunting scene.

The choreography started like this, “One warrior is engaged in picking a thorn out of his foot, but is ever on the alert for the lurking enemy with his arms ready at hand. This enemy is at length suddenly discovered, and after some rapid attack and defence, a sudden plunge is made at him and he is dead upon the ground.”

Then the dancer performed the taking of his head in pantomime, which the writer reported, “The last agonies of the dying man were too painfully and probably too truthfully depicted to be altogether a pleasant sight.”

This happened in 1871 when headhunting was still rampant, so perhaps the depiction was too close to home. (There was a report of a Kayan man who danced too excitedly that he cut off the head of one of his audience members).

The story of the ngajat didn’t stop there, as the dramatic part of the ngajat that could inspire a plot in Korean drama or Spanish telenovela came next: The Iban warrior discovered that the man he was just slain was not his enemy but his own brother. (Cue dramatic sound effect).

In the end, the story told in this ngajat concluded with what the writer stated as “the least pleasing part of the performance – a man in a fit, writhing in frightful convulsions, being charmed into life and sanity by necromantic physicians.”

Perhaps the writer wouldn’t enjoy how Marvel characters are brought back to life.

Ngajat, a characteristic dance
1024px Sarawak Sea Dayaks with weapons and head dresses. Photograp Wellcome V0037431
Sarawak: Sea Dayaks with weapons and head-dresses. Credits: Creative commons.

The unnamed writer (who is most likely a European) praised the ngajat as authentic to its roots and in its depictions.

He wrote, “Dyak dancing being really savage, is more characteristic than the mock savagery exhibited at the Northern Meetings in Scotland, and to our ears the musical accompaniment is rather less disagreeable than the nasal drone of the bagpipes.”

We can’t say which one is better; bagpipes or the tabuh. But we have to say it would be interesting to see a ngajat performance at the Sarawak Cultural Village or cultural function depict a gruesome headhunting scene followed by a victim writhing around on stage in pain.

Looking back at Simanggang peace making ceremony in 1920

After decades of tribal wars between the Ibans in Ulu Ai and the Skrang, Layar and Lemanak, they finally made peace in 1920.

To mark the peaceful agreement between these parties, a peace making ceremony was held at Simanggang (now Sri Aman) on Aug 4 that year.

Although the Iban from Ulu Ai had long declared their loyalty to the Brooke government in 1909 after a series of punitive expeditions, they had yet made peace with other Iban communities.

They continued to raid others longhouses like those on the Layar in 1914 and Ulu Skrang in 1915.

After a meeting that took place in June 1920, they finally agreed to come to term with each other by exchanging jars as a sign of peace.

According to a report by the Sarawak Gazette on Sept 1, 1920, the ceremony of exchanging jars was crucial in keeping peace among these headhunters communities.

The article explained, “This custom amongst Dayak dates from time immemorial and is known as the palit mata sapu moa literally to ‘dry the eyes and wipe the face’, meaning that once this exchange has been effected, all grief for those killed in the feud is assuaged. No Dayak peace has ever been lasting without this ceremony, as so many ‘pig-killings’ bear testimony. The jars exchanged are kept in the houses of the headmen of the respective tribes as tangible tokens of the settlement of the feud. At the time of the ceremony of exchanging these jars, terrible curses are uttered by the chief headman of either side whose should at any future reopen the feud by taking the head of an aforetime enemy.”

Days before the event, the Ibans from nearby areas flocked to Simanggang just to attend the peace making ceremony.

There was a pavilion decorated in the Sarawak colours erected just for the ceremony.

As what had been agreed in June, the Ibans Ulu Ai should hand over 20 jars and the Ibans from Engkari another 10 jars to the Skrang, Layar and Lemanak during the peace making ceremony.

In return, the Ibans from Skrang, Layar and Lemanak prepared 10 jars each.

So before the event, 30 jars from Ulu Ai and Engkari were displayed on the upriver side of the pavilion while another 30 jars from Skrang, Layar and Lemanak were displayed on the downriver side.

The third White Rajah of Sarawak, Vyner Brooke who attended the historical ceremony also delivered a speech in Iban.

Fort Sylvia Kapit 4
An example of jar used during a peace making ceremony.
Here is a transcript of Vyner’s speech in Iban during the peace making ceremony:

“Nyadi baka aku datai ditu ka meda kita menoa Ulu Batang Ai enggai Skrang serta Layar enggau Lemanak bebunoh babi lalu besileh tajau ka pali mata ka sapu moa. Nyadi ari kalia, apai aku, Rajah Tuai, udah ga ngemata ka Balan serta Undup palit mata enggau Skrang. Nadai kala sida bunoh sama diri udah nya. Sida pen datai ka maiatu bisi ga tanda ti di bri apai aku, Rajah tuai, leboh nya. Baka nya pen bisi ga genap menoa tanda ari prentah.

Nyadi baka kita menoa Ulu udah baik enggau Skrang, enggau Layer, enggau Lemanak. Semua hukom semua pati nyawa ari spiak ari spiak pen udah tembu. Jako kita udah betemu udah sabaka, nadai tegal laya agi, babi pun udah mati. Alam asal kita nadai nyelai, kitai pen lebih nemu baka kita semua runding sama diri meyadi sama aki sama ini.

Nyadi tu aku ngamat ka aum kita di Krangan Telaus, laban aku baka apai enggau anak diri empu. Aku sayau meda kita sama belaya. Ti di rindu aku ngasoh semua kita sama lantang pendiau, ngasoh semua menoa tau endor nemuai, tau endor bepangan. Ngasoh kita semua berkabun, ulih ka wang, ulih ka mudal.

Nya alai aku ka bri kita jako, semua kita tuai ti bisi gempuru ditu ari ili ari ulu. Ingat, ingat peasn aku.

Sahari tu aku bri jako amat enggau kita nambah sumpah kita empu.

Enti dudi taun dudi hari bisi orang mungkal kerja kitai ditu, iya nya nyadi munsoh aku nambah kaban sida ti parai. Parai siku, ganti siku. Parai tiga, ganti tiga. Nadai tau pulai ka timbang nadai tau pulai ka hukom, maia ari ili, maia ari ulu, laban semua laya ari menya udah padam di moa aku sahari tu enggau tanda nya.

Nyadi tu, kita tuai menoa Ulu Batang Ai, aku mri tanda ngamat ka jako aku, nambah tajau palit mata, awak ka kita tau nampong semaia aku sampai ka tuboh anak kita, turun menurun.

Nyadi baka tajau ti enggi Penghulu Apai Laja, Penghulu Kana, serta Penghulu Jamit, aku tudong enggau bendai tu.

Nyadi baka kita tuai menoa ili, ingat kita jako nya. Nyadi aku bri kita tanda ka semaia aku enggau kita semua sahari tu. Baka Penghulu Labang alam Skrang, Penghulu Unji alam Layer, Penghulu Suel alam Lemanak, aku tudong tajau ti enggi kita enggau bendai tu.

Nyadi aku mri ka Penghulu Tarang enggau Chendan, sangkoh kena kring semengat, kuia kena kurang semengat, pua kumbu kena ngebap semengat.

Ingat, ingat kita semua pesan jako aku. Tu ikas jako aku.

The peace making ceremony
Fort Sylvia Kapit
Exhibition of ceremonial and ancient jars at Fort Sylvia, Kapit today.

After Vyner delivered his speech, Penghulu Unji from Ulu Layar and Penghulu from Delok proceeded with the ‘sampi’ or oath to declare their settlement of all their feuds.

Then Penghulu Labang from Ulu Skrang and Penghulu Apai Laja from Engkari continued the ceremony by killing two pigs.

The Ibans from Ulu Skrang and Engkari proceeded to stand at downriver side of the pavilion where the jars from Skrang, Layar and Lemanak were displayed and vice versa.

Once the district officers called upon of every chief, they went on to carry off the jars given to them by their former enemies.

Vyner also gave out chanang to every Iban chief as a token of the ratification of their peace making.

The peace making ceremony ended with a toast of tuak.

The Sarawak Gazette also published a translation of Vyner’s speech in English:

“Thus have I come here to witness all you people of the upper river Skrang, Layar and Lemanak make peace by the killing of pigs and the exchange of jars as a sign of having buried all your past enmities. And so, in days gone by, did my father witness the peace making between the Balau, Undup and Skrang tribes, since when they have ever lived in peace and goodwill one with another. And, to this day, every race under my rule has such signs of good faith from their aforetime enemies.

Now that all of you upper river have settled the blood feud with the tribes of the Skrang, Layar and Lemanak, you recognise how all are of the same stock, and have no further cause for dispute, honour having been satisfied on both sides by the settlements at the Telaas meeting place and the blood of a pig having been spilled to testify to this.

But I have come here to ratify that compact, as I am like a father with his children, my sole desire being that all should live in peace and friendliness one with another, and all countries be open, that you may all gain in prosperity by the cultivation of the soil, and trading one with another in the produce of your forests.

Therefore I desire to speak to you all this day, all you chiefs gathered together here from the upper and lower rivers. Make sure to remember my words.

The oaths which you will utter according to your own custom this day, I confirm with my word that, should anyone reopen this feud at any future day, that man shall become my sworn enemy, and I shall demand the life of anyone who so takes the life of another.

In the past your blood feud has been recognised, but from now henceforth this no longer exist having been finally settled this day before me by the blood of these pigs and the exchanged of those jars.

Therefore I now give, as a token of my word, to you of the upper river three chanang to cover those jars which are to be held by Penghulu Apai Laja, Penghulu Kana and Penghulu Jamit, so that these may be kept by you as a sign of my ratification of this settlement evident to your children, and all future generations.

Likewise you men of the lower rivers, remember my words, and, as a pledge of these, I cover those jars to be held Penghulu Labang in the Skrang, Penghulu Unji in the Layar and Penghulu Suel in the Lemanak each with a chanang.

And you Penghulu Tarang and Chendan I present with a spear, kuna and pua to hand you from generation to generation as a seal from myself that the spirit of strife between these tribes, of which, though you have lived amidst, neither has been a party, has now been finally laid at rest.

Remember my words, all you chiefs. I have spoken.”

Sri Aman
Simanggang today
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