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The Brooke battle against the Iban from Gaat river at Nanga Pila in 1916

About a century ago, the Iban from Gaat river, a tributary of the Baleh river, had been a cause of serious concern for the Brooke government.

They caused mayhem in the area with their headhunting attacks on their neighbouring tribes living upstream of Kapit.

What’s more, this group of Iban headhunters were often helped by their fellow Dayaks of Emperan from the Dutch border (Kalimantan).

In 1915, the government issued a warning to the surrounding longhouses especially at Baleh and Mujong rivers not to go to above Kapit unless in large parties.

Unfortunately, these warnings were not always heeded and the Iban headhunters from Gaat and Emperan continued to cause trouble.

In November that year, the Iban Gaat killed two Tanjung people near the mouth of the Baleh river.

A month later, they attacked a group of Ukits, killing three people. But the Ukits put up a good fight and caused considerable amount of losses on the Iban Gaat.

Charles Brooke’s intervention

According to S. Baring-Gould and C.A. Bampfylde in their book “A History of Sarawak under its Two White Rajahs”, the Sarawak Rangers battalion pictured here was composed of some 275 Iban, 100 Sepoys, 50 Malays, 25 Javanese, and 20 Philippine bandsmen, under an English Commandant and an Instructor. The force was established in 1846 under a native officer of the Ceylon Rifles. Photo credit: Lambert and Co.

The second White Rajah of Sarawak Charles Brooke decided to step in. In January 1916, he ordered an extra guard of Sarawak Rangers to be posted at Kapit.

He himself even visited in March that year to discuss the problem with people from Baleh and Mujong rivers.

These people had moved downstream of Kapit due to the conflict. Charles decided that they should remain below Kapit for three years until 1919 before he would allow them to farm on the land above Kapit. This was only, however, provided that the Iban Gaat ceased to cause trouble.

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In the same month, news came that the Ibans Gaat had attacked the Punan Bunuts and taken 14 heads, although they had lost four of their own men.

Toward the end of March, the then resident of Kapit G.M. Gifford received information that a party of Iban Gaat and Emperan was about to attack the Punan Bah. The force was reportedly to be 400 strong.

Gifford immediately went to Sibu to recruit 50 well-armed Malays and some Sarawak rangers. To make up his 200-man force, he also recruited the Kayans to help him in his mission.

The resident was planning either to give warning to the Punan Bahs or to meet the enemy party on its way back.

The Battle of Nanga Pila

The Iban from Gaat and Emperan had an ill-fated encounter with the Brooke force which was led by Gifford on April 1 at Nanga Pila, a tributary of Rajang river.

The government force destroyed many of their boats. The battle continued on the next day where the Ibans Gaat and Emperan tried to ambush the government party.

The attempt failed with large numbers of them shot down. Those who tried to escape were killed in the water or drowned.

All of their 15 war boats were taken by the Brooke force and it was estimated 200 of them died.

Meanwhile, the government reportedly only suffered one injury, a Kapit fortman named Impin who was wounded in the arm.

The aftermath of Nanga Pila battle

Even though the Iban from Gaat river suffered a tremendous loss during their battle with the Brooke government at Nanga Pila that fateful day, it somehow made them even more resilient.

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They continued to attack their neighbouring tribes over the next few years.

So in 1919, the Brooke government sent out a punitive expedition against the Ibans from Gaat once again led by Gifford.

He was joined by Bertram Brooke, Charles’ son and the brother of third Rajah Vyner.

The Gaat expedition was one of last few punitive expeditions which took place before the peacekeeping ceremony on Nov 16, 1924 at Fort Sylvia, Kapit.

A memorial stone to commemorate the 1924 peace-making ceremony.
Patricia Hului
Patricia Hului is a Kayan who wants to live in a world where you can eat whatever you want and not gain weight. She grew up in Bintulu, Sarawak and graduated from the University Malaysia Sabah with a degree in Marine Science. She worked for The Borneo Post SEEDS, which is now defunct. When she's not writing, you can find her in a studio taking belly dance classes, hiking up a hill or browsing through Pinterest. Follow her on Instagram at @patriciahului, Facebook at Patricia Hului at Kajomag.com or Twitter at @patriciahului.

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