A walk through history at Fort Sylvia, Kapit

If you happen to be cruising down Sarawak’s longest river, the Batang Rajang and find yourself in Kapit town, your stay would not be complete without a visit to Fort Sylvia.

Built in 1880, Fort Sylvia is one of the most historical sites in Sarawak. It may be hard to visit if you are a casual tourist as the town of Kapit itself is only accessible by two-hour expressboat ride from Sibu, but you can see the impressive belian fort as soon as you exit the Kapit Passengers Terminal.

It used to be called Kapit Fort or Kubu Kapit until 1925 when it was named after Ranee Sylvia Brooke, wife to the third White Rajah, Charles Vyner Brooke.

Under the Brooke administration, the fort was used as an administrative centre for the Upper Rejang area. Back then, the Sarawak Rangers, a para-military force were also stationed at the fort.

Over the years, the fort also housed the District Office, District Courthouse and later the Resident’s Office in 1973.

In May 1997, the Tun Jugah Foundation was given the responsibility to manage the fort, turning it into a museum.

Fort Sylvia Kapit (11)
Fort Sylvia, Kapit.

1924 Peace-making Ceremony at Fort Sylvia

During my visit to Fort Sylvia, I introduced myself to the staff as a Kayan,  explaining that my mother was from Belaga.

They were quick to point out that the fort was where my ancestors made peace with the Ibans in the area.

History has it that there were conflicts between the Iban and the Orang Ulu during Charles Brooke’s reign due to the Iban migration upriver in the Rajang River basin.

Headhunting was rampant. There were Ibans who openly revolted against the Rajah’s rule prohibiting them to migrate into selected rivers in the area.

Peace was slowly restored after 1919 when Charles Brooke launched an expedition in the area to eliminate these rebels.

Finally in 1924, they held a peace-making ceremony to commemorate the end of the tribal conflicts. A preliminary peace-making ceremony had been held the evening before on Nov 15 at Long Nawang, North Kalimantan, where a group of Kenyahs performed a war dance for the attendees.

The ceremony at Fort Sylvia took place on Nov 16 between the Kayans, Kenyahs and Kajangs of the Apo Kayan and Balui river with the Ibans of Batang Rajang and Batang Ai.

The ceremony started with the killing of one pig and the sprinkling of the pig’s blood. Some of the tribe leaders performed prayers during the ceremony which ended with the presentation of ancient jars and gongs to each of the tribe leaders from Charles Brooke.

Rajah Vyner Brooke gave this jar to Temenggong Koh Jubang as a token of peace during the peace-making ceremony.
Rajah Vyner Brooke gave this jar to Temenggong Koh Jubang as a token of peace during the peace-making ceremony.

Today, there is a small memorial located in front of the fort to mark the event.

It reads: “This Stone is to commemorate the Peace-making Ceremony between the Kayan, Kenyah and Kajang of the Apoh Kayan and the Balui River; and the Iban of Batang Rejang and Batang Ai head-waters, on  16 November 1924.”

A memorial stone to commemorate the 1924 peace-making ceremony.
A memorial to commemorate the 1924 peace-making ceremony.

One of the world’s largest amber deposits

A visit to Fort Sylvia also taught me about one of Sarawak’s valuable yet underrated natural resources – amber.

One of the world’s largest amber deposits was discovered in the Merit-Pila Coal Field along the Batang Rajang.

Geologists also found the largest piece of amber in the world in this area. Even more surprising is the age of the amber as it is estimated to be approximately 20 million years old.

The colours of amber vary from black to white and sometimes with shades of orange, red, yellow and brown.

Visitors can admire a small collection of amber carvings by local artist Kojan Kabeng from Punan Bah in one of the exhibits at Fort Sylvia.

Amber carvings by Kojan Kabeng.

Learning about Kapit and its rich history

Some of the weaving materials to make pua kumbu displayed.
Some of the weaving materials to make pua kumbu on display.

The museum also depicts the history of Kapit through old photos of its community leaders as well as a selection of Iban costumes and textiles.

One of Tun Jugah Foundation’s objectives is to promote Iban traditional weaving. As such, the fort also displays weaving tools and raw materials for making pua kumbu.

A view of Batang Rajang from the first floor of Fort Sylvia.
A view of Batang Rajang from the first floor of Fort Sylvia.

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While Kapit can only be accessed by expressboat for now, a 120km road from Sibu to Kapit is slated for completion by 2020.

Visit Tun Jugah Foundation for more information about Fort Sylvia.

Read other articles about forts in Sarawak here:

A visit to Fort Hose, Marudi, Sarawak

Lawatan ke Kubu Hose di Marudi

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