What we can learn about Iban customs from Rev Edwin H. Gomes

Reverend Edwin Herbert Gomes was an Anglican missionary in Sarawak at the beginning of the twentieth century.

During his 17 years of working here, he wrote several books about Sarawak including Seventeen Years Among the Sea Dyaks of Borneo (1911).

He received permission from ethnologist Dr Charles Hose to use his photographs for the book.

Through the book, readers can not only read a missionary’s experience in Sarawak but images to give the rough ideas of what it was like in those days.  

Rev Gomes recorded mostly about the customs of the Ibans with whom he worked closely.

From naming the children to burial rites, Gomes’ writing is based on what he had observed and what the Ibans in the early 19th century told him.

Perhaps because of the nature of his job as a pastor, the tone of his writing is not condescending but respectful.  

Iban customs
The figures in this picture were posed to give some idea of Dayak warfare. In the foreground was a ‘dead’ man. The Dayak over him was grasping his hair about to ‘cut off’ his head. Meanwhile, the two figures on the left and the man behind were waiting with their spears to attack the man who had taken refuge in the hole in the stump of a tree. Credit: Creative Commons. Copyright Expired.

So here are some of the things we learned about Iban customs as observed by Reverend Edwin Herbert Gomes:

Iban Customs 1
A Sea Dayak with Shield
The man is dressed in the usual waist-cloth the Dayak wear. On his head is a headkerchief decorated with a fringe. He wears a necklace of large silver buttons. On his arms are sea-shell bracelets, and on his calves a large number of palm fibre rings. His right hand is holding the handle of his sword, the sheath of which is fastened to his belt, and his left hand is on his shield. The shield is made out of one piece of wood and coloured with a fanciful design. It is decorated with human hair from the head of dead enemies.
Credit: Creative Commons. Copyright Expired.

1. Iban customs on adultery

First of all, Gomes described Iban customs on adultery as “peculiar and worthy of notice.”

 “If a woman commit adultery with a married man, his wife may make a complaint to the headman of the house, and receive a fine from the guilty woman; or, if she prefer it, she may waylay the guilty woman and thrash her; but if she do so, she must forgo one-half of the fine otherwise due to her.

In the eyes of the Dyak the woman is alone to blame in a case like this. “She knew,” they say, “the man has a wife of his own; she had no business to entice him away from her.” If a married man commits adultery with an unmarried woman the procedure is similar. The wife of the man may punish the girl, but no one punishes the man. The whole blame, according to Dyak ideas, falls on the woman for tempting the man.

If a married man commits adultery with a married woman, the husband of the woman is allowed to strike him with a club or otherwise maltreat him, while the wife of the adulterer has the right to treat the adulteress in the same way.

The innocent husband supposes the one most to be blamed is not his wife, but her tempter, and vice versâ. This striking must not, however, take place in a house; it must be done in the open. The club used must not be of hard wood.

Very often this striking is merely a means of publishing the fact that adultery has been committed, and no one is much hurt, but I have known cases where the man has been very badly wounded.

No striking can take place after the matter has been talked about or confessed, and if one knew for certain of a case of adultery, one could easily stop this maltreatment of each other by talking about it publicly.

The case is then settled by fining the guilty parties. Where both parties are married, and no divorce follows, the fining is no punishment, because each party pays to the other.”

2. Who owns a tree according to Iban customs?

Iban Customs 3
Iban longhouse. Credit: Creative Commons. Copyright Expired.

Gomes also recorded the Iban customs regarding the ownership of a tree and the answer might surprise you.

“Fruit-trees are owned by the people who plant them. The different families in a Dyak house plant fruit-trees near their part of the house. When they leave the spot and build a new habitation elsewhere, they each still claim ownership of the trees they planted.

The rule with regard to fruit-trees is that anyone may take the ripe fruit that has fallen, but only the owner or someone deputed by him may climb the tree.

Banting Hill, where I lived for some years, was covered with fruit-trees (durian), and at night during the fruit season crowds of men and boys would watch for the falling of the ripe fruit. They would each have a torch made of the bark of some tree, and they would sit and wait with the torch smouldering by their side.

As soon as a ripe durian fruit was heard to fall, they would wave their torches in the air to make them flare up into a flame, and they would rush to the spot, and the person who found the fruit would take possession of it.”

3.Iban customs when mourning

Every culture has its own custom especially when mourning for someone’s death including the Iban.

When anyone dies, the ulit, or mourning, has to be observed by the immediate relatives of the deceased, and continues until the feast in honour of the dead (Gawai Antu) is held. All the finery and bright articles of apparel belonging to the relatives are tied up in a bundle and put away. At the Gawai Antu the string which binds this bundle together is cut by the headman of the house, and they may use their bright garments again. The mourning (ulit) includes many other restrictions beside the prohibition of ornaments and bright-coloured clothing. There must be no striking of gongs or drums or dancing or merrymaking in the house. In the old days the mourning could not end until one of the relatives managed to secure a human head.

On the third day an observance called Pana is made. A plate containing rice and other eatables, as well as a Dyak chopper, an axe, and a cup, are taken by several of the neighbours to the room of the dead person. They go to tell the mourners to weep no more, and to give the dead man food. They enter the room, and one of them—generally[140] an old man of some standing—pushes open the window with the chopper, and the offering of food is thrown out for the benefit of the dead man and his spirit companions. Up to this time the near relatives of the dead man live in strict seclusion in their room, but after it they may come out to the public part of the house and return to their usual occupations. But the ulit, or mourning, is still observed, and does not come to an end till the feast in honour of the dead (Gawai Antu) is held.

4.The power of the tuai rumah

According to Iban customs, the tuai rumah or head of the longhouse also played the role of judge when there is a conflict. The reverend had the opportunity to witness trials during his missionary work in Sarawak.

“Whenever I have been present, the fine was cheerfully paid. The punishment, in fact, was very slight. Though the Government recognize this method of settling disputes among themselves, still, if Dyaks are discontented with the decision of their headmen, they can always bring their case for trial before the Government officer of the district. But this is seldom done. The fine imposed by the headman is so small compared to that which would have to be paid if the case were tried elsewhere that the guilty party generally prefers to pay it cheerfully rather than appeal to the Government.

If the dispute be between the inmates of one house and those of another, then the headmen of both houses have to be present at the trial. When matters are at all complicated, headmen from other houses are also asked to be present and help in the administration of justice.

I learn from conversations with the older Dyaks that in bygone days the power of the headman was much greater than it is now. Then he used to impose much heavier fines and take part of them himself for his trouble, and no Dyak dared to murmur against the decision of his Chief. In those days there was no court of appeal. The only means of protesting was to leave the house and build on to another, and in the old days such a thing was not so easily done as at present. The Dyak houses were much longer and built much farther apart, and to join another house meant moving to a district very far away and cutting off all connection with relatives and friends.

5. Iban custom of settling disputes by diving

Of all the Iban customs which recorded by Gomes, the one that no longer practiced is the diving ordeal since sometimes it resulted in death.

Here is Gomes’ record on it:

The practice of referring disputed questions to supernatural decision is not unknown to the Dyaks. They have the trial by ordeal, and believe that the gods are sure to help the innocent and punish the guilty. I have heard of several different methods, which are seldom resorted to nowadays. The only ordeal that I have frequently seen among the Dyaks is the Ordeal by Diving. When there is a dispute between two parties in which it is impossible to get any reliable evidence, or where one of the parties is not satisfied with the decision of the headman of the Dyak house, the Diving Ordeal is often resorted to.

Several preliminary meetings are held by the representatives of both parties to determine the time and place of the match. It is also decided what property each party should stake. This has to be paid by the loser to the victor. The various articles staked are brought out of the room, and placed in the public hall of the house in which each litigant lives, and there they are covered up and secured.

The Dyaks look upon a Diving Ordeal as a sacred rite, and for several days and nights before the contest they gather their friends together, and make offerings and sing incantations to the spirits, and beg of them to vindicate the just and cause their representative to win. Each party chooses a champion. There are many professional divers who for a trifling sum are willing to undergo the painful contest.

On the evening of the day previous to that on which the diving match is to take place each champion is fed with seven compressed balls of cooked rice. Then each is made to lie down on a fine mat, and is covered with the best Dyak woven sheet they have; an incantation is made over him, and the spirit inhabitants of the waters are invoked to come to the aid of the man whose cause is just.

Early the next morning the champions are roused from their sleep, and dressed each in a fine new waist-cloth. The articles staked are brought down from the houses and placed upon the bank. A large crowd of men, women, and children join the procession of the two champions and their friends and supporters to the scene of the contest at the riverside. As soon as the place is reached, fires are lit and mats are spread for the divers to sit on and warm themselves. While they sit by their respective fires, the necessary arrangements are made.

Each party provides a roughly-constructed wooden grating to be placed in the bed of the river for his champion to stand on in the water. These are placed within a few yards of each other, where the water is deep enough to reach the waist, and near each a pole is thrust firmly in the mud for the man to hold on to when he is diving.

The two men are led out into the river, and each stands on his own grating grasping his pole. At a given signal they plunge their heads simultaneously into the water. Immediately the spectators shout aloud at the top of their voices, over and over again, “Lobon—lobon,” and continue doing so during the whole contest. What these mysterious words mean, I have never been able to discover. When at length one of the champions shows signs of yielding, by his movements in the water and the shaking of the pole he is holding to, the excitement becomes very great. “Lobon—lobon,” is shouted louder and more rapidly than before. The shouts become deafening. The struggles of the poor victim who is fast becoming asphyxiated are painful to witness. The champions are generally plucky, and seldom come out of the water of their own will. They stay under water until the loser drops senseless, and is dragged ashore apparently lifeless by his companions. The friends of his opponent, raising a loud shout of triumph, hurry to the bank, and seize and carry off the stakes. The vanquished one, quite unconscious, is carried by his friends to the fire. In a few minutes he recovers, opens his eyes and gazes wildly around, and in a short time is able to walk slowly home. Next day he is probably in high fever from the effects of his dive. When both champions succumb at the same time, the one who first regains his senses is held to be the winner.

I have timed several diving contests, and where the divers are good they keep under water between three and four minutes.

Among some tribes of Dyaks, the champion is paid his fee whether he wins or loses. They say it is not the fault of the diver, but because his side is in the wrong, that he is beaten. Among other tribes, however, no fee is given to the losing champion, so he comes off very poorly indeed.

There are certain cases where diving seems to be the only means of a satisfactory decision. Take the case of the ownership of a durian tree. The tree probably does not bear fruit till fifteen years after it has been planted. Up to that time no one pays any attention to it. When the tree begins to bear fruit two or three lay claim to it. The man who originally planted it is probably dead, and no one knows for certain whom the tree belongs to. In a case like this, no amount of discussion can lead to a satisfactory decision, whereas a diving contest settles the matter to the satisfaction of all parties.

The Dyaks have great faith in the Diving Ordeal, and believe that the gods will always maintain right by making the man who is in the wrong be the loser. In fact, if a Dyak refuses the challenge of a Diving Ordeal, it is equivalent to his admitting that he is in the wrong.

Read Seventeen Years Among the Sea Dyaks of Borneo (1911) here.

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 is currently obsessed with silent vlogs during this Covid-19 pandemic.

Due to her obsession, she started her Youtube channel of slient vlogs.

Follow her on Instagram at @patriciahului, Facebook at Patricia Hului at Kajomag.com or Twitter at @patriciahului.

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