History Perspective of The Iban

By Empiang Jabu

This paper is limited to 3 basic areas of the Iban historical perspectives:

1. The Iban migratory expansion, a process outstanding in its scope and  success. This is instrumental for all Iban to know for the basic reason that one has to undtstand  why we are here today. Knowing this history then as an lban we will find life is not only meaningful to lives for, but struggle over and even die for if need be.

2. Issue of ‘piratical’ activities of the Iban during the Brookes’ era  vis-a-vis the practice of headhunting and bejalai (journey)

3. Change and continuty of the Iban longhouse world – a brief perspective o the Iban historical world. These three areas has been chosen beause it is felt that basic information  will enable all Iban to reminisce our glorious past,  especially at this opportune moment.  Remembering  and understanding some aspects of our past we hope to throw some luminous objects to enable us to see better tomorrow as a meaningful ‘force’ in our Sarawak and Malaysian society. It is the modest hope of this paper that recollection of tills nature will enable us to ponder if not act as a simple beginning for our salvation of materials which may be lost to us forever.

The materials collected are mainly from secondary sources available. However, interpretations have been made after careful analysis of the assembled facts. Against this background the Iban side of the story is therefore projected.


The Iban migratory expansion had been discussed in a large number of work though no one know exactly when the first Iban settled in Sarawak. Writers like Sandin, Pringle, Freeman and others pointed to the Kapuas Basin of Kalimantan (Indonesia Borneo) as the homeland of the Iban people prior to their entrance to Sarawak. It is unknown where the Iban came from before reaching Kalimantan. Ritual chants and songs (Penggap, renong, etc)seed to suggest that the lban pioneers could have been blown by the wind across the sea and landed in Indonesia Kalimantan. It was stated thus in those songs and chants that — ‘kena pangkaka gigi gelumbang (struck by the waves) pass   through the “Ribai’ world.  Ribai was believed to be far in the high seas somewhere.

One point that is quite safe to say based on reliable genealogies is that the Iban came from the Kapuas basin. Semi historical sources that the Iban being the descendant of Singalang Burong (War God) and his brothers Simpulang Gana (Farm God, Selempandai (God of Creation) and their sister the great Shaman. Ini Inda Rabong Menua all stayed at Kapuas basin some 30 generations ago. Sandin even said Singalong Burong died in one of the hills between the Merakal and Undup. Sera Gunting, his grandson died at Mt. Tiang Laju near Marup and Undup. For the absence of a proper genealogy to substantiate this it is thus not taken as our starting point, though all Iban at one time believe Singalang Burong, Simpulang Gana, and Selempandai as gread God of the past.

A proper genealogy states that the first Than migration to Sarawak began some seventeen generation ago from Ketungau (a tributary of the Kapuas) to the Undup river b a tributary of Batang Lupar river) led by a famous Iban leader named Jelian who then stayed at Wong Empangu (near Sri Aman today). A 16th generation leader named after Jelian was Penghulu Ganja who in 1979 was 54 years old and a retired penghulu of the Rimbas area. This is indeed a proper record of our first known migration from the Kapuas to the Sri Aman Division, Sarawak.

Based on the Iban social world, one generation equals roughly about 25 years — (Iban in the past married roughly at this age). Terefore the earlie proper account of our migration to Sarawak Sri Aman Division) began somewhere in the middle of the 16th century. Significant enough though, when the Sisilah Raja-Raja Berani was write in the 18th Century, it was stated that at about this time the Islamization of the 1st Sultan of Brunei by the Johore ruler, it was accompanied by the bestowal upon him of negeri lima buah, iaitu negeri Kalaka dan negeri  Saribas dan negeri Samarahan, negeri Sarawak (Kuching) dan negeri Mukah,” (Ketua Pasukan) the non Ma]ay were already occupying some of these negeri, thus the Iban were definitely there in the Saribas and the Kalaka area.

From the Batang Lupar drainage — namely the Undup, Kumpang, Batang Ai, Skrang rivers, others simultaneously moved on to the north – to the Saribas and Layar basins then after to the Krian. Ethnic groups like the Ukit, Seru,  Beketan encountered normally were absorbed into the Iban population and in some cases forced to retreat from the Sri Aman Division. This was so because they were the first ones to attack the Iban.

Thus the 1st phase of Iban migratory expansion which lasted for about 250 years (1540’s and 1800’s) were mainly to the present Sri Aman Division river basins. The process being not orderly and organised both in space and in time accounted for why the so called 1st phase expansion and migration to the Sri Aman Division river basins took such a long time.

The 2nd phase — 19th century migration, started as early as 1800 in the Southern tributaries of the Rejang River. It must be noted here that it was not the Iban of the flat and swampy lower reaches of Batang Lupar Samarahan or Saribas rivers who migrated here. That is not the Balau Sebuyau or Undup Iban but the residents of Batang Ai, Lemanak, Skrang and Layar who moved towards the north east — i.e. into the Rejang basin. Those from Batang Ai crossed the border into what is now Indonesian Kalimantan Barat, following the Leboyan and Kanyau (Embaloh) rivers, and eventually reached as far as Katibas river basin, a tributary of the Rejang.  During this period  Iban moved to the Julau and Entabai rivers.

By 1870’s till about the period 1900 large numbers of Iban were settling the Oya and Mukah rivers and moving onto the Balingian (Sibu Division) then to Tatau and Kemena (Bintulu Division) rivers.  Also during this period — last quarter of the 19th century — 2nd phase migration groups of Iban settled in areas of the Lower Baram river and its tributaries.

The 3rd phase of Iban migration in the 20th century also began an early as 1900 to the Limbang River because their intention to move first to the Suai, Niah and Sibuti Rivers (Miri Division) was forbidden by the Brooke Government then. It was later in 1927 they eventually settled in the Suai and Sibuti rivers. To Niah River was in 1934 led by Penghulu Manggoi who are Skrang Iban by origin.

Migration to Balleh tributary was in the 1920’s, and to Lundu was in about 195 5 — a government sponsored move for development purposes.

It was in 955 with a law promulgated by the British Colonial Administration, forbidding the felling of any virgin forest without the permission of the District Officer and thus in effect banned all pioneering in Sarawak. This last onlinance plus the gazetting of large tracts of land in Sarawak seemed to have stopped pioneering into some areas.

The seasons of hill rice had been the central focus of the Iban activities. Yet they could not be separated from their activities of hunting, fishing and collecting in the river valleys and the thick jungle of Borneo. It was the love for this abundance of plant and animal life, together with the unending search for new fertile jungle farmlands which had made their movements into new areas attractive. Their technology being limited to simple tools had made continuation of the so-called subsidiary activities essential. Unable to produce enough food on their farms, they had to continue to get food in these other ways. If they were to hate enough of this subsidiary supply, then it was only natural for survival to search for it in the new areas. Older Iban still recount wistfully their movements into all the river valleys where “plants were plentiful, streams filled with fish, and the forests teeming with wild boars and deers. While memories played tricks, an important feature of the Than migration had beaten thus the conviction — expressed here in retrospect — that a better life awaited them “out there”.

Another factor for the Iban migration was to resolve conflicts. The serious and most common conflicts among the Iban community had been the right to farm the land. Pioneers who cleared primary forests for farming thereby established their right and those of his descendants to clear the land in perpetuity. Boundaries were usually marked by bamboo rows planted along property liens or at times not at all. In most cases, rights to land were transmitted orally in lengthy genealogies. But forests grew and soon the marks disappeared, so too did memories fade. As a result there arose confusion. In such circumstances conflict arose. In order to avoid undesirable consequences those concerned together with their relatives migrated to further areas.  They either joined other loughouses or they started a new settle in the new area.

In old days the Iban views pioneering as the first step to upward well remembered by other Iban because they not only contributed to the survival of the Iban community  by opening up new land, but also obtained distinction for themselves and their descendants. Wanting to be pioneers they must have their way through difficult rivers’ rugged terrains. They were indeed determined and brave men. Such persons were respected in their life-time and were rememebered after death in ritual invocations and their exploIited commemorated in oral genealogies. That is why genealogies are wet remernbered by some Iban for they value such exploits of their ancestors.  If this is so then those genealogies that this write-up is based on must be aucutate and thus accountable.

Thus migration cum expansion of the Iban in the various river basins of Sarawak- has been very successful and persistent. A vigorous determined and brave people, the Iban in the past have spreaded during the last 430 years or so from the Batang Lupar and Saribas rivers basins of Sarawak today they are present in every districts and divisions of Sarawak in both urban and rural countryside. Thus they rightfully deserved the places they opened up long-long time ago.



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