The so called ‘Piratical Activities’ of the Iban?

Another very biased aspect in the history of the Iban that has been reviewed by many western writers is the practice of so-called headhunting and that of bejaiai (journey for fortune). It is therefore proper and necessary to put the perspective right.

The Brookes, especially Sir James, 1st Rajah (1841—1868) as the first to use the term pirates upon the rebelling Ibans. Prior to this nobody has been referred to the Iban as pirates. The long established Dutch rulers in Sambas Indonesian Borneo and also the Brunel Sultanate had never used such terms on the Iban. Pringle, Sir Runciman and others who wrote on the  famous Battle of Beting Maru in 1849 had termed the Iban war party under Linggir as pirates. They based their information on records available to them from the Brooke Government. An important fact they failed to see was the Iban side of the story.

Were the Iban in any sense pirates? The answer is obviously “No”.  In 1849, for example there were pirates in plenty in the archipelago — Sulus, Illanuns and Natunans and others but not Iban. To describe the Iban practice of headhunting and their journey (bejalai) as piratical forays is to abused of the language.  It must be understood that headhunting and bejalai were integral part of the Iban culture. It was part of their way of life then.

Iban first started headhunting because they loved to do it or faor the sake of treasuring the heads as their trophies back home. It was because from time inmemorial with the absence of proper law and order with regard to other tribes, people killed one another, this was common in every part of the world when no proper government existed then-like that of the Jahiliah Arabs (period of the dark) before the coming of Islam to the Middle East and the period of Warring States in China both during and after Confucius time. Like other brave ordinary people the Ibans had to defend themselves. Elderly Iban would recall the days of the Kantu (one of the tribes in Borneo) who used to attack the Iban a long-time ago.  Being born brave, the Ibans not only killed their enemy at war but took the head of appease the spirits of those fellow Iban kill by the enemies in war.

The pre-Brooke Iban also engaged in headhunting because people that came in contact with them during their migratory period were hostile and received them by attacking and fleeing. Many Iban were killed in this nature. The story of Beti (Berauh Ngumbang) and the girl named Remampak to cite one example. Beti avenged the mourning Remampak for the slained father by killing and taking the head of the killer who happened to the leader of the Baketan.  Iban need were always based on the logical and pratical reasons.

It was against this background that it became part of the Iban culture. Thus to survive, the Iban, had to continue the headhunting and found in the practice  the usefulness of the heads both in their spiritual and and their social political world.

So headhunting to the Iban was as integral as the fighting for America’s Independence or that of other famous history of survival in the world.  It was indeed a question of survival for the past lban. If the Iban did not practice the headhunting against their enemies — (practically those who came in contact with them then) they would be attacked first by the other tribes. So being pragmatic and far sighted the Iban would prefer to initiate rather than bear the consequences of being unprepared. It was unfortunate that the Brookes had to come to the scene at this particular time. Anyway who asked them to come in the first place?

The animist Iban believed in the spirit world and for the purpose of headhunting they have the war God (Singalang Burong) and they celebrated the heads captured in the expedition through their grand festival called Gawai Kenyalang.  The practice of headhunting being the most talked honoured tradition of the Iban of those days was the crowning proof of manhood.  Marriage for young Iban then would come by easily with the proof that  a man has taking head in war. Coupled with a warlike spirit was a belief in the magical powers of humans heads. Heads were believed to bring strength and virtue and prosperity to the longhouse and it was the object of every young warrior to bring back a head to adorn his longhouse. The highest position in the Iban social world was that of the ‘Rafa Berani’ or courageously wealthy. This position — the significance of which and the steps leading to its acquisition was opened to all men. That’s why so many accompanied Linggir in his war expedition in 1849 when they were massacred by James Brooke’s “headhunting army”. For those Iban who could achieve the position of ‘Raja Berani’ would be remembered as ideal personalities and immortalized as central characters in history. Thus there is no place in history to say that the Than were pirates.

The fact that the Saribas Iban went on headhunting activities in search of their enemies along the coast, sometimes, paddling as far as Sambas (Indonesian Borneo) and not limited only to Beting Maru did not convert them into buccaneers. It is indeed an insult to our thinking to recall the types of boat they used for their expeditions and linked it to piratical activities. The boats that were crushed along with the occupants by the paddles of H.E.I.C.S. Nemesis were never meant for piratical activities. They were most unlikely the intercept an India man or cut off a China clipper. No iban would be so blind to this basic fact — neither were Linggir and his men.

To put the perspective right the war boats had hardly any room for good s pirated. The current remnant of the war boat Sarawak Museum a typical example of boats used in those old days. Normally in any headhunting expedition, it would be all full of men. None of the Ibans today could recall any goods handed down to them by their ancestors as piratical goods. Rather on the contrary, all Iban could proudly remember the origin of their material heritage as through that of genuine sweat and labour. Therefore to describe the Iban as pirates was as ridiculous as to brand tile Kayan as ‘highwayman’ because they preferred headhunting by dryland and the Iban riverine.

The act of ‘befalai’ (journey) by the Iban was also an integral part of their culture. it was commonly the custom of young Iban men to leave home for a period and to travel in search of adventure and profit. The length of time away from home varied, probably depending uponl such matters as the individual’s domestic circumstances, his enthusiasm or aptitude for life in alien surondings and his success abroad. An individual was free to travel after marriage. This custom was encouraged by the community, in fact, a non adventurous Iban was, often ridiculed and labelled as a ‘batu tungku’— meaning the resting stone in a fire place. -The wealth brought home were important means of gaining prestige. And if they managed to take enemy heads as part of the journey, then it would be more prestigious. It was never the intention and the act of the journeying Iban to rob as pirates.

Then why is it that during the James Brooke rule some Than were called pirates while other engaging in the same headhunting activities like the Sebuyau Iban were not called pirates? The answer is obvious.— that the. Brooke government then had to use term ‘pirates’ so that the British government in England would support their campaigns. After all Sarawak was not a British territory nor was the British government in any way committed to protecting it. It was thus simply a private domain of James Brooke. The British government fearing intervention by the Dutch and the Spanish, hastened to accord both recognition and protection to Sarawak by the Treaty of 1888. By then headhunting had been very much on the decline and furthermore Christianity had started to reach the Iban world starting from the period 1860’s. In this context therefore it is interesting to ponder a little— Was it not the act of massacre by James Brooke and the Royal Navy under Captain Farquhar on the recalcitrant native population on the pretext that they were pirates.

Nobody denied that the Iban were a menace to the new state of Sarawak then. Their deep rooted culture — that of headhunting though bad in nature and scope was indeed an important part of their world. They did it because it was sanctioned in their spiritual and cultural world. It was indeed the order of the day then — the basic question of survival. They were not to be blamed for the act done — for God willing they had to comply.

Therefore it is logical and proper that all patriotic Iban will dissent entirely the term ‘pirates’ be associated with the post glorious Iban ‘Raja Berani Iban known for their honesty and frankness would never remember such association either in our spiritual world nor in our oral traditions.  In those old days properties left in the hut unlocked away from the longhouse, no other Iban would pirate. If along their path, they discovered valuables, they would without fail inform and hand it to their headmen. It is not the culture or the tradition of the Iban to kill and steal as pirates like the lllanuns or the Natunans.



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