The Iban Convention of Bepalu

The Iban Convention of Bepalu (or Betempuh)—Fighting with Clubs

Bepalu or Betempuh was an old Iban custom, that of fighting with clubs, which formerly was a conventional means of resolving certain serious disputes. Here are some of the data as the Iban themselves tell them, so that the reader has access to part of the body of ethnography which is available to the author. As the convention was discouraged by the Brookes and was largely suppressed by the beginning of the 20th century, the data have been culled from historical records such as the Sarawak Gazette, the Court Record Books held in the archives of the Sarawak Museum and from individual Iban whose knowledge of past events is respected by other Iban. Although Iban do still occasionally settle their differences by fighting with clubs, I was unable to witness such an event.

The convention of fighting with clubs (called variously adat bepalu and Adat Betempuh in different river systems was a means by which fatalities were reduced in situations of localized contention when, if normal weapons were used, carnage was a likely consequence. Within a generalized kinship group, the dangers of carnage leading to an aggravated level of internecine strife would have been great. Contemporary Iban support this argument in their statements. For example, Tuai Rumah (TR) Manau anak Penghulu Embuas of Pudai explained:

“Laban bepalu nya tadi, enti luput agi idup. Entì bepantap tu parai, laban nya kaban ga nya, bela kaban”

(Because when you fight with clubs, if a person is knocked out, he would still be alive. If you fight with swords, people die, and that would occur between kin, both sides being kin.)

Although the convention was usually applied in serious disputes about land or in retaliation after an act of adultery, it also governed many contention situations in which the impulse to fight and overcome an adversary could not be contained. On such occasions, paddles, punting poles and any other wood which came to hand would be grabbed and battle disjoined. An example of such an event occurred in the Engkari in about 1910 during a quarrel about a fish trap which had been cut during a fishing expedition. The dispute became so intense that the adversaries took hold of their punting poles and paddles and laid into each other. Before they could be separated, six people lay unconscious on the ground, one with his head split wide open.

An idea that the Iban did attach some importance to avoiding fights between fully armed combatants form closely related and co- operating people can be gained from the following case reported in 1876 from the Undup:

Tenang vs. Kundor

Kundor: Tenang assaulted my sister and threatened to kill me when we next met. Soon after this, I was fishing in the Undup when I passed Tenang’s farm hut. Tenang called out, asking who it was in the boat, and when I answered, he drew his sword, flourished it at me and challenged me to come up so that he could kill me.

Tenang: Kundors sister Putit used to live in my farm hut, but after some time left. Later she returned, abused my wife and destroyed some of my possessions. I grabbed her and we struggled until she fell to the ground. This was reported to Kundor.

One night I was paddling down the Undup with my wife fishing when I saw a boat pulling straight at me. My wife gave a shriek. I drew my sword, not knowing the cause of her fright when I saw Kundor in the other boat. Kundor called out: Put aside your sword. If you want to fight, let us fight with clubs. I then told Kundor I did not want to fight and parted from him without disturbance.

In this case each adversary accused the other of inviting him to fight, and there can be little doubt that there was great animosity between the two. Kundors challenge that Tenang should put away his sword and that instead, they should flight with clubs implies recognition that satisfaction and victory could be gained from an encounter which was likely to stop short of one of the adversaries killing the other.

Although the function of the convention of using wooden implement was to reduce the likelihood of fatalities, there was considerable ambivalence in Iban attitudes to the convention. The implements which were used were often lethal and were clearly intended to inflict severe injuries, as Charles Brooke described:

In quarrels about land, they are supposed only to use stick’s, and they fall to in earnest: the most pugnacious keep very barbarous spiked and thorny ones for the express purpose, and many use bark hats and jackets to ward off the blows of these implements.

Jungle hardwoods were always used. Spikes were introduced into the head of a club by inserting wedges and then sharpening those wedges, giving the club much the same appearance and effectiveness as the mediaeval spiked mace. Alternatively, the sides of the wood were pained into cutting edges which were not much Less lethal than the cutting edge of a sword. Bamboo lances (seligi) and sometimes stones were also used and were thrown before the adversaries closed to hand-to-hand fighting. Sometimes before such a contest, small bamboo spikes were planted in the ground on the paths surrounding an adversary’s house. As the Iban always walked barefoot, these spikes could Iacerate a persons feet.

To defend themselves, the combatants often carried wooden shields. Protective clothing was also worn which consisted of bark jackets and hats. The jackets were padded with cotton and other soft materials. The hat had rattan wound tightly into a cylindrical form and was stuffed with padding. Alternatively, cotton blankets would be wound into turbans.

Contemporary Iban report that when they bepalu, the desire was to kill the adversary and thus gain a complete victory over him. The weapons used certainly suggest that harm was intended to the adversary. We can also infer the extreme intentions of the combatants from the number of deaths that are reported as a consequence of the convention. For example, the Sarawak Gazette reported the following incident from Mukah in 1892:

Nyami reported that one Sureng had been violently assaulted with a brilliant staff by one Saweng, and that there was no chance of the former living. Both resided in Nyami’s house. Sureng had his head broken open, collar-bone and left arm fractured and right leg fractured near the knee.

In a similar assault in Muka during the following year, an Iban came off very easily, and went about his usual occupations two or three days afterwards.

Expression of a desire to kill was also given before a bepalu in the invocations to the gods and spirits to assist a set of combatants in the forthcoming battle. For example, in an invocation recited by Uju of Penom, Paku, the words ka bebunuh (want to kill) and ka bepantap (want to strike a person down) are repeated frequently.

It is impossible to present any statistics about the incidence of fatalities as a result of people resorting to the convention, because no records were kept of these events. The high incidence of fatalities

In the oral histories is probably misleading because dramatic evens tend to be remembered. (I might have encouraged the telling of events in which fatalities occurred because I was particularly interested to verify the contemporary Iban statement that a desire to kill existed prior to a bepalu). What, however, does seem to be beyond question is that, although this convention did reduce the danger of fatalities by ensuring that only wooden instruments were used, it did not reduce the danger enough to survive as a convention. A potentially fatal flaw in the convention ensured that the Likelihood of a bepalu proceeding to an aggravated internecine dispute was ever present with the result that the Iban themselves, and especially their leaders, eventually became disenchanted with the convention and did their best to discourage it, a factor which has contributed greatly to its virtual eclipse.


The response of a cuckolded Iban to his early rivals invited the interest of colonial correspondents. The Rev. C. S. Bubb, who worked in Banting, was the first to draw attention to this response in the columns of the Sarawak Gazette. He wrote in 1875 that:

Iban law respecting adultery being peculiar, is worthy of notice. If a married man commits adultery with a married woman, the husband of the woman is allowed to strike him on the head with a club, or otherwise maltreat him, while the wife of the adulterer would be allowed to treat the adulteress in the same way, provided they keep their design secret:

If the affair has been talked about or confessed, it is usually settled by fining the guilty parties. Should a husband suspect a man of having committed adultery with his wife, he says nothing about it, but prepares a club, and in the company with a friend or two lurks about watching for the offender; he may meet him going to or returned from bathing, and wherever he does meet him he is entitled to strike him, only he must not go into the mans house for the purpose. Lives are sometimes lost in this manner.

By 1884, disapproval of this convention was already being voiced by numbers of the Brooke administration, but more from a legalistic point of view than from any great distaste for the action itself. An editorial in the Sarawak Gazette in 1884 once again drew attention to the convention and gave some idea of the editor’s tolerance of native customs when they were observed close enough to civilization to offend the susceptibilities of the colonial masters:

In another column is mentioned of the death of an Iban, beaten to death by another who suspected him of improper conduct with his wife. This custom of beating for such an offence is common to all Iban tribes and is practised amongst the women as well as men. According to Iban law if a married man is unduly familiar with or commits adultery with a married woman and it comes to her husbands know- ledge he is perfectly justified in laying in wait for the man with a bludgeon and when he catches him of inflcting on him a sound cudgeling. The wife of the beaten man is also entitled to her revenge on the woman with whom her husband has got into trouble and she secretes herself near a bathing place or on a farm path which she knows her victim is in the habit of using and on finding her she metes out to her with a stick the same punishment. This beating however must take place on the ground and not in a house and must not be carried to excess.

In the event of a man or woman dying from the effects a heavy fine is imposed on the offender by the Chiefs of the tribe. To recognize such a custom, amongst the Ibans living in a wild state, which when kept within bounds has no doubt a good moral effect is one thing. When however as in this case the Ibans have been living for years close to Kuching, and are as civilized as Malays; they are not justified in thus taking the law into their own hands, and they must be taught that such a course will result in severe punishment to themselves. A serious case is reported from Tabuan a Iban village within a couple of miles from Kuching.

An Iban named Iran being temporarily separated from his wife on account of a quarrel, had reason to believe that she was encouraging the attention of a young Iban named Grah late private in Sarawak Rangers. Iran warned Grah that he was watching him but he did not heed the warning and one night was met in the house by Iran apparently coming from the place where his wife slept. Iran immediately struck him down with a bludgeon which he had evidently prepared previously for the purpose, and then struck him several more blows whilst on the ground. Information was at once sent to Kuching but he died on arrival.7 (Later Iran was sentenced to 7 years penal service.)

Bubb also gave an account of a beating in which a surrogate stood in for the cuckold:

The husband of a blind woman living near our Mission station committed adultery with a blind woman, his wife on account of her affliction not being able to avenge herself, the duty or right devolved on her nearest female relative, a strong young married woman, who sought out the offender and struck her such blows on the head as to fell her to the ground. A man working near thought the sound of blows was made by someone cutting down a tree; the blind woman was heard to exclaim against the cruelty of striking one who could not see her enemy.

It is difficult to be certain about the sequence of events which led to the offence of adultery being subject to a fine alone. Many Iban claim that originally, adultery, where the cuckold was a man of substance and velour, resulted in the adulterer being killed. (For example, Kana, a tuai rumah and lemambang from the Krian, talking about adultery, said: dulu, bepantap, bepalu. Tentu nadai adat dama iya bepantap, bepalu tu.—Formerly we struck (the adulterer) with a sword or club. Certainly there was no adat (in the sense of fine) when that occurred. Unting anak Penghulu Labang from Sg. Pinang, Skrang, said: kalia, nadai ulih tunggu kalia. Enti laki iya nemu, lalu dibunuh mati, enti bini digayap. Sapa orang ka ngayap bini iya, bunuh. Enti ditemu, bunuh.—In the old days, one could not fine a person. If a husband found out his wife had been seduced, he would kill the rival. Whoever slept with anothers wife would be killed. Once it became known, he would be killed. Runggah from Wong Panjai in the Batang Ai said: adat butang tu, enti iya terang nampang, kalia dibunuh eiiti iya keh nya berani.—the law of adultery, if it was beyond question, in the old days was to kill (the rival) assuming tbe cuckold was brave enough.) What happened in the case of the women involved is not clear.

By the time lhat the Brookes entered Sarawak, this extreme response, though still occurring and to a certain extent condoned, had become mitigated because it often led to and always threatened further acts of extreme retaliation on the part of the deceased adulterer’s kin. Instead, either a beating as described by the Rev. Bubb was administered, or the adulterer was marked in some way, often by having an ear cut off. There is evidence of the latter convention in one court case in 1896:

Guang vs. Sri (f) and Sli

Sli: Guang came and suddenly assaulted me in the house in the early morning by treading on my chest and cutting in ear with his sword.

Court: Slis ear is wounded.

Prior to the Brookes, the beating or marking usually closed the affair.

According to most Iban informants, fines for adultery did not become universal until after the arrival of the Brookes. For many years, however, there was no evidence of the Brooke administration trying to deter cuckolds resorting to the convention of bepalu. Evidence, however, suggests that resort to this convention did decline. In the early court records from 1864 to the middle of the 1880s, a great number of adultery cases also included evidence that a beating had been administered. By about 1890, few cases referred to such beatings. In 1895, according to the Simanggang Court Records, where an adultery was proven but was accompanied by the adulterer being beaten, a precedent seemed to be set that the adulterers were both fined the customary 20 katis each, while the cuckold guilty of the assault was fined 10 katis, the whole of which latter fine went to the government (resulting in the adulterer receiving no compensation for the assault). This fine was applied systematically in all subsequent cases where a beating was administered and the act of adultery was proven. By the turn of the century, the court records rarely included evidence of a conventional beating. It thus seems reasonable to conclude that the sanction of the Brooke courts contributed to the demise of this convention, though the presence of an accommodating social climate would have been an extremely important factor.

The Iban response to adultery should be understood in the context of the Iban variant of the monogamous marriage in which each spouse has an inviolable access to his partner’s sexuality. If we interpret the response in this context, we can suggest that the function of the beating was for the husband to reassert his right to the exclusive enjoyment of his wife’s sexuality and to make the adulterer experience such a defeat that he would not challenge the husband again. (In a sense, a spouse asserts his dominance over a rival in the specific context of an established, ongoing relationship with a partner of the opposite sex). The violence would also warn all other potential rivals of what would be in store for them if they attempted any such act. The function of limiting the beating to a wooden instrument was to reduce the probability of a fatality and the potential aggravated consequences of such an act.

Given these two functions, we can be certain of three fundamental rules relating to the convention of bepalu. The cuckold could use only a wooden instrument. Secondly, the beating should stop short of killing the adulterer, for this would invite further retaliation of which there are many examples among the Iban. Thirdly, the adulterer should receive the beating so that the spouse’s dominance with regards his or her partner is restored and his exclusive rights to her are unambiguously asserted.

An important rule, mentioned by both correspondents in the Sarawak Gazette, is that the beating should never be administered in a longhouse. The reason for this rule is the likelihood that in the confined space of a longhouse, the beating would provide such a violent and dramatic event that the combination of the aggressiveness of the parties, the distress of the injured and the general level of excitation would be likely 10 be communicated to others (by such factors as the contagion of affect) resulting in the simple beating escalating into a full scale fight. The Sarawak Gazette in 1884 recorded just such an event:

Ngelambai had been away for two years in North Borneo in search of gutta and on his return heard of his wife’s unfaithful conduct. He came across, accompanied by five Julau Ibans, to inflict punishment on Lidum, his wife’s paramour. On arriving at Lidum’s house, Ngelambai at once cornmenced cudgeling him with a bludgeon he had brought for the purpose. Nyakin (Lidum’s brother-in-law) interfered, whereupon Magui, one of the Julau Ibans, drew his sword on Nyakin but only inflicted a scratch. Tuang (Nyakin’s father), seeing his son so threatened, drew his sword and cut Ngelambai down, giving him some severe wounds, upon which Magui made for Tuang severing his arm and plunging his sword deep into his body. Another son of Tuang, named Sila, seeing his father killed, immediately attacked Magui and wounded him in several places. Ngelambai, Magui and their followers then escaped with loud threats that they would come back and be further revenged.

Other rules also governed correct behavior during the administration of a beating, some of which are reflected in the decisions of the Brooke courts. It is difficult to be certain whether the Brooke courts were applying the old Iban adat following the advice of the Iban leaders who were customarily present during all court hearings, or whether they were attempt by the administrators to clarify certain principles by interpreting them into specific rules of behavior. Given the concern of the Brookes to be faithful, where possible, to the pro- visions of Iban adat, the former proposition seems most likely.

On a mission to beat an adulterer, the cuckold was usually accompanied by close kin. The kin had an interest in ensuring that the beating was administered without untoward incident, because if they failed and a fatality occurred, the whole kin group was Iikely to become embroiled in the consequences. (Often after a homicide, retaliation was made against any member of a kin group rather than against the person actually responsible for the fatality.) Although the kin accompanying a cuckold had a responsibility to ensure that he acted with sufficient restraint, they also supported him by their physical presence to ensure that he suffered no harm. (We have already noted Maguis response when Nyakin went to Lidums assistance in the case reported above.)

Given the principle that a beating should be administered, the cuckold’s companions could restrain an adulterer who tried to draw his sword:

Jemba vs. Engkana (21 March 1893)

Jemba: I committed adultery with Jilings wife and was beaten by Jiling. At that time, Engkana helped to hold me, and I now ask that he be fined for assisting Jiling to beat me.

Engkana: I assisted Jiling because Jemba drew his sword and was going to cut people down.

Dunggau: Jemba did Iay his hand on his sword, and Engkana put his hand upon him but did not do anymore. I am head of the house.

Case dismissed, both parties to consider the matter settled.  They could assist in the administration of the beating:

Song v. Radin (12 August 1879)

Complainant brought a charge against the defendant for having assaulted him after his having committed adultery with Radins wife. Five men set upon him in his own house and thrashed him severely with sticks. He had since paid a fine of $1o in satisfaction of the adultery.

Apia Radin: It is true that Song was beaten by Radin because he had committed adultery with Radins wife. It is the custom to thrash an adulterer. I went to see fair play when the thrashing took place. When Songs friends took their arms and wanted to retaliate, I helped prevent them.

Radin: I went with my relations (four names given). I could not beat Song and his friends by myself, so I called on my own friends to help.

Court dismissed the case, there being no evidence that there had been undue violence.

If, however, a companion helped the cuckold administer the beating when no resistance was offered by the adulterer, a separate offence was committed:

Tamioo vs. Krah (6 November 1888)

Maling apparently helped Tamioo beat Krah. If this is true he is to be fined the customary 5 katis.

On the other hand, if a companion of the adulterer attempted to prevent a beating from being administered, he committed an offence:

Government v. Sadi (21 August 1867)

Apai Seanta: I struck Sadi because the later was preventing my daughter from beating Iati.

Abang Kadir: Iban adat is that no man can prevent a girl form being beaten for adultery.

This rule later carne to be amended so that a tuai rumah was entitled to restrain the parties without committing an offence.

If the adulterer did resist, and a general free for a11 ensued, the adulterer became responsible for any injuries inflicted on bystanders during the fracas:

Umpang vs. Idih (1 July 1919)

Umpang: I had slept with Idih’s wife and was still with her when Idih and four others came to the farm hut armed with sticks and struck ex-Penghulu Usit in mistake for me. They then set about me and knocked me about.

Idih: I returned from Balingian and found that my wife was not in the main house but in the farm hut. I went to the hut. As I heared it, I called out. Umpang came out of the hut and grappled with me. As I was being worsted, I called out to my companions, and they came to my assistance.

Ex-Penghulu Usit:  I was in the farm hut. Umpang visited it in the Usit: evening and would not go away. Late that night Idih appeared and he and Umpang fought. In the fracas, I was stamped on and struck so much that I was knocked out. I do not know whether it was Umpang or Idih who struck me.

Resident: It is entirely the fault of Umpang who had gone to visit Idih’s wife.

The Court fines Umpang RM15 for adultery and to pay RM10 compensation to ex-Penghulu Usit.

In all these cases, the fundamental principle is quite clear: that, consequent upon an act of adultery, a cuckold is entitled to beat the adulterer, the latter should endure the beating without resistance, and these two persons should be the only parties to the beating (except in those cases when the cuckold is physically incapacitated, when it would appear from Rev. Bubbs evidence about the cuckolded blind person, that a close kinsman would become responsible for seeing that the adulterer got his just deserts).

Contemporary Iban adat specifies that after an act of adultery becomes public knowledge, a cock should be killed and be thrown at the adulterer:

P. Sumpit v. Paying (22 February 1913)

Payeng: Nyandang met me at the farm and told me his wife, Amu, was missconducting herself with Umbar. I made no examination of the truth of this statement, but went back and asked for a pemali butang (a fine for adultery).

It is explained that hitherto it has always been customary to kill a fowl when making an accusation of adultery—in this case there was none. Court orders P. Sumpit to fix a pemali belaya di umai (a fine fbr quarrelling at a farm) and not a pemali butang as Nyandang had not properly accused Amu according to custom.

Usually the killing of the cock is done by the cuckold, but in some river systems (the Paku, for example) a tuai rumah can also perform this task. In Iban eyes, the ritual killing of the cock creates a boundary between cuckold and adulterer which cannot be crossed until after the dispute has been settled. This means that .the parties to the dispute must avoid each other until the case has been adjudicated. The creation of this symbolic boundary recognizes that until the dispute has been settled, the emotional state of the principals to the dispute might be such that their meeting could provoke one of them literally to take up the cudgels on his own behalf and proceed to a serious act of violence.

For some time, the convention of killing a cock operated con- currently with the convention of beating an adulterer. Once a cock had been killed, a beating could not take place, for such an act would abuse the boundary. The later recognition in some river systems that a tuai rumah could also perform this ritual contributed to the control and containment of potential violence, for it enabled a tuai rumah to pre-empt the cuckold from physically punishing the adulterer, the consequence of which, as has been noted, could be fatal.

As I have argued above, the function of the beating was to restore to a spouse the exclusive sexual enjoyment of his partner. It was, however, achieved at some risk, for there was considerable danger of fatality, and indeed there were many examples of deaths in the early issues of the Sarawak Gazette and Court Record Books. As I noted above, from about 1895, the Brooke administration systematically discouraged this convention by fining anyone reported administering such a beating. The administration also contributed to its discouragement by stipulating that all adultery cases had to be reported to a Brooke court and by laying down additional fines for those responsible for not reporting them. Consequently, a large proportion of those situations in which a beating had been administered came to their knowledge and they were able to fine the culprit. From about the turn of the century, complaints of such beatings became increasingly rare, and it was not long before the convention became virtually extinct. Other factors, too, were influential in this, but their relative weight call only is guessed. One important factor was the general reduction U1 he chlorinates of violence in which the Iban lived: for with this reduction individual levels of anxiety would have declined and would have affected both impulses to and control of extreme aggression. But, the provision of a heavy fine for adultery and of the means to obtain it peacefully either through Iban go-betweens or a government court allowed a cuckold to reassert his exclusive rights to his wife in a conventionally accepted way and without risk to the group.


The convention of bepalu was also resorted to in disputes over land. In the application of this aspect of the convention, there was a certain amount of variation from river shysters to river system. The variations did, however, seem to constitute refinements to the convention and resulted in the more effective containment of the consequences of these affairs.

In the Batang Ai, there was little reutilization of the convention. Iiì the words of Penghulu Ningkan anak Penghulu Embuas of Pudai, it was followed thus:

Datai din, nya tuai kalia, duduk sida bepantapka kayu lumpung engkalan endur sida iya dudok. Tang sida ngelumpung tadi milih sida laban sida sigi bisi ati kayu ka berat, berat kini, kayu ka kering. Enti papung utai baka sida punggu laban nya lempung enda tentu pedis, enggai iya ngena nya, mesti kayu ka idup.” Sigi enggi kami utai tu”. “Sigi enggi kami”, ka sida sepiak. Berebut sida iya dia.  Nya enggai alah. Nya enggai alah. “Enti dek bangat berani, enti dek bangat kempang, bepalu,bebunuh kitai”.  Angkat nieh batak utai tu tadi lalu embal meh.

When they arrived there, those men of yore, they would sit down, having fashioned stakes which they placed underneath them. The stakes were carefully chosen, being of heavy, strong wood. If any piece of wood were used, like a dead branch, it simply would not hurt the victim because it was so light. This kind of wood would never be used. Only living wood was used. Then one side would say: This is ours!; the other would reply: Its ours! Both sides would try to take it. Neither would give in. If you lot are brave enough, are courageous enough, then come on and beat us, come on and kill us. So be it, and to the death. Then up they would get, take up their clubs and beat hell out of the other.

A case in 1888 tend to confirm this somewhat informal approach:

Government vs. Gendut and Lenggi (14 November 1888)

Apai Gemong: Genduts house ill used Metieng. He was badly beaten on the forehead.

Ligah, Metieng’ s They came to blows over the location of a mother: boundary. Gendut and Lenggi spoke in a high handed way with Metieng. They came to blows, struck him down and hung him in the river. In the fight all my clothes were stripped off.

In some river systems, a bepalu was more formalized. For example, in the Skrang in about 1870:

Two neighboring houses, Tanjong and Plasok, had had a long acrimonious dispute about a parcel of land. They had taken the dispute to the Residents court in Simanggang, but the courts decision only served further to fan the flames. Emotions ran so high that the Tanjong people talked seriously of invading Plasok and killing all the people there. A third party persuaded Berinau, the Tanjong leader to agree to settle the dispute by bepalu. Representatives of the two sides met and a date and venue for the battle were set.

The people of Tanjong won the contest but in doing so, they killed two Plasok men. Passions then became even more inflamed and the dangers of a feud breaking out seemed to be great. Local leaders were quick to come down to try to settle the aggravated dispute, and they managed to persuade Berinau to pay four jars as compensation to Plasok. The people of Tanjong did not possess that many jars, and so Berinau agreed to forfeit, in lieu of the jars, the piece of land they had so recently gained.

In this example, the contest can be regarded as a ritualized form of war. Before the fight, the same ritual observances were made as were performed prior to a war party setting out. The battle itself left one side victorious and the other vanquished. The major difference between a bepalu of this level of reutilization and a war raid was that prior to the battle commencing, there was agreement about certain limitations to the extent of the war: the two sides agreed to resolve their dispute by only using wooden instruments; the exact boundaries of the land to be fought for were precisely determined; and the date and location of the contest were fixed.

In the above contest, two Plasok men were killed. The convention of bepalu, in recognition that fatalities were a possible consequence of such a contest, made no provision for the payment of compensation to the other side. In the words of Runggah of Wong Panjai:

Enti iya parai nya tadi, adat bepalu tu, nadai bisi pati nyawa. Lalu alah meh tadi, enti iya parai pan, dipaut orang ga menua iya nyin tadi. Sida iya nyin pan lalu nadai kena pati nyawa, laban nya udah danji. Diatur tuai, sida iya enggai. Parai pan, parai pechuma. Menua nya pan alah, iya pan rusak.

If a person dies, according to the convention of bepalu, there is no compensation. He lost, and if he is dead, then he would be dragged back to his own country. The people over there would not get compensation or such like, because there would already have been agreement. It would have been determined by the leaders and they would not permit it. If a person dies, he dies in vain. The territory would be lost, and he would be destroyed.

A fatality, then was one of the risks involved. As the convention governed a restricted war about a piece of territory, the vanquished would tend to suffer the casualties, and would be forced to withdraw from the territory. It can therefore be argued that it would be unlikely for there to be a rule requiring the victors, in the event of fatalities being inflicted on the other side, to submit to the vanquished because of the circumstances of their victory. It therefore seems that this case from the Skrang must be regarded as an exception to the rule, and that the success of the mediators in persuading Berinau to submit was in no small part due to the reported fact that they threatened to inform the Brooke administration of the contest and the result.

The loss of the lives of supporters fighting for a person was another matter, as explained by Penghulu Ngali of Ng. Delok:

Enti iya dipanggil orang nya nya, nya udah diaku tajau udah diagih enggau nganti nyawa sapa ka parai endang diagihka tajau. Tang enti tak nyah diri nya, ninga berita diri ka bangat merinsa dinsah, diayahka orang lalu sama nurun— nadai nya. Tang kaban juru enda dipanggil, tela enda dipanggil kaban jauh, ulih (laban) ka kering, ulih ka berani, nya ka dipanggil, nya jaku keh ngagai nya tadi. Tang lantan diber megang, lantan.

If a person is invited (to assist) and that has been acknowledged and a jar set aside for anyone killed, then a jar is given. But if someone simply comes to anothers aid, having heard the news that he is being persecuted, maltreated and victimized and accompanies him to battle—there would be no compensation. The whole kin is not invited, or are remote kin. Only those who are strong and brave, only they are invited. Not withstanding this, lantan would be given to everyone.

To contest a formal bepalu, a person would normally have to possess a number of jars in order to be sure of being able to compensate the lives of any supporters (as the Iban say: Berani bayar pati nyawa.) The person who wanted to contest title to some land but did not possess the necessary jars would seek to come to sorne arrangement with an owner of sufficient jars whereby, assuming they were success- ful in their adventure, the land would be divided equally between them.

In the less formalized bepalu, there was no limit to the numbers fighting on either side. According to the Iban, the greater the number, the better the chance of winning. In the Paku, however, there did appear to be occasions when a limit was applied to the numbers fighting on any side. There, the convention had been refined so that  champions would contest title to a piece of land for each protagonist. There, also, a stake was pledged to go to the victor. The only example I could obtain of such a stake was in a dispute in about

1 835 between Bungkok and Kandau over land in the upper Kelinsong. The agreed stake was six old jars (few individual Iban could have afforded such a stake). In this case, a jar each was contributed by Bungkok, Munji, Linggir, Chundi and Bali. This contest never took place, as will be described later.

It can be argued that the substitution of champions for the participants in a dispute reduced the likelihood of fatalities and the dangers of retaliation. As the champions were not principals to the dispute, they would be less likely to experience the same degrees of hostility and consequently were more likely to be able to curb any desire to go beyond what was necessary to win, which was sirnply to incapacitate an opponent. In recognition of this better level of control, there seemed to be an explicit rules that an unconscious person could not be struck. The use of champions also reduced the likelihood of retaliation following upon a fatality because it would be known that each champion had agreed to represent their employer .fully aware of the risks involved and knowing that in the event of a fatality, their kin would be fully compensated.

A bepalu could be avoided by a ritualized act of submission on the part of one of the parties. Tuai Rumah Unting anak Penghulu Labang of Sg. Pinang, Skrang described such an event:

Nyadi bisi orang datai ari menuoa ari Ra, ari Mata, ko orang (penama sida iya orang Atoi ) diau sebelah ulu Belaie nya, dia orang nya bumai. Bumai menua kami tu. Diburu kami, enggai mindah; diburu kami, enggai rari ari nya. Udah nya ,mansang tuai kami ari Skrang, ka malu sida (menua ti endur sida bepalu Genting Bagoh penama). Datai din nya laban orang nyin nemu, tak diampun orang nya tak bai orang makai, utai ngirup tuak, makai utai ti manah meh, ni naka utai gaga iya, ni salai jelu, salai landak, salai angkis diempa orang dia. Nadai bepalu laban udah diampun sida enggau utai diempa. Nyadi enda nyadi bepalu sida nya. Ari nya sida iya nyau ulih buru orang. Enti sida iya enggai mindah, palu orang meh sida, tang nadai salah sida iya laban udah diburu orang suah amat udah. Dua tiga kali udah.

Now, a group of people came over from Ra, from Mata (they were called Atoi people) and settled down all around the upper Belaie. They began to farm—began to farm our land. We told them to leave, but they refused to budge. We told them to go, but they refused to withdraw. After that, we of the Skrang approached them, intending to beat them up (the country where this occurred was called Genting Bagoh). The other side knew we were coming; so when we got there, they submitted bringing us things to eat like rice wine and other nice things, things made by them like smoked meats, smoked porcupine to be eaten by us. There was no bepalu because they submitted, presenting us with things to eat. We could not bepalu. After that we were able to get them to leave. If they had still refused to go, then we would have bepalu. There would have been no wrong in doing this, because we had asked them to leave often enough—at least two or three times.

Submission would be made with offerings and the ritual waving of a cock. It would also be accompanied, according to Penghulu Ngali of Ng. Delok by:

Orang ngampun enggau piring dulu. Udah nya iya, enti bisi, meri duit; enti. tawak, tawak; enti bendai, bendai meh ngampun orang enti iya salah. Nyadi iya ngampun, nya iya enggau piring. Indu keh nganjong piring nya ngagai mua, orang nya deh indu tuai tuai, indu ai, ìndu ai ko orang, indu pengintu, indu penyungah, indu penyembah, indu tuai meh niya. Nya anjung piring keh sida nya. Ari nya teriina, enda tau enda terima, enda tau enda terima, tulah enda ga nerima. Tulah laban adat ari Panggau.

One submits with offerings first. After that, if they have money, then they would hand over money, if a tawak (a deep, heavy gong), a tawak; if a bendai (a small shallow gong), a bendai as a token of submission for being in the wrong. A person submits by presenting offerings. The woman who brings the offerings to the injured party, is a woman greatly respected, a woman skilled and capable, good at looking after children and good at cooking, a woman who is deferential and respect- ful, in sum a respected woman. That is the kind of person who would bring the offerings. The offerings are accepted, they absolutely must be taken; otherwise the people would be supernaturally cursed. They would be cursed in this way because these rules come from Panggau (the place where the gods are said to live).

In the Batang Ai, after a bepalu has been held, the land on which the contest was held is forbidden to farming and all other activities. In the Skrang, the land can be used after a ceremony of inuja menoa has been held in which offerings are made and a mature swine (indu udah sepa or a laki udah tumbuh taring—a sow which has littered or a boar which has tusked) sacrified and buried.

Before the arrival of the Brookes, the convention of bepalu over land was actively discouraged by most Iban leaders. According to informants in the Batang Ai, if word was received that a bepalu was planned, a third force would be organized and armed and would separate the rivals and force them to accept their mediation. In the Paku, of the four planned bepalii generally remembered, none resulted in a contest being held. In two, one of the adversaries submitted prior to battle being joined. The other two were mediated. In the dispute between Bungkok and Kandau, the local Malay chiefs persuaded the two disputants to accept Kerebaus rnediation (see figure for relation- ships). Kerebau persuaded Kandau to forfeit his claim to the Kelinsong and was rewarded for his mediation with one jar (tajau menaga). Some 70 years earlier, another bepalu had been prevented by mediation when Renggi persuaded Tru of the Rimbas to forfeit a claim to some land in Samu in favour of Belaki of Paku, ruling that the people of one river could not claim land in another river system.

From this evidence, it seems clear that the convention of bepalu over land was already in decline before the arrival of the Brookes. It was actively discouraged and it seems reasonable to suppose that this was because it was recognized that it could lead to dangerous situations such as occurred between the peoples of Tanjong and Plasok. There can be no doubt that fatalities frequet1y occurred in the contests, for many accounts of bepalu mention such casualties. Mediation was the alternative used in the Paku, and according to the Batang Ai Iban, it was the preferred method to resolve disputes there. If mediation failed, there was a more recently introduced form of ritualized contest, that of the ordeal by diving which was Iess likely to result in a fatality. The increasing favour of this ordeal is probably an important factor which contributed to the decline of the bepalu. The convention of bepalu is not, however, entirely defunct. In 1972, in the lower Batang Ai, two houses resolved an acrimonious dispute about a boundary by resorting to this convention.


(Department of Anthropology, Australian National University)


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