James Brooke wrote in his journal in “Expedition to Borneo of H.M.S. Dido for the Suppression of Piracy”: “The Dyaks (or more properly Dayak) of Borneo offer to our view a primitive state of society; and their near resemblance to the Tarajahs of Celebes, to the inland people of Sumatra, and probably to the Arafuras of Papua, in customs, manners, and language, affords reason for the conclusion that these are the aboriginal race of the Eastern Archipelago, nearly stationary in their original condition. Whilst successive waves of civilisation have swept onward the rest of the inhabitants, whilst tribes as wild have arisen to power, flourished, and decayed, the Dyak in his native jungles still retains the feelings of earlier times, and shews the features of society as it existed before the influx of foreign races either improved or corrupted the native character. [Source: “The Expedition to Borneo of H.M.S. Dido For the Suppression of Piracy” by Henry Keppel and James Brooke (1847)*-*]

“The name 'Dyak’ has been indiscriminately applied to all the wild people on the island of Borneo; but as the term is never so used by themselves, and as they differ greatly, not only in name, but in their customs and manners, we will briefly, in the first instance, mention the various distinct nations, the general locality of each, and some of their distinguishing peculiarities.*-*

“The Dyak are divided into Dyak Darrat and Dyak Laut, or land and sea Dyaks. The Dyak Lauts, as their name implies, frequent the sea; and it is needless to say much of them, as their difference from the Dyak Darrat is a difference of circumstances only. The tribes of Sarebus and Sakarran, whose rivers are situated in the deep bay between Tanjong Sipang and Tanjorig Sirak, are powerful communities, and dreadful pirates, who ravage the coast in large fleets, and murder and rob indiscriminately; but this is by no means to be esteemed a standard of Dyak character. In these expeditions the Malays often join them, and they are likewise made the instruments for oppressing the Laut tribes. The Sarebus and Sakarran are fine men, fairer than the Malays, with sharp keen eyes, thin lips, and handsome countenances, though frequently marked by an expression of cunning. The Balows and Sibnowans are amiable tribes, decidedly warlike, but not predatory; and the latter combines the virtues of the Dyak character with much of the civilisation of the Malays.*-*

Visiting Dayak Country in the 1840s

James Brooke wrote in his journal in “Expedition to Borneo of H.M.S. Dido for the Suppression of Piracy”: "Feb. 1st. — Started after breakfast, and paddled against a strong current past Tundong, and, some distance above, left the main stream and entered the branch to the right, which is narrower, and rendered difficult of navigation by the number of fallen trees which block up the bed, and which sometimes obliged us to quit our boat, and remove all the kajang covers, so as to enable us to haul the boat under the huge trunks. The main stream was rapid and turbid, swollen by a fresh, and its increase of volume blocked up the waters of the tributary, so as to render the current inconsiderable. [Source: “The Expedition to Borneo of H.M.S. Dido For the Suppression of Piracy” by Henry Keppel and James Brooke (1847)*-*]

“The Dyaks have thrown several bridges across the rivers, which they effect with great ingenuity; but I was surprised on one of these bridges to observe the traces of the severe flood which we had about a fortnight since. The water on that occasion must have risen twenty feet perpendicularly, and many of the trees evidently but recently fallen, are the effects of its might. The walk to Rat, or Ra-at, is about two miles along a decent path. Nothing can be more picturesque than the hill and the village. The former is a huge lump (I think of granite), almost inaccessible, with bold bare sides, rising out of a rich vegetation at the base, and crowned with trees. The height is about 500 feet; and about a hundred feet lower is a shoulder of the hill on which stands the eagle- nest-like village of Ba-at, the ascent to which is like climbing by a ladder up the side of a house. This is one of the dwelling-places of the Sow Dyaks, a numerous but dispersed tribe. Their chief, or Orang Kaya, is an imbecile old man, and the virtual headship is in the hands of Nimok, of whom more hereafter. Our friends seemed pleased to see us, and Nimok apologised for so few of his people being present, as the harvest was approaching; but being anxious to give a feast on the occasion of my first visit to their tribe, it was arranged that to-morrow I should shoot deer, and the day following return to the mountain. The views on either side from the village are beautiful — one view enchanting from its variety and depth, more especially when lighted up by the gleam of a showery sunshine, as I first saw it. Soon, however, after our arrival, the prospect was shut out by clouds, and a soaking rain descended, which lasted for the greater part of the night.*-*

"Qd. — Started after breakfast; and after a quiet walk of about three hours through a pleasant country of alternate hill and valley, we saw the valley of Nawang below us. Nawang is the property of the Singe Dyaks, and is cultivated by poor families, at the head of which is Niarak. The house contained three families, and our party was distributed amongst them, ourselves, i. e. Low, Crookshank, and myself, occupying one small apartment with a man, his wife, and daughter. The valley presented one of the most charming scenes to be imagined — a clearing amid hills of moderate elevation, with the distant mountains in the background; a small stream ran through it, which, being dammed in several places, enables the cultivator to flood his padi-fields.*-*

Exploitation of Dyaks by the Malays and the Rajas of Borneo in the 1840s

James Brooke wrote in his journal in “Expedition to Borneo of H.M.S. Dido for the Suppression of Piracy”: “The Dyaks have from time immemorial been looked upon as the bondsmen of the Malays, and the Rajahs consider them much in the same light as they would a drove of oxen — i. e. as personal and disposable property. They were governed in Sarawak by three local officers, called the Patingi, the Bandar, and the Tumangong. To the Patingi they paid a small yearly revenue of rice, but this deficiency of revenue was made up by sending them a quantity of goods — chiefly salt, Dyak cloths, and iron — and demanding a price for them six or eight times more than their value. The produce collected by the Dyaks was also monopolised, and the edible birds-nests, bees-wax, &c. &c, were taken at a price fixed by the Patingi, who more- over claimed mats, fowls, fruits, and every other necessary at his pleasure, and could likewise make the Dyaks work for him for merely a nominal remuneration. [Source: “The Expedition to Borneo of H.M.S. Dido For the Suppression of Piracy” by Henry Keppel and James Brooke (1847)*-*]

“This system, not badly devised, had it been limited within the bounds of moderation, would have left the Dyaks plenty for all their wants; or had the local officers known their own interest, they would have protected those upon whom they depended for revenue, and under the worst oppression of one man the Dyaks would have deemed themselves happy. Such unfortunately was not the case; for the love of immediate gain overcame every other consideration, and by degrees oldestablished customs were thrown aside, and new ones substituted in their place. When the Fatingi had received all he thought proper to extort, his relatives first claimed the right of arbitrary trade, and gradually it was extended as the privilege of every respectable person in the country to serra 1 the Dyaks. The poor Dyak, thus at the mercy of half the Malay population, was never allowed to refuse compliance with these demands; he could plead neither poverty, inability, nor even hunger, as an excuse, for the answer was ever ready: “Give me your wife or one of your children;" and in case he could not supply what was required, the wife or the child was taken, and became a slave.*-*

“Many modes of extortion were resorted to; a favourite one was convicting the Dyak of a fault and imposing a fine upon him, Some ingenuity and much trickery were shewn in this game, and new offences were invented as soon as the old pleas would serve no longer: for instance, if a Malay met a Dyak in a boat which pleased him, he notched it, as a token that it was his property; in one day, if the boat was a new one, perhaps three or more would place their marks on it; and as only one could get it, the Dyak to whom the boat really belonged had to pay the others for his fault. This, however, was only “a fault" whereas, for a Dyak to injure a Malay, directly or indirectly, purposely or otherwise, was a high offence, and punished by a proportionate fine. If a Dyak's house was in bad repair, and a Malay fell in consequence and was hurt, or pretended to be hurt, a fine was imposed; if a Malay in the jungle was wounded by the springs set for a wild boar, or by the wooden spikes which the Dyaks for protection put about their village, or scratched himself and said he was injured, the penalty was heavy; if the Malay was really hurt, ever so accidentally, it was the ruin of the Dyak. And these numerous and uninvited guests came and went at pleasure, lived in free quarters, made their requisitions, and then forced the Dyak to carry away for them the very property of which he had been robbed.*-*

“This is a fair picture of the governments under which the Dyaks live; and although they were often roused to resistance, it was always fruitless, and only involved them in deeper troubles; for the Malays could readily gather a large force of sea Dyaks from Sakarran, who were readily attracted by hope of plunder, and who, supported by the firearms of their allies, were certain to overcome any single tribe that held out. The misfortunes of the Dyaks of Sarawak did not stop here. Antimony-ore was discovered; the cupidity of the Borneons was roused; then Fangerans struggled for the prize; intrigues and dissensions ensued; and the inhabitants of Sarawak in turn felt the very evil they had inflicted on the Dyaks; whilst the Dyaks were compelled, amidst their other wrongs, to labour at the ore without any recompense, and to the neglect of their rice r cultivation. Many died in consequence of this compulsory labour, so contrary to their habits and inclinations; and more would doubtless have fallen victims, had not civil war rescued them from this evil, to inflict upon them others a thousand times worse.*-*

“Extortion had before been carried on by individuals, but now it was systematised; and Fangerans of rank, for the sake of plunder, sent bodies of Malays and Sakarran Dyaks to attack the different tribes. The men were slaughtered, the women and children carried off into slavery, the villages burned, the fruit-trees cut down, and all their property destroyed or seized. The Dyaks could no longer live in tribes, but sought refuge in the mountains or the jungle, a few together; and as one of them pathetically described it — "We do not live," he said, "like men; we are like monkeys; we are hunted from place to place; we have no houses; and when we light a fire, we fear the smoke will draw, our enemies upon us." On infliction of cutting down the fruit-trees. Houses can be rebuilt, with its rude and ready materials, in a few weeks; but the latter, from which the principal subsistence of the natives is gathered, cannot be suddenly restored, and thus they are reduced to starvation.*-*

Exploitation and Abuse by the Malays Causes Dyak Numbers to Decline in the 1840s

James Brooke wrote in his journal in “Expedition to Borneo of H.M.S. Dido for the Suppression of Piracy”: “In the course of ten years, under the circumstances detailed, from enforced labour, from famine, from slavery, from sickness, from the sword, — one half of the Dyak population disappeared; and the work of extirpation would have gone on at an accelerated pace, had the remnant been left to the tender mercies of the Pangerans; but chance (we may much more truly say, Providence) led our countryman to this scene of misery, and enabled him, by circumstances far removed beyond the grounds of calculation, to put a stop to the sufferings of an amiable people. [Source: “The Expedition to Borneo of H.M.S. Dido For the Suppression of Piracy” by Henry Keppel and James Brooke (1847)*-*]

“The grounds for this opinion are an estimate personally made amongst the tribes, compared with the estimate kept by the local officers before the disturbance arose; and the result is, that only two out of twenty tribes have not suffered, whilst some tribes have been reduced from 330 families to 50; about ten tribes have lost more than half their number; one tribe of 100 families has lost all, its women and children made slaves; and one tribe, more wretched, has been reduced from 120 families to 2, that is 16 persons; whilst two tribes have entirely disappeared. The list of the tribes and their numbers formerly and now are as follows:— Suntah, 330—50; Sanpro, 100—69; Sigo, 80—28; Sabungo, 60 — 33; Brang, 50—22; Sinnar, 80—34; Stang, 80—30; Samban, 60—34; Tubbia, 80—30; Goon, ,40— 25; Bang, 40— 12; Kuj-juss, 35—0; Lundu, 80—2; Sow, 200— 100; Sarambo, 100—60; Bombak, 35—35; Paninjow, 80—40; Singe, 220—220; Pons, 20—0; Sibaduh, 25—25. Total, for merly, 1795 — now, 849 families; and reckoning eight persons to each family, the amount of population will be, formerly, 14,360 — now, 6792: giving a decrease of population in ten years of 546 families, or 7568 persons I

Suffering and Civilizing of the Dyaks of Sarawak in the 1840s

James Brooke wrote in his journal in “Expedition to Borneo of H.M.S. Dido for the Suppression of Piracy”: “The peaceful and gentle aborigines — how can I speak too favourably of their improved condition? These people, who, a few years since, suffered every extreme of misery from war, slavery, and starvation, are now comfortably lodged, arid comparatively rich, A stranger might now pass from village to village, and he would receive their hospitality, and see their padi stored in their houses. He would hear them proclaim their happiness, and praise the white man as their friend and protector. [Source: “The Expedition to Borneo of H.M.S. Dido For the Suppression of Piracy” by Henry Keppel and James Brooke (1847)*-*]

“Since the death of Paremham, no Dyak of Sarawak lost his life by violence, until a month since, when two were cut off by the Sakarran Dyaks. None of the tribes have warred amongst themselves; and I believe their war excursions, to a distance in the interior have been very few, and those undertaken by the Sarambos. What punishment is sufficient for the wretch who finds this state of things so baleful as to attempt to destroy it ? Yet such a wretch is Seriff Sahib. In describing the condition of the Dyaks, I do not say that it is perfect, or that it may not be still further improved; but with people in their state of society innovations ought not rashly or hastily to be made; as the civilised being ought constantly to bear in mind, that what is clear to him is not clear to a savage; that intended benefits may be regarded as positive injuries; and that his motives are not, and scarcely can be, appreciated. The greatest evil, perhaps, from which the Dyaks suffer, is the influence of the Datus or chiefs; but this influence is never carried to oppression, and is only used to obtain the expensive luxury of birds-nests at a cheap rate. In short, the Dyaks are happy and content; and their gradual development must now be left to the work of time, aided by the gentlest persuasion, and advanced (if attainable) by the education of their children."

Conferences with Dyak Chiefs in the 1840s

James Brooke wrote in his journal in “Expedition to Borneo of H.M.S. Dido for the Suppression of Piracy”: “13th. — The Tumangong returned from Sadong, and brought me a far better account of that place than I had hoped for. It appears that they really are desirous to govern well, and to protect the Dyaks; and fully impressed with the caution I gave them, that unless they protect and foster their tribes, they will soon lose them from their removal to Sarawak. [Source: “The Expedition to Borneo of H.M.S. Dido For the Suppression of Piracy” by Henry Keppel and James Brooke (1847)*-*]

“One large tribe, the Maluku, a branch of the Sibnowans, are, it appears, very desirous of being under my protection. It is a tempting offer, and I should like to have them; but I must not deprive the rulers of Sadong of the means of living comfortably, and the power of paying revenue. Protect them I both can and will. There are great numbers of Sarawak people at Sadong, all looking out for birds-nests; new caves have been explored; mountains ascended for the first time in the search. It shews the progress of good government and security, and, at the same time, is characteristic of the Malay character. They will endure fatigue, and run risks, on the chance of finding this valuable commodity; but they will not labour steadily, or engage in pursuits which would lead to fortune by a slow progress.*-*

“15th. — Panglima Laksa, the chief of the Undop tribe, arrived, to request, as the Badjows and Sakarrans had recently killed his people, that I would permit him to retort. At the same time came Ahong Kapi, the Sakarran Malay, with eight Sakarran chiefs, named Si Miow, one of the heads, and the rest Tadong, Lengang, Barunda, Badendang, Si Bunie, Si Ludum, and Kuno, the representatives of other heads. Nothing could he more satisfactory than the interview, just over. They denied any knowledge or connexion with the Badjows, who had killed some Dyaks at Undop, and said all that I could desire. They promised to ohey me, and look upon me as their chief; they desired to trade, and would guarantee any Sarawak people who came to their river; but they could not answer for all the Dyaks in the Batang Lupar. It is well known, however, that the Batang Lupar Dyaks are more peaceable than those of Sakarran, and will be easily managed; and as for the breaking out of these old feuds, it is comparatively of slight importance, compared to the grand settlement; for as our influence increases we can easily put down the separate sticks of the bundle. There is a noble chance, if properly used I It may be remarked that many of their names are from some peculiarity of person, or from some quality. Tadong is a poisonous snake; but, on inquiry, I found the young chief so named had got the name from being black. They are certainly a finelooking race.*-*

“17th. — Plenty of conferences with the Sakarran chiefs; and, as far as I can judge, they are sincere in the main, though soma reserves there may be. Treachery I do not apprehend from them; but, of course, it will be impossible, over a very numerous, powerful, and warlike tribe, to gain such an ascendancy of a sudden as at once to correct their evil habits." *-*

Farming and Hunting in Dayak Country in the 1840s

James Brooke wrote in his journal in “Expedition to Borneo of H.M.S. Dido for the Suppression of Piracy”: The padi looked beautifully green. A few palms and plantains fringed the farm at intervals, whilst the surrounding hills were clothed in their native jungle. Here and there a few workmen in the fields heightened the effect; and the scene, as evening closed, was one of calm repose, and, I may say,] of peace. The cocoa-nut, the betel, the sago, and the gno or gomati, are the four favourite palms of the Dyaks. In their simple mode of life, these four trees supply them many necessaries and luxuries. The sago furnishes food; and, after the pith has been extracted, the outer part forms a rough covering for the rougher floor, on which the farmer sleeps. The leaf of the sago is preferable for the roofing of houses to the nibong. The gomati, or gno, gives the black fibre which enables the owner to manufacture rope or cord for his own use; and over and above, the toddy of this palm is a luxury daily enjoyed. When we entered, this toddy was produced in large bamboos, both for our use and that of our attendant Dyaks; I thought it, however, very bad. [Source: “The Expedition to Borneo of H.M.S. Dido For the Suppression of Piracy” by Henry Keppel and James Brooke (1847)*-*]

“In the evening we were out looking for deer, and passed many a pleasant spot which once was a farm, and which will become a farm again. These the Dyaks called rapack, and they are the favourite feeding-grounds of the deer. To our disappointment we did not get a deer, which we had reckoned on as an improvement to our ordinary dinner-fare. A sound sleep soon descended on our party, and the night passed in quiet; but it is remarkable how vigilant their mode of life renders the Dyak. Their sleep is short and interrupted; they constantly rise, blow up the fire, and look out on the night: it is rarely that some or other of them are not on the move.*-*

“Yearly the Dyaks take new ground for their farm; yearly they fence it in, and undergo the labour of reclaiming new land; for seven years the land lies fallow, and then may be used again. What a waste of labour I more especially in these rich and watered valleys, which, in the hands of the Chinese, might produce two crops yearly.*-*

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Global Viewpoint (Christian Science Monitor), Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.

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© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated June 2015

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