The island of Borneo is located on the southeast Asia. It is the third largest island in the world. Borneo is known for its beaches , ancient rainforest, world class diving site and orangutans. But many people didn’t know that this island is the living place of headhunters. Yes! A real headhunter. The Murut, Ilongot, Iban, Dayak, Berawan, Wana and Mappurondo tribes is famous for its headhunting history. Among this groups, headhunting was usually a ritual activity rather than and act of war or feuding and involved the taking of single head. Ideas of manhood and marriage were encompassed in practice, and the taken heads were highly prized.
In the past, the Dayak were feared for their ancient tradition of headhunting practices (the ritual is also known as Ngayau by the Dayaks) . Among the Iban Dayaks, the origin of headhunting was believed to be meeting one of the mourning rules given by a spirit which is as follows:
- The sacred jar is not to be opened except by a warrior who has managed to obtain a head, or by a man who can present a human head, which he obtained in a fight; or by a man who has returned from a sojourn in enemy country.
Often, a war leader had at least three lieutenants (called manuk sabong) who in turn had some followers. The war (ngayau) rules among the Iban Dayaks are listed below:
- If a warleader leads a party on an expedition, he must not allow his warriors to fight a guiltless tribe that has no quarrel with them.
- If the enemy surrenders, he may not take their lives, lest his army be unsuccessful in future warfare and risk fighting empty-handed war raids (balang kayau).
- The first time that a warrior takes a head or captures a prisoner, he must present the head or captive to the warleader in acknowledgement of the latter’s leadership.
- If a warrior takes two heads or captives, or more, one of each must be given to the warleader; the remainder belongs to the killer or captor.
- The warleader must be honest with his followers in order that in future wars he may not be defeated (alah bunoh).
A Dayak with earrings and a lance (taken c. 1920, Dutch Borneo). The Dayaks are previously reputed to be headhunters by the Europeans. In the first half of the 19th century, the Dutch Colonial government in Eastern and Southern Borneo successfully curtailed the traditional headhunting culture by the Dayaks. In reality not all Dayaks were Hunter-gatherers, most Dayaks in the 19th century are actually farmers, mainly engaging with shifting cultivation. They also gathered forest goods and animal hunting.
There were various reasons for headhunting as listed below:
- For soil fertility so Dayaks hunted fresh heads before paddy harvesting seasons after which head festival would be held in honour of the new heads.
- To add supernatural strength which Dayaks believed to be centred in the soul and head of humans. Fresh heads can give magical powers for communinal protection, bountiful paddy harvesting and disease curing.
- To avenge revenge for murders based on “blood credit” principle unless “adat pati nyawa” (customary compensation token) is paid.
- To pay dowry for marriages e.g. “derian palit mata” (eye blocking dowry) for Ibans once blood has been splashed prior to agreeing to marriage and of course, new fresh heads show prowess, bravery, ability and capability to protect his family, community and land
- For foundation of new buildings to be stronger and meaningful than the normal practice of not putting in human heads.
- For protection against enemy attacks according to the principle of “attack first before being attacked”.
- As a symbol of power and social status ranking where the more heads someone has, the respect and glory due to him. The warleader is called tuai serang (warleader) or raja berani (king of the brave) while kayau anak (small raid) leader is only called tuai kayau (raid leader) whereby adat tebalu (widower rule) after their death would be paid according to their ranking status in the community.
- For territorial expansion where some brave Dayaks intentionally migrated into new areas such as Mujah “Buah Raya” migrated from Skrang to Paku to Kanowitwhile infighting among Ibans themselves in Batang Ai caused the Ulu Ai Ibans to migrate to Batang Kanyau River in Kapuas, Kalimantan and then proceeded to Katibas and later on Ulu Rajang in Sarawak. The earlier migrations from Kapuas to Batang Ai, Batang Lupar, Batang Saribas and Batang Krian rivers were also made possible by fighting the local tribes like Bukitan.
Reasons for abandoning headhunting are:
- Peacemaking agreements at Tumbang Anoi, Kalimantan in 1874 and Kapit, Sarawak in 1924.
- Coming of Christianity, with education where Dayaks are taught that headhunting is murder and against the ChristianBible‘s teachings.
- Dayaks’ own realisation that headhunting was more to lose than to gain.
The Dayak longhouses along theKahayan River taken in Tumbang Anoi village (c. 1894), the village witnessed the Tumbang Anoi Agreement 20 years earlier in 1874 that ended the headhunting practise by the Dayak people in Dutch Borneo (Kalimantan).
Among the most prominent legacy during the colonial rule in the Dutch Borneo (present-day Kalimantan) is the Tumbang Anoi Agreement held in 1874 in Damang Batu, Central Kalimantan (the seat of the Kahayan Dayaks). It is a formal meeting that gathered all the Dayak tribes in Kalimantan for a peace resolution. In the meeting that is reputed taken several months, the Dayak people throughout the Kalimantan agreed to end the headhunting tradition as it believed the tradition caused conflict and tension between various Dayak groups. The meeting ended with a peace resolution by the Dayak people.
After mass conversions to Christianity, and anti-headhunting legislation by the colonial powers was passed, the practice was banned and appeared to have disappeared. However, it should be noted that the Brooke-led Sarawak government, although banning unauthorized headhunting, actually allowed “ngayau” headhunting practices by the Brooke-supporting natives during state-sanctioned punitive expeditions against their own fellow people’s rebellions throughout the state, thereby never really extinguished the spirit of headhunting especially among the Iban natives. The state-sanctioned troop was allowed to take heads, properties like jars and brassware, burn houses and farms, exempted from paying door taxes and in some cases, granted new territories to migrate into. This Brooke’s practice was in remarkable contract to the practice by the Dutch in the neighbouring West Kalimantan who prohibited any native participation in its punitive expeditions. Initially, James Brooke (the first Rajah of Sarawak) did engage the British Navy troop in the Battle of Beting Maru against the Iban and Malay of the Saribas region and the Iban of Skrang under Rentap’s charge but this resulted in the Public Inquiry by the British government in Singapore. Thereafter, the Brooke government gathered a local troop who were its allies.
Subsequently, the headhunting began to surface again in the mid-1940s, when the Allied Powers encouraged the practice against the Japanese Occupation of Borneo. It also slightly surged in the late 1960s when the Indonesian government encouraged Dayaks to purge Chinese from interior Kalimantan who were suspected of supporting communism in mainland China and also in the late 1990s when the Dayak started to attack Madurese emigrants in an explosion of ethnic violence. After formation of Malaysia, some Iban became trackers during the Malayan Emergency against the Communist Insurgency and thereafter they continue to be soldiers in the armed forces.
Headhunting resurfaced in 1963 among Dayak soldiers during the Confrontation Campaign by President Sukarno of Indonesia against the newly created formation of Malaysia between the pre-existing Federation of Malaya, Singapore, Sabah and Sarawak in 16 September 1963. Subsequently, Dayak trackers recruited during the Malayan Emergency against the Communists’ Insurgency wanted to behead enemies killed during their military operations but disallowed by their superiors.