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As Long as We Remember...

October 26, 2011

Headhunting: A Tradition Long Gone Part 2

Tom McLaughlin

Kuching, Malaysian Borneo and Sambas, Indonesian Borneo – Headhunting in Borneo is often portrayed as an act of warfare between two groups living in the forests. The idea that the victors surveyed the battlefield and took heads as a trophy is often recounted to western anthropologists and historians.


Returning to the longhouses, the heads are then cleaned by the elderly through some mystical ceremony, and then offered to a tree that embodies the spirits of past warriors. The trophies are then placed in a basket and hung in a prominent location. A good tale, repeated and recorded often.


In reality, in order to secure a bride, testosterone and alcohol fueled late adolescents, attacked sleeping individuals in longhouses. Slashing indiscriminately with their parangs in the confusion of the night, they left in chaos with the head of someone. It did not matter whose; it was a head. Not exactly the western perception of bravery and daring.


The British colonizers, under the white rajahs, tried to put an end to headhunting. They made it illegal; but the impenetrable forest and jungle made enforcement impossible. There are accounts of groups of 18 or so soldiers punishing tribes for these grisly deeds, but it is impossible to tell if the practice was truly eradicated.


The Japanese occupation of Sarawak during World War II would bring the next wave of headhunting. The white rajah of the time, Vyner Brook, is said to have given official permission to the people to take the heads of the Japanese occupiers. The legends of previous warriors, embossed over time from attacking longhouses at night to acts of bravery on securing heads, fueled the imaginations of youth. Probably most of the heads around today, and there are many, are from these activities against the invaders.


The Madura people from an island of that name began to arrive and establish themselves in the area around a sleepy backwater town in south Indonesian Borneo called Sambas. They soon became unwelcome. According to conversations, their sins were many.


They would have five or six baskets of fruit from three trees while the native with 10 trees would have only a few. The land kilometers outside of town, owned by a local, would suddenly be owned by Madura. They muscled into the ojek business where a motor bike picks up a person in the kampung to do her shopping and returns paying a fee. A lady working in Malaysian Borneo had her salary stolen by a Madura. These are just a few of the many sins related to me.


The flashpoint came when a rumor quickly spread that a Madura had disrespected a Sambas worshiper outside a mosque in Java. The warriors, collectively known as Dayaks, coupled with support from the Chinese who provided food and the Malay community who offered support, attacked the Madura. They drove the Madura from the area.


When the carnage was over, the heads were collected and brought back to the longhouses for processing. This was in March 1999.


Unfortunately, the Madura, who had arrived in Sambas 60 or 70 years earlier, had settled in and respected the adat, the customs and laws of society. The newcomers did not. The Dayaks probably attacked because of the legends taught to them in their society and that acts of bravery required a head. By most accounts they attacked at night, a long standing tradition.


For other articles on Malaysian Borneo, see Tom’s website at


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