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January 14, 2015

The Art and History of Malay Head-Hunting

Tom McLaughlin

Kuching, Malaysian Borneo – We continued our research on a drive to Serian to meet with the Bidayu people, a group of head-hunters. According to folklore, this group began in a mountain just across the border from Indonesia many years ago and spread out into four different groups.


As time passed, the four groups could not speak with each other as their language had changed dramatically.


We met with the former Ketua Kampong (head man) and leader of a village. We purchased a bottle of grog for him to loosen his lips and become more fluent in the events of the past. The vile looking black substance cost only $3. I did not partake after much urgings from the local people.


The Serian Bidayu were farmers and planted rice. They were a calm, quiet lot until the time came to do some head hunting. Apparently, somebody had a dream, or the shaman said it was time, or a bird sang from a tree – or some such nonsense. Then, they all got together and drank some rice wine. They then went into another village, one that did not speak the same language and acquired a head.


Here is an article from a friend of mine about the hobby. It has been copyrighted by James Ritchy. All rights reserved. Used by permission.



Taking heads was like a hobby among the Ibans of Sarawak. Spenser St John, in his book “Life in the Forests,” quoted an Iban head-hunter as saying “the white man read books, we hunt for heads instead.”


According to Iban tradition, head-hunting started as a religious rite several hundred years ago. At the turn of the 1800s, head-hunting was rampant in Sarawak.


It was considered “prestigious” to acquire heads in Iban society. The social status of a head-hunter as a courageous man would be enhanced if he possessed heads, either taken by himself or acquired by other means.


The weapon used in head-hunting is often the parang ilang — a heavy steel blade with a convex cutting edge, about 55cm long, mounted on a handle made from deer horn or belian (hardwood).


Heads were mainly taken in battle. Following any successful head-hunting mission, the Ibans would hold a gawai enchabu arong (a thanksgiving ritual).


Not the good smell


The heads are taken back to the village wrapped in the plaited leaves of the nipah palm. They usually emitted an odor, which 19th century naturalist Sir Hugh Low said surpasses the odorous durian…”


Most of the heads taken by the Ibans were smoked in a manner similar to that in which fish is smoked. In this way, the head (minus the eyes) is preserved, together with the flesh and hair. Sometimes during the process the head is singed black.


A typical head-hunting scene is described in a battle which occurred in the mid-1800s between loyal government Ibans, who killed several enemy Ibans, in an attack in Saribas. The Illustrated London News (as cited in the book “Rajah Brooke’s Borneo) describes the scene:


“The dayaks, having killed their enemy, immediately cut his head off with a fiendish yell; they then scooped out the brains (from the occipital hole at the back of the head) with a rod of bamboo.


“They then light a slow fire underneath so that the smoke ascends through the neck, and penetrates the head, thoroughly drying the interior (until all the juices are evaporated).”


Head-hunting picked up when the Arab “Sharifs” and some Malay leaders took advantage of the warlike nature of the Ibans — particularly those from Skrang and Saribas — to help them organize raids on longhouses as well pirate raids on vessels plying the coastal waters of Sarawak.


Having convinced the Ibans that they could have all the glory by taking heads (leaving the booty to the others), combined raids against vessels began to take place.


In his book “Wanderings in the Great Forest,” another 19th century naturalist, Odoardo Beccari, said: “It is said of the Sakarrang and Seribas Dayaks that within the memory of man they were peaceable and inoffensive, although they did take a few heads from inland tribes; but afterwards the Malays and Lanuns took advantage of their skills as warriors and joined them in piratical expeditions along the coast, for the Dayaks were content with the heads alone, and left the booty to their allies.”


There were other means of acquiring heads apart from taking them in battle. These included killing innocent victims and stealing heads. Former Resident Charles Hose, in his book “Natural Man,” said: “So strong is the morbid desire that a war party sometimes has been known to rob tombs of villages of other tribes and, after smoking the stolen heads of the corpses, bring them home in triumph.”


...Life is good. . . . .


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