MENTION “DAYAK” TO ANYONE OUTSIDE SARAWAK, and inevitably the subject of headhunting will emerge like a bad penny. A cursory keyword search on the internet will quickly affirm that Dayaks are known worldwide for their history as fierce headhunters.
This rather sensationalist conclusion has had a long, stubborn history. As soon as James Brooke’s first exploits in Sarawak began circulating in England during the 1840s did the press seize on the ripe, exotic tales of pirates and savages in far-off tropical climes. The excerpt above, taken from a newspaper article in 1859, already shows the long-lasting connection made between Dayaks and headhunting.
Enemy heads were also a symbol of renewal and fertility for the takers. When a victorious war party returned bearing heads, the women would go out to meet them as part of an elaborate ceremony, asking them what “fruits” the men had “plucked” for them.
But why the fascination? Firstly there was the seductive image of James Brooke as alone, heroic and civilizing force amidst a backward, warlike people; it dovetailed neatly with the Victorian British idea of Britain’s place and mission in the world as the British Empire reached its apogee. What could be more proudly British than this intrepid gentleman-adventurer, who at great personal cost had tamed a wild, lawless people, and placed them on the upwards road to happy civilization? James Brooke’s war on slavery and headhunting, taken up by his nephew and heir Charles, was a testament to Britain’s positive influence on the world.
There is evidence, however, that the Rajahs’ much-publicised aversion to headhunting was merely a rather soft hammer used for particular purposes only. It was outlawed and punished only when it interfered with the Rajahs’ rule or disturbed the peace within the state. When Dayak groups rebelled against the Rajah, as in the case of the famous Iban leader Orang Kaya Aji who led the Saribas and Skrang Ibans against the Brookes at Mount Sadok together with his lead warrior Rentap, the authorities often cited the eradication of customs such as headhunting and slavery as justification for leading punitive expeditions against the offenders.
In comparison, when military expeditions were taken against peoples outside the jurisdiction of the Raj, such as other Dayak intruders from Dutch Borneo, the Sarawak authorities turned a blind eye if their men “took heads” (as the euphemism went) from enemy foreigners or captured them as slaves. Clearly, the Raj was against headhunting only when it ran counter to their interests.
Vernon Kedit, who is a direct descendant of 18th century paramount chief of the Ibans of Saribas, the Orang Kaya Pemancha Dana Bayang, helps to clarify some commonly-held myths about the Dayak custom of headhunting:
Were Ibans the only practioners of headhunting?
Let’s start with the nomenclature. Headhunting is a misnomer. The more accurate and scientific term used in the literature is headtaking.
It was widely practised among the different people groups classed as “Dyak” (the old English spelling for “Dayak”) in Borneo during the Brooke era, by the Bidayuhs, Kayans, and Kenyahs, for example, mostly in times of conflict. For Ibans however, headhunting had a particular and indispensable ritual purpose. It can be said that headhunting had 3 main purposes for the Iban: 1) Expansion, as when Ibans settled in Saribas and drove out or assimilated the inhabitants; 2) Honour, as a mark of bravery for a warrior intent on increasing his personal status; and 3) Ritual, which was and is still highly stylized and inherently pervasive in Iban culture.
A common misconception is that Iban warriors tallied the heads they had taken with tattoos on the neck. However, kills are traditionally tallied by simple lines tattooed in between the knuckles of the hand.
What ritualistic purposes did the Iban attach to headhunting?
In old Iban culture, the period of mourning for a loved one could only be ended by the taking of a head. This was the case when the Saribas Iban leader Dana Bayang presented James Brooke with a lebur api, a ritual cloth designed to receive heads, with a request that the Rajah provide a head to complete the mourning period for Dana’s late wife. As the Rajah had outlawed headhunting in Sarawak, Dana’s expectation was that only the Rajah himself could provide a head for this ritualistic purpose.
Enemy heads were also a symbol of renewal and fertility for the takers. When a victorious war party returned bearing heads, the women would go out to meet them as part of an elaborate ceremony, asking them what “fruits” the men had “plucked” for them. In further ceremonies, the heads were believed to be spiritually transformed into potent objects of benevolence, bringing fertility and success to the members of the longhouse.
In addition, young men were deemed to be worthy warriors only once they had taken a head.
Is it true that only the heads of male warriors could be taken?
Actually, women’s heads, and that of children, were acceptable, but only under specific circumstances. During an attack, women and children were liable to be taken alive as slaves. If a woman picked up a weapon to defend herself, she was fair game, and her head could be taken. However, if she managed to wound her attacker, she was deemed to have successfully defended herself and permitted to go free.
More disturbingly for us today, the head of an anak umbung, a cloistered female child of an enemy leader, was especially prized. That was because such a child would have been guarded by the chief’s lead warriors and breaching their defense was almost impossible.
Even in pre-Brooke times, ritual headhunting was largely confined to declared enemies in times of conflict. Indiscriminate headhunting was not the norm.
And what about the link between tattoos and headhunting?
A common misconception is that Iban warriors tallied the heads they had taken with tattoos on the neck. However, kills are traditionally tallied by simple lines tattooed in between the knuckles of the hand. As a child, when speaking to an elder male, I often found myself inspecting their knuckles for this telltale sign of honour and achievement. In more recent times, as in the case of the Sarawak Rangers or the Armed Forces, members would tattoo their knuckles to commemorate their kills during military service.
Alan Lau is a Kuching-based architect. He has recently developed a habit of checking the knuckles.