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James Ritchie on How Headhunting originated in Sarawak, Borneo

Written By: herbrunbridge - Jun• 07•10

James Ritchie

WoWasiscorrespondent James Ritchie on how headhunting originated in Sarawak, Borneo, Malaysia. You may also want to read: An Iban veteran tells how heads are smoked in Sarawak, Borneo and The religious basis for headhunting in Sarawak, Borneo.

Are headhunters still alive in Sarawak today? The answer is yes and no. If you consider that Dayak members of the security forces were engaged in jungle warfare against the enemy not too long ago, then it is difficult to dismiss the possibility that headhunting was still practiced in the past decade or two.

Different strokes… 

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

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

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

The weapon used in headhunting 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 headhunting 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 19lh 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 headhunting 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’sBorneo) 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).” 

Headhunting 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 beads 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.”  

The girls can’t help it  

In the past Iban women played a leading part in encouraging headhunting, as in hunting for “trophies.”  Hose said: “… often a girl will taunt her suitor by saying that he has not  been brave enough to take a head…” 

This led Sarawak White Rajah Charles Brooke to say that the “principal inciters or instigators of these bloody exploits” were Iban women.  Thus it was not uncommon for some of the lesser warriors to sneak up and attack innocent women and children who were bathing at some isolated spot separated from the main tribe.  

It was also a custom that heads had to be acquired after the death of a member of the family in order to appease the spirits. This custom goes back to the belief that Iban warriors must secure a heads before the end of the burial ritual, failing which the burial would be incomplete and mourning would have to continue until a head was found.  

For example, in mourning a death, family members of the Kanowit tribe (a fierce headhunting group which existed before the arrival of James Brooke in 1839) were taught that it was their duty to kill the first-person they meet. Thus they would not hesitate to take the heads of “man, woman or child, even if they were members of their own tribe, and even, relatives.”  

After a head is taken it is given the greatest respect. Sir Hugh said: “The head, for months after its arrival, is treated with the greatest consideration, and all the terms of endearment… are abundantly lavished on it.  The most dainty morsels… are thrust into its mouth and it is instructed to hate its former friends and that having been adopted into the tribe of its captors, its spirit must be always with them.”

James Ritchie worked with the New Straits Times for 25 years, before joining the Sarawak Civil Service as a Consultant Public Relations Officer in the Chief Minister’s Department in 1998.  He writes for the Sarawak Tribune, Borneo Post, and The Malaysian Today.  A prolific writer on Sarawak affairs, he has written hundreds of newspaper articles and authored or co-authored about 15 books, including Man-eating Crocodiles of Borneo, Bruno Manser: the Inside Story, Mystical Borneo, Changes and Challenges: Sarawak 1963-1998, and Tun Ahmad Zaidi, Son of Sarawak.  He has won numerous journalistic honors including the prestigious Shell-Kenyaland Award.

For more James Ritchie on headhunting, visit these two WoWasis posts:

An Iban veteran tells how heads are smoked in Sarawak, Borneo

The religious basis for headhunting in Sarawak, Borneo  

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  1. Albert says:

    Hi Sir, How can i get your email, because i would like to buy your books.

  2. sammy says:

    I’m so glad to have found your web page. My pal mentioned it to me before, yet never got around to checking it out until now… I’m floored.

  3. Any website worth its’ salt can never have too many headhunting stories, James. bring ’em on!

  4. you need anymore headhunting stories?

  5. james ritchie says:

    Hi Ivy,
    I remember you. How you doing?
    keep n touch if yuou coming this way. My handphone 0198170391.

  6. Ivy Chin says:

    Hello Sandy
    Greetings from Vancouver. I wonder if you still remember me. I am KM Chin’s little sister,Ivy and the last time we met was in KL at your house I believe and you were still working in NST. It has been mnay mnay years but I now reside in Vancouver and work for The Vancouver Sun and Province newspapers. Hope to hear from you and will try to catch up next time I’m in M’sia. Cheers

  7. Ho Chin Soon says:

    Hi Mr James Ritchie, I bought your book written in 1994 on Bruno Manser while waiting for my flight from Miri to Kuching. Very good book. Just thought I am happy to note that you are still around and you must be some 72 years old now? Rgds, Ho Chin Soon p/s I will be quoting from your Book in my Book 3 on Penang Island and Golden Triangle. 012-9513550

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