Popular Science Monthly/Volume 34/December 1888/Native Life in British Borneo


By D. D. DALY, Assistant Resident.[1]

THE author gave in this paper a personal record of two explorations which he undertook from the east and from the west coast of North Borneo to countries and tribes in the interior, hitherto unvisited by the white man. Having left Sandakan, the capital of the territory, in August, 1887, and ascending the Kinabatangare, the largest navigable river, the first place of importance reached is Malapi, within twelve miles of the famous Gomanton bird's-nest caves, and the depot for their product. The nests collected here are valued at $25,000 per annum, and the caves bring to the North Borneo Government a yearly rental of $9,000. One of the vaults in the caves is estimated to be nine hundred feet high. An idea of their population may be got from the statement that a steady column of the swifts (Callocalia) inhabiting them has been timed by the watch to fly for three quarters of an hour from one of the apertures. Passing Bod Lagit—"which means the hill to the skies, a legend recording that it formerly reached to the heavens, but, owing to the wickedness of its inhabitants, had subsided to its present height of four hundred feet"—and a hill of limestone called Chuko Besar, which contains some small caves and yields a few hundred bird's-nests each year, the explorers visited one of the owners of the Batu Timbang caves, of which two native rajahs share the proceeds in alternate years. They are situated on the river Quamute, a branch of the Kinabatangare, and are difficult of access on account of rapids. Some of the bird's-nests are of the best white description, but the larger proportion are gray and mixed with feathers. Still further up—three hours' climb from the Melikop branch, and eighteen hundred and ten feet above the sea-level—are the Obang-Obang limestone caves, which had not hitherto been visited by Europeans. The first cave reached after a three hours' climb, the last half-hour of it over slippery, moss-grown, limestone bowlders, is the most valuable, but can be approached only by experts in climbing. The entrance is a small hole, four feet by four feet, and is closed by a wooden grating so as to attract attention to the spot, as otherwise the unwary traveler might suddenly be precipitated to the depths below. Every two months this doorway is opened, and the climbers let themselves down into the caves by means of rattans, and gather all nests, large and small. This makes six seasons per annum. The same periods are observed in the collections at the Senobang caves in the Ulu Penungah. "The seasons at Gomanton, Batu Timbang, Madai, and Segalong number two or three during the twelve months, and these are too few, according to the Tungara tribe. They maintain that, by collecting them frequently—say six times per annum—they procure white nests in first-rate order, though some of these nests are young and but half formed, and that the Sulu traders give them a higher price in consequence. I noticed a great scarcity in swifts and a great preponderance of bats, which might be attributed to the too frequent collection of nests, which prevents the swifts from breeding. The Obang-Obang Mountain runs north and south, and is half a mile in length. There are seven entrances to the vaults from the top of the range, all situated close to each other. Five of these vaults do not contain any bird's-nests, there being no swifts, only bats dwelling there." The only chamber that can be entered by any one who is not an adept at climbing on rattans to the roof of the vault is only fifty feet high, and contains both bats' and swifts' nests. The bats' nests are similar in form to the swifts', but are made of moss only, which these mammalia pick off the limestone bowlders outside.

At one stretch of the lower Kinabatangare several villages had been abandoned some years previously on account of the ravages of small-pox. When asked their age, many natives would answer that they were so many years old at the time of the last epidemic of this disease. The usual interval between the visitations was eighteen or twenty years; and the old men would sometimes acknowledge to having seen the ravages of three or four epidemics. Another settlement had been abandoned on account of the voracity of the crocodiles, which had mastered the art of overturning boats and devouring their occupants. The crocodiles are very numerous in these fresh-water rivers, and many natives are taken by them every year. At a place further up the river, a large one, fourteen feet long, was towed to the bank close to the house where the author was staying. "There was much joy manifested by the Muruts at its capture, as it had eaten a brother-in-law of the chief. Pieces of the bones and skull were found inside, and brought to the house with a good deal of merriment. A chief who has many wives has usually many brothers-in-law, and he is obliged, in a measure, to assist or support the latter. The loss, therefore, of a brother-in-law more or less is not only immaterial, but rather a merciful dispensation; and so there was as much joy, feasting, and congratulation as if Maharajah Oban had been presented by one of his wives with a new baby."

"The Murut," we are informed, "does not wear any clothes, but sports a bit of bark in front; some strings of colored beads encircle his head, a few charms hang around his neck; he carries a spear as though he feared no man, and annexes a new wife when he is 'off with the old love.' The women and children are much neglected,"

Where the river passed through a large uninhabited jungle-forest, "in both banks were compressed heaps of leaves and wooden debris from four to ten feet thick, that had been washed down by floods. Where the river-water had washed part of the layers away, the section of the bank presented the appearance of a cutting in a hay-stack. These large deposits, if undisturbed, may, after many centuries of compression, form into coal. At a station near the Batu Timbang caves, where the traveler negotiated with the rajah proprietor concerning the proceeds of the bird's-nests, a dance was given in his honor. In the favorite figures the women, holding each other's hands, moved in one circle, while the men, also holding hands, moved in an outside circle, but in the opposite direction—to the sound of music composed of gongs tuned to different keys, and wooden drums. The next entertainment was given by a party of some twenty men and women performing an incantation over some medicine which was to be administered to the chief. "They all held palm-branches in their hands, which they waved in graceful unison and in perfect time to the melodious cadence of their voices. The women sang one line, and the men took up the solemn refrain in a sort of Gregorian chant. They danced gracefully, holding each other's hands, in a ring around the mysterious object of their charms; both the dancing and singing are continued until the sorcerer declares that the spell has been worked over the medicine. It should be stated that the Tamhanuahs declare that after death their souls find rest in peace on the top of the great mountain Kinabalu, as their forefathers believed before them." A curious mausoleum was visited at Imbok. It was built of solid bilian-wood, a material of long-lasting qualities, and the ends of the prettily ornamented and fluted posts and beams were carved into grotesque heads of animals. It contained some thirty or forty bodies, and was surrounded by fruit-trees.

At Pemengah, where a police station was established, many of the traders were found living and keeping their stores in houses built upon large bamboo rafts, called lanteens, which were made fast to the banks by rattans. The people at one of the villages near this place had never seen a white man before, and when Mr. Daly first arrived the women and children ran away and hid themselves in one of the back rooms, and the men looked "nervously suspicious." They examined his arms and chest, and were very merry at the idea of his skin being white, "which they seemed to think an absurd freak of nature. . . . They all smoke from morning till night, and out of pipes that have brass mouth-pieces and large bowls, such as are used by the Dusum tribes of the west coast. The tobacco is grown by themselves, and retains a green color by their process of fermentation. . . . They have not yet learned the use of guns or of gunpowder. They had not previously seen a double-barreled breech-loader, and when I opened mine to put in a cartridge, they exclaimed, 'Oh, it is broken!' I brought down a few of the swifts that build the edible bird's-nests, and found them to be very small, and to have a patch of white on the back and tail. The men wear only the loin-cloth; the women have but one garment, viz., a short petticoat, which is kept up around the waist by coils of brass wire; the young girls have, as an addition, coils of brass wire from the ankle half-way up to the knee. The cloth is woven from the thread made from the cotton-trees, kapok, that grow luxuriantly around their houses, and the women use the same kind of spindle for making thread as is common among the Dusums of the west coast, holding the cotton in the left hand and occasionally giving a twist to the spindle with the right hand. The people know of no other minerals besides coal and iron pyrites. Their houses accommodate from ten to fifteen persons, and they do not keep pigs under their houses as other sea-coast tribes are in the habit of doing. Their sleeping-hours are peculiar. No bedding is used, but they sleep on mats till about midnight, when they wake up shivering with the cold of these inland mountains. A fire is then lighted on a large, oval-shaped hearth, that is made of clay in the center of each house, and all the inmates, young and old, sit round the fire until dawn in a crouching attitude, telling long-winded stories, sometimes nodding, and sometimes leaning against his or her neighbor with head resting on the knees. Their chants at night-time are doleful and monotonous in tone. For striking a light, the men carry in their waist-belt a small bamboo prettily carved, in which some tinder and a bit of porcelain are kept out of the rain. By holding the tinder and the piece of broken plate in the right hand, and striking it sharp on the side of the bamboo, the tinder is ignited." One of the objects of the expedition was to put a stop to the head-hunting raids between the Murut tribe and their traditional enemies the Peluans, the latter not representing a particular tribe, but the aborigines of the interior generally. "The Muruts are very frank in naming and numbering the heads they had taken; and I found the debit and credit account to be as follows: The Muruts have taken twenty-six heads of Peluans, the Peluans have taken thirty-one heads of Muruts; balance in favor of the Peluans, five heads, and also four Muruts who were wounded in the last affray. Each tribe distrusts the other, and peace can be only made by the Peluans paying a commensurate amount of blood-money in compensation for five heads that stand against them." Word was therefore sent to the Peluans to come down to a parley at an appointed time, with guarantee of safe-conduct. When the chiefs of the two sides had been brought together, "the Murut chiefs commenced taking the oath by chopping at a stick or sapling with great vigor, repeating the words of the oath with a loud voice, until toward the end they appeared quite excited. A Murut chief took the oath and then a Peluan, turn about, and, as each oath takes six or seven minutes to repeat, it took a long time. The following is a précis of the form of oath, each + denoting a chop at the stick, until it is finally chopped into little bits: 'I follow the Government of the British North Borneo Company +. The Sandêwar + and the Peluan + people are now of one mind +. If I kill a Sandêwar" (if a Peluan is swearing) "man + when I go to the water, may I not be able to drink +; when I go to the jungle may I not be able to eat +. May my father die +, may my mother die +, may my house be burned down +, may the paddy not grow in my fields , may a crocodile swallow me . may the eggs never be hatched in my fowl-house , may I never catch a fish when I go fishing , may my life be ended . I cut this stick as if I was chopping my own head off . The Great Spirit is my witness . May this stick grow into life again if I ever kill or take any more heads , and I follow all the customs of the British North Borneo Company , and I take this oath with a sincere heart , and I shall pay the poll-tax of the company ."

One of the Murut chiefs "was chopping away at the stick, repeating the oath in a loud voice, when he came to the part 'may my wife die' (if ever I take another head), when he stopped short and exclaimed with a grim smile: 'I have no wife; you Peluans cut off her head long ago'; and the Peluans gave a shout of laughter in which he joined, the crowd around rolling on the grass, convulsed with merriment. This would denote that the retaliation in taking heads does not proceed from a spirit of affection for the departed relatives, but rather from a sense of revenge or vendetta, engendered by a feeling that shame has been cast upon the tribe by losing one of the family at the hands of the enemy. Another illustration of the indifference with which the people regard the head-hunting custom was afforded at a chief's house where fifty-two human heads and pieces of human bones were hanging from the rafters. The skin of some of the faces was so well preserved that the expression could still be recognized." Mr. Daly explained that he could not eat his evening meal in a room where these were suspended, and asked that they be cut down. This request the chief and his sons "cheerfully complied with, but with a bland smile of patronizing pity at the white man's amiable squeamishness; and so to humor me they took down the ghastly trophies, and, huddling them together in rattan baskets, put them away at the back of the house; doubtless they were reinstated as drawing-room ornaments after my departure."

It is claimed that great improvement in the order and civilization of the country, and in personal security, has already resulted from the occupation by the British North Borneo Company.

The higher scientific deductions, which could not have been reached without the aid of a faculty in which imagination had a share, are in standing contradiction to the often-repeated dictum that science is void of imagination and the play of thought. Newton, Kepler, Bacon, Helmholtz, Lyell, Owen, Darwin, and Pasteur, are cited by a writer in "The Lancet" as scientific investigators representing the very highest type of intellect, in which the insight and imagination of the poet were united with the capacity for severe and sustained observation. To represent scientific study as affording no play for emotion is false. "No poet's fancy can equal in grandeur the two twin generalizations of science, gravitation and evolution—the one binding together the universe of matter, the other uniting into a harmonious whole the universe of life."
  1. Abridged from the author's paper before the Royal Geographical Society.