Keeping Ahead in Borneo


“If you can keep your head when all about you
Are losing theirs and blaming it on you,
……….You’ll be a man, my son.”
(adapted from Rudyard Kipling’s “If”)
Murut Women Dancing to Clapping Bamboo (LGS)
The equatorial island of Borneo is an exotic place – the third largest island in the world. There are over 100 ethnic groups on the island including the famous headhunter tribes. The largest of these are the Ibans of Sarawak. In Sabah, the most feared are the Muruts or the Hill People. In the 19th Century, the strange rule of the White Rajah’s had settled over much of Sarawak and the western part of Borneo. The central region was dominated by the Brunei Sultanate and the northern region was under the influence of the Sulu Sultanate located in what is now the southern Philippines. The state of Sabah was thus divided between the Brunei and the Sulu Sultanates. In reality though, the sultans’ influences and rivalries were mostly concentrated along the coast and the interior tribes were never directly under their rule. Later, Sabah came under the control of the British North Borneo Charted Company from 1881-1941. The Muruts were one of the last tribes to submit to British authority and probably the last to stop the practice of headhunting. Official history states that headhunting was outlawed in the 1920’s. However, there are tales of Japanese soldiers and Indonesian soldiers suffering from that fate during the Second World War and in the Confrontation of 1962-1966 respectively.
Fierce Murut Warriors Can Dance Too (LGS)

The Ibans believe when they take the head of an enemy, they absorb the life essence of that person. As such the head of a proven warrior is highly prized. The Muruts have a different belief. For them, it was simply necessary to have heads and it did not matter whether it was the head of a brave warrior or that of a frail grandmother. A Murut man would be required to give a head to the family of his chosen bride as proof of his manhood. If the crops fail, it would be necessary to bury a head in the field so that it would be fertile the following year. All the wise men would tell you that if you build a bridge across a river, you need to bury at least one head to ensure the bridge will last. So for the Murut, it was a daily necessity to have some heads handy!

Today, they smile and tell you that they almost never hear of this type of behavior anymore. They’d rather do some dances for the visiting tourist and scalp their wallets. The Murut dances are also exciting stuff but let me digress to tell you a bit about the traditional costumes. The men wear a red loincloth as well as a jacket and headdress made of tree bark from the tree Artocarpus tamaran. The headdress is decorated with the beautiful and long feathers of the argus pheasant.
The women are attired in a short, black, sleeveless blouse and long black skirt decorated with colorful beads. They may also wear bracelets made from the giant clam.
And so, the unwary tourist may find himself lulled into the belief that the Murut are now peace-loving and that he is safe in their company as they regale him with stories of the old days and entertain him with exciting tribal dances. Beware, invariably all the dances lead to the “clapping bamboo” dance. The Murut will bring long bamboo poles. In pairs, they will take two of these poles and lying them side by side will rhythmically knock the poles against the ground and then against each other. The Murut warriors and their maidens will then do intricate dances which involve sticking their feet between the clapping bamboo. Needless to say, this involves exquisite timing to avoid having squashed feet.
Tourists will see the dancers appear to do the impossible as the bamboo clapping goes faster and faster. So pacified, the tourist will think nothing of it when the dancers innocently invite the tourists to join them, assuring the tourists that they will guide them all the way. The dance starts almost in slow motion and the tourists are lulled into thinking that this is easy. However, the pace picks up and the tourists are still having fun. Finally though the rhythm reaches a crescendo when the bamboo clap like lightning. Invariably, there are many squashed feet, cries of pain and hobbled tourists…….. not a pretty sight! Alas, the pitiful end was obvious.
I wonder how many squashed tourist feet are needed for the young Murut warrior to earn the right to date the girl of his dreams.
Headhunters are known to bamboo chop tourist feet! (LGS)
Heads are intact but Feet are sore (LGS)


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