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Alfred Russel Wallace : Alfred Wallace : A. R. Wallace :
Russel Wallace : Alfred Russell Wallace (sic)

The Dyaks (S34: 1857)

Editor Charles H. Smith's Note: A report printed in the 26 September 1857 number of Chambers's Journal. No by-line is given for this work, but considering Wallace's interest in the Dyaks, the place and time period involved, the attention to detail, and the fact that only a handful of people from that period could have produced such a piece, there seemed to be a fair chance he wrote it. However, information has recently been presented that demonstrates the author was actually Revd. Andrew Horsburgh, a missionary who worked in Sarawak during that period. Original pagination indicated within double brackets. To link directly to this page, connect with: http://people.wku.edu/charles.smith/wallace/S034.htm

   [[p. 201]] The Dyaks live in communities of from ten or twenty to forty families, all of them residing in one house under the headship of one tuah, or elder, whose influence among them depends very much on his personal qualifications. The house in which each community lives is an edifice of from fifty to a hundred yards in length, and raised on posts eight or ten feet high. Its framework is constructed of posts lashed together with split rattans; while the roof and partitions are composed of attaps, a kind of thatch, so simple and useful as to merit a distinct description. It is made of the leaves of the Nipu, a palm which grows in the mud on the banks of the rivers, and differs from most other palms in having no trunk, being merely a collection of fronds proceeding from one root. Each frond consists of a stem or mid-rib, about twenty or thirty feet in length, on each side of which grow a series of leaves, two or three feet long, and two or three inches broad. To form attaps, the Dyaks cut off these leaves, and wind them over a stick a yard long, making them overlap each other, so as to become impervious to rain. They then sew or interlace them all firmly with split rattans; thus forming a sort of leaf-tile, at once strong and light, and well adapted for excluding both sun and rain. The house is divided longitudinally in the middle by a partition, on one side of which is a series of rooms, and on the other a kind of gallery or hall upon which the rooms open. In these rooms, each of which is inhabited by a distinct family, the married couples and children sleep; the young unmarried women sleep in an apartment over the room of their parents, and the young men in the gallery outside. In this gallery likewise, which serves as a common hall, their principal occupations are carried on; and here the planks of their war-boats, their large mats, and all their more bulky articles, are kept; and the grim trophies of their wars, the scorched and blackened heads of their enemies, are suspended in bundles. The floor is a kind of spar-work, composed of split palm-trunks, and raised ten or twelve feet from the ground, access being given to it by a ladder, or more frequently by a log of wood cut into the form of steps. Connected with the gallery, and running along the whole length of the house, there is a broad platform on the level of the floor, upon which the Dyaks spread out their rice after harvest, and other articles they wish to be dried in the sun.

   Thus, a Dyak house is rather a singular structure; and when imbosomed, as it often is, among cocoa-nut, plantain, and other fruit-trees, forms a quietly pleasing and picturesque object, suggestive of much social happiness enjoyed in a simple state of society. It awakens, moreover, ideas of a higher kind, for it is a sign of the presence of all-subduing man on the confines of the jungle that is yet to fall before his axe.

   The materials of which these edifices are constructed are so fragile that they require to be rebuilt every five or six years, and when this necessity occurs, the Dyaks, instead of erecting the new house in the immediate vicinity of the old one, generally remove to a considerable distance.

   From the above description, it will be seen that a Dyak house may with more propriety be called a village, as it is the residence of a score or two of families who live in a series of rooms under one roof, and all of whom look up to one tuah, or elder, as their head. These houses are sometimes in groups of two or three, but more frequently they stand alone; and thus it happens that if the tribe is populous, it may be scattered over a very great extent of country.

   Besides the tuahs, there is another and superior class of chiefs called orang kaya (rich men), grave steady old men of good family, who, when young, have distinguished themselves by their courage; and who, in their riper years, are regarded as discreet judges in weighty matters of the law. Even the power of an orang kaya, however, is extremely limited. He has no actual authority over his followers, so as to compel them to do anything against their will; his superiority is shewn only in leading them to battle, and acting as a judge in conjunction with other chiefs. In other respects, the chiefs have scarcely any distinction. They work at their farms and their boats as hard as their own slaves; they wear the same dress, and live in the same manner as the rest of the community; their only token of chieftainship being the respect which is voluntarily accorded to their personal qualities, and the deference paid to their opinion. To an assembly of chiefs, all disputes are referred, and their decisions are given in accordance with their own customs, which, besides guiding the verdict, generally settle the penalty which shall be inflicted on the aggressor. Cases which, from want of evidence or from uncertainty of any kind, cannot be thus decided, are settled by an appeal to superior powers in an ordeal by diving.

   When both parties in a dispute have agreed that it should be referred to the diving ordeal, preliminary meetings are held to determine the time, place, and circumstances of the match. On the evening of the day previous to that on which it is to be decided, each party stakes in the following manner a certain amount of property, which, in case of defeat, shall come into the possession of the victor. The various articles of the stake are brought out of the litigant's room, placed in the verandah of the house in which he lives, and are there covered up and secured. One man who acts as a kind of herald then rises, and in a long speech, asks the litigant whether he is conscious he is in the right, and trusts in the justice of his cause; to which the latter replies at equal length in the affirmative, and refers the matter to the decision of the spirits. Several more speeches and replies follow, and the ceremony concludes by an invocation of justice. In the meantime, the respondent deposits and secures his stake with like ceremonial in the verandah of his own house; and early in the morning, both parties, accompanied by their respective friends, repair to the bank of the river to decide the contest. Either party may appear by deputy, a privilege which is always taken advantage of by women, and often even by men, for there are many professional divers who, for a trifling sum, are willing to undergo the stifling contest. [[p. 202]] Preparations are now made: the articles staked are brought down and placed on the bank; each party lights a fire, at which to recover their champion, should he be nearly drowned; and each provides a roughly constructed grating for him to stand on, and a pole to be thrust into the mud for him to hold by. The gratings are then placed in the river within a few yards of each other, where the water is deep enough to reach to the middle; the poles are thrust firmly into the mud; and the champions, each on his own grating grasping his pole, and surrounded by his friends, plunge their heads simultaneously under water. Immediately the spectators chant aloud at the top of their voices the mystic, and perhaps once intelligible word lobon-lobon, which they continue repeating during the whole contest. When at length one of the champions shews signs of yielding, his friends, with the laudable desire of preventing his being worsted, hold his head forcibly under water. The excitement is now great; lobon-lobon increases in intensity, and redoubles in rapidity; the shouts become yells, and the struggles of the unhappy victim, who is fast becoming asphyxied, are painful to witness. At length, nature can endure no more; he drops senseless in the water, and is dragged ashore, apparently lifeless, by his companions; while the friends of his opponent, raising one loud and prolonged note of triumph, hurry to the bank, and seize and carry off the stakes. All this, however, is unknown to the unhappy vanquished, who, pallid and senseless, hangs in the arms of his friends, by whom his face is plastered with mud, in order to restore animation. In a few minutes, respiration returns; he opens his eyes, gazes wildly around, and in a short time is perhaps able to walk home. Next day, he is in a high state of fever, and has all the other symptoms of a man recovering from apparent death by drowning. The result of the trial, whatever it be, is regarded as the verdict of a higher power, and is never questioned. Even in cases where the loser knows he is right--when, for example, a man is unjustly accused of theft, and conscious of innocence, appeals to the ordeal, and loses his cause--he never thinks of blaming the decision, but attributes his defeat to some sin, for which the superior powers are now inflicting punishment.

   I may here mention a method of divination employed by the malos, or tinkers, of Borneo, a race who, from their skill in working metals, travel and are welcomed almost everywhere, and by whom--for they are the most superstitious race with whom we have come in contact--are told stories wild as any in the Arabian Nights. In a case of theft which happened at Banting, suspicion was divided among three persons, and the principal malo man of the place, by name Ramba, undertook to discover which of them was the culprit. For this purpose, he took three bamboos, partially filled with water, and, assigning one to each of the suspected persons, arranged them round a fire with mystic rites and barbaric spells, in the full belief that the bamboo assigned to the culprit would be the first to eject a portion of its contents by ebullition. One of them at length did so, and it so happened that it was the bamboo assigned to him against whom the little evidence that could be collected bore hardest. Shortly afterwards, another also boiled over, while the third would not do so at all. The possessor of the first was accordingly declared by Ramba to be the culprit, while the possessor of the last was declared to be certainly innocent. Fortunately for the credit of the Dyaks, they would not act upon the information thus obtained; and unfortunately for the credit of the diviner, it was afterwards discovered that he whose bamboo would not boil over was the thief.

   Next to the chiefs, the most important class among the Dyaks are the mannangs, who combine the functions of doctor and priest, and who are in great request in all cases of public or private calamity or rejoicing. They are composed of both sexes, some of the males being dressed as women--an innocent relic of some forgotten custom. Mannangs marry and work at their boats, houses, and farms, in all respects like other Dyaks, from whom they would be undistinguishable, except when employed on important occasions for their services, for which they are paid. Many of the candidates for admission into the fraternity are blind, and choose it as a profession; while others are tempted by ambition. Mannangs, however, are not held in much respect; they are looked upon in a great measure as a set of pretenders, whose principal object is to extract money from those who employ them; and are regarded as the degenerate descendants of a former race of powerful ghost-expellers, soul-compellers, prophets, priests, and healers of bodily ailments, whose mantles have not fallen upon their successors.

   I cannot describe from my own knowledge the manner of making a mannang, as I purposely avoided witnessing it, but I believe the ceremony to be as follows: A number of mannangs assemble at the house of the candidate's father, and seating themselves in a circle, with the candidate in the centre, one of them begins a low monotonous and dreary chant, which it is most dismal and irritating to be compelled to listen to, while the rest at stated intervals join in chorus. This portion of the ceremony takes place in the presence of a large number of spectators, who on its conclusion are excluded from the room, and the subsequent initiatory rites are performed in private. The door is shut, the apartment is darkened, and a solemn silence prevails; a fowl is sacrificed, and its blood sprinkled around the room. The head of the candidate is 'split open' with a sword, in order that his brain may be cleansed from that obtuseness which, in the generality of mankind, precludes the knowledge of future events. Gold is placed in his eyes, to enable him to see the spirits; hooks are inserted into his fingers, to enable him to extract, from the bodies of the sick, fish-bones, stones, and other foreign substances; and his senses generally are in like manner supernaturally strengthened. He then emerges a perfect mannang; and in order to complete his education, requires only to be taught the tricks and chants of the brotherhood.

   The custom the Dyaks have of head-hunting has been frequently mentioned; but I am not aware that any account has as yet been given of the ceremonial attending the capture and storing up of the trophy. When a head has been taken, the brains are removed, and the eyeballs punctured with a parang, so as to allow their fluid contents to escape. If the boat in which the fortunate captor sails is one of a large fleet, no demonstrations of success are made, lest it should excite the cupidity of some chief; but if she has gone out alone, or accompanied only by a few others, she is decorated with the young leaves of the nipu palm. These leaves, when unopened, are of a pale straw colour, and, when cut, their leaflets are separated and tied in bunches on numerous poles, which are stuck up all over the boat. At a little distance, they present the appearance of gigantic heads of corn projecting above the awning of the boat, and amongst them numerous gay-coloured flags and streamers wave in the breeze. Thus adorned, the boat returns in triumph; and the yells of her crew, and the beating of their gongs, inform each friendly house they pass of the successful result of their foray. The din is redoubled as they approach their own house. The shouts are taken up and repeated on shore. The excitement spreads: the shrill yells of the women mingle with the hoarser cries of the men, the gongs in the house respond to those in the boat, and all hurry to the wharf to greet the victors. Then there is the buzz of meeting, the eager question, [[p. 203]] the boastful answer, the shout, the laugh, the pride of triumph; and the gallant warriors become the cynosure of every eye--the envy of their equals, the admiration of the fair. When the excitement has in some degree subsided, the crew, leaving some of their number in the boat, go up to the house, where a plentiful supply of siri, pinang, and tobacco are produced, and over these Dyak cheerers of the social hour, the event is related and discussed in all its breadth and bearings. At length they prepare to bring the trophy to the house. A long bamboo is procured, and its lower joint split into several pieces, which are then opened out and wrought by means of rattans into a sort of basket. Into this basket the head is put, and is carried by the chief man in the boat from the wharf to the house, in the doorway of which, and at the head of the ladder, the principal woman of the house stands to receive it. The bearer, standing below, presents it to her, and as she endeavours to take it, withdraws it: he again presents, and again withdraws it, till, at the seventh time, he allows her to obtain it. Thence she carries it to the bundle of skulls which hang in the open gallery, and it is there deposited along with the rest. As night approaches, preparations are made for drying, or rather roasting it. A fire is lighted in a little shed outside the house; the head is suspended close above the flames; and when it has been dried to satisfaction--that is, well smoked and partially scorched--it is taken back and redeposited in the bundle, to remain there till it is feasted. 'And what becomes of the flesh?' I asked of an old warrior, who was displaying to me a recently captured head, to which the scorched and shrivelled integuments still adhered, while from the earlier skulls all trace of flesh had long since disappeared. With the utmost nonchalance the savage replied: 'The rats eat it.'

   In the meantime, friends, chiefly the young of both sexes, resort to the house to congratulate the successful warriors. Siri and pinang, the never-failing accompaniments of a Dyak meeting, are produced in great quantities; the gongs and drums are beaten throughout the whole night; and the victors, amid scenes of gaiety and sport, rejoice in the admiring envy of the youths, and bask in the smiles of the fair. During the few succeeding days, feasting proceeds to a certain extent, and a basket of offerings to the spirits is suspended on the top of the house; but the grand entertainment is delayed till an abundant harvest should enable them to celebrate the head-feast in a manner suited to the dignity of the occasion.

   For this important event, which frequently does not take place for two or three years after the head has been taken, preparations are made some weeks previously. Large stores of cakes and sweetmeats are provided, and many jars of tuak, or native beer, are prepared; much siri, pinang, and tobacco collected, and every preparation made for an extensive display of hospitality. On the morning of the appointed day, the guests, dressed in their best, and ornamented with all their barbaric finery, begin to assemble, and rarely, except on such occasions as these, are their savage ornaments seen. Such, at least, is the case among the Balos, a tribe who are in a sort of transition state between ancient barbarism and modern civilisation, and whose young men would now on ordinary occasions be ashamed to appear in those fantastic ornaments, which a few years ago were the delight of their hearts. I cannot say they have gained much in appearance by the change. A handsome savage, in his embroidered chawat, and pure white armlets shining on his dusky arms with his brass-wire bracelets, his variegated head-dress of blue, white, and red, hung with shells, or adorned with the crimsoned hair of his enemies, and surmounted by the feathers of the argus pheasant, or by some artificial plume of his own invention, girt with his ornamented sword, and bearing in his hand a tall spear, as with free step he treads his native wilds, is a sight worthy of a painter. The same individual, clothed in a pair of dirty ragged trousers, with perhaps a venerable and well-worn shooting-jacket, the gift of some liberal European, suggests ideas of anything but the picturesque or the beautiful. Many of them, however, have adopted the Malay costume, which is both civilised and becoming.

   But whatever costume they adopt, whether Dyak, Malay, or pseudo-European, all are clothed in the best garments they can procure; and they come in troops from the neighbouring houses to that in which the feast is to be held. As they arrive, eight or ten young men, each with a cup and a vessel of tuak, place themselves in a line inwards from the doorway, and as the company enter, they are presented by each of the tuak-bearers with a cup of the liquid. To drink is compulsory, and thus they all run the gauntlet of all the cups. As tuak is not a pleasant liquor to take in excess--the headache from it is tremendous--it is to the majority of them a penance rather than a pleasure, and many attempt, but in vain, to escape the infliction. In this manner the male guests assemble and seat themselves in the gallery, the chiefs being conducted to the place of honour in the middle of the building, and beneath the bundle of skulls. All the rooms are at the same time thrown open, and each family keeps free house for the entertainment of the female guests. These, as they arrive, enter and partake of the dainties that are provided for them; and many of the men being likewise invited to join them, the feast of reason and the flow of soul proceed as triumphantly as in similar cases in Europe. Cakes, sweetmeats, eggs, and fruit are produced, discussed, and washed down with tuak, and occasionally with a little arrack; while siri, pinang, gambier, and tobacco serve the purpose of devilled biscuits, to give zest and pungency to the substantial dessert. Conversation never for an instant flags; the laugh, the joke, the endless chatter, the broad banter, and the quick reply, pass unceasingly round the circle, and a glorious Babel of tongues astounds the visitor. Outside, in the gallery, the same scene is enacted, but with less animation than in the rooms, for, as there, the ladies form no part of the company--the assembly wants all its soul, and much of its life. The girls of the house, however, dressed in their gayest, and looking their best--'beautiful as stars,' a Dyak once told me--have formed themselves into a corps of waitresses, and hand round the viands to the assembled guests. As it is not according to Dyak etiquette to take a thing when first offered, the young ladies have it very much in their own power as to who shall be helped, and to what extent--a privilege which, I have been told, they are inclined to exercise with great partiality.

   The mannangs, male and female, next take part in the ceremony. They congregate in the gallery, and seating themselves in a circle, one of them begins his dreary and monotonous chant, while the rest at stated intervals join in the chorus. They occasionally intermit their rhyme, in order to take a little refreshment; after which, another of the brotherhood takes the lead, and they continue their dismal monotone as before. After some time, each of them is furnished with a small plate of raw rice, dyed a bright saffron colour, holding which in their hands, they perambulate the crowded gallery, and, still continuing their chant, scatter the yellow grains over the seated multitude, 'for luck.'

   In the meantime, the object of all this rejoicing, the captured head, hangs along with its fellows in the bundle almost unnoticed. In the morning, before any of the guests have assembled, some one has stuffed a half-rotten plantain into one eye, and fastened a piece [[p. 204]] of cake and a little siri and pinang near (not into) its mouth. It is then replaced in the bundle, and no more notice taken of it throughout the whole feast, unless a few boys, warriors in embryo, occasionally advance to inspect it. It has been said by former writers that it is stuck upon a pole, and its mouth filled with choice morsels of food, but I never saw this done, nor did any Dyak whom I have questioned know anything of such a custom. As to the opinion that they endeavour to propitiate the souls of the slain, and get them to persuade their relatives to be killed also, or that the courage of the slain is transferred to the slayer--I am inclined to think that these are ideas devised by Malays, for the satisfaction of inquiring whites, who, as they would not be satisfied till they had reasons for everything they saw, got them specially invented for their own use.

   Offerings, however, are made to the superior powers. A pig has been killed early in the morning, and its entrails inspected to furnish omens, while its carcass afterwards serves as materials for a feast. Baskets of food and siri are hung up as offerings to the spirits and to the birds of omen; among which latter, the burong Penyala, or rhinoceros hornbill, is reckoned especially the bird of the spirits. The grand event of the day, however, is the erection of lofty poles, each surmounted by a wooden figure of the burong Penyala, which is placed there 'to peck at their foes.' These figures are rather conventional representations than imitations of nature, and do not convey a very exact idea of the bird they are intended to represent. Eight or ten such posts are erected, a fowl being sacrificed upon each; and about half-way up the largest, which is erected first, a basket of fruit, cakes, and siri is suspended, as an offering to the spirits.

   Meanwhile, those who remain in the house still continue the feast, and those who have been engaged in erecting the posts, return to it as soon as their labour is finished. The festivities are prolonged far on into the night, and they are resumed and continued, though with abated vigour, during the two following days.

   The Dyaks are a comparatively sober people; they spend neither money nor goods upon the indulgence of drinking; and now, that their constant fighting is put a stop to, and the destruction of each other's property thus prevented, I think it very likely that many of them may rise to considerable wealth; and that they may ultimately become a more important social body even than the Malays. The life of a Malay is a succession of expedients. If he can meet a temporary want by a temporary contrivance, he is satisfied, and contentedly allows each day to bring its own necessities and its own supplies. But it is not so with the Dyaks; they are much more provident, and seldom hesitate to undertake a little present trouble for the sake of a future reward.

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