The Malay Archipelago, by Alfred Russel Wallace

Chapter 6

Borneo — The Dyaks.

THE manners and customs of the aborigines of Borneo have been described in great detail, and with much fuller information than I possess, in the writings of Sir James Brooke, Messrs. Low, St. John, Johnson Brooke, and many others. I do not propose to go over the ground again, but shall confine myself to a sketch, from personal observation, of the general character of the Dyaks, and of such physical, moral, and social characteristics as have been less frequently noticed.

The Dyak is closely allied to the Malay, and more remotely to the Siamese, Chinese, and other Mongol races. All these are characterised by a reddish-brown or yellowish-brown skin of various shades, by jet-black straight hair, by the scanty or deficient beard, by the rather small and broad nose, and high cheekbones; but none of the Malayan races have the oblique eyes which are characteristic of the more typical Mongols. The average stature of the Dyaks is rather more than that of the Malays, while it is considerably under that of most Europeans. Their forms are well proportioned, their feet and hands small, and they rarely or never attain the bulk of body so often seen in Malays and Chinese.

I am inclined to rank the Dyaks above the Malays in mental capacity, while in moral character they are undoubtedly superior to them. They are simple and honest, and become the prey of the Malay and Chinese trailers, who cheat and plunder them continually. They are more lively, more talkative, less secretive, and less suspicious than the Malay, and are therefore pleasanter companions. The Malay boys have little inclination for active sports and games, which form quite a feature in the life of the Dyak youths, who, besides outdoor games of skill and strength, possess a variety of indoor amusements. One wet day, in a Dyak house, when a number of boys and young men were about me, I thought to amuse them with something new, and showed them how to make “cat’s cradle” with a piece of string. Greatly to my surprise, they knew all about it, and more than I did; for, after Charles and I had gone through all the changes we could make, one of the boys took it off my hand, and made several new figures which quite puzzled me. They then showed me a number of other tricks with pieces of string, which seemed a favourite amusement with them.

Even these apparently trifling matters may assist us to form a truer estimate of the Dyaks’ character and social condition. We learn thereby, that these people have passed beyond that first stage of savage life in which the struggle for existence absorbs all of the faculties, and in which every thought and idea is connected with war or hunting, or the provision for their immediate necessities. These amusements indicate a capability of civilization, an aptitude to enjoy other than mere sensual pleasures, which night be taken advantage of to elevate their whole intellectual and social life.

The moral character of the Dyaks is undoubtedly high — a statement which will seem strange to those who have heard of them only as head-hunters and pirates. The Hill Dyaks of whom I am speaking, however, have never been pirates, since they never go near the sea; and head-hunting is a custom originating in the petty wars of village with village, and tribe with tribe, which no more implies a bad moral character than did the custom of the slave-trade a hundred years ago imply want of general morality in all who participated in it. Against this one stain on their character (which in the case of the Sarawak Dyaks no longer exists) we have to set many good points. They are truthful and honest to a remarkable degree. From this cause it is very often impossible to get from them any definite information, or even an opinion. They say, “If I were to tell yon what I don’t know, I might tell a lie;” and whenever they voluntarily relate any matter of fact, you may be sure they are speaking the truth. In a Dyak village the fruit trees have each their owner, and it has often happened to me, on asking an inhabitant to gather me some fruit, to be answered, “I can’t do that, for the owner of the tree is not here;” never seeming to contemplate the possibility of acting otherwise. Neither will they take the smallest thing belonging to an European. When living at Simunjon, they continually came to my house, and would pick up scraps of torn newspaper or crooked pins that I had thrown away, and ask as a great favour whether they might have them. Crimes of violence (other than head-hunting) are almost unknown; for in twelve years, under Sir James Brooke’s rule, there had been only one case of murder in a Dyak tribe, and that one was committed by a stranger who had been adopted into the tribe. In several other matters of morality they rank above most uncivilized, and even above many civilized nations. They are temperate in food and drink, and the gross sensuality of the Chinese and Malays is unknown among them. They have the usual fault of all people in a half-savage state — apathy and dilatoriness, but, however annoying this may be to Europeans who come in contact with them, it cannot be considered a very grave offence, or be held to outweigh their many excellent qualities.

During my residence among the Hill Dyaks, I was much struck by the apparent absence of those causes which are generally supposed to check the increase of population, although there were plain indications of stationary or but slowly increasing numbers. The conditions most favourable to a rapid increase of population are: an abundance of food, a healthy climate, and early marriages. Here these conditions all exist. The people produce far more food than they consume, and exchange the surplus for gongs and brass cannon, ancient jars, and gold and silver ornaments, which constitute their wealth. On the whole, they appear very free from disease, marriages take place early (but not too early), and old bachelors and old maids are alike unknown. Why, then, we must inquire, has not a greater population been produced? Why are the Dyak villages so small and so widely scattered, while nine-tenths of the country is still covered with forest?

Of all the checks to population among savage nations mentioned by Malthus — starvation, disease, war, infanticide, immorality, and infertility of the women — the last is that which he seems to think least important, and of doubtful efficacy; and yet it is the only one that seems to me capable of accounting for the state of the population among the Sarawak Dyaks. The population of Great Britain increases so as to double itself in about fifty years. To do this it is evident that each married couple must average three children who live to be married at the age of about twenty-five. Add to these those who die in infancy, those who never marry, or those who marry late in life and have no offspring, the number of children born to each marriage must average four or five, and we know that families of seven or eight are very common, and of ten and twelve by no means rare. But from inquiries at almost every Dyak tribe I visited, I ascertained that the women rarely had more than three or four children, and an old chief assured me that he had never known a woman to have more than seven.

In a village consisting of a hundred and fifty families, only one consisted of six children living, and only six of five children, the majority of families appearing to be two, three, or four. Comparing this with the known proportions in European countries, it is evident that the number of children to each marriage can hardly average more than three or four; and as even in civilized countries half the population die before the age of twenty-five, we should have only two left to replace their parents; and so long as this state of things continued, the population must remain stationary. Of course this is a mere illustration; but the facts I have stated seem to indicate that something of the kind really takes place; and if so, there is no difficulty in understanding the smallness and almost stationary population of the Dyak tribes.

We have next to inquire what is the cause of the small number of births and of living children in a family. Climate and race may have something to do with this, but a more real and efficient cause seems to me to be the hard labour of the women, and the heavy weights they constantly carry. A Dyak woman generally spends the whole day in the field, and carries home every night a heavy load of vegetables and firewood, often for several miles, over rough and hilly paths; and not unfrequently has to climb up a rocky mountain by ladders, and over slippery steppingstones, to an elevation of a thousand feet. Besides this, she has an hour’s work every evening to pound the rice with a heavy wooden stamper, which violently strains every part of the body. She begins this kind of labour when nine or ten years old, and it never ceases but with the extreme decrepitude of age. Surely we need not wonder at the limited number of her progeny, but rather be surprised at the successful efforts of nature to prevent the extermination of the race.

One of the surest and most beneficial effects of advancing civilization, will be the amelioration of the condition of these women. The precept and example of higher races will make the Dyak ashamed of his comparatively idle life, while his weaker partner labours like a beast of burthen. As his wants become increased and his tastes refined, the women will have more household duties to attend to, and will then cease to labour in the field — a change which has already to a great extent taken place in the allied Malay, Javanese, and Bugis tribes. Population will then certainly increase more rapidly, improved systems of agriculture and some division of labour will become necessary in order to provide the means of existence, and a more complicated social state will take the place of the simple conditions of society which now occur among them. But, with the sharper struggle for existence that will then arise, will the happiness of the people as a whole be increased or diminished? Will not evil passions be aroused by the spirit of competition, and crimes and vices, now unknown or dormant, be called into active existence? These are problems that time alone can solve; but it is to be hoped that education and a high-class European example may obviate much of the evil that too often arises in analogous cases, and that we may at length be able to point to one instance of an uncivilized people who have not become demoralized, and finally exterminated, by contact with European civilization.

A few words in conclusion, about the government of Sarawak. Sir James Brooke found the Dyaks oppressed and ground down by the most cruel tyranny. They were cheated by the Malay traders and robbed by the Malay chiefs. Their wives and children were often captured and sold into slavery, and hostile tribes purchased permission from their cruel rulers to plunder, enslave, and murder them. Anything like justice or redress for these injuries was utterly unattainable. From the time Sir James obtained possession of the country, all this was stopped. Equal justice was awarded to Malay, Chinaman, and Dyak. The remorseless pirates from the rivers farther east were punished, and finally shut up within their own territories, and the Dyak, for the first time, could sleep in peace. His wife and children were now safe from slavery; his house was no longer burned over his head; his crops and his fruits were now his own to sell or consume as he pleased. And the unknown stranger who had done all this for them, and asked for nothing in return, what could he be? How was it possible for them to realize his motives? Was it not natural that they should refuse to believe he was a man? For of pure benevolence combined with great power, they had had no experience among men. They naturally concluded that he was a superior being, come down upon earth to confer blessings on the afflicted. In many villages where he had not been seen, I was asked strange questions about him. Was he not as old as the mountains? Could he not bring the dead to life? And they firmly believe that he can give them good harvests, and make their fruit-trees bear an abundant crop.

In forming a proper estimate of Sir James Brooke’s government it must ever be remembered that he held Sarawak solely by the goodwill of the native inhabitant. He had to deal with two races, one of whom, the Mahometan Malays, looked upon the other race, the Dyaks, as savages and slaves, only fit to be robbed and plundered. He has effectually protected the Dyaks, and has invariably treated them as, in his sight, equal to the Malays; and yet he has secured the affection and goodwill of both. Notwithstanding the religious prejudice, of Mahometans, he has induced them to modify many of their worst laws and customs, and to assimilate their criminal code to that of the civilized world. That his government still continues, after twenty-seven years — notwithstanding his frequent absences from ill-health, notwithstanding conspiracies of Malay chiefs, and insurrections of Chinese gold-diggers, all of which have been overcome by the support of the native population, and notwithstanding financial, political, and domestic troubles is due, I believe, solely to the many admirable qualities which Sir James Brooke possessed, and especially to his having convinced the native population, by every action of his life, that he ruled them, not for his own advantage, but for their good.

Since these lines were written, his noble spirit has passed away. But though, by those who knew him not, he may be sneered at as an enthusiastic adventurer, abused as a hard-hearted despot, the universal testimony of everyone who came in contact with him in his adopted country, whether European, Malay, or Dyak, will be, that Rajah Brooke was a great, a wise, and a good ruler; a true and faithful friend — a man to be admired for his talents, respected for his honesty and courage, and loved for his genuine hospitality, his kindness of disposition, and his tenderness of heart.

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Last updated Tuesday, March 4, 2014 at 12:30