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Modern History Sourcebook:
William Henry Furness III:
A Visit to a Head-Hunter of Borneo, 1901

ABAN AVIT sat beside us, and while we were filling our pipes he produced from the bamboo box, hanging at his side, some tobacco and some of that beautifully dried leaf of the wild banana cut from the heart of the plant, before the leaf is unfurled; in unskilled hands it tears like wet tissue-paper, but in Aban Avit's a tapering, symmetrical cigarette, eight inches long, was skillfully rolled on his thigh. A circle of small boys squatted around us, their bright little eyes watching our every movement as intently as we stare at the actions of some strange animal in a zoological garden. If we struck a match, or sneezed, or buttoned our coats, or wiped our faces with a handkerchief, dilated eyes and open mouths attended the action with rapt interest. A few men sat near their chief, and now and then murmured comments to one another in their native tongue, which we did not fully understand, but could guess from the direction of their eyes, that we were the subject of their conversation. The evening duties of the household were not, however, interrupted on our account; men with bundles of dried firewood on their shoulders, women staggering under a load of bamboo joints filled with water, and stacked in hampers on their backs, were constantly passing by us, treading heavily, and making the loose boards of the floor clatter and rattle as they plodded their weary way to their apartments. For a time there was almost a constant succession of canoes coming to the landing-place, bringing back the workers from the rice-clearings. The women all bending under full hampers, some with fresh, uncurled fern-fronds, and the sprouts of a variety of large canna, which they stew with rice to add variety to their diet; some with bundles of the young banana leaf, whereof to make cigarette-wrappers, and others with wild tapioca and wild yams. Each one carried her own light paddle in one hand, and a large round and flat sun-hat in the other. None of them glanced to right or left, but made her way direct to her family room, and like a ghost faded into the darkness through the small doorway. After them followed the men, dangling their parangs in one hand and trailing their blow-pipes and spears in the other. They, too, looked fixedly ahead, until they had hung up their parangs and stuck their spears perpendicularly into a rafter so that the shaft should be kept straight; this done, they joined the group round the fire, or went down to the river to bathe. At the far end of the house some young fellows were playing mournful tunes on a kaluri, and its organ-like notes were wafted fitfully down to us; now and then a baby's wail chimed in, and then was quieted by the mother's crooning lullaby. Beneath the house, the contented grunting of pigs and the clucking of chickens denoted that these omen-givers had returned from their foraging in the jungle, and had sought the shelter of home for the night. Thus we sat as twilight faded in Aban Avit's veranda, in the home of these people, whereof every detail made up their familiar, commonplace life, the only life from cradle to grave that they had ever known or would know, while we by their side were aliens from a world twelve thousand miles away, from a country that they had never heard of, and of a race which many of them had never seen before. We were in the very heart of the Bornean jungle, guests in the house of a barbarous "savage" and bloodthirsty "head-hunter," ---but these terms, when applied at that moment to our host, what misnomers! Could contrast be more emphatic than the perfect peacefulness of our surroundings, and the thought that a man as benignant and hospitable as Aban Avit should cherish as his highest aim in life to add every year to that cluster of human heads hanging from the rafters just above us, and gently swaying in the heat ascending from the flames? Is it conceivable that this gentle-hearted man, and his circle of good-humored friends, could take pride and pleasure in recognizing and rehearsing the slashes and gashes borne by each head? The long gash there, on the left side of that skull, showing through the piece of old casting-net, was made by Tama Lohong's parang, the very one with carved wooden handle that he carries to this day. The owner of the next skull was fishing when he fell a victim to a stealthy thrust from Apoi's spear. This small one is that of a young girl who tried to escape from the rear of a house when they burned out those Madangs, way over near the Rejang River. Thus they can enumerate them all, chief and slave, man, woman, girl, and boy. It all seemed so at variance with Aban Avit's genial, courteous hospitality, that I wondered if it were possible to look at these skulls through his eyes, and to sympathize with his thrill of pride and exultation in them. I waited until Aban Avit had his cigarette fairly rolled and lit, and then trying not to appear in the least antagonistic, lest I should fail to elicit his genuine feeling, I asked, "O Sabilah [blood-brother], why is it that all you people of Kalamantan kill each other and hang up these heads? In the land I come from such a thing is never known; I fear that it would be ill-spoken of there, indeed, perhaps, thought quite horrible. What does Aban Avit think of it?" He turned to me in utter, absolute surprise at first with eyes half-closed, as doubting that he heard aright, and letting the smoke curl slowly out of his mouth for a moment, he then replied, with unwonted vehemence: "No, Tuan! No! the custom is not horrible. It is an ancient custom, a good, beneficent custom, bequeathed to us by our fathers and our fathers' fathers; it brings us blessings, plentiful harvests, and keeps off sickness and pains. Those who were once our enemies hereby become our guardians, our friends! our benefactors." "But," I interrupted, "how does Aban Avit know that these dried heads do all this? Don't you make it an excuse just because you like to shed blood and to kill?" "Ah, Tuan, you white men had no great chief, like Tokong, to show you what wasright; haven't you ever heard the story of Tokong and his people? He was Rajah of the Sibops and the father of all the Kayans, and lived long, long, long ago." I was not acquainted with the story of Tokong, so I begged him to relate it; then, squatting on the floor with his forearms lightly resting on his knees, and his hands dangling in front of him, he meditatively relit his cigarette, and, gazing lovingly up at the cluster of skulls, began:"It was in the old, old days, long before the Government came here (by the Government I mean our Tuan Rajah Brooke), it happened that on a time the descendant of the heaven-born Katirah Murai, Tokong, and his men of the Sibop tribe were on an expedition down river to punish a household of thieves who had stolen their crop of rice the year before, and had chased Tokong's women and children from the jungle clearings. It was the time of year when the fields had just been planted, and before the rice had sprouted; so Tokong took out his warriors to teach these thieves that this year there should be no more stealing. When they had gone down river to the great bamboo clump where they had to cross through the jungle, they drew their canoes up to the bank, and, with Tokong leading, started on their stealthy march. When the eye of day looked straight down at them over their heads, they rested on the bank of a small stream which ran round that great rock (perhaps, Tuan, you have seen it)---we call it Batu Kusieng---near the head-waters of the Belaga and Tinjar Rivers. They had cooked, and eaten, and drawn out the pegs of wood whereon their rice-pots rested, and Rajah Tokong was slipping his head through his war-coat and girding on his parang, when he heard, coming from under the great rock, a squeaking, croaking voice, uttering, "Wong kokok zeta Batok." He paused, and turning round to listen to the voice, saw a large frog with its young ones about it sitting just under the edge of the rock. "Greetings to you, Kop [frog]," said the rajah. "What is the meaning of your croaking?" and Kop replied, "Alas, what fools you Sibops are! You go out to battle and kill men, but you take back with you to ornament your shields only their hair; whereas, did you but know it, if you took the whole head you would have blessings beyond words. In sooth, you heavy-livered people know not how to take a head. Look here, and I'll show you." Thus spoke Kop, and straightway seized one of his little ones, and with one stroke of his pararg cut off its head. Tokong was exceedingly angry at the impudence and the cruelty of the frog, and, paying no further attention to it, ordered his men to advance at once. But some of the older men among them could not help thinking that perhaps Kop spoke the truth, and that night, while they sat round the fire, holding a council of war over the attack on the enemy's house, close at hand, they urged Tokong to allow them to follow the frog's advice. At first, Tokong, still very angry because Kop had called the Sibops "fools" and "heavy-livered," refused; but finally, seeing that many of his best men were in favor of it, he granted their request. Next morning, when the sky began to turn gray and the birds in the trees were just waking up, the Sibops noiselessly carried armfuls of bark and grass, and placed them beneath the thieves' house, and set fire to them, and the flames ran quickly everywhere. Out rushed the men and women, some jumping into the flames, others trying to slide down the house-posts; but all were met with slashes and stabs from the swords and spears of Tokong's men. Many were killed that day, and the heads of three were cut off and carried away by Tokong's party, who retreated at once, and, almost before they knew it, were at the landing-place on the river. To their great amazement, they found their boats all ready and launched! No sooner were they seated than the boats began to move off, of their own accord, right upstream in the direction of home. It was a miracle! The current of the stream changed and ran uphill, as it does at flood tide at the mouth of a river. They almost immediately reached the landingplace close to their house, and were overjoyed to see that the crops planted only fifteen days before had not only sprouted, but had grown, had ripened, and were almost ready for the harvest. In great astonishment they hurried through the clearings, and up to their house. There they found still greater wonders ! Those who were ill when the party set out were now well, the lame walked and the blind saw! Rajah Tokong and all his people were convinced on the spot that it was because they had followed Kop's advice, and they vowed a vow that ever afterward the heads of their enemies should be cut off and hung up in their houses. This is the story of Rajah Tokong, Tuan. We all follow his good example. These heads above us have brought me all the blessings I have ever had; I would not have them taken from my home for all the silver in the country. He turned to appeal to his people sitting near, and they, as many as understood Malay, nodded their heads, glancing from him to us, and murmuring "Betfil, betfil!" [It is true, It is true.] He paused to get an ember out of the glowing heap of ashes to light his cigarette again, which had become much crumpled during the narration of Rajah Tokong's first head-hunt, and after he had it once more in shape, I asked him if he would not regard it as somewhat of an inconvenience if his own head were to be cut off, just to bring blessings to an enemy's house. "Tuan," he replied, "I do not want to become dead any more than I want to move from where I am; if my head were cut off, my second self would go to Bulun Matai [the "Fields.of the Dead"], where beyond a doubt I should be happy; the Dayongs tell us, and surely they know, that those who have been brave and have taken heads, as I have, will be respected in that other world and will have plenty of riches. When I die, my friends will beat the gongs loud and shout out my name, so that those who are already in Bulun Matai will know that I am coming, and meet me when I cross over the stream on Bintang Sikopa [the great log].I shall be glad enough to see them. But I don't want to go today, nor tomorrow." His faith seemed immovable, but I could not resist the temptation of suggesting a doubt, so I asked him what if the Dayongs were wrong, and there were no Bulun Matai, and that when he stopped breathing he really died and knew no more. He answered me almost with scorn for such a doubt. "Tuan, nothing really dies, it changes from one thing to another. The Dayongs must be right, for they have been to the Fields of the Dead and come back to tell us all about it." "Don't you feel sorry," I asked, "for those that you kill? It hurts badly to be cut by a parang; you don't like it, and those whom you cut down dislike it as much as you do; they are no more anxious to go to Apo Leggan or Long Julan [regions of Bulun Matai] than you are." "Ah, Tuan," he replied, with the suggestion of a patronizing chuckle in his voice, " you feel just as I did when I was a little boy and had never seen blood. But I outgrew such feelings, as every one should."

Source:From: Eva March Tappan, ed., The World's Story: A History of the World in Story, Song, and Art, Volume I: China, Japan, and the Islands of the Pacific, (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1914), pp. 563-571.Scanned by Jerome S. Arkenberg, Cal. State Fullerton. The text has been modernized by Prof. Arkenberg.

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© Paul Halsall, October 1998
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