Iban Aggressive Expansion: Some Background Factors
Mr. Benedict Sandin’s recently published book, The Sea Dayaks of Borneo before White Rajah Rule, has no doubt become familiar to all interested in the people and traditions of Borneo. Here, for the first time, a highly educated and scholarly Iban writes with authority on his own people, and therefore with an understanding which a Westerner, even after years of field study, could rarely hope to approach. Familiar from childhood with the traditions of the Iban past, Mr. Sandin has drawn the skeletal structure of his study from the orally transmitted genealogies, tusut, of which thirty-two are appended to his text. The tales associated with these remembered ancestors illustrate his main theme, the westward migrations of the Iban people from Indonesian Borneo to the Second Division of Sarawak, and west again and north, during approximately the past fifteen generations. The material so vividly presented here is enough to feed theory for many years to come, and another book dealing with earlier and more recent periods is underway. The present short paper draws on aspects of Mr. Sandin’s material as well as other sources in an attempt to explore certain generalities, which underlie his narrative, and some of the points, which, because of their speculative nature, fall outside the scope of his book. In dealing with this complex range of material, I have drawn upon suggestions given by Dr. Robert Pringle and Dr. George Appell. The impetus and advice provided by Mr. Tom Harrisson, for whose seminar on Malaysia at Cornell University the body of this paper was originally written, have been invaluable; and Mr. Sandin himself has contributed the benefit of his experience in essential explanation.
The process of Iban migration, as Mr. Sandin’s material makes very clear, was far from orderly or organized either in space or in time. Its patterns were shaped by chance, by a network of individual decisions. A man such as Punoh* would quarrel with a neighbour, and move out to avoid the consequences; another, like Tindin, would make a friend in new rich land; another would hastily migrate, as Kaya did, to prevent relatives or strangers from getting to new territory before him. In the days when local conflict spread and hardened into “inter-tribal” hostility, the whole river populations might be driven out, even long-settled ones like the Undups. But the basic force of most directed migration was the desire for fertile land, which led to prestige and prosperity; and this meant, in these areas of thin and basically infertile soil, the old jungle living richly on itself. Those who felled it first owned the land forever, or as long as they wanted it: but as long as the forest seemed inexhaustible, farther pioneering was more attractive, symbolically and practically, than close-knit, rotated exploitation. So untouched land might be left ignored and once-settled areas deserted, till claims had lapsed so long that no one of a later immigration could tell who had first felled the forest they were clearing once again.(1) Specially erratic, migrations also moved at varying paces, according to the strength of the migrants’ motivation and the quality of the land. If nothing compelled them and the land was good, a group (probably several related families) would move gradually up from the mouth of a tributary, clearing its side spurs from valley to crest, as far as the headwaters: then away to a neighboring tributary, perhaps to return ten or twenty years later, or not at all. The Tuan Muda judged their average progress as four or five days’ journey every one or two years.2
(*The particulars of his story, and those of other men mentioned, may be found in Sea Dayaks of Borneo: page references are given with the names, in the first Index following this paper.)
The conscious motivations of migration, however, need not be the only reasons for the existence and persistence of this cultural option; nor do they explain why it became such a powerful and cherished part of Iban values, nor why its impulse seemed to be stronger before 1700 and after the early 1800’s (periods I and III of Mr. Sandin’s book) than in the relatively sessile interim. The first period, out of range of written history, is the more problematical; in the more recent, Iban movements were affected by outside influences, novel and shallow compared to the cultural drives which often they invoked (and then found most difficult to repress). But this very lack of depth may make their effect on the Iban easier to trace; and the more recent, documented Iban may be a convenient introduction to the Iban of the farther past, which is in large part an extrapolation.
The main expressions of the second surge of restlessness were migration to the Rejang, which continued an old trend partly under new impulsion; “intertribal warfare”, which may be seen as a natural outgrowth of the local territorial rivalries of periods I and II, extended farther by more settled and regionally consolidated populations; and piracy, which shaded off from the above intra-Iban conflicts, through attacks on mixed and weaker groups, to predatory sea-raiding on non-Ibans far down the coast of Kalimantan. On this vast scale of numbers involved and distances covered, raiding was something quite new; it seemed to be a sparking-over of the resurgent aggressive drive, an expansion not at all connected with ecology. Land was available to the north and east; the pirates went southwest for heads. The Europeans, who could understand taking a head as souvenir of a warrior’s valour, found the emphasis on simple quantity a wanton exacerbation, and blamed as instigators the Malays – with whom the Ibans, as their population continued to expand, had come into closer contact along the coast.3
Undoubtedly the Malays did encourage Iban warfare, among Ibans themselves (Indra Lela) and against Malay-ruled peoples who evaded contribution. They sanctioned raids in return for a share of the plunder, and at times joined with the Ibans, dividing work and spoils in a manner which showed that the value systems of the two cultures were conveniently complementary: “Their pilots are Malays, who always show the way; the spoil is the property of the pilots, the women and children and skulls are the property of the Dayaks.”4 Each group in fact made use of the other, for the Ibans were strong enough to resist being manipulated against their will, and had, moreover, the ever-present option of migration. (It was evident then, and still more so under the Brookes, that what the Ibans considered political oppression was as much of an impetus as the desire to avoid a feud.) The techniques of piracy may have been learned under Malay guidance, though at this time or earlier some Ibans were serving apprenticeship on Illanun pirate ships while others, such as Unggang (Lebor Menoa), adopted their methods and fought against them; but the uses to which the techniques were put were purely Iban, and often Malays themselves were their victims. The indiscriminate emphasis on a quantity of heads, as far as it existed, may well have grown from the novelty of the entire situation. These raids were not in the traditional context of inter-group hostility, and would usually not be reciprocated; the most dangerous part of a raid on land was getting away, but these shore-dwellers, if they had boats large enough to give chase, would rarely be left with either the men or the daring to do so.
The nomadic groups that the Ibans had attacked before were few in number, but their defeat freed vast areas of good land, Here the raiders made no settlement (for which, according to Mr. Sandin, they were criticized by more migration-minded leaders); unable to gain prestige by working his well-earned forests, the raider made up the lack in heads alone. Each warrior owed the first bead or captive that he took to his war leader, which meant that he must take several to get some of his own; and as more heads were taken, the prestige value of small numbers fell, evidently creating an inflationary spiral to be stopped only by force.
The more traditional, more lasting process of aggressive expansion up into the Rejang and Balleh was rather curiously accelerated by the Brooke regime, whose avowed interest was to keep the Ibans close at hand. Migration was under way well before the English, intending to control the pirate raids, built their forts in the Iban rivers; but the resulting official divisions into downriver and upriver groups gave a new impetus to population movements. As some Iban groups had co-operated for mutual benefit with Malays, so the same groups came to co-operate with the English. “Only Dayaks can attack Dayaks to make them feel in any way a punishment” said the Rajah Charles Brooke, and he made great use of Iban levies, conveniently costless: they came gladly, arranging if possible attacks on their own enemies, or taking advantage of the government’s.
The great Kayan expedition of 1863, while it thoroughly revenged the murder of Fox and Steele, in the process so completely broke the power of this other expansionist group that they never again resisted Iban migration into the Rejang.5 This went so far that some non-Iban interior tribes concluded that invading Ibans were always working for the Government. The rebellious pioneers took heads and raided; and after them came the equally deadly allies with official blessing, taking heads and burning longhouses, punishing them in the way most familiar to both. The inevitable result was that the upriver and downriver Ibans retained and practiced their ideology of aggression; and those upriver, who had most opportunity to migrate away and were most often raided to punish them for trying to do so, migrated even farther to be out of reach.
Both these aspects of Iban expansion and aggression in the nineteenth century – piracy, and movement to the north and east – were affected by outside pressures that suggested their form and direction; but it seems clear that neither Malays nor English had any real control over the wellsprings, the pace or the ultimate expression of Iban activity. The rare efforts to counteract this cultural drive (as with settlement in the Balleh) met with no more permanent success than did, in the long run, attempts to direct the urge for the formal rulers’ benefit. It is clear that in the matter of aggressive expansion Iban culture, while superficially highly adaptable, had a fundamental resistance to being changed.
This glance at relatively recent history has brought out some of the main characteristics of Iban migration. It was in most cases rapid; aggressive; persistent; and successful. It also seems to have been so basic to the Iban outlook on life that there are few cultural and technological traits of their society that do not either necessitate a frequent change of site, facilitate it, or (the exact relationships are hard to trace) even derive from it. Culture and the migratory pressures perhaps evolved together; where this happened, what might be the source land of migration, is itself a problem frequently discussed. As recounted in Mr. Sandin’s book, the earliest people to possess a recognizably Iban culture seem to have been inhabitants of the Kapuas basin in West Kalimantan.
Most probably the curious immigrants from overseas, landing at Merudu Hill and Cape Datu, head some of the traditional Iban genealogies because their descendants married Ibans rather than for any Iban identity of their own; indeed, Derom is curiously linked through his offspring not only with Ibans but with peoples as diverse as Bukitans, Melanaus, and Kelabits.7 Through many similarly misty links (such as those shown in the tusut appended to Mr. Sandin’s book) the line of Iban ancestry seems to go back to men, if they were men, living somewhere in the Middle East (some of them near Mecca) who moved, or whose descendants moved, to Sumatra then to Kalimantan, sometimes by way of Brunei. It is not likely that this outline represents any actual mass movement of population (favourite recourse of early theories, like that of Dr. Hose which derived the Ibans from fighters imported from Sumatra by Malay pirate nobles); but it may be symbolic of the drift of some of the cultural traits which apparently diffused into the Kapuas area, there to be woven by a people of unknown origin into their own style of life, whose shape we can only guess at, with explosive results. The historical processes surrounding the evolution of the Iban ethnic identity can only be viewed through a prism of myth; the commitment to expansion which permeates traditional Iban culture, however much of it may be the result of what it might be used to explain, is far easier to investigate.
Traditional Culture and Expansion:
The flexible structure of Iban society, so well suited to a pattern of irregular mobility, might have been one of the original elements – a preadaptation – which helped assure Iban success from the start in this way of life. It is generally true that social structure changes more slowly than its cultural content; and although migration, with the presence of free land to move into, undoubtedly made fertile ground for unrigid institutions, it cannot explain them. The similarly expansionist Kayans made out excellently with strong class distinctions and powerful hereditary chiefs. Dr. Pringle, who pointed that out, has called Iban society “unstructured yet dynamic”18); one might as validly replace the middle word with “therefore”. The number and variety of options within the society has been one of the prime causes of the slow turmoil of realignments so basic to Iban vitality. The basic social unit is a small and genealogically simple one, the bilek family, and both this and the individual can advance their interests by actively manipulating their wide range of affiliations. Male and female lines of descent are included equally in the Iban kindred, which therefore cover a tremendous range of overlapping relatives, each of whom may choose to stress any of the links that happen to be convenient (as described in the introduction to Mr, Sandin’s book). When young people marry, their parents decide which of the bileks involved the couple will join and so continue;(9) bileks themselves, combining to establish a farm hut so that they can work together in distant fields, may accentuate any of their numerous kin links within the community .If a family has friction within the longhouse of which it is a part it may (with the payment of a small fine) literally pull up stakes, taking all the materials of its bilek so that the house may be broken in two – a custom much complained of by all tuai rumah, but too congenial to abandon. A migrating bilek family may attach itself to any longhouse in which it has relatives; which means, since the genealogical width of Iban kin ties is paralleled in geography, that it may move almost anywhere.
Within the bilek, bilateralism is reflected in the distinct but equal status of the sexes. In the fields both men and women are essential, their work complementary; but the system of labor exchange groups (bedurok) permits a widow, or a woman whose husband is away, to succeed in farming most kinds of land without a man’s permanent help.(12) Without this mutual aid and the sturdy capability of women, men’s freedom to wander, to fight and explore would be sharply curtailed. Ibans love children, and want many of them; the first sign of a marriage has often been the wife’s pregnancy, for men want to make sure of being fathers. No doubt this contributed to the enormously rapid population increase of the Iban in new lands, which Mr. Sandin and others cite as a powerful pressure towards migration.
The independence of bilek units corresponds among Iban groups to a lack of any overall restrictive authority. The headman’s power is based upon his followers’ acquiescence; he must lead them more or less where they want to go. Power could also have a family basis, but one still dependant upon individual merit: “He (Uyut) was one of the most powerful war leaders of the Saribas, . . . because his sons, nephews and sons-in-law were all brave warriors.”13 Especially in the long-settled Saribas, social distinctions were more definite than has sometimes been realized; family connections were important, and it was taken for granted that the position of chief and warleader should pass from father to son. This has been brought out in some of Mr. Sandin’s unpublished material, and he has estimated that no more than twenty per cent of Iban families would have the inherited obligation to seek personal prestige that led men on an intensive hunt for heads and valuable jars. Fifty per cent would be ordinary people who (though they might improve their own position) would, lacking inherited charms, remain followers, rarely able to shape the patterns of war and trade. Thirty per cent would be men of the lower class, paddlers of the warboats.
Despite the greater obligations of men of higher status (for instance, Charles Brooke relates that Sulang’s invention of pati nyawa compensation applied also to warleaders, in that they had to pay a jar to the family of each man killed under their commandl4, they would tend to accumulate a relatively large amount of property. Much of this, however, would be placed into and on graves of relatives and of the owner at his death, thus taking it out of circulation (except sometimes, before it began to be broken first, among Chinese and Malays; and what was left would be split between all the children, so that in most cases no one would inherit a large amount. In any event status could not be maintained only by possessing wealth. One had to use it, to finance festivals which necessarily celebrated one’s own individual achievements; one might be born to a certain class, but one had to deserve it. “You have had no adventures, taken no head, never gone bejalai” a girl would say, according to Benedict Sandin, when a well-born youth came to court her at night. “Then I think we have nothing to talk about. You had better go.”
Most of the traditional means of attaining status involved competitive self-assertion, and were related to aggression and expansion. To be a pioneer made a man immortal in the memories of those who came after, even if all that he was first in was a graveyard. Felling the jungle (as old as may be found) remains one of the finest things a man can do. The huge forest trees on their thin soil have massive buttresses, which one must get above by making a scaffold; their tops may be interlaced with vines. To topple them takes skill, strength and courage, and young men delight in proving themselves and their iron axes against the tough wood. Often when this stage of farming is over they depart on bejalai, not to return until harvest, when they can display their strength and skill again by carrying the padi from field to farm hut over the rough hill tracks, in panniers weighing up to 150 pounds.15 For these young men, who even if married usually do not yet bear the full responsibility of their bilek, farm work is most important as means of self-display. But even more characteristically important to them are the long adventurous expeditions, the bejalai.
In the old days when the land was full of enemies, they were dangerous enough to be full proof of valour; a young man (some might be no older than fifteen) visiting relatives might find them setting off to war, and join them; another, gone ostensibly for trade into an unsettled area, might manage to take a head; and if heads were wanting, the valuable jars of brassware which he could earn by long months tapping wild rubber would give him equivalent prestige. The aim of headhunting was always individual, whether a man went alone or on great expeditions. Unlike the more hierarchic peoples, Kayan or Kelabit, the Iban regarded heads as valuable personal property, not as a contribution to group welfare.16 In the story of Beti (Berauh Ngumbang) and the girl Remampak, many of the traditional values of head-taking are brought out clearly. Finding Remampak in mourning for her slain father, Beti avenged her by talking his way into the enemy camp, asking the killer to forge him a knife and then, while he was busy, spearing him in the back. Trickery of this sort was acceptable and commendable: it displayed an agile mousedeer wit, and might hardly lessen the danger. Beti took the head back to Remampak, proving his courage and finding favour with her at the same time that he “broke” her period of mourning: only one who had taken a fresh head could do that in the old days (later a man returned from war or from bejalai became acceptable).
Only the important would feel held to the full observance of these standards, but they were enough to cause continual unrest. One of the most pathetic tales in Iban mythology is that of Serapoh, first to learn that a head was needed, wandering unsuccessfully far and wide, unable to find anyone willing to be his enemy. Most Iban groups made sure they did have enemies; highly significant in the story of Beti is that the man he slew was a Bukitan chief, and the lands which his group occupied, after his death, were rapidly absorbed into Iban territory. In headhunting, as in pioneering, individual status seeking led to expansion. The value of the head to its taker was elaborately made public in ritual festivals, the prestige Gawai, directly in those concerned with the reception of new heads and the assurance of heads to come, indirectly in the course of many of the others. Only a man who had taken a head in war could drink the most sacred wine or touch the offering of Gawai Burong or Gawai Antu, and in the former a hornbill figure was set up for each man who had taken a head – on poles whose length varied with his rank17 The honour of hosting a feast was strictly based on personal merit: when the elders warned Linggir that he had not yet deserved the celebration he was planning, he transferred it to his father Ranti was less reasonable, and as a result he was expelled from his home river.
(Note: the author is confused here. Linggir was actually the son of Uyut “Bedilang Besi”. It was Uyut’ brother-in-law Malang “Pengarah” that was expelled from their area because he declared the starting of the Gawai Burong feast before the arrival of Uyut and his warriors from the headhunting mission. Ranti was actually the brother of Mawar Biak who was expelled for an incident during their Gawai Burong).
The achievement of status by war, by wealth and by festival was linked together, in a network whose aspects were emphasized, by important men, as they grew older, to different degrees. A young man (usually between the ages of eighteen and forty) would fight and go on bejalai, perhaps to loot, perhaps to earn a valuable jar, to get heads, perhaps to take a captive (tangkap). Although his first head and first captive on any expedition would go to his warleader, he would be given a praise name, ensumbar, and people would remember the prize as his. As his experience increased and he rose to be himself a warleader, his wealth in all three forms would increase and he would come to be known as “raja berani”. To gain a charm or have the dream that would make him “tau serang”, or “able to attack” and certain of following, he might go out alone to a graveyard or a mountain to meet a spirit: as did Linggir (Mali Lebu) who went to the top of Tiang Laju, and Unggang (Lebor Menoa) who climbed Santubong in a dream. When he had proved himself in war and survived to become a little old for fighting, he would turn his attention more to the fertility of his fields. Now he had the prestige that could move whole groups into new lands, and the valour to attract strong warriors who would spearhead the advance. If he gained surplus of padi in the rich new lands he could sell or trade it for more jars and brassware, gongs or cannons; he could brew rice beer, make offerings, finance the higher and more prestigious stages of the Gawai festivals, which in his youth he had deserved. He would be honored in his life, and after his death his deeds would become a permanent part of Iban tradition.
Obviously and inextricably, each individual’s drive to attain prestige involved the whole group in sharp conflict with other groups. Iban fought Iban, as well as Bukitan, Seru, Kanowit, Kayan and whoever else got in their way. Iban groups sometimes kept track between themselves of which group had taken most heads, but in almost all cases the conflicts were too ancient, the debts too great for enemies to balance accounts and so make peace. Sulang’s rules of compensation (pati nyawa) prevented conflicts from spreading into feuds, but there was no effective ceremonial for ending a war until the Brookes invented the ritual of bebunoh babi bebaik (killing a pig to make peace). It was only settled groups of Ibans who came to look on other settled, geographically delimited groups as hereditary enemies.18
Among groups still competing for land there had evolved a relatively symbolic kind of combat using clubs instead of iron, which were not ostensibly intended to kill. (Wynne-Edwards has suggested that populations in friction over space tend to evolve conventional competitions, rituals “which establish winners and losers with little loss of life”; Dr. Livingstone has applied this theory in discussing the ecological factors which elicit aggression, human or animal, in expanding populations. His example is headhunting itself, but the club fights fit his picture even more exactly, for Iban headhunting was not particularly restrained) Here too, however, there was plenty of scope for excess aggression: Charles Brooke, referring to the clubs, noted that “the most pugnacious keep very barbarous spiked and thorny ones for the express purpose”20
Ibans fought other groups incessantly, and primarily for the reasons concisely given by Mr. Sandin: “The Bukitans still occupied a large area of valuable land, and the young Iban warriors were anxious to prove themselves in battle”. They quite consciously directed their headhunting raids to the benefit of their territorial ambitions: each raid would penetrate far into the forest ahead, testing the mettle of its occupants, judging the extent and quality of the land. By the threat of their unpredictable attacks, they so intimidated the settled peoples (such as Kanowits and Kayans) that, fearing to leave the security of their longhouses even to work the fields, these came finally to prefer flight to starvation. Moreover, when the Ibans attacked, they not only took heads but “burnt down enemy longhouses, and cast all the iron implements they could find into a nearby river.” They knew from experience that iron tools were essential for clearing the forest. “In this way they hoped to discourage farming, and compel their enemies to withdraw.”21 The process spiraled, new territory creating new borderland enemies, new raids driving these people farther away. The more the Ibans expanded the more aggressive they became.23 In the earliest period of migration, their enemies were not these settled people of the Rejang, farmers like themselves, but primarily nomadic Bukitans and Serus. Some of these groups, such as Entingi’s, planted crops; but most of them depended only on jungle produce, taking sago flour from eight kinds of wild palms, hunting and fishing and gathering plants. These are essential foods to the Iban, whose efficient exploitation of the jungle resources made them, though rice-growers, competitors of the nomads in their own ecological niche. As vividly described in Mr. Sandin’s book, the Serus resisted Iban advance, held out for a while, then were overrun and their culture extinguished; the Bukitans formed a nervous alliance with the Ibans, helping, in their expert familiarity with the lands they had owned, to fight the Serus, Punans and other hindrances to Iban migration. As Mr. Sandin has put it, “Due to this friendship, a good number of the Iban chiefs of old owned the Bukitans”; indeed they traded them around like hunting dogs. Some Ibans, such as Kaya, would present them with a gift and then claim impossible repayment with slavery as an alternative, a technique the Malays had been using with great success on the Land Dayaks. The Bukitan ulun (slaves) adopted the religion and customs of their Iban leaders, and so did some of their relatives who were free, learning to plant rice (having at first to find out from passing Ibans when it was ripe) and to live in longhouses. Quite possibly, Dr. Pringle suggested, some of the early spread of Iban ideology could be due to the conversion of various nomads who had in this manner come to “masok Iban”. There was a good deal of intermarriage as well, especially between Ibans and the more important Bukitans, such as Demong; one informant in the Balleh judged that “In all Iban veins there must be Bukitan blood.”23 Furthermore it is not impossible that the nomadic peoples and the Ibans had been in some way related long before this time, for the traditional homeland of Bukitans, Serus and Punans as well as Ibans, according to information collected by the Museum from many sources, was the Kapuas.
Perhaps curiously, it seems clear that among the Ibans head trophies had no direct relationship to the fertility of the land. Headhunting impelled and defended the first assaults on new rich land; but the head itself did not, as among the Kayans, “ensure prosperity and fertility” in a new settlement.24 The Kenyahs have a legend that when the first heads were brought home, the freshly planted padi at once burst into ear, but there is nothing like this among the Ibans. Pulang Gana is god of the earth and ruler of the rice crop, and at the founding of a new longhouse a pig is killed for him. Although in a prayer for the padi fields he is praised as “ti ngetu ngarau kundi”, who in a foray quickly gets a head, this is part of a general string of compliments which might be given to any Iban; the god of war, and in fact of everything except farming, is Sengalang Burong.25
Possibly the padi cult, so elaborate and central to Iban group belief, takes the place of a fertility cult associated with the heads whose social value is to the individual; this may suggest that headhunting in its greatest intensity is younger than padi, a result of the desire for land. In any case, far more fundamental than methods of warfare to traditional Iban culture is the shaping force of ecology.
Iban migration may no doubt be attractively and efficiently explained by the requirements of shifting cultivation; but only to a certain extent, and as long as one avoids assuming that the interpretation can stand by itself. It could, if Iban farming methods were always completely destructive; and if the Ibans moved only as far as the next range of fertile forest before settling and destroying that. But slash-and-burn agriculture has been many times shown to be a controllable, and indeed in an environment like the Bornean rain forest, almost an unavoidable kind of exploitation if one needs to farm. Certainly Iban methods are wasteful, but not necessarily blighting; land once used may be farmed over and over again, if time is allowed for the regrowth of the secondary jungle. A glance at the irregular, pulsating tangle of migration patterns into any area is enough to show that the motives behind the movements are never simple.
Basically, though, one of the strongest Iban desires, at least as powerful as that for heads, is this (so sensuously expressed) for:
Land that is fat, fat in deep layers,
Luxuriant land, land that is fruitful,
Soil soft and fecund, land richly fertile . . . 26
an ideal approximated only, in the country the Ibans know, by virgin jungle. From the Kapuas region the ancient Ibans sent scouts into Sarawak, and they brought back the news that “these lands were very fertile with plenty of fish in all the rivers, and the forests had plenty of birds and animals for food”27; this was the first allurement to migration, as it has proved the most durable. Virgin jungle, felled with pride in prowess and turned, with luck, into even ash over the humus it had created, can produce exceptionally tall and abundant padi. Moreover, the unclear forest nearby provides a supply of the essentials of Iban technology – timber, rotan, palm fronds for roofing, ironwood, resin for light and bark for padi bins – as well as animals and vegetables to eat with one’s rice. A longhouse in an area of fresh jungle is secure and rich, brimming with well being, lively “With the Gawai that are more frequently held as more people can afford them. It is a further benefit that crops from virgin jungle require much less weeding than those from secondary jungle, where weeds already have taken hold: the young men find weeding a ridiculous and unmanly job, and often avoid it by disappearing when the felling is over. Men between 30 and 40, who have attained to the leadership of a bilek, and whose interest in their fields has increased to the point that they will if necessary help their women weed, are freed in virgin jungles from much of their responsibility; they too can go off to war, or spend time planning their festivals. Most convenient of all, in the year after the first felling, when the brush and coppices are still small, women are able to handle all the work of clearing, burning and planting. There are no big trees to fell, and fewer weeds than there will be later; the cut brush dries more quickly and burns predictably better than heavy jungle; and with the resulting even coat of ash, the second year’s harvest can be as good as or better than the first, even with nearly all of the longhouse males away.28 Aside from the social importance of having more than enough padi, a good harvest quite directly means that one’s group will not go hungry. In a time of lapar if, as in the old days, there are no cash crops to fall back on – people must try to keep themselves at subsistence level by working for their neighbours if luck is uneven, by borrowing with their freedom as collateral, or by selling their prized value objects, collecting jungle produce if there is any one to buy, and relying more and more upon jungle foods such as sago, things which formed the main diet of the nomads.29
The quality of secondary jungle depends upon the number of times it has been farmed before, and how long it was left fallow. After a year’s farming the land grows up in sapling and coppice, and in fifteen years it is essentially refertilized; but after an exploitation of two years running the tree shoots are killed, and the climax vegetation contains many more weeds, ferns, and the hardy, sharp-sided, useless lalang grass. This land will never again be as good as virgin jungle, and unless people are forced to they will farm it for only one year. (One of the spiritual journeys in the songs of the Gawai Burong passes land like this:
Nya baru rembus ba temuda bali pengarang,
Rembus di jerami madang lalang.
“They reach the new farm site made from secondary jungle,
Reaching the padi field which after harvest is overgrown with lalang grass.”
Iban settlement patterns owe much to these vegetal factors. If virgin jungle was farmed for two years and then abandoned for fresh jungle (the progression is in fact more gradual, since some new jungle may be cleared each year, while last year’s felling is fanned for the second time), then the second wave of migrants, farming the regrowth for a single year, would steadily overtake the earlier people; both groups might be led to move more rapidly, neglecting some possible farmland. In the time of Hugh Low the cycle seems to have been only half as long: virgin jungle was farmed for one year, then left for seven.31 This would probably have meant less soil exhaustion; but at the same time, if the first pioneers moved on out of the area, it would result in faster migration altogether. Low’s observations were made in a period of explosive expansion, and the prestige value of pioneering might have tipped the scale towards moving on. Certainly in the Balleh at present, an area in many ways typical of the old pioneer territories, most Ibans prefer to farm their land for a second time. The benefits, they feel, far outweigh the damage it does; they farm as if primary jungle would always be limitlessly available, as in the past it was. Iban methods of land use are adapted to a system of constant expansion,32 accelerated by the pressures of an expanding population, which shortens the cycle of land use beyond that which could stabilize fertility. But the deserved reputation of the Ibans as mangeurs des bois rests on more than these rather mechanical forces: it derives from their basic values, the ideals of their society. A significant instance of the interaction of ecology and value systems is the case of padi paya – swamp (sometimes usefully called damp) rice which some Ibans grow in riverside lowlands and marshes, such as those of the lower Rimbas and Paku. There are families, which have farmed it for generations, since before Brooke rule. The Ibans long understood the principle of permanent irrigated farms:
“Umai tekat enti udah nyadi balat buah padi. Umai tekat enda baka umai bukai, atas bisi ai aja enggau nekat, padi tentu nyadi . . . Ai ti nupa padi. “
“If the irrigated farm prospers, it gives a large return. The irrigated farm is not like other farms; as long as there is water to irrigate it, the padi is sure to prosper. It is the water that fertilizes the padi.”33
But swamps are unhealthy and dirty to live in, your legs get muddy; and people commonly say that most hill rice, padi bukit, is tastier than most varieties of swamp rice. Padi paya is good enough, but not excellent (Benedict Sandin). To the extent that this is important to the Iban, it may be fair to say that the families living long on paya have traded an ideal for relative security; and this conflict may explain the fact that most people tend to farm paya no more than two or three years at a stretch. The ideal of movement is a powerful one, whether translated into a matter of taste or held up for its own glory. In the Balleh, when pent-up immigrants were permitted to settle, they spread at a rate which had nothing to do with the land available: it was as if they were “intoxicated by their own expansion”.34
The Earliest Ibans:
Traditional Iban society, culture and ecology, as briefly described above, are all in multiple ways involved with the urge to migrate. The shape of expansion, as Mr. Sandin has shown, depended upon local and individual conditions; the overall slowing or resurgence of migratory drive seems to have been affected by pressures on which Iban culture had only an indirect effect, the sparse scattering of new immigrants who needed time to consolidate their gains, the restless crowding of these same groups a century and half later, and the ambition of outsiders. But the cultural urge towards movement is clear, and it is tempting to draw the conclusion that the earliest migrations for which we have solid evidence, those into Sarawak, were direct results of a fairly sudden shift in the internal balance of Iban culture, when traits were acquired that made migration essential. The theory is a little simplistic; but interestingly, Iban folklore seems to support it. There is a tradition that long ago, Bejie ancestors of the Ibans baka Punan diau ba kampong, dwelt in the jungle like Punans, without knowledge of rice and its attendant rituals,35 the rites of war, or any of the myriad other customs that define Ibans today. In the course of only a few generations, and in (as Howell put it) “a most sudden, unexpected and miraculous manner,”36 they learned the rules of correct behaviour. Spirits, gods and ghosts took pity on the ignorance of a few relatively human beings, and explained to them the laws, which they then transmitted to the rest of the Iban people. Through the tusut, present-day Ibans are linked directly with these spiritual ancestors, the gods and the law-giving heroes. Somewhere before the fifteenth generation back from present, in the tusut as they are spoken (see appendix A of Mr. Sandin’s book), the blunt series of bebini, belaki, beranak grows richer and more poetic: names are linked with splendid epithets such as “Abu who came from the sound of thunder, who therefore was accustomed to lead processions of the spirits of the dead through the morning dew.” Just at the near end of the zone of transition from spirit to human came the migrations. They have their own semi-divine charter, as much as any other element of Iban culture: the “historic conference to organise migration routes into the Undup and the Batang Ai” was held by one of the greatest law-givers of all, Sera Gunting, who had passed on to mankind from his maternal grandfather Sengalang Burong knowledge of social laws (the categories of prohibited marriage) and some of the most valuable information about customs closely linked with pressures to migrate: war, and the cultivation of padi.
Sera Gunting was not the first to learn the rules of war; he brought back an important addition to this knowledge, the understanding of the omens associated with it. He learned this on a foray with his uncles the omen birds, who were conveniently able to leap off the path and produce good omens as required.37 But Sera Gunting’s grandfather on his father’s side was a spirit called Rukok, who was first to explain the rules of war, and first to lead the Ibans to victory. The war had begun when Serapoh (mentioned earlier) had been told by another visiting spirit of the correct burial customs, among them the need for a head to put an end to mourning. Serapoh, after much searching, bought a Kantu boy and used his head; at which the Kantus killed Serapoh’s own sons and took their heads in return. While Serapoh’s daughter mourned, Rukok appeared and married her, then raided and looted the Kantu country and that of other neighbouring tribes until there was once more, temporarily, peace in the land. According to the tusut, these events took place between 18, and possibly 24 generations ago:* Sera Gunting is found at 18 generations back from present in Gl and G31, and at 21 generations in G26. His grandfather Singalang Burong comes a logical two levels higher in the list, but at only 22 generations bfp in G4; Serapoh’s line through Sera Gunting places him at 22 generations in G31, and through another Uncle (38) 23 generations ago. This long ago, however, generations and relationships may be to some degree symbolic rather than literal; time may have been telescoped as links were forgotten, unevenly perhaps in different lines, so that it is hard to say just who were contemporaries even in a “spiritual” context.
Like the rules of war but in an even more complex and fragmented manner, the knowledge of padi and its attendant rites was given to the Ibans little by little, at different times and through different channels. According to Gomes it was Sera Gunting who, living a year in his grandfather’s longhouse, learned by helping the complete cycle of the grain, and was given some to take back to his more human relatives who had never seen it before.39 However, in other versions of the story (such as that given in Mr. Sandin’s material40), rice was already known to men at that time: and Sera Gunting, unlucky with it, was criticized for not having made himself personally worthy of his great descent. On his way back to Sengalang Burong to ask for help, he met the youngest of the Pleiades, Bunsu Bintang Banyak, who told him how to time his planting by her sisters. Then Bunsu Bintang Tiga (Orion’s belt) and the spirit of the moon each explained their stellar roles, in which earth and sky are linked as Sera Gunting linked man and the sky-dwelling spirits. In this account, he also brought back (for rice as for war) the knowledge of what the omen birds mean, heard alone and in various combinations at different stages in farming, for a successful yield and for luck in general. In another of Mr. Sandin’s stories the youngest sister of the Seven Stars told her tale to Jelenggai, a mortal whom she married and who is found at 17 generations bfp in G6 and 18 in G16 (where he was 5 generations above Rinda)—rather more recent than Sera Gunting. He had to leave her when one day he looked through the mouth of a pot which she had told him not to touch, and saw below him thousands of tiny men on the hillsides, planting their rice.41 This knowledge of the stars and birds, however gained, was an addition to known rice cultivation, making it more efficient. The discovery of what was due to Pulang Gana as god of the earth had the same effect. His brothers – among who was Sengalang Burong – went to fell trees for their farm, but in the night, as if one night were twenty years, the trees stood up again: until Pulang Gana told them that he, who had received only the clay hearth as his inheritance; owned the soil and required his offerings.42
There are several versions of this story, and in one of them the siblings of Pulang Gana are not human: one, in fact, was cut to pieces and became plants, including padi23 This places the god of earth in an odd and earlier context: for in the first story, both he and Sengalang Burong (and Selampandai, below) are grandsons of Raja Durong, where name in Malay means padi store, who lived in Sumatra and was famous as a prosperous padi planter44) Obviously it is scarcely possible to pinpoint, in these shifting facets of myth and truth, even a rough generational level for the mythological origin of padi. Even the tales of its first planting seem to imply its pre-existance. In the second story above, a sister of the seed and Pulang Gana was given it by Ini Raja Pipit – in her day the seeds were big as mangoes and husked themselves. In another version45 Simpang Impang stole a grain from Anak Raja Pipit, and then met Pulang Gana as in the tale above his brothers did. Another story has Simpang Impang take three of the large seeds from the Rat Goddess, Bunsu Tikus. According to the genealogy given with this story, Simpang Impang lived a surprising 35 generations ago – long before Pulang Gana unless he might be one of the strange original creation: but the spirit from whom he got the grain, exactly like her alternative the goddess of the pipits (munias), was already “living and forever depending upon the padi seeds she collected from the farms of men.” These paradoxical tales have their own odd logic, expressing in symbolic terms the interdependence of man and pest, the deep dependence of both on rice: they, and others, clearly indicate that to the Iban, man is inconceivable without his padi. This need not conflict with the tradition that the Ibans began to plant padi around the time of Sengalang Burong,(47) if it was then that they consider themselves to have become human. As the old god told his grandson, “you will find rice a much more strengthening article of food than the yams and potatoes you used to live upon, and you will become a strong and hardy race.”48
The charter myths leave Iban culture fully formed by the time of Jelian (15 generations in G7, 14 in G14), who learned from a ghostly voice the kitchen rules; and after Beti (12 generations ago in Gl) who was similarly ordered to relax the harsh punishments for incest, there were no more spiritual amendments. Mythological beginnings, then, cluster around the time of Sengalang Burong; and when allowance is made for the possible elasticity of the time (at most recent about the fifteenth century) it seems likely that the myths reflect a pattern of historical changes. Malinowski said that “the main object of a sacred tradition is not to serve as a chronicle of past events; it is to lay down the effective precedent of a glorified past for repetitive actions in the present.” This indeed is the prime function of Iban charter myths, but some of the changes they warrant are known to be historical – in particular, that from gathering to the iron-dependent cultivation of padi – and this must have affected the whole framework of society. As the accretive nature of the myths suggests, the changes must have come about gradually, piece-by-piece, just as the myths themselves evolved to explain them. Probably technological innovations, perhaps in a rudimentary form, were, adopted first along with some of the rules and rites already associated with them; the outlines of technique would be filled in, elaborated in directions, which were becoming typical of Iban culture. At the same time belief and cultural behaviour would shift, exploiting new possibilities, while older ideas became irrelevant and were lost, or were adapted to give traditional sanction to the new. Harrisson suggests that the former system may have been too diffuse to suit the new techniques and the patterns that grew up with them.49 Change would have involved a simplification, a codification of behaviour, as the lists of laws in the myths indicate; but it seems clear that this process, as far as it went, led rather to increased coherence than less flexibility. Beti’s modification of the incest rules is probably a continuation of the trend they represent, rather than a reaction against it. It is the adaptability of Iban culture that let it so successfully integrate the diverse elements that entered into it; and this flexibility, as noted earlier, is very probably one of the culture’s most ancient characteristics, and one of the traits that, directly and indirectly, most favored its commitment to migration.
The proto-Ibans (Bejie’s group) must have been wanderers, migrants in search of jungle food before they ever learned of rice. They could not have been settled, passive recipients of new forces that drove them to move out and keep on moving: it is more economical to assume that Iban culture is deeply involved with mobility because it was integrated in a context of migration. The new forms, which the culture took, would have given impetus to farther and faster migration; this with the contacts and conflicts it brought would shape the culture in turn, in the same directions. For this to have happened they must have wandered for generations in Indonesian Borneo before they ever touched Sarawak soil. Some of Mr. Sandin’s unpublished material does indeed trace groups ancestral to the Ibans through what must be centuries of migration along the Kapuas and its tributaries. The stories are various,50 and no doubt reflect the wanderings of a slowly increasing number of small groups whose routes were as individualistic as recent migrants’ are known to be. But in its outlines, the account is solid enough to indicate that the proto-Iban groups were mostly moving in the same directions, under the same pressures. They seem to have been living first along the coast near the mouth of the Kapuas, from Pontianak down to as far as Kayung. They wore bark cloth until the Arab merchants came to trade textiles for rice and later, paradise for a bit of skin: some of the Ibans, evading this, moved up the Kapuas to Melawi where they stayed three generations. Then, as “the expansion of Islamism was active” (f) they went farther up to the country of the Muallangs, with whom they intermarried, (Many of the groups in the upper Kapuas – Bugaus, the Kantus already mentioned, and these Muallangs—are linguistically and culturally kin to the Ibans: which argues for a much longer period of mutual influence than the stories allow, or common origin.) After living with the Muallangs they stayed with the Bugaus, and then under seven strong chiefs moved up to Semitau, just south of the interlaced lakes (Danau Selimbau) whose fish would make it possible for the Malays to follow them. (One of the stories does not mention Islam: the early group traced here reaches Semitau straight from Java, led by the spirit-heroes Tutong, god of blacksmiths, and Keling Aji (a Javanese title meaning Prince who was cousin to Serapoh. They suffer mysterious disasters, such as “turds-galore”, and finally spirits and men are sundered as the heroes leave with their pieces of the world. The people from the coast met these Ibans far inland; as the more mythic context suggests, theirs may have been an actual earlier migration.) Already, “due to their bravery and aggressiveness, all other Dayaks were afraid of them.” (d) Serapoh lived only a few decades later, rationalising the conflicts so easily developed. From Semitau, then, the stories trace them in several directions; some to Sungkong, where “they became rather more civilized than their forefathers, and progressed in many fields. They also increased greatly in numbers.” At this time they were planting rice – as they had on the coast, to trade for cloth – along with “tapioca, mustard, Indian corn and so on”, (e) From there some of them went down to the Kapuas again, and then northeast of the lakes, by the Labuyan and Emperan, up to the Undup and the Kumpang, Batang Ai. Others went from Semitau (or Silat, downstream) to the Ketungau, where Serapoh lived; from here they sent to the Batang Ai scouts whose report was quoted earlier. (The Ketungau is a northern tributary of the Kapuas, curling to within five miles of the Sarawak border, and it is said to replace the spirit-river Panggau Libau which Keling took home with him at the time of the separation.) From here the Ibans went up the Merakai towards the Undup; on Mount Tutop, between the rivers, Sengalang Burong (in his most human shape) died and was buried. From Merakai, where Sera Gunting organized the migrations, they moved to Tiang Laju between the headwaters of the Undup and the Kumpang. One group on Kenyandang hill, just south of the boundary, “thought they would not need to move again, as all of them could easily obtain plenty of padi and other food in this new country.” (d) The reason may hold, but as for not moving, they could hardly have been more mistaken.
As far back as the Ibans trace themselves in these highly realistic records, they seem to show the same directed drive and zest for expansion. There is no sign of their having been nomads in the strict sense, circling groups in limited territory – at least, never for long. Nor is there an indication in this sequence that they were ever anything but padi cultivators – and good ones from the start, with a surplus to trade. Probably the time depth is too shallow. Moslem traders reached Borneo’s west coast well after the techniques of iron-working which are basic to the slash part of slash and burn farming.* Even the origin myths indefinitely indicate that the Ibans knew rice long before Sengalang Burong; and iron is deeply involved in the figurative and esoteric aspects of Iban culture, with far more than a technological importance. Many praise-names refer to iron; the shaman bites an iron blade to make his soul strong and keep it in his body; the Gawai “aimed at refreshing the whole rice cycle” is called Whetstone Festival, and in it the spirit-guests pass “a hill crowded with charcoals . . . the country of Selampandai who forges with clanging sounds, Selampetoh who forges with thumping noises.”51 This god has three names which rhyme with his activities; he is brother to Sengalang Burong and Pulang Gana, and (time stretches again) he is credited with making man. “Selampandai ngaga kitai” shaping the human body from earth with his blacksmith’s tools, hammering it upon his anvil.52 These ritual and mythological roles emphasize the importance of iron in shaping the culture, in creating the Ibans as a people. But iron must originally have been adopted in a context of similar awe, for its semi-sacredness seems to date back as far as the metal is known in Borneo. In the Niah caves, chunks of slag are used semi-magically, part of the seeming shamanistic cult which, Harrisson suggests, preceded Sengalang Burong’s reorganization about five centuries later; and at Niah, there is yet no trace of rice. The strange rock carvings around Santubong may be related; they hint at a sense of the values in earth and ore (see Harrisson and O’Connor’s paper in this issue for a discussion of this and other points mentioned here). Santubong was one of the largest of the trading centres on the west coast, and iron was smelted there and elsewhere in great quantities, to judge from the pits of slag. The peak of smelting and of trade with the mainland came after 1100, and by 1350 work on iron was nearly at a standstill. Without stretching the generations, this is just before the time of Sengalang Burong. Very probably the basic Iban changes were contemporaneous with this industry that traded ore (and ceramics) deep into the jungle for the produce that China desired: among which was gold. Familiarity with this attractive and easily worked metal may have prepared the river peoples for the idea of iron; the Malohs, interestingly, have specialised as itinerant gold workers from the Kapuas all around inland Borneo.53 The Ibans gained technical skill gradually, probably adopting the Chinese forge as suggested by a verse in the Gawai Tajau:
“… bamboo, like feathers on the Chinese bellows.”54
Today most of the iron used for making parangs and other tools is still bought from the Chinese. But tradition has it (via an old man from Sebandi Ulu, Lundu) that the Kayans taught Ibans to smelt from native ore as they did, and then to temper it. This should be relatively recent, as suggested by Charles Brooke’s remark that “(Iban) forges, and ability to manufacture weapons for warfare, are of very superior quality; and some tribes in the interior of Rejang are even able to smelt their own iron, which is second to none for making arms”55; although the Kayans are also one of the largest non-Iban groups in the upper Kapuas. With increased skill in working with iron came new skill in using it, and new needs for it, both warlike and peaceable. Sometime around this period, the Ibans began to plant hill padi. They could well have used iron for general purposes before padi reached them; they might have known of padi from a distance already, and studied that and iron together; it has even been suggested that they could have planted padi paya before iron, clearing the swamps by hand, and moved onto firmer ground as they became able to fell the trees. However it happened, this was the catalyst for traditional Iban culture; and a new style of living crystallized around the grain.
*In the lighter regrowth as well as heavy virgin jungle; c.f. the sabak dirge collected by Mr. Sandin in the SMJ of 1966: “….land of the aborted fetus, the poorest of all creatures, because when it dies it has not been given by its parents a piece of iron, and therefore has nothing to use to farm secondary jungle.”
But – as was shown before – hill rice, and the need that goes with it for fertile land, are influences that attract rather than drive; there was enough land along the Kapuas for quiet centuries of regrowth and recropping. Rice could not have compelled the Ibans into Sarawak – any more than it did the Punans, Serus or Bukitans who preceded them. According to traditions collected by the Museum, the Punans lived originally in the Mahakam, far in the upper Kapuas, from which some moved northeast to the Ulu Balleh; they were spreading down to Kapit when the Ibans came up against them. Some of the warlike Serus still lived in the Kapuas in 1930, saying that their ancestors had moved north “due to quarrels”. The Bukitans, closest to the Ibans culturally (most by diffusion), left the Kapuas behind these groups, and fought them. From Palin they moved to the Batang Ai and from Kanyau to the Katibas and to the Balleh; some took the westward route to Skrang, Lemanak and Layar, and were living there when the Ibans followed them. All these groups depend on iron, even those who never plant (as some Bukitans did). The prime weapon of the nomads was the sumpit or blowpipe (the weapon with which Menggin, father of Sera Gunting, was so skilful), drilled by a rod of cold iron longer than a man, and they used spearblade, axe, knife arid parang as well. The Punans were given these tools by their symbiotes, the Kayans,56 but some of the Bukitans were so good at ironcraft that they made articles for the Ibans – for instance, Beti. Possibly these groups left the Kapuas after iron was known but before the full introduction of rice; or there may have been early prohibitions among some, like that of the Penans against felling big trees.57 Slight differences in adat could have severed related groups as effectively as any chance of contact, and conflict could have sharpened the divergencies. The Kapuas peoples were no doubt each other’s most important pressures; but this movement to the north seems somehow too coherent to be due only to local impulses towards fresh land and away from one’s neighbours. As Mr. Sandin’s material indicates, the direction and timing of the movement may have been partly in response to forces that originated half a world away.
Islam followed the routes of sea-trade, which were complex as the currents. The “Arabs” (a Chinese term for any Moslem) who sold cloth to the coastal Dayaks could have been Gujeratis, Indians converted to Islam by the early fourteenth century, who carried their textiles to Malacca to trade for spices. Having the precedent of Hindu influence and the zeal of recent, formerly low-caste converts, they pushed their beliefs wherever they went. Or – since most Gujeratis kept west of Malaya – the visitors might have been traders to Malacca, converted under Gujerati impulse in the first years of the fifteenth century, and swelling in influence as India and Ming China joined forces to crush the pirates who had made the Straits precarious (for land caravan routes were blocked by Tamburlaine). Malacca’s neighbourhood grew no surplus, and she needed rice, whether wet or dry. Traders from Sumatra and Java, both rapidly Islamicised, carried the island trade in rice and spices. Perhaps the “Arabs” were Sumatran; Mr. Sandin feels it probable that they did in fact come from that island, from the kingdom of Melayu. In the sixteenth century, just as the Iban migrations into Sarawak seem to have begun, the Portuguese capture of Malacca sent Moslem trade back to the islands. The Javanese (of Demak in particular) barred from Malacca except for rice, actively converted the ports of south Borneo, to deny waystops to Portuguese vessels en route to the Moluccas.*58 The Javanese may even have penetrated as far as the Kapuas (below); and they could have contributed to the pressure that drove the Ibans upstream. The traditional account of contact recorded by Mr. Sandin (d) seems remarkably accurate. First came the traders with their bright impressive cottons, and some years after them a group of proselytes, who had a fair success among the Ibans. “Those who refused to be converted were threatened with persecution or expelled from Kayung.” After they left the Iban leaders had an argument, and most of them decided to take to the high rivers, out of reach. Six months later the Arabs returned and circumcised those who had stayed; when they sent them to fetch back the others, those people moved farther away. The converts settled along the coast from Kayung to Sambas, and “began to call themselves Malays”. They married new Malays from Sumatra (Melayu?) who settled as farmers along the coast, “following the culture of the local people”. Three generations later there were Moslems in the Kapuas where there had been none before, and Ibans harassed in the Melawi moved on again. After that the traditions so far collected make no mention of Malays, but it is safe to assume (and Mr. Sandin agrees) that the pressure continued. Long before the Dutch described them, there were tiny Malay states deep in the interior of the Kapuas, as far up as the lakes. The Penambahan of Sintang (at Melawi mouth) claimed descent from a Javanese prince of Demak; he did not deign to recognise the Sultan of Pontianak, whose parvenu dynasty dated only from the eighteenth century. The pattern of people in the area, one Dutch authority felt, suggested that an original stock closely related to the Iban had been to various degrees influenced by Islam: some groups had fully adopted it while others had taken to aspects of Malay culture.59 It is quite possible that, like their relatives in the Second Division some centuries later, the Malay rulers of these proud small states tried to make use of the local people against each other, to force them into uneven trade, or to convert them as the seacoast traders had done. Then the classic response of the groups who were to be called Iban would be to move out and away, increasing the general shifting ferment among those people whose heads and lands they took, perhaps driving some of these others before them. As in future (part III of Mr. Sandin’s book) success would lead to success, in a self-reinforcing spiral of expansion.
This could be one way of fitting together some of the data, but it does not account for all Iban groups, if some moved northward before Islam touched them; nor does it explain either the sources of Iban culture, or those of the Iban people. Mr. Sandin feels that at least some of his ancestors came bodily from Sumatra in the time of Beji, and certain linguistic parallels between Iban and pre-Islamic Sumatran Malay could bear this out, if Kantus and the others also owe something to these migrants. But it is hard to be sure just how much the traditions of Sumatran or Javanese – or Middle Eastern – forebears reflect reality, and how much they reflect the simpler fact that people and ideas from these areas made a very strong impression on the earliest Ibans, shaping their culture and their movements. For instance, Keling Aji may reflect contacts with Hindu Java, where there was an ancient kingdom called Kaling; or with the influences (more spiritual than material66) that came more directly from India, where Hindus from the southern state of the same name were among the most enthusiatic early traders to Malacca and beyond. But foreign impulses can no more explain the deep groundswell of population movement through the island than can Bornean techniques of agriculture. The Ibans and nomads were not the only migrants to the north, nor did all those who wandered come from the Kapuas: Kenyah, Kayan, Kelabit and yet others have definitely come into Sarawak from the south, and as the Ibans moved into Sarawak the distant Dusuns were invading Sabah. There seems to have been a curious and profoundly Bornean urge to the north, stranger in that nothing in geography compels it. Like the mist in which myth and history converge and part, the whole island is full of shifting shapes: and their reasons for being and for moving remain incalculable, from however many angles one observes them. Iban expansion has been affected by a multitude of factors, and this has made it unavoidable that one should try to extract relevant material from many fields, at the likely risk of misinterpretation (which I hope will provoke corrections) and of compounding confusion. In the end though, a certain amount of confusion probably gives a closer representation of the complex reality than could any simple answer.