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Edwin Gomes
Children of Borneo

Children of Borneo
Edwin Gomes

Edwin Herbert Gomes

Children of Borneo

I gratefully acknowledge the permission readily granted by Messrs Seeley & Co. Ltd., to make use of much matter that has already been published in my book, "Seventeen Years Among the Sea Dyaks of Borneo," and I would recommend that book to those who wish for more information about Borneo and its inhabitants.

    Edwin H. Gomes.



Away down in the Indian Ocean there is a long chain of islands that stretches from Burmah to Australia. One of these is New Guinea which is the largest island in the world (leaving out Australia), and Borneo comes next in size. It is nearly four times as large as England. One quarter of it – the States of Sarawak and British North Borneo – is under British influence. The rest is all claimed by the Dutch, excepting one small State, Brunei, between North Borneo and Sarawak, which is governed by a Malay Sultan, who is a Mahommedan. Sarawak is governed by an English Rajah, or King, Sir Charles Brooke, who succeeded his uncle, Sir James Brooke, in 1868; – British North Borneo is owned by an English Trading Company, called the North Borneo Company, who appoint an Englishman as Governor to rule it for them.

If you look at a map of Borneo you will see that the Equator divides the island into two parts, so that Borneo is right in the middle of the Torrid Zone. The climate is therefore tropical, that is to say there is no spring, autumn or winter, but only summer, and it is always much hotter in Borneo than it is in the hottest summer in England. So, if an English boy went to live in Borneo, he would find his English clothes too thick and warm for him to wear there, and he would have to have thin cotton garments.

Most of the country of Borneo is covered with thick jungle, where large forest trees grow close to each other, many of them with trunks over six feet in diameter. These trees are often loaded with creepers and ferns, and from the branches, high up overhead, beautiful orchids hang.

The natives of Borneo are called Dyaks, and these tropical jungles are their home. Let me try and describe to you what these people are like. They are not black like negroes, but have a brown skin. They are not as tall as Englishmen, but are slightly bigger than the Malays. The Dyak men and women wear very little clothing because of the great heat. The Dyak men wear a waistcloth which is made either of the soft inner bark of a tree, or else of cotton cloth. It is about one yard wide, and from eight to eighteen feet in length, and is twisted round and round their waists and pulled up tight between the thighs, one end hanging down in front and the other behind. Dyak women wear a short petticoat which is drawn tightly round the waist and reaches down to the knees. Round their bodies the women wear hoops of rattan, a kind of cane, and these are threaded through small brass rings placed so close together as to hide the rattan. Both men and women wear necklaces, bracelets, and ear-rings. The men wear their hair long, and they blacken their teeth and often file them to a point, or bore holes in them and insert brass studs into them.

Let me tell you something of the kind of life the Dyaks used to live in the old days. You have heard of the head-hunters of Borneo. Seventy years ago the Dyaks were one of the most savage and cruel people in the world. In those days there was constant warfare between the different tribes. The Dyaks therefore lived together in large numbers in long village houses, and round these houses they built strong stockades, as a defence against any sudden attack.

In those old days a party of Dyaks would often attack some neighbouring house. Such of the men as were at home would repel the attack as best they could, for defeat meant certain death. The women and children would be crowded together in the verandah of the Dyak house, and the men, armed with swords, spears and shields, would form a circle round them. Large brass gongs would be struck in a peculiar manner, to let the neighbours know of the attack, and to implore their help. The fight would continue till one party was defeated. If any came to the rescue, the attacking party would retreat, pursued by such of the inmates of the house as dared to follow them; but if no help came, the house would be rushed, the men and women cut down, and the children killed or taken captive. The heads of the dead would be cut off amid wild whoops of joy, and carried off in triumph.

The Dyaks thought it a grand thing to be able to bring home a human head to hang up as an ornament in their house. The man who succeeded in securing a human head was looked upon as a great warrior, and so very often the young braves would make an expedition against some tribe simply because they wanted to bring home the ghastly trophy of a human head.

Not only were the Dyaks head-hunters in those days, but many of them were pirates. There was a great deal of piracy, and it was secretly encouraged by the native rulers, who obtained a share of the spoil, and also by the Malays who knew well how to handle a boat. The Malay fleet consisted of a large number of long war-boats or prahus, each about ninety feet long or more, and carrying a brass gun in the bows, the pirates being armed with swords, spears and muskets. Each boat was paddled by from sixty to eighty men. These terrible craft skulked about in the sheltered coves waiting for their prey, and attacked merchant vessels making the passage between China and Singapore. The Malay pirates and their Dyak allies would wreck and destroy every trading vessel they came across, murder most of the crew who offered any resistance, and make slaves of the rest. The Dyaks would cut off the heads of those who were slain, smoke them over the fire to dry them, and then take them home to treasure as valued possessions. If you visit some of the Dyak houses to-day, you will see some of these human heads, taken in piratical raids in old days, hanging in bunches over the fireplaces.

The whole country in those old days was in a great state of disorder. The Dyaks were constantly at war, tribe against tribe, and no Dyak village was safe from sudden attack. Many human lives were sacrificed because the Dyaks wished, not only to obtain booty, but to satisfy their lust for blood, and indulge in their favourite pursuit of head-hunting, and gain glory for themselves by bringing home human heads to decorate their houses with.



I have told you, in the last chapter, what kind of people the Dyaks were, and how in the old days a great deal of their time was spent in piracy and in warfare against neighbouring tribes. Now I want to tell you of the coming of the White Rajah – James Brooke – to Borneo, and what he did there. I think every English boy and girl should know the remarkable and romantic story of how an Englishman came to be a King in Borneo, and to rule over the part of it called Sarawak.

James Brooke was born on April 29, 1803. His father was a member of the Civil Service of the East India Company, and spent a great many years in India. He followed his father's example, and entered the Company's service, and was sent out to India in 1825. Not long after his arrival, he was put in command of a regiment of soldiers, and ordered to Burmah, where he took part in the Burmese war. He was badly wounded, and had to return to England on leave. For over four years his health prevented him from rejoining his regiment, and when at last he started, the voyage took such a long time, owing to a shipwreck and other misfortunes, that he found on his arrival that his furlough had expired, and that his post had been given to someone else. He quitted the service in 1830.

In that same year he made a voyage to China and was struck by the natural beauty and fertility of the islands of the Indian Archipelago, and he felt sad when he thought of the tribes who inhabited these beautiful islands. They were continually at war with one another, and many of them were pirates. James Brooke conceived the grand idea of rescuing these races from barbarism, and of putting down piracy in the Eastern Archipelago.

On the death of his father he inherited a large sum of money, and found himself in a position to carry out his schemes. He bought and equipped a yacht, the Royalist, and for three years he cruised about, chiefly in the Mediterranean, training his crew of twenty men for the hard work that lay before them.

On October 27, 1838 he sailed from the Thames on his great adventure, travelled slowly on the long journey round the Cape of Good Hope, and reached Singapore in 1839. It took the Royalist five months to reach Singapore, but that was in the days before the Suez Canal was made. The journey from England to Singapore can be made in a steam-ship at the present time in less than a month.

On arriving at Singapore, James Brooke met a shipwrecked crew who had lately come from Borneo. They said that they had been kindly treated by Muda Hassim – a native Rajah in Borneo – and they asked Mr James Brooke to take presents and letters of thanks to him, if he should be going thither in his yacht. Mr Brooke had not decided which of the many islands of the Eastern Archipelago he would visit, and he was as ready to go to Borneo as to any other; so, setting sail, he made his way up the Sarawak river, and anchored off Kuching, the capital, on August 15, 1839. The country was nominally under the rule of the Sultan of Brunei, but his uncle, Rajah Muda Hassim, was then the greatest power in the island. As he was favourable to English strangers, Mr Brooke paid him a visit and was most kindly received. The Rajah was at this time engaged in war with several fierce Dyak tribes who had revolted against the Sultan, but his efforts to subdue them were vain. He told Mr James Brooke his troubles, and begged him to help him to put down the insurgents, and implored him not to leave him a prey to his enemies. James Brooke consented to help him, and began the difficult task of restoring peace in the country. With his help the rebellion, which the Malay forces were too feeble to subdue, was brought to an end. Brooke led the crew of his yacht, and some Malay followers against the insurgents, and defeated them. Muda Hassim was very pleased to see that order was restored in the country, and he conferred on James Brooke the title of Rajah of Sarawak. It was some little time before the Sultan of Brunei would consent to confirm the title, but in 1841 the Government of Sarawak and its dependencies was formally made over to James Brooke, and he became the first English Rajah of Sarawak. He ruled till 1868, when he died and was succeeded by his nephew, Charles Johnson Brooke, who is ruling Sarawak to-day.

When James Brooke became king, he set to work to improve the condition of his subjects. He saw clearly that the development of commerce was the best means of civilizing the natives, and, in order to do this, it was necessary to put down piracy, which not only appealed to the worst instincts of the Dyaks, but was a standing danger to European and native traders in those seas. In the suppression of piracy he found a vigorous ally in Captain (afterwards Admiral) Keppel, who, in command of H.M.S. Dido, was summoned from the China Station in 1843 for this purpose. The pirates were attacked in their strongholds by Captain Keppel. They fought desperately, but could not withstand the superior forces of their enemies. Many of them were killed, and many escaped and fled into the jungle. In this way James Brooke put an end to Dyak piracy.

The practice of head-hunting was also dealt with by James Brooke. He declared it to be a crime. As soon as he heard that a party had gone on the war-path, a force was immediately despatched by Government to endeavour to cut them off and to fine them heavily. In the event of their having secured human heads, these had to be given up, and the Dyaks were asked to pay a large fine. Some refused to follow the directions of the Government. These were declared enemies, and were attacked and had their houses burnt down. This course he steadily pursued for years, and by his rigorous treatment of head-hunting parties, James Brooke dealt the death-blow to this horrible national custom.

After his strenuous life in Sarawak, James Brooke paid a visit to England in 1847, when many honours were showered on him. He was graciously received at Windsor by Queen Victoria and the Prince Consort. The British Government recognizing the work he had done, appointed him Governor of Labuan, and made him a K.C.B.

The putting down of piracy, and the suppressing of the terrible custom of head-hunting among the Dyaks, were the first steps that Sir James Brooke took in civilizing his subjects. But he knew that as long as the Dyaks held to their old superstitious beliefs in evil spirits, there would always be a danger of their returning to their evil ways. So he began to think of establishing a Christian Mission in Sarawak. He knew that it was not enough to put down evil customs: if the Dyaks were to improve, they must have the true Faith planted in their hearts.

When Sir James Brooke was in England in 1847, he appealed to the two Universities of Oxford and Cambridge and also to the two great Missionary Societies – the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts, and the Church Missionary Society – to help him, but none of them were able to do so as they had not the funds. So a new Association, chiefly supported by his friends, was started, called the "Borneo Church Mission." This Association sent out a few missionaries, the first of whom was the Rev. F. T. McDougall, who was consecrated the first Bishop of Labuan and Sarawak in 1855.

After a few years the Borneo Church Mission flagged for lack of support, and in 1854 the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts came to the rescue, and took up the work, and has ever since been responsible for the Mission Work in Borneo. My father, the Rev. W. H. Gomes, B.D., worked under Bishop McDougall as a missionary among the Dyaks of Lundu from 1852 to 1867, and I myself have worked, under Bishop Hose, as a missionary in Sarawak for seventeen years.

When McDougall arrived at Kuching, the capital of Sarawak, in 1848, the Rajah welcomed him kindly, and gave him a large piece of ground. On this site were built a church, a school house, and a house for the Bishop to live in.

Rajah Brooke was anxious that the Dyaks, who lived far from the town and had their home in the jungles, should also be taught. Both he and Bishop McDougall were sorry to think of their heathen state, and they wanted to save them from becoming converts to Mohammedanism. So they sent for more helpers from England, and these missionaries went and lived among the Dyaks in the jungles. They built their houses, churches and schools at distant up-country stations, and they won the love and esteem of the Dyaks, who came to them, not only to learn to read and write, but to listen to the wonderful "Old, Old Story" the missionaries had to tell of a God, Who loved them, and came to earth and died for them, and rose from the dead, and ascended up to Heaven, and Who wanted the whole world to learn of His love and become His faithful followers.



Among the Dyaks a large number of families live together under one roof. A small village would consist probably of one long house, in which twenty or thirty or more families live. This village house is built on posts of hard wood, which raise the floor from six to twelve feet above the ground. It is wise of them to build their houses in this way, because the ground, even on the hills, is very damp in the rainy season, and, besides this, there are snakes and scorpions and centipedes crawling about, which would trouble the Dyaks if their houses were built on the ground. Another reason for building their houses in this way is that if they live together in large numbers, high above the ground, it is not easy for their enemies to attack and overcome them.

The entrance to this house is made by a notched trunk or log, which serves as a ladder; one is fixed at each end of the house. The length of the building varies according to the number of families inhabiting it, but as the rooms occupied by the different families are built on the same plan, the whole presents a uniform and regular appearance.

The long Dyak house is built in a straight line, and the walls and roof are thatched with dried palm leaves. There is a long uncovered verandah where the paddy[1 - Paddy – rice in the husk.] is put out to be dried by the sun; afterwards it is pounded to get rid of its husk, and so converted into rice. Here, also, the clothes and a variety of other things are hung out to dry. The flooring of this part of the house is generally made of laths of hard wood, so as to stand exposure to the weather. The flooring of the rest of the house is made of split palm or bamboo tied down with rattan or cane.

Next to the long uncovered verandah comes the long open hall, or covered verandah, which stretches without any partition along the whole length of the house. It is a cool and pleasant place, and is much frequented by men and women for conversation and indoor pursuits. Here the women do their work – the weaving of cloth, or the plaiting of mats. Here, too, the men chop up the firewood used for cooking their food, and even make boats, if not of too great a size. This long hall is a public place open to all comers, and used as a road by travellers, who climb up the ladder at one end, walk through the whole length of the house, and go down the ladder at the other end. The floor is carpeted with thick and heavy mats made of cane, interlaced with narrow strips of beaten bark. Over these are spread other mats of finer texture, when necessary, for visitors to sit upon, for you must understand the Dyaks do not use chairs or forms, but always sit on the floor.

On one side of this long public hall is a row of doors. Each of these leads into a separate room, which is occupied by a family. This room serves several purposes. It serves as a kitchen, because in one corner there is a fireplace where the food is cooked. It also serves as a dining-room, because when the meal is ready, mats are spread here, and the inmates squat on the floor to eat their meal. It also serves as a bedroom, and at night the mats for sleeping are spread out, and here the inmates sleep.

Round three sides of the room – the fourth side being occupied by the fireplace – are ranged the treasured valuables of the Dyaks – old earthen jars, some of which are of great value, and brass gongs and guns. Their cups and plates are hung up in rows flat against the wall. The flooring of this room is the same as that of the public hall outside, and made of split palm or bamboo tied down with cane. The floor is swept after a fashion, the refuse falling through the flooring to the ground underneath. The room is stuffy and not such a pleasant place as the open hall outside. The pigs and poultry occupy the waste space under the house.

Each family has its own portion of the long public hall outside, and the length of this corresponds to the breadth of the room occupied by the family, and in each of these portions there is a small fireplace which consists of a slab of stone, at which the men warm themselves when they get up, as they usually do, in the chill of the early morning before the sun has risen.

Over this fireplace in the open hall hangs the most valuable ornament in the eyes of the Dyak, the bunch of human heads. These are the heads obtained when on the war-path by various members of the family – dead and living – and handed down from father to son as the most precious heirlooms – more precious, indeed, than the ancient jars which the Dyaks prize so highly.

The posts in this public part of the Dyak village house are often adorned with the horns of deer and the tusks of wild boar. The empty sheaths of swords are hung from these horns or from wooden hooks, while the naked blades are placed in racks overhead.

If you can imagine a long house built several feet above the ground on posts, with walls and roof of palm leaf thatch, and this house divided into two parts, one a large public hall common to all the inmates, and the other divided into separate rooms each occupied by a different family, then you have some idea of the kind of house in which the Dyaks live.

The women are earlier risers than the men, and retire to bed earlier. They generally go to the river as soon as they wake, carrying their water-gourds with them. They have a bath, fill their gourds with water, and return to the house to cook the morning meal.

The principal article of food is rice, which is cooked in brass or iron pots. With their rice they eat either vegetables or fish. Sometimes they have the flesh of wild pig or deer, but that is not usual. Nearly every animal is eaten by the Dyaks; fish, venison and pork are eaten by all, and many tribes eat monkeys, snakes and even crocodiles. A favourite method of cooking is to put the proper quantity of fish or vegetables or meat, with sufficient water and a little salt, into a newly-cut bamboo. The mouth is then stopped up with leaves, and the bamboo is placed over the fire, resting on a stone at an angle of forty-five degrees or more. By the time the bamboo is thoroughly charred, the contents are sufficiently cooked, and it is taken from the fire and emptied out into a plate. Sometimes rice is cooked in bamboos, and when it is ready to be eaten, the bamboo is split and torn off in strips, and the rice is found well cooked inside – a stiff mass moulded in the form of the bamboo.

When the food is ready and put out in plates, the men are asked to come into the room and eat. Sometimes the women eat with the men; but if there are too many to eat comfortably at one sitting, the men have their meal first, and the women eat with the children after the men have done.

The Dyaks all sit on the floor, which also serves as their table. They have their rice on plates, or sometimes upon clean leaves. They eat with their fingers, dipping the hand when necessary into the common stock of salt or common dish of meat or vegetables. They eat with the right hand, compressing the rice into portions of convenient size.

When the meal is over, they wash the crockery and put it away. The mats are swept and taken up, and the refuse thrown through the open floor for the pigs and poultry under the house to eat.

The floor of the Dyak house is clean enough because all the dirt falls through on to the ground underneath; consequently this is covered with rubbish, and perpetually wet from the water thrown down from the floor above, and, being the favourite resort of the pigs and fowls of the long Dyak house, often smells horribly.