Thursday, May 17, 2012

The Wild Men of Borneo

Ugly? The Dusuns? Yes, according to the author of With the Wild Men of Borneo (Published 1922). I could have blown a fuse if I had not thought Ms Mershon’s opinion hilarious!

 Was she really talking about us, the Dusuns? Had she really seen at least a few Dusuns face to face before she pronounced our ancestors ugly? Or did she imagine that we looked like Waino and Plutanor aka the 'Wild Men of Borneo'? Incidentally, these 40-inch tall gentlemen were actually Hiram and Barney Davis, two mentally disabled brothers who captivated gawkers with their feats of strength in the 1850s. They were said to be from Borneo but they were actually from a farm in… Ohio!
Hiram and Barney Davis (Google Image)

Anyway, back to this book…
Click on picture for larger image.

When the author came to North Borneo with her missionary husband she said—at the beginning of her book—“All I knew about the country was that it was where the wild men lived, and I always imagined that they spent most of their time running around the island cutting off people’s heads.”

Despite the derogatory remarks and the harsh words she used to describe the natives, it’s an informative book and tells about her boat trip and what life was like in Sandakan in the earlier part of the 1900s. However, I must tell readers that what the writer said about the Dusuns being ugly is not quite correct. Perhaps the writer’s declaration was coloured by prejudice or ignorance? 

Those days we were not ‘civilize’ if being civilized meant living, dressing and eating like the people in western countries. Okay, we were illiterate but illiteracy doesn’t make one ugly, does it? Until the first schools were established around 1900, kids didn’t go to school in NB. Many foreigners must have assumed our ancestors were savages living in the land of the lawless. Wrong. They observed rules. There were taboos. There were laws to live by.
Dusun maidens at the tamu. (V.Wah)

If our ancestors went around with their bodies barely covered in sarongs and loin cloths, it was probably because that was how they dressed to beat the hot weather. And perhaps woven fabric was scarce too… and therefore, expensive or reserved for special occasions.  Now it’s common to see people—whose civilizations are older and much, much more sophisticated than ours—braving their cold weathers dressed in barely-there garments. We may wonder at their ‘hardiness’ but we don’t criticize them. Of course, some people—like my mother who doesn’t know any better—would say, “What a shame! They must be too poor to buy decent clothes.”
Dusun girls (Photo: D.Lau)

As a community our ancestors were known to be gentle, hardworking and honest. They  looked out for one another and were civil to all… except when face to face with members of enemy tribes. In such situations our ancestors took great delight in chopping the heads off their owners’ shoulders. It was a form of sports, this removing of heads, an opportunity to collect trophies and later (having preserved said trophies by smoking!) show them off—as Stephen Holley found out when he was a District Officer in NB!

However, our ancestors didn’t “spend most of their time running around the island cutting off people’s heads.” They had to grow their own food, go hunting and fishing, clear land for agriculture, have parties and celebrations, take care of their kids, they communicated with the spirits…you know, the usual stuff people in other cultures did or are doing…except the Dusuns didn’t go chasing other people’s spouses. That was strictly forbidden and fines were imposed on those who lusted and ran after other people’s wives or husbands.

What did the British think about the Dusuns back in the 1880s? Let me conclude with an excerpt from the North Borneo Herald (1 September 1888), the fortnightly newspaper:
Dusun girls circa 1915 (Oscar Cook)

“Within the limit of each tribe crime is unknown. All are equal—none are wealthy, none are absolutely in want, each one with aid of hardworking wife and kids, provides with his own hands the family’s requirements. Land yields rice, tapioca and surplus goes to the pigs beneath the house. Close to the house—garden with tobacco, betel-nut for enjoyment of all including the children; kapok tree furnishes cotton which women deftly weave into durable sarong and waist clothes. For every man there is a wife, for every woman a husband. Among such a people the passions of envy, covetousness and lust, which are the source of crimes, which law has to check and punish, do not exist. There is, however, a passion which appears to be implanted in the whole human race, from what we deem the highest and most civilized to the lowest and most barbarous. This is the savage delight of shedding man’s blood. This passion exists equally in the Dusun…”  


  1. I love all the photos! :-)

    Back in 80's when I was little, I once saw my late maternal grandpa's long machete (or do they call it sword?) with a small bunch of human hair attached on its handle (and I even touched and smelled it!). I asked him what was the hair for, to that he answered it's not what they are for, it's where they came from.

    According to him, back then when 'misangod' was still, as you say, a sport, hunter (or warrior?) would pull a hair from each his victim's head to be added into his 'creepy' collection as a symbol (and proof) of his bravery. Mind you, I was just a little kid when late grandpa told me this. Because he was known to be a good 'folk stories' narrator, I have no way to know if that was just one of his scary 'tangon' or was it a real story. Whatever it was, it managed to scare the hell out of me for years!

    Funny though, when I was in Form 1, I had a classmate who was originally from Papar but schooling in Tambunan (because he was a dependant of his eldest brother who is married to a woman from Tambunan). They lived next door to his brother's old FIL. One day during our Visual Art class, he related to me that his brother's FIL have showed him his 'treasures', which were old stuff he inherited from his family. Among the stuff he showed were 'tangkal/jimat' (I'm not sure if they are called 'lucky charms' in English, but I hope you know what I mean)... and a 'parang panjang' with hair attached on it!

    You see, I remember that day clearly because I've been haunted by the memory of my late grandpa's 'scary story'. So when that classmate told me his story, it was a confirmation that there are other 'creepy machetes' out there, grandpa's story could be true! We ended up drawing creepy machetes for our V.A work that day, instead of 'pemandangan' as originally instructed by our teacher.

    After reading your post on this, I got intrigued if my late grandpa's story has some true value. I'm wondering what did our ancestors have in their mind; playing god when provoked by other tribes, and if grandpa's story was true, keeping record of their 'achievement' by collecting dead people's hair! Gosh, that's disturbing!

    Just in case you are wondering about the machete, I have never seen it ever again. That was the only time I saw it. I have no idea who has it now as we only went back to visit my mum's village once a year when we were growing up, thus never really built up bonds with her relatives, let alone kept up with anything to do with their possessions.

    Back to 'wild man of Borneo', knowing that 'misangod' was a real thing in the past, we can't really blame westerners for describing what/who our ancestors were, can we? I just wish they didn't say Dusuns are ugly people. That's a mean thing to say and I bet it came from a bitter heart, because no one should be described ulgy, not even the palest white woman in Britain! (Ok, that's just me being defensive LOL)

    (Forgive me for hogging the comment section)

  2. Oh my god, my comment could pass for a blog post already! This is embarrassing. *Run!!*

  3. I have that book in pdf format. It hits me how the writer call Dusun the Sun Dayak. I never heard of Sun Dayak before, even searching in Google gets me lost.


  4. Gunaqz, thank you for such an interesting story! The headhunting was indeed true. My mother told me similar stories about how several generations ago whole villages could be left deserted because the villagers ran away when headhunters came. One of the reasons the old generations built kampungs on steep hills was so they had a clear view of the surrounding land and would be ready to defend themselves if enemy tribes came to attack.
    Please don't apologise for writing long comments! I enjoy reading readers' responses!

    Tom, I think the writer sometimes confused Sabah natives with Sarawak's. I wonder what Sun Dayak is too. Maybe just Dayak? Can't blame her actually. Too many suku kaum here!

  5. Interesting reading and a well written article you wrote there, in response to that lady's remark, calling Dusuns "ugly", Tina! LOL. To be honest, it's kinda aggravating when I hear or read the "white" people's account & description of the natives that they come across, as "ugly" or like I've been told of one white man's word, "like monkey" to describe his local maid. So degrading! Just because we locals don't have the pointy noses and different colored eyes and hair as they do, and just because the natives at that time, in their word "ran around"...half naked in their loin clothes, doesn't make them "ugly!" Yes, I am being defensive too, like you were, Ms. Tina, of our people...hehe...but not even them western people, deserved to be called by any name either...But ghee whiz, they were pale and eer, ugly too, I mean, ghostly looking by comparison, in their pale skin versus the very tanned natives, weren't they? haha...p/s Had meant to post here earlier but FB had consumed more of my time..LOL.

  6. LOL! I know I'm a bit ketinggalan here but there's this saying that 'beauty lies in the eyes of the beholder'. We would have said the same about them if we happened to see them first and not the other way around. I mean who knows if all the Dusuns actually described them 'ugly' (of course they'd say arat-raat lol) to their friends who didn't see them? But I just wish they had used a better word. Nobody is ugly in this world. Hehe. I wonder if they'd still say the same if they saw us today. LOL