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
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? Sandakan
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…”