Wednesday, December 15, 2010

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.

*to be continued

source= Tansang Kenyalang


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