Sarawak and Iban


The land of the fabled White Rajahs, the hornbill and the orang utan. Sarawak is the largest state in Malaysia and by far the most exotic. Often described as Borneo’s “Hidden Paradise”, its rainforest, the size of Austria, houses the world’s richest and most diverse eco-system. It is also home to the world’s largest flower, Rafflesia, the size of a coffee table, squirrels and snakes that fly, deer the size of cats, plants that eat insects (and small mammals), and a myriad of species of flora and insects still waiting to be discovered.


The history of Sarawak could have been lifted straight out of a Hollywood epic box office hit. In the 19th century, a cast of several thousand headhunters and pirates set into action a swirl of events peppered with enough adventure and intrigue to satisfy any action movie enthusiast.

The Brooke era chronicles the time ruled by three generations of an English family whose first foray into Sarawak came with James Brooke, the first White Rajah. The dynasty of the White Rajah was a classic case of being in the right place at the right time. In 1839, when the English swashbuckling adventurer James Brooke docked in Kuching to deliver a letter to the governor of Sarawak, Rajah Muda Hashim, Sarawak was in the throes of a rebellion against the Brunei sultanate. As a token of appreciation to James Brooke for quelling the uprising, the grateful Pengian Mahkota of Brunei granted Brooke the territory between Tanjung Datu and Samarahan river in 1841. James Brooke ‘crowned’ himself ‘Rajah’, becoming the first white man to rule such a large territory in the East in his name and not on behalf of a European monarch. James Brooks’ eldest son, Rajah Charles Vyner Brooke acceded in 1917 and ruled Sarawak as absolute potentate though he granted Sarawak a written constitution in 1941.The Japanese arrived the same year, putting events on hold and during the Japanese occupation (1941-1945) Charles and his family fled to Australia. When the Japanese surrendered in 1945 Charles Brooke returned to Sarawak and resumed his role as the White Rajah.

British pressure and his belief that the state could not recover and progress on its own, led to Sir Charles’ announcement to relinquish Sarawak to Britain. Sarawak’s colonization by the British on 1 July 1946 caused a division amongst the people and hundreds of government officers and teachers resigned from the government service in protest.

As a British colony, Sarawak’s economy expanded and oil and timber production increased, which funded the much-needed expansion of education and health services. Following Malaysian independence in 1957, Britain was keen to give Sarawak and British North Borneo (Sabah), independence also. To this end Malaysia’s first Prime Minister Abdul Rahman, proposed the formation of a federation to include Singapore, Sarawak, Sabah and Brunei, as well as the peninsula. In the end, Brunei opted out, Singapore left after two years, but Sarawak and Sabah joined after being offered a degree of autonomy, allowing their local governments control over state finances, agriculture and forestry.

Introduction / History
The British, who came into contact with the Iban people groups in the 1840s, mistakenly named them Sea Dayak, since they were formerly pirates and fisherman. They were also known as the most fearless headhunters on the island of Borneo. The Iban of today are no longer headhunters but are generous, hospitable, and peaceful people. They are the largest people group in Sarawak and are one of the main indigenous people groups in Brunei. The people groups under the Iban cluster, in addition to the Iban of Sarawak and Brunei, include the Balau, Remun and Sebuyau. All these Iban people speak different languages which are classified as a subgroup in the Malayic-Dayak family of languages.

What are their lives like?
Farming is the main occupation of the Iban community, but not many are self-sufficient as they must buy additional food to supplement what they grow. They grow cash crops such as pepper, rubber, cocoa, oil palm, and fruits. Some still hunt wild animals in the jungle. Traditionally, Iban hunted by setting traps or using blowpipes, but today many train hunting dogs to run down their prey. They no longer rely on the rainforest’s resources to survive. Increasingly, younger Iban are becoming qualified professionals and migrating to major towns and cities.

Traditionally, the Iban lived in longhouses. Some have now abandoned the longhouse style of living. However, many still maintain ties to their ancestral longhouses. Each settlement has two important officials: the tuah burong (religious head) takes care of all religious activities; and the tuah rumah (village head) is the administrator and custodian of Iban customary law and the arbiter in community conflicts. However, the Iban are a very democratic and egalitarian people. All adults have a say in how the community is run.

Some of the Iban peoples’ unique and colorful festivals are the Gawai Dayak ‘harvest festival’, Gawai Kenyalang ‘hornbill festival’, and Gawai Antu ‘festival of the dead’.

What are their beliefs?
Like most other ethnic groups in Sarawak, the Iban are traditionally animists. Many still hold strongly to their traditional rituals and beliefs, many of which integrate closely with rice planting and harvesting. Rice agriculture is a highly ritualized activity and is really a complete way of life, rather than merely an economic pursuit. Nearly all of their religious ritual has to do with ensuring the success of the crop. Rice is believed by the Iban to have a soul. At the annual Gawai Dayak, the rice harvest festival, many Iban gather to witness the rice spirit appeasement ceremony.

Today, many of the Iban are Christians, while a growing number are marrying into Malay Muslim families. It is common to see a mixture of traditional Iban and Islamic Iban families living together in a modernized Iban longhouse.

What are their needs?
Despite living on fertile land with adequate rainfall, food production is insufficient for their needs. The Iban could benefit from improved agricultural training. Pray that God will touch the hearts of local believers to help Iban people who are in need of developing their economic status. The good news is available in one major Iban language.


One thought on “Sarawak and Iban

  1. Pingback: Sarawak Pepper Industry | Extreme Survival Guide

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