If a man and his wife, after many years of marriage, are certain that they will have no child of their own, they are likely to adopt a child in order that he or she may inherit their property after they have passed away and perpetuate their bilek family. Most couples prefer to adopt a child of their closest relatives, such as a nephew or a niece.

However, if their close relatives have no child whom they are willing or able to give in adoption, the couple may adopt the child of a distant cousin or an unrelated friend.

In order to make an adoption legal, the adopters must hold a formal ceremony called the Gawai Biru-iru, in which they publicly announce in the presences of guests, including at least two Tuai Rumah or a Penghulu, and their relatives who, otherwise, would inherit their property if they were to die childless, that the child is hereby adopted to be their own. By this proclamation the child is acknowledged as their legal heir with identical rights of inheritance, as if he or she were the couple’s sole natural child. In future, if any argument arises over the disposal of the couple’s property, the Tuai Rumah or Penghulu who were present at the Gawai Biru-iru, are respon­sible for safeguarding the rights of the adopted child in court. These rights are identical whether the child is male or female.

During the Gawai Biru-iru the male adopter may carry a spear, as during the Gawai Batimbang ceremony for the manumission of a slave (see pp. 81-83), if the adopted child’s former status is that of a slave or serf. This act signifies that no one in the future may make reference to the child’s previous status, without this being regarded a personal insult to the adopter and his descendants. If the child’s status is the same as the adopter, the lat­ter need not carry a spear during the celebration, although it is today sometimes done by present day Iban out of ignorance of the original significance of the act.


The right to own slaves (ulun) and serfs (jaum or pengurang) was en­joyed by Iban leaders and warriors since time immemorial.8 Ulun are captives in war, where as jaum are debt servants who were unable to pay their debts due to poverty. The descendants of both ulun and jaum remain the property of their owners until they can free themselves by paying their debt or by holding a festival called a gawai batimbang, in which they are freed with the mutual consent of their masters.9

From the days of early Brooke rule, the government of Sarawak op­posed slavery. In 1880 the second Rajah proclaimed that all slaves must be freed by their owners formally in the Gawai Batimbang ceremony. By this decree, any slave who was able to redeem himself, was allowed to do so by compensating his owner with cash or with valuable jars and brass wares. Those who could not pay the compensation were allowed to free themselves by the Gawai Batimbang ceremony. The last of these ceremonies took place during the 1890′s after which time slavery was officially abolished. Today it is a fineable offence to refer publicly to another person’s slave ancestry.

In order to hold a Gawai Batimbang, a slave is requested to brew a few Jars of tuak timbang wine. In addition, he must produce a three-fathom lengthen of white calico cloth to be used as a hand rail by those who take part in the betimbang procession at the end of the festival. Lastly, he must also produce one fat pig, the liver of which is examined by the augurs. The in­dication of the liver will foretell the future well-being of the freed slave.

The slave is always a poor man. It will normally take some months for him to acquire the essentials for the feast, but when these are ready, he will in­form his master that he is now prepared to celebrate the betimbang festival. As soon as he is told of the readiness of his slave to hold the ceremony, the master will call for a meeting of all the heads of the families of the longhouse to ask for assistance from the well-wishers to provide food for the celebration. The day for the feast is also fixed at this meeting.

A day or two before the festival day, the slave’s master sends his trusted men to call his closest relatives and members of senior families of other villages to come to witness the freeing of his slave by the Gawai Batimbang ceremony. They are asked to come in the evening, as the feast lasts throughout the night and ends only with the sacrifice of the pig early the next morning. When the guests arrive, they are cordially received by the feasters with full respect. They are entertained lavishly with food and wine as at other festivals. In between the dinner, supper and the morning meal, the guests are free to converse with each other about their exploits in war as well as about their trading ventures overseas. The killing and capture of enemies was the principal topic of conversation at this time in the past.

Eventually at sunrise, a procession is formed for the slave master and his relatives to walk along the communal galleries of the longhouse. The leader of this procession is the slave master himself who carries a sharp tembang spear. Behind him comes an old aristocrat who carries a flag, and behind them both, another aristocrat who will kill the pig and finally the slave himself who is dressed in grand apparel. He is followed by a number of women and girls of influential families, and lastly the musicians who beat their gongs and drums. After the procession has encircled the longhouse lower and upper galleries three times, a speaker at each gallery begins to ask why such a grand procession is held with men and women along the house. To answer the question, the slave master speaks as follows:

“As you have seen we have encircled the galleries of this longhouse three times. The reason why I lead a procession is that this mor­ning, I am going to free my slave (so and so) from low status to become an ordinary citizen of this community. After this, if any of you still say that he is a low class man, with this spear, my relatives and I will pierce you. From now onwards this man becomes a free man together with all his descendants after him. It is from today that he and his descendants are free to farm the land of my ancestors and to eat all the fruits in my forefather’s groves and orchards. If any of you disturb him and his children from far­ming my land, you are responsible for the conse­quence, if they bring the case to a court of law. So-and-so who I free now becomes my relative and his descendants are related to my people. My friends and countrymen, I want you to remember all I say today. This man and his descendants are the friends of my heirs for ever.”

This question-and-answer set of speeches is repeated at every gallery of the longhouse. The procession then proceeds to the open air verandah (tanju) where the pig is killed.

Once the pig is slain, its liver is removed and carefully placed on cordyline leaves inside a large bowl. The liver is then brought to the augurs who study its indications for the future of the freed slave.

After the indications from the pig’s liver are known, the freed slave shouts three times loudly to indicate that he is now happy after being upgraded to the status of an ordinary citizen. In such joy he serves all the guests and hosts alike with his tuak timbang wine at all family galleries of the longhouse.


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