Melanaus used to live in longhouses


KUCHING: Longhouses are often synonymous with the Iban but a lot of people are not aware of the fact that the Melanau once lived in longhouses too.

Dr Jeniri Amir, Melanau Historical and Culture researcher as well as author of the book ‘Masyarakat Melanau di Sarawak’, said that the Melanau community used to live in longhouses that were up to 40 feet high from the ground.

He explained that the norm of living in longhouses is not only influenced by the other ethnic groups but it has certain functions based on the settlement patterns in the past.

Among the places that once had Melanau longhouses include Mukah, Dalat, Sarikei, Kanowit, Balingian, Paloh and Sebuyau.

“A longhouse is essentially a village that has its own social organisation which includes the family and kinship system where certain customs are practised. Hugh Low once accompanied James Brooke to visit the Melanau area in Rejang and Sarikei back in 1846. He noted that the longhouses were not divided into rooms and high from the ground to protect them from enemy attacks.

“In a Melanau longhouse, there were several spaces for the different groups based on their social class. For instance, the nyat group or aristocrats would not live at the end of the longhouse which is near the stairs because it is dangerous in the event of attacks by the enemy.

“There were three longhouses in Medong which were 415 feet long and 28 feet high from the ground built by a person named Sura. Lebok Sekayau had 18 rian families living there. Meanwhile, Lebok Dagen was nearby to Lebok Sekayau and the frame of the longhouse existed until 1950.

“Lebok Dagen was 460 feet long and 20 feet high from the ground which housed 20 rian families. It had 38 poles which were made from belian wood and the stairs were made of wooden stakes. These are some of the Melanau longhouses that existed back in the days,” he said.

He mentioned that the Melanau community was once exposed to threats and attacks from the other ethnic groups.

During then, ngayau or beheading of the enemy was a common practice.

Front and back cover of the book ‘Masyarakat Malanau di Sarawak’.

This resulted in the Melanau community migrating to other parts of the state and further integrated the principle of berat sama dipikul, ringan sama dijinjing (a trouble shared is a trouble halved) among the community.

“The way of life in the longhouses became the catalyst which united the population. They had a strong sense of belonging and togetherness particularly for longhouses with big families that had blood relations. If there were attacks from the enemies, they would unite and defend each other. Similarly, bountiful reaps from the forest would be shared equally together.

“The Melanau community used to be targetted and victims of attacks during the 18th and mid 19th century. For example, pirates used to attack the Malanau community in Rejang. The pirates not only destroyed their properties but also their gardens and seized their boats filled with crops like sagu that would have been brought to Singapore, Sambas and Pontianak.

“Such incidents often affected the other Melanau communities nearby and resulted in them migrating elsewhere. In addition to that, the threats and migrations had also resulted in most Melanau to consider themselves as Malays instead. This is why there are Malays in Saribas and Santubong who are actually of Melanau descent,” he said.

He pointed out that there are several factors which contributed to why the Melanau community no longer builds or lives in longhouses.

In saying this, he said that the tradition of longhouses began to be replaced by separate houses at the end of the 19th century.

One of the main factors was the Sultan of Brunei’s decision in surrendering the Sungai Rejang until Tanjung Kidurong area to Rajah Brooke in 1861 as threats and attacks from the enemy had lessened.

“The longhouses once functioned as a fort. However, this role was no longer relevant when the Brooke government successfully stopped the attacks and hostility among the different ethnic groups in the rural area of Sarawak. This meant that the Brooke government managed to establish peace and harmony in the state.

“With the existence of social stability, the Melanau community no longer has to live in fear of enemy attacks and they do not need the longhouses as a fortress of protection. Moreover, in the 1880s it became difficult to build new longhouses. This is because belian wood and hardwood were difficult to find due to human activities.

“According to Edward Banks who wrote The Natives of Sarawak in 1940, a Melanau longhouse used to accommodate up to 40 to 50 families or 500 people. It comes as no surprise that longhouses would have been very crowded and the interest of having one’s own place came around in line with modernisation,” he explained.

He also said that the Melanau community forgo over 100 years tradition of longhouses for individual houses similar to the Malay villages in 1830 following their conversion to Islam or Christianity.

The book ‘Masyarakat Melanau di Sarawak’ was published in 2015 and it delves into various aspects of the Melanau community including their history and origin.

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