Let us form one body, one heart, and defend to the last warrior our country, our homes, our liberty, and the graves of our fathers.

– Tecumseh, American Indian warrior

During the headhunting days Iban men, who fought in battles were rightfully called warriors. After 1841 some of these Iban headhunters sided with the white Rajahs, whereas some fought against the new foreign rulers.

It was then an accepted norm and culture among the Iban community. These warriors loved to fight against their enemies and the smoked head trophies were proof of their prowess and masculinity.

In those days no maiden would be attracted to men who never took part in battle, especially those without head trophies or dengah (the Iban word bedengah refers to those who have head trophies or killed an enemy or enemies).

Though headhunting was already an item of the past, in the 50s and even into the 60s, there still existed some Iban men with the pre-Brooke era mentality and thinking that they wanted to emulate the headhunting deed and success of their ancestors.

These men wanted to be called bedengah but there was no war or battle. So, some ended up with cases of murdering innocent people though some got their dengah in fights with opponents in the jungles over collection of some valuable jungle products.

A case in the 70s was about a JKR labourer who killed his foreman who was caught in the act of having sex with the former’s wife. The labourer was charged with culpable homicide not amounting to murder under Section 304 of the Penal Code.

He was sentenced to five years of imprisonment. Many others were in the bedengah category but they were without head trophies because they killed people not in raids or battles. Most of these so-called “warriors” are now deceased.

Presently those bedengah in the Krian and Saribas basins would be on show during two rituals of the Iban grandest celebration Gawai Antu (feast to commemorate the dead).

The two concluding rituals are Nuntungka Jalung and Ngirup Buluh. Both rituals involve drinking of the rice wine tuak. The former is served in the jalung bowl whereas the latter is served in bamboo buluh.

These two rituals need the bedengah group to formalise their eventuality. In the former the performing lead bard would do the chant whereby one of his quests is to find out the nature of the dengah of the “warrior” to whom the rice wine will be served.

This is usually when the “warrior” will indicate his ensumbar or nickname. However, there was one case in Upper Krian in Saratok in the 1960s when one of the so-called Gawai Antu warriors was immediately arrested because of his ensumbar that revealed he was one of the two wanted for a recent murder of a couple manning and operating a travelling trading motor launch along the Krian.

In Iban the nickname was Ular Entadu Kidu-kidu Nyemerai Nanga Sungai, Siku Tembu,Siku Ditandu Orang Bukai (Two snakes crossing the river mouth, I managed to kill one, the other killed by others).

Such eagerness to be called “warrior” led to his arrest. Both men involved in the murder were given the death penalty.

Actually, this is my favourite moment during Gawai Antu as the “warriors” will come with interesting ensumbar though some opt not to have nickname. I remember at a Gawai Antu in Ulu Bayor longhouse in Rimbas, a tributary of Saribas in 1988, one of the “warriors” ACP (Rtd) Nicholas Rateh said he was without any ensumbar.

Despite being over for almost two centuries, some longhouses still have grim reminders of headhunting, namely the smoked enemy skulls. During my young days I always stayed away from some smoked enemy skulls, the head trophies of Gun “Mangku Bumi”, the great-grandfather of my cousin the late Datuk Amar Dunstan Endawie Enchana, the reason being the skulls would sometime spit on passersby. 

This was in Munggu Embawang longhouse, in Melupa, Saratok, my father’s birth place. My namesake and great-granduncle Tawi Bungin, nicknamed “Lanang Kasih Sayang Bedindang Madang Rutan, Tawi Berani Ati Pengemudi Iban” (Tawi The Brave Who Leads Iban Warriors) obtained two heads of enemies during the Expedition Against Bantin also known as Cholera Expedition in Delok (1902), in Upper Batang Lupar led by Rajah Muda Vyner Brooke and FitzGibbon Deshon who was Resident of Kuching.

These smoked skulls were burned when my maternal granddad’s longhouse at Tinting Bedega in Kedap, Saratok perished in a fire circa 1930. The burned skulls were later buried.

Tawi was then away in Mindanao, the Philippines. He never returned.

Tawi’s head trophies were not the only ones burned and destroyed in the same fire. Others whose smoked enemy skulls suffered the same fate were his cousins Naing and Subung.

So, by the time I came into this world nearly 66 years ago, there was no more of such headhunting grim reminder.

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the New Sarawak Tribune.