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The Syair Saribas project.

An old Malay text has recently come to light which may prove to be one of the most important sources for the history, genealogy and folkways of the Sarawak Malays. It may also reveal a good deal of information about the Malays' relations with the indigenous Seru, and with the invading Iban, who were migrating to the Saribas from the Kapuas valley from the late sixteenth century. It was in the Saribas area that the Malays and the Iban forged close trading and raiding relations and where significant intermarriage and sharing of traditions took place. Their close political relations also produced some of the toughest resistance to Brooke rule, which was crushed in July 1849 by the combined forces of James Brooke and the Royal Navy at the "battle" of Betong Marau.

The Syair Saribas, to give it a more convenient title than the manuscript's original introduction, is a substantial jawi text, probably dating in its original physical form from 1946 or 1947 when it was written down in pencil, possibly from a recitation from the oral tradition by an old Malay woman storyteller, in the Spaoh area of the Batang Saribas. The Syair Saribas is an orally communicated text (or texts, since it incorporates many discrete stories) whose origins probably go back at least to the early seventeenth century. It relates, amongst other things, the arrival at Kuala Saribas of the aristocratic Temenggong Kadir in self-exile from Brunei, to be joined there by the celebrated Dato' Godam (also known as Abang Gudam) from Pagar Royong, Minangkabau, in Sumatra who ultimately rescues Kadir's daughter, the beautiful Dayang Chi', from the Sultan of Brunei's harem, marries her and establishes a dynasty. For the most part, however, it is a closely detailed genealogical and geographical mapping of Malay settlement of the Saribas. At times it has the character of the Old Testament's Book of Genesis, but without the literary quality.

The manuscript consists of just over 400 pages of jawi script and almost 2,000 quatrains of verse, which makes it about ten times longer than Brunei's Syair Rakis. Like other Bornean syair and hikayat such as the Syair Awang Semaon, Syair Rakis and Hikayat Datu Merpati, the Syair Saribas is a mixture of folk stories, history and genealogy. It is the most authentic and substantial source for the early history of the Malay settlement of the Batang Saribas area and contains some of Sarawak's oldest Malay and Iban oral traditions. Like Brunei's Syair Awang Semaon, it relates directly to a particular area and does not go beyond it. Interestingly, it seems to bear no relation at all to the Datu Merpati stories of the Sarawak River delta and is oriented much more towards Brunei.

The manuscript was discovered by the late A.J.N. Richards in the Spaoh area of the Saribas in 1961 when he was Resident of the Third Division at Simanggang under the British colonial government, and was photostated by the old process then used by Sarawak's Lands and Surveys Department for their documents (white text on black background). A romanized transcription was subsequently made of most or all of the manuscript by someone at Richards' instigation, some parts of it now being almost illegible in the photostat copy and possibly in the original as well. Genealogical information contained in the manuscript was used by Richards in his compilation of genealogies of the Saribas Malays (which he deposited with the Simanggang District Office and with the Sarawak Museum) and for his article, "The Descent of Some Saribas Malays," Sarawak Museum Journal, 1963. A copy of the romanized transcription of the manuscript was given by him to the Borneo Literature Bureau, but was never published.

In his 1963 article, Richards explained how it was that he became involved in his genealogical research:
 At Simanggang where I was stationed from 1957-1961, I found that
 most of the Malays in Government service were related to each other.
 I found it useful to make notes of the family 'trees', both to
 assist in remembering who was who and to leave some local knowledge
 to my Successors.


In the course of my correspondence with Richards in the early 1980s on other matters, he told me about the manuscript, emphasizing that he was unwilling to make it public at that stage due to certain sensitivities that it might arouse in Brunei and Sarawak, with the first of the syair describing some strange and unsavory happenings at the Brunei court and others reflecting not altogether favorably on the ancestors of some Sarawak families. He also remarked that the manuscript contained some "local colloquial forms" of expression which might now be regarded as antiquated or not permissible.

In a letter to me dated 29 January 1982, he wrote:
 The 'hikayat' I have is from the Saribas.... It is a silah-silah in
 syair form that used to be recited and was written down on poor
 paper in 1946 or 1947. I only possess a photostat copy--now 20 years
 old--and a typed manuscript, part of which I have yet to check
 against the jawi. The transcription is over an inch thick of
 foolscap--expensive to copy. It now needs conversion to modern
 spelling, translation and general working up. The descents based on
 it are in the Sarawak Museum and appeared in the Sarawak Museum
 Journal .... The syair starts with a doxology and some legend, but
 then traces the history of a leading family of Saribas Abang from
 origins in Minangkabau and Brunei down to almost the middle of the
 19th century, tailing off into a list of who begat who when recent
 and remembered times come upon the scene; doubtless when the old
 lady reciting got tired or the writer had a heavy date....


In a letter of 2 February 1982 he provided a more detailed description of the Syair:
 I have looked briefly at the syair. It is entitled Ini lah syair
 tersilah cetera Abang Gudam dengan Temenggong Kadir Negeri Saribas.
 It has a short preface about 'former Datus' and the justice of their
 administration; then a title page for the first 'book' (kuras)
 called Syair Rajah Shahkandar ... (i.e., legend about Alexander the
 Great) which begins with the doxology. There are ten kuras of
 varying length which are divided (except the first and the tenth)
 into two, three or four bahagian each. There are about 7600 lines
 (and some later scrappy bits) written in pairs across the page (so
 the jawi has 3800 written lines) and these make 1900 quatrains.

 I find I've done quite a lot: there are notes and correspondence,
 and I've chased up words I didn't know in Wilkinson, so it looks
 like a tedious clerical exercise yet to be done. Annotation will be
 possible and an introduction. It will take long enough, I expect,
 without my reading widely to indulge in comparative work--there are
 plenty of others better qualified than I to do that once it has seen
 the light of day.


I discovered two old white-on-black photostat copies of the manuscript, two copies of a partial rumi transcription and some notes amongst Richards' papers when I went through them in Cambridge in 2001 at his family's request. (The papers, which included all of Richards' notes for his Iban-English Dictionary and his recordings of and commentaries on Iban oral literature, were subsequently sent to the Universiti Malaysia Sarawak where they are now bring catalogued.) With the Richards family's permission, I took one of the two photostat copies of the manuscript and a duplicate copy of the rumi transcription, together with some notes, to Dr. Phillip Thomas in Washington DC in the hope of interesting him in completing the project Richards had begun. I had earlier worked with Dr. Thomas on the publication of two Sarawak Malay works: Hikayat Panglima Nikosa (Kuching: Sarawak Literary Society, 1983) and Fajar Sarawak (Kuching: Sarawak Literary Society, 1984). Dr. Thomas expressed keen interest and has been working on the manuscript part-time over the last two years, checking the rumi transcription against the jawi and making a summary of the contents.

Aims of the project

1. To locate, if possible, the original manuscript in the Batang Saribas area or, failing that, to collect all possible information from the Batang Saribas area about the stories and information recounted in the Syair Saribas.

2. To produce an accurate rumi transcription of the text, checking the existing rumi draft against the jawi original when necessary.

3. To produce an English translation of the most significant sections of the text (some sections being in the form of doxologies or praise language and others which are not really translatable) and summarizing the remainder.

4. To produce a substantial Malay-language Introduction (with an English translation), outlining the historical context and general significance of the manuscript and its mythological, historical, genealogical and literary content, comparing it with other Bornean, Malayan, and Indonesian syair and hikayat.

5. To put into final form ready for printing:

* Introduction

* Full rumi transcription, with annotations

* English translation of some sections

* Some examples of the jawi text

* Relevant photographs, with captions

Progress to date

As indicated above, Dr. Phillip Thomas has been working in his spare time for the last two years on the existing rumi transcription and has made one visit to Sarawak to consult on the text. He has checked about one-fifth of the rumi transcription. I spent two days in Kuching in late May 2002 to discuss the project with Datuk Seri Adenan bin Hj. Satem and Sarawak Museum Director Sanib Said. I also made a week-long visit to Sarawak in late August during which I conducted research for two days in the Museum Library and UNIMAS Library. I located some useful secondary sources at the Museum Library, including the thesis on the Malays of Pusa by Professor Emeritus Zainal Kling of the University of Malaya, but was unable to find any references to the Syair Saribas in the Richards Papers at UNIMAS other than the two letters from Richards to myself from which I have quoted above. Together with Hajjah Rosenah Ahmad, I also spent two days in the Batang Saribas area in August 2002, briefly visiting Pusa, Debak, Spaoh and Betong to establish whether the original manuscript still exists and, if so, where it might be located. In this respect, we could find no one who had ever heard of the manuscript, let alone its whereabouts, and very few who still knew the oral traditions about Temenggong Kadir, Dato' Godam etc. According to Richards' genealogy, in 1963 there was a certain Abang Hassan bin Abang Wi at Spaoh who was the great-great-grandson of Patinggi Kedit. Thinking that Abang Hassan may have been the owner of the manuscript, we attempted to locate his descendants, but could only establish that his adopted daughter had moved away. This is something to be pursued further.

By way of compensation, we did visit and photograph the batu nisan of Temenggong Kadir, Dato' Godam and Dayang Esah at Pusa and record their inscriptions. The batu nisan are located in an old and almost overgrown burial ground outside the town and close to the river bank at a place called Sapinang, which is sacred to the local Malays. Our access was facilitated by a board walkway erected earlier to accommodate a visit by Pehin Dr. Jamil of Brunei's Pusat Sejarah who has been working for some time on Brunei's genealogical and other historical links with Sarawak. The graves of Temenggong Kadir and Dato' Godam are close together, protected by a shelter, while that of the legendary Dayang Esah ('Tandang Sari') is another fifty yards away and protected by another shelter. There is no sign of the grave of Dayang Chi', but the presence of fragments of other batu nisan at both sites suggests that the burial ground was well used and that hers may have been lost or inadvertently destroyed. Another possibility, of course, is that the historical identities of Dayang Chi' and Dayang Esah are one and the same.

By a bit of remarkable serendipity, we located an old Malay man in Betong who is probably one of the last people in Sarawak to know the traditional Temenggong Kadir/Dato' Godam and other Batang Saribas Malay stories in detail. Abang Hj. Rosly (76) of Kampung Mesjid is a retired businessman who left school when he was young, which may explain why he retains more of the oral tradition (passed down by his father) than other people of his generation. He had not heard of the manuscript and could not recall the Syair being recited (or rather, chanted) but was very familiar with its subject matter. Clearly, it is only two or three generations since these stories were common knowledge thanks to itinerant storytellers who could recite from memory.

Support for the project

Through the instrumentality of Datuk Seri Adenan bin Hj. Satem, funds have been made available by the Sarawak Branch of the Malaysian Historical Society to meet the costs of transcription and editing for publication. Under this arrangement, editorship of the final book to be published by the Society will be under the names of Sanib Said, Hajjah Maimunah Daud, Hajjah Rosenah bin Hj. Ahmad, Dr. Phillip Thomas, and myself. I have also suggested that the name of the late A.J.N. Richards be added to the list to give him posthumous credit for all the work he did on the manuscript. The Vice-Chancellor of UNIMAS, Professor Yusuf Hadi, has facilitated the project by making available working copies of the Syair and a draft transcription. Murdoch University has also assisted by relieving me of some of my teaching duties.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Hughes-Hallett, H.R.

1940 A Sketch of the History of Brunei, Journal of the Malayan Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society, Vol. XVIII, Pt. II, pp. 23-42.

Kimball, Lindy Amy

1995 Brunei Malays: The Sha'er Reciter's Art. IN: V.T. King and A.V.M. Horton, eds., From Buckfast to Borneo: Essays Presented to Father Robert Nicholl on the 85th Anniversary of His Birth 27 March 1995. Hull: Centre for Southeast Asian Studies, pp. 167-177.

Maxwell, Allen

1995 Who Is Awang Simawn? IN: King and Horton, From Buckfast to Borneo, pp. 178-206

Mohd. Yusoff Shebli

1950 The Descent of Some Kuching Malays, Sarawak Museum Journal, Vol. V, No. 2 (New Series), pp. 262-4.

Richards, Anthony

1963 The Descent of Some Saribas Malays, Sarawak Museum Journal, Vol. XI, No. 21 (New Series), pp. 99-107.

Richards, Anthony, trans.

1962 Dayang Isah Tandang Sari, Kuching: Borneo Literature Bureau.

Sandin, Benedict

1964 Descent of Some Saribas Malays (and Ibans)--II', Sarawak Museum Journal, Vol. XI, Nos. 23-4 (New Series), pp. 512-5.

1969 Origin of the Saribas Malays, Sarawak Museum Journal, Vol. XVIII, Nos. 34-5 (New Series), pp. 231-244.

1994 Sources of Iban Traditional History, ed. by Clifford Sather, Sarawak Museum Journal, Special Monograph, No. 7, pp. 155-161.

Sweeney, Amin

1971 Some Observations on the Malay Sha'ir', Journal of the Malayan Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society, Vol. 4, Pt. 1, pp. 52-70.

Zainal Kling

1973 The Saribas Malays of Sarawak (Their Social and Economic Organization and System of Values), Ph.D. thesis, University of Hull, pp. 28-33.

Bob Reece

Murdoch University

Freemantle, W.A. 6150

Australia
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Author:Reece, Bob
Publication:Borneo Research Bulletin
Geographic Code:9MALA
Date:Jan 2, 2002
Words:2531
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