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Beyond "structural contradictions": A political economy of indigenous resources conflict in early nineteenth century Northwest Borneo.

Writings about northwest Borneo (1) in the nineteenth century have focused on two very visible and violent activities--headhunting, principally by the Iban of the Skrang and Saribas rivers, and piracy, the definition of which was expanded by many European observers, following James Brooke, to include Iban warfare, as well as Iranun and other Moslem maritime ventures. Indeed, headhunting and piracy have come to be seen as the central defining features of late eighteenth and early nineteenth century northwest Borneo. Such perceptions were reinforced methodologically by the 1985 publication of Chistopher Healey's rigorously argued "Tribes and States in 'Pre-colonial' Borneo: Structural Contradictions and the Generation of Piracy." As its title suggests, Healey's article also proposes that problematical relations, in his terms, the structural contradicions, between tribes and states in Borneo, comprised the essential dynamic in pre-colonial Bornean history, causing what he, following the earlier literature, saw as the defining feature of pre-colonial northwest Borneo, Iban headhunting and marauding.

Healey noted that all states in pre-colonial Borneo derived economic resources from the international trade in forest produce, through which they acquired high status foreign-made items for consumption by their own elites or for further trade with upriver tribal communities. Such states, he proposed, consequently sought to establish monopolistic relations with the tribal producers and collectors of forest produce. Healey observed an important contradiction in these relations, arguing that the "incorporaion of tribalists into state forms actually diminished, rather than consolidated, access to forest products, so making access to overseas valuables less secure." (2)

Healey observed an important second contradiction, moreover, in that, to
the extent that monopolisation was achieved, local centres of power on
the coast became targets of pirate attacks, mounted by rivals
attempting to break monoploly control of local trade. The structural
instability of states, expressed as competition for power by domains
and vassals, was at the expense of central authority. Thus, competition
took the form of attempted monopolisation of trade and domination of
tribal producers of trade goods, or of piracy, or a combination of
both. (3)

Healey's identification of the relationships between tribes and states as an essential dynamic in pre-colonial Borneo was recently reinforced by James Scott's The Art of Not being Governed. Scott argued that tribal communities in upland Mainland Southeast Asia should not be viewed as primitive survivers of a past political order, but as active resisters to incorporation into states, as refugees from state-making projects, whose own political strategies determined their own minority, tribal identities. Although Scott's analysis was confined to the mainland, he suggested that scholars might explore the utility of his ideas in understading state-tribe relations in maritime Southeast Asia. (4)

The importance of the relations between tribes and states in Borneo is beyond contention, as is the role of headhunting, piracy and other warfare in the development of a range of Bornean societies. Scott's ideas, however, do not map easily onto a Bornean environment. That the upland areas of Mainland Southeast Asia were largely peripheral to the political economies of lowland states, with their intensive wet rice cultivation, allowed non-state peoples and refugees from state spaces the potential for both economic and political autonomy. In constrast (as Healey was clearly aware), upland areas in Borneo were the sources of the very surpluses on which the political economies of states depended. Moreover, to seek to reduce the complex range of ritual, economic, kinship, and cultural identities and conflicts to a simple state/tribe rubric simplifies or distorts the experiences of people in pre-colonial Borneo beyond recognition.

This article, therefore, seeks to establish the nature and sources of a wider range of conflicts in pre-colonial Borneo. Although epidemic headhunting and activities considered by European contemporaries (often for their own political interests) as piracy were clearly important, they should not obscure our understanding of other forms and causes of conflict within and between Borneo societies and, often, beyond the state.

Nineteenth Century Landscape and Society

The political economies of both tribes and states in Borneo related closly to the nature of the the island's geography. With the exception of parts of the Sarawak and Sadong river basins in its northwest and the Kelabit highlands in its southeast, most of northwest Borneo is unsuited to the cultivation of wet rice which sustained state formation in Mainland Southeast Asia, Java, and Bali (Pringle 1970:8). The only other areas suitable for intensive agriculture in the region was the Rejang River delta and adjacent coast, where Melanau people cultivated sago so extensively in the nineteenth century that the area's five main settlements, Mukah, Oya, Bintulu, Matu, and Bruit, produced between them more than half the world's supply. (5)

The three main geographic feaures which underpinned human ecology in the area were its high rainfall, its luxuriant forests and the shallow, tired soils which nourished them. Northwest Borneo's high monsoon rain falls produced rivers on the largest scale, such as the Rejang, Barito, Mahakam, and Kapuas. The Rejang is three hundred and fifty miles long, and was navigable by nineteenth century steamers for 150 miles up to Kapit. Ocean-going ships berth at Sibu and even at Kanowit it is half a mile wide.

The rains also sustained some of the world's greatest rainforest eco-systems. Odoardo Beccari commented that nowhere had he seen "primeval forests so rich, so varied, and peculiar in their flora as in the vicinity of Kuching." (6) Initially, James Brooke seems to have considered the luxuriousness of the forests to have indicated the area's agricultural potential. (7) He could not have been more wrong. The forests that he observed grew on shallow topsoils which needed constant regeneration from the forest's own humus to support them. Such soils could not support permanent agriculture, as without constant humural regeneration they were quickly depleted. Bornean agriculturists responded to such challenges by developing systems of slash and burn farming. The ashes of burned forest provided enough additional nutrients to sustain dry-rice and other cultivation for a few years, after which the area was allowed to regenerate. Fallow areas were colonized by secondary growth which, in its turn, provided ashes to the soil to nourish crops. Notwithstanding Derek Freeman's view that it was a "prodigal farming system" (Jackson 1970:15), slash and burn was a sustainable form of agriculture suited to the limitations of Bornean ecology.

Although the agricultural potential promised by the lushness and diversity of Borneo forests proved elusive, the forests' very diversity provided other valuable economic resources for their human inhabitiants to consume or to trade with outsiders. "The rattans of Borneo," Hugh Low recorded, "are esteemed finer than those produced in any other part of the world" (Low 1848:42). Low also listed camphor, gutta percha and timbers like belian and ebony in a list of forest exports (1848:44-61. These products, rather than rice surpluses, provided the surpluses essential for state formation in Borneo.

Political Economy of State Formation in Borneo

Much of the historiography of northwest Borneo has seen forests as creating such barriers to communication that rivers became the primary locus of human settlement, the major arteries of trade and a major focus of power and identity. As one Borneo Malay cliche has it, "the water unites and the land divides." (8)

There are a number of problems with such materialist arguments, however. Healey, for example, proposed that (1985:11),
Contrary to the apparent assumptions of most commentators on central
Borneo, this orientation to rivers as lines of communication was surely
not an ecological imperative. In other parts of the tribal world (eg.
in New Guinea) communications are often concentrated in high ground
rather than along rivers, even if they are navigatable. Indeed, many
stretches of waterway in inland Borneo are broken by rapids dangerous
to canoes or rafts. The orientation of Borneo tribalists to river-borne
transport seems as much induced by ideological factors as by topography
and ecology. Rivers occupy a significant place in tribal cosmology,
often serving as lines of contact with deities of the upper air and the
upstream and with deities, dragons and serpents of the underworld and
downstream. Burial customs often include themes of river voyages.

Healey's observation about the difficulties of riverine transport in Sarawak is apposite. It is not just that the middle and upper reaches of many of Sarawak's rivers are broken by extensive and dangerous rapids, their estuaries are often blocked by difficult sand bars, their lower reaches subject to dangerous bores and other tidal flows. Even in an age of powerful outboard motors, riverine travel, particularly in Borneo's interior, remains adventurous. Healey's suggestion that the importance of rivers in Bornean settlement patterns might be culturally constructed rather then ecologically determined also draws support from Bernard Sellato's research among Borneo's nomadic hunter-gathers, who had a different concept of territory and travel from that of farmers. For farmers, "a territory was the basin of a river bounded by the watersheds that fed it, while for the nomads a territory was a mountain massif bounded by the rivers into which its waters drained." This difference was reflected also in differing conceptions of movement. Whereas "for farmers the main routes of communications were rivers, for the nomads they were mountain ridges and passes" (Sellato 1994:53).

Healey's and Sellato's observations ought to caution scholars with secularist and utilitarian political and intellectual traditions to recall that most people in Borneo inhabit unseen as well as seen worlds. It is therefore often difficult to distinguish material sources of action from those which derive from cultural understandings and other socially-constructed meanings. Material visibility does not necessarily imply material causes, a point of which Healey could have been more aware, and to which I will return below.

Nonetheless, control of river mouths and downriver areas was central to processes of domination and state formation in Borneo. Upriver groups needed salt and dried fish products to preserve and flavor their food and iron for weapons and tools. (9) Control of river mouths gave downriver groups some potential to dominate the trade in these and other products. Thus river systems supported trade-based polities which, through relationships of varying inequality, expropriated the jungle produce of tribal peoples living upriver. Downriver groups traded this produce into the international trading networks centered on China or one of the major archipelagic entrepots serving the China trade. (10)

In this context, Healey observed (1985:4)
Those states... which could dominate overseas trading connections or
the trade with interior tribalists could enhance their power at the
expense of competitors. This circumstance generated tendencies towards
the imposition of monopoly control over tribal producers of forest
products destined for overseas trade. Monopolisation of trade
effectively involved the incorporation of tribal groups as satellites
and in extreme cases took the form of the transformation of trading
relations into tributary ones.

Relations between downriver Malayo-Moslem elites and upriver tribes were uneasy and shifting, however. Although both downriver and upriver groups might have conceived movement and identity in terms of rivers and river basins, and although states might have sought to monopolize relations with tribal groups in the way Healey suggested, upriver groups throughout the northwest were alert to potential of land based communications to subvert the control sought by downriver groups.

The low watershed between the Sarawak and its adjacent river basins and the Kapuas was easily traversable, allowing ready access between the interiors of Sarawak, Sadong, Sambas and Pontianak. In the early nineteenth century, the volume of goods smuggled from the Sarawak River basin into Sambas and Pontianak was sufficient for the Dutch Resident in Pontianak to propose that the Dutch should seek the cession of the Lundu, Samarahan, Sarawak and Sadong Rivers from Brunei. He drew his superiors' attention to the issue again in 1838, suggesting that Sambas's revenues were seriously diminished by the volume of Sarawak salt being imported overland, and expressing concern at the guns and ammunition that upriver dependents of Sambas were acquiring from Sarawak (Irwin 1955:69-7). Nor were there severe barriers to land-based communications between Sambas and Pontianak. As early as 1812, Pontianak was supplying most of the goods imported by Chinese goldminers in Sambas, so that "Pontianak prospered and the trade of Sambas fell away" (Irwin 1955:24). The Iban of the Saribas and Skrang Rivers, Low recorded, also maintained an inland system of communication through paths which "intersect the forests between the villages of all the Sakarran and Sarebas tribes, so that a constant communication is easily kept up... " (Low 1848:169).

Similarly, some groups settled on the upper Rejang evaded the ambitions of Rejang delta Malays. Rather than trading downriver, the Punan Bah traveled up the Belaga branch of the Rejang, trekked overland to the Tubau River and down the Kemena, (11) a route followed also by the Kenyah Badeng settled on the Plieran and Danum tributaries of the Rejang. (12) In the 1840s, Robert Burns found that Kayan wishing to trade could travel down to the Rejang delta, or travel further up the Rejang, trek for five or six days across the watershed, and descend the "Tidan," "Coti" or "Banjar" Rivers (Burns 1849:141). After the Brookes established Kapit and Belaga, people from the Apo Kayan, in Dutch Kalimantan, found it more convenient to walk over the watershed to these new bazaars rather than to trade at downriver Dutch towns like Tanjung or Tarakan (Armstrong 1991:151). (13) The establishment of a bazaar at Marudi also attracted trade from river basins in Kalimantan. For example, Kayan from the Bulungan River brought produce to trade in 1889 (Armstrong 1991:113).

From these examples, it is clear that upriver peoples often sought, and were able, to undermine attempts by downriver communities to dominate trade. Downriver Malay communities, as Healey (1985:5) observed, responded by encouraging their tribal allies to attack the territories of neighboring competitors or their external trade (exacerbating what Europeans contrived to regard as piracy). But they also responded by seeking to coopt tribal leaders through the allocation of titles and by posting loyal personnel from the center to upriver trading stations. I have already referred to the preference of the Punan Bah and the Kenyah Badeng to walk their trade across the watershed to the neighboring Kemena River, rather than trade in the lower Rejang. The career of the Punan Bah leader, Sagiang, offers insights into the responses of the Brunei Court. Sagiang is reported to have lived for 10 years at Brunei, "where he raised his rank at Court, took a Malay wife and became a Muslim." Thus integrated to some extent into the Brunei elite, he returned from the Court to live at Kemena. Ida Nicholaisen's informants also recalled other Brunei attempts to control this trade in the early-mid nineteenth century. They told her that Sagiang's brother, Baliang was invited to Brunei, along with the Sekapan chief, Matu, and the Kejaman leader, Oman Tipuang. The Brunei authorities urged the chiefs to develop their trade. The Punan Bah maintain that, as a result of this initiative, a trading post was established at Belaga (1976:84-85).


As Sagiang's increased rank at the Brunei Court suggests, Malay rulers sought to attract tribal people and their trade by promulgating political cultures which emphasized their magical potency (daulat), by bestowing titles of rank (gelar) and by other, essentially ideological, means. Malay courts, with their sophisticated, literate elites, and access to prestige and other exotic trade goods, must have seemed attractive to many interior tribes. Leonard Andaya has objected to Donald Brown's suggestion that the Brunei sultan enjoyed an elevated status in the interior as an adjudicator of disputes and a guarantor of fertility, and that he was able to manipulate kinship ties, title-giving, and Islam in the exercise of his domination. The basis of Andaya's objection is that "[t]his is a perspective from the coast... " In reaction, Andaya has urged, "a reexamination of the function of the Islamic coastal port and the interior groups in the history of Brunei" (1997:206-207). Barbara Andaya has gone further, suggesting that interior tribes, far from recognizing or being attracted by the claims of sultanates to elevated status, "were perceived by coastal Malays or Filipinos... as powerfully different, in part because of their alleged access to supernatural forces and their association with the spirit-weighted interior jungle and highlands" (1997:3).

Although Barbara Andaya's research in Sumatra might support such conclusions, the situation in Borneo was more complex. Not all inland groups claimed a special relationship with "the spirit-weighted interior jungle." Bidayuh, for example, were deeply fearful of the forest, particularly of strange forests (Geddes 1957:10-12). The Kenyah Badeng neither feared the forest nor claimed any special connection with the supernatural forces which invested it. On the contrary, Rita Armstrong was struck by their utilitarian approach to the forests around them. (14)

Some Malays certainly regarded some interior tribesmen as demonstrating high ritual status. The mid-nineteenth century Iban leader, Rentap, who was believed by many of his opponents as well as his followers to have magical powers, is an obvious example. (15) Yet, from the ethnographic record, it seems clear that courts and other Malay communities did evince a powerful, though resistible, attraction for many interior tribes. The career of Sagiang, recalled by the Punan Bah and cited above, is one case in point. Iban historical traditions also clearly indicate the high status accorded to some Malays at various times in Iban history.

Iban genealogies (tusut) which trace descent from Pateh Simpong, who is believed to have arrived from Java to land in the historical heartland of Brunei power, or from the Sumatran ancestor, Patinggi Gurang, remembered by Iban as "a famous nobleman," indicate not just a high regard among some Iban for coastal Malays, but also that descent from them could be a source of pride worth recalling. (16) Although, in contrast, Iban remember Ugat, a Paku Iban, resisting Brunei taxation demands (in the years prior to James Brooke intrusion into the Iban rivers) (Sandin 1994:162-165, 181m 30), other Iban continued to accept titles of distinction from Malays.

In the case of the Bidayuh, Noel Denison has left a detailed account of a formalized and regular expression of Bidayan ritual dependence on Malays (1876:7).
It was an old custom with the Dyaks of the western branch of the
Sarawak River dating from time immemorial, for the Government to give
them nothing for two years, these were called taun manang. doctoring
years. On the third year the Government gave a little gold dust, and 2
fathoms of white cotton cloth to each of the Orang Kayas and Pengaras;
this was called the 'adat parsalin'; on the 4th years Government gave
one or two jars 'tampayang pambasa or pabisa' worth about 30 cents
each, to the Orang Kayas and Pengaras, and when the revenue was
collected some white cotton cloth was distributed amongst the head
people of the tribes.

On the southern branch the custom was different: the 1st year
Government gave nothing, being taun manang--the 2nd year parsalin, a
baju and a head handkerchief to the Orang Kayas and Pengaras; 3rd
Pambisa a few gongs or chanangs were given, but no gold dust

Elsewhere, I have analysed similar Bidayan ritual dependency on James Brooke.(17) Just to complicate matters further, although it seems likely that Kayan migration down the Baram during the early nineteenth century might have been motivated in part by a desire to increase access to the Brunei Court, Kayan in the Baram subsequently overcame any hint of dependence or inferiority that this might have implied, later threatening Brunei town and terrifying the Brunei elite (St. John 1862,11:34). Perceptions of access to the supernatural in Borneo changed with time and place according to individual and group circumstances

Armstrong noted that, for the Kenyah Badeng, "the advantages of a more settled life in populated areas, such as increased trade and easier access to coastal towns, were offset by the constraints of living under the aegis of aggressive, and potentially hostile, dominant societies" (1991:38). At other times, and perhaps for other people, however, the advantages of proximity were not offset by the constraints. The point is not to try to establish a prescription for relations between downriver Malay hierarchies and tribes, but to recognize, first, that the balance between attraction and rejection varied over time and in accordance with group and individual priorities and objectives and, secondly, that tribes seeking to increase their autonomy had a range of strategies for doing so. (18)

That upriver groups could cross into neighboring watersheds encouraged downriver elites to compete with each other to attract upriver trade. Such competition, in turn, "mitigated against the development of inter-domain or regional means of control (Healey 1985:17), further diminishing the stability and coherence of expansive sultanates. The extent to which coastal courts recognized their vulnerability to upriver resistance is evident from the Hikayat Banjar, a text from the south Borneo sultanate of Banjarmassin. The Hikayat Banjar describes how the ruler ordered his official, Aria Magatsari, to subjugate the river districts of Tabalung, Balanan and Petaka and the neighboring hillsides. When Aria Magatsari brought the chiefs of these areas to the court "with gifts of homage," the ruler addressed them (Ras 1968:241):
Rural chiefs, 1 place you under Aria Magatsari. who will be your
governor. Every year you must come and bring your tribute of your own
accord [emphasis added], without waiting for us to come upstream and
collect it. Do not be negligent, for then you will certainly incur

Malay Trading, Raiding and Statecraft

Contests over resources in nineteenth century northwest Borneo, and the processes through which conflict was avoided or resolved, occurred and were developed both within single communities and ethnic groups, and between them. Although all ethnic groups in Borneo maintained trading and other relations with other groups, none was more focused on intergroup contact than the Malays of Borneo's coasts and deltas. Until the Brooke state intervened in Malay relations with upriver tribes in the mid-nineteenth century, the Malays of northwest Borneo derived almost all of the resources needed for their sustenance through trade. Although upriver groups exercised a degree of choice about the coastal Malays with whom they traded, the access they needed to exotic goods required them to trade with one Malay community or another. Malay dependence on trade was so complete that Malays do not seem to have practiced agriculture. James Brooke saw little sign of rice or other cultivation among Sadong Malays in 1839, while it is clear from Low, an unusually reliable European observer, that Malays obtained their rice from Dayaks. (19)

The centrality of trade to Malay society in northwest Borneo had implications both for the structure of Malay society, including competition among Malays for wealth and status, and for relations between Malays and non-Malay producers of economic surpluses. With the wealth and other resources accumulated though trade, aristocrats were able to develop complex vertical linkages of mutual dependence with lower ranking Malays and other non-Malay groups. (20) In return for the advantages of association with an elite figure, dependent populations provided household services and labor in trading, military, and other ventures. Additionally, the leader's entourage was a public expression of the leader's power and authority, thus contributing to it. Servants, as J. H. Kautsky observed "perform a useful function by their mere existence, not just by their work" (1982:191).

Malay power, therefore, had two essential structural features. First, it was conducted within a framework of entourages bound to the leader by complexes of patron-client relationships and, secondly, the resources necessary to maintain these complexes derived from trading activity. Nakhodas (traders) were able to develop entourages based on their control of a vessel. Most trading ventures comprised a nakhoda, who owned the vessel(s), on which he carried goods to trade, and a number of other, smaller, traders who provided their own trading capital and who worked to sail the ship(s) as payment for their transport, thus placing themselves under the nakhoda's authority (Low 1948:135, McDougall 1854:42). Not only, however, did the structure of Malay trade generate entourages, the purpose of Malay trade remained the creation of wealth which could be used to attract larger entourages and more followers. The function of Malay trading ventures was not to generate capital, but to attract supporters for elite figures whose status reflected the number of people they could mobilize. In the 1880s in Brunei, Peter Leys observed the importance of maintaining entourages, noting that "all the rulers in Brunei are always impecunious, and many heavily in debt and urgently requiring funds, more through their own utterly improvident habits, the large households they keep up, and the numerous retainers they support" (1968:125).

Because its purpose was the development of entourages, Malay trade in Borneo provided opportunities for developing power. The association of trade with power has been an enduring feature of Malay society throughout the archipelago. The Maritime Code promulgated by the Melaka Sultanate specifically equates the authority of a nakhoda on his vessel with that of a raja (ruler), according among the various people aboard the vessel authority analogous to that of Melaka's court hierarchy. (21) The Tufhat al-Nafis also alludes to this essential link, describing how, after Raja Muda Ali lost influence at Riau, he traveled to Mempawah in western Borneo, where he married his cousin (Matheson and Andaya 1982:187).
After their marriage. Raja Ali moved to Sukadana where he built a
settlement, complete with palace, audience hall and fortifications and
promoted trade. The country prospered with kapal, wankang and many
other kinds of perahu coming to do business. The Yang Dipertuan Muda
received a great deal in tolls, replacing all the property he had lost
in Riau.

Although Raja Ali regrouped his forces and eventually returned to Riau, successful trading ventures could be transformed into more enduring polities. The Hikayat Banjar records that Banjarmassin was founded by a successful trader from India, Ampu Jatmaka (Ras 1968:239). The sultanate of Pontianak, southwest of Sarawak, was founded in the late eighteenth century by Syed Abdul Rahman, in part, on his success as a trader. (22)

Providing the means by which most of the resources necessary for maintaining state elites were extracted, trade for Malays was always a perquisite of sovereignty. In early nineteenth century Brunei, commerce was almost exclusively in the hands of the three most powerful ministers, Pengirans Usop and Mumin and Raja Muda Hassim. (23) "In former days," as Charles Grant observed (1864:170),
Malay Rajahs were all, more or less, traders. Government was only
nominal: its functions were mercantile.

Moreover, once tribal populations were within the domination of Malays, they could be forced to trade, and dagang sera (forced trade) was a common feature of Malay political economy.

The existence of relatively large populations of tribal non-Moslem people provided elite Malays in Borneo with more direct opportunities to develop entourages than trading ventures, however. By raiding tribal neighbors, Malays would capture young boys to raise in their households, directly swelling their retinues. They would capture, also, women and girls and give them as wives to men in their retinues, or use them as inducements to men to join their following. The importance of control over women to entourage-forming derived from residency patterns and from the high cost of marriage. Rather than endowing their daughters, Malay men paid bride-prices for wives (Abang Yusuf bin Abang Puteh 1966:43-46). The high bride prices demanded of Malay men constrained their capacity to marry. Sarawak Malays are matrilocal, couples usually live near the wife's family rather than near the husband's (Abang Yusuf bin Abang Puteh 1966:1). Therefore, the capacity of an elite figure, or even a father, to provide wives could engender a following. Similar processes have been observed in the Sulu sultanate based on islands off northeast Borneo and the adjoining coast. In the Sulu slave markets, the highest prices were paid for young women, "who could be offered as wives and concubines to recruit young men to a datu's retinue, and youths, who were considered tractable and therefore more readily incorporated into Tausug society than men" (Warren 1981:201).

Elite Malays developed raiding as a means of acquiring control over women and, as elite figures sought to expand their power in the face of opposition from rivals, raiding longhouse communities to acquire women became epidemic. The contemporary literature abounds with such reports. For example, Sherif Sahib of Sadong, soon after he moved to Skrang to mobilize for war with Sarawak, sent parties through Sadong and Samarahan to capture women and children. (24) The process could also be combined with dagang sera. St John claimed that after Bidayuh supplies of rice and other valuables were exhausted, through forced trade, the Malays "seized on the best-looking girls and the most likely lads, and carried them off as slaves... " (St John 1879:52).

It is in their dependence on maintaining trading relations with upriver people that the Malayo-Moslem states of the Borneo coast were most vulnerable to reversals of fortune. Notwithstanding Malays conceiving themselves as the rulers of the river on which they lived, they remained vulnerable to the capacity of upriver tribes to shift their trade to rival rivers. Because Malay trade was essentially concerned with the establishment and maintenance of power, shifts in indigenous trading patterns, which were, largely, beyond the capacity of Malay elites to preclude, had the capacity to alter state structures in Borneo and, even, facilitate the rise and fall of states themselves.

The careers in Borneo of outsiders like Syed Abdul Rahman, Raja Muda Ali, Ampu Jatmaka, and, most recently, James Brooke, indicate a permeability of Bornean power structures which facilitated sudden and dramatic shifts in power away from established state centers. Notwithstanding the survival across many centuries of the Brunei, Sukadana and Banjarmassin sultanates, Borneo history seems to have been punctuated by the emergence and decline of states. The eighteenth century saw the proliferation of small sultanates on the Kapuas River, and of Bugis and Arab dominated polities on both the west and east coasts. The successes of founding figures such as Syed Abdul Rahman of Pontianak, Opu Daeng Menambun at Mempawah and James Brooke at Sarawak were achieved at the expense of other centers. In 1815, when John Crawford traveled down the east coast of Borneo, which was also a sphere of Bugis colonization, he was unable even to locate the site of the sultanate of Aparkarang, recorded only 35 years earlier. "This place is at present so insignificant that I have never been able to meet any trader whether Native or European that had ever heard it," he wrote. (25)

Resources and Tribes

Debates about the nature and intent of tribal raiding and, in particular, headhunting, are central to understanding nineteenth century resources competition and conflict in Borneo. Healey suggested that the epidemic levels of long-distance raiding and headhunting which emerged in northwest Borneo during the late eighteenth century was a function of profound contradictions in relations between coastal Malay states and the tribesmen they sought to dominate. He noted that states could easily recruit Iban allies for raiding the trade and domains of rival states, or for attacking upriver groups who resisted their hegemony. For Iban, such raiding comprised a ready source of heads and iron, neither of which were central to the prestige structures of Malays. In Healey's analysis, the capacity of Malay elites to facilitate such raiding added significantly to the attractions of their courts and hierarchies for tribes. Yet he noted also that these same tribes were simultaneously moving further inland, away from proximity to courts. "The very people employed to increase state hegemony over interior tribes and to aid in creating coastal-centered trade monopolies were those who were endeavouring to escape the increasing influence of state powers in the interior" (1985:23).

Although Healey's arguments have much to recommend them, they need to be treated with caution. One problem lies in the lack of detail available to scholars: it is difficult to discover precisely who was doing what, when. Certainly, the early mid-nineteenth century saw large-scale Iban migration away from coastal centers, migrations which might well have been motivated in part by a desire to maintain or regain autonomy. (26) In some cases, for example, the determined resistence to the Brooke state that Remap and his followers maintained in the 1850s, this is beyond dispute. Yet many Iban did not migrate inland to maintain their autonomy. The Skrang and Saribas rivers remained densely populated by Iban who continued to associate closely with downriver polities. Perhaps the contradiction Healey has identified can be resolved by recognizing that different groups and individuals acted on differing impulses and priorities, at different times, according to their own assessment of their interests. Healey's contradiction, though evident in patterns of behavior, might not have been a factor in determining Iban action. Perhaps it is more apparent (to us) than it was real (to them).


Reed Wadley distinguished between two forms of Iban raiding: large-scale attacks by thousands of warriors on entire settlements or populations, and small scale ambushes and attacks (kayau anak) with more limited objectives (2000:46). A further distinction can be made between large scale campaigns conducted, often without Malay participation, against other tribal groups in the interior, and large scale coastal raiding in association with Malays, which was conducted by Saribas and Skrang Iban from north of the Bintulu River south as far as Sambas and Pontianak. Large scale Iban coastal raiding seems to have developed in the late eighteenth century, and was effectively curtailed by James Brooke by 1850. In contrast, both large and small scale scale raiding in the interior were enduring features of Iban (and other Dyak) warfare, and remained so well into the twentieth century. The nature of this raiding has been the subject of debate among anthropologists.

Andrew Vayda argued that Iban raiding in the interior, with its associated headhunting, served to drive other tribal groups from their land, leaving it open for Iban colonization. Vayda thus linked headhunting explicitly with conflict over land resources (1969, 1975). Stephanie Morgan concurred. She suggested that Iban "quite consciously directed their headhunting raids to the benefit of their territorial ambitions: each raid would penetrate far into the forest ahead, testing the mettle of its occupants, judging the extent and quality of the land" (1968:150). In support of her views, Morgan quoted Derek Freeman's assertion that raiding Iban would destroy the tools of those they raided in order "to discourage farming, and compel their enemies to withdraw." Similar views were expressed by Ulla Wagner (1972) and, subsequently, Vinson Sutlive, for whom headhunting was "a terror tactic, designed to drive other groups from their territories" (1978:31). More recently, Thomas Gibson described Iban as "the most successful and expansionist warriors of Sarawak, during the nineteenth century, sweeping all other shifting cultivators before them" (1990:138).

Victor King has vigorously contested these interpretations of Iban raiding and headhunting. Whereas Vayda and others proposed that Iban occupation of land involved the violent dispossession of other tribal peoples, King claimed that "to a significant degree Iban movement was marked by peaceful penetration of uninhabited lands." Raiding, in King's estimation, was not concerned with land. Although he conceded that "swidden cultivators fight over land [and]... Iban obviously did fight for it," King considered it "more plausible to argue that rather than competing with others for areas of secondary forest, Iban mainly moved into virgin areas not simply because of their value, but also because no great opposition stood in their way" (1975-76:313-315). King reaffirmed that Iban preferred to farm primary forest rather than secondary regrowth (1975-76:316-317). Although he did not reject ecological factors, he was critical of interpretations which accorded them primacy, pointing instead to the cultural values underlying Iban aggression (King 1975-76:319):
Basic Iban values underlying the institutions of leadership and
prestige, and belief in the necessity for a human head to increase
fertility, prosperity, and health, and to end mourning are of
fundamental importance in an analysis of Iban warfare. I do not suggest
that they are ultimate determinants, only that they deserve to be given
equal weight alongside ecological ones.

King's reminder that cultural perceptions are sources of action is apposite. Although all humans inhabit material worlds which we need to engage to sustain ourselves, surely we act on our perceptions of our material circumstances, rather than on the circumstances themselves. Nonetheless, the issues for exploration in this context are whether Iban valued swiddens or primary forest for farming, and the extent to which they themselves perceived that their raiding and headhunting served to acquire territory.

King's analysis of Iban migration was based on his understanding of Iban-Maloh relations in the upper Kapuas. Iban entering the upper Kapuas tributories found the fertile river flatlands densely populated by strong Maloh communities whose fortified settlements made them difficult to dislodge. Rather than contest control of the flatlands, Iban moved into higher areas which the Maloh did not favor. Although outlying Maloh communities with claims over substantial areas of hill land were attacked and dispossessed by Iban, as King conceded, the Maloh's "potential for resistence and defence... discouraged Iban from moving into their territory" (1975-76:322). Had the Maloh of the river lowlands been more easily dispossessed, there is little doubt that the Iban would have attempted to drive them out.

From nineteenth century accounts, as well as from modern ethnographies, it seems clear that many Iban valued the occupation of primary rainforest. Most sources agree that farms established from primary forest provided significantly higher rice yields, and required much less effort to weed and harvest than those established from secondary forest. (27) Notwithstanding these apparent advantages, however, on the Baleh Freeman found that 22 per cent of land cleared for farms each year was very young regrowth. Freeman explained the high proportion of regrowth fanned by reference to ecological, demographic and cultural factors. He pointed out that regrowth slash dried quickly, which meant that regrowth areas provided some insurance against the chance of short dry season. Farming regrowth also limited the labor demands on young men, who traditionally felled primary forest, so that communities would farm increased areas of regrowth if their young men were away. Finally, he considered that Iban labored under a cultural or ideological impulse "to extract all the wealth they could from the nearest virgin land, and then move to fresh fields." (28)

Freeman's field results have contributed to a perception of Iban shifting cultivators storming destructively through rainforests, quickly exhausting its agricultural potential, before moving on. Such a system would require large areas of primary forest, and would preclude Iban interest in the farmlands, though not necessarily the other forest territory, of other groups. It seems, though, that in agricultural practice, as in other areas of Iban culture, such as hierarchy and inequality, the people of the Baleh are not typical of Iban. (29) In contrast to Freeman, Clifford Sather observed (1994:3),
The Iban were never incessant migrants, forever felling primary forest
and then moving on to new tracts of uncleared land. Instead, once they
had established settlements, they remained in permanent occupation of
all the major river systems they pioneered.

Far from wishing quickly to exhaust areas before moving on, part of the impetus for Iban to fell primary forest was precisely that by doing so families established "enduring rights of cultivation over the secondary forest that grew up in its place." Sather even suggested that it was this desire to establish such enduring land rights which "was always of prime concern" during migrations to new areas (1994:3). The concern to establish enduring rights to land necessarily implies that it was a valued resource, which Iban intended for long term use. The point has been well made by Christine Padoch (1984:10):
The fact that there are numerous river valleys in Sarawak, like the
Engkari, that have been continuously settled and farmed by Iban for
over three centuries, immediately suggests that land use among all
groups is not predicated on constant migration. The further observation
that no extensive area of Sarawak colonized by Iban in the past, has
been voluntarily completely abandoned by them, and that all such areas
continue to be exploited by shifting cultivation, points to the fact
that the natural resources of these areas have not been "exhausted."

Neither on the Engkari, nor on any of the other longer settled Iban rivers, did Iban "invade the territory, consume or destroy all the available natural resources, and then move on to new regions" (1984:10).

Padoch's field research also suggests that the ideological value Iban accord to primary forest might be contextual. In the Baleh, which retains large areas of primary forest, such areas are termed kampong, the same word that is used to describe mature secondary forest in Engkari, where no significant stands of primary forest remain (1978:95-96). The use of the same word to describe forests of such different status suggests that in the absence of primary forests, Engkari Iban have either transferred the ideological value of primary forest to secondary, or have elided the values of the two.

Iban oral traditions testify that migrating Iban themselves recognized the valuable potential of swiddens. Benedict Sandin recorded that, in the remote past, as Iban were migrating down the Sintang River, they passed large areas of farmland. Unable to locate the owners of the land to obtain permission to farm it, they passed on until they met a local man who told them that the land had been abandoned. He gave the Iban permission to farm it for a year. Even though it was swidden, and not primary forest, Sandin recalled that "That year they were all happy, for all of them were able to gather large quantities of padi" (1994:90-91).

The preference that Freeman observed among Iban for primary forest, and its purported capacity to provide higher crop returns for less effort needs also to be amended by reference to gendered labor divisions in Iban farming. Clearing forest was a job for young men, with weeding and harvesting performed by women and older men. (30) While primary forest might have been more productive and required less effort to weed and harvest, its clearing was particularly arduous in an era without chainsaws. Scholars should not assume that all these factors carried equal weight. Although young men could achieve status and expand their families' wealth by clearing forest, the same objectives could be met by raiding or trading far from the longhouse. It would be naive to assume that, faced with the alternatives of gruelling labor, on the one hand, and the adventures of war or long distance trade on the other, young men would necessarily prefer the former. Without sufficient young men to clear primary forest, communities would, whatever their preference, have had little choice but to farm secondary areas. It might not have weighed heavily on young men's minds that this would increase the labor burden born by women and older men. Additionally, notwithstanding the extra labor involved, many women and older men might have preferred farming secondary areas, which were closer to existing settlements, and therefore more convenient. Their farming decisions were also probably affected by the choices that other families made. Armstrong observed that, among the Kenyah Badeng, decisions about which lands to cultivate were affected by the fact that people preferred to farm contiguously, which made both pest control easier and farming more convivial (1991:122). Iban weeders and harvesters are likely to have had similar preferences.

Rather than seeing these factors as exceptional, or as affecting only marginally or situationally a widespread cultural preference for farming primary forest, Douglas Miles claimed that they were central to the normal operations of Iban agriculture. He argued "not only that Iban appropriated land by conquest but also that they sustained their capacity to do so through a system of agricultural production and a farming technology which employed predominantly female labor and which largely dispensed with manpower by males in rice-growing." In this context, Miles noted the high rate of incorporation into Iban longhouses of women and children captured in raids, suggesting that one consequence of this was to boost the pool of productive labor in a community (1994:85). The importance of captives in Iban society which Miles suggested is affirmed in Iban historical traditions. The Iban chieftain, Orang Kaya Pemancha Dana of the Saribas, is celebrated by Iban for bringing a large number of captives from Pontianak after a raid in 1800. In 1806, he attacked the Chinese town of Sinkawang and took "a large number of captives... whose descendants live to this day in the Saribas district." In 1810 he sought to repeat this success, but only "a small number were captured" (1994:166).

Iban historical traditions also record unequivocally that some Iban occupied the lands of others. Hugh Low recorded, presumably on the advice of Iban informants, that Sibuyau Iban settled their river after being driven from their land on the upper Batang Lupar by the Skrang Iban. About 1830, under further pressure from the Skrang and Saribas, the community splintered, with groups settling on the Lundu, Samarahan, Sarawak, and Sadong Rivers. (31) The Balau Iban living on the Lingga River, a tributary of the Batang Lupar, were similarly subject to Skrang and Saribas attack. (32) Within a few years of the Sibuyau's fracturing, Orang Kaya Pemancha Dana assembled a combined force of Skrang and Saribas Iban which drove the Undup Iban from their land. When, a decade later, William Brereton persuaded the Undups to return, they found that their farmland had been occupied (Sandin 1994:167-175). Similarly, Buah Raya's subsequent campaigns against settled people in the Rejang might have been part of a campaign to clear the region for Iban settlement (Sandin 1994:179). Iban attacks on the Kenyah Badeng on the Plieran and Danum Rivers also suggest conflict over land (Armstrong 1991:211).

Moreover, the terminology with which Iban described the various roles in migration and settlement suggests not only that they recognized that they were appropriating other people's land, but that this process was a central element in migration. The warriors who accompanied the leader of the migration (tuai mindah) were called manok sabong (literally, 'fighting cocks'). According to Sather, on occupying a new territory, the tuai mindah would settle the ablest manok sabong on its frontiers, "particularly at the pintu kayau ('the doors of war'), the points through which enemies were most likely to invade or launch raids from adjacent rivers" (1994a: 10-11).

Although much Iban raiding was directed towards occupying the swiddens of other cultivators, much of it seems also to have been motivated by a desire to secure exclusive use of primary rainforest, valued as a source of forest products rather than for its agricultural potential. This, rather than competition for agricultural land, seems to have motivated Iban hostility towards various groups of nomadic hunter-gatherers. Sandin recorded that, in occupying the Paku branch of the Saribas, Iban drove out the Bukitan who were already in occupation and, subsequently, were in constant conflict with the nomadic Seru on the Krian and Belium on the Rejang. Similarly, the Iban of the upper Skrang drove the Bukitan living there into Kanowit (Sandin 1994:160-61, 135). According to Padoch, the oral histories of the Engkari "are largely descriptions of the invading Iban's mostly belligerent contacts with Ukit and Bukitan... " (1984:4). These Iban traditions of animosity towards hunter-gatherers are confirmed by accounts gathered among their adversaries. Iban migration to the Rejang basin had begun in the 1840s, and was accompanied with attacks on the nomads living there. According to Bernard Sellato's nomad informants, as early as 1850 Iban attacks had caused some Ukit to withdraw from their territory on the Baleh River to the upper Kapuas. By 1870 the Baleh had been cleared of Ukit (Sellato 1994:29). Having settled the Baleh, Iban, with reinforcements from Iban settled on the Julau and Entabai Rivers, drove the Lugat nomads from their territory on the Gaat over the watershed into the Mahakam (Sandin 1994:199).

Although it appears that nomadic groups progressively lost the contest for territory to Iban and other farming communities, their struggle was fierce and determined. When the Iban pioneer, Padang, and his followers settled the Saribas, they "did not dare to go to the upper Rimbas, for fear of the Seru and Bukitan people" (Sandin 1994:133). The Engkari recall that the longhouse of the tuai mindah in the Engkari, Ambau, was fortified with a stockade, suggesting that the Ukit were able to mount an effective resistance (Padoch 1978:28-29). As Sellato has pointed out, it took Iban several decades to clear the Baleh of Ukit, while the Lisum, Beletan, Punan Aput and other nomad groups also "took up arms against the Iban, waging a guerilla war of rearguard actions, retaliating against Iban incursions even while they slowly retreated" (Sellato 1994:137).

Nomads and farmers forced from their land by others had either to move to unoccupied land or contest occupation with other groups. Various groups of nomadic hunter gatherers also fought each other to establish or maintain exclusive gathering rights to territory. For example, in the upper Kapuas, Semukung people entering from Sarawak in the 1830s fought with the Aoheng already living in the area (Sellato 1994:25). Nomadic groups recall bloody conflicts between the Acua and Halunge (in the headwaters of the Mahakam), the Bukat and Hovongan, Bukat and Bukitan, Kereho and Punan Murung and between the Punan Murung and Punan Merah (1994:136).

Although the Iban are the most discussed Dayak group in nineteenth century accounts of the area, they were by no means the only farmers expanding and driving others from their land. From the beginning of the nineteenth century Kayan groups began moving out from the Apo Kayan in east central Borneo to other areas. Like the Iban, their advance was marked by the violent dispossession of prior occupiers. Early in the nineteenth century, Kayan settling in the upper Sibau in the Kapuas were attacked by Iban. Although most of the migrants moved back to the Apo Kayan, Uma' Aging led his followers down to the mid Sibau, where he acknowledged the overlordship of the Taman in order to be allowed to settle. Within a short time the Kayan on the Sibau were so aggravated by the demands of Taman overlordship that they called in Kayan from the Mahakam to help them. As a consequence of these appeals, in the 1830s Liju Li brought a great Kayan force from the Mahakam to the Kapuas, driving the Taman downriver as far as Sintang. Although Liju Li withdrew (with vast numbers of slaves and huge amounts of plunder), his campaign left the Mendalam River open for Uma' Aging's people to settle (Sellato 1994:24-25). Kayan began to settle the Baram River near Brunei from about 1825. (33) Their occupation entailed their driving out the existing Murut, their attacks on whom were reported to be particularly intense. In 1849 Robert Burns also reported that Kayan had "latterly" occupied the upper Brunei River, again, driving out the Murut from their land (1849:140).

Alternatives to War

Although war and headhunting served to dispossess both farmers and hunter gatherers, allowing the victors exclusive use of swiddens and primary forest, war was not the only form of inter-group contact, nor the only means of adjudicating or resolving conflict over resources. As King pointed out, absorption, alliance, intermarriage and trade all offered significant alternatives to war (1975-76:321). For nomadic groups, alliance with powerful farming communities offered an effective response to sustained attacks by Iban and others. As early as the 1830s, some hunter gatherers in the upper Kapuas appear to have become associated with Kayan migrants into the area. During his campaign against the Taman, Liju Li is said to impressed some Bukat into farming in the Kapuas headwaters to feed his army. That the Bukat could easily have fled suggests, as Sellato observed, that they were already closely associated, possibly through intermarriage, with the Kayan. Liju Li is also recorded persuading the nomads of the Kacu to settle by marrying his brother to the daughter of the chief of the Pin, with whom the nomads were associated (1994:25-26). Having been the victims of Iban expansion in the 1860s, some Bukitan later associated with Iban, acting as guides and allies in Iban wars against other nomad groups on the Sibau, Mendalam, and upper tributaries of the Baleh (1994:30-31).

Although Iban and other groups of farmers seem routinely to have sought to drive nomads from their territories, association with nomads offered them significant advantages. Sustaining themselves solely through hunting and gathering, nomads are likely to have developed greater skills in the forest than farmers. Far from inhabiting a subsistence economy, nomads collected a range of luxury products on which Bornean trade depended--resins (damar and gutta percha), wild honey and wax, aromatic resin from incense woods, camphor, rotans, antlers, rhinoceros horn, bezoar stones, birds' nests, the heads and feathers of hornbills, rare animal skins, meat and fish. They also manufactured blowpipes, poisons, and highly worked rotan mats and bags (Sellato 1994:56). Farmers who could persuade nomads to associate with them could increase their own access to these products.

Sellato's is the most detailed analysis of the processes of association and incorporation as they occurred between nomad and settler groups. In the Kapuas, Sellato identified two forms of alliance between nomads and farmers: fictive kinship established through blood-brotherhood, and alliance through marriage ties. Such formalized relations provided advantages for both groups. Settled villages were not only relieved from attack and harrying by nomads, they secured increased access to valuable forest products. For nomads, alliance and kinship secured their occupation of primary forest, and promised protection against other and stronger interlopers. Although relations between the two groups often remained distant, with trade even conducted without the two groups coming to direct contact, over time, some such alliances, especially when cemented through intermarriage, led to the absorption of nomad groups into farming communities. Sellato cited as examples of this the latter process the Bukot Alung, who became Kayan, and the Bukitan of Embaloh who were absorbed into the Maloh (1994:51-53). Freeman recorded a similar process of acculturation occurring between Baleh Iban and the Bukitan who became associated with them (1970:321).
A very significant feature of the Iban migrations into the Rejang
basin, was the special relationship--symbiotic in character--which
existed between the Iban and the Bukitans. The nomadic Bukitans, whose
ancestral territory the Rejang was, acted as guides and allies to the
more numerous and more accomplished [sic] Iban. and under Iban
influence they gradually came to follow Iban methods of cultivating
rice, and ultimately, to live in long-houses of their own making.

Among some other groups, absorption and integration was less gently achieved. I have already referred to the incorporation of captives into Iban society. Kayan colonization of the Baram and Brunei Rivers also involved the integration of large numbers of captives from among the Murut. Baram Kayan leaders even claimed that when they raided they only killed those who resisted them, and "that anyone who would follow them they would spare." (34) On the Baram, Kayan probably valued the agricultural skills of the Murut, who were noted rice producers and are also likely to have had a greater knowledge of the area's valuable camphor resources. Similarly, when Liju Li withdrew from the Kapuas after attacking the Maloh in the 1830s, he is recalled taking with him large numbers of captives (Sellato 1994:24-25).

The desire of downriver Malays to expand their entourages with captives from tribal peoples dovetailed nicely with some Iban priorities. Iban recall that, in occupying the Saribas, they captured Seru, Bukitan and Beliun nomads and sold them to Temenggong Kadir, who converted them to Islam and integrated them into Malay society (Sandin 1994:159). In the decades prior to 1850, Imam Maulana of Kalaka (Krian) also encouraged the Iban settling that river to capture Seru, whom he bought and converted to Islam (Sandin 1994:181). Elsewhere, Iban were themselves the subject of Malayo-Moslem tactics of incorporation. Sandin recorded that Arabs in the lower Kapuas converted many Iban to Islam, prosecuting or expelling those who refused to do so (1994:90). Sandin's account probably recalls the establishment of Pontianak in the late eighteenth century by Syed Abdul Rahman.

Although Temenggong Kadir and Imam Maulana bought slaves who, presumably, had a limited capacity to resists efforts to convert them to Islam, the acculturation and conversion from animist Dayak to Moslem Malay which Sandin described occurring on the Kapuas was widestpread in northwest Borneo. Notwithstanding genealogies which trace the descent of Sarawak's aristocratic Malay families to Sumatran and Javanese royalty, many Sarawak Malays descend from tribal pagans converted to Islam and to Malay culture and identity. This process, masuk Melayu, or to become Malay, is well documented in northwest Borneo. (35) James Brooke recorded that many Lundu Iban had converted to Islam by 1839 (Brooke, Iris, 1:24). Fifteen years later, the Christian missionary, Gomes, considered Iban at Lundu "all but Malaised in their language and habits." (36) Transition from one ethnic identity to another could be gradual, occurring over years or even generations. Inland from Sambas in the 1820s, Moslem communities were observed which "do not circumcise until they become parents, and retain many of the customs peculiar to the true Daya. (37) In 1834 Earl visited groups which, though they identified themselves as Moslem, still lived in longhouses, observed Dayak adat and kept pigs (1837:262, 265). In the mid-nineteenth century, many Sarawak Malays were observed to retain the customs and some of the language of their Dayak ancestors, (38) even sharing dances with Bidayuh neighbors (Brooke, Dido, 1:64).

Some tribal people were probably attracted to the adoption of Malay identity by what Pringle termed "the reflected mystique of a literate culture" whose leadership "radiated an aura of superior sophistication" (1970:62). Yet conversion also offered more prosaic advantages, providing one way for tribal people to reduce the levels of exploitation by Malay elites. Once tribal people succeeded in being recognized as Moslem, their overlords were less likely to enslave them or their daughters and, if they were enslaved, they had greater level of protection and retained more rights than if they had remained animist. It is clear from European records that conversion confronted Malay leaders with complex choices about resources use. While conversion increased a leader's entourage and thus enhanced his standing, integrating former Dayaks into Malay social and economic practice necessarily rendered them, over time, less useful in the collection of forest products or the production of rice. Thus any widespread adoption of Malay ethnic identity by Dayaks could actually threaten the revenues of elite Malays, who on occasions are recorded intervening to prevent it. (39)

Not all processes of incorporation or alliance dismantled the separate ethnic identity of subordinate groups, however. Incorporation, association and alliance could be negotiated or undone, as weaker groups maintained a range of strategies to maintain some level of autonomy. As Sellato noted, once processes of association between nomads and farmers had been initiated, farmers were economically disadvantaged if they could not attract nomads as clients to collect jungle produce for trade. Farmers therefore needed to compete with each other to become the focus of association for nomads. By fostering an appreciation among nomads of trade goods like iron, salt and tobacco, farmers could enmesh hunter-gatherers in settler economies, but it was more difficult to enmesh them with particular settled communities (Sellato 1994:166). As nomads, it was always possible for Punan and other hunter-gatherers to break off relations with particular groups of farmers in order to negotiate more advantageous relationships with others. For example, the Punan Kohi of Langasa departed overnight after their Kayan patrons sought to impose corvee labor (Sellato 1994:170). The Punan Murung moved back and forth between the headwaters of the Murung and Mahakam Rivers in ongoing negotiations with the farming communities of Murung and Mahakam. Similarly, the Punan Aput moved back and forth between the Balui and the Apo Kayan (Sellato 1994:138).

Although nomad groups were more easily able to migrate, migration was also available to farmers concerned to preserve their autonomy against the demands of stronger neighbors. Removal was the main strategy pursued by Kenyah Badeng attempting to resist domination by, first, the English and, subsequently, the Lepo Tau Kenyah. The Kenyan Badeng describe their past "always in terms of conflict and upheaval." They told Armstrong they had been "walking the earth back and forth, here and there" (Armstrong 1991:1). In 1887, after the Badeng living on the Plieran River killed an Iban, they refused to pay the fine imposed by the Sarawak Government. Instead they sent down an old goat skin, packed up and fled to the Apo Data, a plateau near the Baram. When Charles Hose, the Sarawak Government officer in Baram, urged them settle permanently on the Baram itself, where they would have been unambiguously subject to the Government, they readily agreed, and began building a longhouse on the site allocated to them. Meanwhile, their leaders reached a secret agreement with the Lepo Tau Kenyah who dominated the Apo Kayan for their removal there, which they achieved before Hose could force them downriver (1991:39-40). As Armstrong commented, the Kenyah Badeng "used to keep the world at bay with a mixture of duplicity, stealth and cunning" (1991:xi).

The Lepo Tau integrated the Badeng into Apo Kayan society through the creation of ties of fictive kinship, which involved "economic obligations, reciprocal hospitality and, occasionally, friendship" (1991:5-6). Needing the permission of the Lepo Tau to settle in their territory, the Badeng were in no position to insist on equality in this relationship. The Badeng recall being so marginalized that they harvested rice for other people in return for food supplies (1991:41). Later, Lepo Tau domination was manifested in their taking Badeng canoes, rice and a share of any game and fish the Badeng caught. In 1924, Lepo Tau demands finally caused the Badeng to remove themselves again, to a remote tributary of Pengian River, which was a four hour walk from the Lepo Tau. Although in this more isolated place the Badeng were safer from Lepo Tau demands, they complained to Armstrong that it was too hard there for them to get salt, and too far to "travel away and find money" (1991:9-10). The cost of domination by larger neighbors emerges also from the experience of the Lahanan. By 1860, the Kayan of the Balui had formed a loose federation in order to better withstand Iban expansion into their territories. Jennifer Alexander recorded mat, as a consequence of Kayan unity, the Lahanan found "their land and territory rapidly shrank, and they were forced to contribute labor and wealth to the Kayan elite." Alexander reported that the Lahanan became enmeshed with the Kayan through marriage ties and adoption (1996:6-7).

For people unable to drive prior occupiers from their land, the creation of marriage ties appear to have been a common means of establishing peaceful relations. Unlike Iban or Kayan, migrating Punan Bah were not in a position to secure possession of land through war. Thus when Tigeang led his people into Tatau in the 1820s, he sought accommodation with its population by marrying a local wife (Nicholaisen 1976:82-83). Similarly Tigeang's nephew or brother, Sagiang, secured peace with the Segaan by taking a wife among them (Nicholaisen 1976:70). Even when groups were militarily dominant, they sometimes sought to resolve differences through marriage. The leader of Iban settlers in the Paku, Tindin, married his daughter to Demong, the son of the chief of the resisting Bukitan. Tindin's incorporation of Demong into Iban society ended the war between Paku Iban and Bukitan, while Demong's access to both societies allowed him subsequently to demarcate boundaries between their territories (Sather 1994a:6).

Conflict within groups

Ethnohistories recorded among a wide range of groups and communities make clear that the maintenance of harmonious relations within groups was a challenge often beyond the capacities of indigenous authority systems. Conflicts within small communities are invariably intense, and are likely to be exacerbated rather than ameliorated if the belligerents are also kin. Three causes of conflict recur in historical narratives: disputes over women, claims to land and fruit trees and authority.

The resolution of disputes within communities was probably easier to achieve in hierarchical groups with clear status distinctions, such as the Malays, Kayan, Melanau, and some Kenyah. Descent based hierarchies created less ambiguous authority structures than those in more egalitarian societies, or in societies which valued achieved inequality, such as Iban. For Malays, the Sultan of Brunei or Sambas, or the rulers of the Kapuas micro-states, comprised primary sources of status and rank through their allocation of titles (gelar), their courts seeking to establish themselves as the final arbiters of disputes. Often, however, sultans were far removed from those whose loyalty they claimed, or were otherwise unable or unwilling to resolve differences. In Sarawak prior to James Brooke's arrival, two nobles claimed the pre-eminent Malay title of Patinggi (Brooke, Dido, 1:184, 188). Malay power in the Saribas was also fragmented and contested by rival aristocrats, with two brothers both claiming the Laksamana title (Walker 2002:76). Such contests were difficult to resolve, as rivals sought alliances with other Malays as well as with Iban and other tribal leaders. For sultans to favor one claimant would inevitably alienate the other, possibly provoking him into seeking titles from a rival ruler. A better tactic was to ignore the fact that conflicting claims were being made, or to confirm both claims, however inconsistent they were, as James Brooke did when he became Rajah of Sarawak (Walker 2002:50). Malay disputes over titles rarely spilled over into violence, however. The most common means of containing their potential to disrupt Malay communities was through creating and recreating marriage ties between rivals. Thus Datu Patinggi Abdul Gapur was married to a daughter of his cousin and adversary, Datu Patinggi Ali, while two of Gapur's sons and a daughter were married to Ali's grandchildren. (40)

On the Apo Kayan disputes sometimes erupted among Kenyah or between Kenyah groups and Kayan. Such cases were normally arbitrated by other nobles and headmen, whose descent status was a source of authority in the area. Although, occasionally, such disputes might descend into violence, they were usually settled by fines and compensation. The avoidance of violence was probably closely related to a desire on the Apo Kayan not to allow situations to develop which might lead to groups moving away. Armstrong noted that chiefs would endeavour to persuade restless or disgruntled groups not to remove themselves. Her informants termed this desire mapo (to cling to). As Armstrong observed, the paramount status of ranking chiefs depended on their domination of people rather than their control of land (1991:6-7). That chiefs needed to maintain their following provided them with powerful incentives to negotiate peaceful resolutions to disputes.

Although the processes of confederation, already referred to, among the Kayan on the Balui eventually achieved a high degree of Kayan unity, the tensions they created were sufficient to outweigh the operations of mapo. The paramount Kayan chieftain on the Balui was Akam Nipa, whose leadership was recognized by the other Kayan chiefs. According to Burns, Akam Nipa had more followers than other leaders, and was recognized as being of higher descent (1849:144). It seems likely that Akam Nipa's assertion of pre-eminence had been a source of conflict among Balui Kayan in earlier decades, however. Nakhoda Jalil told European visitors that the Baram was settled by the Kayan chieftain, Sigunding, and his followers, who left the Balui after Sigunding's father had been killed by Akam Nipa and Akam Laksa. (41) Rather than submit to Akam Nipa, Sigunding and his people established their own Talang Husan confederation in the Baram (Burns 1849:143).

Punan Bah narratives record that the Punan Bah originally split into separate longhouses after two brothers, Kauu Oko and Kauu Oka, fought over a beautiful girl called Oro Saka. The conflict was halted when the brothers' cousin, Payou, killed the girl. Payou's intervention seems, itself, to have become a cause of conflict, however. After the peacemaking between the brothers, Kauu Oko's son, Salaui, decided to move downriver to the junction of the Bah with the Rejang. All the houses which remained upriver accepted the leadership of Payou. Competition among Salaui's close relatives for leadership seems to have caused the downriver group to fragment further. In the 1820s some left their new home to follow Tigeang (the son or brother of Salaui) to the Kakus River, while others followed Sagiang, Salaui's son, to the Kemena. Still others moved further up the Rejang. Nicholaisen's informants attributed the community's fragmentation to the ambitions of Tigeang and Sagiang. "Moving into a new territory gave them a chance of gaining a reputation for themselves, of becoming founders of famous settlements and as such remain unchallenged." As Nicholaisen implied, their migrations obviated the need to compete with each other for authority within the same community (1976:66-69).

The maintenance of harmony and the resolution of internal conflict might have been expected to have posed problems particularly for the loan. Although Iban society was not, as many have suggested, vigorously egalitarian (see Sather 1996), Iban did not maintain an hereditary nobility for whom inherited rank was a source of unambiguous authority over their fellows, and Iban chiefs had no powers to command. Iban valued achieved inequality, status gained through success in farming, raiding, pioneering territory or oratory. These factors, coupled with the fact that Iban were intensely competitive, increased the potential for the development within communities of conflicts which were beyond the capacity of Iban leadership traditions to resolve. In some cases, belligerent or disgruntled families and their supporters could migrate, solving the problem by removing themselves from the community. Fracturing communities was not an ideal solution, however, involving as it would the separation of kin, and the abandonment of landed property and social systems of support. The solution developed by Iban to contain and resolve disputes in the absence of authoritative power structures was betempoh, fighting with wooden weapons between opponents from neighboring or adjacent houses, which was sharply differentiated by Iban from the outright war that Iban conducted against recognised enemies. (42)

Almost always related to disputes over farmland, Clifford Sather found betempoh to be more ritualized in the long settled Saribas and the adjacent Krian than in frontier districts. In the Saribas, the "participants might employ champions to take their part and combat was conducted according to formal rules." Contests in the Saribas could only take place with the agreement of regional leaders, who fixed the place and time of the contest and ensured that the precise boundaries in dispute were recognized by each side. In contrast, on the Batang Ai, a group wishing to dissuade another group from using particular land would set out to visit them, making wooden clubs along the way. If their rivals declined to comply with the visitors' request, they would be set upon (Sather 1994b: 17).

Although betempoh precluded the use of metal weapons, as Sather noted, wooden weapons could still be used to deadly effect. Such contests risked, therefore, a very real chance of causing death, and leaders on the Saribas usually opposed resorting to it. The threat of betempoh provided an added impetus for community leaders to negotiate a settlement acceptable to both sides. Thus betempoh comprised a threat which compelled intensified negotiation. Sather found that only three instances of betempoh were remembered in Saribas. All were settled prior to the battle taking place (1994b: 18).

The earliest instance that Sather's informants could recall was concerned with ownership of a stand of belian, and occurred during the late eighteenth century. It seems likely that betempoh was a response to the fact that, by the beginning of the nineteenth century, reserves of primary forest had been almost completely depleted in the Saribas. Sather calculated that for at least eight generations Saribas Iban recultivated land. As supplies of land were depleted, land boundaries and claims to land became more important (1994b: 18-20). If Sather's suggestion that betempoh represented an essentially nineteenth century adaptation by Iban is accepted, the practice was quickly superseded. As the Sarawak Government established law courts in Iban areas in the years following the 1850s, courts "became the primary arena in which local competition over land came to be waged" (Sather 1994b:21). The Iban became notorious among Brooke officials for their litigiousness. The season when fallows were cleared for planting was an especially busy time for courts in Iban areas. Indeed, the propensity of Iban to consume court resources in land litigation moved Charles Brooke to order that the court at Simanggang would only hear land cases for three months each year. The order was unenforceable, and, of course, unenforced (Pringle 1970:190-192).


Borneo in the early nineteenth century developed an unenviable reputation among European observers for violence and bloodshed. James Brooke and his contemporaries, writing in a tradition established by Raffles, considered such raiding and violence to be symptomatic of the decline or inadequacy of Malay statecraft in the face of European commercial practices. Yet both the sources and means of conflict in Borneo were more complex than European contemporaries realized: warfare and contestation had diverse causes and could be pursued through a range of strategies. The coastal and riverine Malay states, whatever their hegemonic claims, are not the only prism through which conflict could or should be viewed. Although Healey's proposition that widespread Iban raiding reflected contradictions in Bornean state structures has much to commend it, in focusing on the role of states, it risks removing Iban involvement in conflicts from a wider context which implicated other tribal groups as well.

Unlike the "shatter zones" that James Scott suggested comprised the tribal areas (Zomia) of Mainland Southeast Asia, which were marginal to the political economies of mainland states, and which, Scott argued, were sites of refuge from the state, tribal areas in Borneo existed within, around, beside, and outside states. Conflict over resources in Borneo occurred among states, between states and tribes, among tribes, within tribes and, even, within particular descent groups. Conflicting interests can also be perceived between men and women, and between younger and older men. This complex of conflicts--power, ethnic, economic, generational and gender-based--undermines the utility of analyzes which seek to establish universal patterns in raiding, violence and conflict. The wide range of interests and perceptions among Borneo people which the growing ethnographic literature details requires scholars to recognize a diversity of causes, processes and consequences of conflict.

Nonetheless, the patterns of conflict perceived by state elites in the nineteenth century had disproportionate consequence for the development of conflict beyond that century's close. Malay states of the precolonial period were incorporated into Dutch and British colonial enterprises which used the hegemonic claims of rulers to justify their gradual incorporation of tribal people into colonial empires. That many tribal people might have repudiated and successfully resisted claims by states did not inhibit European colonialists from basing their own claims on the pretensions of courts. Moreover, colonialism brought to the island new ideas about sovereignty and the control of land and other resources, and an enhanced capacity to enforce them, than earlier elites had had at their command. Many of the techniques of domination associated with European colonial enterprises were in turn inherited by the independent countries which succeeded them. If colonization enhanced the coercive capacities of states, the intensified commercialization and commodification of resources which was associated with colonial expansion provided an increased impetus for coercive powers to be deployed. Both of these factors continue to transform resources conflict in Borneo.


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(1) In referring to "northwest Borneo," this article refers, essentially, to the the areas incorporated into the modern East Malaysian state of Sarawak, and adjacent areas. It is important to avoid conflating "northwest Borneo" with Sarawak, however. The state of Sarawak was in the process of being created and expanded by James and Charles Brooke and their allies from 1841 until the beginning of the 20th century. Prior to 1841, and for many years after, the term "Sarawak" referred to the Sarawak River area and the territory accessible from it. I am grateful to Rita Armstrong and the late Reed Wadley for comments on an earlier draft of this paper.

(2) Christopher Healey, "Tribes and States in 'Pre-colonial' Borneo: Structural Contradictions and the Generation of Piracy," Social Analysis: The International Journal of Social And Cultural Practice ", 18, December, 1985. pp. 3-39 at p. 5.

(3) Healey, "Tribes and States", p. 5.

(4) James C. Scott, The Art of Not being Governed: An Anarchist History of Upland Southeast Asia. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2009. p. xiv.

(5) S. Baring-Gould and C. A. Bampfylde, A History of Sarawak under its Two White Rajahs, 1839-1908. (London, 1909.) p. 213.

(6) Odoardo Beccari, Wanderings in the Great Forests of Borneo. (Singapore, 1989 [1904].) p. 5. See p. 382 for a detailed description.

(7) James Brooke, A Letter from Borneo; with Notices of the Country and its Inhabitants; Addressed to James Gardner, Esq. London: L. and G. Seeley, 1842.

(8) Quoted by Craig A. Lockard, The Southeast Asian Town in Historical Perspective; A Social History of Kuching, Malaysia, 1820-1970. University of Wisconsin, Ph. D., 1973. p. 4. An exception to this school of thought is Reed Wadley, "Warfare, Pacification, and Environment: Population Dynamics in the West Borneo Borderlands (1823-1934)," Moussons, 1, 2000. pp. 41-66 at p. 45.

(9) Jan W. Christie, "Ironworking in Sarawak," in Jan W. Christie and V. T. King, Metal-Working in Borneo: Essays on Iron- and Silver-Working in Sarawak. (Hull, 1988.) pp. 1-27 at pp. 19-20.

(10) For a detailed analysis see Eric Tagliacozzo, "Onto the Coasts and into the Forest: Ramifications of the China Trade on the Ecological History of Northwest Borneo, 900-1900CE," in Reed L. Wadley (ed.).

Histories of the Borneo Environment, Leiden: KITLV Press, 2005. pp. 25-60.

(11) Ida Nicolaisen, "Form and Fumction of Punan Ba Ethno-Historical Tradition," Sarawaak Museum Journal, XXIV (45), 1976, pp. 63-95 at p. 70.

(12) Rita Armstrong, People of the Same Heart: The Social World of the Kenyah Badeng. University of Sydney, PhD. Thesis, 1991. p. 211.

(13) See also Daniel Chew, Chinese Pioneers on the Sarawak Frontier: 1841-1941. (Singapore, 1990.)p. 111.

(14) Rita Armstrong,, 4 August 2001.

(15) John H. Walker, "Rajahs, Rebels and Ritual: The Iban and the Early Brooke State," in Encyclopaedia of Iban Studies, Kuching, Malaysia: Tun Jugah Foundation, 2001. III. pp. 1523-1554.

(16) See Clifford Sather, "Introduction" to Benedict Sandin, "Sources of Iban Traditional History," Sarawak Museum Journal. XLVI (67) December 1994. pp. 1-78 at p. 7, and Benedict Sandin, "Sources of Iban Traditional History," Sarawak Museum Journal. XLVI (67) December 1994. pp. 79-325 at p. 52.

(17) J. H. Walker, "James Brooke and the Bidayuh: Some Ritual Dimensions of Dependency and Resistance in Nineteenth Century Sarawak," Modern Asian Studies, 32 (1), February 1998. pp. 91-116.

(18) It is also important to recognize, as Reed Wadley has pointed out, that the actions of agressive tribal groups like some Iban, might have been an essential element in encouraging weaker groups to seek protection within a Malay orbit. Reed Wadley,, 17 April 2001.

(19) Hugh Low, Sarawak; Its Inhabitants and Productions: Being Notes During a Residence in that Country with H. H. The Rajah Brooke. London: Richard Bentley. 1848. pp. 142,161-62. But see Ulla Wagner, who suggested that Malay economies were based on wet rice cultivation (1972:18).

(20) Donald Brown, for example, identified seven broad "classes" among Bruneis and 27 ranks in Brunei court hierarchy (1969:27-29).

(21) "The Maritime Code of the Malays," JSBRAS, 3 July 1879, pp. 62-84 at pp. 64-65.

(22) "Dr Leyden's Sketch of Borneo," in J. H. Moor, (ed.), Notices of the Indian Archipelago and Adjacent Countries. (London. 1968 [1837].) pp. 93-109 at pp. 101-106.

(23) "Notices of the city of Borneo and its inhabitants, made during the voyage of the American brig Himmaleh in the Indian Archipelago, in 1837 - Part 1", Chinese Repository, VII (III), pp. 121-136 at p. 130.

(24) Rodney Mundy, Narrative of events in Borneo and Celebes, down to the Occupation of Labuan: From the Journals of James Brooke, Esq., Rajah of Sarawak, and Governor of Labuan. Together with a Narrative of the Operations of HMS Iris. (London, 1848) vol. 1, p. 376. (To distinguish between the two journals published herewith Brooke's will be cited as "Brooke, Iris," and Mundy's as "Mundy, Iris")

(25) John Crawford, "Sketch of Borneo," Crawford Papers, f. 67.

(26) Spenser St. John. Rajah Brooke: The Englishman as Ruler of an Eastern State. (London, 1897) p. 213; Sandin, "Sources of Iban Traditional History," p. 165.

(27) An important exception to this is Michael Dove, who presented data to demonstrate that actual yields are greater from secondary forest. Michael Dove, "Forest Preference in Swidden Agriculture,"Tropical Ecology, 24, 1988, pp. 122-142.

(28) Freeman's arguments are succinctly outlined and critiqued by Christine Padoch, Migration and its Alternatives among the Iban of Sarawak. Columbia University, Ph.D. Thesis, 1978. pp. 97 and 104.

(29) For the debate about inequality see Clifford Sather, "'All Threads are White': Iban Egalitarianism Reconsidered," in Fox, James J. and Clifford Sather (eds.). Origins, Ancestory and Alliance: Explorations in Austronesian Ethnography. (Canberra, 1996.) pp. 70-110.

(30) Douglas Miles, "Monkey Busines in the Anthropology of Sarawak: Shamanic Actuality versus Sociological Illusion in Dayak Politics," ASSESS: Australian Studies in Southeast Asian Issues, 1, 1994. pp. 70-95 at p. 84. Although Padoch observed that some women were adept at felling trees, she noted that they only did do so in regrowth areas. Padoch, Migration and its Alternatives among the Iban of Sarawak. p. 115.

(31) Low, op. cit., pp. 166-168. See also Brooke, Dido, I, p. 97. According to Benedict Sandin, a Saribas Iban, however, the scattered location of Iban at Lundu, Lingga, and Samarahan pre-dated serious intra-Iban hostility and was not caused by it. Benedict Sandin, The Sea Dyaks of Borneo Before White Rajah Rule. (London, 1967) p. 65.

(32) Federick Boyle, Adventures among the Dyaks of Borneo. (Kuala Lumpur, 1984 [ 1865]). p. 203. Saribas Iban accounts record that hostility between them and the Balau Iban of the Lingga River was orchestrated about 1800 by a Malay aristocrat from Lingga, Indra Lela. See Benedict Sandin, "The History of the People of Bangkit. Paku, Saribas," Sarawak Museum Journal, XIX (38-39), July-December, 1971. pp. 21-36 at p. 35.

(33) "The River Baram: Extracts from a Journal kept during a visit to the River by the H. C. Steamer Pluto',"Journal of the Indian Archipelago, 5 (2), 1851. pp. 677-690 at p. 685.

(34) "The River Baram: Extracts from a Journal kept during a visit to the River by the H. C. Steamer 'Pluto'," p. 683.

(35) See Zainal Kling, The Saribas Malays of Sarawak (Their Social and Economic Organisation and System of Values), University of Hull: Ph. D. thesis, 1973. pp. 2-3. The adoption of Malay ethnic identity by non-Malays also has been observed elsewhere on the frontiers of the "Malay" world, particularly among Sumatran Bataks. Jane Drakard, A Malay Frontier: Unity and Duality in a Sumatran Kingdom. (Ithaca, 1990.) pp. 7-9.

(36) E. Gomes to E. Hawkins, 22 January, 1854. USPG, CLR 72, Borneo, July 1848-June 1859. f. 373.

(37) "Memoir on the Residency of the North-West Coast of Borneo," in J. H. Moor (ed.), op. cit., pp. 5-14 at p. 5.

(38) Charles Brooke, Ten Years in Sarawak with a transcription of the Journal of Charles Brooke... (Singapore, 1990 [1866].) vol. 1, p. 45.

(39) "Journal of a Tour of the Kapuas," Journal of the Eastern Archipelago and Eastern Asia, 1856. pp. 84-126 at pp. 108-109. These issues are rehersed in J. H. Walker, "Notes on the use of 'Malay' and 'Abang' in Sarawak," Sarawak Museum Journal, XLVIII (69) 1995. pp. 83-86.

(40) "Salasilah Dato Petinggi Abang Haji Abd. Ghafor." Genealogy showing the decent and descendants of Datu Patinggi Abdul Gapur. Author's copy.

(41) "The River Baram: Extracts from a Journal kept during a visit to the River by the H. C. Steamer 'Pluto'," p. 687.

(42) Clifford Sather, "Wooden Weapons: Constrained Violence and the Evolution of Adat in a Ninetenth Century Iban Society," ASSESS: Australian Studies in Southeast Asian Issues, 1, 1994. pp. 5-23 at p. 6.
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Title Annotation:RESEARCH NOTES
Author:Walker, J. H.
Publication:Borneo Research Bulletin
Geographic Code:90SOU
Date:Jan 1, 2016
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