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Robert Pringle, 2010, Rajahs and Rebels: The Ibans of Sarawak under Brooke Rule, 1841-1941.

Robert Pringle, 2010, Rajahs and Rebels: The Ibans of Sarawak under Brooke Rule, 1841-1941. Kota Samarahan: Universiti Malaysia Sarawak Press (first publication, 1970, London: Macmillan and Co; Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press). Pp. xxv+409. ISBN 978-967-5418-01-3 (with a new introduction by the author).

It comes as welcome news that Robert Pringle's Rajahs and Rebels is once again in print. The Universiti Malaysia Sarawak (UNIMAS) is to be much commended for making this possible and for giving us, in addition, a handsomely-produced second edition with a new Introduction by the author. Aside from this new Introduction and the correction of some earlier typos, the present edition is an exact reprinting of the 1970 original.

A masterful work of history when it first appeared, and masterful yet, some forty years later, Rajahs and Rebels is one book that every serious student of Sarawak history ought to read at least once. The major strength of the book is that it directs our attention to those whose presence was barely acknowledged in the more conventional colonial histories of the past. Consequently, it is the kind of history that especially appeals to those of us who are anthropologists, or, for that matter, very likely, to Iban as well. It was written with an eye to the local, being, as Pringle wrote years ago in his original Foreword, "a story of country places, of ten-shop Chinese bazaars, of villages, of longhouses and of individuals" (1970: xii).

A second major strength of Rajahs and Rebels is that the book takes as its point of departure a larger comparative concern. This concern is with relationships between tribal societies and European colonial regimes, or, more specifically, in a Southeast Asian context, relations between tribal peoples, dominant lowland civilizations, and colonial governments. A basic conclusion of Rajahs and Rebels is that the relationship that evolved between the Iban and the Brooke Raj was unique in Southeast Asia. In Sarawak, Pringle argues, "there was never any [overwhelmingly] dominant, 'civilized' lowland or coastal society." Almost everyone lived along rivers, with the result that there "has always tended to be a kind of continuum from the interior to the coast, rather than any abrupt oil-and-water cultural frontier" (1970: xi-xii). Moreover, while the Iban were a "tribal" people in the sense that they lacked a tradition of kingship or centralized rule, they were also, from the beginning, the single most populous group in Sarawak and so "were never, in any sense, a minority group." As a result, the Iban were never marginalized as tribal peoples tended to be in other parts of Southeast Asia. Iban society was profoundly transformed during the Brooke era, but remained, partly because of the nature of Brooke rule, culturally vibrant and socially intact. In the original edition of Rajahs and Rebels, Pringle saw Brooke-Iban relations as largely benevolent. In his new Introduction, however, they are now portrayed, as we shall see, in generally darker, more sombre terms.

The major strengths of Rajahs and Rebels owed much to the special circumstances in which the book was written. Pringle's original research was funded by the London-Cornell Project. It began with six months of archival work in London in early 1965, and was followed by a 15-month stay in Sarawak, ending in late 1966. The crucial part of these circumstances was an agreement between Tom Harrisson, then Curator of the Sarawak Museum, and George Kahin, Director of the Southeast Asia Program at Cornell where Pringle was a graduate student. Harrisson agreed to sponsor Pringle's research provided that Pringle, in return for Benedict Sandin's assistance, help Sandin, who was then a museum assistant, prepare his own book for publication (The Sea Dayaks of Borneo Before White Rajah Rule, 1967). "The deal," Pringle writes in his new Introduction, "turned out to be a priceless bargain for me, and I did my best to make it valuable for Sandin as well" (2010: xii). Pringle's praise of Sandin is unstinting, both here in his new Introduction and in the original Rajahs and Rebels. "Without his judgment on key events and his tutelage on Iban culture," Rajahs and Rebels, he writes, "would have been little more than weakly grounded narrative" (2010: xii).

During the first 12 months of his stay in Sarawak, Pringle worked principally in the old Sarawak Museum building which then housed the Sarawak Archives. Here, he spent his time, he tells us, "poring over old issues of the Sarawak Gazette, working with Sandin, and chasing down documents " (2010: xiii). During the last three months of his stay, he left the archives and traveled with Sandin to interview Iban informants over much of the former Second and Third Divisions. These travels not only took them to Sandin's home river, the Saribas, but to other areas as well. Through these interviews, and by drawing on Sandin's encyclopedic knowledge of Iban oral history, Pringle was able to flesh out his written sources. Thus, he writes
   I relied heavily on Benedict Sandin's advice and assistance..[and]
   cannot overstate my debt to him. [Although] the present study is
   based primarily on written sources,.. local traditions and other
   oral materials, mostly collected by Mr. Sandin.., added another
   dimension to my understanding" (1970: xiv).


Drawing on these materials, Pringle was able to construct what he called a "two-dimensional" account of major events in Iban history, treating them from the perspectives of both the official Brooke records as well as from Iban oral versions of the same events.

Sandin's assistance was also crucial in a number of other ways. To begin with, Sandin was, as Pringle described him, "the foremost authority on the history and culture of his people" (1970: xiii). He was born in 1918, at a time and under circumstances that were uniquely fortuitous for a soon-to-be oral historian. At the time of his birth, within the long-settled Paku tributary of the Saribas where he was born, the oldest generation still alive had reached adulthood shortly before the arrival of James Brooke. As Sandin told me during an interview I recorded in Iban
   At the time when I was born ... there were still a number of
   warriors living in the Paku who had fought in the battle of Beting
   Marau in 1849 ... Quite a few of these men died in the 1930s when I
   was coming to bachelorhood, I heard many things from these people
   and from those who knew them. (5)


Sandin's grandmother, Umang, who was still alive at the time, was a daughter of Linggir "Mall Lebu" (The Invicible), the greatest of all Paku war leaders, one of the original rebels of Pringle's title, and a Beting Marau veteran. Three years before his birth, Sandin's own father, Attat anak Penghulu Garran, had taken part in a Brooke-organized expedition against Iban rebels at Bukit Salong in the Upper Rejang. Because of his exploits, Sandin said, his father had little trouble winning the hand of his mother. (6) Although mission-educated, Sandin's outlook was thoroughly Iban. His conceptualization of the past was inseparable from his understanding of Iban oral genealogies (tusut). These genealogies formed the key structures to which he attached a vast body of oral narratives pertaining to the past (cherita lama'). (7) Sandin spent virtually his whole lifetime collecting and collating this material.

Sandin's involvement in Pringle's research also allowed Pringle to steer a safe course between two dominating personalities of the time: Tom Harrisson, on the one hand, and Derek Freeman, on the other. In his new Introduction, Pringle suggests that Tom's "deal" with Kahin was prompted by a combination of guilt and self-interest. Harrisson, he writes, "was famously ... uninterested in the Iban ... [but] felt a bit guilty about this" (2010: xii). Hence, he was delighted to see Sandin's prodigious gifts put to use in a way that would further Iban studies. At the same time, with Malaysian independence a reality, Harrisson was also looking for a future job, which Cornell would, in fact, later provide. Consequently, during the Pringles' stay, Tom, Pringle observes, "was on his best behavior" (2010: xii). With regard to Freeman, Pringle makes substantial use of Freeman's peerless ethnography of the Baleh lban, particularly his penetrating account of Iban social structure. However, by the same token, he also notes that the Baleh Iban are not, by any means, representative of the Iban as a whole. In order to better encompass Iban variability, Pringle introduces into his writing a rough, but highly useful distinction between "Upriver" and "Downriver" Ibans. Moreover, he rightly notes that most Iban live, in fact, along the middle reaches of rivers, many of which flow for much of their course through tidal lowlands. The Iban are not, in other words, as Freeman tended to portray them, typically a people of the mountainous headwaters. Nor are they all untrammelled individualists. Here, Sandin's Saribas Iban provided Pringle with a telling counter-example. Brought under government rule early in the history of the Brook Raj, and never thereafter the victims of state-sponsored punitive warfare, the Saribas Iban, by the turn of the twentieth century, adopted cash crop cultivation and, soon afterwards, mission schooling. By the time of Freeman's fieldwork, the Saribas had already produced the first formally-educated generation of Iban in Sarawak, Benedict Sandin among them; and, by the time of Malaysian independence, would give the state its first Iban Chief Minister, Anglican Bishop, and Sarawak Museum Curator.

Even with regard to swidden agriculture, Freeman's classic Iban Agriculture was, in Pringle's carefully-chosen words, "slightly misleading" (1970: 25). In 1949, Freeman deliberately chose as his field site a longhouse community near the frontiers of Iban territorial expansion that practiced a form of "pioneer swiddening," meaning that families opened hill rice farms by annually clearing tracts of virgin forest. Even in the late 1940s, this type of cultivation was atypical. By focusing exclusively on it, Freeman's work, as Robert Cramb has recently noted, both obscured the array of more sustainable forms of swidden cultivation also practiced by the Iban and reinforced the already negative view of swidden cultivation held by most colonial agronomists of the time.8 It also led, Pringle argues, many to suppose that Iban farming is wholly restricted to the cultivation of hill rice, which, as he rightly noted, is not the case. To clarify matters, he proposed that in place of a simple dry rice/wet rice dichotomy, a third, intermediate category be recognized, for which he proposed the term "damp rice" (1970: 27). Thus, Iban living in downriver areas of the former Second Division cultivated, in addition to hill rice, what they called padipaya, or 'swamp rice.' Fields were located, in this case, usually in swampy terrain and were prepared for cultivation in much the same way as hill rice farms. Rice, however, was first planted in seed beds and then, as in the case of wet rice, transplanted into fields where it matured. These fields, however, were neither irrigated nor plowed. Freeman dismissed padi paya cultivation as a recent borrowing. Pringle, however, pointed out that, according to local tradition, padi paya has always been part of the Iban agricultural repertoire and was brought from their Kapuas river-basin homeland in West Kalimantan by the first proto-historic Iban migrants to western Sarawak.

In his new Introduction Pringle writes that the topic of Rajahs and Rebels was "a natural outgrowth of a long fascination with the historical interplay between tribal peoples, such as the Iban, dominant lowland cultures, ... and colonial governments" (2010: xi). This fascination, in turn, grew out of an earlier interest in the history of American Indians and their tragic encounter with European invaders. By comparison, "Sarawak seemed a wonderful variation ... because the balance between 'tribal' and 'dominant' peoples was initially far more equal than in most areas of the world" (2011: xi). Indeed, in the two or three centuries that immediately preceded Brooke rule, the Iban might well have been described as the most successful of all "tribal" societies, certainly in Borneo. While a literature on the topic barely existed at the time, today, societies in Southeast Asia--whether we call them "tribal" or "anarchic"--that have persistently resisted state rule, have started to attract serious scholarly interest. (9) Some of these societies evaded state rule by adopting strategies of non-violent resistance. (10) Others, like the Iban, took the opposite tact, making warfare a centerpiece of their cultural identity. Primarily occupying the navigable middle reaches of rivers, the Iban, by virtue of their military prowess, rapidly expanded in numbers and territorial extent, mainly at the expense of other tribal groups, while, at the same time, holding their own against the upriver incursions of coastal polities. There is no question that James and, most especially, Charles, Brooke sought to harness the military prowess of the Iban to their own ends, that of extending and solidifying state rule. Pringle, in his present Introduction, succinctly describes this project:
   What emerged from the details of Brooke-era Iban history was a
   phenomenon with few if any parallels in the history of colonialism.
   An impoverished European regime ruling a great expanse of Borneo
   stood the then-fashionable European notions of a 'civilizing
   mission' on its head, relying for its security needs on levies of
   warriors who were not paid but were allowed, in lieu of pay, to
   keep the heads of their enemies taken in combat, mainly from the
   members of their own ethnic group, the Ibans (2010: xiv).


In the process, the Brookes reinforced an Iban ritual cult of headhunting and a competitive prestige system focused on warfare. The result, Pringle aptly describes as "a pattern of state-sponsored headhunting" (2010: xiv).

This pattern, Pringle argues, "was clear by the time of the Chinese rebellion of 1857" and continued well into the twentieth century.
   The classic Brooke model originated by the Second Rajah, Charles
   Brooke, featured massive expeditions with thousands of warriors
   hunting other Iban (and, less frequently, orang ulu) because they
   were either in rebellion, or had disobeyed the Rajah's command not
   to migrate beyond certain limits (2010: XV).


The last expedition in what Pringle calls "the old style" occurred in 1935 and was organized by the Third Rajah, Vyner Brooke, who, however, as Pringle writes, "failed to share his father's infatuation with the practice" (2010: xv).

Charles Brooke was certainly, as Pringle views him, "the dominant figure of Brooke history and the architect of Sarawak's Iban policy." For Iban of the old school, Charles was always The Rajah. What is less clear is whether this powerful sense of identification between Charles and the Iban worked both ways. That is to say, what has yet to be explained is the extent to which Charles internalized Iban values into his personal makeup. Certainly Charles spent much of his younger life in the company of Iban. It should be remembered, too, that Charles was sent to sea at the age of 12 and first arrived in Sarawak in 1844 as a 15-year-old midshipman aboard the HMS Dido. In the years that followed, he would certainly take pleasure, by his own admission, in actively participating in Iban warfare.

With regard to Iban headhunting, in his new Introduction, Pringle briefly comments on Derek Freeman's review of his original Rajahs and Rebels. In his review, Freeman challenged Pringle's argument that anthropologists had yet to explore the symbolism and sociology of Iban headhunting. While Pringle is almost certainly correct in noting in his response that many details concerning headhunting and its connection with other facets of traditional Iban life are now forever lost, on the other hand, it should be noted that, in fact, Freeman's field notes, which Freeman refers to in his review, are not only intact and available, but are now, fittingly, housed in Kuching in the Tun Jugah Foundation archives. Moreover, the allegorical narrative that Freeman refers to as a primary source of headhunting symbolism has since been published by a former student of Freeman, James Masing, himself a Baleh Iban and state cabinet minister. (11) Sandin, too, has published a comparable Saribas version of this same ritual narrative. (12) Later, following his review, Freeman himself wrote an important essay on symbolic aspects of headhunting ritual, particularly in connection with fertility, both human and agricultural, (13) a topic that others have also subsequently addressed?4 In addition, this reviewer has written on the sociology of Iban warfare and on its links to ritual, competitive male prestige, and leadership. (15)

Pringle concludes his present Introduction by noting some omissions in Rajahs and Rebels which, in retrospect, he feels he should have addressed. To begin with, he observes, "Rajahs and Rebels ends, more or less, with the reign of Charles Brooke in 1917." While the last two decades of Brooke rule were certainly, as Reece, Ooi, and others have shown, a time of growing paralysis, they also marked the belated beginnings of administrative reform and far-reaching economic change. In mitigation, Pringle notes that the materials needed for a study of the Vyner Brooke period were simply not available in Sarawak. Nonetheless, Pringle adds, "certain relevant material was left out" (2010: xv).
   One omission was the story of Asun's 'rebellion,' a last gasp of
   Iban restiveness stimulated by the hardships of the Great
   Depression, which thanks to smallholder rubber cultivation reached
   the most remote areas of the state. Also omitted were some
   observations on one of the great ironies of Brooke rule: that
   despite its famous conservatism, it nevertheless changed almost
   every aspect of Sarawak's social fabric.


Pringle sought to redress these omissions by publishing a pair of articles in the Sarawak Museum Journal, "but," as he writes in retrospect, "they would have been better included in the book itself' (2010: xv).

In the long run, it is now apparent, Brooke policies altered the ethnic balance of power in Sarawak to the Ibans' disadvantage. Education, as Pringle, notes, was all but non-existent in pre-war Sarawak. Once mission schools appeared, educated Iban were largely excluded from government service, except as policemen and court recorders. Here, it might be argued that by focusing his attention on "country places," Pringle gave insufficient attention to Brooke relations with Sarawak's town-based Malay elite. From the very beginning, the Brookes recruited their native administrative agents exclusively from the Sarawak Malay perabangan class. This policy remained in place to the very end of the Brooke Raj. Astonishingly, considering that the Malays represent only a small minority of the state's population, it was not until 1932 that the first non-Malay native officer (an Iban) was appointed, and that, by the onset of the Japanese occupation, there were only seven non-Malay Native Officers in the whole of Sarawak. By contrast, the Japanese quickly recognized the administrative abilities of the Iban and recruited considerable numbers of educated Iban into government service. It is one of the great, and still unexplained, injustices that the immediate post-war colonial government, while quickly forgiving Malay "collaboration" with the Japanese, treated former Iban officers with extreme harshness, thus destroying the nascent careers of a generation of potential downriver Iban leaders, just when their talents were most needed. While, at the beginning of Brooke rule, there was a more or less equal balance of power between the Iban and Malays, unquestionably the prestige and power of the Malays over the Iban had increased by the last years of Brooke rule. Pringle, in fact, cites a senior member of a leading Second Division Malay family, a descendant of three generations of Native Officers, who tells him, "perhaps," Pringle observes, "exaggerating slightly,"
   Before the Rajah came the Malays and Ibans were all equal. There
   were not enough of us to be above the lbans: we would have lost our
   heads. The Rajah lifted the Malays over the Ibans" (1970: 285).


While in the pre-Brooke era the Iban employed their military skills to confine Malay power largely to small coastal enclaves, with the Brookes, Iban military prowess was redirected toward subduing the Iban themselves. Once subdued, the Iban were then placed under the surrogate control of a small elite of Malay Native Officers. In the end, in contrast to Pringle's original argument, the consequences of Brooke rule for the Iban, it would seem, were not very different from those experienced by tribal societies in other parts of Southeast Asia.

There remains, of course, one major difference. By using military prowess to set one [ban group against another, the Brookes intensified already existing intraregional hostilities within Iban society to the lasting detriment of the Iban themselves. Here, Pringle deserves the last word:
   There is one important aspect of Brooke rule that I neglected to
   recognize. I noted that Brooke policies "encouraged the
   preservation of traditional lban values and practices of all kinds,
   those that inhibited Iban progress even today, as well as those
   that remain a treasured legacy from the past." But at a time when
   Sarawak was already being incorporated into Malaysia, I might have
   gone somewhat further. Whatever might be said about the morality of
   Brooke rule--and in some ways it was morally superior to most
   mainstream colonial regimes--its policies left the Iban people as a
   whole habituated, almost addicted, to lethal divisions among
   themselves. Surely this heritage did not serve them well when, as
   the largest ethnic group in the state, they needed to find their
   political feet in order to help achieve a healthy balance of
   interest between Kuala Lumpur and Kuching (2010: xvi).


As Pringle adds, this weakness had other contributing causes as well.

But whatever its complete causation may have been, Iban disunity has not served either Sarawak or Malaysia well, contributing as it has to unwise, indeed reckless, environmental policies and the severe underrepresentation of Sarawak in national affairs (2010: xvi).

Inevitably, conditions of the present alter our perceptions of the past and, forty years later, Brooke-Iban relations now seem far less unique and benevolent than they did in the opening years of Malaysian independence.

(Clifford Sather, Editor BRB

Prof. Emeritus in Anthropology

University of Helsinki)

(5) Clifford Sather, 1981, "Benedict Sandin, 1918-1982: A biographical memoir," SMJ, 29(50): 114.

(6) Sather, 1981: 107.

(7) Clifford Sather, 1994, Introduction, In: Benedict Sandin, Sources of Iban Traditional History, special monograph. 7, SMJ, see pp. 47-57.

(8) R.A. Cramb, 2007, Landand Longhouse: Agrarian Transformation in the Uplands of Sarawak, 75-76.

(9) See, for example, James C. Scott, 2009, The Art of Not Being Governed. An Anarchist History of Upland Southeast Asia.

(10) See Thomas Gibson and Kenneth Sillander, eds., 2011, Anarchic Solidarity: Autonomy, Equality, and Fellowship in Southeast Asia.

(11) James Masing, 1997, The Coming of the Gods, 2 vols.

(12) Benedict Sandin, 1977, Gawai Burong: The Chants' and Celebrations of the Iban Bird Festival.

(13) Derek Freeman, 1979, Severed Heads that Germinate, In: R.J. Hook, ed., Fantasy and Symbol.

(14) See Julian Davison and Vinson Sutlive, 1991, The children of Nising: Images of Headhunting and Male Sexuality in Iban Ritual and Oral Literature. In: Vinson Sutlive and George Appell, eds., Female and Male in Borneo.

(15) Clifford Sather, 1996, "All Threads are White": Iban Egalitarianism Reconsidered, In: James J. Fox and Clifford Sather, eds., Origins, Ancestry and Alliance.
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Author:Sather, Clifford
Publication:Borneo Research Bulletin
Article Type:Book review
Date:Jan 1, 2011
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