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We enjoyed a good night’s rest, for the air was deliciously cool, and the noise made by the stream as it rushed past the sides of the little Ghita had a very pleasant and somnolent effect. Mosquito nets were unnecessary, none of these pests existing so far inland; but we were much persecuted during the day by a large red-and-black painted fly, which inflicts a very painful and poisonous bite, and is very numerous on the upper Rejang.

We were up betimes, and at seven o’clock were again under weigh, though making but slow progress against the rapid current. The river, however, widened to nearly a mile in breadth two hours after leaving Kanowit, and we made better way, the mouth of the Katibus stream being passed at mid-day. This, which has evoked the cognomen in Sarawak of the “accursed river,” is rightly so called, for it has always been a thorn in the side of the Government, and the tribe (Katibus) living on its banks have given more trouble than any in the country, for although closely allied in manners and customs to the Kanowits, the Katibus are a far braver race, and less easily subdued.

The character of the country around this part of the River Rejang is extremely beautiful, and presents a pleasing contrast to the flat swampy marshes which line the river below Kanowit. Steep rocky hills here rise abruptly to a great height from the river, the water of which was so clear that the smallest pebble at the bottom could be seen, although we found, on sounding, the water to be nearly forty feet deep. Far away on the horizon we could discern a long range of precipitous, rugged mountains, on the far side of which lay Kapit, our destination.

A large war-canoe was passed a short distance above Katibus, containing forty or fifty men of that tribe. They looked fine hardy fellows, and much broader made than any natives I had yet seen in Bornéo, but were of far less pleasing countenance and more ferocious aspect than our friends the Kanowits, scarcely deigning to look at the launch as we passed them, but sweeping along down stream with a scowl on their ill-favoured features.

The bright sunny afternoon wore away rather monotonously, for not a living thing was to be seen, excepting occasionally a small Dyak habitation, with its small strip of clearing whereon the owners grew their “padi” or rice. At last, as the sun was setting like a ball of fire behind the distant mountains, we heard the faint sound of gongs, which announced that we were approaching Kapit.

The country around us now became wilder, and we entered a gorge, rocky and precipitous, but less wooded than any part of the Rejang we had as yet passed. The river here narrowed considerably, and the navigation became very dangerous, on account of the extreme swiftness of the current, which rushed by at a tremendous pace, carrying large snags, or pieces of timber, with it, a blow from one of which would have sent the little Ghita flying. The dreaded “Makun” rapid, in which so many have lost their lives, is not far above Kapit, and greatly increases the dangers of ascending this part of the river.

We now came in sight of a fleet of some 100 huge war canoes, each one containing about forty men, who on our appearance struck up a tremendous row on the gongs and drums, to give the Resident welcome. The sound of these, mingled with the roar of the water as it dashed through the ravine, had a strange and weird effect. These people had been living above Kapit and out of sight of the Government, eluding taxes, taking heads, and otherwise misbehaving themselves. A Government expedition was formed to remedy this state of affairs, the result being their total defeat, and the order to remove below Kapit which they had now obeyed.

Having rounded the corner of the next reach, we arrived off the little wooden fort which protects the village of Kapit. The latter, however, can scarcely be called a village, having consisted, till quite recently, of but two large native houses. The tribes around, as I have said, having given great trouble of late years, it was decided to form a Government Station, and to that end a fine wooden fort (which at the time of our visit was but half finished) was commenced.

The country and climate around Kapit are quite different to other parts of Sarawak, the former being mountainous, rocky, and free from jungle, and the latter temperate and cool.

We landed and walked up to the Fort, which is situated in a first-rate position on one of the many hills overlooking the river. Although in a very unfinished state, it contained one room nearly completed, in which we managed to live very comfortably. We had scarcely arrived here half an hour ere our apartment was filled with some of the most extraordinary mortals I have ever beheld.

A number of tribes exist around Kapit, each of which (with the exception of the wild and homeless Ukit) had its representative here during our visit, for the station being in charge of a Eurasian, or half-caste, the advent of Europeans attracted many to the fort, some of whom had never before seen a white man.

The most powerful and civilised of these tribes are the Kayans, who extend from Rejang far into the dominions of the Sultan of Brunei, and, besides these, the Poonans, Pakatans, and Ukits, but the latter are generally supposed to be the wildest specimens of the human race yet met with in Bornéo. This tribe (which is the only one living at the head of Rejang not tattooed) has been occasionally but seldom seen in these regions by Europeans, as they shrink from all intercourse with mankind, and fly at the approach of any but their own race. They are described as being of a much lighter colour than the Poonans, possess no dwellings, and are totally unclothed. The absurd reports of men with tails existing in Bornéo may possibly be traced to the fact that these men are frequently likened to monkeys by their more civilised brethren, who look upon them with great contempt, and by whom they are much feared and avoided.

The Kayans, on the other hand, are the finest and most civilised aboriginal race in the island. Their men, who are of a splendid physique and considerably taller than any other tribe in Sarawak, are of a light copper colour. Their dress is nearly identical with the Kanowits, excepting that they wear many more ornaments, but no turbans. Their long, coarse, black hair streamed in some cases far below the waist, and they were not a little proud of this appendage, which was cut square over the forehead. The Kayans were not at all given to joking like the Kanowits, but all wore an appearance of suspicion and distrust on their faces, which even the genial influence of square face ("Hollands”) failed to banish, but which originated perhaps more from shyness than ill-temper. Their women wore more clothes than any other tribe, being clothed in a long and flowing “sarong,” a species of petticoat, reaching from the waist to the feet, and a white linen jacket. They were very ugly, and their teeth stained a jet black.

The mode of burial practised by the Kayans is a curious one, and I here give it in the words of an eye-witness:

When a man dies, his friends and relatives meet in the “ruai,” and take their usual seats. The deceased is then brought up attired in his waistcloth and ornaments, with a straw cigar fixed in his mouth, and, having been placed on the mat in the same manner as when alive, his betel box is set by his side. The friends and relatives then go through the form of conversing with him, and offering the best advice concerning his future proceedings. This palaver over, the corpse is placed in a large wooden box, and kept in the house for several months. At the expiration of this time, the relatives and friends again assemble, and the coffin is taken out and deposited on a high tree. The deceased is repeatedly cautioned during the ceremony to beware that he does not lose his way: “Follow the road,” they say, “till it branches off into three directions. Be careful in selecting the centre path, for that to the right will lead you back to Bornéo, while the one to the left will take you to the sea.” After many similar cautions the assembly breaks up, and the body is left to its fate.

The day after our arrival at Kapit was taken up by the Resident in trying law cases, receiving taxes, &c. L. and I, therefore, secured a canoe, and, accompanied by five Malay sailors from the launch, one of whom was acquainted with the Poonan language, we proceeded up river to a large house occupied by this curious tribe, who inhabit the country between the Rejang and Koti rivers. It may give the reader some idea of the strength of the stream above Kapit when I say that it took our men over two hours to accomplish the distance (three miles) from the Fort to the house.

The landing-place was at length reached, after a tough pull, and at a distance of about 200 yards from it stood the Poonan dwelling. This, which contained about 150 inhabitants, was about 40 yards long, and was built on the same principle as those at Kanowit, excepting that it was on its last legs in point of repair, for many of the posts on which it stood had rotted away and fallen to the ground, a proceeding of which the house appeared likely shortly to follow the example. Noticing an unusually quiet and dejected air about the place, very unusual whenever a visit is paid by a European to a Bornean dwelling, we inquired the reason from our guides, and were informed that a Head Feast had been celebrated there the preceding four days, and that probably the inmates were endeavouring to sleep off the evil effects of their potations, and this we subsequently found to be correct.

These “Head Feasts” are general among the aboriginal tribes throughout the island of Bornéo, and are held when a new head has been added to the ghastly trophies of the Dyak’s house. They are now, however, rare, as head hunting is punished by death in Sarawak, but on the occasion of an expedition by Government against a hostile tribe, head hunting is permitted to those fighting against the rebels. On the occasion of one of these feasts, the “ruai” is gaily decorated with green boughs, palm leaves, &c., and the heads to be feasted are taken out and hung from one of the posts in the hall. An incessant beating of gongs, drums, &c., is kept up unceasingly for four days and nights, and war-dances performed by the warriors of the tribe. Strong “arrack" is brewed in large quantities from the gornuti palm, and the scene of debauchery that succeeds the first day of the feast is indescribable. Drunken men lie about in all directions, shrieks and yells resound throughout the village, and for four days the whole place is given up to dissipation and riot. A food-offering is made to the heads on the first day, and a piece of rice stuck in their mouths, which gives them a most ghastly appearance, as, when freshly taken, they are smoked over a slow fire until the skin assumes the consistency of leather, and thus preserves to a certain extent the expression, though blackened and disfigured, of the face during lifetime. It was once my fate, in 1873, to be staying at a Dyak house on the Batang Lupar river during one of these entertainments, and I have no wish to repeat the experiment.

This, then, had been the state of affairs at the dwelling we were about to visit. Cautiously clambering up the entrance pole, half the notches in which had rotted away and left but a precarious foothold, we entered the house, the flooring of which stood nearly 30 feet above ground, and within which a sorry spectacle presented itself. Heaps of food, in the shape of rice, pork, &c., lay strewn about the floor, on which also reposed (undisturbed even by the loud barking which the dogs set up on our arrival) the male members of the tribe, some seventy in number.

The overpowering stench arising from stale arrack, &c., was well-nigh sickening, while, to complete the unsavoury coup a’oeil, a bunch of human heads, their mouths stuffed with rice, grinned at us from the end post of the ruai, whence their owners had not yet sufficiently recovered from their orgies to remove them.

Our Malays succeeded, after some trouble, in waking a young brave who had evidently succumbed to fatigue (and arrack) while performing the war-dance, as he was still in full war costume. He, however, quickly recovered himself, and arousing forty or fifty of his companions, led us off to see the chief or head-man of the tribe. Preceded by these youths, whose unsteady gait and sleepy faces afforded our Malay guides no small amusement, we cautiously crept along the ruai, passing at every ten paces or so enormous holes in the bamboo flooring occasioned by rot, and a fall through which would have precipitated us into the mud and filth thirty feet below.

The chief, rejoicing in the name of “Lat,” was a fine-looking old man about sixty, tattooed to the eyes, and with long grey hairs streaming down below his waist. He wore a dirty waistcloth which had once been white, his only adornment being a short red flannel jacket, fastened with three old buttons of the 34th Regiment of the time of George III.; how they ever got there is, and ever has been, a mystery to me.

“Lat” was sitting or rather lying in a three-sided wooden box or alcove, about ten feet square, built upon the centre of the ruai. This is invariably the dwelling-place of a head-man of a house throughout this tribe, and with the exception of Europeans no one may enter it.

We had evidently called at an inauspicious moment, for Lat seemed rather annoyed at being disturbed from his “siesta,” and, to judge from his looks, had been having a high time of it during the feast. Shaking hands with him, an operation which he performed half unconsciously, we took our departure and left this merry old gentleman to his slumbers.

Our guides now showed the way into one of the smaller rooms leading out of the ruai, and occupied by Mrs. Lat and her two fair daughters. We found these (unlike the Kayans) tattooed over the face as well as body, and each wore the short skirt of the Kanowit. These were the fairest natives I ever saw in Bornéo, being of a light yellow complexion, not unlike the Chinese. Their jet-black hair was unsecured and allowed to fall in profusion down their backs, while their arms were ornamented with brass rings and bright-coloured beads. From the neck to the waist they wore a succession of brass rings which formed a species of cuirass. These when once put on are never taken off again. Had it not been for the practice of elongating the ear-lobes and staining and filing the teeth, these women would not have been bad-looking. The former operation is performed by introducing at an early age a light metal earring followed by heavier ones as the wearer gets older, until the lobe of the ear touches the shoulder; in fact, I afterwards saw an old Poonan dame who could introduce her hand into the aperture, with the greatest ease, and whose earrings weighed 1 lb. each.

The teeth, as I have said, are stained black, and filed into the shape of a V, in some cases a hole being bored through the front ones and a piece of brass knocked in; this being considered an additional adornment.

The atmosphere of the apartment in which Mrs. Lat resided rapidly became rather oppressive, there being about ten people in the room, which was about fourteen feet square, and we were not sorry, therefore, to take our leave and return to the ruai. The ladies, too, were not in the best of tempers, especially Mrs. L., who was evidently much put out at the goings on of her better half during the past three days.

On re-seating ourselves in the ruai, L. happened to notice the intricate and really beautiful tattooing on the body of one of the younger men. The latter seeing this, asked us through our interpreter if we should care to be operated upon in a similar manner this being considered a great honour to a guest; and no sooner had we accepted the offer than an old woman made her appearance armed with the necessary implements, and with the aid of a pair of very blunt needles, and a peculiar species of dye obtained from a tree, succeeded, after a good hour’s work, in embellishing us L. with a ring on each shoulder (the sign manual of the tribe), and myself with a bird, whose genus it would puzzle most naturalists to determine, but which was popularly supposed among the Poonans to represent a hornbill, on the arm. Strange to say neither L.’s punctures nor mine showed the slightest signs of inflammation afterwards, and the figures are far more distinct than they would be had Indian ink or gunpowder been employed.

On leaving the house we noticed several blow-pipes, a hollow tube eight feet long called by the Poonans “sumpitan,” the chief weapon of this tribe, and in the manufacture of which they greatly excel. The darts used are about five inches long, and are dipped in upas juice. The slightest scratch from one of these, drawing blood, proves fatal in less than half an hour unless at once attended to; the only remedy being to keep the patient awake by walking him up and down, and dosing him with brandy or whiskey. Should he once give way to the feeling of drowsiness he sleeps never to wake again.

We were entertained one evening during our stay at Kapit by a war-dance of Kayans on the terrace outside the fort. A large crowd of some 200 from the canoes down river had assembled to witness the dancing, and the bright moonlight and flaring torches shedding an uncertain light over their dark faces and barbaric dress and ornaments, presented a picture not readily forgotten.

A ring being formed, two of the best dancers of the Kayans tribe stepped into the enclosure, each dressed in full war costume. This consists of a long jacket of leopard skin, which covers alone the back of the wearer, and comes down to his knees. This is secured round the neck by a huge shell, and is covered from top to bottom with the black and white feathers of the rhinoceros hornbill loosely attached to it, and which flapping about with every movement of the wearer, gives him the appearance of some huge bird. In addition to this cloak is worn the waist-cloth, and a tight-fitting skull-cap of monkey skin, with three enormous hornbill feathers stuck upright in it, completes the costume. Armed, in addition to his spear, with Parang ilang and shield (the latter ornamented with tufts of human hair), the Kayan brave is ready for the war-path.

The Kayan war-dance is not danced (as is the Dyak) to a lively measure of gongs and drums, a wind instrument being used constructed out of a gourd and three short pieces of bamboo. This is called a Kaluri, and although possessing but five separate notes in a minor key, the tone is not unmusical, though very melancholy. The dance itself has a history, the first part representing two warriors meeting on the war-path. An exciting combat then ensues in which one is killed, and the survivor is indulging in a solitary pas de joie, when he suddenly discovers that he has by mistake killed his brother. He is giving way to violent paroxysms of grief, when his relative, who had been only severely wounded, suddenly rises, and a triumphant pas de deux brings the pantomime to a close. This performance lasted nearly half an hour, and judging from the exertions of the dancers it must be terribly fatiguing, for although a cool evening the perspiration fairly poured off their bodies, and they fell exhausted on the ground at the close of the performance.

Another dance succeeded this one, performed by two boys, apparently each about thirteen years old, who went through it with surprising grace. Although using full-sized Parangs and shields, they whirled them round their heads with the greatest ease, for dancing, like paddling, deer-snaring, and the use of the Parang ilang, are part of the Kayan education.

A week passed pleasantly at Kapit, for each day brought us fresh objects of interest. For the first two or three nights at the fort, however, our sleep was much disturbed by what we imagined to be a dog barking outside the fort. Thinking that one of the pariahs from the adjoining houses had taken up his quarters there, I sat up for him one night with a gun. At midnight, his usual hour, the noise recommenced, but what was my surprise to find that it proceeded not from under the fort, but from the rafters above, and that the intruder was a large brown lizard about a foot long, which emits a sound quite as loud, and exactly like the barking of a dog. It is called by the Poonans the Kok-Goo, and as its advent in any house is considered to be an especial piece of good fortune, we left it to continue its nocturnal barkings in peace.

We left Kapit the end of the week, and nine days after reached Kuching, not sorry to be amongst civilised comforts again.

The Rejang river is at last in a fair way of becoming an important one, and the tribes living along its banks are gradually getting to understand that trade is preferable to head hunting, for, within the last fifteen months, but one case has occurred in the Residency. I chanced on my return to Kuching to come across a number of the Illustrated London News containing a letter from a Danish gentleman, Mr. Carl Bock, in which he announced his having been among a race in Bornéo called the Poonans, and went on to observe that he was the only European who had ever seen this tribe, or had intercourse with them. This error I hastened to correct, and wrote to the Illustrated London News, explaining that the tribe visited by Mr. Bock and ourselves was identical, also venturing to express a doubt as to the existence of cannibalism amongst them, the reports of which Mr. Bock believed in. While at Kapit I made frequent inquiries through an interpreter concerning this practice, but my questions as to its existence were invariably met with an indignant denial.

My letter the Illustrated was good enough to take notice of, and it appeared in that journal on September 4th, 1880. I may add that cannibalism, although known to exist in Sumatra, and supposed to be prevalent in New Guinea, has ever been doubted by competent judges to exist in the island of Bornéo.