About Borneo

Borneo is the third largest island in the world and is located north of Java, Indonesia, at the geographic centre of Maritime Southeast Asia.

The island is divided among three countries: Brunei, Indonesia and Malaysia. Approximately 73% of the island is Indonesian territory. The Malaysian states of Sabah and Sarawak in the north occupy about 26% of the island. The sovereign state of Brunei, located on the north coast, comprises about 1% of Borneo's land area. Borneo is home to one of the oldest rainforests in the world.


Borneo is surrounded by the South China Sea to the north and northwest, the Sulu Sea to the northeast, the Celebes Sea and the Makassar Strait to the east, and the Java Sea and Karimata Strait to the south. To the west of Borneo are the Malay Peninsula and Sumatra. To the south is Java. To the east is Sulawesi, and to the northeast, the Philippines.

With an area of 743,330 square kilometres (287,000 sq mi), it is the third-largest island in the world, which is also the largest island of the largest continent in the world (Asia). Its highest point is Mount Kinabalu in Sabah, Malaysia, with an elevation of 4,095 m (13,435 ft).[1]

The largest river system is the Kapuas in West Kalimantan with a length of 1,143 km (710 mi). Other major rivers include the Mahakam in East Kalimantan (980 km long (610 mi)), the Barito in South Kalimantan (880 km long (550 mi)), and Rajang in Sarawak (562.5 km (349.5 mi)).

Borneo has significant cave systems. Clearwater Cave, for example, has one of the world's longest underground rivers. Deer Cave is home to over three million bats, with guano accumulated to over 100 metres (330 ft) deep.[2]

Before sea levels rose at the end of the last Ice Age, Borneo was part of the mainland of Asia, forming, with Java and Sumatra, the upland regions of a peninsula that extended east from present day Indochina and Thailand. The South China Sea and Gulf of Thailand now submerge the former low-lying areas of the peninsula. Deeper waters separating Borneo from neighboring Sulawesi prevented a land connection to that island, creating the divide between Asian and Australia-New Guinea biological regions known as Wallace's Line.


The Borneo rainforest is 130 million years old, making it the oldest rainforest in the world. There are about 15,000 species of flowering plants with 3,000 species of trees (267 species are dipterocarps), 221 species of terrestrial mammals and 420 species of resident birds in Borneo.[3] There are about 440 freshwater fish species in Borneo (about the same as Sumatra and Java combined).[4] It is the centre of evolution and radiation of many endemic species of plants and animals. The Borneo rainforest is one of the only remaining natural habitats for the endangered Bornean orangutan. It is an important refuge for many endemic forest species, including the Asian elephant, the Sumatran rhinoceros, the Bornean clouded leopard, the Hose's civet and the dayak fruit bat. The World Wide Fund for Nature has stated that 361 animal and plant species have been discovered in Borneo since 1996.[5]

The World Wide Fund for Nature divides the island into seven distinct ecoregions. The Borneo lowland rain forests cover most of the island, with an area of 427,500 square kilometres (165,100 sq mi). Other lowland ecoregions are the Borneo peat swamp forests, the Kerangas or Sundaland heath forests, the Southwest Borneo freshwater swamp forests, and the Sunda Shelf mangroves. The Borneo montane rain forests lie in the central highlands of the island, above the 1,000 metres (3,300 ft) elevation. The highest elevations of Mount Kinabalu are home to the Kinabalu mountain alpine meadow, an alpine shrubland notable for its numerous endemic species, including many orchids.


Early history

According to ancient Chinese, Indian and Javanese manuscripts, western coastal cities of Borneo had become trading ports, part of their trade routes, since the first millennium.[7] In Chinese manuscripts, gold, camphor, tortoise shells, hornbill ivory, rhinoceros horn, crane crest, beeswax, lakawood (a scented heartwood and root wood of a thick liana, Dalbergia parviflora), dragon's blood, rattan, edible bird's nests and various spices were among the most valuable items from Borneo.[8] The Indians named Borneo Suvarnabhumi (the land of gold) and also Karpuradvipa (Camphor Island). The Javanese named Borneo Puradvipa, or Diamond Island. Archaeological findings in the Sarawak river delta reveal that the area was once a thriving trading centre between India and China from the 500's until about 1300 AD.[8]

Dayaks, the natives of Borneo in their traditional war dress. Headhunting was an important part of Dayak culture.

One of the earliest evidence of Hindu influence in Southeast Asia were stone pillars which bear inscriptions in the Pallava script found in Kutai along the Mahakam River in East Kalimantan, dating to around the second half of the 300s AD.[9]

In the 14th century, almost all coastal parts of Borneo were under the control of Majapahit kingdom as is written in the Javanese Nagarakretagama document (ca. 1365) and it was called Nusa Tanjungnagara. In the 15th century, the Majapahit rule exerted its influence in Borneo. Princess Junjung Buih, the queen of the Hindu kingdom of Negara Dipa (situated in Candi Agung area of Amuntai) married a Javanese prince, Prince Suryanata, and together they ruled the kingdom which is a tributary to the Majapahit Empire (1365). In this way, it became a part of Nusantara. Along the way, the power of Negara Dipa weakened and was replaced by the new court of Negara Daha. When Prince Samudra (Prince Suriansyah) of Negara Daha converted to Islam and formed the Islamic kingdom of Banjar, it inherited some of the areas previously ruled by the Hindu kingdom of Negara Daha.

The Sultanate of Brunei, during its golden age from the 15th century to the 17th century, ruled a large part of northern Borneo. In 1703 (other sources say 1658), the Sultanate of Sulu received North Borneo from the Sultan of Brunei, after Sulu sent aid against a rebellion in Brunei. During the 1450s, Shari'ful Hashem Syed Abu Bakr, an Arab born in Johor, arrived in Sulu from Malacca. In 1457, he founded the Sultanate of Sulu; he then renamed himself "Paduka Maulana Mahasari Sharif Sultan Hashem Abu Bakr".

Dutch and British control

Subsequently HM Sultan Jamalul Ahlam Kiram (1863–1881), the 29th reigning Sultan of Sulu, leased North Borneo in 1878 to Gustavus Baron de Overbeck and Alfred Dent, representing the British North Borneo Company[10] in what is now the Malaysian state of Sabah. The company also exerted control on inland territories that were inhabited by numerous tribes.

In 1842 James Brooke was granted large parts of Sarawak, as a result of helping the governor quell a local rebellion. The Brooke dynasty were to end up ruling Sarawak for a hundred years and became famous as the White Rajahs.[11]

A large log being placed on a railroad car at Batottan, British North Borneo in 1926

In the early 19th century, British and Dutch governments signed the Anglo-Dutch Treaty of 1824 to exchange trading ports under their controls and assert spheres of influence, which indirectly set apart the two parts of Borneo into British and Dutch controlled areas. China has had historical trading links with the inhabitants of the island. Some of the Chinese beads and wares found their way deep into the interior of Borneo. The Malay and Sea Dayak pirates preyed on maritime shipping in the waters between Singapore and Hong Kong from their haven in Borneo.[12]

World War II

During World War II, Japanese forces gained control of Borneo (1941–45). They decimated many local populations and killed Malay intellectuals. Sultan Muhammad Ibrahim Shafi ud-din II of Sambas in Kalimantan was executed in 1944. The Sultanate was thereafter suspended and replaced by a Japanese council.[13] During the Japanese occupation, the Dayaks played a role in guerilla warfare against the occupying forces, particularly in the Kapit Division, where headhunting was temporarily revived towards the end of the war.[14] Allied Z Special Unit provided assistance to them. After the fall of Singapore, several thousand British and Australian prisoners of war were sent to camps in Borneo. At one of the very worst sites, around Sandakan in Borneo, only six of some 2,500 prisoners survived.[15] In 1945 the island was liberated from the Japanese.

Recent history

Borneo was the main site of the confrontation between Indonesia and Malaysia between 1962 and about 1969 in which the British Army was deployed against the Indonesians and against communist revolts to gain control of the whole area. Before the formation of Malaysian Federation, the Philippines claimed that the Malaysian state of Sabah is within their territorial rights based on historical facts of the Sultanate of Sulu's leasing agreement with the North Borneo Company.


Borneo has 19,800,000 inhabitants (in mid 2010), a population density of 26 inhabitants per square km. Most of the population lives in coastal cities, although the hinterland is occupied at most in small towns and villages along the rivers. The population mainly consists of Malays, Banjar, Chinese and Dayak ethnic groups. The Chinese, who make up 29% of the population of Sarawak and 17% of total population in West Kalimantan,[16] originally migrated from southeastern China.[17] The majority of the population in Kalimantan is either Muslim or practice animism. Approximately 91% of the Dayaks are Christian, a religion introduced by missionaries in the 19th century. In Central Kalimantan there is also a small Hindu minority. In the interior of Borneo are also the Penan, some of who still practice a nomadic hunter-gatherer existence. In some coastal areas of marginal settlements are also found Bajau, who were historically associated with a sea-oriented, boat-dwelling, nomadic existence. In the northwest of Borneo, the Dayak ethnic group is represented by the Iban with about 710,000 members.

Kalimantan was the focus for an intense transmigration program that financed the relocation of poor landless families from Java, Madura, and Bali. In 2001, transmigrants made up 21% of the population in Central Kalimantan.[18] Since the 1990s, violent conflict has occurred between some transmigrant and indigenous populations; in Kalimantan, thousands were killed in fighting between Madurese transmigrants and the indigenous Dayak people.[19]

Dayak people

The Dayak or Dyak are the native people of Borneo.[1] It is a loose term for over 200 riverine and hill-dwelling ethnic subgroups, located principally in the interior of Borneo, each with its own dialect, customs, laws, territory and culture, although common distinguishing traits are readily identifiable. Dayak languages are categorised as part of the Austronesian languages in Asia. The Dayak were animist in belief; however many converted to Christianity, and some to Islam more recently.[2] Estimates for the Dayak population range from 2 to 4 million.[3][4]

The main ethnic groups of Dayaks are the Bakumpai and Dayak Bukit of South Kalimantan, The Ngajus, Baritos, Benuaqs of East Kalimantan, the Kayan and Kenyah groups and their subtribes in Central Borneo and the Ibans, Embaloh (Maloh), Kayan, Kenyah, Penan, Kelabit, Lun Bawang and Taman populations in the Kapuas and Sarawak regions. Other populations include the Ahe, JagoiSelakau, Bidayuh, and Kutai

Iban or Sea Dajak boy and girl in traditional clothing


Raden Demang Béhé, head of the Ot-Danom-Dayaks in Ambalu (Upper-Melawi river), Central-Borneo. Photographed between 1890 and 1920.

The Dayak people of Borneo possess an indigenous account of their history, partly in writing and partly in common cultural customary practices.[citation needed] In addition, colonial accounts and reports of Dayak activity in Borneo detail carefully cultivated economic and political relationships with other communities as well as an ample body of research and study considering historical Dayak migrations.[citation needed] In particular, the Iban or the Sea Dayak exploits in the South China Seas are documented, owing to their ferocity and aggressive culture of war against sea dwelling groups and emerging Western trade interests in the 19th and 20th centuries.[citation needed]


During World War II, the Japanese occupied Borneo and treated all of the indigenous peoples poorly - massacres of the Malay and Dayak peoples were common, especially among the Dayaks of the Kapit Division.[5] Following this treatment, the Dayaks formed a special force to assist the Allied forces. Eleven United States airmen and a few dozen Australian special operatives trained a thousand Dayaks from the Kapit Division to battle the Japanese with guerrilla warfare. This army of tribesmen killed or captured some 1,500 Japanese soldiers and were able to provide the Allies with intelligence vital in securing Japanese-held oil fields.[6]


Coastal populations in Borneo are largely Muslim in belief, however these groups (Tidung, Bulungan, Paser, Melanau, Kadayan, Bakumpai, Bisayah) are generally considered to be Islamized Dayaks, native to Borneo, and heavily influenced by the Javanese Majapahit Kingdoms and Islamic Malay Sultanates.


Other groups in coastal areas of Sabah, Sarawak and northern Kalimantan; namely the Illanun, Tausug, Sama and Bajau, although inhabiting and (in the case of the Tausug group) ruling, the northern tip of Borneo for centuries, have their origins from the southern Philippines. These groups are not Dayak, but instead are grouped under the separate umbrella term of Moro.


Traditional headhunter culture


The gallery in the interior of a Kajan Dayak house with skulls and weapons along the wall, exhibiting their headhunters culture


In the past, the Dayak were feared for their ancient tradition of headhunting practices. After mass conversions to Christianity and Islam, and anti-headhunting legislation by the colonial powers was passed, the practice was banned and appeared to have disappeared. Headhunting began to surface again in the mid-1940s, when the Allied Powers encouraged the practice against the Japanese. It also slightly surged in the late 90s, when the Dayak started to attack Madurese emigrants in an explosion of ethnic violence.[7]



Traditionally, Dayak agriculture was based on swidden rice cultivation. Agricultural Land in this sense was used and defined primarily in terms of hill rice farming, ladang (garden), and hutan (forest). Dayaks organised their labour in terms of traditionally based land holding groups which determined who owned rights to land and how it was to be used. The "green revolution" in the 1950s, spurred on the planting of new varieties of wetland rice amongst Dayak tribes.


The main dependence on subsistence and mid-scale agriculture by the Dayak has made this group active in this industry. The modern day rise in large scale monocrop plantations such as palm oil and bananas, proposed for vast swathes of Dayak land held under customary rights, titles and claims in Indonesia, threaten the local political landscape in various regions in Borneo. Further problems continue to arise in part due to the shaping of the modern Malaysian and Indonesian nation-states on post-colonial political systems and laws on land tenure. The conflict between the state and the Dayak natives on land laws and native customary rights will continue as long as the colonial model on land tenure is used against local customary law. The main precept of land use, in local customary law, is that cultivated land is owned and held in right by the native owners, and the concept of land ownership flows out of this central belief. This understanding of adat is based on the idea that land is used and held under native domain. Invariably, when colonial rule was first felt in the Kalimantan Kingdoms, conflict over the subjugation of territory erupted several times between the Dayaks and the respective authorities.



Dayak chief


The Dayak indigenous religion has been given the name Kaharingan, and may be said to be a form of animism. For official purposes, it is categorized as a form of Hinduism in Indonesia. Nevertheless, these generalizations fail to convey the distinctiveness, meaningfulness, richness and depth of Dayak religion, myth and teachings. Underlying the world-view is an account of the creation and re-creation of this middle-earth where the Dayak dwell, arising out of a cosmic battle in the beginning of time between a primal couple, a male and female bird/dragon (serpent). Representations of this primal couple are amongst the most pervasivel motifs of Dayak art. The primal mythic conflict ended in a mutual, procreative murder, from the body parts of which the present universe arose stage by stage. This primal sacrificial creation of the universe in all its levels is the paradigm for, and is re-experienced and ultimately harmoniously brought together (according to Dayak beliefs) in the seasons of the year, the interdependence of river (up-stream and down-stream) and land, the tilling of the earth and fall of the rain, the union of male and female, the distinctions between and cooperation of social classes, the wars and trade with foreigners, indeed in all aspects of life, even including tattoos on the body, the lay-out of dwellings and the annual cycle of renewal ceremonies, funeral rites, etc.[8] The practice of Kaharingan differs from group to group, but shamans, specialists in ecstatic flight to other spheres, are central to Dayak religion, and serve to bring together the various realms of Heaven (Upper-world) and earth, and even Under-world, for example healing the sick by retrieving their souls which are journeying on their way to the Upper-world land of the dead, accompanying and protecting the soul of a dead person on the way to their proper place in the Upper-world, presiding over annual renewal and agricultural regeneration festivals, etc.[9] Death rituals are most elaborate when a noble (kamang) dies.[10] On particular religious occasions, the spirit is believed to descend to partake in celebration, a mark of honour and respect to past ancestors and blessings for a prosperous future.


Over the last two centuries, some Dayaks converted to Islam, abandoning certain cultural rites and practices. Christianity was introduced by European missionaries in Borneo. Religious differences between Muslim and Christian natives of Borneo has led, at various times, to communal tensions.[11] Relations, however between all religious groups are generally good.


Muslim Dayaks have however retained their original identity and kept various customary practices consistent with their religion.However many Christian Dayak has changed their name to European or English name but some minority still maintain their ancestors traditional name.


An example of common identity, over and above religious belief, is the Melanau group. Despite the small population, to the casual observer, the coastal dwelling Melanau of Sarawak, generally do not identify with one religion, as a number of them have Islamized and Christianised over a period of time. A few practise a distinct Dayak form of Kaharingan, known as Liko. Liko is the earliest surviving form of religious belief for the Melanau, predating the arrival of Islam and Christianity to Sarawak. The somewhat patchy religious divisions remain, however the common identity of the Melanau is held politically and socially. Social cohesion amongst the Melanau, despite religious differences, is markedly tight.


Despite the destruction of pagan religions in Europe by Christians, most of the people who try to conserve the Dayak's religion are missionaries. For example Reverend William Howell contributed numerous articles on the Iban language, lore and culture between 1909-1910 to the Sarawak Gazette. The articles were later compiled in a book in 1963 entitled, The Sea Dayaks and Other Races of Sarawak.[12]




Dayak headhunters


Sea Dayaks (Iban) women from Rejang, Sarawak, wearing rattan corsets decorated with brass rings and filigree adornments. The family adds to the corset dress as the girl ages and based on her family's wealth.


One of the basic Dayak dances performed in a ceremony in 2007


Kinship in Dayak society is traced in both lines. Although, in Dayak Iban society, men and women possess equal rights in status and property ownership, political office has strictly been the occupation of the traditional Iban Patriarch. Overall Dayak leadership in any given region, is marked by titles, a Penghulu for instance would have invested authority on behalf of a network of Tuai Rumah's, and so on to a Temenggung or Panglima. Individual Dayak groups have their social and hierarchy systems defined internally, and these differ widely from Ibans to Ngajus and Benuaqs to Kayans.


The most salient feature of Dayak social organisation is the practice of Longhouse domicile. This is a structure supported by hardwood posts that can be hundreds of metres long, usually located along a terraced river bank. At one side is a long communal platform, from which the individual households can be reached. The Iban of the Kapuas and Sarawak have organized their Longhouse settlements in response to their migratory patterns. Iban Longhouses vary in size, from those slightly over 100 metres in length to large settlements over 500 metres in length. Longhouses have a door and apartment for every family living in the longhouse. For example, a Longhouse of 200 doors is equivalent to a settlement of 200 families.


Headhunting was an important part of Dayak culture, in particular to the Iban and Kenyah. There used to be a tradition of retaliation for old headhunts, which kept the practice alive. External interference by the reign of the Brooke Rajahs in Sarawak and the Dutch in Kalimantan Borneo curtailed and limited this tradition. Apart from massed raids, the practice of headhunting was then limited to individual retaliation attacks or the result of chance encounters. Early Brooke Government reports describe Dayak Iban and Kenyah War parties with captured enemy heads. At various times, there have been massive coordinated raids in the interior, and throughout coastal Borneo, directed by the Raj during Brooke's reign in Sarawak. This may have given rise to the term, Sea Dayak, although, throughout the 19th Century, Sarawak Government raids and independent expeditions appeared to have been carried out as far as Brunei, Mindanao, East coast Malaya, Jawa and Celebes. Tandem diplomatic relations between the Sarawak Government (Brooke Rajah) and Britain (East India Company and the Royal Navy) acted as a pivot and a deterrence to the former's territorial ambitions, against the Dutch administration in the Kalimantan regions and client sultanates.


In the Indonesian region, toplessness was the norm among the Dayak people, Javanese, and the Balinese people of Indonesia before the introduction of Islam and contact with Western cultures. In Javanese and Balinese societies, women worked or rested comfortably topless. Among the Dayak, only big breasted women or married women with sagging breasts cover their breasts because they interfered with their work.[13]


Metal-working is elaborately developed in making mandaus (machetes - parang in Malay and Indonesian). The blade is made of a softer iron, to prevent breakage, with a narrow strip of a harder iron wedged into a slot in the cutting edge for sharpness. In headhunting it was necessary to able to draw the parang quickly. For this purpose, the mandau is fairly short, which also better serves the purpose of trailcutting in dense forest. It is holstered with the cutting edge facing upwards and at that side there is an upward protrusion on the handle, so it can be drawn very quickly with the side of the hand without having to reach over and grasp the handle first. The hand can then grasp the handle while it is being drawn. The combination of these three factors (short, cutting edge up and protrusion) makes for an extremely fast drawing-action. The ceremonial mandaus used for dances are as beautifully adorned with feathers, as are the costumes. There are various terms to describe different types of Dayak blades. The Nyabor is the traditional Iban Scimitar, Parang Ilang is common to Kayan and Kenyah Swordsmiths, and Duku is a multipurpose farm tool and machete of sorts. Indonesia



Organised Dayak political representation in the Indonesian State first appeared during the Dutch administration, in the form of the Dayak Unity Party (Parti Persatuan Dayak) in the 30s and 40s. The feudal Sultanates of Kutai, Banjar and Pontianak figured prominently prior to the rise of the Dutch colonial rule.


Dayaks in Sarawak in this respect, compare very poorly with their organised brethren in the Indonesian side of Borneo, partly due to the personal fiefdom that was the Brooke Rajah dominion, and possibly to the pattern of their historical migrations from the Indonesian part to the then pristine Rajang Basin. Political circumstances aside, the Dayaks in the Indonesian side actively organised under various associations beginning with the Sarekat Dayak established in 1919, to the Parti Dayak in the 40s, and to the present day, where Dayaks occupy key positions in government.


In Sarawak, Dayak political activism had its roots in the SNAP (Sarawak National Party) and Pesaka during post independence construction in the 1960s. These parties shaped to a certain extent Dayak politics in the State, although never enjoying the real privilegesreal privileges and benefits of Chief Ministerial power relative to its large electorate.


Under Indonesia's transmigration programme, settlers from densely populated Java and Madura were encouraged to settle in the Indonesian provinces of Borneo. The large scale transmigration projects initiated by the Dutch and continued following Indonesian independence, caused social strains.


During the killings of 1965-66 Dayaks killed up to 5,000 Chinese and forced survivors to flee to the coast and camps. Starvation killed thousands of Chinese children who were under eight years old. The Chinese refused to fight back, even though previously the Chinese had fought against the Dutch colonialist occupation of Indonesia, since they considered themselves "a guest on other people's land" with the intention of trading only.[14] 75,000 of the Chinese who survived were displaced, fleeing to camps where they were detained on coastal cities. The Dayak leaders were interested in cleansing the entire area of ethnic Chinese.[15] In Pontianak 25,000 Chinese living in dirty, filthy conditions were stranded. They had to take baths in mud.[16] The massacres are considered a "dark chapter in recent Dayak history".[17]


In 2001 the Indonesian government ended the transmigration of Javanese settlement of Indonesian Borneo that began under Dutch rule in 1905.


From 1996 to 2003 there were violent attacks on Indonesian Madurese settlers, including executions of Madurese transmigrant communities.The violence included the Sampit conflict in 2001 in which more than 500 were killed in that year. Order was restored by the Indonesian Military.