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West Kalimantan

The vast province of West-Kalimantan is mainly shaped by the catchment area of the Kapuas, the longest river of Indonesia. West Kalimantan (Kalimantan Barat) has a surface of 146.807 and counts only a few million inhabitants. Traveling in this area is demanding, adaption to local problems and delays is required. Tourism in this province, almost unknown to the main public, is not encouraged as well.

Outpost along the Kapuas

The name Putussibau comes from putus Sibau, or 'cut oof (rivertraffic) in Subau'. At the end of the 19th century it was a remote village which lived in continuous fear of being attacked by fearless headhunters like the Batan Lupar Iban from Sarawak. The Chinese traders lived on their big trading ships (bandung), ready to flea. The Malay kampung, was protected by a small garrison of Javanese soldiers in Dutch service. The Maloh Dayak surrounded the houses with palisades with sharp points.

In 1895, when the Dutch wanted to make their presence in West-Kalimantan clear (also to stop the headhunting), Putussibau was chosen as the colonial outpost. Nowadays the city of only a few thousand residents is still the economical and governmental center of the area and the capital of kabupaten Kapuas Hulu ('Upper-Kapuas'), a vast district with less than 200,000 inhabitants.

Measured to income the wood-industry is the most important branch in the area. The traditional trading goods like rubber and salter river fish are currently being competed by pepper and cacao. At the end of the 1980's there was a small gold rush along the Upper-Kapuas, when hundreds of people and one factory were settled there.

The population of Upper-Kapuas

Long before the Dutch, the process of Islamisation reached Kapuas Hulu. many Dayak converted and became Orang Melayu, Malay. The Malay of Kalimantan form a hetrogene community, in which a common language and religion are the connecting elements. Most ascend from the Dayak which converted to the Islam. These Orang Melayu form the majority of the population in Kapuas Hulu.

Besides, the district is inhabited by over a dozen Dayak populations. The Kayah, Maloh and Iban are the most traditional Dayak populations in the region. The Kayan along the river Mendalam, easy to reach from Putussibau, have partially kept their old woodcarving-art and rites. The Taman Dayak, which are part of the Maloh, still live in longhouses, near Putussibau along the Kapuas. Thei celebrate gawai - a kind of thanking festival - in May or June and incidentally organize ritual reburials.

Most foreign visitors of Putussibau (there are not many) continue to the Taman village Melapi I, where you can also spend the night in a longhouse. You can also arrange a dance performance and with a little luck, you can see traditionally made fabrics.

The Taman and Kayan have better succeeded than the other Dayak in the district in using the possibilities from the modern times. Among them are civil servants and university graduates. The educational system and relative open rules of the catholic missionaries have helped this development.

The Iban, once the most fierce headhunters of the area, are known for their expensive and hand-made fabrics, named pua. About 7,000 Iban live in the lake district west of Putussibau, not far from the border with Malaysia (most Iban live in Sarawak). Some Ibam and Maloh live on islands. Kantuq Assam in kecamatan Empanang is seen as the most original Iban-settlement. The population still live in longhouses and make pua. The village can be reached from Semitau, which is located downstream from Putussibau along the Kapuas, via Nanga Kantuq, which is the main town of the subdistrict Empanang.

The big, shallow lakes in the area - Sentarum, Sumpa and Luar - are worth while visiting. The water can turn pitch-black because of the high rate of tanner acid. An arm put in the water can't be seen anymore, a scary sight.

The 15,000 Kantuq are the traditional enemies of the Iban, however they have many resemblances like historically and culturally. Marriages between Iban, Kantuq and Maloh have lead to a certain level of cultural adaption and acceptation. Far upstream and in the mountain area past the sources of the Kapuas live the Punan and other scattered living nomadic populations.

They still live as hunter-gatherers and live from whatever the forest brings them. Since several decades the government tries to persuade populations to start with agriculture and settlement in western East Kalimantan. But with little success up to now. The original culture of the Punan in West Kalimantan is pushed aside by the American protestant missionaries.

The Maloh Dayak

The Maloh were the only population with were passed by the Iban - formerly the plague of western Borneo. This was because they had skills about gold and silver processing. The metals which were 'harvested' by the Iban - journeys were processed by the Maloh. Besides that they made nice skirts and shirts of beads.

In trade for these services the Maloh traded - under protection of the Iban - fabrics which were made by the Iban to other parts of the island. The Maloh were the best traders of the area. They traded objects or metal and beads-clothes for mandau, good Kantuq-mats of bamboo, Punan-baskets and nice Iban fabrics.

However individual Maloh were able to travel through the area of the Iban, the population wasn't free of hostilities.. Many attacks from the north forced the Maloh to live close to each other in settlements with reinforced longhouses. They managed to stay alive in this way. Marriages between Maloh and their cruel neighbors also created a more safe environment as well.

Seen their headhunting trips, longhouses and rice-based food, the Iban and Maloh seemed to have a lot in common. Still there were many differences. The Iban formed the most individualistic and egalitarian community in Borneo, while the Maloh had a strict social hierarchy. The Iban grew rice on ladang ('field'), which was created on forested hills; the Maloh used rich alluvial soils around the Upper-Kapuas. And however the Maloh also had their headhunting trips, they were far smaller and less frequent compared with the big headhunting trips of the Iban. The Maloh preferred trade.

Trade with the coast

In the 15th century the coastal areas of Sambas, Sukadana and Landak came under Islamic influence rather quickly. Malay traveled from the sultanates onto the Kapuas to found trading outposts. Salt, tobacco, fabrics, iron and beads found their way to the hinterlands, while rice, fish, mats, baskets and forest products like wood, rattan, illipe-nuts, palm sugar, honey and damar were traded towards the coast. The trade contacts between the Malay and Maloh lead to marriages, but only within the highest class of the population. The sultans assured them of allied and exclusive rights for trade, while the Maloh aristocracy started to take over the privileged Dayak positions in the trade network. The trade contacts eventually even converted some of the Maloh to islam.

The Dutch in Upper-Kapuas

Major George Müller was the first European which entered the Kapuas in 1822. He reached the Sibau near the nowadays Putussibau, and wrote the first report about the Maloh. A year later, another Dutch, L.C. Hartmann, travelled to the Kapuas lakes. But only in 1843 O. van Kessel, mapped the area topographically and ethnographically. Due to two Malay revolts in 1859 in Sintang and five years later in the Melawi area, the Dutch maintained their military and governmental positions along most parts of the Kapuas.

Along the northern border of Dutch Borneo, military posts were founded, which should halt the Iban headhunting trips. The outposts, especially staffed by Javanese soldiers, were supplied from the coast. To decrease Iban temptations, the Dutch removed several Maloh from the border area. Above that, they supplied the Maloh with guns and ammunition in 1885, to defend themselves from the Iban.
In 1887 the Pax-Neerlandia was announced in the Upper-Kapuas. Headhunting had almost stopped, the attacks of the Iban were on the decrease and the Maloh and Iban had signed a - forced - peace treaty. The Dutch also stopped the spread of Islam in the Kapuas Hulu and this caused the spread of the Malay culture. In 1895 the 'subdepartment' Upper-Kapuas (with capital Putussibau) was created under the rule of a Dutch ruler. The Maloh were forced to pay taxes and (forced) labor, for example by constructing roads. Aristocrat Maloh were placed in the colonial system as low civil servants and had to deal with local law and order and collection of taxes.

The catholic missionaries

In agreement with the Dutch policy to provide protestant and catholic people with different parts of the island, the catholic were allowed to work in the southern and eastern departments of Dutch Borneo and the others in the western department. In 1908, the Catholics tried to convert the Iban in Landak, but they were not very successful. Around 1920 they focused on Maloh. They accepted Catholicism, especially because they associated religion with the Dutch, which were seen as respectable rulers of the area by the Maloh-aristocracy.

The catholic priests and the colonial government worked together to protect the Maloh against the Iban, Kayan and Malay. At the same time, the cultural institutes and animist rites of the Maloh were threatened by the new religion and almost destroyed. The Catholics ended the Maloh slavery, which caused big loss of power among the aristocracy. Traditional authority and privileges were doubted. Education offered the Maloh to get a job with the government or to become teacher. The priests tries to repress 'sin' practices like sex before marriage, abortion, drinking, cock-fighting and gambling. However these things still happen nowadays, they have been taken out of the religious connection completely.

However the original religion is mostly disappeared, important Maloh are sometimes still buried in traditional way. Part of such a funeral is the erection of a kulambu, a small bone-house on pawls, in which the remains of the deceased are kept. In 1973 a ceremony was held along the Palin, a side-river of the Kapuas.

The Maloh nowadays

In 1909 the rubber tree was introduced in West-Kalimantan. Thanks to the Catholics and their followers in Kapuas Hulu, the Montfortans, numerous trees were planted along the Kapuas. Besides wood, the rubber industry is the main important source of income for the Maloh. The harvest of illipe-nuts, which are used for cosmetics and as replacement for cacao-butter, sometimes brings in some extra money.

The Second World War had little influence on the Maloh. Besides a small group of soldiers in Putussibau and periodical taxes on rice, the Japanese were not interested in Kapuas Hulu. Since independence there is growth in educational possibilities, and an increase of the population.

Most of the over 12,000 Maloh lives around Putussibau. Their number is slowly increasing, outside the fact that they are struck by illnesses and that the Iban from the north and Kantuq from the west settle in the region and use the land of the Maloh. Some Indonesian Maloh leave for work or shopping to the nearby Sarawak (economically more developed and cheaper than Kapuas Hulu).

A communist revolt in 1965, lead by unhappy Indonesians from Chinese origin, brought strict border regulations to the area. The population, from origin used to wander around without a problem, got limited on that. In the name of 'civilization offensive' some Maloh were forced to leave their longhouses, but this hasn't been continued for long. Now many Maloh live along the Kapuas in partially modern longhouses, free to live with their own rules.

Last revised on December 02, 2009
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