Verifying old Murut practices
Published on: Saturday, May 29, 2021
By: British North Borneo Herald
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SCENES FROM THE PAST: View of the Jessetton (Kota Kinabalu seafront) soon after the war. Pic: Australian War Memorial - for illustration only.

In a paper on the Timoguns of Tenom (Native Affairs Bulletin No 1, Chapter X) it was noted that they disclaimed any knowledge of the practice of Semanggup – referred to as a common Murut practice in various books and diaries of the early days of the Chartered Company – as a recognized method of sending messages to the Dead, though they admitted the practice of Sanginan, in which, in order to provide an occasion or central item for a Head Feast, a slave or captive was tied up and jabbed with a spear by everyone present, not so much for amusement as to be able to boast afterwards that he had been present and assisted at the taking of a head – for the victim was eventually decapitated. 

As the main process was alleged to be similar, and the result was identical, it could have made no difference to the victim whether he had been selected for the Semanggup or a Sanginan, but as a matter of native Custom or Anthropology the distinction is perhaps worth drawing. 

That the stabbing was to provide grounds for boasting and not simply for amusement is shown by the fact that the Muruts had a special word – Buntal – to indicate that the man to whom to was applied or helped to kill a man: The Dusuns too had a corresponding word – Kitinabpaan. 

Some 10 or 12 years ago, in Keningau, a Murut (a Peluan from the Dalit, I think, not a Nabai) speared a solitary Chinese traveler who had taken shelter in his hut the previous night just as he was preparing to leave in the morning. The Murut then made his two small sons, aged about 10 and 12, take his spear and stick it into the still quivering body. At his trial, no attempt at concealment was made, and he explained that though the boys were very frightened he had made them do it so that they as well as himself could say “Ki-buntal aku”, “I am a slayer of men.”

I made further enquiries on the subject in Keningau recently, from different people on different occasions, with the following results: - 

Banggi, an old man of Kampong Keningau, but not accepted as a first-rate authority on questions of Adats did not know the word Semanggup; a slave given a Basah (blood-money in settlement of a feud) would probably, he said, be killed, it not slowly, as in be Tomigun Sanginan ceremony (which he knew about): the prisoner would be taken a mile or so away from the house, tied up, and killed at once the body would then be cut up and a piece, even as small as a finger, be given to everyone present as a token of their participation.

0. T. Dipal, the Headman of Kampong Limbawan, also said that Semanggup was unknown as a means of sending messages to the Dead. If a slave was received as Basah it did not necessarily follow that he would be put to death, for anyone who wanted to retain his services might arrange for his redemption with the man to whom the Basah was due. If however, it was decided to sacrifice the slave, he agreed with Banggi’s statement that it was not done in the kampong but in some place a little way away: a big crowd would assemble at the specified time and place, but the victim would be killed outright: the head, feet, hands, etc., would be shared between representatives of the kampongs raided (for which raid the basah was paid) but the rest of the body would be left to rot on the spot. On the return to the kampong there would be Sumanggak (feasting, pantun singing, etc.)

0. T. Pangkat, of Limbawan, who was a young man with two children when Witti stopped at his kampong on his last journey in 1883, and is now looked up to with much respect as an authority on old times and old customs, also said that he did not know the word Semanggup. Sumanggak, mentioned by 0. T. Dipal, he explained was not the name of a special Head Feast, but meant the dancing, shouting, and blowing on bamboo instruments which were the signal and accompaniment of the return of raiders with a head. 

He recollected one case, to show that the victim of a Sanginan need not be a slave: some Bokan people had visited Limbawan and been received as friends: on their way back they were attacked by some Dangulad people (a village some two miles from Limbawan) and one Bokan man was killed. The actual murderer escaped, but his sudara (brother or relative, not a slave) was seized by the Dangulad Headman, handed over to Limbawan, and killed at a Sanginan ceremony. 

An attack on Limbawan’s friends was equivalent to an attack on Limbawan village itself. Further Basah would also be due to the Bokan people; the man was handed over to avert a counter attack on Dangulad by Limbawan. 

On the subject of Debt-slavery the opinions varied, probably. because of some ambiguity as to the exact implication of the word. Banggi said it was unknown, but went on to say that if some richer man paid a debt or fine for another, the latter might agree, before witnesses, to work for a stated time for the former—i.e. he would pay off his debt by labour; if he got property later on, he could settle, in goods, for any balance due and recover his full freedom; such a man was a Basun, not an Ulun (slave). Further, a Basun could not be handed over as Basah to be killed, neither could an Ulun who had been formally adopted as a son or daughter.

0.T. Dipal said that Debt-slavery was known, but agreed that a Debt-slave was not liable to be sacrificed or handed over as Basah: after some consideration, he explained the word Basun as meaning a sort of female slave, the wife of a dependent (? a slave) whose Berian (dowry) had been provided by his master. I had asked what the word meant, and it is possible that the above explanation was just the first idea that came into his mind, as, not knowing the word, he did not want to appear ignorant.

O.T. Pangkat declared that there was no Debt-slavery, for if a man agreed to work off a debt he did not thereby become a slave; he might merely agree to `adopt’ a man as his ‘father’ or ‘brother’, which only implied the giving of such help as a relative might be expected to give: he admitted frankly that he did not know the word Basun when I mentioned it to him: a ‘slave’ was Uripon, and the word Sanginan was also used to signify a ‘slave’. 

The Nabai custom was probably closely akin to that of the Timoguns, whose Headmen informed me that Debt-slavery was known, and gave as an example a case in which a man who had seduced a girl and could not raise enough Berian to marry her in the ordinary way, might marry her and in lieu of payment of Berian agree to become a Debt-slave to his father-in-law: he received his ‘keep’, but had to obey all orders and give his labour free whenever required. 

Slaves apparently were not a numerous class, and were only kept by the bigger people in each village. In Limbawan, in Pangkat’s boyhood, the Headman Jeludin (said to have been a pure Nabai, though he used a Brunei name) owned 5; Pangkat’s own father, and one or two others, held one each. 

All had been bought, not captured in a raid, perhaps because, according to Banggi; the Nabais were not such keen raiders as the Peluans and Timoguns, with the latter of whom they were usually on good terms. Small children were sometimes captured on raids and brought home to become slaves, but if they incommoded the retreat of their captors, or there was any pursuit or other danger, the child would be killed at once and its head taken. 

Once back at the village, they were not kept tied up but were well treated more or less as members of the family, though if food was short they would suffer first; food was provided—it would not be so good as that of their master—but of course they received no pay. When they grew up they might even be adopted, or, ‘if boys, provided with a wife. 

On the other hand, there was always the risk of their being sold to another village, or to traders up from the coast, or even of being given as Basah. Pangkat stated that an attempt by a slave to run away was very rare, in fact he could. remember no such case. 

Slavery, as a punishment was not unknown. 0. T. Dipal said that a man caught stealing might be made a slave: the actual sentence for such an offence might “depend on* the circumstances or requirements at the moment: Banggi said he had a dim recollection of having seen, as a small child, two thieves punished, one by being tied to a post in a river, chest deep, and the other to a stake on a dry `karangan’ (bank of stones), he could. not say which survived the longer, but it was a matter of ‘many days’, 


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