"I lost my head in Borneo": tourism and the refashioning of the headhunting narrative in Sabah, Malaysia.

Author:Gingging, Flory Ann Mansor


Although headhunting is generally believed to be no longer practiced in Sabah, Malaysia, it is a phenomenon of the past that still exists in the collective consciousness of indigenous groups, living through the telling and retelling of stories, not just by individuals, but also by the tourism industry. The headhunting image and theme are ubiquitous in the tourist literature and campaigns. They are featured on postcards, brochures, and T-shirts (a particular favorite shows an orangutan head with the caption "I lost my head in Borneo"). One popular tourist destination, Monsopiad Cultural Village, has even named itself after a legendary headhunting warrior.

While Sabah's headhunting past has taken on a commercial value, I argue that it has also taken on a cultural and political one that seems to resonate with contemporary needs and sensibilities, especially among the state's indigenous communities. I propose that the tongue-in-cheek invocation of headhunting by the tourism industry represents one way in which Sabah's indigenous people counter the outside world's designation of them as the Other; that is, by parodying their headhunting past, they demonstrate their understanding of the joke and thus guard their indigenousness and their status as human beings. I also argue that their use of their headhunting heritage is a means of responding to the threats to their identities posed by the Malaysian state, which, in the process of globalization and nation building, has interpolated them into a Malaysian identity, an identity that they seem to resist in favor of their regional ones. This paper looks at what tourism's refashioning of the headhunting narrative might suggest about how Sabah's indigenous groups respond to their former colonization by the West and how they imagine and negotiate their identities within the constraints of membership within the state of Malaysia. (1)

I spent a large part of my growing-up years in Tamparuli, a small town near the west coast of Sabah, a Malaysian state in northern Borneo. (2) A river divides the town proper and the compound on which my family and I lived, so sojourns to the other side--to tamu (weekly market), to the shops, and to the library required the use of one of two bridges. The first was a suspension bridge for pedestrians, and the other, only a few minutes away, a concrete structure for automobiles also used by those on foot. Of the two, my friends and I considered the cement bridge to have the more fascinating history. We were told that during its construction, humans were hunted and their severed heads were placed within its foundations. The reason: the builders, we were told, apparently believed that the spirits of the heads would fortify the bridge and would help to guard it from calamities.

As a child, I delighted in hearing and telling stories about sagaii (headhunters) and took special pride in knowing that our very own Tamparuli Bridge was part of headhunting lore. But as I became older, stories about headhunters and my headhunting past became less fantastic. Despite the occasional semi-serious warning that a headhunter was on the loose, I, and most others around me, generally believed that headhunting, a phenomenon of the past shared by many of the state's thirty indigenous groups, was no longer in practice. (3)

As I got older, I began to be aware of the economic and political struggles that indigenous people in my state face. Since becoming part of Malaysia in 1963, Sabah, a former British colony, had never had a chief minister who was both indigenous and non-Muslim. Consequently, when in 1984, Joseph Pairin Kitingan, a Dusun lawyer, became the first non-Muslim native to assume this position, being indigenous suddenly meant something to me. (4) It was also around the same time that I remember feeling a new attraction to the macabre and exotic elements of my culture--one of them being headhunting. Without quite knowing it, I was invoking those aspects of my culture that were potentially embarrassing as a way of responding to the threat I felt towards my own Dusun-ness. For me, headhunting ceased being just a part of history and became, in the most personal way, a part of my heritage--an expression of my indigenousness. (5)

Of course I was not alone in my realization of the value of headhunting as a marker of indigenousness--I was in the company of the tourism industry. Images of headhunting in the tourist literature in Sabah are plentiful. They are on postcards, in brochures, and on T-shirts, and one tourist destination, Monsopiad Cultural Village, which is especially popular among overseas visitors, has named itself after a legendary Kadazan warrior and headhunter, and has made explicit use of the headhunting narrative as a way of organizing its offerings. (6)


In my opinion, making headhunting such a visible icon of tourism in Sabah is an example of what Michael Herzfeld calls "cultural intimacy," which he describes as "the recognition of those aspects of a cultural identity that are considered as a source of external embarrassment but that nevertheless provide insiders with the assurance of common sociality" (Herzfeld 1997, 3). Monsopiad Cultural Village is one site where I suggest cultural intimacy is performed. I believe that the Village's strategic association with headhunting (and the unfavorable connotations that it might carry) is an instance of how native people in Sabah have recognized that by assuming agency over their culture, and especially by embracing their Otherness, they find a common ground--in the present case, a headhunting past--with which to respond to outside attacks on their indigenousness. (7)

Headhunting as a response to the social imagination of Borneo

I have already suggested that "headhunting tourism" in Sabah might be seen as one way in which indigenous people counter the outside world's imagining of themselves as the Other. In this section, I argue that early travel accounts of Borneo have, in part, created this "Otherness"; that is, these accounts have contributed to how the island and its native groups are perceived. Thus, I will now turn to a brief discussion of how early literature about the region, written mainly by European travelers, has played a role in the "invention" of Borneo; an invention that has lived on in tourist literature, and, in my opinion, an invention to which the invocation of headhunting in the tourism industry in Sabah is responding. Of this notion, historian Graham Saunders makes the following observation:

Travellers to Borneo today arrive with certain expectations. They carry with them an idea or image of Borneo, an image which tourist brochures have conveyed, authorities have cultivated. What an image is [is] the culmination of a process that began when the first European traveller to Borneo's shore recorded his impressions of what he had seen (Saunders 1993, 271). Saunders' argument is clear: modernday visitors to Borneo arrive with expectations that have been formed by early literature about the island and its people.

It was not until the late nineteenth century that the British gained control over Sabah, but the region as a whole had received European visitors before that time. They came in various capacities--as diplomats, business people, and explorers --and their contacts with, and reports about Borneo not only contributed to general knowledge about the island, but also helped to create an image of the place and its people in the European mind. Saunders suggests that, in fact, many of the images of headhunters, orangutans and long houses now associated with the island are products of these early accounts (Saunders 1993, 271).

The first Englishman to write about his travels in Borneo was Daniel Beeckman, who went on business to Banjarmasin, the present capital of South Kalimantan, in 1714. His accounts of life in Banjarmasin were often astute; nonetheless his characterization of the orangutan as being like a human--that, indeed, one originated from the other--has advanced the idea of a wild Borneo, to which current tourism campaigns still allude:

The monkeys, apes, and baboons are of many different sorts and shapes; but the most remarkable are those they call Orang-ootans, which in their language signifies men of the woods: these grow up to be six foot high, they walk upright; have longer arms than men, tolerable good faces (handsomer I am sure than some Hottentots that I have seen), large teeth, no tails nor hair, but on those parts where it grows on humane bodies; they are very nimble footed and mighty strong; they throw great stones, sticks, and billets at those who offend them. The natives do really believe that these were formerly men, but metamorphosed into beasts for their blasphemy (Beeckman 1718, 37). The notion of a Borneo that was primitive, where men were apparently routinely transformed into apes, as Beeckman's account above suggests, continued to be reinforced by works such as Elizabeth Mershon's book, With the Wild Men of Borneo, which was published in 1922. In general, Mershon, the wife of a Seventh-day Adventist missionary posted in North Borneo, is fairly sympathetic in her portrayal of Sabah's native people, but her designation of them as "the wild men of Borneo" is telling of the impact of a centuries-long depiction of the people of Borneo as--using her term--wild. The book begins as follows:

Borneo! What does the name suggest to your minds? The first thing probably is the "wild man from Borneo." From my childhood days until I arrived in Borneo, all I knew about the country was that was where the wild men lived, and I always imagined that they spent most of their time running around the island cutting off people's heads. Strange to say, even to this day, many people have the same idea. Before you finish reading what I am going to tell you about Borneo and its people, I hope you will have learned that the "wild man from Borneo" is not...

To continue reading