Sarawak - People and History

Little is known about the first inhabitants of Borneo. Human bones some 50,000 years old have been found in Sarawak, but these almost certainly did not belong to the ancestors of the present inhabitants. The indigenous peoples of Borneo speak languages belonging to the Austronesian family. The original Austronesians, perhaps originating in mainland Asia, became a maritime people who, several thousand years ago, began to expand across the Pacific and Indian oceans. Over time they founded hundreds of nations, and today their descendants can be found on Taiwan and in Malaysia, in the Phillipines and New Zealand, on Madagascar and Hawaii, and on countless islands in between.

Some three hundred years ago the territory that is now Sarawak came under the dominion of the Sultan of Brunei. Brunei was one of several Malay sultanates that had been established on the coast of Borneo in the preceding centuries. Although these small states contolled maritime trade and much of the coast, effective authority did not extend far inland.

When James Brooke, an English trader and adventurer, arrived in Brunei in the 1840's, the state was in decline. Rebellion had broken out against the Sultanate. Brooke allied himself with the Sultan, using his gunboat to suppress the revolt. In exchange, the Sultan ceded to him a portion of his territory. Brooke become king, or "Rajah", of Sarawak, and over the following decades, as Brunei continued to decline, Sarawak annexed most of the Sultanate's remaining territory. Brooke founded a dynasty that lasted until 1941. During this time, Sarawak was an independent country ruled by a white monarchy. Although the Rajahs were British citizens, Sarawak did not formally become a British colonial possession until after World War II.

When Britain granted independence to Malaysia in 1963, Sarawak (along with Sabah) were included in the new nation. With an area of 124,000 square kilometres, Sarawak constitutes 38% of the national territory. But while Malaysia has a population of 18 million, Sarawak is home to only 1.5 million people.

The people of Sarawak fall into 26 distinct ethnic groups or nations, each with its own language. Most of these peoples are collectively referred to as "Dayaks". Among these are the Iban, Bidayuh, Kenyah, Kayan, Kedayan, Murut, Punan, Bisayah, Kelabit, Berawan and Penan. Most of these Dayak peoples came to Borneo thousands of years ago. Malays and Chinese, who arrived more recently, constitute a large percentage of the coastal and urban population.

Most of the people of Sarawak are sedentary farmers who live in communal longhouses and practice swidden rice agriculture (shifting cultivation). Of the thousands of people who still led a nomadic existence at the end of the nineteenth century, fewer than two hundred Eastern Penan continue to live as wanderers. They are one of the world's few surviving societies of nomads.

Go to next section of main text