Heritage Snippets of Sarawak
By Jayl Langub
Within every object in the Sarawak Museum collection lies a human story waiting to be heard. The jar in this photograph (Fig 1) is on Level 5 of the Borneo Cultures Museum (Fig 2). The man, for obvious reasons, is not in the museum. This two-part article brings the man and the jar together in one story made up of many. Part I tells us who the man, Pengulu Puso Abun, was. Part II will tell us about his mysterious jar.
The jar is in the museum because of the friendship between two men—Puso Abun, a Sekapan penghulu in the Belaga sub-district (1939-1961) and Tom Harrisson, Curator of the Sarawak Museum (1946-1966). They first met during the Oxford University Expedition of 1932. It was a scientific survey of the rich diversity of Mt Dulit and the surrounding area.
Harrisson made lasting friendships with many of the local men helping the expedition. Later, when Harrisson became curator of the Sarawak Museum, he accepted the donation of Puso’s jar in 1963. The photograph was taken on the museum grounds, it shows Pengulu Puso Abun and his famed jar in front of the Punan-Bah klirieng.
Who was Pengulu Puso? Firstly, he was from a long line of a Sekapan ruling aristocratic family and an equally impressive Punan maternal line. According to information in the Belaga Station Diary, Puso was appointed penghulu in 1939, taking over the position from his father, Abun Matu. In those days (1939-1961), two penghulu existed in the Belaga sub-district. Puso was penghulu of all the longhouses below the Bakun Rapids and Belaga River. Hang Nyipa, a Kayan aristocrat, was the penghulu of all the longhouses above the Bakun Rapids.
Puso was a powerful penghulu, much-feared and respected by the people, especially his own Sekapan people and the larger Kajang group made up of Sekapan, Kejaman, Lahanan, and Punan Bah. Outside of Belaga, he was also respected by his Iban peers (the penghulu, pemanca, temmangong), the Malay (datu and tua kampung), the Chinese (kapitan) and of course British administrators.
However, although he was a powerful leader, he had a weakness. During the Brooke Rule, Puso was one of a few people, primarily Chinese traders, who took to smoking opium, which was legal at that time in Sarawak’s history. During the Japanese Occupation, the Japanese took advantage of this weakness. They supplied him with opium in return for his co-operation. According to Ian Urquhart, a colonial officer from 1947-1965, the Japanese forced Puso to become dependent on opium, thus making it possible to manipulate him (www.sarawakanecdotes.co.uk).
However, Puso’s heart was not in this drug deal. When the Allied Forces came, he gave them full support in terms of volunteer fighters, porters, boats, paddlers, etc. He was so helpful that the new colonial government awarded him the British Empire Medal (B.E.M.) at the end of the war. According to Urquhart, in 1946, Puso and others were invited to Kuching to meet Lord Louis and Lady Mountbatten who were on a post-war tour of the colonies. When Puso saw Lady Mountbatten’s many medal ribbons on her jacket he exclaimed, “What a brave woman. She must have taken many heads!” It was a remark that pleased her greatly.
The people of the Belaga sub-district have positive memories of the power and influence of Penghulu Puso. First is the story of two tiny ethnic minorities—the Seping and BaMali. The two tiny communities were located at Long Koyan and Long Bala on the Belaga River. They were sandwiched between four large Kenyah longhouses: Kenyah Uma Sambop and Kenyah Long Bangan downstream; and Kenyah Uma Pawa and Kenyah Badeng at Long Urun upstream (Fig 3).
Over the years, the area allocated to Kenyah Uma Sambop was insufficient to meet the growing population’s needs. They wanted to extend the boundary into the Seping and BaMali areas. The boundary dispute between the communities had been developing since the 1930s. When Puso became penghulu in 1939, the Seping saw Puso as their protector and brought the matter to him. The Belaga River was huge and at that time, sparsely populated. Considering the matter carefully, Puso skillfully persuaded the Seping to move their boundary to allow for the expansion of the Kenyah communities as a gesture of goodwill. This negotiation stopped the prolonged dispute and prevented a conflict between the Kenyah and the Seping and BaMali communities. The longhouse communities are faithful to the boundaries to this day.
The second story starts with the historical tension between the Iban of Kapit and the Orang Ulu of Belaga. Towards the end of the 1950s, the colonial government proposed to move the Orang Ulu from Belaga to the Baram district (Fig 4).
This proposal was originally made during the Brooke period. The Rajah issued an Order that no Iban was allowed to move up the Rejang River beyond Bikai Rapids, which was not far from the Punan Bah village of Long Bah. Over the years, groups of Iban would sneak beyond this point on the pretext of collecting jungle products, creating tensions between the two communities. Each time this occurred, the administrator had to spend time with both communities to calm the situation. To eliminate the problem, the colonial government proposed moving all the Orang Ulu from the Belaga sub-district to the Baram district. The proposal was discussed between leaders of both areas with colonial officials. Penghulu Puso was among the prominent participants.
According to Kayan Penghulu Hang Nyipa, many Kayan, Kenyah and Kajang headmen did not mind moving to the Baram if ordered to by the colonial government. However, Penghulu Puso strongly opposed the proposal that would be costly and disruptive. Had the Orang Ulu of Belaga moved it would have taken them years to complete the migration by stages: first, identify the land with the locals; second, farm the land before bringing the whole family over; third, several more trips to transport all the family belongings over the watersheds between the Belaga and Tinjar Rivers. Puso did not see any proper planning by the colonial government and strongly opposed the idea. Because of his powerful position, the proposal was abandoned, and the big move never happened.
Another story that shows the character of Puso occurred around 1949. Borneo Company Ltd had been successful in extracting timber in Thailand with the help of elephants. The company decided to use Thai elephants to extract timber in the Belaga sub-district. Unfortunately for the company, they planned to start this operation in the area of Pengulu Puso’s longhouse. When the unmanageable elephants trampled on ancient gravesites, Puso demanded to be monetarily compensated and made quite a bit of money from the matter. The cost of compensating Puso regularly for the wayward elephants and trying to survey gravesites they could not easily locate became too much for the Borneo Company. They abandoned their timber project in the region, leaving many cut logs behind. Puso gathered the logs and floated them downstream to sell, doing so in full view of the retreating Borneo Company manager.
The final story here brings us to the Sarawak Museum. Around 1962, Puso and his wife visited Kuching to attend a conference. While there, Tom Harrisson gave them a tour of the museum. He wrote: “Puso Abun and his wife were impressed by what they saw in the museum, particularly by the exhibits produced by almost every other ‘tribe’ in Sarawak.”
Puso decided he wanted to add to the collection by donating his famed jar to represent his Sekapan-Punan heritage. However, because of his continued use of opium, his family had hidden the valuable tajau (jar) in fear that he would try to sell it to buy opium. This was not his intention, however.
In 1963, Puso decided to get treatment for his opium addiction at the Kuching General Hospital. He found the jar hidden by his family, brought it to Kuching and donated it to the Sarawak Museum just before he entered the hospital for treatment. Perhaps this was a sign of his commitment to recovery.
Sadly, his treatment was unsuccessful and although he stopped using opium he mentally suffered from its effects for the rest of his life. Because of his visit to the museum and his intentions to seek treatment for his opium use, the jar is in the Sarawak Museum collection. This is where the answer to the question, ‘Who was Puso Abun?’ ends, and the story of his jar begins. In Part II of Puso’s Jar, we will learn of the mysterious origins of the famed jar.
Jayl Langub is an FoSM member, retired civil servant, and Research Fellow at the Institute of Borneo Studies, Universti Malaysia Sarawak. He personally knew Pengulu Puso Abun and last saw him in March 1971.
“Heritage Snippets of Sarawak” is a fortnightly column.