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Keen to escape my claustrophobic air-con cupboard I was out on the street early for a crack at Kapit's attractions, and Fort Sylvia was still top of the list. Sad then that it was closed, it always seemed to be the case in finding that opening hours differed from what I had been led to expect and hitting it almost punitively on its weekly day of closure. That at least gave me no reason to delay in heading off to execute Plan B, Kapit had a regional museum for good measure. Though quickly realising what had to be the museum from the indicatons of my map, the very large traditionally stylised civic building I came across was ambiguously signed to the point that I could not be sure if I was actually at the right spot after all, and the deserted nature of the place had me similarly wondering whether it was also shut anyway. As it turned out it was, but only until in poking around I managed to track down the AWOL caretaker who unlocked it for my perusal. It turned out to occupy just one small ill-evident section of the building but was a modern and well presented collection for such a small isolated town, stereotypically I was left to contemplate it all by myself.


Kapit is the largest division in Sarawak, comprising about 30% of the state's land area, stretching over a massive 39,000 square kilometres. Consisting mainly of largely unpenetrated forest it has a population density of only 2 per square K though. Besides Kapit town of around only 8,000 people, the smaller towns of Song, Merit and Belaga would be considered merely villages elsewhere, and most settlements are just isolated riverside longhouses. The whole division incredibly boasts less than 50Ks of road, clustered around Kapit and Song, and around Belaga where I was soon intending to head there were no roads at all bar the odd logging track. Subsistence rice farming is the main pursuit of the predominantly Iban locals, though some are now finding success with Cocoa as a cash crop, and a recently invoked coal mine at Nanga Merit has the largest reserves in Sarawak.

Chinese settlers first arrived to transform the Rejang in the 1870s, with successive waves of Hokkien, Hakka and Foochow migrant traders being attracted to settle here after Fort Sylvia's construction, the protection it afforded also encouraged the arrival of the first Malays at this time too. This effected the incorporation into Iban culture of hitherto unknown goods such as ceramic jars, gongs and metalware of all kinds, and some of the traders also turned to farming in turn upon discovery of good soil here. After a preceding fort at Nangah Balleh was founded in 1874, it was abandoned in favour of Kapit's present site due to dangerous currents, and missionaries soon followed in 1882, continuing here until the 1960s. The museum related how the fort had been minimally manned, with Domingo de Rosario who was the son of James Brooke's Portugese chef being posted here with only 1 or 2 Malay officers and a few locally recruited "Fortmen". Having received no formal education, de Rosario incredibly "held the fort" here for over 30 years, overseeing law and order, brokering disputes such as adultery and swindling, and most trickily in implementing the confiscation of heads and slaves captured on raids. An unsung hero of sorts, he also toured the longhouses to collect a poll tax and became something of an expert on local ethnography. An interesting practice here in this vain was the relaying of "Summon Batons", a bush telegraph system whereby longhouse chiefs were held responsible for passing messages onto the next longhouse, an attached string was knotted to indicate after how many days the recipient should attend. A white "General" baton was replaced by a red one for urgent messages, and it was forbidden for this to be allowed to overnight at any longhouse, essentially rendering its progress to be unfaltering day or night through the jungle. In spite of his dedication de Rosario was never officially enrolled as a civil servant and only received payment upon the Rajah's whim.

A mock up of an Iban house displayed such necessities as "Rencong" curved handled swords, spears, a tall narrow shield, as well as much basketry and woven artifacts. Most important were the Kenyalang (Hornbill) icons, wooden bird-like representations which are carved and painted as part of a ritual festival before being "brought to life" with Tuak (rice wine) and being paraded along the longhouse accompanied by sacred chanting. Then mounted atop a carved pole, its beak is pointed towards enemy territory and the Kenyalan's soul is believed to depart in attacking enemy warriors and property.

An Orang Ulu section then related them to be fine carvers of wood and Hornbill ivory, also accomplished boatbuilders. Scary totems and face masks used in their harvest festival were displayed, and not to be outdone by the Iban's Hornbill icons, they popularly created images of an "Aso" (dragon-like dog) with a long snout, curling fangs and long horns. The totems were used in rituals associated with headhunting, farming and initiation ceremonies, comprised of humanesque figures one atop another, the uppermost typically wielding a sword and shield, all of them grotesquely faced like a Picasso. They would have scared the crap out of any approaching enemy sure enough.

It was here at Fort Sylvia that a peace treaty was finally signed between the Iban and Orang Ulu in 1924, overseen by Rajah Vyner Brooke. A large glazed jar displayed here had been presented to an Iban chief by the Rajah at this time and surprisingly there was even a photo of the ceremony betraying many warriors still dressed and tattooed traditionally. Quite amazing to realise that these people had persisted in tribal warfare and headhunting against each other in the jungle until 1924, wow! A subsequent photo of Kapit in 1940 bore no relation to the present town, just a line of stilt elevated shacks huddled by the river. It was here that I also learned that Kapit is derived from the Iban word "kepit' (bamboo), as in "Kami ngagai rumah panjai kepit" (we are going to the bamboo longhouse). Altogether now.......

The ubiquitous beastie section related the decline and demise of local species, with the Orang Utan population now restricted to 2 small separate groups and the Sarawak Rhinosceros is now sadly no more. A storyboard then fantastically related "If you are one of those people who have an irresistible urge to sample the aphrodisiac properties of a Rhino horn, you might as well start chewing your finger nails!". Fauna here which had thus far eluded me were the Clouded Leopard, the striking Prevost's Squirrel (black back, red chest with a white stripe separating), Barking Deer and the Stork billed Kingfisher (very large).

From the museum there were no further palpable distractions around town. It took all of 5 minutes to walk a circuit of Kapit, and so I escaped the ferocious heat over a couple of cold ones before finding a net cafe with requisite air-con. For a net cafe it remarkably resembled a disco, with kids bopping to pop music in the gloom between the terminals. The connection was surprisingly good too considering where I was and I contemplated how compared to Indonesia for example, Malaysian development really did know something about standards.

Posted by andyhay 00:00 Archived in Malaysia

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