Sarawak, like Sabah, was ruled by the Brunei Empire until the arrival of the British adventurer James Brooke in the early 19th Century. He helped to quell an uprising against Brunei by the natives, and was given the title of Sarawak’s Rajah in return. Establishing a dynasty of ‘White Rajahs’, Brooke and his descendants ruled till the Japanese occupation during World War II in 1945. After that, Sarawak was ceded to the British Authorities until it became a part of Malaysia in 1963.
Just like Sabah, Sarawak has a diversity of indigenous groups, up to 28 in fact. Each has their own distinct culture, traditions and skills. The main tribes are the Iban, who make up the majority, followed by the Bidayuh, Melanau and Orang Ulu.
The Bidayuhs are a series of tribes which are localised in certain areas of Sarawak. Each tribe is known to speak a different dialect and many believe they were the first people to settle in the land. Known for the hospitality and warmth, the Bidayuh are expert farmers, toiling hard to build their land on agriculture. They are also good hunters.
The Ibans are the largest indigenous group in Sarawak, forming one third of the total population. They have a past reputation as fearsome head hunters and fierce warriors. Their traditional establishments are located around the banks of Sarawak’s mighty rivers, such as the Batang Ai, Skrang, Saribas and the Rajang River. They are also known for building some of the most intricate and complex longhouses among all the indigenous communities in Borneo, utilising materials such as bamboo, tree bark and hard wood.
Each longhouse is led by a ‘Tuai’ or headman, and the people who live inside form their own mini democratic administration system. Today, the Ibans grow crops such as rubber, pepper, cocoa, palm oil and hill paddy to sustain their livelihoods. Many have migrated to the bigger cities but still maintain their ancestral ties with longhouse villages.
The Kelabits inhabit the highland regions of Sarawak, forming close-knit communities that thrive on agriculture. Their famous product is ‘Bario’ rice, a fragrant and delicious type of rice grown from the mountains. In recent years, they have diversified their crops to include oranges and grapes.
The Melanaus are concentrated mostly in the coastal region of Sarawak, nestled between the Rajang and Baram rivers. Today, most Melanaus live in Malay-style villages rather than traditional longhouses.
They were once seafaring people like the Bajaus in Sabah but do conduct agricultural activities such as sago growing. Although they have their own dialect, their language is similar to Malay. The Melanaus are also known for the massive longhouses, which can reach up to 40 feet in height.
Orang Ulu is a generic term to describe a group of tribes living upriver in the inner areas of Sarawak. They are primarily made up of the Kayan, Kenyah, Kelabit and Penan tribes. The Kayans are expert boat-makers, being able to carve a boat out of a single block of ‘Belian’ tree. The Kenyah, on the other hand, are skilled paddy farmers with a love for music and dance.
The Penan are truly Sarawak’s last nomadic group who still practise travelling between areas to search for harvests from the jungle and hunting. However, there are also many who have opted to live in traditional longhouses. The Penan are famous for weaving beautiful mats and baskets.