Anthony Richards and the Search for Lawai: Myths, Maps and History

By Smith, F. Andrew | Borneo Research Bulletin, Annual 2005 | Go to article overview

Anthony Richards and the Search for Lawai: Myths, Maps and History


Smith, F. Andrew, Borneo Research Bulletin


Introduction

I noticed that the bibliography appended to the end of the late Anthony Richards memorial (Borneo Research Bulletin 33:25-26) omitted his short paper "Lawai," published in the Brunei Museum Journal in 1978. (1) Written in an idiosyncratic style, the paper considered the various options for the location in what is now West Kalimantan of the important trading polity that vanished from the historical record during the sixteenth century. It helped launch me into my own first foray into the history of the region (Smith 2000), though it started where I ended: with Iban poetry that mentions Lawai. (2) Rereading Richards' account led to my search for more information and to this Research Note. As well as summarizing Richards' ideas about the location of Lawai in relation to other opinions, the present paper introduces new threads into the skein of mythical and historical evidence from local, Chinese and Dutch sources. It also illustrates the need for more research into Dayak mythology in West Kalimantan, and into the history of the Malay states (3) that were established there.

Lawai and the Kapuas

One of the chants sung by Saribas Iban bards during the festival night of Gawai Burong includes a repeated couplet: "Kati nuan aki bisi nampai igi ranyai/Baka indu Lawai ke bejalai milang lawang?" (Sandin 1977:79-91). The couplet is translated as "Have you, grandfather, seen the seed of the ranyai palm/Like a Malay woman counting the number of doors?" The context is journeys by the sons-in-law of Singalang Burong to seek human heads, for which the seed is a metaphor. The next repeated couplet refers to "indu Oya," who grates flour from a sago palm. She can be associated with River Oya and the Melanau people in Sarawak. Richards was interested in the uncertain location of Lawai, which is mentioned elsewhere in Iban poetry, associated with Malays. A more common Iban term for Malays is Laut, but according to Richards, the two terms are sometimes combined, i.e. Laut Lawai: 'Malays of Lawai.' (4) Richards suggested that Iban migrations in Borneo probably started during the sixteenth century as a result of the spread of Islam that had become established in coastal West Borneo. Relying on Iban traditional accounts, he believed that the original Iban homeland in Borneo was in the southwest, in the upper reaches of the Pawan, and that subsequent migrations were by way of the rivers Pinoh and Melawi, and across the Kapuas northwards into Sarawak. Some traditional accounts give mythical Iban origins as lying outside Borneo, (5) and then describe migrations within Borneo that mostly start in the Kapuas Basin or nearby areas (Sandin 1967:2-4; see also Sandin 1994:32, 79). At what stage myth turns into history even within Borneo is, of course, uncertain. Richards' belief about the Iban homeland in Borneo tallies with one story about a group who moved from Ketapang upriver to Kayong, (6) where they split into two, following conversion of some to Islam under the influence of visiting Arab traders. This group stayed at Kayong, while the other group started a series of migrations, first to Ulu Landak, and then to Melawi, Sintang, Sekayam, Sanggau and Semitau, before eventually moving to Sarawak (Sandin 1994:90-92). According to the same story, their relations and friends who had adopted Islam began to call themselves the Malays of Pontianak, Sampit, Kayong, Sukadana, and Sambas. There is some geographic uncertainty in this story, not least the fact that the Kayong River is far enough beyond Ketapang to not be easily accessible to foreign traders--an issue that reappears later. Nevertheless, the account gives a suggestion of likely Iban movements in this region that obviously influenced Richards in his search for Lawai.

Richards--like others before him--assessed several possible locations for Lawai in West Kalimantan, first taking into account similarities of pronunciation. He suggested that Lawai (lawe in Javanese) might refer to: a) thread, b) a curving feather or fin or a crescent shape, or c) Terminalia trees, but these possibilities seemed unhelpful. …

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