Partly because I’ve been spending a lot of time in a forest that is inhabited by wild boars, and partly because sometimes when I’m out there I think about some essays that Jonathan Saha posted on his blog this summer about animals, I’ve been thinking about animals and how viewing the past from an “animal perspective” might be an interesting way to think about history.
And while there are of course a variety of different animals that one could use to examine history, I’m curious these days about pigs.
So I made the (somewhat random) decision to look through the issues of the Sarawak Gazette for the years of 1920 and 1922 to see what it said about pigs.
Indeed, it had a lot to say about pigs. So much, in fact, that I was able to categorize the information into various times of human-pig relations.
First of all, there was the relationship that the indigenous Dayaks had with pigs.
It is clear from my superficial examination of two years of the Sarawak Gazette that pigs were essential for the Dayak way of life. Of course their meat was an important form of protein, but in terms of religion and culture, pigs played an equally important role in various events and rituals.
There was an article in 1922, for instance, on “native medicine” which noted that “Dayaks and other natives use all manner of charms and talismans for procuring invulnerability, such as the material of wild pigs’ nest which is slung around the waist.”
Then there was an article on “Religious Rites and Customs of the Iban or Dayaks of Sarawak” which detailed the process by which a couple could get married. It involved various stages, and there was the potential for bad omens to bring an end to the ceremony at different stages. If, however, after that had happened the two sides still wanted the marriage to proceed, “a pig is killed the liver of which is examined: if the omen is good the marriage may be proceeded with, if bad it must be relinquished.”
And then finally there were ways in which pigs played a role in Dayak deaths: “Should a death occur from accident, the body cannot be brought into the house until a pig has been killed and each inmate of the house has been smeared with the blood, otherwise a curse would fall upon the house and it would be unsafe to live in.”
So pigs were clearly important to the Dayaks, and they way that they traditionally captured them, apparently was by trapping them. I haven’t figured out yet what those traps looked like, but they contained some kind of “magic charm,” which the above figure is an example of, and which now sell in the international art market for significant sums of money.
In the early 1920s, however, the Sarawak Gazette carried numerous stories about the injuries that Dayak pig traps caused.
A February 1920 report from Simanggang stated that “Penghulu Nuga reported the death of one Ujoi by a pig trap set by Jebin of the same house.”
In April 1920 there was a follow-up to this report that “Jebin [was] sentenced to six months imprisonment for culpable homicide in causing the death of another Dayak by his pig trap, and to pay $100 pati nyawa to relatives of deceased.”
In 1922 “a Dayak living at Slanjan was pierced in the side by a pig trap supposed to have been set by himself” while a man in Sibu by the name of Nglambai “was fined 2 piculs for causing hurt to a small boy by setting a pig trap in his fruit grove. The boy had a narrow escape from death.”
And finally, “A Sarikei Dayak was fined a pikul for setting a pig trap and slightly wounding a Chinese woman.”
I have no idea what happened before the Brooke family gained control of Sarawak when someone was injured by pig trap. I would assume that it must have been resolved by people in the longhouse.
However, with the arrival of the Brookes, European forms of justice started to be employed, and Dayaks had to compensate for the harm that their traps (unintentionally) caused in terms that they did not define.
We can also see a similar process with regards to the Chinese in Sarawak and their relationship to pigs.
In the January 16, 1920 issue of the Sarawak Gazette there is a report from Sadong (for December 1919) that stated that some Chinese coolies demonstrated outside a shop in the market on “the eve of some Chinese feast day.” They demanded that the owner of the shop kill three pigs for the feast the next day. The shop owner agreed.
So pigs were important for the Chinese, and to some extent this was religious, although I think these coolies were more interested in getting the pigs into their bellies. . .
In any case, a month later, in a report from Upper Sarawak, an official noted that “pigs were being killed at Siniawan in a number of places in the bazaar,” so he arranged to have a slaughter house built “on an approved site” and to lease the right to slaughter and sell pork there “to a Chinese at a monthly rental as is done at Bau.”
So seeing that the Chinese were slaughtering pigs, an official for the Brooke administration decided to establish a monopoly for the slaughter and sale of pork (a “pork farm”) in Siniawan, and to lease that monopoly to the highest bidder, which in Sarawak, like the rest of Southeast Asia, ended up being a rich Chinese.
Once that happened, Dayaks figured out that beyond religious/ritual benefits, there were other benefits that one could get from pigs. . . namely, one could become rich by selling them to Chinese who wanted to eat them.
In March 1920, the official stationed in Upper Sarawak reported that “The pork farmer [and I assume that he is referring to the person in Bau] ceased to kill pigs on the 18th as he said that he could not sell at the controlled price owing to the high price of pigs.”
The Brooke government apparently wanted pork to stay at a set price, but Chinese farmers started to demand higher prices for their pigs.
The man who had the monopoly on the slaughter and sale of pigs then “tried to buy pigs from the Dayaks” but the Dayaks had heared that the Chinese were asking a high price for their live swine, so they refused to sell at anything but the same price that the Chinese were asking even though “their animals are far inferior beasts to those of the Chinese breeders.”
Some from animals that had ritual significance to the Dayaks, pigs in the 1920s were being transformed into commodities that the Dayaks could demand a high price for.
Perhaps this explains why violence started to emerge in relation to pigs.
It was reported from Upper Sarawak in February 1920 that there was a “Dayak shooting case” that occurred in the following manner: “a pig drive was in progress when Sejit shot a relative of his named Sanyas in the back killing him instantly. Sejit saw the long grass waving and simply fired without waiting to see what he was shooting at with this unfortunate result. The Court sentenced him to a year imprisonment.”
A month later it was reported from Upper Sarawak that: “On the night of the 16th, a gardener’s house at Seringgok was held up by two Chinese armed with thorny sticks, while two more proceeded to the piggery, and cut up and made off with a pig weighing some 90 catties. The gardener got out through the back of the house and raised the alarm, but the thieves managed to make good their escape in the darkness.”
Pigs had clearly become valuable. . .
What this very brief and superficial examination demonstrates to me is that there is great potential in looking at the past from an “animal perspective,” or more specifically, from looking at the past from the perspective of human-animal relations.
In the case of Sarawak, for instance, one can clearly see larger societal and economic transformations in the situations that pigs found themselves.
If historians were to examine the past from the perspective of those situations that pigs found themselves in, we might not learn a great deal that is new, but I think we’d see a lot that we already know from a novel and enlightening perspective.
So in any case, to honor the role of pigs in the history of Sarawak, I’ve created a soundscape that I’ve called “Peaceful Pigs.” It’s not about Dayak pig traps or Chinese slaughterhouses. But instead, is a soundscape which imagines a (more or less) peaceful co-existence between pigs and humans. This might not be what actually occurred in the past, but that is why this is the past “remixed.”