Perelaer: If the Dayak Had the Intelligence of Europeans, They Might be the Finest Warriors in the World

Perelaer's self-portrait from Wikidata.

Historical tourism in Borneo can begin with a visit to the Resto & Gallery Tjilik Riwut in Palangka Raya, Central Kalimantan. It is known that Tjilik Riwut was the first Dayak to write and publish a book on the history of Kalimantan. 

However, the history of Borneo is equally fascinating as written by local (Dayak) authors. One of them, Damianus Siyok, has recently focused on the history of the Dayak in Borneo during the colonial period of the Dutch East Indies. 

According to Siyok, Michael Teophile Hubert Perelaer was originally a novelist during the colonial era. 

He wrote novels titled "Baboe Delima" and "Borneo van Zuid naar Noord." "Borneo van Zuid naar Noord" by Helius Samsudin was translated into Indonesian with the title "DESERSI: Menembus Rimba Raya Kalimantan," then published by Gramedia in 2006.

 "Borneo van Zuid naar Noord" is Perelaer's ethnographic account of the Dayak people, more precisely a historical and cultural novel about the Dayak.

Perelaer was a first lieutenant in the military

Perelaer was a first lieutenant in the military. From 1860 to 1864, he was the commanding officer of the Tanah Dayak district, stationed in Tumbang Kapuas. 

Perelaer was one of the Dutch soldiers actively engaged in warfare against the forces of Antasari, Hidayatullah, and Aminullah (the three instigators of the Banjar War) during the first phase of the Banjar War (1859-1863). Due to his constant presence on the battlefield, he was familiar with the conditions of his enemies.

One day, the fortress he commanded in Kuala Kapuas was attacked by Dayak forces using poisoned blow darts, and some of his men were hit. 

Perelaer had to think quickly to save his men from the poison, as without intervention, they would succumb to it within hours. Yes, thanks to his extensive knowledge of Dayak indigenous wisdom, his men were saved from the threat of the poison.

He also knew that his colleague, a Colonel and commander in the Marabahan and Dusun districts, lost his life at the hands of Temenggung Surapati's forces when traveling to Dusun Hulu aboard the ship Onrust. 

The defeat of the Onrust forces at Lalutung Tour, which possessed the most modern weaponry of the Dutch at the time, left the Dutch in mourning. It was the worst defeat in the history of warfare in Borneo.

Due to his extensive knowledge of the Dayak people and their ethnography, the Resident of South and East Borneo, Verpick, asked him to write a book on the ethnography of the Dayak people. 

Thus, Perelaer wrote a scientific book that would later become an important reference for understanding the Dayak tribes in the 18th century. 

Perelaer wrote about the Dayak from various perspectives: Religion, History, Armament, Dayak Warfare, Slavery, Death Festivals (tiwah), Agriculture to Trade and Industries practiced by the Dayak people. 

The book, titled "Etnographische Beschrijving der Dajaks," was published in 1870 and could be considered a comprehensive ethnographic work, although some data may be exaggerated, what is presented is true (for example, the Asang war at the mouth of the Kahayan River between the Barito forces and the Kahayan-Kapuas forces, also written by Schwaner, an event that occurred in 1835). "Etnographische Beschrijving der Dajaks" became the finest book offering a Dutch military perspective on the Dayak people, aimed at Dutch and European readers.

Why Perelaer study the Dayak people through direct research

Why did Perelaer dare to accept the offer to write from Resident Verpick? He answered, "For four full years, from November 1859 to November 1863, I explored the Dayak society, because besides fulfilling military command, I also conducted civil supervision. Therefore, I had many opportunities to study the Dayak people through direct research."

In the first paragraph of the book's introduction, Perelaer writes, 'Gedurende volle vijf jaren, van 1859-1864, heeft de bevolking der Zuid en Oostkust van Borneo een bitteren krijg gevoerd tegen het Nederlandsch Gouvernement’ (During full five years, from 1859 to 1864, the population of the South and East coasts of Borneo waged a bitter war against the Dutch Government).

In the following paragraph, he continues, 'Wij treffen Dajaks aan bij schier alle gevechten; en de Maleische bevolking was reeds lang bedwongen, had reeds lang den rug gekromd, toen de fiere Dajaksche stammen in de binnenlanden van Borneo nog kreten van uittarting deden hooren’ (We encounter Dayaks in almost all battles; and the Malay population had long been subdued, long bowed their backs, while the proud Dayak tribes in the interior of Borneo still echoed defiance).

He goes on, 'Antasari was reeds gestorven, Hidajat en Aminoe’llah waren reeds naar Java verbannen, Demang Lehman op gehangen, toen de Dajaksche Tommonggongs Soerapati en Toendan de oproervlag nog omhoog hielden en van geene onderwerping wilden weten’ (Antasari had already died, Hidajat and Aminoe’llah had already been exiled to Java, Demang Lehman had been hanged, yet the Dayak Tommonggongs, Soerapati and Toendan, still held the rebellion flag high and refused to surrender).

In another explanation, Perelaer writes that the enemies fighting against the Dutch soldiers were primarily the Malays (the Banjar Malays under the command of Antasari, Hidayatullah, and Aminullah). However, it was these Malays who provoked the Dayaks into participating in the warfare.

Dayaks were their toughest and most stubborn opponents

According to Perelaer, the Dayaks were their toughest and most stubborn opponents. Not only did the Dayaks master the terrain in the jungle and rivers, they could also build floating forts called kutamara

They fought from behind these floating forts. It was the Dayaks who intercepted and sank the Onrust ship. He witnessed Dayaks who could withstand Dutch army attacks with modern weaponry for weeks at forts like Lahei and Tongka. "The Dayaks always fought us with great strength and bravery," he concludes.

Returning to the matter of the poison dart, his extensive knowledge of the Dayak was perhaps the key to saving his troops. In August 1859, the Kuala Kapuas fortress, which was the defense center for his troops, was attacked by Dayak forces. 

These Dayak combatants used their signature weapon, the poisoned blowpipe dart. Some of Perelaer's soldiers were struck by the darts (damek) coated in siren poison (siren is the name of a tree that produces poison for the darts). This poison caused the limbs of the affected soldiers to become paralyzed and their heads dizzy. After the Dayak forces retreated, the Dutch soldiers were quickly assisted with the administration of ammonia.

Perelaer noted that in warfare, the Dayak never gathered in large numbers. They avoided show of force. Dayak combatants divided their forces into small groups. 

A single group seldom reached 20 individuals. In one group, there were usually one or two who were the bravest. 

Often, it was these one or two brave souls who caused the most trouble. However, their small numbers made them incredibly dangerous; their movements were nimble and quick. They were able to hide exceptionally well, remain undetected, and suddenly attack, causing substantial damage. These small units could lie in wait for weeks or even months before ambushing when the situation was deemed right.

Perelaer: If the Dayak had the Intelligence of Europeans, They might be the finest warriors in the world

Perelaer continued that in battle, the Dayak waited for an opportune moment. Their weapon of choice, the mandau, was terrifyingly effective. More flexible than a sword due to its shorter and lighter design, the mandau was used in close combat, whereas for long distances, the Dayak resorted to firearms or blowpipes.

Perelaer went on, urging not to call the Dayak combatants cowards; they were a very brave force. They attacked our fort on Pulau Petak. They also ambushed the warships Onrust, Suriname, Monterado, and Celebes, all of which were equipped with modern weaponry and heavy artillery. What other force could battle with such courage as the Dayak? Among the numerous warships ambushed by the Dayak, the Onrust suffered a total defeat (author).

On page 79 in the section "Warfare of the Dayak," Perelaer writes, "If the Dayak had the intelligence of Europeans, they might be the finest warriors in the world."

  • Damianus Siyok

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