Where Hornbills Fly: A Journey with the Headhunters of Borneo by Erik Jensen - review by John Keay

John Keay

Lore of the Jungle

Where Hornbills Fly: A Journey with the Headhunters of Borneo


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Ritualised headhunting, though often reported by nineteenth-century explorers, was less frequently authenticated. In Asia it seems to have been limited to the Nagas of north-east India and several forest peoples in the south-east Asian archipelago; it probably sold more books than it claimed lives. There was something about healthy young heads being removed as heirlooms and displayed about the house, like family photos on the mantelpiece, that both fascinated and appalled the reading public. Western morality piped up against the practice, rather in the manner of Flanders and Swann’s bolshie young cannibal who was adamant that ‘eating people is wrong’. Whether the victim was killed in battle or foully murdered mattered little. What rankled was treating the human cranium as a trophy, to be cured, shrunk, carved with arabesques and hung prominently. Along with other macabre customs – widow burning, human sacrifice, infanticide and cannibalism itself – headhunting provided the perfect justification for those civilising interventions that might, perforce or perchance, be prolonged into colonial rule.

This is roughly what happened in that part of Borneo that formed the Brooke family’s raj of Sarawak. As an Iban warrior once explained to a Brooke functionary: ‘White men read books; we hunt heads.’ It was a cultural matter, part rite of passage, part affirmation of identity.

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