In truth, Charles Hose was armed not just with a camera but with a pen. Stationed on Borneo as the Resident Magistrate during British Imperial rule there, this investigator recorded all he saw in his book, The Pagan Tribes of Borneo, published in 1912, and this included a discourse on headhunting:
“It is clear that the Ibans are the only tribe to which one can apply the epithet head-hunters with the usual connotation of the word, namely, that head-hunting is pursued as a form of sport,” write Hose, though he later states that these same people “are so passionately devoted to head-hunting that often they do not scruple to pursue it in an unsportsmanlike fashion.
Dayak man in possession of two heads on strings
Photo 1900-1940: Photographer unknown
Charles Hose himself thought it was probably that the Ibans “adopted the practice [of headhunting] some few generations ago only... in imitation of Kayans or other tribes among whom it had been established,” and that “the rapid growth of the practice among the Ibans was no doubt largely due to the influence of the Malays, who had been taught by Arabs and others the arts of piracy.”
As their own areas became overpopulated, they were forced to intrude on lands belonging to other tribes to expand their own land-trespassing which could only lead to death when violent confrontation was the only means of survival.
Armed Dayaks busy with the scull of a head-hunted enemy, Central-Borneo
Photo 1894: Photographer unknown
Headhunting was also an important part of Dayak culture. A tradition of revenge or defence for old headhunts kept the ritual alive until it was gradually withdrawn out by outside interference – namely, the reign of the Brooke Rajahs in Sarawak and the Dutch in Kalimantan Borneo – in the 100 years leading up to World War II.
Early on, Brooke Government reports describe war parties of Iban and Kenyah people – another group of tribes to whom headhunting was culturally significant – enemy heads were captured and kept. Yet later on, with the exception of massed raids, the practice of headhunting was limited to individual retaliation attacks.
Even so, by Charles Hose’s time headhunting was evidently still an adequate issue for the ethnologist to devote sections of his book to the subject. Hose went far as to explore possible reasonings for the habits and beliefs that may have supported this macabre ferocity, offering two possible theories:
“That the practice of taking the heads of fallen enemies arose by extension of the custom of taking the hair for the ornamentation of the shield and sword-hilt,” and that: “The origin of head-taking is that it arose out of the custom of slaying slaves on the death of a chief, in order that they might accompany and serve him on his journey to the other world.”
Medicine men of the Dusun-Dayaks in West Borneo
Photo: Photographer unknown
With slight doubt, contemporary scholars have offered slightly different opinions on what headhunting meant to the people who practiced it. Within the complex polytheist and animist beliefs of the Dayaks, beheading one’s enemy was seen as the way of killing off for good the spirit of the person who had been killed.
The spiritual significance of the ceremony also lay in the belief that at the end of mourning for the community's dead. The heads were put on display at traditional burial rites, where the bones of relatives were dug out from the earth and cleaned before being put in burial vaults. Ideas of manhood were also bound up with the practice, and the taken heads were surely a reward.
In far more recent times, beheading by Dayak people again resurfaced. Kalimantan, the Indonesian portion of Borneo, has been marred by brutal outbreaks of ethnic violence since the late 1990s. In 2001, over 500 Madurese immigrants were killed and tens of thousands forced to run away, with the bodies of some victims decapitated in rituals.
Conversion to Islam or Christianity and anti-headhunting legislation by the colonial powers may have supposed to withhold headhunting, but violent practices often have a habit of reappearing when situations get ugly.