N is for Nyabor

by Rose Gan

The Nyabor sword, one of a collection of Sarawak weapons in this vitrine, is referred to as ‘Parang Nyabor’ but also known as ‘Pedang Nyabor’. In Indonesia, the spelling ‘niabor’ is used. The nyabor is an Iban warrior sword of ancient lineage, more correctly referred to as pedang because of its length, which at 60-90 cm (2-3 feet) makes it a cutlass rather than a long dagger. The Nyabor was used by Borneo Ibans (sometimes called Sea Dayaks) and is found in Sarawak as well as West and Central Kalimantan. It was an important part of a warrior’s accoutrements, especially from 1800 to the late 19th century.

Parang Nyabor at Gallery C, Muzium Negara.

The iron blade of the Nyabor is broad and slightly curved, coming to a wedge-shaped point at the end. Many have a sharp protrusion on the cutting edge of the upper part of the blade near the hilt, the kundieng, whose purpose is both to parry (allowing a backhand slicing motion) and also to serve as a finger guard. The hilt was made either of antler or deer horn, carved in a triangular stylised shape that has been variously compared to the head of a bird, a horse or a naga, often decorated with floral motifs.

The sheath of this sword (sarung) is undecorated, which is typical of the nyabor, unlike the more colourful mandau/parang ilang daggers with which they are often confused. The Dutch in Kalimantan mostly did not distinguish between the two, referring to all such weapons as ‘mandau’. Careful comparison, however, indicates that not only were the blades of the mandau/parang ilang shorter, but their hilt and sheath were highly decorated with braiding and beadwork in traditional sacred colours.  Nyabors have minimal adornment, mostly plain bands, either of plaited fibre, wood or brass, to which feathers, animal teeth and small bones are sometimes attached. These talismans, as with all Bornean weapons, imbued the owner with the strength and skills of the dead animal in battle.

Nyabor. Image credit: Tropenmuseum, part of the National Museum of World Cultures, CC BY-SA 3.0

The nyabor was a multi-purpose weapon. It was primarily for battle or headhunting but, unlike shorter blades, it was also useful for slashing so could serve as a tool for clearing undergrowth and forest, essential both for agricultural purposes and also for expeditions through dense jungle, either for hunting, raiding or war. Today, the nyabor is a rare collectors’ item, for this weapon was rarely used after 1900. It is possible, however, to buy reproductions that are still produced for the export and tourist market. Many authentic original nyabors have sheaths of more modern fabrication.

The notes in the vitrine state that the Pedang Nyabor was an Iban weapon used in the struggle against the British occupation of Sarawak. This is obviously a reference to indigenous attempts to oust Rajah James Brooke in the mid 19th century. The weapon would have similarly been used in Kalimantan against the Dutch colonial forces.

This weapon had a central role in the now sensitive subject of headhunting. The Iban people traditionally followed an animist belief system, in which the worship of ancestral spirits ensured the balance of the cosmos. The Iban believed that they descended from a progenitor figure, a bird-god called Sengalong Burung, who came down from the sky. Most of their traditional practices concern the placating of harmful spirits and the summoning of protective ancestors to restore the harmony of their everyday lives. The taking of heads was essential to appeasing the wandering spirit of a recently dead ancestor, assisting its passage to the afterlife and ensuring its future protection for the community. Headhunting was also part of the cycle of fertility of both crops and humans and the response to outbreaks of disease or natural disasters. The heads of enemies, displayed in their houses and around the village, was deemed necessary for their continued prosperity and unity. The spirits of these dead also strengthened the warrior who had killed them, for their abilities and life essence now passed to him. Thus, the heads were always accorded great respect and played a part in important village rituals and dances.   But revenge was also a common motive for the taking of heads. If any perceived injury or harm had been inflicted on a community by a neighbour then they considered themselves honour-bound to take heads from the warriors of that village, often causing vendettas that went on for years.

Ngayau or headhunting, was still rife in 1800. It was officially ended in Sarawak during the administration of Rajah Brooke by the mid 19th century, although it is said Brooke tolerated incidences of headhunting raids when it suited him, if the attacks targeted groups hostile to his government. Since then there have been reports of sporadic outbreaks, particularly during times of conflict, e.g. World War II and during the Konfrontasi with Indonesia.

References

Gan, Rose. (2011). Indonesian Heritage Society Museum Nasional Training Materials: 2a Ethnography. National Museum of Indonesia, Jakarta.

JMM curators. (2011). Muzium Negara Gallery Guide (Gallery C): Colonial Era. Department of Museums Malaysia.

Tropenmuseum Collection: https://collectie.wereldculturen.nl/default.aspx?lang=en#/query/e886074b-4ce5-4336-980d-2a267b5aa073 (accessed June 30th 2021).

Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Niabor (accessed July 1st 2021).

In this Series

Click HERE for a list of articles in the ‘A-Z at Muzium Negara’ series.

Author: Museum Volunteers, JMM

Museum Volunteers, JMM Taking the Mystery out of History

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