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ETHNONYMS: A-Liko, Kelemantan, Malanow, Melano, Melanu, Milano


Identification. The Melanau have no name to cover all Melanau-speaking people: they refer to themselves as "A-Liko X," meaning "the people of a river, a district, or a village," according to context. "Melanau," they assert, was given to them by the Malays of Brunei. The name possibly signifies "coast-dweller" in contrast to "inland-dweller."

Location. The areas of Sarawak inhabited by Melanau speakers stretch from Bintulu on the northwest coast of Borneo to the Rajang Delta in the southwest, and up the Rajang River to Kanowit. Beyond Kanowit are closely related Kajang peoples, who also are found on the River Baluy. The inhabitants of the coastal area live along rivers (Balingian, Mukah, Oya, and Igan) that run parallel to one another through dense tropical-rain-forest swamp, and frequently are referred to as the Coastal Melanau to distinguish them from Melanau speakers on the Rajang. The swampy environment, in which the only reliable food crop is the sago palm, is frequently flooded during the northeast monsoon from November to March, which virtually stops fishing from the coastal villages in January and February.

Demography. In 1980 the population of Sarawak was 1,233,103. The Melanau numbered 69,578, of whom 53,689 were Muslim; 8,486 were Christian; 1,749 were tribal; and 5,328 were registered as having no religion, which in practice means they adhered to tribal religion.

Linguistic Affiliation. Melanau is an Austronesian language of the Western Malayo-Polynesian Branch. It has no standard orthography; today individuals use their own spelling and the roman script. The Melanau language is divided into dialects, not all of which are mutually intelligible. The Coastal and Rajang dialects are linguistically related to those of the Kajang groups and groups on the coast between Bintulu and Brunei and the interior, groups sometimes referred to as Kelemantan. All Melanau people, even Muslims, speak a Melanau dialect, although today most are bilingual in Malay and Melanau.

History and Cultural Relations

Few reliable historical records of the Melanau exist before the nineteenth century, although European travelers and map-makers placed names not unlike "Melanau" on the northwest coast of Borneo. There are also probable references to the Melanau even earlier in Chinese records. The Coastal Melanau and the Kajang groups in the interior relate that their ancestors migrated from central Borneo and founded a Kajang kingdom from which the Coastal Melanau broke away. The Coastal Melanau believe that much of their culture and many of their institutions are derived from the legendary empire of the folk hero Tugau, who was overthrown in a struggle with Brunei. Some historians suggest that these events occurred in the fourteenth century, others, as early as the seventh. In 1861 the Melanau coastal district was ceded to James Brooke, the rajah of Sarawak, by the sultan of Brunei. The Rajang Delta was already under the control of Sarawak. The cession was made to gain control of the export of sago flour to Singapore. The trade was essential for the survival of the regime of the rajah of Sarawak. So as not to disturb the flow of trade, the rajahs interfered as little as possible with the local social and political organization. During World War II the third rajah sold the country to the British government, which, until Sarawak became a part of the Federation of Malaysia in 1963, instituted a number of modernizing economic and educational changes, accompanied by further developments in representative government and administrative institutions.


Modern villages vary in size from 300 to 1,000 inhabitants. Houses, averaging 7 by 10 meters, are built on durable wooden frames in a ribbon pattern along both banks of a river and stand some 3 meters above ground. Walls are of plank or sago bark, and roofing is of palm thatch or wooden shingles. In some areas, notably on the River Tillian at Mukah, villages were closely adjacent, and today the banks of the river are a continuous line of housing with several thousand inhabitants. Administratively the villages are still separate. Traditionally a village was made up of two, sometimes three longhouses, each with a population of about 300 people. A longhouse, consisting of separate apartments with a common veranda in front, facing the river, was essentially a fortress on ironwood piles, some 10 meters above the ground. They were often sited on the bank of the main river opposite the mouth of a tributary stream, which allowed them to see enemies approaching on the water. At the mouths of the main rivers, where representatives of the sultan of Brunei nominally held suzerainty over the river to its source, villagers had by 1830 already begun to build small separate houses, but still retained longhouses for defense. By the beginning of the twentieth century the rajah of Sarawak had successfully put an end to intertribal warfare and most longhouses were abandoned. Sago gardens were cultivated as near the village as possible, and a communal rice field was organized annually by village elders, with a strip allocated to each household.


Subsistence and Commercial Activities. Hunting and gathering, combined with the cultivation of sago gardens (normally about 4 acres in area) and the export of sago biscuit and forest products (gums, resins, rattan, timber) in exchange for metal goods, weapons, ceramics, and cloth traditionally formed the basis of the Melanau economy. The cultivation of sago gardens was supplemented by growing swamp rice (padai paya ) and orchards on the levees of the rivers. Floods at the end of the northeast monsoon frequently ruined the rice crop, which could not be relied on for subsistence. Villages on the coast, where the water of the estuaries was too saline for extraction of flour from the sago palm, depended primarily on fishing and on the import and export trade.

Trade. During the northeast monsoon, when access to the rivers was limited and fishing was dangerous, expeditions upriver from the coastal villages with dried fish, salt, nipa palm sugar, and craft productspalm-leaf thatch, mats, baskets, and hatswere undertaken to exchange these items for sago biscuit, fruit, canoes, and timber. A similar intrariverine trade for forest products and rice was also maintained with Iban settlements in the hills beyond the swamps. Traditionally sago biscuit was exported under the auspices of aristocratic leaders from both inland and coastal villages and of Malay traders from Brunei and elsewhere. With the foundation of Singapore in 1819 and the demand from the European and American cotton industry for cheap industrial starch, the nature of the sago-export trade altered. After the conquest of the coastal district by the rajah of Sarawak in 1861, Melanau and Malay carriers and traders were replaced by Chinese immigrants, who also entered into the production of flour to the extent that they were allowed. The government, however, did not permit the sale of land to immigrants; the primary production of flour remained in the hands of Melanau villagers until after World War II, when all production was mechanized and only the gardens remained in Melanau ownership. Even though the primary production of flour remained in the hands of the Melanau until then, by 1900 the economy had become dependent on the single cash crop, and extensive changes had occurred in the social system.

Division of Labor. Male tasks include clearing the forest and planting and maintaining sago gardens, felling the ripe palm and bringing the trunk to the villages, and stripping the bark off the segments into which the stem has been cut, before rasping the pith inside into a rough sawdust. The sawdust is given to the women to wash on a platform over the river. This rasped pith is placed on a fine-woven mat on the platform, mixed with water, and trampled by the women; the water with the flour in suspension is forced through the mat and a thin straining cloth onto draining boards leading to a trough below the platform, where the crude flour settles and surplus water is drawn away. The sale of this crude flour to a Chinese dealer is also the work of women. The proceeds of the sale are divided in various ways between the owner of the palm, the male feller, and the female trampler of the pith. This cottage industry, in which men and women controlled their own labor and profits, came to an end in the 1950s when Chinese dealers mechanized all aspects of the industry, except the growing and felling of palms. The Chinese dealer did not usually pay cash, but entered the transaction in his books and allowed goods to be bought on credit from his retail shop, thus ensuring that his clients could be kept at regular work and that he could supply his creditors with a regular and predictable supply of flour for export.

Because only Melanau are allowed to own sago land, only those with sago gardens now have any part in the production of sago. Many of the crops are mortgaged before they become mature. A large part of the male population is forced to leave the villages as migrant laborers in the lumber industry; others migrate permanently. Women are no longer economically independent.

Industrial Arts. In the cottage industry most of the necessary equipment was made locally or acquired through the intrariverine trade. Ironwork and weaving ceased with the advent of a cash economy at the end of the nineteenth century.

Land Tenure. Every village collectively owns a delimited territory that it was formerly ready to defend against all outsiders. Within that territory sago gardens and orchards, carefully delimited, are individually owned. Joint tenancy is possible, especially if a single garden is inherited by two women, for gardens are almost never subdivided. Such an arrangement is not thought satisfactory; other solutions are preferred.


Kin Groups and Descent. Theoretically, descent is patrilineal in the allocation of rank, but is not used in the formation of groups. Three types of groups in which kinship is an important factor are found: (1) households made up of separately catering individual families, with occasional stem families (tegen ); (2) sections of the modern ribbonlike villages largely consisting of relatives, and known as a-sega a term also used for close relatives up to second cousin; and (3) ad hoc groups of kin assembled from both paternal and maternal lines of descent for specific tasks (e.g., weddings, funerals, trading expeditions).

Kinship Terminology. Kin terms are bilateral, with one term, male and female alike, for each of five generations; but the individual family is lineally set apart from other kin. In some districts seniority and gender in the parental generation and in Ego's siblings are terminologically distinguished. Kin terms are given to all relatives up to the second cousins; relatives up to fifth cousin are recognized, but connections beyond are strangers. No term is used for the kindred.

Marriage and Family

Marriage. Although polygamous marriage, with the consent of the first wife, is permitted, it is very rare and usually leads to divorce. The population of a village is divided into aristocrats (a-menteri ), commoners (a-bumi), and slaves (a-dipen ). Ideally marriage should be with a second cousin (patrior matrilateral) within the same rank; but in small, politically independent communities the need for talent has always favored cross-rank marriages. The father of a bride is covertly permitted to choose the bride-wealth and rank he desires for his daughter through any line of descent. A wedding is the most important public occasion on which upward or downward mobility is recognized and validated. Theoretically, all first marriages are arranged by parents, but the wishes of the proposed partners are usually taken into consideration. Parents do not arrange second marriages. For a period after the wedding, uxorilocal residence is ideal, but economic advantage often overrides the ideal. One child, usually the youngest, is expected to remain with the parents. Divorce is by mutual consent, and property acquired since the marriage is divided equally.

Domestic Unit. People who cook and cater together are considered to be a family (tegen) ; but a household may consist of several separate catering and cooking units. Six or seven people constitute an average household.

Inheritance. Property is divided equally among surviving children and the offspring of any dead children. The former longhouse apartment or the contemporary house, in addition to a share of other property, is usually allotted to the child who remains with the parents. Gardens and orchards are divided as whole units and are not subdivided.

Socialization. Infants and children are reared by both parents, by siblings, and by other household members. Physical punishment is very rare; it is regarded as a debased practice of the Chinese. Individual independence is highly valued, but not at the expense of custom and respect for elderly people.

Sociopolitical Organization

Sarawak is a state in the Federated States of Malaysia; it consists of divisions, each of which in turn is divided into districts under the supervision of district officers.

Social Organization. Formerly a village was an independent unit governed by a group of self-appointed aristocrats known as a-nyat, or elders. The rajah of Sarawak appointed one of them as headman, answerable to the district officer. Today the influence of the elders varies with local circumstances; their power is now primarily ceremonial, concerned with validating social mobility at weddings. The suppression of endemic tribal warfare by the rajah of Sarawak allowed people other than aristocrats to acquire wealth by planting sago gardens; the gradual introduction of a cash economy permitted commoners and even slaves to acquire wealth and make claim to higher rank and even enter the group of governing elders.

Political Organization. Village headmen today are minor magistrates and try certain civil suits in addition to collecting taxes. Criminal offenses are a matter for the district officer, native officers under him, and the police. Districts vary in size and, in coastal areas, are comprised of Iban and Malay people as well as Melanau. In addition to administrative services, the state government today provides schools, dispensaries, hospitals, land surveys, and various advisory services. It also maintains highways, canals, and bridges, and subsidizes mosques and churches.

Social Control. In villages social control is largely a matter of adat, or custom, supervised and administered by the headmen and elders. The Coastal Melanau Adat, an attempted codification of many village adats, is followed by headmen and elders in cases of family and personal dispute, short of homicide or criminal theft, but each village claims its own version of the adat and often does not adhere to the official codification. Social control, however, is maintained primarily by a value system that places a high premium on respect for seniority, rank, and the proper order of things as embodied in the adat, any violation of which entails civil penalties imposed by the elders and automatic supernatural penalties that can be averted only by correct reparation.

Conflict. Conflict is usually seen as a disregard of proper respect, and children are brought up to avoid conflict at almost any cost.

Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefs. In 1980 53,689 Melanau were Sunni Muslim, 8,486 were Christian, 1,749 were tribal, 5,328 were listed as having no religion (but were probably all tribal), and 326 were listed as miscellaneous. For Muslims, Christians, and tribals alike, the world consists of this, the middle world, the upper world (the sky), and the world below. Traditionally the world was egg-shaped, seven layers or worlds above and seven below the middle world, the whole being balanced on the head of a buffalo standing on a snake, all surrounded by water. The breathing of the buffalo caused the ebb and flow of the tides. For some people the land of the dead was an underworld; others thought it elsewhere, but did not know where. Its topography was exact, but differed for Muslims, whose view was shared by Christians.

For Muslims, Christians, and tribals alike, the world, the sun, the moon, and the stars were created by Alla-taala, but how is not known. He is remote and little interested in human affairs. All "layers" of the world are inhabited by spirits (tou ), who, together with humans, animals, and plants, share this middle world. Every being has its own proper place in the world, which is ordered by adat. Overstepping boundaries causes trouble, and most human illness is caused by trespassing on some spirit's living space. Spirits are of many kinds: earth, air, water, forest, etc. Sometimes they are referred to as ipu', who are less malevolent than tou, and may indeed be invited to reside in and protect dwellings. Supernaturals live on the moon and punish disorderly and disrespectful behavior by men, especially mockery of animals. A female guards the entrance to the land of the dead. People are reluctant to call such supernaturals "tou" or "ipu'," but no other term exists for such demigods. Muslims and some pagans call them melaikat.

Religious Practitioners. No pagan priests exist. Expert carvers of spirit images, or bilum, diagnose what spirit (sometimes also called "bilum" and not "tou") is likely to have caused an illness and, in a short ceremony, forces the spirit into its carved image so that it may be taken to its proper place and forbidden to harm the patient for at least three days. Spirit mediums, with the help of familiar spirits, also cure illness and practice divination. Every village, Muslim and tribal alike, holds an annual cleansing ceremony, kaul, to call uninvited spirits that have taken up residence in the village to a feast before they are sent home to their proper places.

Ceremonies. Apart from the annual kaul, private ceremonies of increasing complexity and expense are held for the curing of illness by spirit mediums. Ceremonies for the safety of a child two months before its delivery initiate a series of taboos, culminating in the birth. There are also ceremonies at the wake of a dead person; they may continue for several months, until a secondary burial.

Arts. Among most Melanau groups, tattooing was never widely practiced. Strongly built longhouses, fortresses thirty feet above ground, were traditionally decorated with elaborate wood carving. Bilum carved in sago pith were widely used and are a sophisticated form of sculpture. Ceremonies were accompanied by gong orchestras with distinctive chants and music; bards recited and sang epics, legends, and myths of considerable poetic merit at ceremonies or simply for entertainment.

Medicine. Most illness was attributed to an attack by a spirit, but certain ailments, mostly minor, were attributed to a failure to keep a proper balance between hot and cold conditions in the body. Herbal medicines existed to restore the balance, most of which have been taken over by practitioners of Malay medicine.

Death and Afterlife. An individual's funeral is one of the most important events in the life cycle. At death the soul begins a boat journey, accompanied by attendant spiritsusually called "tou"to the land of the dead. Chants, ceremonies, and games during the wake ensure the soul a safe journey. Once admitted, the soul is sent to one of seven pagan villages, appropriate to the manner of death, and lives a life similar to that of this middle world. Eventually a second death occurs, and many believe that the soul then becomes dew. Muslims and many Christians also believe that the soul sets out for the land of the dead by boat or, according to some, along a road that comes to a place where the path becomes a sword across a pot of blazing fire. An individual who has led a good life can walk along the flat edge of the sword; the sharp edge of the sword ensures that one who has led a bad life falls into the pot. Beyond the sword is the land of Mohammed, Jesus Christ, and the pagans.


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Morris, H. S. (1953). A Report on a Melanau Sago Producing Community in Sarawak. London: H.M.S.O.

Morris, H. S. (1978). "The Coastal Melanau." In Essays on Borneo Societies, edited by Victor T. King, 37-58. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Morris, H. S. (1981). "The Melanau View of Their Environment." Sarawak Museum Journal 27 (5).

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