Iban is one of the tribes that is rarely heard in any parts of the world, but it does exist. Iban people live in East Malaysia in the state of Sarawak. They were among the most feared people of the 19th century, during the invasion of British in Malaysia. Known as the clan of head-hunters, they hunt their nemesis’ head and proclaim it as a symbol of power and honour. However among all of the Iban people, there is one name that made it through to history; and still mentioned up to this day.
Born in the Sungai Skrang area (which was also believed to be one of the early placements of Iban tribe in Sarawak), Rentap was the bravest among his 5 siblings. Back in the 19th century as mentioned before, it was normal for any brave warriors of Iban to hunt for their enemies’ head to proclaim power over their opponents’ clan and to gain a honourary title “Bujang Berani”. For Rentap, his recognition began when he led the army of Iban from Skrang to attack the villages in Pontianak. What made him gain the title is that it was a battle between swords and bamboo spears against guns and cannons. Rentap fearlessly led the whole army and remarkably won, managing to proclaim power over the territory by bringing back the heads of the enemies.
Indeed, it was such a grim way to gain a title but it surely did garnered attention worldwide, especially from James Brooke, the first Rajah of Sarawak appointed by Sultan of Brunei. Due to that, James Brooke built a fort near Sungai Skrang area to monitor the movement of the Iban people for safety reasons. Being called as pirate triggered Rentap’s urge to protect the Iban community for they would not kill without proper reasons.
The dispute between Rentap and Brooke commenced when Brooke burned down the Iban village which almost destroyed the whole area. Rentap proceeded by attacking Brooke’s fort in which they had won despite, again, only using wooden weapons and traditional sword. The conflict continued with Brooke not willing to accept the lost by bringing his army to conquer Rentap’s fort in Sungai Lang and fully burnt the whole Iban village.
Rentap was forced to retreat to Bukit Sadok and built a fort in which Brooke attempted to attack twice but failed because the fort was strong enough to withstand the attacks. “You can bring all of your cannons from Europe but we will never be afraid of you.” said Rentap upon the failed attempt to attack his fort. Hearing this, James Brooke himself lead his army for another attack, bringing the most powerful cannon under his possession called “Bujang Sadok”. Rentap was outnumbered but he fought till the end. Staying true to what he would always say, “Agi idup, agi ngelaban!” (I will fight as long as I will live!), he did not give up and kept on fighting. However, he was forced to retreat to a place called Entabai and planned another strategy for a retaliation. Unfortunately, he died before he could even initiate the strategy.
It is a story that remains in Iban people’s heart up until today. What makes him a national hero and one of the most prominent figures in the country’s history is his determination to defend his people from being tormented by the colonialists. He never gave up even though he was outnumbered and had to use traditional weapons during the battles. Determination, fearlessness, courage, and persistence are among the values of a great leader – all of which Rentap excellently demonstrated. Rentap is a role model to the younger generations, who will be the ones to shape a better future for ASEAN and the whole world. As he said, Agi idup, agi ngelaban!”, we should always fight as long as we will live.
By John Anak Ramsay, ASEAN Correspondent from Malaysia