A little jungle adventure time, and what does every adventurer hope to find? A river dwelling community, some smoking ruins amongst the water village, monkeys, tropical birds sailing overhead? Well yes, all of those. And how about a box of old skulls and swash-buckling tales of pirates and mighty tribal headhunters? It sounds like quite the adventure doesn’t it? That’s exactly what I got when I headed off for a boat trip up the river Belait recently.
“Perhaps it’s true that things can change in a day. That a few dozen hours can affect the outcome of whole lifetimes. And that when they do, those few dozen hours, like the salvaged remains of a burned house—the charred clock, the singed photograph, the scorched furniture—must be resurrected from the ruins and examined. Preserved. Accounted for. Little events, ordinary things, smashed and reconstituted. Imbued with new meaning. Suddenly they become the bleached bones of a story.”
(Arundhati Roy, The God of Small Things).
Tucked into the shade of the riverbank, in a crudely crafted display cage are the remains of human skulls. A tin roof, over a box made of loosely spaced wooden slats, up on stilts over the ground. The box is at least a metre squared, and our boat captain-come-guide told us that once it had been nearly full. Today, only small fragments remain covering the bottom of the box.
Some of the skulls have been lost to theft. The flimsy wire front and wooden sides not sufficiently robust to keep pilfering hands out. And over time the rising and falling flood waters have tumbled the skulls around in their cage, the broken pieces then swept away with the roaring waters. How many more years until there is only an empty box remaining?
Once there is nothing left in the box, will the story live on? In many countries, such a sight would be accompanied by a plaque, giving an account of the historical significance. There would probably be a tourist information leaflet, and maybe an organised trip on offer, for people to go and see for themselves. You would probably be able to google it and find a handful of sources with information on it.
In Brunei, where tourism is virtually non-existent, there is none of that. Finding even the most rudimentary of information on ‘sights of interest’ in Brunei is almost impossible once you go beyond the main sights in the capital, Bandar Seri Begawan. But I don’t think that means that there are no sights to be seen. Far from it.
This box of skulls is a case in point. Who were they? Why were they here? Well, there is no written account or clear definite answer, but there are two stories attached to them which our boat captain recounted. The first, that South China Sea pirates sailing under the guise of spice traders tried to double cross some of the local river people. A big mistake, as they soon discovered, at the hands of the fearless head-hunters.
The second tale tells of Japanese WWII forces reached the rivers and jungle of Borneo during the Japanese drive to rule Asia and the Pacific. Fierce fighting left these remains, the might of the Japanese Army crushed on this occasion.
Whether either story is true will probably never be reliably verified. Either way, the skulls are believed to be haunted. Local people are very superstitious, believing that to touch them would bring immense bad luck.
If my conveyance of the two scenarios seems sketchy, that is because they are sketchy in the first place. There is very little written history here, no real culture of traditional story telling as far as I can tell, and there seems to be very little that has passed down through the generations.
Since my trip to see the skulls, I have been wondering how many young Bruneians have any interest or knowledge in this story from their past. Bruneians are very proud to be Bruneian, very proud of their faith, very proud of their country. But having tried talking with some of the locals about their culture and history, there just doesn’t seem to be a sense of importance attached to it. Almost as if what is past is past, gone and therefore no longer of importance.
These past few days I have seen ‘lest we forget’ written so many times in the context of too many wars and the lives they have cost over the past hundred years. And I wholeheartedly agree with the principle of remembrance. A national sense of consciousness and memory – whether out of horror, sadness or pride – seems crucial for shaping individual and community identity and integrity. So it feels really alien to be in a country where it is less a case of forgetting than just not every really registering in the first place.
Preserved (transitive verb).
Derivation: Middle English, from Medieval Latin praeservare, prae- + servare to keep, guard, observe. First Known Use: 14th century.
Although I don’t know who, someone went to the trouble of collecting and displaying the skulls, so they obviously thought that they were important enough to be preserved. Yet I suspect that in thirty years time the skulls will be long gone and the story will be lost forever.
Preservation of our cultural identity, our historical and cultural roots, takes more than just putting something in a box. We have to keep the story alive too. Preserved through our words and story telling. It is one of my reasons to write, as well as to read. So it saddens me that there are probably hundreds of similar stories and artefacts that have been lost, in Brunei alone. We need these stories, to weave our rich tapestry of global culture, understanding, language and identity. Remembering the past is as important as embracing the future.