The Pagan Tribes of Borneo— Volume 1

Author: Charles Hose


In any account of the arts and crafts of the Kayans, the working of iron claims the first place by reason of its high importance to them and of the skill and knowledge displayed by them in the difficult operations by which they produce their fine swords. The origin of their knowledge of iron and of the processes of smelting and forging remains hidden in mystery; but there can be little doubt that the Kayans were familiar with these processes before they entered Borneo, and it is probable that the Kayans were the first ironworkers in Borneo, and that from them the other tribes have learnt the craft with various measures of success.[63] However this may be, the Kayans remain the most skilful ironworkers of the country, rivalled only in the production of serviceable sword-blades by the Kenyahs.

At the present day the Kayans, like all the other peoples, obtain their iron in the form of bars of iron and steel imported from Europe and distributed by the Chinese and Malay traders. But thirty years ago nearly all the iron worked by the tribes of the interior was from ore found in the river-beds, and possibly from masses of meteoric iron; and even at the present day the native ore is still smelted in the far interior, and swords made from it by the Kenyahs are still valued above all others.

Smelting and forging demand a specialised skill which is attained by relatively few. But in each Kayan village are to be found two or three or more skilled smiths, who work up for a small fee the metal brought them by their friends, the finishing touches being generally given by the owner of the implement according to his own fancy.

The smelting is performed by mixing the ore with charcoal in a clay crucible, which is embedded in a pile of charcoal. The charcoal being ignited is blown to a white heat by the aid of four piston-bellows. Each of the bellows consists of a wooden cylinder (generally made from the stem of a wild sago palm) about four feet in length and six inches in diameter, fixed vertically in a framework carrying a platform, on which two men sit to work the pistons (see Pl. 107). The lower end of each cylinder is embedded in clay, and into it near its lower end is inserted a tube of bamboo, which, lying horizontally on the ground, converges upon and joins with a similar tube of a second cylinder. The common tube formed by this junction in turn converges with the tube common to the other pair of cylinders, and with it opens by a clay junction into a final common tube of clay, which leads to the base of the fire. The piston consists of a stout stick bearing at its lower end a bunch of feathers large enough to fill the bore of the cylinder. When the piston is thrust downwards, it drives the air before it to the furnace; as it is drawn upwards, the feathers collapsing allow the entrance of air from above. The upper extremity of each of the piston-rods is attached by a cord to one end of a stout pliable stick, which is firmly fixed at its other end in a horizontal position, the cord being of such a length that the piston-head is supported by it near the upper end of the cylinder. Two men squat upon the platform and each works one pair of the cylinders, grasping a piston-rod in each hand, thrusting them down alternately, and allowing the elastic reaction of the supporting rods above to draw them up again. The crucible, having been brought to white heat in the furnace, is allowed to cool, when a mass of metallic iron or steel is found within it.

The forging of implements from the metal obtained is effected by the aid of a charcoal furnace to which a blast is supplied by the bellows described above, or sometimes by one consisting of two cylinders only. Stone anvils and hammers were formerly used, and may still be seen in use in the far interior (Fig. 31); but the Kayans make iron hammers and an anvil consisting of a short thick bar of iron, the lower end of which is fixed vertically in a large block of wood.

The peculiarly shaped and finely tempered sword-blade, MALAT, is the highest product of the Kayan blacksmith. The smith begins his operations on a bar of steel some eight inches in length. One end is either grasped with pincers, or thrust firmly into a block of wood that serves for a handle. The other end is heated in the furnace and gradually beaten out until the peculiar shape of the blade is achieved, with the characteristic hollow on the one side and convexity on the other. If the blade is to be a simple and unadorned weapon, there follow only the tempering, grinding, and polishing. But many blades are ornamented with curled ridges projecting from the back edge. These are cut and turned up with an iron chisel while the metal is hot and before tempering.

Two methods of tempering are in use. One is to heat the blade in the fire and to plunge it at a dull heat into water. The other is to lay the cold blade upon a flat bar of red-hot iron. This has the advantage that the degree of the effect upon the blade can be judged from the change of its colour as it absorbs the heat. The Kayan smiths are expert in judging by the colours of the surface the degree and kind of temper produced. They aim at producing a very tough steel, for the MALAT has to serve not only in battle, but also for hacking a path through the jungle, and for many other purposes.

Many sword-blades are elaborately decorated with scroll designs along the posterior border and inlaid with brass. The inlaid brass commonly takes the form of a number of small discs let into the metal near the thick edge; small holes are punched through the hot metal, and brass wire is passed through each hole, cut off flush with the surface and hammered flat. The designs are chased on the cold metal with a chisel and hammer supplemented by a file. The polishing and sharpening are done in several stages: the first stage usually by rubbing the blade upon a block of sandstone; the second stage by the use of a hone of finer grain; and the highest polish is attained by rubbing with a leaf whose surface is hard and probably contains silicious particles. At the present time imported files are much used.

Other implements fashioned by the smiths are the small knives, spear-heads, hoes, small adzes, rods for boring the sumpitan, the anvil, and the various hammers, and chisels, and rough files used by the smiths.


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Chicago: Charles Hose, "Chapter 11 Handicrafts," The Pagan Tribes of Borneo— Volume 1, ed. Symons, Arthur, 1865-1945 and trans. Elwes, R. H. M. (Robert Harvey Monro), 1853- in The Pagan Tribes of Borneo—Volume 1 (London: Smith, Elder & Co., November 1909 - December 1910 (14 issues)), Original Sources, accessed February 24, 2024,

MLA: Hose, Charles. "Chapter 11 Handicrafts." The Pagan Tribes of Borneo— Volume 1, edited by Symons, Arthur, 1865-1945, and translated by Elwes, R. H. M. (Robert Harvey Monro), 1853-, in The Pagan Tribes of Borneo—Volume 1, Vol. Volume One, London, Smith, Elder & Co., November 1909 - December 1910 (14 issues), Original Sources. 24 Feb. 2024.

Harvard: Hose, C, 'Chapter 11 Handicrafts' in The Pagan Tribes of Borneo— Volume 1, ed. and trans. . cited in November 1909 - December 1910 (14 issues), The Pagan Tribes of Borneo—Volume 1, Smith, Elder & Co., London. Original Sources, retrieved 24 February 2024, from