Published: July 18th 2008July 18th 2008
"This way to Rentap's Fortress."
Rentap, the Iban warrior, resisted the White Rajas. The Brooke Family ruled Sarawak from 1841 to 1946. The three Rajas, James, Charles and Vynor, were absolute monarchs in Sarawak, but loyal subjects of the British Crown at home. Thus for one hundred years Sarawak was ruled by a family of English commoners. If James was a old-style buccaneer who struck it lucky, Charles was an able and committed administrator, while Vynor’s rule saw Japanese occupation and disintegration. Where you going? You are alone?
-- Yes, I am.
Much handshaking. You should go to Betong. Actually, there’s nothing there, only Iban people. It’s a very tough drive; driving to Kuching always makes me very tired. There are big hills between here and Sri Aman. You are going alone. Wonderful! Don’t miss Betong.
This enthusiastic Chinese shopkeeper sold me a bottle of arak (rice wine), and I put the name of the town into my memory.
My map showed Betong to be on a loop road off the highway. I found a sign and followed an unsurfaced road past logging camps and longhouses. There was also a sign that said, “Historical site Rentap’s Fortress, 39k”
Bolie of Pakan, who helped me change my tire. He is holding a six pack of soya drink, a present from me.
pointing along a newly-tarmaced side road. After about 10k the road deteriorated. It shook Jimmy almost apart and bathed him in mud. This was hill country, with many interesting longhouses and stupendous views. I was happy: until I got a flat tire about 35k in. I couldn’t budge the bolts; two Iban teenagers who passed by on a motor bike couldn’t budge the bolts either. I decided I would have to shred the tire driving to the nearest longhouse for help. But I came to a work gang washing their bodies in a river. One of them - Bolie from Pakan - helped me with the tire. He kept asking where my friend was and whether I wanted to see Renkap’s Fort. I decided my friend was resting a migraine back at the petrol station and was probably getting worried about me. I thanked Bolie and drove sadly back to the junction. Bukit Sadok was definitely a remote place.
When I got back to the Trans-Borneo Highway, I realised I had used up three hours. Quite soon I saw a sign that said “Betong district Office,” and I turned off the highway again. This was the place the shopkeeper
This picture shows the extent of the disrepair of Fort Alice (1864).
had intended: a perfectly preserved country town, elegant, relaxed, and planned. Even the public toilet had Grecian columns at the front. When I saw that there was a good hotel I decided I would stay there on the way back.
I had planned to find Fort Alice in Sri Aman by lunchtime; as it was I barely made it before dusk. The Brookes built forts in the different divisions of Sarawak, usually naming them after women family members and using them to subdue fights between the tribal people and to eradicate headhunting. Later they made them administrative centres. Fort Alice has decayed perhaps too far to be repaired; it will command its sweeping view of another of Sarawak’s rivers for only a few more years before it rots completely. I have visited a number of Brooke forts in Sarawak towns and noticed that some major centres do not have them. Were they never established or have they been allowed to rot?
At dusk I had completed half of my day’s journey. I can’t recommend driving on the Trans-Borneo Highway in the dark: not all the drivers appreciate the usefulness of headlamps as a warning device and only turn
Rentap has had a street named after him in modern Betong.
them on when they want to look at something. As I dodged oncoming vehicles I wondered who this fellow Rentap could be.
On my return journey I phoned ahead and booked at the Betong Plaza Hotel and, driving in, I noticed signs to Fort Lily, which I found beside the mosque. Fort Lily is not open to the public, but it is in better shape than Fort Alice. According to the marble notice outside, “During the turbulent days of the Iban warrior Rentap’s skirmishes with Raja Brooke, Fort Lily stood in the midst of some exciting action.”
I had guessed something like that, but I wanted to know more. I was surprised to open The Borneo Post
in the next place I stayed and read that Abdul Rahman Daud is planning to make a movie about Rentap. The paper explained, “[James] Brooke … attacks longhouses in Paku and Kanowit in a bid to wipe out the Skrang Dayaks once and for all… To restrict Rentap’s movement, he builds a fortress in his area … In 1853, with James Brooke in London, Rentap launches an attack on [the] fortress … Rentap [retreats] to Bukit Sadong where he builds a
The information plaque outside Fort Lily.
fortress. However, the fortress is not safe enough as Brooke’s men can gain entry into it … Rentap, who is injured in the attack, escapes to a new spot on top of Bukit Sadok where he builds a stronger fortress. This time, the strength of Rentap’s fortress is beyond the might of Brooke. It is beyond the reach of Brooke’s men and thus stands from 1854 to1858. Disappointed, Brooke returns to England to get more powerful weapons. He returns in 1862 and launches a full-scale attack on Rentap’s fortress ...”
So that is the story of Rentap! And that is the fortress I just missed out on visiting. I look forward to seeing the movie, and I wonder about the emergence of more local heroes in the future. The sign outside Fort Lily says it wasn’t built until 1885: a bit too late for Rentap to skirmish with James, as Charles succeeded in 1868. Perhaps the Sarikei Time Capsule is more correct. It claims that Rentap skirmished with James at a fort in Lingga, built in 1852. I am adding pictures of other Brooke forts that I have visited in Sarawak.
The Plaza Hotel is a gem.
to Kuching should be a five hour drive plus stops. My day lasted twelve hours. I identified the Sebangkoi Country Resort
, which is about twenty kilometers outside Serikei, as a good place to stay. And also Betong, where I stayed on the way back (link coming).
How I’ve been
After the excellent internet provision in the first country town I attempted it, I was disappointed to find that the only high speed computers available in the centre Kuching are in the Hilton Business Centre. I am uploading these pictures a week late, in the comfort of my own flat in Brunei.
There are more photos below