The Bisaya’ of Borneo

The Bisaya’ are one of the minor ethnic groups in Borneo, currently located within the vicinity of Limbang District (Northern Sarawak), Beaufort (Sabah) and Brunei.

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They are also known as Bekiau, Bisaya Bukit, Bisayah, Lorang Bukit and Visayak. They are similiar to the Tutong and Belait ethnic groups of Borneo.

The Bisaya’ community used to be quite large in the olden days but now there are approximately 10,000 of them. A big factor was the rising conversion to Islam among the Bisaya’, who changed their identities to Malays and Kedayans so as to assimilate easier. Many Bisaya’ in Sarawak are Christians, whilst their Bruneian and Sabahan counterparts are mostly Muslims.

Some of the older generation of the Bisaya’ believed they came from and are related to the Visayans of the Phillipines. However, there are also theories based on the Maragtas (English: History of Panay from the first inhabitants and the Bornean immigrants, from which they descended, to the arrival of the Spaniards), a book written based on oral and written sources about the Aeta of Panay, by a Spaniard, that the Bisaya’ actually fled Borneo during a war with their A-Liko (Melanau) neighbours.

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The Bisaya’ were a powerful people, with a king who ruled what is now Brunei (also called P’oni, Puni, Barunai), Awang Alak Betatar or Sultan Mohamad Shah. They were constantly at war with the A-Liko Kingdom (the Melanau). The A-Liko chieftain, Tugau/Datu Makatunaw, attacked the Bisaya’ who resided in Bintulu. The Bisaya’ community, led by Datu Puti, Datu Sumakwel and Datu Paiburong decided to move to a more peaceful location and ended up in the Visayan Islands where the Aetas were originally the indigenous people there. They purchased the island of Panay from Chief Marikudo of the Aeta. They lived and traded for a living, their people intermarrying among each other. The migrants to the Phillipines were not only the Bisaya’ but also the other ethnic groups who fled to find more peaceful settlements and begin trading.

10 years later, Datu Puti returned to Borneo and killed Tugau, sacking and looting their city, taking the rest of the A-Liko as slaves to Panay island. Thus the Kingdom of Brunei grew after the threat of the A-Liko was eliminated. They began forcing the people of Igan, Kalaka, Samarahan and Sarawak to pay tribute.

Later on some of the Visayans moved back to their homeland in Borneo.

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When the Spaniards arrived in the Islands 1521(before named it as the Philippines), they called the Tattooed Natives there Pintados who spoke a distinct Bornean language, During the war between Brunei and the Spanish, the Spaniards recorded that the Brunei Sultan Lijar was hiding in “THE RIVER OF BISAYAN, THE COUNTRY OF MELANO, NEAR SARAGUA”.

Mayhaps they were mentioning the Kemena River, where the Bintulu Melanau and Vaie resided. And the term “Saragua” could be referring to “Sarawak”.

Another version suggested that the origin of the Bisaya’ were from a supernatural being, Dewa Amas who fell down to earth in Ulu Limbang in an egg, and fathered 14 children from 14 native wives. The youngest, Awang Alak Betatar, became the first Muslim Sultan of Brunei, as told in “Sha’er Awang Semaun”.

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The Bisaya’ of Sabah’s language has 90% intelligibility with the Dusun Tatana dialect. The Bisaya’ in Sabah also has 58% lexical similarity with dialects of Sarawak Bisaya and 60% with the Brunei Bisaya’ dialect.

The Bisaya’ of Sarawak celebrate teh Babulang Festival in Limbang every year with beauty pageants and water buffalo races.

4 comments

  1. Thank you so much for this post. The information here has been an eye-opener. My grandmother is Bisaya but we know very little about her family and her descendants which is a shame, I know. She married my grandfather who is Chinese and adopted very thing Chinese. I hope to learn more about the Bisaya from findings like this. Thanks again!

    • That’s subjective also because between Bisaya Sabah and Bisaya Sarawak the linguistic differences is about 50%, while the Bisaya Sabah with the Tatana itself has almost 90% percent similarities. So it really depends on how they want to classify themselves.

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