Model of War Canoe

A war prahu commanded by the Sea Dayak tribe. It was used as a pirate ship to attack merchant vessels for foreign goods and human heads. Photo by Diana Gerberich.
Photo by Callie Gilbert.
Photo by Sophie Kimball.

The War Prahu: Pirate Vessel of the Sea Dayak
This war canoe belongs to the Sea Dayak tribe of Sarawak in northwestern Borneo, and was used in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. While a peaceful people on land, the Sea Dayaks were far less forgiving on the ocean. They acted as pirates at sea, attacking merchant vessels sailing to Borneo with shipments of foreign goods. The war canoe, also referred to as the war prahu, serves as their pirate ship. While the war prahu does not look like a typical pirate ship that is seen in movies, specific aspects of its construction fit this purpose. The reed roof acts as a fighting stage where the Sea Dayak could launch poisonous arrows and gun fire. A swivel canon mounted at the front provides extra attack damage and range. Not only did the Sea Dayak plunder merchant vessels for foreign goods, but they also were avid headhunters. Crewmembers on the merchant ships were often killed and their heads taken by the pirates as symbols of status and success. Those crewmembers who were spared death often faced a life of slavery under the command of the Sea Dayak tribe. 

Diana Gerberich


If you were caught in the middle of a violent sea battle, how would you and your vessel be best prepared for attack?  Now imagine it is the late 19th century, and your resources are limited to the native materials of South Borneo in Malaysia.  Such a predicament was not unlike the daily experiences of the Iban tribes, a group of indigenous people who have lived in Sarawak, Borneo for hundreds of years.  The Peabody Museum's model of an Iban war canoe (pictured above) dating to a period between 1870 and 1941 presents the kind of ship that the Iban people would have used in battle, from warring among various Iban tribes, to the frequent battles between the native Iban and English colonizers under command of Sir Charles Brooke.

Also known as the Sea Dyak, the Iban designed their canoes with the express purpose of battle readiness, from the canoe's pointed oars to its angled roof, which enabled stealthy movement through the water and overhead protection from unexpected attacks.  The Iban tribes' dependence on these canoes was thus indicative of both the necessities of warfare and a rich cultural history rooted along the Bornean rivers.

Callie Gilbert


Navigating the Rivers of Borneo: The Sea Dyak War Canoe
Imagine a winding river. The image conjured is likely peaceful – even lazy – and not at all reflective of the context of this boat’s use. This is a war canoe, constructed and used by the Sea Dyak people of Borneo, an island now divided between Indonesia and Malaysia. Canoes of this variety would have been used during times of intertribal warfare, navigating the tumultuous rivers of the Sarawak region to violent ends.

The model displayed here represents a boat that would have likely been about ninety feet long and able to transport as many as one hundred warriors. The Sea Dyak constructed their canoes using hollowed tree trunks, reinforcing larger vessels like this one with exterior planking. This boat’s most distinctive features are its decorative details: the vibrant colors of the stempost, aft enclosure, and paddles; the pliable awning; and the red, black, and yellow flag. Though the practical purpose of these attributes is unclear, they are certainly indicative of the striking Sea Dyak aesthetic.

As you examine this model, try to imagine the canoe traveling along the narrow, winding rivers of Borneo. Like all vessels, the form of this boat is intimately connected with the environment in which it was used.

Sophie Kimball


Content of this page provided by students of Anthro 1218: Shipwrecks and Seafarers, Piracy and Plundering: An Introduction to Maritime Archaeology.