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“Despite my ghoulish reputation, I really have the heart of a small boy. I keep it in a jar on my desk” – Robert Bloch

berbalang_blues

Please pass the salt.

Mapun Island, historically known as Cagayan Sulu, is a tiny 276 square kilometer island between Malaysia and the Philippines in the Sulu Sea, occupied largely by an Austronesian people called the Jama Mapun (or Sama Kagayan, as they are part of the larger Sama-Bajau ethnic group that inhabit islands stretching from the Sulu Sea to Borneo).  Over time, the Sama-Bajau have spread out across Southeast Asia, earning them the nickname “Sea Gypsies”, as they largely follow the sea trade in sea cucumber.  And then there’s the ghouls.  A 19th Century report of an intra-tribal war that fractured  Cagayan Sulu society contains the curious observation that island villages were roughly equally divided between two vying chieftains named Hadji Mahomet and Hadji Brahim, excepting a single village at the center of the territory, which neither side laid claim to.  This little piece of undesirable real estate was said to be home to the preternatural Berbalangs, a cat-eyed tribe of corpse-eaters who sometimes resorted to astral homicide when the supply of dead bodies dwindled.

British Navy Lieutenant and amateur naturalist Ethelbert Forbes Skertchly of Hong Kong, Fellow of the Entomological Society of London and member of the Asiatic Society visited Cagayan Sulu, and reported his findings in the 1896 Journal of the Asiatic Society of Bengal.  Hidden amongst his general descriptions of island culture, flora, and fauna are details about the mysterious Berbalangs.  From Skertchly’s accounts we learn such mundane facts as “The island is of volcanic origin, one extinct volcano rising to a height of 1105 feet, and a noteworthy feature is the occurrence of three lakes occupying the craters of old volcanoes. The outer wall of one of these has been broken through, so that the deep basin within communicates with the sea. The water of the two other lakes is fresh. The soil of the island is fertile, and much of the jungle has been cleared for cultivation. Although nominally under Spanish rule, the inhabitants would resent all attempts at interference. Their fighting force is estimated at from twelve to fifteen hundred men, and they have fortified one of the craters as a place of refuge. Fishing is practised with the aid of a root called tubur, which is used to stupefy the fish. The natives hold some remarkable superstitions” (Howarth, 1897, p537).  The superstition referred to is that regarding the Berbalang.  Skertchly endeavored to obtain details about the Berbalang, interviewing numerous witnesses to Berbalang depredations and piecing together a general description of them.

In the centre of the island is a small village the inhabitants of which owe allegiance to neither of the two chiefs. These people are called “Berbalangs,” and the Cagayans live in great fear of them. These Berbalangs are ghouls and must eat human flesh occasionally or they would die. You can always tell them because the pupils of their eyes are not round but just narrow slits like those of a cat. They dig open the graves and eat the entrails of the corpses; but in Cagayan the supply is limited, so when they feel the craving for a feed of human flesh they go away into the grass, and having carefully hidden their bodies hold their breath and fall into a trance. Their astral bodies are then liberated in the form of heads with the feet attached to the ears as wings. They fly away, and entering a house make their way into the body of one of the occupants and feed on his entrails, when of course he dies in fearful agony. The Berbalangs may be heard coming, as they make a moaning noise which is loud at a distance and dies away to a feeble wail as they approach. When they are near you the sound of their wings may be heard and the flashing lights of their eyes can be seen like dancing fire-flies in the dark. Should you be the happy possessor of a cocoa-nut pearl you are safe, but otherwise the only way to beat them off is to cut at them with a kris, the blade of which has been rubbed with the juice of a lime. If you see the lights and hear the meaning in front of you, wheel suddenly round and make a cut in the opposite direction. Berbalangs always go by contraries and are never where they appear to be. The cocoa-nut pearl, a stone like an opal sometimes found in the cocoa-nut, is the only really efficacious charm against their attacks and it is only of value to the finder, as its magic powers cease when it is given away. When the finder dies the pearl loses its lustre and becomes dead. The juice of limes sprinkled on a grave will prevent the Berbalangs from entering it, so all the dead are buried either under or near the houses and the graves are sprinkled daily with fresh lime-juice (Skertchly, 1896, p55).

Skertchly was understandably curious, but was hard pressed to find a guide to take him to visit the village of the Berbalangs.  The brave eldest son of Chief Hadji Mohomet, Matali, finally volunteered to lead him within half a mile of the Berbalang home, providing him with a lime-sprinkled knife and warning him not to accept any food the Berbalang’s might offer, as consumption of anything they provided would turn him into a Berbalang (presumably it’s provenance would be suspect, having likely come from a decayed corpse – reminiscent of similar warnings about the consumption of human flesh turning folks into a Wendigo among Native Americans).  Intrepid explorer that he was, Skertchly set off.

Taking the kris and limes and leaving Matali praying for my safety, I soon arrived at the village. It consisted of about a dozen houses of the ordinary native type; but with the exception of a few fowls and a solitary goat there was no living thing to be seen. I was surprised at this and entered several of the houses, but all were alike deserted. Everything was in perfect order, and in one house some rice was standing in basins, still quite hot, as though the occupants had been suddenly called away when about to begin their evening meal. Thinking perhaps that they had run away I halooed but received no reply, and though I made a thorough search of the vicinity could discover no one. I returned to Matali, and on telling him of the deserted state of the village, he turned pale and implored me to come back at once as the Berbalangs were out and it would be dangerous to return in the dark (Skertchly, 1896, p56).

As Skertchly and Matali hastened homeward they were dogged by faint moaning, the sound of wings, and dancing red lights.  The moaning faded away as they passed an isolated homestead of a certain gentleman named Hassan, which they avoided as Matali pointed out that this was surely where the Berbalang had gone and he hurried Skertchly back to his father’s village where they were congratulated for surviving their ill-conceived adventure.  Skertchly was acquainted with Hassan, and though Matali suggested Hassan was in possession of a protective coconut pearl, Skertchly elected to visit him the next day and determine his status.

Accordingly, shortly after day-break, I started off alone, as I could get no one to accompany me, and in due course came to Hassan’s house. There was no sign of anyone about so I tried the door but found it fastened. I shouted several times but no one answered, so, putting my shoulder to the door I gave a good push and it fell in. I entered the house and looked round but could see no one, going further in I suddenly started back, for, huddled up on the bed, with hands clenched, face distorted, and eyes staring as in horror, lay my friend Hassan—dead (Skertchly, 1896, 57).

Say what you want about necro-cannibalism, but the Berbalang appear to have been living in relative peace while their neighbors scrupulously avoided them and went about bashing each other on the heads.  Perhaps if the other local tribes adopted similar strategies, they could have avoided a lot of bloodshed, or as Abbie Hoffman said, “I believe in compulsory cannibalism. If people were forced to eat what they killed, there would be no more wars”.

References
Howarth, O. J. R, John Scott Keltie. “The Island of Cagayan Sulu”. Geographical Society (Great Britain). The Geographical Journal v10. London: Royal Geographical Society, 1897.
Skertchly, E.F.  “Cagayan Sulu”.  Asiatic Society (Kolkata, India). Journal of the Asiatic Society of Bengal , Calcutta, v65, 1896.

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