The Best of Borneo Travel. Compiled and Introduced by Victor T. King. Oxford University Press, Singapore, 1992. 315 pages, $???
review by Otto Steinmayer
Eat your hearts out, West Malaysians! The Peninsula may enjoy most of Malaysia’s risk, burden, and glory; but Borneo has all the best travel-writing. There are reasons for this. The Englishman who journeyed to Malaya in the colonial years was on an official Mission of Empire and Business. They possessed the lofty minds of administrators and accountants and had little time for imagination.
Borneo by contrast was chaos, a rich and exciting patchwork of peoples and forces. Political control inland didn’t exist. Headhunters and other independent troublemakers were not going to let things stay still enough for planters to establish their tame and profitable lifestyle. You had to be an unusual type of westerner to run off to Borneo’s jungles and tribes for little recompense except adventure and knowledge.
Adventure is a relative thing. For people like me
and some of the
scientists here, travel in the jungle and battle with leeches, hurt
feet, rapids, and language problems is adventure enough. Borneo granted
plenty of stronger experience to people, like the Brookes, who were not
squeamish about blood. But to tell the truth, I can’t believe that mere
travel in Borneo was ever that dangerous. To my knowledge, only one
actual traveller in two centuries lost his head. This was
Robert Burns, the grandson of the poet, and the account of his
decapitation implies that he had it coming to him.
Borneo is, after New Guinea and Greenland, the world’s largest island. You cannot exaggerate its delights. Borneo’s three great attractions are its stupendous nature, its variety of peoples and cultures, and, again, that adventure it still promises to many travellers both humble and famous.
Prof. Victor King of Hull University, the leading western student on Borneo as a whole, has in The Best of Borneo Travel compiled 19 selections covering all three areas. Prof. King begins with three pieces of natural history. Patrick Synge’s comes first, as an excellent short introduction to the biology and ecology of not only the rain forest, but the sand-forests and higher “moss” forests. Charles Hose takes care of the biology of Borneo’s seashore, and the Italian naturalist Beccari weighs in with his hunt of the orangutan.
From there the selections proceed in chronological order, mainly historical, travel, and cultural. After Magellan had lost his life in a Philippine tribal squabble, his sailors continued their voyage around the world with a stop at Brunei. Antonio Pigafetta, the voyage’s chronicler, described the kingdom as a fascinating mix of Southeast Asian/Hindu splendour, exotic indigenous civilization, and new influences. Islam had come to Brunei only a few years before the Spaniards arrived. Most men still wore their Bisayan cawats and the arak flowed freely. Possibly the Bruneians had not yet quite got the hang of their new religion.
The English captain Daniel Beeckman sailed to Banjarmasin, on the other side of the island, in 1714 with the object of re-opening the pepper trade. Beeckman set out to write a merchant’s handbook, but he did not lack imagination and learning. His 18th century prose, for all its matter-of-factness, is often remarkably humourous. He is honest enough to let us see into his own biases, we can judge as much of him as he judged of the Malays he met. That’s a mark of good travel-writing.
I favoured Frank Marryat’s description of Lundu 150 years ago for personal reasons. Marryat was entertained in a longhouse that my wife’s people, the Sebuyau, built where their kampong now stands. Things were a lot different in Stunggang in those days. People wore few clothes, still did the ngajat, and with severed heads from the bad guys up the coast for props—two things their descendants could not possibly approve of, much less stomach. But the gongs, coffee, tobacco, endless munchies and chitchat remain traditional to this day.
Malaysians will have to remember that all these pieces were written by white males who came on relatively short visits to Borneo. We see Borneo through their eyes, what we see is all “exotic.” As King notes in his introduction, the collection serves to illustrate what “defined” Borneo to western readers. This slant may not be altogether a bad thing, for the up-to-date Malaysian reader probably understands the “western” mindset better than the Bornean way of seeing things, and thus foreign writing becomes more accessible and entertaining. Plus, there is always the pleasure of smiling at the white man’s ignorance or prejudices, and occasionally praising him for some acute remark.
There is no need to go through the rest of the
selections in detail.
Every one of them is first rate in its kind, and together one beside
another they exhibit the remarkable range of ways of seeing that
westerners brought to Borneo. The incomparable naturalist Wallace looks
at Bidayuh life sympathetically. Charles Brooke writes with strange icy
calm about the horrors of killing rebels on Sungai Saribas.
The tourist mentality (already well developed in 1863) is represented by one Frederick Boyle’s account—and by the dubiously scientific (and actually hilarious) search of Carl Bock for the “people with tails.” As we reach this century, travellers are more willing to accept Dayak life on its own terms. Lumholtz and Tillema, both genuine scientists, shared the harsh conditions of travel in Kalimantan, Tom Harrisson led the Kelabits against the Japanese, Malcolm MacDonald toured Sarawak as a conscientious (and somewhat class-conscious) administrator, and all these wrote with great warmth about the people they met.
The modern travellers have nothing left to explore, conquer, or administer. Sarawak travel provided Redmond O’Hanlon with material for the funniest travel-book of recent times. Hanbury-Tenison, Linklater, and Hansen relish the society of Borneo men and women, their joy tinged with regret for the way that good human things are being lost in the change to modern life.
Oxford has already published most of the books
from which these
selections have been taken in lovely facsimile editions. These are
singly very expensive. The Best of Borneo Travel is an
admirable attempt to make some of the most attractive passages
affordable for the ordinary reader who has an interest in Borneo.