Judith Heimann: The Most Offending Soul Alive: Tom Harrisson and his Remarkable Life. Honolulu: University of Hawai‘i Press, 1999. 465 pages. US$26.95. ISBN 0-8248-2199-8.
Reviewed by Otto Steinmayer
Tom Harrisson, even twenty-five years after his death, continues to evoke strong emotions from Sarawakians and Old Sarawak Hands. The chief requirement, they tell me, of any reviewer of his biography is that he should never have known the man. People who did know him call Harrisson an abusive, jealous bully, a mean drunk, greedy of power, callous. That’s just for starters. Some would call him thief, fraud, and psychopath.
Yet Harrisson was a genuine explorer in an age when exploration was hard and dangerous; he helped invent an important sociological technique; he held military command during WW2 and konfrontasi; and he raised the Sarawak Museum to excellence and prestige. He led a life crowded with toil and adventure, and no man entirely lacking virtues could have done much of what he did. Maybe there is no place in the middle for someone like Harrisson; yet it’s only just to weigh the good and the bad in him.
Judith Heimann was brave to take on the job. The facts of Harrisson’s career are complex and obscure, and he showed different faces to different people. He went out of his way to make enemies, and he tyrannized his subordinates; yet he could charm and flatter the powerful and those he considered “useful.” He was careless of his reputation. He publicized himself aggressively while economizing on truth, creating an engaging print persona glaringly at odds with the man Heimann portrays from documents and over 200 interviews.
Harrisson was born into the dreary upper-class
milieu of 1911 (in Argentina, where his father had moved to make lots
of money). He attended “public” school at Harrow, which he professed to
loathe but later never failed to boast about. By his late teens he had
made a splash as an ornithologist, and on those credentials he was
invited to accompany an Oxford University expedition. At Cambridge, he
spent more time drinking than studying, and soon left without a degree,
not before he had gone on another expedition and gathered connections.
Class privilege excused many failings, and Harrisson at his most combative never forgot he belonged to the ruling class, or allowed others to forget it. Connections again led to his being asked to organize an Oxford expedition to Sarawak.
Science, however successful, was eclipsed by the scandal of eight sophomores frolicking among the natives. Harrisson resented the control of the D.O., of E. Banks, curator of the Sarawak Museum and officially in charge of the expedition, and resented Banks’s Oxford degree and position in the raj, and did everything he could to cross him. In Kuching, Harrisson and company swaggered through town in dirty clothes, boasted, got drunk and brawled. Banks, legitimately offended, published a scathing critique.
Harrisson’s career, however, was little damaged. He went on a further expedition, and stayed on in the South Pacific, where he lived “like a hippie,” as Heimann says, did ethnography, and helped Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. make a film about “cannibals” (which was never released). Though he arrived in England penniless, he was still known, still upper class, and promoted himself as one who “lived among cannibals.”
Harrisson turned to anthropologizing the English working-class. With Charles Madge he founded Mass-Observation, a scheme in which hundreds of volunteers were recruited clandestinely to study their fellow citizens. This was, at the time, a new approach. Most people feel that Mass-Observation was Harrisson’s best work.
M-O flourished briefly in the war years. Then
Harrisson went too far in his criticism of the government, and all M-O
men were called up. Harrisson’s Borneo experience was useful to the
military. He was given training with the Special Operations Executive
and, with rank of major and a team of commandos, parachuted into Bario
in early 1945.
The war months were Harrisson’s finest moment. He was now virtual king over the highlands of Sarawak, and acted like it. He revelled in the power and the violence. Directing a jungle guerrilla war waged by headhunters suited Harrisson’s self-image. Harrisson was an effective skirmisher. Whether he commanded well or not is hard to say; he behaved brutally enough towards his men to bring them perilously close to “fragging” him.
Harrisson spent a mere eight months fighting,
which provided material for 30 more years of adolescent heroics. If he
himself had ever killed someone we would never have heard the end of
it. Mercifully, he got no blood on his hands.
In peace Harrisson took charge of the Sarawak Museum, which he ran as his private fief, together with the Turtle Islands and Niah Caves. Harrisson improved the Museum considerably. He enlarged its collections and rearranged the exhibits. He made it a centrepiece of Kuching life and a focus of Sarawak pride. He not only revived the Museum Journal but established it among the best publications of its kind.
Harrisson began the first large archaeological digs in Sarawak. At Santubong he unearthed remains of iron-works that pushed back the history of Sarawak civilization 400 years, and at Niah caves he discovered what was then the oldest known skull of a modern Homo sapiens. Conservation of both sea-turtles and the orangutan both started with him.
However, his territoriality and the grudge he bore against anyone with a degree brought him to quarrel with other scholars, and gratuitously to offend local intellectuals. Sarawak entered Malaysia, Malaysians were not prepared any longer to tolerate white Tuans, and Harrisson had made too many enemies. In 1966 he retired and went abroad. When he flew back to Sarawak later that year, he found he had been barred from the country.
In the six years after his expulsion Harrisson roamed through a series of semi-serious academic jobs, and finally, after divorcing his second wife, Barbara, married Christine Fornari, a Belgian noblewoman, mainly for her money and a sparring-partner. In 1976, while on a visit to Thailand, the bus they had hired rammed into a timber lorry on a dark road, and Harrisson and his wife were impaled. It was an ironic death.
Heimann may have started out believing that Harrisson had been painted too black, and then found out many things she wished she hadn’t. She likes Harrisson, she is frank about Harrisson’s failings, but she is uncomfortable extenuating them. The true enormity of Harrisson’s brutality in his personal relations is hard to take. He was high-handed with his co-workers and encouraged dissension. He hated his mother, and blamed all his problems on her. He never ceased to quarrel with his father, who at last disinherited him. Women were sex to him, and money. Heimann calls him a “cuckoo,” laying his eggs in others’ nests. He stole his wives and lovers from other men—often right in front of them—and left them when he lost interest. His first wife killed herself. His son was diagnosed schizophrenic, and Harrisson abandoned him to mental institutions.
Heimann cannot salvage Harrisson’s reputation as
a man. Harrisson might not have cared. He would have cared
about how people saw his work.
As ornithologist, Harrisson made genuine, though minor, contributions. His method in Mass-Observation enlivened sociology. He was an excellent museum-curator. Herein his autocratic and demanding temper can be excused: he pushed his staff and got results. His passion for display also took a positive direction as he expressed it through the Museum.
Harrisson’s archaeology remains controversial: his field notes are in disarray, unreadable, and all but useless for whoever would follow up on his researches. Heimann makes the point that he excavated where no other had; however, Harrisson made sure that none but himself could work his sites. His contempt for education was fatal: no matter how brilliant, you can’t do solid work on “genius” alone.
Harrisson certainly claimed to understand and sympathize with natives better than any other white person. However, when one looks at how Harrisson actually behaved, and how tribal peoples saw him, the picture changes. He wheedled or extorted power and prestige, and exploited it to the limit; but for all that, he existed at the margins of native society. He never grew rice or hunted. He never knew a Bornean language. He heaped racist abuse on the late Iban scholar Benedict Sandin, calling him a “stupid, lazy native.”
It is surprising that Heimann, otherwise very thorough, gave so little space to Borneans’ recollections of Harrisson. The Kelabit, I hear, have surprising things to tell.
Harrisson was a poor anthropologist. While he can
be forgiven for not being interested in “theory,” Harrisson’s
sympathies were patchy and did not extend beyond his “pet tribe.” He
had no interest in life in general, nor did he draw any lessons,
however slenderly philosophical, from what he saw around him. His
ethnography, especially in the book World Within, is marred by
his fantasy of what Borneo should be, one drunken orgy of sex
and headhunting, with TH at the center. That Borneans themselves might
demur never crossed his mind.
In his entry in Who’s Who Harrisson described himself as fond of “living among strange peoples.” His judgment was backwards: the Kelabits were decent, ordinary folk, Harrisson was the strange one.
Whatever you come to think of Harrisson, Heimann has written a fascinating book in her portrayal of him. Harrisson worked hard at being a classic colonial “character,” and his doings are material for a Boy’s Own tale of the most lurid and emotional stripe. Heimann makes the most of it, and entertains us magnificently.
But TMOSA is much more than cheap
thrills. Heimann vividly recalls a nearly forgotten time, when such
characters as Harrisson were still possible—we shall not see their like
again—and shows remarkable insight, moral courage, fairness and
generosity towards this difficult, contradictory, enigmatic, and
perhaps tragic man. Harrisson is destined not be forgotten.