review by Otto Steinmayer
I don't get to Borneo nearly as much as I wish---which is most of
the time. Like another university-bound scholar I have to do most of my
travelling "by map or card," or (he should have said) "by big, thick
Luckily, Borneo attracted dozens of writers, and
one can scurry up and down the whole island without getting up from the
livingroom comfy-chair except to fetch a further cup of tea.
The armchair and its stack of books has also become a time machine. Borneo has suffered great changes since WW2. Life there is not what it was back in the twenties, or even in the fifties. Much that existed we will never see again, nor know of outside the records of travellers.
Some of the old days were tragic. Dayaks, of course, but even the scientist Lumholz and the doctor Krohn were ignorant of the nature of diseases like cholera and beri-beri, and the waste of life was truly pitiable. Yet the old ways had something to recommend them. Native peoples in those days enjoyed an exuberant relish in life that has been much depressed.
Even people who know Borneo tend to think of it
as a collection of discrete parts: Sarawak, Sabah, Brunei, and
Kalimantan. English writers concentrated on the north. The remaining
7/10 of Borneo were under Dutch control from 1840 onwards, and we in
the English-speaking sphere still think of Kalimantan as a mysterious
place, since the older literature is in Dutch and German and largely of
academic or administrative character, and current information in
Indonesian is very difficult to get.
It's fortunate, then, that Oxford has reprinted
the books of two travellers to Kalimantan in the first quarter of this
century who wrote in English. Readers who know Sarawak will find again
that it is culturally one with the rest of the island, a point that
Prof. King (who contributed the introduction to Lumholz) stresses in
his own work.
Writers on Borneo fall into three groups. First there are those with a professional interest in Borneo, naturalists like Wallace and the many serious students of Borneo culture, or people like the Brookes, intimately connected with the country's life, who speak---in many senses---with authority.
The third group includes the sensationalists, who are writing to give their readers the thrill of "darkest Borneo," and their books are full of Wild Men, severed heads and jungle crawlies. I confess it was one such piece of trash that first got me interested in Borneo, but they are best ignored.
The middle group is the largest, and contains writers who visited, in brief, as tourists. They were not, however, casual travellers but intelligent and sympathetic observers. While they may not be the most systematic Borneologists, they record much that was never preserved elsewhere.
Krohn was an American from Chicago, sent off in the mid-20s by the Field Museum to collect native artifacts in Kalimantan. He was not a scholar of S.E. Asia or anthropologist, rather, a forensic pathologist, and his scientific training made him pay attention to things around him.
(I wish that Krohn had displayed his specialty
somewhere in his travels. I have always wanted to bring a coroner along
to the Sarawak Museum and get him to lecture to me on the skulls
hanging on the first floor of the old building. One could learn a lot
about the kind of people who were fated to become headhuntees.)
It's unclear how Krohn was tempermentally equipped for his travel apart from being a hearty lover of the exotic and of anecdotes. He is wide-eyed at details of daily life in the east. His story often wanders near the parody language of the travelogue, and occasionally plunges into the twee, as when he marvels how quietly "Mr. Pig" rides ship to market in a basket. (The bathetic truth, as Aldous Huxley on ship off Sabah about the same time discovered, was that the babi were stupefied with opium.)
Krohn travelled first class all the way. Dutch
government launch carried him up and down the Mahakam river. He stayed
with controlleurs, and with the Sultan of Koetai in his palace with
electric light and refrigerators.
Seen from above, Borneo kampong life is one long idyll. The natives are a beautiful, naked, "simple-minded group, free from the suspicion and envy that arises with a more complex social life and its attendant competitions." Which gives it away that Krohn never lived in a village.
Though In Borneo Jungles covers much the same
ground as other books on Borneo of the same era, it shouldn't be
dismissed. Krohn speaks with knowledge and accuracy about Dayak
material life and the articles he was sent out to gather. And he
describes a grand Kayan festival mask-dance, perhaps the last ever
Nowadays government and commercial company teams mount their Borneo expeditions with helicopter or landcruiser and zip in and out of the ulu with despatch.
Carl Lumholz was an anthropologist and professional "explorer" in the palmy days of the business, when whitemen slogged through the jungle with an immense amount of baggage and bearers to hump it. Lumholz does not spare us the tediums of real adventure. He found prices too high, the natives weak and unreliable, that people got sick, and the truth that on every rapid-choked Borneo river "it usually requires as many days to get up-stream as it takes hours to come down." Such experience proves the wisdom of recent forest travellers, who go in alone and unhurried with one backpack.
The reader likewise should not hurry Through Central Borneo. Lumholz faced his problems with poise, reflected in his eventempered style and the many delights he found. His descriptions of the lovely Borneo landscape will make many of us long for the jungle, and though he often appears austere, his meetings with the Dayaks seem to be marked by a humane sympathy.
Lumholz accomplished his purpose of collecting data on the plants, wildlife, and Dayak societies of the area. Sadly, after his return he died before he had the chance to work it up in scholarly form. TCB was the sole fruit of his journey, among the most learned of travel books.
Lumholz was unusually sensitive to the character and manners of the people he met on his travels. His book makes clear the striking diversity of Dayak life in east and south Kalimantan. He found much in "primitive" ways he admired over the civilized. Lumholz foresaw that development would sweep these cultures away; how much remains of what he saw I cannot tell.
IBJ and TCB are directed to Borneo enthusiasts,
professional or amateur, who need no persuading to buy them and read
them. What is there to be found is invaluable, especially in Lumholz's
many photographs. Thanks, Oxford, for the reprints.