Charles Hose and William McDougall: The pagan tribes of Borneo. Oxford University Press, Singapore, 1993. (First published by Macmillan and Co., 1912) 2 vol., 283 & 374 pp. + tables and photos. With an introduction by Brian Durrans.
review by Otto Steinmayer.
The reprinting of The Pagan Tribes of Borneo is a major event in Borneo studies. Charles Hose was the first to try to make systematic sense of the rich profusion of that island’s peoples and cultures.
It detracts nothing from Pagan Tribes that much of it has been rendered obsolete by better research, better method and theory. Anthropology as a science was only beginning when Hose wrote it. Hose himself was not a scientist by training, and in Sarawak he acquired a number of theoretical—and other—axes to grind. Though these escaped notice in his day, they appear glaringly now.
But for all that, Hose saw with his own eyes things as they were a hundred years ago. He observed carefully, he had intimate experience with many Dayak peoples. Hose describes Dayak life in copious detail. Hose’s book remains magnificent and irreplaceable. You cannot find a clearer, more thorough, and more beautiful presentation of the plain facts of Borneo ethnography.
Hose was also not writing under the pressure of urgency in the face of rapidly disappearing culture. He had time. A modern student of Borneo, by contrast, has spoken of the anxious necessity of doing “salvage anthropology.”
In addition to being a theorist and an observer, Hose was also a colonial government officer. Pagan Tribes is thus also the record of a white man ruling over native peoples, and Hose’s judgments are coloured by the authority he exercised. All students of unfamiliar things—and much of what Hose described has disappeared—run the risk of accepting authority too readily. For the best use of Pagan Tribes we need a reader’s guide through these conflicting points of view. Brian Durrans of the British Museum has supplied this in an excellent introductory essay, in which he examines Hose’s work in the light of thinking on Borneo since his time.
Charles Hose was born in !863 in England. His uncle, George Frederick Hose, who became the Anglican Bishop of Sarawak in 1881, arranged him a cadetship in the Brooke civil service, and in 1884, Hose left the university for Kuching. Hose was the second son of a clergyman, in other words, someone doomed to meagre chances in England, and Durrans suggests that the sober prospect of this fact as well as of adventure and pay played a part in Hose’s acceptance.
By 1891 Hose was appointed Officer in Charge and Resident of the Baram district. He spent 13 years in Marudi, was transferred to Sibu, married, and at last resigned and returned to England three years later. In retirement Hose worked up his collected Borneo material, occasionally visiting Sarawak. He published several books on ethnology and biology, and for this work Cambridge honoured him with the degree of Doctor of Science.
Clever Hose investigated the presence of oil near the coast of Miri, and when out from under the Rajah’s thumb tipped off the Anglo-Saxon Petroleum Company. This marked the beginning of the oil drilling in Borneo. (See Lat’s cartoon of the first well there.) Hose negotiated a slice of the profits for himself, and after the poverty of life as a Brooke officer spent the rest of his life comfortably.
Hose also remains a major figure in Sarawak folklore for his enormous size. The man was fat, real fat. The story still goes the round that he could wear a sarong without folding it in.
Hose came only gradually to anthropology. He began by collecting artifacts to while away the time in Marudi; he studied the Borneo people in order to administer them better. One thing led to another, and Hose eventually gained an ambition to do academic work. Hose’s peculiar distraction between science and governing showed itself in his book. He admired Dayaks, but he never saw them as more than “primitive.” Unlike other anthropologists (as the rule is now) he never really lived with them; he certainly would not have tried to become a Dayak.
Like other anthropologists of his time, Hose rode
the hobby-horse of
“race” and its classification. He distinguished in Borneo a mere six
races: Sea Dayak (or Iban), Kayan, Kenyah, Murut, Punan, and
“Klemantan.” Why can you find nobody in Borneo who will call himself a
“Klemantan”? Hose invented the name as a way of dealing with peoples
that resisted assimilation to any other large people.
Modern science has discarded the concept of
“race.” It was always more
of a political term than an anthropological concept. Durrans discusses
the practical application of racial theories in the context of Sarawak
politics and administration.
Hose includes as an appendix a long dissertation on Borneo physical types with copious tables of measurements contributed by the anthropologist A.C. Haddon. Evidently anthropologists once went everywhere with calipers and rules sizing up heads, a pursuit that must have struck the Dayaks as something not a little sinister. Whether present-day DNA research will give us a more solid and humane way for finding out who is related to whom still remains to be seen. Hose’s data may prove useful now for researchers investigating changes in physique resulting from changes in nutrition.
Hose, as middle-class Englishman in a time when the middle class had not yet become completely respectable, felt social insecurities that affected his view of Dayak peoples. It was natural for government officers to prefer the tribes of their own areas. Hose favoured the Kayan and other class-stratified orang ulu peoples whom he governed. He disliked the egalitarian Iban and tended to view them as frivolous and coarse.
Hose also felt insecurities about his research. William McDougall lent his academic reputation to the book without having much to do with it except editing. Hose knew that he was often on shaky ground when it came to theorizing. Although as Durrans notes, Hose was doing no better than anyone else at the time, and theorizing is not in itself bad, Hose often pulled his punch and avoided speculation, which left Pagan Tribes, as anthropology, less provocative than it could have been.
Hose was fascinated with the Dayak system of augury—telling the future from birds and from the livers of animals. He thought that these practices could be traced back to Aryan roots, confusing race with custom, first of all, and unwilling to believe that they could have arisen separately in different places.
At the same time, Hose discusses the social use of augury in terms that anticipate modern “functionalist” ideas. This was ten years before Malinowski overthrew the old school of Frazer and others. Pagan Tribes is somewhere between the traditional “literary” anthropology and the new anthropology informed by modern psychology.
To look at it one way, Hose does not suffer in comparison with modern day students. No one to date has been able to explain headhunting.
To my taste, the best part of Pagan Tribes
is the pictures.
Hose did much photographing himself, and included plates by other
scientists. Many of these photographs are of great esthetic value. On
one wonderful occasion, Hose abandoned his prejudices and photographed
an Iban boy and girl dressed in their best [plate 29]. The plate
wholeheartedly expresses the genuine Iban ideal of youth and beauty.
All the photographs give great pleasure and, on
the “1000 words
equivalency principle,” are worth close study. I understand from a
friend that the original negatives are preserved in the British Museum.
A publisher might consider bringing out an edition of them in large
Oxford also publishes Hose’s Natural Man (a popular abridgment of Pagan Tribes) and Field-Book of a Jungle-Wallah. At nearly RM200, the two volumes of Pagan Tribes will unavoidably be a specialist’s book. Borneo enthusiasts will spare no expense to obtain them. I know, too, many Dayaks who have an amateur or professional interest in looking at colonial documents of their country and peoples, who would be grateful for the chance to read of their past relatives. Happily, other Oxford reprints have appeared on the shelves of Sarawak public libraries, even in small towns, and I hope that librarians will make a point of making Hose’s book available to the public.