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Forests of Fortune? The Environmental History of Southeast Borneo, 1600-1880, Han Knapen

Leiden: KITLV Press, Verhandelingen van het Koninklijk Instituut voor Taal-, Land- en Volkenkunde, No. 189, 2001, 487 p.
Reed L. Wadley
p. 122-125
Référence(s) :

Han Knapen, Forests of Fortune? The Environmental History of Southeast Borneo, 1600-1880, Leiden: KITLV Press, Verhandelingen van het Koninklijk Instituut voor Taal-, Land- en Volkenkunde, No. 189, 2001, 487 p.

Texte intégral

1Southeast Borneo has long felt the influence of outside forces, and its various peoples, whether indigenous or migrant, have also helped to shape it over long periods of time. How these things have played out in the history of a variable and uncertain environment is the subject of Han Knapen’s book. A product of the “Ecology, Demography and Economy in Nusantara” project of the Dutch Royal Institute of Anthropology and Linguistics (KITLV) in Leiden, it is the first of its kind for the island of Borneo and is an excellent study with much detail (despite the wide area and time depth covered) and abundant documen-tation. It is exceptionally difficult to do justice here to such a wide-ranging but thorough book, and the various (and often minor) points of criticism below should be taken within the context that there is even more to commend.

  • 1 J. Thomas Lindblad, Between Dayak and Dutch: The Economic History of Southeast Kalimantan 1880-1942(...)

2In Chapter I, Knapen introduces the subject and explains why the period of 1600-1880 was chosen to limit his research – because documentation earlier than 1600 is poor and Lindblad’s study of the Southeast Borneo economy begins in 1880.1 As his point of departure, Knapen examines the expedition of Carl Bock and that explorer’s comments on biodiversity, death and disease, outside contact, and settlement patterns. This sets up very nicely the analysis that follows throughout the book. Knapen is also attentive to methodology, how to define Southeast Borneo both geographically and historically, his use of archival and published sources, and their limitations. I was surprised to learn that the archives for Southeast Borneo at the Indonesian National Archives (ANRI) in Jakarta are “better accessible and much more comprehensive” (p. 23) than those from the archives of the Ministry of Colonies at the General State Archives (ARA) in The Hague. For my own work on West Borneo, I found the opposite, although with the ANRI holding some earlier documents not found at the ARA. The ANRI holdings for South and East Borneo are more extensive that those for West Borneo, but this should not discourage anyone interested in pursuing research in the ARA.

3Chapter II provides a background description of the diverse and changing natural environment. Knapen describes the contours of Southeast Borneo, its geography and hydrology, rainfall patterns, climate, monsoons, and natural calamities. He also goes into great length about the different ecological zones that make up the area – mountain and hill, fan lowlands, danau (lake) region, monotonous swamps, and tidal region. Chapter III describes the history and people of Southeast Borneo. Topics covered here include prehistory, early Chinese and Indian contacts, the coming of Islam, the establishment of Banjarmasin, and various European contacts and involvements. His descriptions of the native peoples concern Banjarese expansion and exodus, their control of Dayak areas, Dayak and Bekumpai mobility and migrations, and sections on the Ngaju, Ot Danum, Ma’anyan, Luangan, Bukit, and Punan.

  • 2 See, e.g., O.W. Wolters, History, Culture, and Region in Southeast Asian Perspectives, revised edit (...)

4In the discussion of the Banjarese bubuhan system before its demise after 1860, Knapen notes that “almost every economic activity was directed by the royal family, who organized the sultanate according to their whims and wishes.” This included restrictions on individual and household mobility and the imposition of particular economic activities to benefit the ruler and his family (pp. 101-102). His portrayal of the Banjar royalty conforms a bit too closely with colonial portrayals that emphasize exploitation, extortion, and arbitrary power by rulers which served to justify European usurpation of native authority, but it may not be an entirely accurate or fair representation of affairs from the local perspective. What of the sultan’s obligations to his subjects, his necessary consultation with local leaders, and the risk of losing his population to competitors if he pushed too hard ? (As Knapen notes later [p. 377], the sultan was not as powerful as he seems to suggest here.) Although Knapen’s main sources of information are colonial documents, there is perhaps a more nuanced way to read these sorts of relations.2

  • 3 See John F. Martin, “Changing sex ratios: The history of Havasupai fertility and its implications f (...)

5In Chapter IV, Knapen deals with population dynamics and patterns of fertility. Topics considered are population figures and estimates, factors in fertility (e.g., menarche, age of marriage, premarital sexual relations), the con-scious control of female fertility (contraceptives, abortion, infanticide), and the effect of cultural practices on fertility, such as polygamy, marriage payments, delayed marriage, male absence, and female workload. Knapen mentions male-biased child sex ratios as possible indirect evidence of infanticide (pp. 123-124). He also cites Spenser St John, who claimed that the Iban had a preference for boys; this, despite the fact that most other observers, past and present, hold that the Iban have no such preference. Contrary to Knapen’s assumptions, evidence of biased child sex ratios, male or female, are not necessarily indirect evidence of sex-biased infanticide, but Knapen concludes that because sex ratios tend to be nearly equal among both Dayak and Malay populations, sex-biased infanticide was probably lacking. What he fails to take into account here is that secondary sex ratios in small populations are notoriously stochastic and can swing between the two extremes;3 these biases in small groups are evened out with data on large populations, so that where 37 boys and 29 girls (newborn) might be found in a small settlement at a particular point in time, the wider population exhibits a near-parity sex ratio (e.g., p. 124). Interestingly, Banjarese apparently favored boys in receiving vaccinations against smallpox (p. 151 n. 40), a potentially important factor that Knapen does not discuss in this section.

6Chapter V concerns patterns of mortality and morbidity. Here the main topics are epidemic disease with a focus on smallpox and cholera, endemic disease (particularly malaria), warfare (including the ubiquitous headhunting and human sacrifices), and crop failure and famine. In his discussion of warfare, Knapen states that in Borneo it “was generally much more directed at procuring people and/or procuring their heads, rather than plunder and economic disruption” (p. 180). This perhaps overstates the situation, as there are plentiful examples of Dayaks and other groups plundering overrun settlements or actively searching through nearby forests for valuables hidden by their fleeing owners. In addition, during their expansion into the Rejang, the Iban would cast all the iron implements of a vanquished settlement into the river to disrupt the enemy’s ability to farm and wage war. Surely there was a suite of reasons for warfare, rather than some being primary and others not.

7Regarding the preventative measures against malaria, Knapen notes that mosquito nets (kelambu in Malay) “have been in use for centuries in Southeast Borneo” (p. 163; see also n. 78). But there is little to indicate what these kelambu really were – soft-mesh nets fully covering beds to keep out mosquitoes, as we know now, or heavy curtains separating sleeping areas to provide some privacy. It is highly likely to have been the latter given (1) the importance of privacy at night among settled Borneo peoples and (2) the lowered threat from mosquitoes in houses high on stilts with plenty of alternative prey among the domesticated animals, as Knapen discusses. Actual descriptions of what earlier kelambu really were, however, are hard to find, and colonial writers refer to them with the assumption that everyone knew what they meant. Intriguingly, nineteenth-century Malay-Dutch dictionaries define klamboe as gordijn or curtains, suggesting they were not the nets of today.

8Agriculture is the particular focus of Chapter VI. The various forms of cultivation practices covered are swidden, west and east monsoon, deepwater, and tidal. Knapen discusses each with regard to yields and efficiency, uncertainties, agricultural calendars, and risk-spreading. He also documents aspects of agricultural change over the centuries, particularly the very significant replacement of tubers, sago, and now minor cereals, such as millet and Job’s tears, by rice. In addition, he traces the introduction of maize and cassava. In his discussion of the latter, Knapen asserts that its rapid adoption “lay less in its nutritional properties (the roots are, in fact, a poor source of protein and fat) than in the favourable agronomic characteristics and high yields” (pp. 221-222). No mention is made of the highly nutritious leaves that form a standard part of the Bornean agriculturalist diet. Surely this is one reason, along with its other positive characteristics, that people took up and continued its cultivation.

9Chapter VII is on the development and commercialization of agriculture. Knapen draws out the historical process of expansion and intensification of east and west monsoon cultivation, irrigation, deepwater rice, and tidal agriculture. He presents a fascinating analysis of incipient tidal agriculture among the Ngaju and its elaboration by the Banjarese. Other topics include pepper cultivation (its locations, spread, risks, and decline), and nineteenth-century commercial agriculture. In discussing changing swidden and settlement patterns, he states that the establishment of Pax Neerlandica and the resulting decrease in warfare and headhunting made possible dispersed and smaller settlements (p. 250). Yet, this seems odd as, earlier on, he describes dispersed settlements and swidden fields as effective in reducing the threat of (human) predation (p. 180). This in turn seems in apparent contradiction to the findings concerning fortified longhouses that imply the concentration of populations rather than their dispersion (p. 88). All of this suggests to me a greater level of complexity in settlement patterns than what Knapen brings out, something that might vary with factors such as the intensity of conflict and the extent of natural resource concentration.

10In Chapter VIII, Knapen examines animal management and domestication. He concludes that the raising of pigs, water buffalo, cattle, horses, and ducks was rather limited and that deer hunting by the Banjar royalty served to maintain and expand Imperata grasslands. Chapter IX describes the various resources from the forest and sea. The author covers different kinds of hunting (e.g., for food and foreign markets) and its impact on animal populations ; fishing in the sea, lakes, rivers, and wetlands; the exploitation of timber resources, including introduced species, and the protective attributes of sacred forest ; and non-timber forest products, with a particular focus on the management, boom and decline of rattans. Chapter X ties all the material together around the issue of uncertainty and human adaptation to it. Knapen looks at a range of uncertainties (e.g., natural hazards, disease, crop yields, markets, politics) and the range of risk-coping strategies. He examines the consequences of these uncertainties before and during the nineteenth century.

  • 4 James C. Scott, The Moral Economy of the Peasant: Rebellion and Subsistence in Southeast Asia, New (...)

11In this chapter, however, Knapen sets up an all-too-sharp division between risk-aversion and risk-taking (pp. 369, 385), with James Scott’s moral economy of the Southeast Asian peasant representing the former and Samuel Popkin’s rational Vietnamese peasant standing for the latter.4 The risk-averse peasant, so the argument goes, will avoid opportunities for improvement in livelihood if they threaten basic subsistence, and will instead seek relationships that ensure subsistence stability even though these might mean giving up autonomy and resources. In contrast, Knapen argues, Southeast Borneans, like Popkin’s Vietnamese peasants, have shown themselves to be quite rational and willing to take risks – growing pepper, expanding tidal agriculture, and so forth. Scott’s peasant is something of a straw man, however, and Knapen fails to take into account Scott’s entire argument and cases. He even quotes Popkin (1979: 21) as noting that people will “gamble on innovations when their position is secure against the loss and when a success could measurably improve their position” (p. 385; my emphasis). This seems quite reasonable and rational, but is not exactly risk-taking if they do not stand to lose anything, nor is it out of line with Scott’s thesis, as a more careful reading might have revealed. Knapen demonstrates very clearly that the Southeast Borneans, just like other people in similar situations, moved among various risk-averse and risk-taking strategies depending on circumstances. It is unfortunate that this illusory theoretical contrast had to be drawn.

12Chapter XI concludes the book with an assessment of population-environment interaction in the Southeast Borneo context ; of particular concern are demographic growth, migration, and intensification. The accompanying appendices provide an overview of disasters from 1747 to 1880, an annotated list of introduced species of plants and animals in Borneo, and the sources to all the figures and tables. In sum, this is an incredibly documented and researched book. It is probably not an exaggeration to say that Knapen has produced a ground-breaking study, one that will surely serve as a source book for more localized environmental histories of the area, and as a springboard for histories of other parts of the island.

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1 J. Thomas Lindblad, Between Dayak and Dutch: The Economic History of Southeast Kalimantan 1880-1942, Dordrecht: Foris, 1988.

2 See, e.g., O.W. Wolters, History, Culture, and Region in Southeast Asian Perspectives, revised edition, Ithaca: Cornell University, Southeast Asia Program, 1999; and John Walker, Power and Prowess: The Origins of Brooke Kingship in Sarawak, Sydney: Allen and Unwin, forthcoming.

3 See John F. Martin, “Changing sex ratios: The history of Havasupai fertility and its implications for human sex ratio variation,” Current Anthropology, 35: 255-266, 1994; and “Hormonal and behavioral determinants of the secondary sex ratio,” Social Biology, 42: 226-238, 1995.

4 James C. Scott, The Moral Economy of the Peasant: Rebellion and Subsistence in Southeast Asia, New Haven: Yale University Press, 1976; and Samuel L. Popkin, The Rational Peasant: The Political Economy of Rural Society in Vietnam, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1979.

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Reed L. Wadley, « Forests of Fortune? The Environmental History of Southeast Borneo, 1600-1880, Han Knapen »Moussons, 4 | 2001, 122-125.

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Reed L. Wadley, « Forests of Fortune? The Environmental History of Southeast Borneo, 1600-1880, Han Knapen »Moussons [En ligne], 4 | 2001, mis en ligne le 18 mars 2016, consulté le 19 octobre 2021. URL : ; DOI :

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Reed L. Wadley

Department of Anthropology, University of Missouri-Columbia, USA.

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