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Judith Heimann, The Most Offending Soul Alive: Tom Harrisson and His Remarkable Life

Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 1997, IX + 468 p., index, illustrations.
Robert L. Winzeler
Référence(s) :

Judith Heimann, The Most Offending Soul Alive: Tom Harrisson and His Remarkable Life, Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 1997, IX + 468 p., index, illustrations.

Texte intégral

1Tom Harrisson, who died suddenly in an automobile accident in Thailand a quarter of a century ago, distinguished himself in various areas, first at an early age as an ornithologist, then soon after as an author of a best-selling book (Savage Civilization) on Melanesian tribal society and change in the New Hebrides, then as one of the founders of Mass Observation studies in Great-Britain. Judith Heimann’s welcome, carefully researched and detailed biography of Harrisson, however, will be of concern to many readers, especially in regard to his life and work in Borneo where he spent much of his mature life. Except for a short but very important trip as a part of the Oxford Expedition to the lower Baram in northern Sarawak in l932, this began in 1945, when he led the first group of soldiers dropped by parachute behind Japanese lines to organize a resistance among the tribal peoples of the central highlands. It continued after the war, when Harrisson was appointed curator of the Sarawak Museum and Government Ethnologist in 1946, positions he held until shortly before he left Sarawak for the last time in 1967 under a cloud of accusations, though his publications and other Borneo projects continued after this time.

2Whatever reservations one may have about the quality of some of his work, no one can deny that Harrisson was enormously productive as a researcher and scholar. He began as a natural scientist, and he continued to regularly publish work on a wide range of topics. This was in part because his position as curator at the Sarawak Museum spanned both natural history and anthropology, but it was also because his interests were broad. The largest part of his work, however, involved ethnology and archaeology, the latter including important excavations at both Santubong, a coastal site in the Sarawak River Delta, and Niah Caves in northern Sarawak. Harrisson’s efforts in ethnology and archaeology were also more controversial than his work in natural history. He had difficulties in particular with social anthropologists, including Edmund Leach and, especially, Derek Freeman. Heimann recounts the problems that developed between Harrisson and Freeman in some detail, and the specific incident that she tells about must be among the oddest in the history of late colonial administration and social anthropology.

3In her own analysis, Heimann suggests that, in writing about Bornean peoples, Harrisson was less interested in producing detached scientific studies of the sort done by social anthropologists than in serving as an advocate and producing work that would help the people themselves. Harrisson evidently saw things in this way, and identified with the peoples with whom he lived and studied. I do not, however, find this explanation very convincing for there is relatively little in his published work in Borneo to indicate that he was preoccupied with advocacy or practical schemes.

4Harrisson produced notes and accounts about various ethnic groups in Borneo, but the bulk of his published work concerns the Kelabit peoples and the Malays of the Sarawak Delta. When his accounts of these two groups are considered together, they pose something of a paradox. Up until the time that his book on the Malays (The Malays of South-West Sarawak before Malaysia) appeared in 1970, readers of Harrisson’s publications on Bornean peoples would have had little reason to suppose that he would produce a monograph of nearly 700 pages on the Malays of the Sarawak Delta. He had before that time published almost nothing on Sarawak (or other) Malays. The Malay sections in the earlier The Peoples of Sarawak, which he organized and edited, were written by someone else, and there are few (if any) ethnological notes on Malay topics among his many contributions to the Sarawak Gazette and the Sarawak Museum Journal, except for a section of the book itself published in the latter. Nor did he refer often or at all to his interest in the Malays or use them as examples in his writings on other topics, as he often did the Kelabit. Yet, Harrisson had been gathering information on the ecology and economy of the Sarawak Delta Malays for a long period of time – nearly twenty years, according to the introduction.

5The situation regarding the Kelabit is to some extent the opposite. That is, the information Harrisson actually published on the Kelabit seems somewhat incommensurate with the time he spent with them, the extent to which he identified with them, and the uniqueness and importance he attributed to their way of life. His most extensive published work on the Kelabit is in World Within, a widely-read book about his wartime experiences in Borneo, the first part (some 137 pages) of which is an overview of Kelabit society, culture, and environment. This book tells a fascinating story of adventure and is essential reading for anyone interested in Tom Harrisson or what happened in one part of the interior of Borneo during the last months of the war, or for anyone seeking a general overview of the Kelabit at a time when they still lived in a largely traditional way. But for someone seeking systematic information on standard anthropological topics, such as marriage, family and kinship, social stratification, agriculture and other ecological patterns, religion, the architecture of longhouses, it will be frustrating (although there is some information on all of these). It was not evidently Harrisson’s intent to write a book that covered any of these or other ethnological topics systematically, and the book would probably have been dull for the general reader if he had. Harrisson subtitled the book “A Borneo Story,” perhaps to signal that it was a narrative of his experiences rather than an ethnographic or ethnological account. He wrote it, according to Heimann, while he was on leave in England, without his notes or journals, which he had left behind, a course of action that she thinks was deliberate.

6Perhaps because the relevant information is more readily available, Heimann seems to be better able to sum up Harrisson’s archaeological efforts and achievements than his ethnographic ones. Harrisson’s move on behalf of the Sarawak Museum into archaeology and prehistory was deliberately initiated. Both Charles Darwin and Alfred Wallace (the latter having spent a period of time [a year] in Sarawak in the 1850s as a part of his long ­zoological sojourn in the Malayan archipelago) had long before suggested that Borneo might be a place where evidence of early man could be found – specifically a fossil link between humans and the orangutan, to which the island is still home. Harrisson began to search for suitable sites, especially the limestone caves that are common in several areas of Sarawak. The excavations at the Great Cave at Niah in northern Sarawak began in 1954, and almost immediately showed deeply buried evidence of human habitation. The site did not produce early human or pre-human fossils (ones that would have dated to hundreds of thousands ago or longer) but did yield remains extending back over 30,000 years, including a modern human skull below a layer of material that was found to be 40,000 years old. The excavation of Niah has also been a matter of some controversy, especially regarding the true antiquity of the deep modern skull, which may have been a burial from a later period. Niah, however, became and continues to be one of the most important ­prehistoric sites in Southeast Asia, for which the credit of archaeological discovery and initial ­excavation belongs to Harrisson.

7Heimann also stresses the significance of Harrisson’s contributions to the Sarawak Museum. These included both his work as editor of the Sarawak Museum Journal and the development of the museum’s collections. Much of her discussion of the latter, however, concerns the difficulties that Harrisson got into. At one point there were complaints by the social anthropologist Derek Freeman about Harrisson displaying improper, newly-made pornographic artifacts. Heimann regards these charges – which were the culmination of a series of clashes with Freeman – as bizarre and suggests that they did Harrisson relatively little harm. This was not so of other rumors and later accusations, the most serious of which were claims that Harrisson had stolen items from the museum collections or that he had collected objects on behalf of the museum but kept them for himself.

8These accusations were made against Harrisson shortly after his retirement at age fifty-five and just as he was leaving Sarawak to take up a position as a senior research associate at Cornell University. They were made by a trained archaeologist living in Sarawak who had been recruited to do volunteer work for Harrisson on pottery shards from Niah. Harrisson had insulted the woman, who had not followed his instructions about preparing a report for publication in the Sarawak Museum Journal. She had reacted with outrage and begun a campaign of letter writing, in which she also accused Harrisson of destroying the sites at Niah through incompetent excavations and of having taken credit for written work of other persons who had worked for him. With the partial exception of the latter accusation, Heimann regards the charges as entirely false, but notes that Harrisson was vulnerable to accusations regarding his collecting practices and the appropriations of museum property because of rumors that had been circulating for years in Sarawak. Nothing was ever proved or, apparently, even examined in an official way, but neither was Harrisson cleared and, as a consequence of the scandal, he was never permitted to return to Sarawak.

9In interpreting these developments, Heimann suggests that Harrisson’s problems were not only a consequence of his treatment of the woman, or of the older rumors about his collecting and curatorial practices, or of his general inclination to make enemies as well as friends. It was also that the situation in Sarawak had changed. The country was no longer a British possession. In British-controlled Sarawak, Harrisson was also able to temper his general rebelliousness towards authority with an ability to keep on the good side of those at the highest levels of colonial administration. Harrisson did play up to people when it was in his interest to do so, for himself or for the museum, but he did so selectively. He was a maverick and regarded himself as pro-native, but he seems to have gotten along better with traditional natives than with more modern Western-educated ones, except for those who were his own protégés. In this regard, he was a man of colonial attitudes. While in Kuching, he developed close ties with both the older and ­younger generations of the old Chinese families there (notably the Ongs). While he was also on good terms with the old Malay nobility, he was not close to the younger Western-educated Malays.

10It seems safe to say that there will not be another Tom Harrisson in Sarawak. This country continues to attract its share of flamboyant characters, including recently those seeking to protect the forests and help the natives who live in and depend on them, that is, especially the nomadic Penan. But such individuals are usually not able to spend long periods of time in the country (at least legally) or, in any case, to get into positions of official authority. The government continues to hire Westerners as consultants and for specific purposes, but not for the sort of high-level position that Harrisson occupied for twenty years, and even if it did, it would not be someone like him.

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Robert L. Winzeler, « Judith Heimann, The Most Offending Soul Alive: Tom Harrisson and His Remarkable Life »Moussons [En ligne], 2 | 2000, mis en ligne le 16 janvier 2020, consulté le 11 juillet 2020. URL :

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