Travel Features > Book Review

Tom Harrisson - Portrait of the Author

by Mike Reed

Author & Negri Besar
©Sarawak Museum
Its very unlikely that Paul Anka ever met or even heard of Tom Harrisson. If he had, there would have been no question who he had in mind when he wrote My Way. Harrisson was probably one of the last great English eccentrics, possessed of an enquiring mind, an adventurous spirit and the heart and soul (if not the lyrical talent) of a poet.

Tom Harrisson was born in 1911, the son of a distinguished career soldier, and educated at Harrow (whose famous alumni include Winston Churchill) and Pembroke College, Cambridge. At the time, Cambridge was regarded as one of the world?s leading centres of social and cultural research, made famous by such distinguished anthropologists as Malinowski and Radcliffe-Brown, and it was here that Harrisson acquired the acute observational skills that made his later writings so rich in detail and visual images.

While at Cambridge, Harrisson joined an Oxford University expedition to Arctic Lapland, where he had his first taste of unfamiliar cultures. His curiosity and sense of adventure aroused, he organised and led another Oxford Expedition at the ripe old age of 20. This expedition was to change his life, because the objective was Mount Dulit and the Tinjar River in Sarawak. As the first large-scale expedition permitted by the Brooke government for many years, Harrisson?s party were viewed by the local administrators with some scepticism and even hostility. Nevertheless, the participants published more than 50 papers on their findings.

Sarawak and its people deeply affected Harrisson, and triggered a rebellious streak in his character. On his return he left Cambridge and moved to Oxford, where he gained a reputation for being rather strange. Wandering barefoot around the city in the depths of winter with red-painted toenails was hardly normal behaviour for an English gentleman in the 1930?s, but this habit gave Harrisson a pair of very tough, leathery feet which were to be a great advantage in his further explorations and adventures.

From Oxford Harrisson went to the New Hebrides, where he studied Polynesian culture in great depth. However, when he returned after a two year absence, he realised that whilst hundreds of young men were going out into the Empire to study tribal peoples, nothing was known about the anthropology of so-called "civilised" societies. He decided to find out about "the cannibals of Lancashire, the head-hunters of Stepney" and next expedition was to the wilds of Lancashire, where he spent three years as a factory worker in the grim industrial town of Bolton, living with and studying the British working class.

His experiences led him to seek "an anthropology of ourselves" and he teamed up with Humphrey Jennings and Charles Madge to create Mass-Observation, a remarkable study of the everyday lives of ordinary people in Britain. Paid investigators recorded people?s behaviour, conversations and opinions in all kinds of social situations, whilst thousands of unpaid volunteers kept diaries and filled out monthly questionnaires.

Mass-Observation was a great success, allowing a wealth of social data to be compiled and analysed. It continues to this day as a commercial research organisation, and the archive is kept at the University of Sussex. However, with the advent of World War 2, the government decided that it was an excellent tool for evaluating civilian morale and opinions. Harrisson was put in a very difficult position; where did evaluation end and espionage begin? Unwilling to be used as a propagandist, he resigned from Mass-Observation and joined the army in 1941.

The original square peg in a round hole, Harrisson was a problem for the army. Having no idea what to do with an eccentric, untidy and over-aged lieutenant, they sent him on course after course, and he sailed through every exam he took. Nobody wanted to put this highly-qualified misfit in charge of regular troops, but eventually his knowledge of Borneo came to the attention of the SOE (Special Operations Executive), the cloak-and-dagger branch of the armed forces.

Harrisson was recruited into the SOE and trained in every skill thought necessary for the successful secret agent, including feigning deafness, blowing up railways and even poaching! He was then sent to Australia to join "Z" Special Unit, where he discovered he was to be sent to Sarawak to set up a guerrilla army of native irregulars to harass the Japanese occupation forces.

After month of planning and reconnaissance, Harrisson and three Australian sergeants were parachuted onto the Plain of Bah at Bario. The rest, minutely documented in World Within, forms one of the most fascinating episodes of the Allied campaign in Asia.

When the war ended, Harrisson chose to stay on in his beloved Sarawak, becoming Curator of the famous Sarawak Museum. However, he was no desk-bound curator pottering about the archives. He developed the museum into a major centre of social, archaeological, biological and geographical research. His most notable achievement was the excavation of ancient burial grounds at Niah Caves in 1957; he and his team showed that the area had been occupied by humans for over 10,000 years. The most sensational discovery came in 1958, when a human skull was found at Niah that was estimated to be over 40,000 years old. This find was ridiculed by some of the scientific community, but subsequent improvements in dating techniques, and the discovery of ancient human remains in Australia, proved that Harrisson was right.

It was not only human culture that Harrisson was involved with; during his stay in Kuching he assisted his wife Barbara with her orang-utan project, attempting to re-introduce orphaned orang-utans into the wild. He also spent much time in London, lecturing, researching and compiling an archive of material from Mass-Observation, a task that was eventually completed in 1970. Tragically Harrisson was unable to complete his research or write his eagerly-awaited autobiography. He died suddenly in a traffic accident in Bangkok in January 1976, depriving Sarawak and the world of a great original thinker, writer and researcher; a courageous soldier who always believed that the pen was mightier than the sword.

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