Travel Features > Book Review

World Within - A Borneo Story

Book Review by Mike Reed

Book Cover

This is a very unusual book, by a very unusual author. It details one of the least-known military "side-shows" of World War 2, but it does so in a highly personal way, in which the reader cannot help but feel closely involved with the people and events depicted. But it is far more than a personal memoir; it is also a striking testament to a remarkable people and their rich and dynamic culture.

The Kelabit people have farmed the highland regions of northern Borneo for centuries. They are the only indigenous people in Borneo to grow wet rice, and the well-irrigated and fertile Plain of Bah produces abundant harvests. There is also plenty of iodine-bearing salt in the area; clay for making pottery; pigs, buffalo, fish and wild game for protein; rattan and tree bark for weaving and making clothes; and exotic jungle products such as camphor and bezoar stone to trade with the neighbouring Kayan people for knives, swords and ironware. In short, the Kelabit of the 1940?s were entirely self-sufficient, and the isolation and rugged terrain of the surrounding mountains allowed them to live in total security, virtually untouched by the war and the Japanese occupation (December 1941-September 1945).

Their isolation and self-sufficiency also made the Kelabit the ideal subjects for Operation Semut (Operation Ant), a plan devised by the Allied "Z" Special Unit in Australia to raise a guerrilla army to attack and harass the Japanese from behind their own lines. The man responsible for the Kelabit part of Operation Semut was Tom Harrisson, an English anthropologist and explorer who had travelled extensively in Sarawak a decade earlier, and World Within is the story of Kelabit participation in WW2 seen through his eyes.

The story starts in the cold and cramped bomb-aimer?s blister of a Liberator bomber, on a reconnaissance mission to identify a dropping zone. The Kelabit Highlands come into view, and suddenly the narrative switches to an earthbound, Kelabit point of view. "Psychologically, if not exactly physically, smack in the middle of Borneo lies the Plain of Bah." The next hundred or so pages have no connection with the forthcoming events. Instead they describe in sumptuous detail the everyday niceties of life in the Bario longhouse. Chief Lawai and other leading aristocrats are introduced; sad tales are told of doomed lovers; virtues and vices are discussed and Kelabit beliefs and folklore are woven seamlessly into the tale.

Harrisson?s style may be a little too writerly for some tastes, but the Kelabit speak of themselves in long and somewhat boastful sagas, and Harrisson?s elaborate, finely crafted sentences capture the feel of the Kelabit world-view perfectly. Like a latter day Mark Twain, he states the obvious in such a fashion that hidden truths are revealed. For example, on travelling - "Where you cannot wisely carry a dragon jar, you cannot fairly call it a Kelabit way of going." Other descriptions provide as much food for thought as anything by Ralph Waldo Emerson. To explain actions that appear (to Western eyes) illogical, he states that "Inside almost everything Kelabits do is a kind of intricacy - even amounting to spiritualism - which cannot equate function with straight lines as of necessity, or conceive of something approaching efficiency as being direct."

The reader is immersed in Kelabit culture, with details of exchange rates (30 packs of salt equal one small Chinese pot), family relationships, squabbles and feuds, and sources of potential disaster. The worst thing that can happen to a Kelabit is to be turned to stone. There are a number of ways to bring about instant petrification, including such serious crimes as incest and neglecting orphans, but the most certain cause of stony death is the ridiculing of wild animals. A Kelabit will never laugh at a wild animal no matter how ridiculous the situation, and Harrisson tells a tale of an old woman who, grossly humiliated, took revenge by catching a frog and dressing it in a tiny skirt and head-dress. The frog was presented to her persecutor, who burst into fits of laughter. The old woman and her grandson sneaked out of the back door of the longhouse as the whole community were turned to stone.

The story leads up to the aftermath of a great Irau or pig feast, when a giant aeroplane is seen circling over Bario. Something seems to fall from this strange craft, and a search party is sent out. They return with Harrisson and three Australian paratroopers, Staff Sergeant Sanderson and Sergeants Bower and Barry. After some initial difficulties in communication (even the expert linguist Sanderson has never heard a word of Kelabit before), Harrisson is able to convince Lawai, senior chief of the Kelabits, to assist in the fight against the Japanese. What follows is the story of Operation Semut from start to finish. Much of it is a straightforward re-telling of day-to-day operations, successes and setbacks. But there is also much about the people involved in the campaign.

As well as the Kelabits, Operation Semut relied on the cooperation, support and collusion of a host of different people. Members of other tribes, including the Kayan, Kenyah, Murut and Iban, distinguished themselves in action, and even the nomadic Penans were recruited to form a "blowpipe patrol." But one of the fascinating aspects of the story is the dozens or even hundreds of "outsiders" who had found their way to central Borneo to escape the ravages of the Japanese forces. A Chinese doctor and his family, Javanese from a forced labour detail, Dutch Indonesian evangelical pastors, Malay civil servants and even a crashed American pilot all played key roles in the operation, and Harrisson describes them all in rich detail.

Operation Semut was brought to an end by the Japanese surrender, and while it may not have made a great deal of difference to the eventual outcome of the Pacific Campaign, it served to preoccupy tens of thousands of Japanese troops who could have been used more effectively elsewhere. And more importantly it gave the interior peoples of Sarawak some idea of their own military worth and the fact that their independence was something to be treasured and jealously guarded.

Tom Harrisson took his leave of Bario over 50 years ago, to be replaced by British colonial administrators and the Borneo Evangelical Mission. Now staunchly Protestant, Bario has a small airport with daily flights from Limbang and Miri, a big diesel generator and a government clinic. The Kelabit way of life has changed dramatically, but as Harrisson wrote, "these extraordinary incidents led to a hunger for new ways of life and thought."

A young Kelabit aristocrat of the 1990?s no longer seeks to acquire a dragon jar to prove his or her worth - a law degree or MBA will do very nicely, thank you - but the Kelabit character, ambitious, hard-working but fun-loving, has not changed one bit. World Within is still a wonderful introduction to these proud and hospitable highlanders, a warm testament to the courage and determination of all the inland peoples of Borneo, and the perfect epitaph for its remarkable author.

Harrisson, Tom - World Within - 349 pp, paperback. Originally published by The Cressett Press, 1959. Re-issued by the Oxford University Press, UK & USA 1986.

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