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Riding the buses » Cultural travel, Malaysia, May I introduce, Travel itinerary » May I introduce Tom Harrisson, the barefoot anthropologist of Borneo

May I introduce Tom Harrisson, the barefoot anthropologist of Borneo

Tom Harrisson (1911-1976) had many labels and amateur anthropologist was one of them. He was bigger than life, so it was said, and one who never failed at anything. He wrote a best-selling book about living among cannibals in the South Pacific at the age of 26. When the British were looking for someone to drop behind enemy lines in the remote jungles of Borneo where the ‘wild men’ lived, they chose Harrisson to lead the mission even though he lacked military training.

This was during World War II when the Japanese army occupied the island.  The tribal people did not like the Japanese soldiers for they had rounded up and killed the missionaries who were there, even the women and children, and many natives had recently converted to Christianity. The Japanese also treated the tribal women badly. When US marines were downed in the jungle interior the tribal people decided to take them in and prevent them from being captured. They did this at great risk. But how to get the marines out? Harrisson was parachuted in to make it happen and the resulting drama was captured in the BBC film ‘The Airmen and the Headhunters”.

The first thing Harrisson did was to hand out medicine to all the nearby tribes, which was much appreciated for malaria and dysentery were widespread. He went “native”, marking himself with tribal tattoos, dressing in traditional clothes, and going barefoot.

He was considered to be a brilliant organizer. Indeed, he turned a band of tribal volunteers into a fighting force that killed 1000 Japanese soldiers. The blowpipe was the weapon of choice for it allowed them to attack in silence. If the arrow touched any part of the enemy’s body the poison would kill him.
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Harrisson not only encouraged the natives to engage in headhunting; he even offered a bounty for every Japanese head taken. 1000 native volunteers built a runway made of long bamboo strips so that a small plane could land and get the stranded American marines out. The work of Harrisson and his army was small but important for which he won the Distinguished Service Order.
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After the war Harrisson stayed in Borneo, becoming the curator of the Museum of Sarawak. He also worked to save the orangutan, which had become recognized as an endangered species.  Collectors still wanted the babies and would kill the mother to do that. When motherless baby apes were found by the authorities, they were sometimes brought to Harrisson for he had some knowledge of the animals. His wife, Barbara, who had no knowledge of orangutans at the time, eventually took on their care and went on to make a study of them. Borneo was the perfect setting for Tom Harrisson to live out his rather remarkable life.

By Sylvia Fanjoy

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© Riding the buses 2012

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