Jun 03, 2023 Last Updated 2:32 AM, May 31, 2023

New book, old idea

Published: Sep 30, 2007

Publishing houses such as the Oxford in Asia series are reprinting nineteenth century colonial texts, for example the one by Alfred Wallace. This trend brings to a new generation of readers some outdated and racist attitudes regarding the cultural forms of Indonesia. However, these negative impacts are overshadowed by the fact that many texts are beingwritten today in the same style. The Scottish travel writer Norman Lewis is apparently read widely. He is described, albeit on the dust jacket of his own book, as a 'master' and 'doyen'. Graeme Green says he is 'one of the best writers of the century'. An Empire of the East relates his travels in Indonesia in the early 1990s. There are chapters on each of the islands he visited: Irian Jaya, Timor and Sumatra.

East Indies

Lewis suggests what tourists are looking for in this country: 'Many Western travelers will wander away from the bustling modern cities in search of the graciousness of the East Indies of Old'. Indonesia, he states elsewhere, still offers 'the greatest variety of primitive scenes and entertainments of any country on earth'. In Lewis' text, and many others, Western cultural forms are portrayed as normal and rational by both promoting them and exoticising the 'Other'. This is the clear intent of many of his anecdotes. He asks a Dani man why his people do not wear clothes. (Where was Lewis when they were doing social studies at school?) He gave the same man a radio and ponders 'if this could be the first present he had ever received, and whether this little ceremony of giving and receiving marked yet another step in Yurigeng's transition to the new culture of possessions and the accumulation of wealth'. Yet Lewis' travelling anthropological forebears were intrigued by the intricate gift exchange systems of New Guinea. Rather than describing the Danis, his observations illustrate his own isolation from the texts of his Western forebears. His portrayal of the Dani of Irian Jaya as a 'pristine group' is facile and stems from his inability to see the historical and cultural influences which came together to create contemporary Dani culture. Past influences are written out of his work due to this myopia. His dialogue with the Dani is brief and entirely through an Indonesian interpreter, who clearly carries the same blindness affecting Lewis.

Eugenic program

On the history of communities of mixed indigenous and colonial blood, Lewis states: 'European features proclaimed him a descendant of one of that small legion of indomitable men who conquered half a world, then uncomplainingly carried out the order to mate with any native woman they could, to produce the sons necessary to defend the new possessions'. This de-humanising description makes his subjects appear to be the result of some form of eugenic breeding program. Elsewhere he describes a group of Chinese Indonesians singing 'Ep-pi bir-deh to you' to someone, 'in what they believed to be English'. This text ridicules the singers and puts them in an inferior position to the dominant culture of the West. No mention of the fact that these singers are probably multi-lingual, conversant with the local dialect, their Chinese dialect, as well as Indonesian, which would embarrass Lewis' monolingualism and challenge his mistaken superiority complex. Far from being 'explorers' in any sense (as they would obviously like to be seen), writers of this style 'walk in their own landscape', oblivious to other histories or world views.


But why are these texts still so stuck in this colonial style? Part of the reason lies in the power relations of publishing. As Paul Rubertone states in the context of indigenous American histories, cultures without written literacy are at a distinct disadvantage in projecting their story when competing with cultures with a written tradition. What is perhaps most surprising about this book and others like it is that in the past century attitudes have altered so little. The Victorian bigotry and superiority seen in Darwin and Wallace's work in the 1800s flows untempered into many late twentieth century writings. If one has to bestow the title 'primitive' anywhere, it is more justly awarded to these pieces of archaic prose. Lewis completely sidesteps questions of identity and tradition in the new global culture. He remains content with the glib 'analysis' hand-crafted in colonial times. And yet he talks of the repression the Dani suffers at the hands of the Indonesian authorities. His work, I would argue, is itself a form of repression and violence: that of talking for others. Only recently have some guide books appeared which let go of the fantasy of unexplored back country awaiting the intrepid traveller. The truth is that since the time of Sinbad and before, the archipelago has received 'explorers': mercenaries, missionaries, and misrepresenters of innumerable ethnic origins.

Michael Hermes recently completed a Master of Letters degree in cultural studies through the University of Central Queensland. He lives in Hobart, Tasmania.

Inside Indonesia 52: Oct-Dec 1997

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