Thursday, February 4, 2010

Peter Metcalf's "The Life of the Longhouse"

Peter Metcalf is professor of anthropology at the University of Virginia.

He applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, The Life of the Longhouse: An Archaeology of Ethnicity, and reported the following:
Page 99 tells of the chance encounter in 1876 between an English traveller in Borneo and a war party returning from a raid on a coastal village. The Englishman was Hugh Brook Low, a trusted aid of Charles Brook, the second of the famous “White Rajahs” who carved out for themselves a personal kingdom in the great island of Borneo -- larger than France or Texas. The warriors he met came from a longhouse community in the interior led by a larger-than-life character named Aban Jau, who styled himself “Rajah Ulu,” the King Inside. Aban Jau refused to acknowledge the rule of any of the potentates on the coast, either the Moslem Sultanate of Brunei, or the upstart European adventurer. To the Rajah’s representatives he boasted “we are the tigers of the jungle and have never been tamed.” Despite this threat, the encounter – on a river some way inland – passed off agreeably enough. Low was impressed with Aban Jau’s chiefly bearing and intelligent conversation. The raid had, however, been anti-climatic. Thoroughly used to the methods of pirates along the coast, the Malay villagers simply retired inside their stockade, and scared off Aban Jau’s men with musket fire.

This incident, among others, illustrates the kind of warfare going on in this part of Borneo before colonial control. Meanwhile, the threat of attack was one reason for building longhouses – massive structures made of dense hardwoods and accomodating hundreds of people under one roof. Aban Jau’s claim to being a rajah depended on a powerful alliance he had assembled, in a mega-community with three longhouses.

The book shows the factors that allowed some communities to thrive and others not. The underlying factor was access to trade in jungle produce with the coast city of Brunei, and ultimately with China – a trade that had existed for a millenium. It also describes the lively sociality of the longhouses as I knew then from the 1970’s onward.
Read an excerpt from The Life of the Longhouse, and learn more about the book at the Cambridge University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue