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Wednesday, 8 August 2012

The Anthropologist who disappeared... 1


Months after the Japanese invasion, an unusual encounter took place in the Malayan jungle. It was a meeting of very different minds and cultures that would have unexpected consequences  not only in Malaya during the Emergency war but later in Vietnam. Herbert Deane Noone, always called Pat, was a British anthropologist who had taken a First in Archaeology and Anthropology at Corpus Christi College, Cambridge.[1] Pat’s father was the splendidly named Herbert Vander Vord Noone who made enough money in India to retire at forty-four and return to England where he lived a somewhat peripatetic life with his family. ‘HV’ was inordinately ambitious for his children. Pat and his bother Richard, who was ten years younger, grew up in Dymchurch on the Kent coast and across the channel in Saint-Jean-de-Luz in the Basque country of south-west France. 
Pat, his brother recalled, was ‘blessed’. He had inherited his mother’s blue eyes and fair colouring; he excelled at sports; he passed any exam effortlessly; he was supremely confident and assured. After coming down from Cambridge in 1930, he was offered a job by the Perak State Museum in Taiping as a field ethnographer and readily accepted. At the time, Taiping was a charming up country town. 
The curator of the town museum, a splendid little building with a dome and wide verandas, was Ivor Evans. A graduate of Clare College, Cambridge, Evans had come to North Borneo in 1912 as a cadet district officer. He fell under the spell of Malaya’s aboriginal peoples – then referred to as ‘Sakai’ which means ‘dependent’ or ‘slave’ in Malay. The modern, less pejorative term is ‘Orang Asli’, ‘original people’. Although Evans took early retirement in 1932, he evidently passed on his passion. Pat realised, with some disappointment, that the region of Malaya that Sir Hugh Clifford referred to as the ‘aboriginal block’ was shrinking fast as new roads and railways were cut through the pristine jungle or ulu. But between the Cameron Highlands and a peak in Malaya’s central spine called Gunung Noring, there remained one spellbindingly unmapped ulu region, far away from the roads and railways – a rumoured lost world of jungle clad mountains, riven by deep, plunging ravines, laced with foaming rivers and streams, and permanently shrouded in mist. It was a realm, so it was said, haunted by malevolent spirits and blood thirsty cannibals. ‘Nonsense, of course’ concluded a ‘vastly intrigued’ Pat Noone. 
According to Evans and the German  anthropologist Father Paul Joachim Schebasta (another expert on Malayan aborigines whose work was funded by the Vatican), a wavy haired ‘race’ of people who spoke a language called ‘Senoi’ dwelled in this mysterious and uncharted ulu.[2] A number of European anthropologists had begun studying the aboriginal peoples of Southeast Asia but in 1930, the Senoi speaking tribes of Upper Perak remained an enigma. Noone sensed that his destiny lay in solving this puzzle. Early in 1931, Evans gave him permission to venture into the lost world and track down the Senoi. ‘I am steeled for a high purpose’ Noone wrote to his father from the small town of Tanah Rata in the Cameron Highlands from where he launched his quest. 
Noone’s first expedition was a dismal failure and he was forced to return, tail between his legs, to Taiping. In July, 1931 he set off again – and this time, after an arduous journey, he was rewarded by a life changing encounter with a group of Semiah.   


[1] There is no up to date account of the life and work of Pat H.D. Noone. I have relied on two books by Dennis Holman ‘Noone of the Ulu’ (1958) and ‘The Green Torture’ (1962) and Richard Noone’s ‘Rape of the Dream People’ (1972). None of these books is in print. This fascinating story deserves updating.
[2] Schebasta is sometimes referred to as Austrian. He was in fact born in Silesia, but studied at the University of Vienna. See Paul Joachim Schebesta (1887-1967) Wilhelm Dupré, History of Religions , Vol. 8, No. 3 (Feb., 1969), pp. 260-266

1 comment:

  1. I just picked up a copy of Richard Noone's and Dennis Holman's "In Search of the Dream People," 1972. Your blog will adds perspective to this writing. Thus far, it looks like Richard Noone is using correspondence from his brother regarding the role of dreams in the Tamiar culture which may shed light on the controversy about the subject.

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