Thursday, September 01, 2005

Raffles and the Cannibals

As regular readers of our blog may have guessed, Singapore is rapidly falling into our ambit of operations. I'm not at liberty to say quite yet what those operations will be, but rest assured we'll let you know in due course.

We've been doing some reading, therefore on the founder, or purported founder of modern Singapore, Sir Stamford Raffles (his primacy in the founding of the city is a matter of some heated debate). Some of you well-versed in history may be aware that before (and after, actually) founding Singapore as a British trading factory, Raffles was the Governor of Bencoolen, today known as Bengkulu, on the West coast of Sumatra (the Indonesian island whose northern side most recently was devastated by the Boxing Day tsunami).

In 1820, according to his very sympathetic biographer, C.E. Wurtzburg, in Raffles of the Eastern Isles (published posthumously in 1954), he wrote rather favorably about the Batta, a tribe from central-northern Sumatra that had the unfortunate predisposition for cannibalism. Think about them the next time you drink Sumatra Mandelhing coffee, because that's roughly where they were from. Now Raffles always had a reputation for being a tolerant, liberal visionary, but what I read last night was quite something else. Wurtzburg quote directly from Raffles' own memoirs:
"It is observed that formerly they [the Batta] ate their parents when too old for work: this, however, is no longer the case, and thus a step has been gained in civilization.

It is admitted that the parties may be redeemed for a pecuniary compensation, but this is entirely at the option of the chief enemy or injured party, who, after his sentence is passed, may either have his victim eaten, or he may sell him for a slave; but the law is that he shall be eaten, and the prisoner is entirely at the mercy of his prosecutor...

I could give you more details, but the above may be sufficient to show that our friends the Battas are even worse than you have represented them, and that those who are still sceptical have yet more to learn. I have also a great deal to say on the other side of the character, for the Battas have many virtues. I prize them highly. However horrible eating a man may sound in European ears, I question whether the party suffers so much, or the punishment itself is worse than the European tortures of two centuries ago. I have always doubted the policy, and even the right of capital punishment among civilized nations; but this once admitted, and torture allowed, I see nothing more cruel in eating a man alive [italics are mine - Ed.] than in torturing him for days with mangled limbs and the like. Here they certainly eat him up at once, and the party seldom suffers more than a few minutes. It is probable that he suffers more pain from the loss of his ear than from what follows: indeed he is said to give one shriek when that is taken off, and then to continue silent till death."
Well, that was pretty awful, but you have to admit now there were certainly some individuals within the 19th century Empire that were highly sympathetic to local cultural practices. I had my partner Stefan off his chair when I read it to him. His reaction was: "Imagine the faces of his superiors his London when they read this. They'd be thinking, 'Oh...My...God! This guy is so far up the river it's not funny!'" Aside from the fact that in 1820, neither had Conrad written the Heart of Darkness nor Coppola made Apocalypse Now, I must wholeheartedly agree. Not in a culinary sense, of course.

1 comment:

batakone said...

At the present time the Batta people don't eat human flesh anymore, but at some of the northern part of the Batta Land still eat dog-meat cooked with the blood. And also they eat raw golden fish with lake moss.

This may be the joke that Batta fairly say "Everything, whatever it is possible to be eaten, whatever fly in the sky including aeroplane if it is soft it is possible to be eaten, whatever swim in the sea including submarine if it is soft it is possible to be eaten, and whatever crawl on the land oncluding the train if it is soft it is possible to be eaten.