Retracing Tom Harrisson’s steps in Sarawak

By Patricia Hului


By Jove, I am not covetous for gold,
Nor care I who doth feed upon my cost;
It yearns me not if men my garments wear;
Such outward things dwell not in my desires:
But if it be a sin to covet honour,
I am the most offending soul alive. – Henry V, Act 4 Scene 3


IT’S FROM THIS DIALOGUE that 79-year-old author Judith Heimann, plucked the title for her autobiography of former Sarawak Museum curator Tom Harrisson ‘The Most Offending Soul Alive: Tom Harrisson and His Remarkable Life’.

“This was a man who earned the right to much more honour than he received in his lifetime, partly because one of his major hobbies was collecting enemies, and he did it very well,” Heimann said during a talk organised by Friends of Sarawak Museum (FoSM) held in association with the Tun Jugah Foundation on Mar 26 at Tun Jugah Tower.


PH Tom Harrisson

Heimann sharing about her book on Tom Harrisson at Tun Jugah Tower.


Heimann began her research in 1986 and spent ten years retracing Harrisson’s steps and interviewing almost 200 people who knew him or knew of him.

In her prologue, Heimann described Harrison as ‘a romantic polymath, a drunken bully, an original-thinking iconoclast, a dreadful husband and father, a fearless adventurer, a Richard Burton of his time.’

Heimann and Harrisson were neighbours in the mid-1960s when she lived in Kuching with her husband, John Heimann who was an American Consul for East Malaysia and Brunei.

She herself is a retired senior Foreign Service officer and a non-fiction writer.


PH Tom Harrisson 3

An article written about Tom Harrisson during his military work in Borneo during WWII with a photo of Harrisson and an Orang Ulu man displayed at Pustaka Negeri Sarawak.


According to Heimann, Harrisson who was a British national could be described as boastful: “We all tend to think boasters do not do as much as they said they did. In Tom’s case, he did probably half as much as he said he did, but because of his boastful manner, people did not believe him.”

His boastful manner made it imperative for her to double-check her facts and find solid documentation before she included them in her book.

On the Sarawak Museum Department’s official website, it was stated that Harrisson was curator of the Sarawak Museum from June 1947 till November 1966. What isn’t mentioned is how Harrisson’s career towards the end of his tenure with the museum was overshadowed by damning rumours, unknown to most Sarawakians today.


Heimann signing her book to one of her reader.

Heimann signing one of her books for a reader.


Having known Harrisson, Heimann felt it was her obligation to discover the truth behind the rumours that would leave the man heartbroken towards the end of his life.

“And then once I had the real story I had to share it so that people would know what it really was,” she stated.

Heimann began by sharing some of Harrisson’s early life which began rather unhappily: “He had the misfortune not only to be born outside his own country (in Argentina). His parents were rich and intelligent but singularly unloving.”

Harrisson’s parents spent almost no time with him.

“His father was building railroads, his mother was reading novels. He and his little brother had no toys, no friends. They had a nanny who took them for walks. He filled in the holes in his life by observing birds and birds became his first friends,” she said, which is how Harrisson had first developed his affinity and fascination for birds, later becoming an ornithologist.

At age six, Harrisson was sent off to England to attend school. During the holidays, he would be sent to boarding with other foreign children.

Heimann stated, “This man who was hungry for adventure, hungry for achievement, hungry for love had this kind of a childhood.”

At the age of 19, he organised 1,300 other birdwatchers in the first ever census of the Great Crested Grebe in England. The census later became a fixture of British birdwatching.

He took natural science in Cambridge but did not finish his studies.

When World War II broke out, he was commissioned as a second lieutenant in the Reconnaissance Corps in 1943. He was attached to Z Special Unit (or known as Z Force), part of the Services Reconnaissance Department, where he was first posted to Sarawak.

After WWII, he heard that the Sarawak Museum curator Edward Banks was not coming back to his post.

“So he put in a request and pulled every connection he could. He only had one year of university and no credentials of a formal kind. He had a reputation as a troublemaker, so it was hard for him to get the job,” Heimann said.

Despite the odds against him, Harrisson was delighted when he got the job as curator and government ethnologist.


The barefoot archaeologist


Among one of Harrisson’s many achievements when he was on the job was turning the Sarawak Museum Journal into a journal good enough to send to important scientists he knew around the world.

Besides that, Heimann also stated that the former curator was also marvelous in getting money for his projects.

“He travelled everywhere and everywhere he went he tried to find out and record what they doing. Also to collect treasures for the museum,” she said.

Heimann highlighted that Harrisson as Sarawak Museum curator was interested with anything that was going on, especially inland.

“But his biggest interest was in Niah. He was convinced that somewhere in Sarawak he would find evidence of early man,” she stated.

Led by Harrisson in the 1950s to 1960s, a team from Sarawak Museum pioneered excavations at Niah cave.

Their most notable discovery was a human skull uncovered in a deep trench dubbed ‘Hell Trench’ by Harrisson’s excavators because of the heat and humidity in the area.

Later, it was found out the skull was approximately at a level where stone tools had been found previously together with charcoal that yielded a radiocarbon date of around 40,000 years ago, the earliest evidence of human settlement on Borneo.

But many experts did not buy it.

“It was an unfossilised skull because the conditions in the cave did not make fossils; that made people doubtful,” said Heimann.

It was only after his death when the site had been re-excavated in 1999 to 2003 by a joint British-Malaysian expedition to determine the accuracy of Harrisson’s work.

According to Heimann, the latest archeological result yielded that Harrisson was just about on the dot as it turned out the skull was estimated to be from 35,000 to 45, 000 years ago.


The beginning of the end


He was planning to do more excavations in Niah Cave but as his time approached to leave his post as a curator, he made some very crucial enemies, one of them being Charmian Woodfield, an archaeologist “who objected strenuously to the fact that her view of the chronological sequence of pottery in the cave clashed with Tom’s.”

According to Heimann, Harrisson said he wouldn’t publish Woodfield’s paper until they had more information.

“She was deeply offended and she spread a lot of rumours – which I think she thought were true – that Tom had stolen things,” she said.

Heimann put the effort to investigate how truthful the rumours of thievery on Harrisson’s part were because a lot of people had believed them. She also interviewed the woman a few years ago for verification. It turned out that the allegations were false.

“She was there when the collection that was supposed to go to Brunei was being loaded up and sent,” Heimann explained, adding that the woman believed back then that the collection was actually meant for the Sarawak Museum and that Harrisson had sold it to Brunei without legal authorisation.

“There is not a single missing item that has turned up anywhere.”

The rumours were damning enough, however, that on May 12, 1967 Harrisson and his second wife Barbara were denied entry into the state. Barbara, who had worked alongside Harrisson on his excavations, would not be allowed to return to Sarawak until the anniversary of the Sarawak Museum in 1983 at the department’s invitation.

Heimann does not believe anybody involved in meant to do him harm.

“I think they all believed what they heard and told. They knew how bad he could be. He could be so vicious to people, he could be angry, he could be drunk and disorderly… it was very reasonable to expect him to be capable of these things but in fact he didn’t,” Heimann said, adding that the fact that he could not come back to Sarawak broke his heart.

“Till the day he died he was, to a certain extent a heart-broken man. The place he loved above all others, the people he loved among all others. He could never go back among them.”

Harrisson and his third wife Baroness Christine Forani died in a road accident on Jan 16, 1976 in Thailand.

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