MENU

The Anthropologist who Disappeared 2

In July, 1931 Noone set up camp in the deep jungle at the confluence of the Telom and Cherkok
Rivers. On the other bank was a Semiah village, but when he attempted to cross
over, the women and children all vanished into the forest. He was met by a
sullen group of men who made it all too clear that they did not want him to
stay. It looked very much as if Noone’s second expedition would suffer the same
fate as his first. The Semiah simply did not want to be discovered. As Noone
moped about in his little camp, his Malay cook Puteh bin Awang, who Noone said
had ‘all the instincts of a gentleman and an amazing delicacy of manner’, told
him he had discovered a young Semiah girl who seemed to be dying in a small hut
just half a mile away. She was covered in wart like sores, Puteh told Noone and
desperately thirsty. It turned out that she had been abandoned by her people:
no one could go near her until she had died. Noone, who had only the most basic
knowledge of tropical diseases, examined the stricken girl and sent a runner with
an urgent letter describing her symptoms to the British medical officer in the
nearest village, which was Tapah. He and Puteh brought the girl to their
riverside camp where she was nursed. The runner soon returned from Tapah, with
a diagnosis and medicine. The girl had tertiary yaws, a horrible tropical
disease caused by a spirochete bacterium. Today yaws is treated with
antibiotics; these were unavailable in 1931. But whatever the medical officer in
Tapah sent to Noone’s camp worked very well. The little Semiah girl was soon
recovering, and her sores fading. 
This fortuitous sequence of events
transformed Noone’s standing among the previously hostile Semiah. The stricken
girl it now turned out was the daughter of the headman Batu who showed off his
white skinned medicine man to other village chiefs and promised to take him
deeper into the jungle to find the Temiah. In the meantime, Noone, in a state
of elation, began working with the Semiah, mapping their settlements and making
notes on kinship networks and ritual. It was an exhilarating time, but cut
short all too soon. After a nasty bout of dengue or ‘break bone’ fever, Noone,
stricken with a temperature above 105 degrees and very severe pain, was forced
to return to Tanah Rata and then Taiping. 
In March, 1932 he set out again,
following the Telom River and its tributaries. Many weeks later, Noone reached
the tiny settlement of Kuala Rening where the Rening River roars down from a
narrow, rocky gorge. It was here that a group of young Temiah warriors, armed
with blow pipes and festooned with feathers, stepped boldly out of the jungle
and gathered in front of the mysterious white man who had searched for them for
so long. 
Richard Noone later described Kuala Rening as a haunted place. For it
was here that his brother began his journey into the world of the Temiah, and where
he would find love and finally death.After these crucial first encounters, Noone ‘went
native’. When Richard travelled to Malaya in 1935, Pat invited him to spend
time with the Temiah. He was astonished to discover that Pat had married ‘a
jungle girl’ called Anjang. Was she just ‘a floozie on the side’, a shocked
Richard wondered. No, Pat insisted – they were married ‘in the sight of God and
the Temiah’. But it was going to be ‘damned hard’ to explain Ajang to the
family. 
A British planter who got to know Noone well, called him ‘Lawrence in a
loincloth’. He was, to be sure, one of the last romantic anthropologists. Noone
came to regard the Temiah as Rousseauesque ‘Noble Savages’: quasi jungle socialists
and gentle pacifists who shunned violence. His idealistic conviction would turn
out to be a literally fatal error.

Sorry, the comment form is closed at this time.