The Most Offending Soul Alive

The British Empire is in its dying throes. In an attempt to preserve its influence in the Far East, Great Britain begins plans to create a new nation called Malaysia. This state would be an amalgamation of the existing Federation of Malaya, Singapore, and the British protectorates of North Borneo, Sarawak and Brunei.

Sukarno and Fidel Castro in Havana, 1960

Meanwhile, neighbouring Indonesia are becoming one of the rising powers in Southeast Asia. Key members of the Non-Aligned Movement, an organisation not officially allied with any power bloc, the country had also hosted the 1955 Bandung Conference; a meeting of newly independent African and Asian states. A recent influx in arms aid from the Soviet Union has provided Indonesia, led by revolutionary nationalist Sukarno, with a rather more forceful diplomatic tone.

Fresh from a victory which had wrested the territory of New Guinea from Dutch control, Indonesia and Sukarno set their gaze on British plans for a unified Malaysian state.


On the night of December 10, David Lean’s epic Lawrence of Arabia would receive its worldwide première. Whilst T.E. Lawrence’s life was being immortalised in celluloid in front the Queen of England and other assembled guests in London, Thomas Harnett Harrisson was completing a chapter of his life story that would be similarly befitting of the silver screen.

Tom Harrisson studied Natural Sciences at the University of Cambridge, but this story really begins when he was commissioned as a second lieutenant in the Reconnaissance Corps during the Second World War. Rumours still abound that Harrisson was recruited for his first mission by mistake, due to an accidental mix-up of names. Fate perhaps played its part, because Harrisson was a perfect fit for the task; a plan to use the native people of Borneo against the forces of Japan. In 1945, Harrisson and his colleagues were dropped onto a high Bornean plateau inhabited by the Kelabit people.

The mission was a resounding success. Harrisson swapped his commando gear for native garb and began to recruit a fearsome army, in part by re-introducing head-hunting to the region. Harrisson and the Kelabit rescued stranded American airmen shot down over Borneo, protected the Allied flanks from attack and caused severe disruption to Japanese operations in the area. At the end of the war, Harrisson was recommended for the Distinguished Service Order.

Following the war, Harrisson remained in Borneo, where he became the curator of the Sarawak Museum and was joined by his wife Barbara, herself an accomplished archaeologist. In the following years, they excavated a 40,000-year-old skull, and helped to protect the region’s population of orangutans.

Sarawak’s Niah Caves, where the Harrissons discovered ‘Deep Skull’. Photo by Starlightchild

If this all sounds rather idyllic, it wasn’t. Tom Harrisson was not blessed with a gentle persona, and though he is remembered by many (including David Attenborough) as the ‘bare-footed-anthropologist’, he was also dubbed The Most Offending Soul Alive.

By the early Sixties, Harrisson’s last remaining family ties to England were dying off, something which apparently drew no emotional response from him whatsoever. His relationship with Barbara had evolved into something altogether more professional. For companionship, Harrison preferred the company of men, and for sex he tended to limit himself to brief encounters with women outside of Sarawak.

Meanwhile, north of Sarawak, things were becoming altogether less peaceful in Brunei. In September 1962, a series of elections were held by the Sultan of Brunei, Sir Omar Ali Saifuddin III. Every available seat was won by the Brunei People’s Party, an anti-colonialist liberation party with an increasingly influential military wing known as the North Kalimantan National Army (TNKU). Kalimantan is an Indonesian word referring to the entire island of Borneo.

On December 9, Barbara Harrisson attempted to make her weekly telephone call to Tom, but found the phone line dead. A local officer told her that there was an armed rebellion taking place in Brunei, and advised Barbara to lay low in the Niah Caves for a while. Instead, armed with a gun filled with bird shot, she motored up the Niah River to find out more.

Meanwhile, an official in the Bornean colonial administration had the smart idea of attaching a red feather to a canoe and floating it up the Baram River. The Red Feather of War, a traditional call to arms, drew an overwhelming response from many of the local tribal chiefs, some of whom were old friends of Tom Harrisson from the Second World War. They enthusiastically travelled down river, bringing with them hundreds of their people, armed and eager to man patrols. The force, which numbered some 2,000, was placed under the command of the curator of the Sarawak Museum.

Tom, still dressed in a dirty Aertex shirt, shorts and sandals, was placed in a Royal Air Force helicopter and flown around the interior. Vastly experienced in guerrilla warfare, he convinced the British forces that the impact of landing their helicopters in the middle of rural villages would make such an impact on local villagers that they would be less likely to defect to the TNKU.

Whilst in the air he also took the time to write down what birds he had seen, in what numbers and in what densities per mile, research that he was later able to publish.
By December 12, A company of Royal Green Jackets reached Barbara with a note from Tom. By eight o’clock, Barbara was in bed and asleep.

By this point, the rebellion was well on its way to being put down. The TNKU had been unsuccessful in their attempts to secure any of Brunei’s major towns, its major oil installation or to kidnap the Sultan. Upon realising that defeat was iminent, much of the force found their route back  to Indonesia blocked by Harrisson’s Kelabit patrols.


Borneo in 2016

The Brunei Revolt was throroughly unsuccessful, but Sukarno was not so easily defeated. It proved to be merely the first rumblings of Indonesian discontent which would erupt the following year in the form of the Indonesian-Malaysian confrontation, an undeclared war lasting over three years.

The revolt also left a lasting impression on the Sultan of Brunei, who subsequently decided that his country would not join the Federation of Malaysia.

As a result, modern-day Brunei is the only sovereign state completely on the island of Borneo, with the rest of the land mass divided between Indonesia and Malaysia.

Tom Harrisson left Sarawak and its museum in 1967, spending most of the rest of his life in the United States and France. He met his death in 1976. Like T.E. Lawrence, it came in the form of a traffic accident.


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