Further Notes on the Historiography of British Borneo

By Tarling, Nicholas | Borneo Research Bulletin, Annual 2005 | Go to article overview

Further Notes on the Historiography of British Borneo


Tarling, Nicholas, Borneo Research Bulletin


Some thirty years ago I prepared "Some Notes on the Historiography of British Borneo," which were included in the Festschrift for D. C. E. Hall, Southeast Asian History and Historiography, edited by C. D. Cowan and O. W. Wolters (1976). Not all the comments I made would I now be prepared to endorse, but it seems better to avoid retraversing the ground I covered, since the descriptive part seems not inadequate. Space is better given to what has been done over the past thirty years rather than to recapitulation.

The changes during that period may be included under a number of headings. First, of course, more history has happened. That always shifts the focus on the past, bringing up new topics, or inviting a revisiting of the old. We cannot help recalling that Sarawak and Sabah have now been states of Malaysia for over forty years, not a dozen, or that Brunei is now a fully independent state, member of the United Nations and of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), which itself had its first summit meeting in the year the Festschrift was published. Nor can we fail to take account of the different perspectives that the "development" of the states promotes. Will even historians--clinging to a concept and, as far as possible, to a practice of objectivity--still write in the same way, say, of the forests and their dwellers?

Second, more documentary materials have become available, at least in Britain. The archive-based writing listed in the Festschrift article was done at a time when archives even in London were under a fifty-year rule, not a thirty-year rule. As a result of the change, made indeed about the time the book was published, we know far more about the 1950s and 1960s than otherwise we would, particularly, though not exclusively, in respect to Brunei. More non- or semi-official collections have been deposited, for example at Rhodes House, and notable actors, local and metropolitan, have been interviewed. The Festschrift article offered a warning against pressing for the early opening of achives, lest it merely encouraged their destruction. Reading material at Kew opened under the thirty-year rule does not seem to justify that apprehension, and other governments should be encouraged to go at least as far as the British. The new fear for historians may be lest actors cease to put things down on paper at all. Much business is now done verbally or electronically, and that may in the long term be even more unhelpful to the historian than a disposition to documentary secrecy.

That perhaps relates to a third change, the expansion of the historical profession, and of the range of approaches historians adopt. Of that expansion, those who study Southeast Asia outside the region may speak somewhat wryly, since an earlier expansion has not been sustained. Within Southeast Asia, even amidst other pressing claims, the reverse is the case. "National" history indeed remains the "regnant paradigm," as Ruth McVey puts it, but historians work not only on a range of topics within "national" history, but increasingly on aspects of the history of their ASEAN neighbors.

Much of this endeavor is, of course, sustained by the universities. No longer, alas, in Britain, where the Hull Centre for Southeast Asian Studies, which gave special emphasis to Borneo, has been shut down, and interest in Borneo is sustained more on an individual basis, though not an amateur one. In Malaysia itself, however, universities have vastly expanded in number and size since the 1970s, and there are now three university institutions in what was once loosely called "British Borneo," where in the 1970s there were none. Across the sea, the university history departments on the peninsula take care to give attention to the Borneo parts of the federation, while University Brunei Darussalam and the History Centre have joined the Muzium in attempting to advance the historiography of Brunei. What might be considered the "Track 2" of the historiographical enterprise is well represented by the Literary Societies.

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