Alastair Morrison 1915-2009

Borneo Research Bulletin, Annual 2009 | Go to article overview

Alastair Morrison 1915-2009


Colonial Administrator, Ornithologist And Writer

... Rumbustiously gentle, perceptive, kindly, generous in his judgment of others, the warmth of [Alastair's] personality made him friends wherever he went and combined happily with the rather more astringent perceptions of the love of his life, the internationally renowned photographer Hedda Morrison, nee Hammer, whom he first met in Peking in 1940 and married there in 1946.

... From an early age he was fascinated by birds. His first seven years in England, living at Witley in Surrey, provided a base for the study and nurture of birds and when he went on to Cambridge in 1934 this interest continued; vacations provided the opportunity to study them in remote islands and polar regions. When he left Cambridge he became a freelance bird collector, going first to Peru. There he compiled a descriptive catalogue of birds, including some geographical races previously unknown, and financing his journey by selling both live birds and skins to London Zoo and to private collectors on his return to England. He then had enough money to finance a second bird-collecting trip, this time to Chile, in 1938 and 1939, before returning to Peru again.

In early 1940, the time of the phony war, uncertain what to do as he was sick from an excess of rough travel and almost unable to walk, he took up an invitation from his brother Ian to go to China. Morrison was entranced by Peking and decided to stay to recuperate. The presence of Hedda Hammer as a guide to Peking, where she had lived since 1933, was an added inducement and to finance himself he made his first acquaintance with intelligence by working as a cipher officer in a small intelligence unit in the British Embassy. After Pearl Harbor he remained in Peking in semi-captivity until the exchange of diplomatic staff in August 1942 through Portuguese East Africa, whence he proceeded to Calcutta to continue intelligence work, still as a civilian. In early 1943 he joined the Army and was commissioned into the 2nd Gurkhas but was posted to the cryptographic center at Abbottabad, where the only attraction proved to be the birds of the Indian hills.

Summoned to Delhi to be recruited into Force 136 and posted to Chungking, he was delighted to return to China. His tale of these days in his book, The Road to Peking, is both fascinating and hilarious. From China he was posted to the Malayan section of Force 136 and, after training as a partisan, parachuted into Malaya in August 1945, shortly before the Japanese surrender.

After further army service in Peking and Hong Kong he was demobilized in 1947 and joined the Colonial Service in Sarawak. Although he knew nothing about the country, it turned out to be a place just after his (and Hedda's) heart, as he has so ably and affectionately conveyed in his book, Fair Land Sarawak. He spent his first six years as a district officer in different parts of Sarawak and then held various posts in Kuching, with four years as Development Secretary followed by half a dozen as head of the government information office.

The Crown Colony regime followed the Brooke tradition of close and informal contact between local administrators and rural population, whereby the official on tour stayed in a longhouse, to be entertained with traditional if rather alcoholic hospitality. The warmth and informality of these relationships were particularly attractive to Morrison and also enabled Hedda to produce superb photographs of the many different peoples, subsequently published in a number of books they co-authored. This close relationship with the peoples of the interior gave him a particular insight into their needs, which influenced his work as Development Secretary, where his imaginative ideas sometimes came into conflict with hard-headed Treasury perceptions. Perhaps for his reason he did not go on to be Financial Secretary, but, as Information Officer, was provided with an ideal outlet for his energy, imagination, sympathetic understanding, wide knowledge and authorial skills during a period of rapid and complex political change, culminating for him in three years of Confrontation with Indonesia, one of the most successful operations for Commonwealth forces in Southeast Asia. …

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