Frontiers of Fear: Tigers and People in the Malay World, 1600-1950

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Interweaving stories about Malay kings, colonial rulers, tiger-charmers, and bounty hunters with facts about tigers and their way of life, the book is an engrossing combination of environmental and micro history.
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Editorial Reviews

George B. Schaller
A fascinating and uniquely valuable account of the historical relationships and entangled destinies between tigers and people in the region.
Paul Greenough
An important book about a fascinating topic. Nothing like it exists.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780300085396
  • Publisher: Yale University Press
  • Publication date: 11/28/2001
  • Series: Yale Agrarian Studies Series
  • Pages: 320
  • Product dimensions: 6.20 (w) x 9.30 (h) x 0.90 (d)

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Frontiers of Fear

Tigers and People in the Malay World, 1600-1950
By Peter Boomgaard

Yale University Press

Copyright © 2001 Yale University
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0-300-08539-7

Chapter One


This book is about the relation between humans and the three big cats of the Malay world: the tiger, the leopard, and the clouded leopard. Above all, however, it is about the tiger.

It is difficult to be neutral about tigers. They seem to elicit either strongly positive or strongly negative sentiments, and it is even possible (and far from rare) that one person has both positive and negative feelings about tigers. Indeed, many Westerners clearly have regarded the tiger as a beautiful animal but at the same time as a terrible force of nature and a cruel brute, as the following remarks illustrate: "If it is the lion who rules Africa, it is undoubtedly the tiger who is the tyrant of the Indian jungles and forests. It is a beautiful animal-black stripes against a yellow and white background-graceful in his movements, but of a mean, cruel disposition, so that one could compare him with a Nero or a Philip the Second" (Hartwig 1860, 61).

Almost 70 years later the American tourist and big-game hunter Mary Bradley held similar opinions, although she stated them more lyrically:

Never in my life had I seen such a picture. Elephants by moonlight, lions at dawn, gorillas at blazing noon I had seen, but nothing was ever so beautiful and so glorious to me as that tiger walking out of his jungle. He was everything that was wild and savage, lordly and sinister.

The tiger was there, to the right of the [dead] buffalo, a picture of savage life and death. So he must have stood many times, over his kills, wary, yet arrogant in his great strength, lording it over the jungle, inspiring terror in every living thing-superb and terrible.

The tiger was lying stretched out, about fifty yards away from the buffalo. As we came up he roared with fury, dying as he was-dying by violence as he had lived. Every night of his life he had been nourished on the blood and pain of some defenseless creature and now a sudden, sharp destruction had struck him down. He had been terrible in life and he was terrible in death (Bradley 1929, 212-15).

A great many travelogues of Western visitors to the Malay world contained tiger stories, mostly popular hunting stories. It has been argued that such stories prepared readers for their role as tiger-hunting rulers over the Orient. The following quotation is an explicit illustration of this argument: "I have devoted considerable space in this book to the tiger. For, to my mind there is a romance and a devilishness about a tiger possessed by no other Indian animal. To meet and overcome a tiger is probably the first great ambition of every young big game hunter" (Wardrop and Morris 1923, 4).

However, in the eyes of the people of the Malay world the tiger was not always the enemy. He could be a friend as well.

History behind the Scenes

This book is also a study of what normally remains hidden-a history of the invisible, in more than one sense.

Not so long ago, historians were mainly interested in kings, wars, diplomacy, and "high" culture. A minority studied economies of the past, which brought agriculture, industry, and commerce into view. The "common people" as a popular research topic arrived later on the scene. So did "the people without history" (Wolf 1982), the non-European societies who had often left no written records, and so did women. Courts and the cities around them are being studied, as are the countryside, its villages and its people, and the arable lands around these villages. Most history writing, however, stops there.

My book not only deals with kings, courts, and villages, but also focuses on what lies beyond the edge of the arable lands, namely the "wild," uncultivated areas and their inhabitants. It is, among other things, a history of forests and other wildernesses. It is also a history in which several kinds of animals are among the protagonists. Therefore, this study leaves the realm of human history from time to time. However, it stops short of being the history of the tiger only, let alone the history of this animal written from his point of view. Crossing the species boundary seems to be one step too far, although occasionally I will present interpretations of observed tiger behavior, from which one can try to infer the tiger's mentality.

The book is also a history of the invisible because by now tigers have disappeared from some of the areas dealt with here and have become rare in other regions. Even when tiger populations were large, few Europeans ever saw a tiger in the wild. Nor did most indigenous inhabitants of towns and cities.

Finally, this book is a history of the invisible because, in addition to real natural tigers, it also deals with supernatural ones. The supernatural tiger, as we will see later on, is not always visible to ordinary mortals.

The American anthropologist Clifford Geertz introduced the term "theatre state" for Bali in the nineteenth century (Geertz 1980). Some scholars have criticized this notion, but we can borrow the image without accepting all the implications. If we visualize the states of the Malay world, the colonial state included, as stages upon which the normal human drama is acted out, this book takes the reader backstage. Yet the tiger is not only the guardian of the area backstage, the forest; he is also to be found on the kayon, the marker used by the puppeteer to demarcate the stage of the Javanese shadow play.

Environmental History, Wild Nature, and the Orient

The main theme of the book is the interaction between humans and tigers/ leopards, with the natural environment serving as interface. The book explores how changes in the behavior of one party influenced the actions of the other, mediated by environmental change. It is, therefore, also an exercise in environmental (or ecological) history. Briefly put, environmental history deals with the mutual influence of humans and the environment. Human beings exert influence on the environment, and the thus altered environment influences human beings differently than before these changes occurred (Boomgaard 1997a, 2).

We are discovering that landscapes are forever in a state of flux. As this is often the result of very slow, almost imperceptible processes, contemporary observers may very well have missed them (see also Schama 1996). Forests and other "wild" areas have long been seen as timeless, as places where time had stood still. Nowadays, scholars and lay observers alike are very much aware of the changes, often for the worse, in landscapes, but even in less hectic times "wild nature" was not an unchanged and unchangeable entity.

The reader will see how environmental change, often but not always manmade, influences the tiger's habitat directly and indirectly. It is also shown how the tiger's reaction to such disturbances has influenced human behavior in turn.

The "stage" of this book is the area covered by what are now the states of Indonesia, Malaysia, and Singapore. A large part of this area is rather homogeneous culturally. It also shares many natural features, like climate, flora, and fauna. I will refer to this area as the Malay world.

The Malay world is part of what is often called the Orient. I will not attempt to position my book in the ongoing debate on Orientalism, a debate that received its kick-off with the publication of Edward Said's book with the same title (Said 1979). Let me just say that the Orient evoked reactions, images, and sentiments that were often not based on solid information. This complex of images then started to live a life of its own. Such ideas played a role particularly during what is often called the age of modern imperialism (1870-1914), when the Europeans in Asia-that is, the ruling class of the colonies-started to draw firmer dividing lines between themselves and the people they ruled.

This book examines Western perceptions of the Oriental natural world. These ideas no doubt were an important force in the creation of the Western view of the Orient. Many white Westerners came to see the Orient as a whole as a dangerous place. Mortality was, indeed, high, partly because of the many endemic and epidemic diseases, the hot climate, and bad habits, like the excessive consumption of alcohol. Many Europeans died in imperial wars or were killed during uprisings of indigenous people. The tropical forests were thought to be filled with all kinds of dangerous animals, like elephants, rhinoceroses, crocodiles, snakes, poisonous insects, and, of course, tigers. A theme that appears throughout the book is this fear of dangerous animals and the question of how warranted it was.

I also address indigenous perceptions of Oriental nature and how they changed over time, as well as whether a sharp distinction can sensibly be drawn between Western and Eastern perceptions of nature. In fact, given the differences in views of nature between various groups in Europe in almost any period, it would be nothing short of miraculous if uniform views existed across levels of development and across classes in the Malay world.

Killing the Killers: The Role of Individuals and the State

The tiger is, like all big cats, a carnivore and a predator. Tigers kill game and domesticated animals, including pets, a feature that did not endear them to humans. More importantly, tigers were also reputed to kill humans. It was the so-called man-eater who was responsible for such atrocities. Nowadays, man-eating is very rare, and various tiger specialists have recently argued that it was never important, more an "Orientalist" myth than anything else. This book sets the record straight about man-eating.

Various indigenous states seem to have been instrumental in attempts to destroy large numbers of tigers. State-sponsored hunting was one option; organizing ceremonies in which tigers were killed was another. The latter activity, to be found in central Java from 1600 onward, will be analyzed in a separate chapter.

Among Europeans (and also among many indigenous people) the general opinion was that tigers who had killed cattle or people had to be destroyed. In 1820, tigers were perceived to be such a threat in Java that the Bataviasche Courant, the official Government gazette, printed an article proposing the establishment of a Society for the Extermination of Tigers in Java. That proposal came to naught, but there was no shortage of attempts, both by the colonial state and by individual Europeans, to rid the areas concerned of these dangerous animals.

The state promised rewards (bounties) to all those who captured or killed a tiger. We are particularly well informed about this topic, and the bounty system and the impressive quantity of reports it generated are an important key to understanding the relationship between humans and tigers. Obviously, hunting and trapping are also phenomena to be dealt with extensively.

The Tiger's Image

To the inhabitants of the Malay world, tigers were certainly not merely animals to be trapped and hunted. Tigers are protagonists in many myths, legends, fairy tales, and fables. They can be found in the wayang, the Javanese and Balinese shadow theater, as well as in other popular performances. They are also encountered in paintings, carvings, and sculptures.

Earlier I described the current book as a history of the invisible, and that is true in more sense than one. There is-at least in the literature-a whole range of tigers who are supposedly the embodiments of invisible forces: ghosts, spirits, dead souls (or souls of the dead), or whatever term one prefers. Important motifs in this respect are the ancestral tiger, the tiger familiar, and the weretiger, to be compared to the European werewolf. The information available on this topic is overwhelming, although it is not always easy to find out what the informants may have meant. However, for those who are familiar with the study of popular culture (micro history), such problems are nothing out of the ordinary. These data, no matter how difficult to interpret, are one of the few keys to understanding indigenous attitudes in the past. This book, therefore, is about not only natural tigers but also supernatural ones.

It may disappoint some of my readers, but I do not present an analysis of the many animal fables in which the tiger figures prominently. I refer to some of them only in passing. The analysis of the themes and motifs of these stories is very much the work of a handful of specialists.

Tigers also used to be important in the imagery of the West. This changed after the Second World War, when the Western countries lost their colonies in the Orient, the Malay world included. Tiger stories ended up as bedtime stories, taken seriously only by very young children. For grownups, tiger stories became associated with the rather boring ramblings ("tall stories") of older relatives, a symbol of the Empire's faded splendor.

Since the notion has spread (roughly from 1975 on) that tigers might be on the verge of extinction, tigers have made a remarkable comeback in the West. They are now on television regularly, competing for the viewer's attention with soap operas and science fiction. The quality of these films is often very high, and they have done a tremendous job in making people aware of the plight of the big cats, particularly that of the tiger.

The tiger's recent popularity may, in the end, be instrumental in producing the funds that are needed to save the species, and that is something to be grateful for. However, propaganda on the tiger's behalf, although no doubt well intended, is often as one-sided as was the colonial image. The tiger is now represented as a harmless being that only seldom becomes dangerous, and then not without provocation. This stands in sharp contrast to the colonial image of the tiger as a cruel, gore-covered tyrant of the wilderness, a permanent threat to his human neighbors. Here I present ample data that should enable the reader to take a position between these two extremes.

Do Animals Have a History?

What about the tiger's perception of us? This book is an exercise in human history, but is it also an exercise in tiger history? In other words, do tigers (and leopards and clouded leopards) have a history, as opposed to a past? The theologian and philosopher Martin Buber thought they did not:

Beasts of prey have no history. A panther can indeed have a biography and a colony of termites even state annals, but they do not have history in the great distinguishing sense of human history as 'world history.' A life of prey yields no history. (Buber 1965, 108-9)

However, it will be shown that such a clear-cut distinction is problematic.


Excerpted from Frontiers of Fear by Peter Boomgaard Copyright © 2001 by Yale University. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

1 Introduction 1
2 Meeting the Tiger and the Other Big Cats 10
3 The Tiger: Friend or Foe? 39
4 Man-Eating Tigers 61
5 Ancestors for Sale: Bounties for the Big Cats 87
6 Hunting and Trapping 107
7 Tiger and Leopard Rituals at the Javanese Courts, 1605-1906 145
8 The Ancestral Tiger: From Protection to Punishment 167
9 Devouring the Hearts of the People: The Weretiger 186
10 The Rise, Decline, and Fall of the Tiger 207
11 Living Apart Together 224
Notes 239
References 265
Index 293
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