Months after the Japanese invasion, an
unusual encounter took place in the Malayan jungle. It was a meeting of very different
minds and cultures that would have unexpected consequences not
only in Malaya during the Emergency war but later in Vietnam. Herbert Deane
Noone, always called Pat, was a British anthropologist who had taken a First in
Archaeology and Anthropology at Corpus Christi College, Cambridge. Pat’s
father was the splendidly named Herbert Vander Vord Noone who made enough money
in India to retire at forty-four and return to England where he lived a
somewhat peripatetic life with his family. ‘HV’ was inordinately ambitious for
his children. Pat and his bother Richard, who was ten years younger, grew up in
Dymchurch on the Kent coast and across the channel in Saint-Jean-de-Luz in the
Basque country of south-west France.
Pat, his brother recalled, was ‘blessed’.
He had inherited his mother’s blue eyes and fair colouring; he excelled at
sports; he passed any exam effortlessly; he was supremely confident and
assured. After coming down from Cambridge in 1930, he was offered a job by the
Perak State Museum in Taiping as a field ethnographer and readily accepted. At
the time, Taiping was a charming up country town.
The curator of the town
museum, a splendid little building with a dome and wide verandas, was Ivor
Evans. A graduate of Clare College, Cambridge, Evans had come to North Borneo
in 1912 as a cadet district officer. He fell under the spell of Malaya’s aboriginal
peoples – then referred to as ‘Sakai’ which means ‘dependent’ or ‘slave’ in
Malay. The modern, less pejorative term is ‘Orang Asli’, ‘original people’.
Although Evans took early retirement in 1932, he evidently passed on his
passion. Pat realised, with some disappointment, that the region of Malaya that
Sir Hugh Clifford referred to as the ‘aboriginal block’ was shrinking fast as
new roads and railways were cut through the pristine jungle or ulu. But between the Cameron Highlands
and a peak in Malaya’s central spine called Gunung Noring, there remained one
spellbindingly unmapped ulu region, far away from the roads and railways – a rumoured lost world
of jungle clad mountains, riven by deep, plunging ravines, laced with foaming
rivers and streams, and permanently shrouded in mist. It was a realm, so it was
said, haunted by malevolent spirits and blood thirsty cannibals. ‘Nonsense, of
course’ concluded a ‘vastly intrigued’ Pat Noone.
According to Evans and the
German anthropologist Father Paul Joachim
Schebasta (another expert on Malayan aborigines whose work was funded by the
Vatican), a wavy haired ‘race’ of people who spoke a language called ‘Senoi’ dwelled
in this mysterious and uncharted ulu. A
number of European anthropologists had begun studying the aboriginal peoples of
Southeast Asia but in 1930, the Senoi speaking
tribes of Upper Perak remained an enigma. Noone sensed that his destiny lay in
solving this puzzle. Early in 1931, Evans gave him permission to venture into
the lost world and track down the Senoi. ‘I am steeled for a high purpose’ Noone
wrote to his father from the small town of Tanah Rata in the Cameron Highlands
from where he launched his quest.
Noone’s first expedition was a dismal failure
and he was forced to return, tail between his legs, to Taiping. In July, 1931
he set off again...
Schebasta is sometimes referred to as Austrian.
He was in fact born in Silesia, but studied at the University of Vienna. See Paul Joachim Schebesta (1887-1967) Wilhelm
Dupré, History of Religions , Vol. 8, No. 3 (Feb., 1969), pp. 260-266
Labels: anthropology, Cambridge, Malaya, Pat Noone, Richard Noone