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November 2, 2016

Misinformation Run Amok

Tom McLaughlin

Kuching, Malaysian Borneo – We had one hell of brouhaha here. Let me start from the very beginning. The battle was over a dead guy named Ali, the companion to Alfred Wallace, who wrote the Law of Natural Selection along with Charles Darwin.


A guy by the name of Lord Cranbrook came to make a presentation about Ali. Now, Lord Cranbrook means Lord of the Realm or the Earl of something in British terms. Cranbrook is his estate, I think.


Anyway, he has been coming here since 1956 and doing research. What research is not known, but he has been doing it anyway. He writes for the Sarawak Museum Journal, read by two people, the author and the editor.


He presented a film which I thought was, and advertised as, an intellectual pursuit. It turned out it was made by a guy carrying around a camera, an actor recruited from a coffee shop, and some child star from Hollywood. Lord Cranbrook could have afforded to spend a bit more on the project.


Ali, the supposed hero, was portrayed as a stick figure in a picture in the “Malay Archipelago,” and as an orangutan in a picture from the same book, or so said Lord Cranbrook. He danced through the jungle in a pale yellow outfit. He always followed Alfred Wallace through the jungle. He sometimes wore a Chinese round hat. He had a wig from a drug store taken off the dummy.


Alfred Wallace fared a bit better. He wore an obviously fake beard. He got drunk in a bar in Ternate. They had a long segment about the total eclipse of the sun complete with tourists.


Lord Cranbrook, in an effort to show a bird Ali had shot, strung up a dead, dark feathered chicken and stuck two white feathers in it to represent the Bird of Paradise which Ali had shot. A picture would have been better.


I stood up and told him it was a wonderful farce worthy of the Three Stooges and Laurel and Hardy. I them told him about our seven years of research. I said that we had found Ali in a local kampong.


He said he was going to show his film in England. I sat toward the rear and many people shook my hand, slapped me on the back and congratulated me. But, the front row was different. The organizers thought I was rude. My talk scheduled for November 5 was canceled. My talk would have told the wonderful truth about Ali. We had spent seven years off and on, seeking him.


The trouble is that the film is a sad commentary on British colonialism. Lord Cranbrook fashioned himself as the great white patriarch and certain people believed him. Even though Sarawak became a third of the Malaysia in 1963, some British people still think of England as all powerful.


The idea that Ali was made a fool of reflected not only the Malay race but all the people of Sarawak.


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