The Eve to the native’s garden

Wallace’s The Malay Archipelago comes across as a  stuffy how-to manual on the advancing of civilization (his recommendation of Mr. Money’s How to Manage a Colony is probably the closest thing to The Complete Idiot’s Guide on the topic) as well as a feeble defense and justification of Sir James Brooke’s governance and in general, colonization.

Certain aspects of the Dyak natives are commended as though surprised that it is possible of their savage ‘younger brothers’ and usually measured against European superiority. For example, Wallace praises the Dyaks for having high moral character which he later subverts as a point of weakness (‘They are truthful and honest to a remarkable degree. From this cause it is very often impossible to get from them any definite information, or even an opinion,’ (68)) but not before he applies the same forgiving treatment to their custom of head-hunting as a defense for the colonial rulers’ participation in the slave-trade. That the article comes across as ethnocentric is not surprising with Wallace’s constant comparison of the ‘savage nations’ to the ‘civilized countries’, at the same time proposing a program of civilization that calls for the application of a tested system on countries of ‘semi-barbarous people’, resulting in the effectual dehumanizing of the natives in treating them as analogous cases.

Reading this article, I was made conscious of the act of reading itself. Even though the voice of the native other is silenced, Wallace’s article, in all its earnestness, betrays itself, making us aware as modern readers of the colonial mentality from a critical standpoint. I found Wallace’s figuring of Sir James Brooke as a figure of justice and ‘superior being, come down upon earth to confer blessing on the afflicted’ and to ‘bring the dead to life’ (71), to be most contrived, making him come across instead as suffering from some kind of Jesus Christ complex. In line with this god complex, the general tone and argument of Wallace’s article brings to mind a passage from King Solomon’s Mines: “For to my mind, however beautiful a view may be, it requires the presence of man to make it complete, but perhaps that is because I have lived so much in the wilderness, and therefore know the value of civilization, thought to be sure it drives away the game. The Garden of Eden, no doubt, was fair before man was, but I always think it must have been fairer when Eve was walking about it.”

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