The Dyaks and Sir James Brooke

While the Wallace travel narrative does read like what a travel narrative is supposed to be, it is imbued with a moralistic tone. He seems to describe the Dyaks through European lenses and measuring their morality (if any) by European standards. While he does try to subvert common descriptions of the Dyaks at that time, by measuring them through European lenses, his description of the Dyaks and their morality is counterproductive.

Moreover, while he bestows morality on the Dyaks, a quality that makes them human, he does not relinquish the notion that they are still savages. This is obvious in the section where he says that “these people have passed beyond that first stage of savage life in which the struggle for existence absorbs the whole faculties, and in which every thought and idea is connected with war or hunting, or the provision for their immediate necessities. These amusements indicate a capability for civilization.” (Wallace, 68) Thus, despite the fact that the Dyaks are morally superior to the Malays in Borneo, compared to the civilized Europeans, they are still savages and bestowing morality on them is only a matter of principle.

Further, the way in which Wallace describes the Dyaks almost seems like he is overcompensating for something. He repeats how “truthful” and “honest” they are numerous  times throughout his text. But it becomes clear throughout the end of the Borneo section why he seems to be overcompensating. By describing how morally superior the Dyaks are, despite being savages, Wallace is simply trying to emphasize how Sir James Brooke managed to “civilize” these savages. This reminds me of Achebe’s discussion of Heart of Darkness and how some considered the natives, and to a larger extent Africa, to be merely a backdrop to the unfolding of the degeneration European mind. Here, the presence of the natives seem to serve a similar purpose, to glorify the civilizing power of Sir Brooke. It seems as though the only reason Wallace ascribes all these moralistic qualities to the Dyaks simply to exalt the power of the European mind to “civilize” the savage.

Even though it is problematic to constantly compare the natives by European standards, it would have been quite difficult at that time to describe the natives without referring to Europeans as a sort of a benchmark. I think that perhaps it would be acceptable to compare the natives with the Europeans, however, it is not necessary to see Europeans as the superior counterpart (in terms of morality, physical features etc) simply by virtue of their race. It is also important to discard notions of binaries between the natives and Europeans but instead acknowledge that perhaps there isn’t much difference between these two races.