Harpoons, ropes and fisher folk

Sea Hunters of Indonesia
August 8, 1997

The people of Lamalera live on the south coast of the island of Lembata, between Timor and the island of Flores in eastern Indonesia. Conventionally they survived through a common strategy of coastal people: trading fish with inland agriculturalists. What has distinguished them is the fact that they hunt very large sea creatures, including whales.

This is not conventional ethnography. Rather, it is more of a catalogue raisonne of a people, their place and their activities. The book thus has an old-fashioned air, resembling in its comprehensiveness the ethnographies of the period before the second world war. To say this is not to criticise the work, but to locate it and observe that, long after we are dead and gone, scholars interested in the region will still be reading this book.

Sea Hunters of Indonesia can be divided into two parts. The first, following an introductory background chapter, considers Lamalera's social and cultural life. It includes chapters on origin tales, descent, marriage and the life cycle, as well as a chapter on general economic activities: salt, cloth and lime production, trade and markets. The second and longer part is concerned with the sea, fishing and particularly the hunting of large sea animals, most notably whales and rays. These chapters cover a range of topics: the seasons, winds and tides; varieties of fishing; the design, construction and ownership of, and the ceremonies surrounding, large, sea-going boats; fishing practices in the open sea (three chapters); early whaling in the region, both by local people and by Europeans. There is even a chapter on "Harpoons, ropes, and other gear in the boats". The main text is complemented by seven appendices with further technical and terminological information.

While the book will interest specialists in the region, other readers are likely to find it intriguing for two reasons. The first of these is the detailed description of fishing equipment and practices. In many parts of the world, fishing is important for people's self-conception and material survival. Even so, anthropologists have paid relatively little attention to it, with the result that studies of subsistence fishing and marine tenure are dwarfed by studies of subsistence agriculture and land tenure. It is true that the sort of sea hunting that Barnes describes is relatively uncommon, but those interested in fishing societies will be grateful to have this book's careful and detailed analysis.

The second thing about this book that is likely to attract readers who are not specialists in the region is Barnes's close attention to history, both European-centred and local. He uses history as a source of data that helps to expand and illuminate his discussion of modern Lamalera life, and he uses it to help explain the changes in social and cultural practices and organisation. The history of this region is rich, ranging from regional and extra-regional merchants and missionaries to imperial squabbles and compromises between the Dutch, Portuguese and British.

While the book offers us much, it is necessary to add that it does not do so in any easy way. The very level of detail and comprehensiveness that make it so useful render it difficult to read. Like a catalogue raisonne, it lacks the clear plot or overarching framework that would allow the reader to grasp it as a whole. But its weakness is also a strength. Here is an archive of Lamalera life as Barnes has been able to understand it, and one that will endure.

James G. Carrier is lecturer in anthropology, University of Durham.

Sea Hunters of Indonesia: Fishers and Weavers of Lamalera

Author - R. H. Barnes
ISBN - 0 19 828070 X
Publisher - Clarendon Press, Oxford
Price - £50.00
Pages - 467

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