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The Myth of
Batak Cannibalism? By Patricia Bjaaland Welch

Victoria Glendinning’s new ask what was happening in this region in the
biography of Sir Thomas Stamford 1700s.
Raffles (Raffles and the Golden Southeast Asia had most likely been
Opportunity, London: Profile Books, trading with Arab traders since the ninth
2012), mentions Raffles breaking off century, if not earlier. Sumatra was a popular
a sea voyage in 1819 at Tapanuli Bay island as it was one of the first land masses
off the west coast of Sumatra, in a reached once traders crossed the Bay of
prominent Batak area, and records Bengal and supplied not only fresh water and
his fascination with their being food, but also minerals and timber (including
“flesh eaters”. camphor). When the Europeans came on the
Students of Batak culture scene in the early 1500s seeking their spice
inevitably arrive at the day islands, they stopped at many of the same
when they find themselves trading ports and sites. By 1700, the British
reading bloodcurdling stories of had established trading posts at a number
Batak cannibalism. Most Asian of sites on Sumatra. It didn’t take long for
Civilisations Museum docents skip local rulers and chieftains across Southeast
any reference to the custom and Asia to discover that one of the quickest
dwell on the architecture (long, roads to riches was to supply these foreign
multi-family dwellings with twin- traders with what they desired – their lands’
peaked roofs constructed entirely indigenous goods. To maintain control, it
without nails and windows and was imperative that the coastal chieftains
entered via a trapdoor through keep traders from venturing inland to source
the floor rather than an ordinary goods first-hand.
door), or on the decorative motifs of In 2005, Japanese professor Masahi Hirosue
reptiles and birds. published an article concluding that the “same
If there are no children amongst culture that had developed a system of writing
visitors, I like to tell the story [the Batak script] understood and wielded
of the power behind the datu’s the power of propaganda.” His conclusion,
(or magician-priest’s) staff of after studying hundreds of reports across
authority, known as a tunggal the centuries, was that it was the Sumatran
panaluan. This elaborately carved coastal rulers and local chiefs who invented
staff depicts the story of an the stories of cannibalism among the inland
incestuous young couple who peoples to keep the traders at bay. Their scare
bring the wrath of the gods upon tactics were so successful that when visiting
both themselves and everyone who Sumatra even Marco Polo was so scared of the
tries to help them, including datus. ‘cannibals’ that he stayed in coastal ports and
The staff obtains its power from never travelled inland. The English, including
the obedience of the ‘essence’ of Raffles, were similarly duped.
the child slave embodied within it. Nor was the fraud one-way. Professor
This kidnapped child once served Hirosue records that the chieftains also
as a slave to the datu, carrying out warned their inland compatriots that
his orders and commands before the European traders were “dangerous,
being ritually killed. Its corpse is diseased, and slave traders”, and then offered
then brewed into a potion inserted themselves as mediators between the local
into the staff, supplying the ‘cannibals’ and Europeans.
magical powers that continue to If you’re looking for a good Batak tale to
fulfill the datu’s will. share with visitors, tell the Batak creation
Headhunters yes, but cannibals? story of their first king and ancestor, Si Raja
Tales of the “cannibalistic kingdom Batak (King of the Bataks), who resided on
in the interior of Sumatra” first the Central Mountain west of Lake Toba, but
reached European ears through seeing the beauty of the area, descended from
early travellers’ tales. William heaven to earth on a bamboo pole.
Marsden (1754-1836), a renowned
English orientalist, was one of the
Patricia Bjaaland Welch is an ACM docent and former
first Europeans to thrill readers
academic who likes to remind docents that a little scepticism is a
with such tales. But before turning
useful tool when doing research.
the page in search of gory details,
this is when we need to stop to
recall Southeast Asian history and Photos courtesy of the Asian Civilisations Museum

PASSAGE May / June 2013 3