In 2004, a former Sarawak Museum curator made controversial headlines across the globe thanks to what he did 90 years earlier.
Eric Mjöberg served two years as a curator for the Sarawak Museum from 1922 until 1924.
Before he found himself in Borneo, he had made various expeditions to Australia during the early 1900s to prove his Darwinian human evolution theory.
A zoologist and ethnographer trying to do his job… how controversial could his work be?
In Western Australia, Mjöberg who started off by collecting plant and animal specimens for research purposes, had also desecrated the sacred burial grounds of the Aboriginal people.
After stealing their human remains, he then passed them off as kangaroo bones and smuggled them back to his home country Sweden.
He did this reportedly over the course of two expeditions between 1910 and 1916, collecting parts from 12 deceased individuals.
After suffering from an extended, undiagnosed illness, Mjöberg passed away in Stockholm in 1938, living in poverty. Throughout this period, he endured recurring nightmares that mirrored his encounters in the Kimberleys. These haunting dreams involved a feeling of being chased by Aboriginal individuals and interactions with the Dreamtime’s creation spirits called the Wondjina.
In September 2004, Lotte Mjöberg, his great-niece, took the initiative to return the skeletons to the Aboriginal people.
Interestingly, Mjöberg actually exposed his own unethical practices through his 1915 publication of his diaries ‘Among Wild Animals and People in Australia’.
Apart from this book, he also published another book Forest Life and Adventures in the Malay Archipelago (1930).
In the book, he wrote mainly brief descriptions of the rich fauna and flora in the region while giving more attention to Borneo.
Although he was described by historians as aggressive, arrogant and devious, his descriptions and observations of nature are interesting and detailed.
We might never see this type of explanation in a formal zoology textbook again, so here are some of examples of Mjoberg’s curious descriptions:
1. Mjöberg called the pangolin ‘stupid and obstinate’.
“Our ant-eater is stupid and obstinate, two attributes no doubt inherited from the dim past. When in danger he rolls himself up into a ball, and no power on earth can induce him to unroll until he wishes, which in other words, is not until all danger is over.”
2.The proboscis monkey is ‘a human caricature in flesh and blood’
“Sometimes a man may be as ugly as a monkey, and a monkey may have something very human about it; indeed, it is quite customary to call monkeys humanity’s caricatures. Of none can this be said with such truth of the Borneo proboscis monkey.
“The Malay natives in Sarawak call them ‘orang belanda’ which is a contraction of orang hollanda or hollandare (Dutchmen). Not a great compliment, this, to Queen Wilhelmina’s representatives in the Tropics!”
3.Banded archerfish or squirting fish is one of the shrewdest of fish and ‘the most economical marksman’ in the world.
“One of the shrewdest of fish is the little squirting fish (Toxotes jaculator). The struggle for existence and one’s daily bread is not hard on dry land only, but the under the water as well. It is essential before all else to satisfy the strongest and most primitive of impulses, the desire for food, the first essential of any individual’s existence.
“He is generally seen patrolling in the water along the river banks, carefully inspecting the leaves of the water plants. As soon as he discovers a suitable victim he backs, takes in more copious supply than usual, and with soldierly precision shoots a stream of water at his prey. Taken aback by the sudden cold douche, the insect loses its self-possession, and tumbles down into the water, where he is speedily dispatched by our ingenious little shot. Inspired by his success, he continues this pastime until he has satisfied his appetite.
“Since he only uses water, the squirting fish is undoubtedly the most economical marksman in the world.”
4.The most pugnacious bird in the Malay Archipelago is the Argus pheasant
“The Argus pheasant is very defiant and suffers from a hot and choleric temperament: an affliction of which the clever Malays take the utmost advantage.
“They plant in his dancing ground some dozens of yard-long pointed bamboo sticks, in such a way that the sharp points stick up a little more than a foot – the height of the dancer’s breast – out of the ground. When he arrives at break of day to give proof to the fair sex of his superabundant vitality, he flies into a towering rage at these unexpected hindrances to love’s measure, and at first makes disdainful attempts to kick away the sticks.
“But this is no easy matter, for they are firmly fixed. His undisguised wrath flares up and he attacks them with tooth and claw. His fury – violent as it is – reaches boiling point, and he slashes round fiercely in every direction, with the final result that he wounds himself mortally on the little stakes planted at fixed distances. There have been birds that in blind frenzy have literally beheaded themselves, or have hung dead with pierced throats, transfixed by the pointed bamboos.”
5.The flying frog inventive for being the only flying expert amongst thousands of his tribe.
“There is only one single specimen of earth’s multifarious frogs – wellnigh a thousand in all – that has climbed to heights beyond the commonplace and sails above his four-footed clumsy relatives. This fellow with the black feet goes by the name of Rhacophorus nigropalmatus, and lives on a high, moss-covered height, Mount Dulit in Northeast Borneo.
“When he feels like flying, or is very much disturbed by the neighbourhood of green tree snake, who is too evidently anxious to have him for breakfast, our sticky aviator climbs up the mossy trunk to get a good start and a better view of the country.
“His greatly elongated phalanxes are quite joined by a web for swimming or as might be more correctly said in this special case for flying.
“When the psychological moment arrives, he fills his lungs with air to their utmost capacity and takes the daring leap, drawing his feet aside so that the wide flying-webs become one with his body, and this begins his flight in long bold curves, taking intelligent advantage of any local puffs of wind. The whole proceeding is so grateful as to fill us with amazement that an awkward frog can manage anything of the kind.”