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In the Footsteps of a Colorful British Colonialist

August 23, 1992|COLMAN ANDREWS


Stamford Raffles (1781-1826)--whom an aunt once dubbed "Duke of Puddle Dock" (after a riverfront street in London) for his early put-on airs--was one of the more colorful and controversial characters in British colonial history. A one-time office boy for the East India Co., he went on to become governor of Java (through the influence of his well-connected wife, his enemies said), founder of Singapore and, for a time, apparently just about the only competent British official in all of Pacific Asia. His influence on the shape and nature of modern Malaysia and Indonesia was significant. (Singapore's historic, recently renovated Raffles Hotel is, of course, named in his honor.)

Author Barley, a field anthropologist and assistant keeper (curator) at the British Museum, has previously written with great humor and spunk about his anthropological adventures in the Cameroons (see below) and on the Indonesian island of Sulawesi. He explains the genesis of this book quite simply: "I had been reading about Raffles recently and felt a need to sidestep the shortcomings of the literature by some sort of direct, personal experience." Thus he set out to visit virtually every corner of the so-called East Indies in which Raffles had lived and worked, and to keep a record of his travels.

The result is not exactly a travel book but more a record of ambitious travels, and an illumination of the nature of travel, in this fascinating part of the world. It is also a thought-provoking book (among other things, Barley draws unexpected but convincing parallels between Raffles and legendary former Indonesian president Sukarno) and great fun to read: When a guide showing Barley around Jakarta's Great Garden--which Raffles may or may not have founded--identifies a certain bark as a powerful sexual stimulant and adds that it will give a man the ability to make love to 10 women in one night, Barley (who is, after all, an anthropologist) asks if it really works. The guide looks crestfallen, then confesses, "Whenever I wanted to test it, I could never find more than one woman."

THE INNOCENT ANTHROPOLOGIST: NOTES FROM A MUD HUT by Nigel Barley (Henry Holt: $10.95 paper).

An earlier work by Barley, published in London in 1983 but appearing here only now, this is even less of a travel book than "The Duke of Puddle Dock"--but it is a highly entertaining, sometimes surrealistic, almost always very funny evocation of an exotic place, in this case the Dowayo tribal lands in the north-central Cameroons.

SET FREE IN CHINA: SOJOURNS ON THE EDGE by Peter Heller (Chelsea Green: $18.95 hardcover).

This is not a book about China, but rather a debut collection of "travel stories" of an unusual nature, set in a variety of locales, including China but also ranging from Costa Rica to Cape Cod. Heller, a Colorado-based expedition kayaker and professional river guide, is a strong, blunt writer, and these pieces are as much short stories as they are traveler's tales--short stories complete with dangerous characters, cinematic dialogue and, on China's So Muo River, a tragic death in an epic setting. Heller's mode is what might be called macho/sensitive (the subject matter is rough; the writer's view is tender and intuitive), and the book begins with an almost-haiku (one too many syllables) by the author--but it's pretty good reading, anyway.

MONTREAL: THE ULTIMATE GUIDE by Anne Smith and Brian Pel with Louis Fortier (Chronicle Books: $11.95 paper); and TORONTO: THE ULTIMATE GUIDE by Margaret and Rod MacKenzie, updated by Deborah Hurst (Chronicle Books: $11.95 paper).

Back in tips-for-tourists territory, these two slick, comprehensive guidebooks are well-organized and have an authoritative air about them. A scattering of photos (a hotel room here, an historic facade there) and a number of simplified maps break up the text quite nicely, and the museum floor plans are particularly handy.

COLUMBIA RIVER GORGE: A COMPLETE GUIDE, edited by Philip N. Jones (The Mountaineers: $13.95 paper), and EXPLORING COLORADO'S WILD AREAS by Scott S. Warren (The Mountaineers: $14.95 paper).

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