Alastair Morrison 1915-2009.[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]
Colonial Administrator, Ornithologist And Writer
... Rumbustiously gentle, perceptive, kindly, generous in his judgment of others, the warmth of [Alastair's] personality made him friends wherever he went and combined happily with the rather more astringent perceptions of the love of his life, the internationally renowned photographer Hedda Morrison, nee Hammer, whom he first met in Peking in 1940 and married there in 1946.
... From an early age he was fascinated by birds. His first seven years in England, living at Witley in Surrey, provided a base for the study and nurture of birds and when he went on to Cambridge in 1934 this interest continued; vacations provided the opportunity to study them in remote islands and polar regions. When he left Cambridge he became a freelance bird collector, going first to Peru. There he compiled a descriptive catalogue of birds, including some geographical races previously unknown, and financing his journey by selling both live birds and skins to London Zoo and to private collectors on his return to England. He then had enough money to finance a second bird-collecting trip, this time to Chile, in 1938 and 1939, before returning to Peru again.
In early 1940, the time of the phony war, uncertain what to do as he was sick from an excess of rough travel and almost unable to walk, he took up an invitation from his brother Ian to go to China. Morrison was entranced by Peking and decided to stay to recuperate. The presence of Hedda Hammer as a guide to Peking, where she had lived since 1933, was an added inducement and to finance himself he made his first acquaintance with intelligence by working as a cipher officer in a small intelligence unit in the British Embassy. After Pearl Harbor he remained in Peking in semi-captivity until the exchange of diplomatic staff in August 1942 through Portuguese East Africa, whence he proceeded to Calcutta to continue intelligence work, still as a civilian. In early 1943 he joined the Army and was commissioned into the 2nd Gurkhas but was posted to the cryptographic center at Abbottabad, where the only attraction proved to be the birds of the Indian hills.
Summoned to Delhi to be recruited into Force 136 and posted to Chungking, he was delighted to return to China. His tale of these days in his book, The Road to Peking, is both fascinating and hilarious. From China he was posted to the Malayan section of Force 136 and, after training as a partisan, parachuted into Malaya in August 1945, shortly before the Japanese surrender.
After further army service in Peking and Hong Kong he was demobilized in 1947 and joined the Colonial Service in Sarawak. Although he knew nothing about the country, it turned out to be a place just after his (and Hedda's) heart, as he has so ably and affectionately conveyed in his book, Fair Land Sarawak. He spent his first six years as a district officer in different parts of Sarawak and then held various posts in Kuching, with four years as Development Secretary followed by half a dozen as head of the government information office.
The Crown Colony regime followed the Brooke tradition of close and informal contact between local administrators and rural population, whereby the official on tour stayed in a longhouse, to be entertained with traditional if rather alcoholic hospitality. The warmth and informality of these relationships were particularly attractive to Morrison and also enabled Hedda to produce superb photographs of the many different peoples, subsequently published in a number of books they co-authored. This close relationship with the peoples of the interior gave him a particular insight into their needs, which influenced his work as Development Secretary, where his imaginative ideas sometimes came into conflict with hard-headed Treasury perceptions. Perhaps for his reason he did not go on to be Financial Secretary, but, as Information Officer, was provided with an ideal outlet for his energy, imagination, sympathetic understanding, wide knowledge and authorial skills during a period of rapid and complex political change, culminating for him in three years of Confrontation with Indonesia, one of the most successful operations for Commonwealth forces in Southeast Asia.
Morrison retired from Sarawak, honored by the title of 'Dato',' at the end of Confrontation and settled in Australia. Here, in Canberra, he reverted to intelligence work and became for eight years Head of the S.E. Asian section in the Joint Intelligence Bureau (later JIO) until his retirement in 1976. Hedda continued her photographic work until her death in 1991. They had no children. Alastair Morrison was born on August 24, 1915. He died on August 5, aged 93.
[Reprinted, with permission, from Times Online, September 9, 2009] (1)
Dato' John Pike added the following:
Bob Reece suggested I send you a few words about Alastair Morrison for the next issue of the Bulletin. I wrote the formal obituary for the The Times which they published on-line ... (above). What I would like to do now is add a few more personalized remarks which may be more appropriate for the BRB readership.
I had the good fortune to meet Alastair for the first time when I arrived back in Sarawak as a civil servant instead of my former role as a soldier. I was posted to Sarikei, where Alastair had just been serving as the Cadet and he was now ADO [Assistant District Officer] Binatang. It turned out that 1 was in the event to follow him not only to Sarikei but also to Binatang and then Lawas. No introduction to a series of districts and their problems could have been more perceptive or helpful as on each occasion Alastair wrote copious handover notes with an insight and wit which could not have been more stimulating, perceptive and wise. His style was always a joy and I still treasure the memory of first reading his notes on Lawas which, inter alia, included a description of one of the leading towkays (who was to prove to be a burden for the whole of my time there) which included this phrase: "his business principles are indelibly imprinted upon his reptilian features."
His notes on Lawas also included a description and some wise advice about another difficult character, a Sikh who had served with Ric Edmeades as a guerilla [in the SRD, or "Z Force"] and once told me that when, almost starving, they had burnt down the Tagai sawmill which was occupied by enemy troops, "the taste of roast Japanese had been delicious." Whether this was true or just a bit of idle boasting I never discovered. What I did discover over the course of my acquaintance with this character was the unwisdom of ignoring Alastair's advice. This had told me that when the Sikh got on the brandy all hell could break loose and that it would be unwise to let him have his confiscated shotgun back. He caused one major riot when drinking with a fellow Sikh shopkeeper, the Police were terrified and the DO was called in to sort things out and this was not difficult because he had no gun. He used to pester me frequently for the release of his gun and eventually and unwisely I let him have it back on the promise that he would stay off the brandy and stick to beer. That worked well enough until, on the occasion of another inter-Sikh row which I had to sort out, I evidently did it tactlessly and caused him to lose face and that got him back on the brandy and eventually he arrived very late at the DO's bungalow, armed and threatening to shoot me and my family. That was a very scary experience and brought home to me how wise Alastair had been.
Alastair's patience and tolerance in dealing with problems was an object lesson in how to run a district and I was very lucky to have been his successor on three occasions. We subsequently worked fairly closely together when he was Development Secretary and I was learning the ropes in the Financial Secretary's office. His drive and enthusiasm and fertile imagination were an inspiration to watch and were tempered by his gentle kindness. I have always thought that it was these latter qualities that made the powers that be hesitate to promote him to FS with the happy outcome for me that l was given the job instead.
He was a remarkable man who it was a great privilege to have known.
John Pike (Oxon, United Kingdom)
Born in Peking in 1915, Alastair R.G. Morrison was the second son of Australian-born George Ernest Morrison and his New Zealand wife, Jennie nee Robin. 'Chinese' Morrison, as he is better known, was then The Times correspondent in China where he had been intimately involved since 1894, first as an adventurous traveler and subsequently as a highly-respected adviser to the Republican government of Yuan ShihKai. In 1919, when Alastair was just five, the family followed him to England where, despite the best medical care, he died of pancreatitis in January 1920. When Jennie died three years later, the brothers then came under the care of their housekeeper while they attended school. It was a lonely time for Alastair at Malvern (his brothers went to Winchester) and he had to rely on his own resources. Reading Economics at Cambridge from 1935, he spent his vacations wandering in northern Scandinavia, almost dying on one occasion beyond the Arctic Circle. After graduating, he spent the next few years traveling widely in South America, supporting himself (as Alfred Russell Wallace had done four decades earlier) by selling birds and other specimens to zoos and museums. He had inherited his father's wanderlust.
In 1940, he was back in Peking where he volunteered as a cipher officer with a British military intelligence group. Evacuated with British diplomats to India in 1942, he worked for the Inter-Services Liaison Dept. in Calcutta before joining the Indian Army and being posted as an intelligence officer to the 2nd Gurkha Regiment. Recruited by the Ministry of Economic Warfare in 1943, he served in Chungking in 1944-45 and after training in India and Ceylon was parachuted into Malaya on 8 August 1945 as part of Force 136 in "Operation Zipper." Parachuting into Selangor, he walked into Kuala Lumpur just in time for the Japanese surrender. His most dangerous experience of the war period came later, back in China, where he had to supervise the retrieval of British-owned property given by the Japanese occupiers to various Chinese war-lords.
In 1941 in Peking he had met a young photographer, Hedda Hammer, who had fled Nazi Germany. Separated by the war, they met up once again in 1946 in Peking where they quickly married before he was posted to Hong Kong. Returning to England after happily resigning his position as Adjutant of the Hong Kong Volunteers in 1947, Alastair joined the British Colonial Service. Late that year he was sent out to Sarawak, which had recently been acquired by Britain from the last Rajah, Sir Charles Vyner Brooke. As District Officer, he served in a number of up-country posts before being transferred to the Secretariat in Kuching in 1954, and finally to the Government Information Office in late 1959. Of his time up-country he wrote later in a typically self-deprecating way:
I myself was not the ideal officer for an Iban area. I was acquiring a useful knowledge of the language, but the ideal officer is one who loves talking and enjoys nothing more than a good argument, a man of immense stamina who can talk and sometimes drink all night and yet be ready to start on his round again early the next morning. As I was none of these things, some of my hosts must have thought me a rather poor specimen.
He nevertheless displayed a strong sense of empathy for the ordinary Chinese, Dayaks, and Malays he encountered in his daily work, many of whom were captured for posterity by Hedda's ubiquitous Rolleiflex.
Fortunately for us, Alastair left a brilliant account of his 1953 visit with Hedda to the Kelabit highlands, which was published in Vol. 36 of the Borneo Research Bulletin ("The Diary of a District Officer: Alastair Morrison's 1953 Trip to the Kelabit Highlands," Amster, 2005). His official diaries were left to Cornell University and his personal ones to Claire Roberts of Sydney's Powerhouse Museum who is currently researching Hedda's life on a Fulbright Scholarship at Harvard University. Keeping a diary from an early age, Alastair was no doubt aware of the example set by his father.
As an economist, Alastair's real interest was in rural development and he was disappointed not to have been able to persevere in that area after working as Development Secretary. However, he was to be a crucial figure in the relatively smooth transition from British colonial rule in the early 1960s. Part of this was due to his "Malaysianization" of the Information Office which he achieved by fostering the talents of people like Ivor Kraal, Mohd. Taibi Ali, and Maimunah binte Hj. Daud. Pamphlets issued by the Information Office in a range of languages played an important part in educating Sarawakians in the principles of parliamentary democracy. Earlier, he had been responsible for producing material as part of the government's propaganda campaign against the Clandestine Communist Organisation, which posed a serious threat to Sarawak's security from the late 1950s. His last challenge was to help deal with Indonesian Konfrontasi which brought thousands of British troops to Sarawak's borders with Kalimantan.
Thanks to the Colombo Plan scholarship scheme, many young Sarawakians (all men, incidentally) were able to obtain professional qualifications in Australia, New Zealand, and Britain in order to help form the educated elite that the country desperately needed in order to replace the colonial civil service establishment that had ruled the roost since 1946. Alastair, together with the first head of Radio Sarawak, Peter Ratcliffe, played a key part in selecting suitable candidates, some of whom were to take on important political roles when political parties emerged in the years leading up to Malaysia; others were to occupy important positions in government. Whether Alastair was the MI5 agent in Sarawak is an interesting question in the light of his strong intelligence background during the war and his ready acceptance by the defence establishment in Canberra, but it is impossible to determine one way or another.
During and after his time as District Officer, Alastair wrote extensively for the Sarawak Gazette, most notably in a series of articles countering the outspoken views of the irascible and idiosyncratic Curator of the Sarawak Museum, Tom Harrisson, on government policy towards Sarawak's indigenous groups. Well worthy of re-publication, this exchange of views on "Ulu Problems" highlighted (among other things) the different personalities and philosophies of the two protagonists: one, a self-educated and self-absorbed man of immense energies and appetites (and equally immense social resentments); the other, a sophisticated intellectual of refined sensibilities and lofty demeanor. Ranging over a wide range of issues, this unique debate cast Morrison as the defender of the colonial regime, while Harrisson both rejected the idea of treating Sarawak as a "Human Whipsnade" and condemned the increasing penetration of ulu areas by government and missionary organizations. His view of Brooke rule was a highly romantic one and his firsthand knowledge of Sarawak's natives was limited to the peoples living in the Trusan, Baram, Belaga and Baloi districts, excluding the Iban. Nevertheless, it was a tribute to Harrisson's powerful influence that Morrison should have admitted that he raised "a lone dissenting voice ... with some diffidence": it seems almost irreverent, like casting doubt on Papal Infallibility or interrupting a lengthy sermon by some venerable Prince of the established Church.
Fate (or perhaps some mischievous government housing officer) decreed that at one time the Harrissons and the Morrisons should be next-door neighbors in what was then called "Pig Lane" (now the distinctly more up-market Park Lane) near its junction with Central Road in Kuching. There is a story told that the Harrissons kept two pet turkeys whom they mischievously named "Hedda" and "Alastair" and amused themselves by remarking loudly on their appearance and various antics in the garden. The fact that both Barbara Harrisson and Hedda Morrison were German did not bring them any closer together.
Alastair's up-country postings gave Hedda the opportunity to take a superb series of photographs of the peoples of Sarawak before the effects of modernization began to change traditional ways of life. Her 1962 book, Life in a Longhouse, remains a classic and the unique value of her negatives was appropriately recognized in their acquisition some years ago by Cornell University. Altogether, they constitute a treasure house of Sarawak ethnography.
In early 1967, four years after Sarawak had become part of the new Federation of Malaysia, Alastair and Hedda moved to Canberra where he took up a senior position as head of the Southeast Asia branch of the Office of Current Intelligence under the Joint Intelligence Organisation. Apart from his wide knowledge of Southeast Asian affairs, Alastair was highly regarded for his sound advice on a broad range of issues. He mentored a whole generation of young intelligence analysts before retiring in the mid-1970s. According to one colleague, he fulfilled the Confucian definition of a sage: a gentleman who had acquired wisdom through worldly experience. Alastair's intellectual sharpness was revealed more publicly in 1977 in The New York Review of Books when he took Sir Hugh Trevor-Roper and John Fairbank to task over their assessment of the notorious literary hoaxer, Sir Edmund Backhouse, whom his lather had known in China.
In retirement, Alastair and Hedda's home in Ainslie was a welcome port of call for Borneo scholars attached to the Australian National University. Michael and Marguerite Heppell, CliffSather, and myself at different times enjoyed a relaxed evening over a curry that Hedda seemed to be able to concoct at a moment's notice. Here was a pleasant oasis in what sometimes seemed to be the arid desert of academia and its relentlessly critical atmosphere. The Morrisons projected the vitality and stimulus of Sarawak as they had known it during the colonial period. In other words, they had all the symptoms of what I have called "Sarawak fever."
When Hedda died in 1991 (they had no children), Alastair lost a beloved companion but proceeded to occupy himself by writing his memoirs, first of his time in Sarawak (Fair Land Sarawak, 1993), and then of his earlier life (The Road to Peking, 1993 and The Bird Fancier: A Journey to Peking, 2001). A fine writer, his mordant sense of humor is never far from the surface. He remained an ardent bird-watcher, facilitating the publication of books on birds and frogs. He also saw to the publication of Hedda's unique photographs of old Peking and Hong Kong. He was a devoted connoisseur and collector of Chinese porcelain, Tibetan bronzes, Japanese netsuke, books on Peru and English crowns. He was, like his father, a keen bibliophile, eventually selling his valuable collection to the same Japanese university that had bought his father's books. In later years, failing eyesight and hearing began to restrict his activities and it was then that his wide circle of friends came to his aid. Wonderfully erudite on a wide range of subjects, carefully-spoken and generous, Alastair radiated an old-world courtesy and charm that will never be forgotten by those fortunate enough to have known him. Afflicted in latter years by a range of health problems, he bore them with the patience of a true Stoic.
The last time I saw Alastair in September 2008 was in a geriatric ward at Canberra Hospital where he was recovering from an unpleasant operation on his ear. It was a cruel and demeaning experience for a man of his intelligence and sensibilities and he conveyed a strong sense that he wanted to be "out of it all." His wish was at last granted a year later.
(Bob Reece, Murdoch University, Western Australia)
(1) Your editor wishes to thank Susan Cohen, Secretary to The Times Letter, Obituaries and Register Editor, for permission to publish this online obituary with minor editorial deletions and changes.