- Frontiers of Fear: Tigers and People in the Malay World
Peter Boomgaard’s Frontiers of Fear is an ambitious and innovative history directed toward writing previously discrete subjects within unitary fields of analysis. This trend is particularly evident in the field of colonial history, where those writing Black Atlantic, transnational, postcolonial, new imperial, and borderlands histories—among others—have sought new paradigms to discuss the ruptures and the flows of people, ideas, currency, and culture. More broadly within the discipline, energy has been focused on integrating the approaches and subjects of a number of historical “fields.” Boomgaard himself has written extensively on demographic, economic, environmental, social, and colonial history, the history of medicine, and that of ritual and popular belief in South East Asia. In Frontiers of Fear he brings these trends together to detail a history of the environment, of people, and most refreshingly of animals—tigers and leopards in particular—in the Malay world. Though this work sprawls geographically and temporally, Boomgaard’s careful attention to the details of region and time provide for a nuanced historical understanding of tiger behavior. In fact, it is precisely what he views as an ahistorical modern behavioral-scientific understanding of the tiger as a “harmless being that only seldom becomes dangerous, and then not without provocation”(7) that Boomgaard is writing against. He insists, rather, that for much of the period covered by his study the tiger was “man’s most implacable enemy” (38).
Boomgaard outlines his program for evaluating the “‘historicity’ of tiger behavior” (7) in the introductory chapter. In the second chapter, he establishes the conditions for the big cats’ interactions with humans through their historical demography as well as their changing eating, sleeping and hunting habits. In the third chapter, “The Tiger: Friend or Foe?,” Boomgaard explores tiger-human interactions, focusing largely on the tiger as foe. (The tiger as friend is attended to in the chapter’s five short concluding paragraphs.) As such, it reads like a prologue to chapter 4, “Man-Eating Tigers,” in which he provides quantitative and qualitative data found in colonial archives in order to argue that man-eating was a common occurrence in the Malay world. In chapters 5 and 6, he explores the complex relationship between colonialism and declining tiger populations. He argues that though the bounties offered by the Dutch colonial state from the 1640s did contribute directly to the death of many tigers, European hunters contributed little to the disappearance of Malayan big cats. In chapters 7, 8, and 9 Boomgaard considers the tiger in Malayan public ritual and in popular beliefs in order to demonstrate that peoples’ relationships with both real and ‘supernatural’ tigers also changed over time. The two final chapters together operate as a conclusion. Chapter 10 summarizes the quantitative evidence supplied in earlier chapters. Chapter 11 revisits the main theme of the book—the symbiotic yet violent historical relationship between tigers, humans and the environment.
Though the writing throughout is lucid and accessible, the analysis is frequently uneven and the discussion repetitive. Nonetheless, Boomgaard’s arguments are clear: tiger behavior changed over time; humans, tigers and the Malay world—both physical and cultural—existed in symbiosis; and man-eating was a fact of this world. Much of what he argues is convincing—if we take, as he does, colonial sources at face value. This is perhaps the single most significant flaw of Frontiers of Fear, and it is not an inconsequential one. In characterizing the tiger as the “personification of evil,” (38) Boomgaard reproduces the colonial representation of the tiger as a “cruel, gore-covered tyrant of the wilderness” (7). Boomgaard’s source base—hunting manuals, private papers, newspapers, and Dutch East India Company records—were invested in a particular economy, and it is curious that Boomgaard fails to locate them within the conditions of their production: colonialism. Though he recognizes that this “literature was largely written by Europeans, who may have been inclined to overemphasize the tiger threat,” (59) he refuses to discuss his sources in terms of...