Life at the sharp end

The Last Whalers: The Life of an Endangered Tribe in a Land Left Behind
By Doug Bock Clark
(John Murray, £20 hardback, £10.99 paperback)

Reading Doug Bock Clark’s remarkable first book, I was reminded of Norman Lewis. The Last Whalers is, as the subtitle has it, “The Life of an Endangered Tribe in a Land Left Behind”. Lewis (whose works included The Missionaries: God Against the Indians) was a great admirer of tribal peoples. Indeed, it was his disclosure of attempts to exterminate them in Amazonia that led in 1968 to the formation of Survival International, which campaigns to preserve the rights, lands and cultures of indigenous people. Lewis went everywhere there was a story to tell, from the Costa Brava, before the arrival of tourists, to South-East Asia, before the Vietnam War. But he prided himself on his ability to be the observer who went unnoticed. ”I’m probably one of the few people,” he said, “that can actually enter a room and leave it, and nobody will know that I’ve been there.”

  Clark (who is 30 years old and has written for US publications from The New York Times to Rolling Stone) performs a similar trick on the page. Over several visits, he lived for a year in all among the Lamalerans, a tribe of 1,500 on a backwater Indonesian island, who have survived for half a millennium by hunting sperm whales with bamboo harpoons from hand-carved boats. He learnt from them how to spear fish and to weave ropes. He took part in whale hunts. He ate the steamed stomach of the manta ray (“like tyre rubber covered in Vaseline”). He joined ceremonies in which the locals were led by their shamans and masses in which they followed their priest. He missed nothing, but on the page he keeps himself out of everything. Not once (except in his opening and closing notes) does he use the word “I”.

  Clark shows what modernisation looks like when it arrives with the speed of a tsunami, in the shape of motorboats, drift-netting, electricity and mobile phones. His is not a drily academic study; it’s a rich, novelistic account based on diligent reporting, in which the story of the tribe is told through the triumphs and trials of individuals. Among them are Jon, an orphaned apprentice whaler who wants to be a harpoonist and to provide for his ailing grandparents; Ika, his younger sister, who had to leave school early to cook and clean for those grandparents, but who longs for some of the city-girl freedoms she has seen on Indonesian soap operas; and a father and son, Ignatius and Ben, one intent on passing on “the Ways of the Ancestors”, the other keener to be a deejay on Bali.

  Not only does Clark report vividly what he himself witnessed, but he also recreates significant events that occurred before he arrived, drawing on interviews he conducted with more than 100 Lamalerans, many of whom he says he talked to dozens of times. 

  It’s an empathetic, even intimate account, but not a dewy-eyed one. Clark makes clear that the tribe kill whales to survive, and not callously, for they also view them as reincarnations of their ancestors. He is admiring of the co-operative approach of the Lamalerans, the sharing of the catch with those unable to fish. But he also records violence by men against female relations, and reports that older men sometimes strike wayward sons with the severed tails of whiptail stingrays, “a punishment that hurt all the worse owing to the toxin in the tail’s barbs”.

  In Horizon, published earlier this year, the writer and conservationist Barry Lopez argued that, in an age when permafrost no longer means what it says, it’s arrogant to continue claiming that the West knows best; that our salvation lies in technological innovation. We should, he says, listen to the “wisdom-keepers” in other cultures. Clark makes a similar point at the end of his book. We don’t have to make a straight choice between the hunter-gatherer lifestyle and the modern industrial one, he says. “It is possible for us to pick what is best from one while rejecting what is bad from the other. This is what the Lamalerans are doing… Their great heroism is that they are striving, despite overwhelming odds, to control the process that has hijacked all humanity.”

  Clark does a great job of documenting that struggle. Now and then, as if fearful that he’s becoming repetitive, he succumbs to inelegant variation, so that what is a whale in one sentence becomes a leviathan in the next, and a church turns into a rectory. He shouldn’t have worried: The Last Whalers is never dull — it’s a wonderful book. MK

This review appeared first in The Daily Telegraph on August 17, 2019 and is now online