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Haunted Houses and Ghostly Encounters: Ethnography and Animism in East Timor, 1860–1975

CHRISTOPHER J. SHEPHERD researches the indigenous populations of Peru and East Timor and their encounter with Western science, development, and, now, colonialism and ethnography.

NUS Press (First Published, 2019)
326 pages including Bibliography and Index


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Haunted Houses and Ghostly Encounters: Ethnography and Animism in East Timor, 1860–1975 presents the history of Western ethnography of indigenous religion—or animism—in East Timor during the final century of Portuguese rule, until 1975. The book addresses the relationship between spiritual beliefs, colonial administration, ethnographic interests, and fieldwork. Each of the ten chapters is a narrative of the work and experience of a particular ethnographer. Across the six chapters of Part I, Colonial Ethnography, there comes a governor, a naturalist, a magistrate, a captain, an administrator, and a missionary. Part Two, Professional Ethnography, plays out in the last few decades of colonial rule. It deals with American, British, and Australian anthropologists, who the author calls the sentimentalist, the theologian, the apprentice, and the detective. In a way, the book introduces the reader to ten versions of East Timor, differentiated not just by time but also by vocation.

Haunted Houses and Ghostly Encounters can be read like a storybook on Portuguese Timor. It includes stories about the magical powers and strange behaviors of colonial officers, scientists, priests, and anthropologists. In the name of colonial governance, evangelical compulsions, or fieldwork, they bury corpses or revive them, break native taboos and kill sacred animals (often for fun), set fire to villages or relocate them, seduce informants or get them pregnant, succumb to superstition or convert to paganism; they feed their children to spirits, play football with human skulls, participate in orgies, make love with snakes, get caught with their pants off, or take their own lives. It is about colonials who will do anything to domesticate wild, irrational animism, and it is about anthropologists who will do anything for data.

Haunted Houses and Ghostly Encounters takes published ethnography not only as source material but also as the object of study since ethnography itself embodies transformative animism. The ethnographers treated in the final three chapters, moreover, were available to comment on ‘their’ chapters. They added empirical materials, qualified the author’s interpretations, questioned them, or became annoyed at them. The author was naturally obliging, but sometimes obstinate. David Hicks was happy to be a ghost, but not sure that his wife, Maxine, rated as a demonic seductress. Shepard Forman rejected the suggestion that he had artfully engineered the breaking of one taboo for the sake of hearing the otherwise un-utterable names of the dead. Elizabeth Traube insisted that field sex with informants was not something her conscience would permit, but agreed that the data gathering process was ‘erotically charged’­­.

Haunted Houses and Ghostly Encounters offers another way of telling East Timor’s final century of colonial history, since the selected ethnographies traverse critical phases or events in East Timor‘s past, from the pre-pacification nineteenth century and the turn-of-century pacification campaigns through the decline of the native aristocracy and kingdoms, the relentless penetration of capitalism, the Japanese occupation and the postwar development era. Dispensing with historical detail, some readers less familiar with Timor may find refreshing the book’s framing of history within ethnography and story: dates and facts turn up amidst plenty of haunted houses, wicked witches, and ethnographers in dire straits.

In the foreword, Douglas Kammen notes that a warning is in order. The book, he cautions, “is a history of ethnographic accounts based on an excellent selection of texts…, but it is not a history of Timorese animism per see.” Kammen’s comments raise fascinating questions of methodology not explicitly covered in the book. Haunted Houses and Ghostly Encounters, nevertheless, may leave readers wondering whether a single history of animism in East Timor that stands aside from the subjectivity of the ethnographic record, is even possible.

Weight0.519 kg
Dimensions22.8 × 15.3 × 1.6 cm






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