Professor Sir Edmund Leach, FBA

Edmund Leach

In 1947, at the request of Sir Charles Arden Clark, the then Governor of Sarawak, the British Colonial Social Science Research Council invited Edmund Leach to undertake a social economic reconnaissance survey of the country. The objective of this survey was to identify specific long term field studies to be undertaken as a matter of some priority. Leach had been proposed for this visit by Professor Raymond Firth, partly because of his extensive experience of slash-and-bum economies in mainland Southeast Asia, but principally on the grounds of his analytical skill as a social anthropologist. The resulting survey took approximately four months, during which Leach visited almost every District, although he was unable for reasons of transport to reach the 5th Division, Limbang. The survey report (1948), published as Social Science Research in Sarawak (1950a), proved to be exceptionally acute. Its scope covered the major ethnic groups, and to some extent also the minorities; and it enabled Leach to attempt a systematic analysis of the then highly confusing nomenclature of the various peoples, as well as an immediate focus on a number of outstanding research problems which continue to exercise workers up to the present.

Leach's visit, brief though it was, in many respects put Sarawak on the map in anthropological research terms. For it had the immediate consequence of establishing the first four major field projects on specific groups: on the Hakka Chinese by J. K. T'ien, on the Bidayuh by W. R. Geddes, on the Melanau by H. S. Morris, and on the Iban by J. D. Freeman. At the time, social anthropology was rather an unknown quantity among Sarawak officials. An initial skepticism was, however, allayed by the quality and depth of these studies. A senior administrator, on reading Freeman's report on the Iban, is said to have remarked, "We know all that stuff, don't we?" He may perhaps have been protesting at the threatened treatment of his local friends as zoological specimens, but like others he was probably also acknowledging that the details alone do not comprise an intelligible analysis of the whole picture, which is where the challenge and strength of good anthropology lie. Later on, this remark was partly responsible for prompting A. J. N. Richards, then at the Residency in Sibu, to embark upon his encyclopedic An Iban-English Dictionary (Oxford, 1981).

Other research projects were also proposed by Leach, and a good many of them have since come to fruition concerning the Kenyah-Kayan-Kajang groups of the interior, and nomadic Penan. Further studies on the populations of the Bintulu River, on coastal fishing groups, and on the nutritional ecology of rural areas, were suggested but have yet to be followed up.

Nonetheless, those already completed by Needham, Rousseau (who was supervised by Leach), Chin, Whittier, and others, perhaps also the recent upsurge of interest in the Kajang minorities as testified by the Sarawak Gazette (Editorial, April 1989), have all paid tribute to a greater or less extent to Leach's invigorating analyses and ideas.

During and after his visit in 1947, Leach published a number of brief contributions (1947a, 1947b, 1948, 1950b, 1952). He subsequently returned to his interests in mainland Asia, comparisons with which scholars working in Sarawak have frequently found illuminating.

Leach was an immensely stimulating critic and he maintained a vicarious interest in the work of Sarawak researchers even when his principal attentions were directed elsewhere. He was Professor of Social Anthropology at the University of Cambridge from 1972 to 1978, and Provost of King's College from 1966 to 1979. He died on 6th January 1989 aged 78.

Publications on Sarawak:
1947a "Land and Custom". Sarawak Gazette 73, 151-52.
1947b "Nubong and all that". Sarawak Gazette 73, 175-78. (With Tom Harrisson and J. B; Simpson.)
1948 "Some features of social structure among Sarawak pagans". Man Vol. 48, 91-2.
1950a Social Science Research in Sarawak (London: HMSO) (A revised version of the published 1948 'Report on the possibilities of a social economic survey of Sarawak'. Colonial Social Science Research Council, London.)
1950b "A Kajaman tomb post from the Belaga area of Sarawak". Man Vol. 50, 133-36.
1952 "Sarawak's economic base; Present and potential". Geographical Reviews 42, 144-46.

SIMON STRICKLAND, Department of Public Health and Policy, London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine

This obituary first appeared as: Strickland, Simon. 1989. 'Professor Sir Edmund Leach, FBA'. Borneo Research Bulletin Vol. 21, No. 2, pp. 78-79. Reproduced with permission.

The photograph is not from the original article, but is from the Royal Anthropological Institute's archive.


To cite this article:

STRICKLAND, SIMON. 1989. 'Professor Sir Edmund Leach'. Borneo Research Bulletin Vol. 21, No. 2, pp.78-79. (available on-line:



Mayer, Adrian C. 1989. Sir Edmund Leach
. Anthropology Today, 5(1):1
Hugh-Jones, Stephen. 1989. Obituary
. Edmund Leach. Anthropology Today, 5 (2):16-18.