The Blondes of Aituha and Other Stories: The Racialization of Indigenous Traditions in Colonial East Timor

Friday, January 5, 2018: 2:10 PM
Blue Room Prefunction (Omni Shoreham)
Ricardo Roque, University of Lisbon
This paper examines the significance of Indigenous oral traditions in the late twentieth-century colonial sciences of race. It asks how Indigenous ‘cultural’ materials were collected and used as evidence of racial identities and biological genealogies; it asks how and why, in other words, Indigenous stories and imaginaries of autochthony, ancestry, and kinship could become racialized in the context of twentieth-century anthropology in the Portuguese-speaking Global South. In East Timor, colonial agents and anthropologists systematically collected and conjectured about mythic stories as evidence of human “races.” Since the early 1800s, the racially “mixed” appearance of the peoples of Timor Island, in the Malay Archipelago, posed a challenge to ethnologists. The eastern part of the island, a colony of Portugal from the 1500s until 1975, offered particular difficulties to racial taxonomy. Over the twentieth-century, a number of Portuguese anthropologists and colonial agents addressed the problem from different angles, theories, and methods: including collecting and conjecturing on East Timorese stories, legends, and myth accounts. The paper investigates this process of racialization of cultural materials in relation to two interconnected stories. I begin by considering Portuguese anthropologist Mendes Correia’s theories of the racial autochthony of East Timor, which he made based on speculation about old “Indigenous legends” concerning an apparently mixed-race “red-haired tribe,” the so-called blondes of Aituha. I then consider how the work of collecting “Timorese legends” across the territory became systematic procedure in the context of the Timor Anthropological Mission, a series of field expeditions sponsored by the Portuguese Overseas Scientific Board between 1953 and 1974, whose main purpose was to draw the anthropological chart of the territory. In this context, I then suggest, the formation of racial modernities in colonial anthropo-biology could derive from the abstraction and transformation—and hence exploitation—of Indigeneity.