Since Bernard Cohn introduced the concept of ‘investigative modalities’, a rich historiography of scientific knowledge-gathering in Asia has illuminated the role of such activities in the European ‘Imperial project’, and in cross-cultural interactions in colonial contexts. Histories of ethnographic and zoological research within Southeast Asia reveal the legacies of the ‘rational’ scientific worldview on both the natural environment and contemporary societies, most notably in perceptions of race and nationalism. The scientific importance of Borneo during this period is acknowledged in analyses of the work of prominent Western scholars such as Alfred Russel Wallace and Tom Harrisson. However, Borneo’s place within colonial scientific networks, particularly the region-wide influence of Brooke Sarawak and Sarawakians on the collection and dissemination of scientific knowledge, deserves further exploration.
A substantial factor in this disproportionate influence was the transboundary network of Iban collectors who came to dominate zoological collecting in much of the region, their influence extending across Asia and beyond. This paper explores the origins of this network under the Brooke government (1841-1946); its simultaneous functioning as a network of kinship, culture and professional scientific skill; and its impact on interpretation of Southeast Asian nature and culture worldwide. While discussions of the ‘native informant’ in Asian science characterise such individuals as ‘intermediaries’ and ‘gatekeepers’, this highly significant network was one of skilled professionals, actively engaged with both the Western scientific worldview and indigenous ‘information orders’. Its contributions can be traced to museum collections across the US, Europe and Asia, retaining considerable relevance to contemporary research.