13. The Story of a Worldly Southeast Asian Female Informant

By Jess Winstanley

John Anderson’s Mission to the East Coast of Sumatra in 1823 reports his voyage to the Pacific commissioned by the British East India Company. Sent out with economic and political briefings, Anderson was not expected to make any commentary on the people he encountered on his travels. However, grounded in the racialised voyage literature of the famed James Cook (1768-71, 1772-75, 1776-80) and others, we can expect some level of interest in people from Anderson’s text.

Anderson’s repeated commentary on the women he encountered is therefore noteworthy. One, in particular, stands out. In a sea of notes made in the voyage records of ‘naturalists’ such as Joseph Banks and Johann Reinhold Forster on the varying degrees of beauty and the supposedly promiscuous sexuality of women encountered in the Pacific, Anderson’s discussion of Che Laut appears unique.

Returning from an expedition to a nearby island in the Malay Archipelago, Anderson’s crew is met by ‘Che Laut, a most extraordinary and eccentric old woman’.[1] Her distinctiveness sets her apart from other women encountered by Anderson who describes them as varyingly ‘good looking’, ‘not remarkable’, ‘disfigured’ and ‘savage’.[2] The distinction comes with Che Laut’s utility to the British imperial administrators. Che Laut is useful for the information that she is able to provide rather than for entrainment as so many British accounts discussing women detail. Her worldliness is impressive to these European travellers as she too ‘has a great desire to see different countries’ and her intelligence is evidenced through her capability with above five different languages.[3]

Cover of John Anderson, Mission to the East Coast of Sumatra in 1823, Oxford University Press, 1971

Anderson’s admiration for Che Laut is especially clear when he describes her as ‘more like a man in her habits’, followed by an extensive list of her skills and geographical knowledge.[4] British engagement with women like Che Laut is minimal and is rarely referenced in voyage journals. In an unsurprising conclusion, this stream of praise and admiration ends with a comment on her beauty, of which she apparently had none ‘to boast of, being a prototype of the hag in Guy Mannering’.[5] In these few textual examples, however, female diplomatic strength is revealed – the lens of the colonising European was unable to erase this entirely. 

[1] John Anderson, Mission to the East Coast of Sumatra in 1823. Oxford University Press, 1971, p. 44.

[2] Ibid., pp. 149, 75.

[3] Ibid., p. 44.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

Image credit:

Thumbnail: John Anderson, Mission to the East Coast of Sumatra in 1823, Edinburgh: William Blackwood, 1826. Image taken from Sotherbys collection – https://www.sothebys.com/en/buy/auction/2021/travel-atlases-maps-and-natural-history/john-anderson-mission-to-the-east-coast-of-sumatra

Image reproduced is the cover of John Anderson, Mission to the East Coast of Sumatra in 1823, Oxford University Press, 1971. 

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