Remembering James Scambary

KITLV has been left shocked and deeply saddened by the loss of our colleague and former research fellow James Scambary, who passed away in Melbourne on September 16.

In 2016, James spent almost half a year at KITLV to work on his remarkable Conflict, Identity, and State Formation in East Timor 2000-2017, published in 2019 in the KITLV Verhandelingen series (Brill). His book is an original contribution to our understanding of persistent low-level violent conflict in East Timor. It shows that informal trust networks, particularly families, are much more important in determining the alliances and cleavages along which conflict takes place than those structural considerations that dominate the peace and conflict literature.

KITLV researchers and fellows remember James for many inspiring intellectual exchanges; on Southeast Asian politics, clientelism, democracy, violence, and of course East Timor. James was deeply engaged with the fate of the East Timorese people. The last time he visited our institute was in September 2018 when he came to present his book to us.

The responses by KITLV researchers are remarkable not only for the respect they express for his work. They speak of the loss of a deeply sympathetic colleague and an extraordinary human being with a fascinating life history and a seemingly endless range of passions and interests.

One remembers him for his love of music. ‘James was knowledgeable about early Soviet revolutionary experimental music, as well as about Stockhausen (maybe especially because he lived in Köln for a time). He came from a cultivated family in Melbourne, but chose to train as a fitter and turner/welder to make his own way. He was almost blind from the constant welding flash, something he never complained of. His visits to Germany came out of his membership of a radical labour union.’

James was also passionate about Asian cinema, a former fellow recalls, ‘especially languidly paced art house films that are full of silences’. She writes: ‘One evening, he invited a group of KITLV fellows and students to his place for the viewing of a Chinese arthouse film. He had prepared finger food and even cooked a delicious stew for us. With his characteristic kindness, generosity and gentle wit, he very quickly made us – strangers from different parts of the world – feel at home. It was an unforgettable night, filled with friendship, camaraderie and laughter. It is a memory of James that we will cherish forever’.

A colleague remembers the vivid way in which James recounted his life story in his beloved St. Kilda. ‘One of the city’s many attractions is a colony of wild penguins. Thanks to James, who notified the local authorities some decades back, these friendly birds are now protected by a group of volunteers. If anywhere on earth, I like to think we can still find James near the St. Kilda Pier’.

Other colleagues remember him as a ‘most loveable friend’ and to his honour named a nameless staue of Naum Gabo – his favourite sculptor – in Rotterdam ‘Scambary, James Scambary’. ‘We had the special delight to admire it together with him, on one of those precious moments of being together with such a noble, gentle, smart, and humorous friend’.

One of his close friends writes: ‘The world without him is a less nice place. One less critical scholar in Southeast Asia studies. Less intellectual yet amiable discussions. Less laughter with witty jokes. Less humility, less generosity, less attention. Less enthusiasm about fine art. Less sincere commitment to the people in Timor-Leste. The world we live in now is a world without him. But the world we live in now is also the world where he has lived, where he has left his traces, scratches, little bends he made to make the world a better place. In this world there is a little more humanity, gentility, and charm compared to the world before’.

James’ true and courageous accounts of Timor-Leste will be passed on. We think of him and remember his kindness and goodness, his inspiration to be kind to other people.

We will miss you.

Photo: James and Australian parrots, January 2017.

  • Sarah Niner
    Posted at 03:36h, 22 September Reply

    Would love to see a picture of the sculpture.

  • Ingrid
    Posted at 04:31h, 22 September Reply

    A lovely tribute to a lovely man.

  • Edward Rees
    Posted at 09:28h, 03 July Reply

    James was a real gentleman.

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