The Golden Chersonese and the way thither, by Isabella L. Bird

Letter viii

St. Andrew’s Cathedral — Singapore Harbor Scenes — Chinese Preponderance — First Impressions of Malacca — A Town “Out of the Running”

S.S. “RAINBOW,” MALACCA ROADS, January 20.

Yesterday I attended morning service in St. Andrew’s, a fine colonial cathedral, prettily situated on a broad grass lawn among clumps of trees near the sea. There is some stained glass in the apse, but in the other windows, including those in the clerestory, Venetian shutters take the place of glass, as in all the European houses. There are thirty-two punkahs, and the Indians who worked them, anyone of whom might have been the model of the Mercury of the Naples Museum, sat or squatted outside the church. The service was simple and the music very good, but in the Te Deum, just as the verse “Thou art the King of Glory, O Christ,” I caught sight of the bronze faces of these “punkah- wallahs,” mostly bigoted Mussulmen, and was overwhelmed by the realization of the small progress which Christianity has made upon the earth in nineteen centuries. A Singhalese D.D. preached an able sermon. Just before the communion we were called out, as the Rainbow was about to sail, and a harbor boat, manned by six splendid Klings, put us on board.

The Rainbow is a very small vessel, her captain half Portuguese and half Malay, her crew Chinese, and her cabin passengers were all Chinese merchants. Her engineer is a Welshman, a kindly soul, who assured Mr. —— when he commended me to his care, that “he was a family man, and that nothing gave him greater pleasure than seeing that ladies were comfortable,” and I owe to his good offices the very small modicum of comfort that I had. Waiting on the little bridge was far from being wearisome, there was such a fascination in watching the costumed and manifold life of the harbor, the black-hulled, sullen-looking steamers from Europe discharging cargo into lighters, Malay prahus of all sizes but one form, sharp at both ends, and with eyes on their bows, like the Cantonese and Cochin China boats, reeling as though they would upset under large mat sails, and rowing-boats rowed by handsome, statuesque Klings. A steamer from Jeddah was discharging six hundred pilgrims in most picturesque costumes; and there were boats with men in crimson turbans and graceful robes of pure white muslin, and others a mass of blue umbrellas, while some contained Brahmins with the mark of caste set conspicuously on their foreheads, all moving in a veil of gold in the setting of a heavy fringe of cocoa-palms.

We sailed at four, with a strong favorable breeze, and the sea was really delightful as we passed among green islets clothed down to the water’s edge with dense tropical vegetation, right out into the open water of the Straits of Malacca, a burning, waveless sea, into which the sun was descending in mingled flame and blood. Then, dinner for three, consisting of an excellent curry, was spread on the top of the cabin, and eaten by the captain, engineer, and myself, after which the engineer took me below to arrange for my comfort, and as it was obviously impossible for me to sleep in a very dirty and very small hole, tenanted by cockroaches disproportionately large, and with a temperature of eighty-eight degrees, he took a mattress and pillows upon the bridge, told me his history, and that of his colored wife and sixteen children under seventeen, of his pay of 35 pounds a month, lent me a box of matches, and vanished into the lower regions with the consoling words, “If you want anything in the night, just call ‘Engineer’ down the engine skylight.” It does one’s heart good to meet with such a countryman.

The Rainbow is one of the many tokens of preponderating Chinese influence in the Straits of Malacca. The tickets are Chinese, as well as the ownership and crew. The supercargo who took my ticket is a sleek young Chinaman in a pigtail, girdle, and white cotton trousers. The cabin passengers are all Chinamen. The deck was packed with Chinese coolies on their way to seek wealth in the diggings at Perak. They were lean, yellow, and ugly, smoked a pipe of opium each at sundown, wore their pigtails coiled round their heads, and loose blue cotton trousers. We had slipped our cable at Singapore, because these coolies were clambering up over every part of the vessel, and defying all attempts to keep them out, so that “to cut and run” was our only chance. The owners do not allow any intoxicant to be brought on board, lest it should be given to the captain and crew, and they should take too much and lose the vessel. I am the only European passenger and the only woman on board. I had a very comfortable night lying on deck in the brisk breeze on the waveless sea, and though I watched the stars, hoping to see the Southern Cross set, I fell asleep, till I was awoke at the very earliest dawn by a most formidable Oriental shouting to me very fiercely I thought, with a fierce face; but it occurred to me that he was trying to make me understand that they wanted to wash decks, so I lifted my mattress on a bench and fell asleep again, waking to find the anchor being let go in the Malacca roads six hours before we should have arrived.

I am greatly interested with the first view of Malacca, one of the oldest European towns in the East, originally Portuguese, then Dutch, and now, though under English rule, mainly Chinese. There is a long bay with dense forests of cocoa-palms, backed by forests of I know not what, then rolling hills, and to the right beyond these a mountain known as Mount Ophir, rich in gold. Is this possibly, as many think, the Ophir of the Bible, and this land of gems and gold truly the “Golden Chersonese?” There are islets of emerald green lying to the south, and in front of us a town of antiquated appearance, low houses, much colored, with flattish, red-tiled roofs, many of them built on piles, straggling for a long distance, and fringed by massive-looking bungalows, half buried in trees. A hill rises near the middle, crowned by a ruined cathedral, probably the oldest Christian church in the Far East, with slopes of bright green grass below, timbered near their base with palms and trees of a nearly lemon-colored vividness of spring-green, and there are glimpses of low, red roofs behind the hill. On either side of the old-world-looking town and its fringe of bungalows are glimpses of steep, reed roofs among the cocoa-palms. A long, deserted-looking jetty runs far out into the shallow sea, a few Chinese junks lie at anchor, in the distance a few Malay fishermen are watching their nets, but not a breath stirs, the sea is without a ripple, the gray clouds move not, the yellow plumes of the palms are motionless; the sea, the sky, the town, look all alike asleep in a still, moist, balmy heat.

Stadthaus, Malacca, 4 P.M. — Presently we were surrounded by a crowd of Malay boats with rude sails made of mats, but their crews might have been phantoms for any noise they made. By one of these I sent my card and note of introduction to the Lieutenant–Governor. An hour afterward the captain told me that the Governor usually went into the country early on Monday morning for two days, which seemed unfortunate. Soon after, the captain and engineer went ashore, and I was left among a crowd of Chinamen and Malays without any possibility of being understood by any of them, to endure stifling heat and provoking uncertainty, much aggravated by the want of food, for another three hours. At last, when very nearly famished, and when my doubts as to the wisdom of this novel and impromptu expedition had become very serious indeed, a European boat appeared, moving with the long steady stroke of a man-of-war’s boat, rowed by six native policemen, with a frank-looking bearded countryman steering, and two peons in white, with scarlet-and-gold hats and sashes, in the bow, and as it swept up to the Rainbow’s side the man in white stepped on board, and introduced himself to me as Mr. Biggs, the colonial chaplain, deputed to receive me on behalf of the Governor, who was just leaving when my card arrived. He relieved all anxiety as to my destination by saying that quarters were ready for me in the Stadthaus.

We were soon on a lovely shore under the cathedral-crowned hill, where the velvety turf slopes down to the sea under palms and trees whose trunks are one mass of ferns, brightened by that wonderful flowering tree variously known as the “flamboyant” and the “flame of the forest” (Poinciana regia). Very still, hot, tropical, sleepy, and dreamy, Malacca looks, a town “out of the running,” utterly antiquated, mainly un-English, a veritable Sleepy Hollow.

I. L. B.

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Last updated Wednesday, March 12, 2014 at 13:31