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

Letter ix

The Lieutenant–Governor of Malacca — A Charming Household — The Old Stadthaus — A Stately Habitation — An Endless Siesta — A Tropic Dream — Chinese Houses — Chinese Wealth and Ascendency — “Opium Farming” — The Malacca Jungle — Mohammedan Burial–Places — Malay Villages — Malay Characteristics — Costume and Ornament — Bigotry and Pilgrimage — The Malay Buffalo

STADTHAUS, MALACCA, January 21–23.

This must surely fade like a dream, this grand old Stadthaus, this old-world quiet, this quaint life; but when it fades I think I shall have a memory of having been “once in Elysium.” Still, Elysium should have no mosquitoes, and they are nearly insupportable here; big spotted fellows, with a greed for blood, and a specially poisonous bite, taking the place at daylight of the retiring nocturnal host. The Chinese attendant is not careful, and lets mosquitoes into my net, and even one means a sleepless night. They are maddening.

I was introduced to my rooms, with their floors of red Dutch tiles, their blue walls, their white-washed rafters, their doors and windows consisting of German shutters only, their ancient beds of portentous height, and their generally silent and haunted look, and then went to tiffin with Mr. and Mrs. Biggs. Mr. Biggs is a student of hymnology, and we were soon in full swing on this mutually congenial subject. Mrs. Biggs devotes her time and strength to the training and education of young Portuguese girls. I pass their open bungalow as I go to and from the Governor’s cottage, and it usually proves a trap.

Captain Shaw, who has been for many years Lieutenant–Governor of Malacca, is a fine, hearty, frank, merry, manly, Irish naval officer, well read and well informed, devoted to Malacca and its interests, and withal a man of an especially unselfish, loving, and tender nature, considerate to an unusual degree of the happiness and comfort of those about him. Before I had been here many hours I saw that he was the light of a loving home.* He can be firm and prompt when occasion requires firmness, but his ordinary rule is of the gentlest and most paternal description, so that from the Chinese he has won the name of “Father,” and among the Malays, the native population, English rule, as administered by him, has come to be known as “the rule of the just.” The family, consisting of the Governor, his, wife, and two daughters just grown up, is a very charming one, and their quiet, peaceful life gives me the opportunity which so rarely falls to the lot of a traveler of becoming really intimate with them.

[*I should not have reproduced this paragraph of my letter were Captain Shaw still alive, but in five weeks after my happy visit he died almost suddenly, to the indescribable grief of his family and of the people of Malacca, by whom he was greatly beloved.]

The Government bungalow, in which I spend most of my time, is a comfortable little cottage, with verandas larger than itself. In the front veranda, festooned with trailers and orchids, two Malay military policemen are always on guard, and two scornful-looking Bengalis in white trousers, white short robes, with sashes of crimson silk striped with gold, and crimson-and-gold flat hats above their handsome but repellent faces, make up the visible part of the establishment. One of these Bengalis has been twice to Mecca, at an expense of 40 pounds on each visit, and on Friday appears in a rich Hadji suit, in which he goes through the town, and those Mussulmen who are not Hadji bow down to him. I saw from the very first that my project of visiting the native States was not smiled upon at Government House.

The Government bungalow being scarcely large enough for the Governor’s family, I am lodged in the old Dutch Stadthaus, formerly the residence of the Dutch Governor, and which has enough of solitude and faded stateliness to be fearsome, or at the least eerie, to a solitary guest like myself, to whose imagination, in the long, dark nights, creeping Malays or pilfering Chinamen are far more likely to present themselves than the stiff beauties and formal splendors of the heyday of Dutch ascendancy. The Stadthaus, which stands on the slope of the hill, and is the most prominent building in Malacca, is now used as the Treasury, Post Office, and Government offices generally. There are large state reception-rooms, including a ball-room, and suites of apartments for the use of the Governor of the Straits Settlements, the Chief–Justice, and other high officials, on their visits to Malacca. The Stadthaus, at its upper end on the hill, is only one story high, but where it abuts on the town it is three and even four. The upper part is built round three sides of a Dutch garden, and a gallery under the tiled veranda runs all round. A set of handsome staircases on the sea side leads to the lawn-like hill with the old cathedral, and the bungalows of the Governor and colonial chaplain. Stephanotis, passiflora, tuberose, alamanda, Bougainvillea, and other trailers of gorgeous colors, climb over everything, and make the night heavy with their odors. There must be more than forty rooms in this old place, besides great arched corridors, and all manner of queer staircases and corners. Dutch tiling and angularities and conceits of all kinds abound.

My room opens on one side upon a handsome set of staircases under the veranda, and on the other upon a passage and staircase with several rooms with doors of communication, and has various windows opening on the external galleries. Like most European houses in the Peninsula, it has a staircase which leads from the bedroom to a somewhat grim, brick-floored room below, containing a large high tub, or bath, of Shanghai pottery, in which you must by no means bathe, as it is found by experience that to take the capacious dipper and pour water upon yourself from a height, gives a far more refreshing shock than immersion when the water is at 80 degrees and the air at 83 degrees.

The worst of my stately habitation is, that after four in the afternoon there is no one in it but myself, unless a Chinese coolie, who has a lair somewhere, and appears in my room at all sorts of unusual hours after I think I have bolted and barred every means of ingress. However, two Malay military policemen patrol the verandas outside at intervals all night, and I have the comfort of imagining that I hear far below the clank of the British sentries who guard the Treasury. In the early morning my eyes always open on the Governor’s handsome Mohammedan servant in spotless white muslin and red head-dress and girdle, bringing a tray with tea and bananas. The Chinese coolie who appears mysteriously attends on me, and acts as housemaid, our communications being entirely by signs. The mosquitoes are awful. The view of the green lawns, the sleeping sea, the motionless forest of cocoa-palms along the shore, the narrow stream and bridge, and the quaint red-tiled roofs of the town, is very charming and harmonious; yet I often think, if these dreamy days went on into months, that I should welcome an earthquake shock, or tornado, or jarring discord of some rousing kind, to break the dream produced by the heated, steamy, fragrant air, and the monotonous silence.

I have very little time for writing here, and even that is abridged by the night mosquitoes, which muster their forces for a desperate attack as soon as I retire to the Stadthaus for two hours of quiet before dinner, so I must give the features of Malacca mainly in outline. Having written this sentence, I am compelled to say that the feature of Malacca is that it is featureless! It is a land where it is “always afternoon” — hot, still, dreamy. Existence stagnates. Trade pursues its operations invisibly. Commerce hovers far off on the shallow sea. The British and French mail steamers give the port a wide offing. It has no politics, little crime, rarely gets even two lines in an English newspaper, and does nothing toward making contemporary history. The Lieutenant–Governor has occupied the same post for eleven years. A company of soldiers vegetates in quarters in a yet sleepier region than the town itself. Two Chinese steamers make it a port of call, but, except that they bring mails, their comings and goings are of no interest to the very small English part of the population. Lying basking in the sun, or crawling at the heads of crawling oxen very like hairless buffaloes, or leaning over the bridge looking at nothing, the Malays spend their time when they come into the town, their very movements making the lack of movement more perceptible.

The half-breed descendants of the Portuguese, who kept up a splendid pomp of rule in the days of Francis Xavier, seem to take an endless siesta behind their closely covered windows. I have never seen an Englishman out of doors except Mr. Hayward, the active superintendent of military police, or Mr. Biggs, who preserves his health and energies by systematic constitutionals. Portuguese and Dutch rule have passed away, leaving, as their chief monuments — the first, a ruined cathedral, and a race of half-breeds; and the last, the Stadthaus and a flat-faced meeting-house. A heavy shower, like a “thunder-plump,” takes up a part of the afternoon, after which the Governor’s carriage, with servants in scarlet liveries, rolls slowly out of Malacca, and through the sago-palms and back again. If aught else which is European breaks the monotony of the day I am not aware of it. The streets have no particular features, though one cannot but be aware that a narrow stream full of boats, and spanned by a handsome bridge, divides the town into two portions, and that a handsome clock-tower (both tower and bridge erected by some wealthy Chinese merchants) is a salient object below the Stadthaus. Trees, trailers, fruits, smother the houses, and blossom and fruit all the year round; old leaves, young leaves, buds, blossom, and fruit, all appearing at once. The mercury rarely falls below 79 degrees or rises above 84 degrees. The softest and least perceptible of land and sea breezes blow alternately at stated hours. The nights are very still. The days are a tepid dream. Since I arrived not a leaf has stirred, not a bird has sung, the tides ebb and flow in listless and soundless ripples. Far off, on the shallow sea, phantom ships hover and are gone, and on an indefinite horizon a blurred ocean blends with a blurred sky. On Mount Ophir heavy cloud-masses lie always motionless. The still, heavy, fragrant nights pass with no other sounds than the aggressive hum of mosquitoes and the challenge of the sentries. But through the stormy days and the heavy nights Nature is always busy in producing a rapidity and profusion of growth which would turn Malacca into a jungle were it not for axe and billhook, but her work does not jar upon the general silence. Yet with all this indefiniteness, dreaminess, featurelessness, indolence, and silence, of which I have attempted to convey an idea, Malacca is very fascinating, and no city in the world, except Canton, will leave so vivid an impression upon me, though it may be but of a fragrant tropic dream and nothing more.

Yesterday Mrs. Biggs took me a drive through Malacca and its forest environs. It was delightful; every hour adds to the fascination which this place has for me. I thought my tropic dreams were over, when seven years ago I saw the summit peaks of Oahu sink sunset flushed into a golden sea, but I am dreaming it again. The road crosses the bridge over the narrow stream, which is, in fact, the roadway of a colored and highly picturesque street, and at once enters the main street of Malacca, which is parallel to the sea. On the sea side each house consists of three or four divisions, one behind the other, each roof being covered with red tiles. The rearmost division is usually built over the sea, on piles. In the middle of each of the three front divisions there is a courtyard. The room through which you enter from the street always has an open door, through which you see houses showing a high degree of material civilization, lofty rooms, handsome altars opposite the doors, massive, carved ebony tables, and carved ebony chairs with marble seats and backs standing against the walls, hanging pictures of the kind called in Japan kakemono, and rich bronzes and fine pieces of porcelain on ebony brackets. At night, when these rooms are lighted up with eight or ten massive lamps, the appearance is splendid. These are the houses of Chinese merchants of the middle class.

And now I must divulge the singular fact that Malacca is to most intents and purposes a Chinese city. The Dutch, as I wrote, have scarcely left a trace. The Portuguese, indolent, for thc most part poor, and lowered by native marriages, are without influence, a most truly stagnant population, hardly to be taken into account. Their poor- looking houses resemble those of Lisbon. The English, except in so far as relates to the administration of government, are nowhere, though it is under our equitable rule that the queerly mixed population of Chinese, Portuguese, half-breeds, Malays, Confucianists, Buddhists, Tauists, Romanists, and Mohammedans “enjoy great quietness.”*

[*By the census of 1881 the resident European population of the Settlement of Malacca consists of 23 males and 9 females, a “grand” total of 32! The Eurasian population, mainly of Portuguese mixed blood, is 2,213. The Chinese numbers 19,741, 4,020 being females. The Malay population is 67,488, the females being 2,000 in excess of the males, the Tamils or Klings are 1,781, the Arabs 227, the Aborigines of the Peninsula 308, the Javanese 399, the Boyanese 212, and the Jawi–Pekans 867. Besides these there are stray Achinese, Africans, Anamese, Bengalis, Bugis, Dyaks, Manilamen, Siamese, and Singhalese, numbering 174. The total population of the territory is 93,579, viz., 52,059 males and 41,520 females, an increase in ten years of 15,823. The decrease in the number of resident Europeans is 31.9 per cent. In “natives of India” 42 per cent., and in “other nationalities” 48.9 per cent. On the other hand the Chinese population has increased by 6,259 or 46.4 per cent., and the Malays by 11,264, or 19.3 per cent. The town of Malacca contains 5,538 houses, and the country districts 11,177. The area of the settlement is 640 square miles, and the density of the population 146 to the square mile; only twelve of the population are lunatics.]

Of the population of the town the majority are said to be Chinese, and still their crowded junks are rolling down on the north-east monsoon. As I remarked before, the coasting trade of the Straits of Malacca is in their hands, and to such an extent have they absorbed the trade of this colony, that I am told there is not a resident British merchant in Malacca. And it is not, as elsewhere, that they come, make money, and then return to settle in China, but they come here with their wives and families, buy or build these handsome houses, as well as large bungalows in the neighboring cocoa-groves, own most of the plantations up the country, and have obtained the finest site on the hill behind the town for their stately tombs. Every afternoon their carriages roll out into the country, conveying them to their substantial bungalows to smoke and gamble. They have fabulous riches in diamonds, pearls, sapphires, rubies, and emeralds. They love Malacca, and take a pride in beautifying it. They have fashioned their dwellings upon the model of those in Canton, but whereas cogent reasons compel the rich Chinaman at home to conceal the evidences of his wealth, he glories in displaying it under the security of British rule. The upper class of the Chinese merchants live in immense houses within walled gardens. The wives of all are secluded, and inhabit the back regions and have no share in the remarkably “good time” which the men seem to have. Along with their industrious habits and their character for fair trading, the Chinese have brought to Malacca gambling and opium-smoking. One-seventh of the whole quantity of opium exported from India to China is intercepted and consumed in the Straits Settlements, and the Malacca Government makes a large revenue from it. The Chinaman who “farms the opium” — i.e., who purchases from the Government the exclusive right to sell it — pays for his monopoly about 50 pounds per day. It must be remembered, however, that every man who smokes opium is not what we understand by an “opium-smoker,” and that between the man who takes his daily pipe of opium after his supper, and the unhappy opium-slave who reduces himself to imbecility in such dens as I saw in Canton, there is just as much difference as there is in England between the “moderate drinker” and the “habitual drunkard.” Slavery is prohibited in Malacca, and slaves from the neighboring State fly for freedom to the shelter of the British flag; but there is reason to suppose that the numerous women in the households of the Chinese merchants, though called servants, are persons who have been purchased in China, and are actually held in bondage. Apart from these exceptions, the Chinese population is a valuable one, and is, in its upper classes, singularly public-spirited, law-abiding, and strongly attached to British rule.

I saw no shops except those for the sale of fish, fruit, and coarse native pottery, but doubtless most things which are suited to the wants of the mixed population can be had in the bazaars. As we drove out of the town the houses became fewer and the trees denser, with mosques here and there among them, and in a few minutes we were in the great dark forest of cocoa, betel, and sago palms, awfully solemn and oppressive in the hot stillness of the evening. Every sight was new, for though I have seen the cocoa-palm before, the palm-fringes of the coral islands, with their feathery plumes have little kinship with the dark, crowded cocoa-forests of Malacca, with their endless vistas and mysterious gloom. These forests are intersected by narrow, muddy streams, suggestive of alligators, up which you can go in canoes if you lie down, and are content with the yet darker shade produced by the nipah, a species of stemless palm, of which the poorer natives make their houses, and whose magnificent fronds are often from twenty to twenty-two feet in length. The soft carriage road passes through an avenue of trees of great girth and a huge spread of foliage, bearing glorious yellow blossoms of delicious fragrance. Jungles of sugar-cane often form the foreground of dense masses of palms, then a jungle of pine-apples surprises one, then a mass of lianas, knotted and tangled, with stems like great cables, and red blossoms as large as breakfast cups. The huge trees which border the road have their stems and branches nearly hidden by orchids and epiphytes — chiefly that lovely and delicate one whose likeness to a hovering dove won for it the name of the “Flower of the Holy Ghost,” an orchid (Peristeria elata) which lives but for a day, but in its brief life fills the air with fragrance. Then the trees change, the long tresses of an autumn-flowering orchid fall from their branches over the road; dead trees appear transformed into living beauty by multitudes of ferns, among which the dark-green shining fronds of the Asplenium nidus, measuring four feet in length, specially delight the eye; huge tamarinds and mimosa add the grace of their feathery foliage; the banana unfolds its gigantic fronds above its golden fruitage; clumps of the betel or areca palms, with their slender and absolutely straight shafts, make the cocoa-palms look like clumsy giants; the gutta-percha, india rubber, and other varieties of ficus, increase the forest gloom by the brown velvety undersides of their shining dark-green leafage; then comes the cashew-nut tree, with its immense spread of branches, and its fruit an apple with a nut below; and the beautiful bread-fruit, with its green “cantalupe melons,” nearly ripe, and the gigantic jak and durion, and fifty others, children of tropic heat and moisture, in all the promise of perpetual spring, and the fulfillment of endless summer, the beauty of blossom and the bounteousness of an unfailing fruitage crowning them through all the year. At their feet is a tangle of fungi, mosses, ferns, trailers, lilies, nibongs, reeds, canes, rattans, a dense and lavish undergrowth, in which reptiles, large and small, riot most congenially, and in which broods of mosquitoes are hourly hatched, to the misery of man and beast. Occasionally a small and comparatively cleared spot appears, with a crowded cluster of graves, with a pawn-shaped stone at the head of each, and the beautiful Frangipani,* the “Temple Flower” of Singhalese Buddhism, but the “Grave Flower” of Malay Mohammedanism, sheds its ethereal fragrance among the tombs. The dead lie lonely in the forest shade, under the feathery palm-fronds, but the living are not far to seek.

[*Plumieria sp.]

It is strange that I should have written thus far and have said nothing at all about the people from whom this Peninsula derives its name, who have cost us not a little blood and some treasure, with whom our relations are by no means well defined or satisfactory, and who, though not the actual aborigines of the country, have at least that claim to be considered its rightful owners which comes from long centuries of possession. In truth, between English rule, the solid tokens of Dutch possession, the quiet and indolent Portuguese, the splendid memories of Francis Xavier, and the numerical preponderance, success, and wealth of the Chinese, I had absolutely forgotten the Malays, even though a dark- skinned military policeman, with a gliding, snake-like step, whom I know to be a Malay, brings my afternoon tea to the Stadthaus! Of them I may write more hereafter. They are symbolized to people’s minds in general by the dagger called a kris, and by the peculiar form of frenzy which has given rise to the phrase “running amuck.”

The great cocoa groves are by no means solitary, for they contain the kampongs, or small raised villages of the Malays. Though the Malay builds his dismal little mosques on the outskirts of Malacca, he shuns the town, and prefers a life of freedom in his native jungles, or on the mysterious rivers which lose themselves among the mangrove swamps. So in the neighborhood of Malacca these kampongs are scattered through the perpetual twilight of the forest. They do not build the houses very close together, and whether of rich or poor, the architecture is the same. Each dwelling is of planed wood or plaited palm leaves, the roof is high and steep, the eaves are deep, and the whole rests on a gridiron platform, supported on posts from five to ten feet high, and approached by a ladder in the poorer houses, and a flight of steps in the richer. In the ordinary houses mats are laid here and there over the gridiron, besides the sleeping mats; and this plan of an open floor, though trying to unaccustomed Europeans, has various advantages. As, for instance, it insures ventilation, and all debris can be thrown through it, to be consumed by the fire which is lighted every evening beneath the house to smoke away the mosquitoes. A baboon, trained to climb the cocoa palms and throw down the nuts, is an inmate of most of the houses.

The people lead strange and uneventful lives. The men are not inclined to much effort except in fishing or hunting, and, where they possess rice land, in ploughing for rice. They are said to be quiet, temperate, jealous, suspicious, some say treacherous, and most bigoted Mussulmen. The women are very small, keep their dwellings very tidy, and weave mats and baskets from reeds and palm leaves. They are clothed in cotton or silk from the ankles to the throat, and the men, even in the undress of their own homes, usually wear the sarong, a picturesque tightish petticoat, consisting of a wide piece of stuff kept on by a very ingenious knot. They are not savages in the ordinary sense, for they have a complete civilization of their own, and their legal system is derived from the Koran.

They are dark brown, with rather low foreheads, dark and somewhat expressionless eyes, high cheek bones, flattish noses with broad nostrils, and wide mouths with thick lips. Their hair is black, straight and shining, and the women dress it in a plain knot at the back of the head. To my thinking, both sexes are decidedly ugly, and there is a coldness and aloofness of manner about them which chills one even where they are on friendly terms with Europeans, as the people whom we visited were with Mrs. Biggs.

The women were lounging about the houses, some cleaning fish, others pounding rice; but they do not care for work, and the little money which they need for buying clothes they can make by selling mats, or jungle fruits. Their lower garment, or sarong, reaching from the waist to the ankles, is usually of red cotton of a small check, with stripes in the front, above which is worn a loose sleeved garment, called a kabaya, reaching to the knees, and clasped in front with silver or gold, and frequently with diamond ornaments. They also wear gold or silver pins in their hair, and the sarong is girt or held up by a clasp of enormous size, and often of exquisite workmanship, in the poorer class of silver, and in the richer of gold jeweled with diamonds and rubies. The sarong of the men does not reach much below the knee and displays loose trousers. They wear above it a short-sleeved jacket, the baju, beautifully made, and often very tastefully decorated in fine needlework, and with small buttons on each side, not for use, however. I have seen one Malay who wore about twenty buttons, each one a diamond solitaire! The costume is completed by turbans or red handkerchiefs tied round their heads.

In these forest kampongs the children, who are very pretty, are not encumbered by much clothing, specially the boys. All the dwellings are picturesque, and those of the richer Malays are beautiful. They rigidly exclude all ornaments which have “the likeness of anything in heaven or earth,” but their arabesques are delicately carved, and the verses from the Koran, which occasionally run under the eaves, being in the Arabic character, are decidedly decorative. Their kampongs are small, and they have little of the gregarious instinct; they are said to live happily, and to have a considerable amount of domestic affection. Captain Shaw likes the Malays, and the verdict on them here is that they are chaste, gentle, honest and hospitable, but that they tell lies, and that their “honor” is so sensitive that blood alone can wipe out some insults to it. They seclude their women to a great extent, and under ordinary circumstances the slightest courtesy shown by a European man to a Malay woman would be a deadly insult; and at the sight of a man in the distance the women hastily cover their faces.

There is a large mosque with a minaret just on the outskirts of Malacca, and we passed several smaller ones in the space of three miles. Scarcely any kampong is so small as not to have a mosque. The Malays are bigoted, and for the most part ignorant and fanatical Mohammedans, and I firmly believe that the Englishman whom they respect most is only a little removed from being “a dog of an infidel.” They are really ruled by the law of the Koran, and except when the Imaum, who interprets the law, decides (which is very rarely the case) contrary to equity, the British magistrate confirms his decision. In fact, Mohammedan law and custom rule in civil cases, and the Imaum of the mosque assists the judge with his advice. The Malays highly appreciate the manner in which law is administered under English rule, and the security they enjoy in their persons and property, so that they can acquire property without risk, and accumulate and wear the costliest jewels even in the streets of Malacca without fear of robbery or spoliation. This is by no means to write that the Malays love us, for I doubt whether the entente cordiale between any of the dark-skinned Oriental races and ourselves is more than skin deep. It is possible that they prefer being equitably taxed by us, with the security which our rule brings, to being plundered by native princes, but we do not understand them, or they us, and where they happen to be Mohammedans, there is a gulf of contempt and dislike on their part which is rarely bridged by amenities on ours. The pilgrimage to Mecca is the great object of ambition. Many Malays, in spite of its expense and difficulties, make it twice, and even three times. We passed three women clothed in white from head to foot, their drapery veiling them closely, leaving holes for their eyes. These had just returned from Mecca. The picturesqueness of the drive home was much heightened by the darkness, and the brilliancy of the fires underneath the Malay houses. The great gray buffalo which they use for various purposes — and which, though I have written gray, is as often pink — has a very thin and sensitive skin, and is almost maddened by mosquitoes; and we frequently passed fires lighted in the jungle, with these singular beasts standing or lying close to them in the smoke on the leeward side, while Malays in red sarongs and handkerchiefs, and pretty brown children scarcely clothed at all, lounged in the firelight. Then Chinese lamps and lanterns, and the sound of what passes for music; then the refinement and brightness of the Government bungalow, and at ten o’clock my chair with three bearers, and the solitude of the lonely Stadthaus.

I. L. B.

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