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

Letter x

Malacca Mediaevalism — Tiger Stories — The Chinese Carnival — Gold and Gems — A Weight of Splendor — New–Year Rejoicings — Syed Abdulrahman — A Mohammedan Princess — A Haunted City — Francis Xavier — The Reward of “Pluck” — Projects of Travel

STADTHAUS, MALACCA, January 23.

Malacca fascinates me more and more daily. There is, among other things, a mediaevalism about it. The noise of the modern world reaches it only in the faintest echoes; its sleep is almost dreamless, its sensations seem to come out of books read in childhood. Thus, the splendid corpse of a royal tiger has been brought in in a bullock-cart, the driver claiming the reward of fifteen dollars, and its claws were given to me. It was trapped only six miles off, and its beautiful feline body had not had time to stiffen. Even when dead, with its fierce head and cruel paws hanging over the end of the cart, it was not an object to be disrespected. The same reward is offered for a rhinoceros, five dollars for a crocodile (alligator?) and five dollars for a boa-constrictor or python. Lately, at five in the morning, a black tiger (panther?) came down the principal street of Malacca, tore a Chinamen in pieces, and then, scared by a posse of police in pursuit, jumped through a window into a house. Every door in the city was barred, as the rumor spread like wildfire. The policemen very boldly entered the house, but the animal pinned the Malay corporal to the wall. The second policeman, a white man, alas! ran away. The third, a Malay, at the risk of his life, went close up to the tiger, shot him, and beat him over the head with the butt of his rifle, which made the beast let go the corporal and turn on him, but fortunately he had scarcely got hold of him when he fell dead. The corporal is just coming out of hospital, almost completely paralyzed, to be taken care of for the rest of his life, and the man who rescued him has got promotion and a pension. A short time ago a fine young tiger was brought alive to Captain Shaw, and he ordered a proper cage to be made, in which to send him to England, telling Babu, the “double Hadji,” to put it into the “godown” in its bamboo cage; but the man put it into the kitchen, and in the morning the cage was found broken into pieces, the kitchen shutters torn down, and the tiger gone! There was a complete panic in Malacca; people kept their houses shut, and did not dare to go out even on business, and not only was the whole police force turned out in pursuit, but the English garrison. It was some days before the scare subsided and the people believed that the beast had escaped to its natural home in the jungle.

A tropical thunderstorm of the most violent kind occurred yesterday, when I was quite alone in the Stadthaus. The rain fell in sheets, deluges, streams, and the lightning flashed perfectly blue through a “darkness which could be felt.” There is a sort of grandeur about this old Dutch Stadthaus, with its tale of two centuries. Its smooth lawns, sloping steeply to the sea, are now brilliant with the gaudy parrot-like blossoms of the “flame of the forest,” the gorgeous Poinciana regia, with which they are studded. Malacca is such a rest after the crowds of Japan and the noisy hurry of China! Its endless afternoon remains unbroken except by the dreamy, colored, slow-moving Malay life which passes below the hill. There is never any hurry or noise.

So had I written without prescience! The night of the awful silence which succeeded the thunderstorm was also the eve of the Chinese New Year, and Captain Shaw gave permission for “fireworks” from 7 P.M. till midnight. The term “fireworks” received a most liberal construction. The noise was something awful, and as it came into the lonely Stadthaus, and red, blue, crimson, and greenish-yellow glares at short intervals lighted up the picturesque Malacca steam and its blue and yellow houses, with their steep red-tiled roofs and balconies and quaint projections, and the streets were traced in fire and smoke, while crackers, squibs, and rockets went off in hundreds, and cannon, petards, and gingalls were fired incessantly, and gongs, drums, and tom-toms were beaten, the sights, and the ceaseless, tremendous, universal din made a rehearsal of the final assault on a city in old days. At 1 A.M., every house being decorated and illuminated, the Chinese men began to make their New Year’s calls, and at six the din began again. After breakfast the Governor drove out in state to visit the leading Chinese merchants, with whom he is on terms of the most cordial amity, and at each house was offered two dishes of cakes, twelve dishes of candied and preserved fruits, mandarin tea (the price of this luxury is from 25s. to 45s. a pound), and champagne from the finest Rhenish vineyards! At eleven all the Chinese children came forth in carriages shaped like boats, turned up at both ends, painted red and yellow, and with white-fringed canopies over them. These were drawn by servants, and in the case of the wealthy, a train of servants accompanied each carriage. It was a sight worthy of a fabled age. The wealth of the East in all its gorgeousness was poured out upon these dignified and solemn infants, who wore coronals of gold and diamonds, stuffs of cloth of gold brocade, and satin sewn with pearls, and whose cloth-of-gold shoes flashed with diamonds!

During the morning four children of a rich Chinese merchant, attended by a train of Chinese and Malay servants, came to see Mrs. Shaw. There were a boy and girl of five and six years old, and two younger children. A literal description of their appearance reads like fiction. The girl wore a yellow petticoat of treble satin (mandarin yellow) with broad box plaits in front and behind, exquisitely embroidered with flowers in shades of blue silk, with narrow box plaits between, with a trail of blue silk flowers on each. Over this there was a short robe of crimson brocaded silk, with a broad border of cream-white satin, with the same exquisite floral embroidery in shades of blue silk. Above this was a tippet of three rows of embroidered lozenge-shaped “tabs” of satin. The child wore a crown on her head, the basis of which was black velvet. At the top was an aigrette of diamonds of the purest water, the centre one as large as a sixpenny-piece. Solitaires flashing blue flames blazed all over the cap, and the front was ornamented with a dragon in fine filigree work in red Malay gold set with diamonds. I fear to be thought guilty of exaggeration when I write that this child wore seven necklaces, all of gorgeous beauty. The stones were all cut in facets at the back; and highly polished, and their beauty was enhanced by the good taste and skilful workmanship of the setting. The first necklace was of diamonds set as roses and crescents, some of them very large, and all of great brilliancy; the second of emeralds, a few of which were as large as acorns, but spoilt by being pierced; the third of pearls set whole; the fourth of hollow filigree beads in red, burned gold; the fifth of sapphires and diamonds; the sixth a number of finely worked chains of gold with a pendant of a gold filigree fish set with diamonds; the seventh, what they all wear, a massive gold chain, which looked heavy enough even by itself to weigh down the fragile little wearer, from which depended a gold shield, on which the Chinese characters forming the child’s name were raised in rubies, with fishes and flowers in diamonds round it, and at the back a god in rubies similarly surrounded. Magnificent diamond earrings and heavy gold bracelets completed the display.

And all this weight of splendor, valued at the very least at $40,000, was carried by a frail human mite barely four feet high, with a powdered face, gentle, pensive expression, and quiet grace of manner, who came forward and most winsomely shook hands with us, as did all the other grave gentle mites. They were also loaded with gold and diamonds. Some sugar-plums fell on the floor, and as the eldest girl stooped to pick them up, diamond solitaires fell out of her hair, which were gathered up by her attendants as if they were used to such occurrences. Whenever she moved her diamonds flashed, scintillated, and gave forth their blue light. Then came the children of the richest Chinaman in Malacca, but the little gentle creatures were motherless, and mourning for a mother lasts three years, so they were dressed in plain blue and white, and as ornaments wore only very beautiful sapphires and diamonds set in silver.

Do not suppose that the Chinese New Year is a fixed, annual holiday lasting a day, as in Scotland, and to a minor extent in England. In Canton a month ago active preparations were being made for it, and in Japan nine weeks ago. It is a “movable feast,” and is regulated by the date on which the new moon falls nearest to the day “when the sun reaches the 15 degrees of Aquarius,” and occurs this year on January 21st. Everything becomes cheap before it, for shopkeepers are anxious to realize ready money at any loss, for it is imperative that all accounts be closed by the last day of the old year, on pain of a man being disgraced, losing all hope of getting credit, and of having his name written up on his door as a defaulter. It appears also that debts which are not settled by the New Year’s Eve cannot thereafter be recovered, though it is lawful for a creditor who has vainly hunted a debtor throughout that last night to pursue him for the first hours after daybreak, provided he still carries a lantern!

The festival lasts a fortnight, and is a succession of feasts and theatrical entertainments, everybody’s object being to cast care and work to the winds. Even the official seals of the mandarins are formally and with much rejoicing sealed up and laid aside for one month. On the 20th day of the 12th month houses and temples are thoroughly washed and cleaned, rich and poor decorate with cloth-of-gold, silk embroideries, artificial and real flowers, banners, scrolls, lucky characters, illuminated strips of paper, and bunches of gilt-paper flowers, and even the poorest coolie contrives to greet the festival with some natural blossom. There is no rest either by night or day, joss-sticks burn incessantly, and lamps before the ancestral tablets, gongs are beaten, gingalls fire incessantly, and great crackers like cartridges fastened together in rows are let off at intervals before every door to frighten away evil spirits; there are family banquets of wearisome length, feasts to the household gods, offerings in the temples, processions in the street by torch and lantern light, presents are given to the living, and offerings to the dead, the poor are feasted, and the general din is heightened by messengers perambulating the streets with gongs, calling them to the different banquets. When the fortnight of rejoicing is over its signs are removed, and after the outbreak of extravagant expenditure the Chinese return to their quiet, industrious habits and frugal ways.

Just as this brilliant display left the room, a figure in richer coloring of skin appeared — Babu, the head servant, in his beautiful Hadji dress. He wore white full trousers, drawn in tightly at the ankles over black shoes, but very little of these trousers showed below a long, fine, linen tunic of spotless white, with a girdle of orange silk. Over this was a short jacket of rich green silk, embroidered in front with green of the same color, and over all a pure white robe falling from the shoulders. The turban was a Mecca turban made of many yards of soft white silk, embroidered in white silk. It was difficult to believe that this gorgeous Mussulman, in the odor of double sanctity, with his scornful face and superb air, could so far demean himself as to wait on “dogs of infidels” at dinner, or appear in my room at the Stadthaus, with matutinal tea and bananas!

This magnificence heralded the Datu Klana, Syed Abdulrahman, the reigning prince of the native State of Sungei Ujong, his principal wife, and his favorite daughter, a girl of twelve. It has been decided that I am to go to Sungei Ujong, and that I am to be escorted by Mr. Hayward, the superintendent of police, but, unfortunately, I am to go up in the Datu Klana’s absence, and one object of his visit was to express his regret. This prince has been faithful to British interests, and is on most friendly terms with the resident, Captain Murray, and the Governor of Malacca. During his visit Babu interpreted, but Miss Shaw, who understands Malay, said that, instead of interpreting faithfully, he was making enormous demands on my behalf! At all events, Syed Abdulrahman, with truly exaggerated Oriental politeness, presented me with the key of his house in the interior.

This prince is regarded by British officials as an enlightened ruler, though he is a rigid Mussulman. His dress looked remarkably plain beside that of the splendid Babu. He wore a Malay bandana handkerchief round his head, knotted into a peak, a rich brocade baju or short jacket, a dark Manilla sarong, trousers of Mandarin satin striped with red, a girdle clasp set with large diamonds, and sandals with jeweled cloth-of-gold straps. His wife, though elderly and decidedly plain looking, has a very pleasing expression. She wore a black veil over her head, and her kabaya, or upper garment, was fastened with three diamond clasps. The bright little daughter wore a green veil with gold stars upon it over her head, and ornaments of rich, red gold elaborately worked. The Datu Klana apologized for the extreme plainness of their dress by saying that they had only just arrived, and that they had called before changing their traveling clothes. When they departed the two ladies threw soft silk shawls over their heads, and held them so as to cover their faces except their eyes.

There are now sixty-seven thousand Malays in the British territory of Malacca, and the number is continually increased by fugitives from the system of debt-slavery which prevails in some of the adjacent States, and by immigration from the same States of Malays who prefer the security which British rule affords.

[The police force is Malay, and it seems as if the Malays had a special aptitude for this semi-military service, for they not only form the well-drilled protective forces of Malacca, Sungei Ujong, and Selangor, but that fine body of police in Ceylon of which Mr. George Campbell has so much reason to be proud. Otherwise very few of them enter British employment, greatly preferring the easy, independent life of their forest kampongs.]

The commercial decay of Malacca is a very interesting fact.* Formerly fifty merchantmen were frequently lying in its roads at one time. Here the Portuguese fleet lay which escorted Xavier from Goa, and who can say how many galleons freighted with the red gold of Ophir floated on these quiet waters! Now, Chinese junks, Malay prahus, a few Chinese steamers, steam-launches from the native States, and two steamers which call in passing, make up its trade. There is neither newspaper, banker, hotel, nor resident English merchant, The half-caste descendants of the Portuguese are, generally speaking, indolent, degraded with the degradation that is born of indolence, and proud. The Malays dream away their lives in the jungle, and the Chinese, who number twenty thousand, are really the ruling population.

[*Linscholt, two hundred and seventy years ago, writes:— “This place is the market of all India, of China, and the Moluccas, and of other islands round about, from all which places, as well as from Banda, Java, Sumatra, Siam, Pegu, Bengal, Coromandil, and India, arrive ships which come and go incessantly charged with an infinity of merchandises.”]

The former greatness of Malacca haunts one at all times. The romantic exploits of Albuquerque, who conquered it in 1511, apostrophized in the Lusiad —

“Not eastward far though fair Malacca lie,

Her groves embosomed in the morning sky,

Though with her amorous sons the valiant line

Of Java’s isle in battle rank combine,

Though poisoned shafts their ponderous quivers store,

Malacca’s spicy groves and golden ore,

Great Albuquerque, thy dauntless toils shall crown,”

live again, though my sober judgment is that Albuquerque and most of his Portuguese successors were little better than buccaneers.

I like better to think of Francis Xavier passing through the thoroughfares of what was then the greatest commercial city of the East, ringing his bell, with the solemn cry, “Pray for those who are in a state of mortal sin.” For among the “Jews, Turks, infidels, and heretics” who then thronged its busy streets, there were no worse livers than the roistering soldiers who had followed Albuquerque. Tradition among the present Portuguese residents says that coarse words and deeds disappeared from the thoroughfares under his holy influence, and that little altars were set up in public places, round which the children sang hymns to Jesus Christ, while the passers-by crossed themselves and bowed their heads reverently. Now, the cathedral which crowns the hill, roofless and ruinous, is only imposing from a distance, and a part of it is used for the storage of marine or lighthouse stores under our prosaic and irreverent rule. Xavier preached frequently in it and loved it well, yet the walls are overgrown with parasites, and the floor, under which many prelates and priests lie, is hideous with matted weeds, which are the haunt of snakes and lizards. Thus, in the city which was so dear to Xavier that he desired to return to it to die (and actually did die on his way thither), the only memento of him is the dishonored ruin of the splendid church in which his body was buried, with all the population of Malacca following it from the yellow strand up the grass-crowned hill, bearing tapers. This wretched ruin is a contrast to the splendid mausoleum at Goa, where his bones now lie, worthily guarded, in coffins of silver and gold.

If the Portuguese were little better than buccaneers, the Dutch, who drove them out, were little better than hucksters — mean, mercenary traders, without redeeming qualities; content to suck the blood of their provinces and give nothing in return. I should think that the colony is glad to be finally rid of them. The English took possession of it in 1795, but restored it to the Dutch in 1818, regaining it again by treaty in 1824, giving Bencoolen, in Sumatra, in exchange for it, stipulating at the same time that the Dutch were not to meddle with Malayan affairs, or have any settlement on the Malay Peninsula. The ruined cathedral of Notre Dame del Monte is a far more interesting object than the dull, bald, commonplace, flat-faced, prosaic, Dutch meeting-house, albeit the latter is in excellent repair. Even this Stadthaus, with its stately solitudes, smells of trade, and suggests corpulent burgomasters and prim burgomasters’ wives in wooden hoops and stiff brocades. The influence of Holland has altogether vanished, as is fitting, for she cared only for nutmegs, sago, tapioca, tin and pepper.

The variety of races here produces a ludicrous effect sometimes. In the Stadthaus one never knows who is to appear — whether Malay, Portuguese, Chinaman, or Madrassee. Yesterday morning, at six, the Chinaman who usually “does” my room, glided in, murmuring something unintelligible, and on my not understanding him, brought in a Portuguese interpreter. At seven, came in the Madrassee, Babu, with a cluster of bananas, and after him, two Malays, in red sarongs, who brushed and dusted all my clothes as slowly as they could — men of four races in attendance before I was up in the morning! This Chinese attendant, besides being a common coolie in a brown cotton shirt over a brown cotton pair of trousers, is not a good specimen of his class, and is a great nuisance to me. My doors do not bolt properly, and he appears in the morning while I am in my holoku, writing, and slowly makes the bed and kills mosquitoes; then takes one gown after another from the rail, and stares at me till I point to the one I am going to wear, which he holds out in his hands; and though I point to the door, and say “Go!” with much emphasis, I never get rid of him, and have to glide from my holoku into my gown with a most unwilling dexterity.

Two days ago Captain Shaw declared that “pluck should have its reward,” and that I should have facilities for going to Sungei Ujong. Yesterday, he asked me to take charge of his two treasured daughters. Then Babu said, “If young ladies go, me go,” and we are to travel under the efficient protection of Mr. Hayward, the superintendent of police. This expedition excites great interest in the little Malacca world. This native State is regarded as “parts unknown;” the Governor has never visited it, and there are not wanting those who shake their heads and wonder that he should trust his girls in a region of tigers, crocodiles, rogue elephants and savages! The little steam-launch Moosmee (in reality by far the greatest risk of all) has been brought into the stream below the Stadthaus, ready for an early start to-morrow, and a runner has been sent to the Resident to prepare him for such an unusual incursion into his solitudes.

I. L. B.

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