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

Letter xi

A Mangrove Swamp — Jungle Dwellers — The Sempang Police Station — Shooting Alligators — The River Linggi — A Somber–Faced Throng — Stuck Fast at Permatang Pasir — Fair Impediments

SEMPANG POLICE STATION (At the junction of the Loboh–Chena, and Linggi rivers), Territory of the Datu Klana of Sungei Ujong, Malay Peninsula. January 24, 1 P.M. Mercury, 87 degrees.

We left Malacca at seven this morning in the small, unseaworthy, untrustworthy, unrigged steam-launch Moosmee, and after crawling for some hours at a speed of about five miles an hour along brown and yellow shores with a broad, dark belt of palms above them, we left the waveless, burning sea behind, and after a few miles of tortuous steaming through the mangrove swamps of the Linggi river, landed here to wait for sufficient water for the rest of our journey.

This is a promontory covered with cocoa-palms, bananas, and small jungle growths. On either side are small rivers densely bordered by mangrove swamps. The first sight of a real mangrove swamp is an event. This mangi-mangi of the Malays (the Rhizophera mangil of botanists) has no beauty. All along this coast within access of tidal waters there is a belt of it many miles in breadth, dense, impenetrable, from forty to fifty feet high, as nearly level as may be, and of a dark, dull green. At low water the mangroves are seen standing close packed along the shallow and muddy shores on cradles or erections of their own roots five or six feet high, but when these are covered at high tide they appear to be growing out of the water. They send down roots from their branches, and all too quickly cover a large space. Crabs and other shell-fish attach themselves to them, and aquatic birds haunt their slimy shades. They form huge breeding grounds for alligators and mosquitoes, and usually for malarial fevers, but from the latter the Peninsula is very free. The seeds germinate while still attached to the branch. A long root pierces the covering and grows rapidly downward from the heavy end of the fruit, which arrangement secures that when the fruit falls off the root shall at once become embedded in the mud. Nature has taken abundant trouble to insure the propagation of this tree, nearly worthless as timber. Strange to say, its fruit is sweet and eatable, and from its fermented juice wine can be made. The mangrove swamp is to me an evil mystery.

Behind, the jungle stretches out — who can say how far, for no European has ever penetrated it? — and out of it rise, jungle-covered, the Rumbow hills. The elephant, the rhinoceros, the royal tiger, the black panther, the boar, the leopard, and many other beasts roam in its tangled, twilight depths, but in this fierce heat they must be all asleep in their lairs. The Argus-pheasant too, one of the loveliest birds of a region whose islands are the home of the Bird of Paradise, haunts the shade, and the shade alone. In the jungle too, is the beautiful bantam fowl, the possible progenitor of all that useful race. The cobra, the python (?), the boa-constrictor, the viper, and at least fourteen other ophidians, are winding their loathsome and lissom forms through slimy jungle recesses; and large and small apes and monkeys, flying foxes, iguanas, lizards, peacocks, frogs, turtles, tortoises, alligators, besides tapirs, rarely seen, and the palandok or chevrotin, the hog deer, the spotted deer, and the sambre, may not be far off. I think that this part of the country, intersected by small, shallow, muddy rivers, running up through slimy mangrove swamps into a vast and impenetrable jungle, must be like many parts of Western Africa.

One cannot walk three hundred yards from this station, for there are no tracks. We are beyond the little territory of Malacca, but this bit of land was ceded to England after the “Malay disturbances” in 1875, and on it has been placed the Sempang police station, a four-roomed shelter, roofed with attap, a thatch made of the fronds of the nipah palm, supported on high posts — an idea perhaps borrowed from the mangrove — and reached by a ladder. In this four Malay policemen and a corporal have dwelt for three years to keep down piracy. “Piracy,” by which these rivers were said to be infested, is a very ugly word, suggestive of ugly deeds, bloody attacks, black flags, and no quarter; but here it meant, in our use of the word at least, a particular mode of raising revenue, and no boat could go up or down the Linggi without paying black-mail to one or more river rajahs.

Our wretched little launch, moored to a cocoa-palm, flies a blue ensign, and the Malay policemen wear an imperial crown upon their caps, both representing somewhat touchingly in this equatorial jungle the might of the small island lying far off amidst the fogs of the northern seas, and in this instance at least not her might only, but the security and justice of her rule.

Two or three canoes hollowed out of tree trunks have gone up and down the river since we landed, each of the inward bound being paddled by four men, who ply their paddles facing forward, which always has an aboriginal look, those going down being propelled by single, square sails made of very coarse matting. It is very hot and silent. The only sounds are the rustle of the palm fronds and the sharp din of the cicada, abruptly ceasing at intervals. In this primitive police station the notices are in both Tamil and Arabic, but the reports are written in Arabic only. Soon after we sat down to drink fresh cocoa-nut milk, the great beverage of the country, a Malay bounded up the ladder and passed through us, with the most rapid and feline movements I have ever seen in a man. His large prominent eyes were fixed, tiger-like, on a rifle which hung on the wall, at which he darted, clutched it, and, with a feline leap, sprang through us again. I have heard much of amok running lately, and have even seen the two-pronged fork which was used for pinning a desperate amok runner to the wall, so that for a second I thought that this Malay was “running amuck;” but he ran down toward Mr. Hayward, our escort, and I ran after him, just in time to see a large alligator plunge from the bank into the water. Mr. Hayward took a steady aim at the remaining one, and hit him, when he sprang partly up as if badly wounded, and then plunged into the river after his companion, staining the muddy water with his blood for some distance.

Police Station, Permatang Pasir, Sungei Ujong, 5 P.M. — We are now in a native State, in the Territory of the friendly Datu Klana, Syed Abdulrahman, and the policemen wear on their caps not an imperial crown, but a crescent, with a star between its horns.

This is a far more adventurous expedition than we expected. Things are not going altogether as straight as could be desired, considering that we have the Governor’s daughters with us, who, besides being very precious, are utterly unseasoned and inexperienced travelers, quite unfit for “roughing it.” For one thing, it turns out to be an absolute necessity for us to be out all night, which I am very sorry for, as one of the girls is suffering from the effects of exposure to the intense heat of the sun.

We left Sempang at two, the Misses Shaw reeling rather than walking to the launch. I cannot imagine what the mercury was in the sun, but the copper sheathing of the gunwale was too hot to be touched. Above Sempang the river narrows and shoals rapidly, and we had to crawl, taking soundings incessantly, and occasionally dragging heavily over mud banks. We saw a large alligator sleeping in the sun on the mud, with a mouth, I should think, a third of the length of his body; and as he did not wake as we panted past him, a rifle was loaded and we backed up close to him; but Babu, who had the weapon, and had looked quite swaggering and belligerent so long as it was unloaded, was too frightened to fire; the saurian awoke, and his hideous form and corrugated hide plunged into the water, so close under the stern as to splash us. After this, alligators were so common, singly or in groups, or in families, that they ceased to be exciting. It is difficult for anything to produce continuous excitement under this fierce sun; and conversation, which had been flagging before noon, ceased altogether. It was awfully hot in the launch, between fire and boiler-heat and solar fury. I tried to keep cool by thinking of Mull, and powdery snow and frosty stars, but it would not do. It was a solemn afternoon, as the white, unwinking sun looked down upon our silent party, on the narrow turbid river, silent too, except for the occasional plunge of an alligator or other water monster — on mangrove swamps and nipah palms dense along the river side, on the blue gleam of countless kingfishers, on slimy creeks arched over to within a few feet of their surface by grand trees with festoon of lianas, on an infinite variety of foliage, on an abundance of slender-shafted palms, on great fruits brilliantly colored, on wonderful flowers on the trees, on the hoya carnosa and other waxen-leaved trailers matting the forest together and hanging down in great festoons, the fiery tropic sunblaze stimulating all this over-production into perennial activity, and vivifying the very mud itself.

Occasionally we passed a canoe with a “savage” crouching in it fishing, but saw no other trace of man, till an hour ago we came upon large cocoa groves, a considerable clearing in the jungle, and a very large Malayan–Chinese village with mosques, one on either side of the river, houses built on platforms over the water, large and small native boats covered and thatched with attap, roofed platforms on stilts answering the purpose of piers, bathing-houses on stilts carefully secluded, all forming the (relatively) important village of Permatang Pasir.

Up to this time we had expected to find perfectly smooth sailing, as a runner was sent from Malacca to the Resident yesterday. We supposed that we should be carried in chairs six miles through the jungle to a point where a gharrie could meet us, and that we should reach the Residency by nine tonight at the latest. On arriving at Sempang, Mr. Hayward had sent a canoe to this place with instructions to send another runner to the Resident; but

“The best laid schemes of men and mice gang aft aglee.”

The messenger seemed to have served no other purpose than to assemble the whole male population of Permatang Pasir on the shore — a sombre-faced throng, with an aloofness of manner and expression far from pleasing. The thatched piers were crowded with turbaned Mussulmen in their bajus or short jackets, full white trousers, and red sarongs or plaitless kilts — the boys dressed in silver fig-leaves and silver bangles only. All looked at our unveiled faces silently, and, as I thought, disapprovingly.

After being hauled up the pier with great difficulty, owing to the lowness of the water, we were met by two of the Datu Klana’s policemen, who threw cold water on the idea of our getting on at all unless Captain Murray sent for us. These men escorted us to this police station — a long walk through a lane of much decorated shops, exclusively Chinese, succeeded by a lane of detached Malay houses, each standing in its own fenced and neatly sanded compound under the shade of cocoa-palms and bananas. The village paths are carefully sanded and very clean. We emerged upon the neatly sanded open space on which this barrack stands, glad to obtain shelter, for the sun is still fierce. It is a genuine Malay house on stilts; but where there should be an approach of eight steps there is only a steep ladder of three round rungs, up which it is not easy to climb in boots! There is a deep veranda under an attap roof of steep slope, and at either end a low bed for a constable, with the usual very hard, circular Malay bolsters, with red silk ends, ornamented with gold and silk embroidery. Besides this veranda there is only a sort of inner room, with just space enough for a table and four chairs. The wall is hung with rifles, krises, and handcuffs, with which a “Sam Slick” clock, an engraving from the Graphic, and some curious Turkish pictures of Stamboul, are oddly mixed up. Babu, the Hadji, having recovered from a sulk into which he fell in consequence of Mr. Hayward having quizzed him for cowardice about an alligator, has made everything (our very limited everything) quite comfortable, and, with as imposing an air as if we were in Government House, asks us when we will have dinner! One policeman has brought us fresh cocoa-nut milk, another sits outside pulling a small punkah, and two more have mounted guard over us. This stilted house is the barrack of eleven Malay constables. Under it are four guns of light calibre, mounted on carriages, and outside is a gong on which the policemen beat the hours.

At the river we were told that the natives would not go up the shallow, rapid stream by night, and now the corporal says that no man will carry us through the jungle; that trees are lying across the track; that there are dangerous swamp holes; that though the tigers which infest the jungle never attack a party, we might chance to see their glaring eyeballs; that even if men could be bribed to undertake to carry us, they would fall with us, or put us down and run away, for no better reason than that they caught sight of the “spectre bird” (the owl); and he adds, with a gallantry remarkable in a Mohammedan, that he should not care about Mr. Hayward, “but it would not do for the ladies.” So we are apparently stuck fast, the chief cause for anxiety and embarrassment being that the youngest Miss Shaw is lying huddled up and shivering on one of the beds, completely prostrated by a violent sick headache, brought on by the heat of the sun in the launch. She declares that she cannot move; but our experienced escort, who much fears bilious fever for her, is resolved that she shall as soon as any means of transit can be procured. Heretofore, I have always traveled “without encumbrance.” Is it treasonable to feel at this moment that these fair girls are one?

I. L. B.

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