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

Letter xiv

The S.S. Rainbow — Sunset at Malacca — A Night at Sea — The Residency at Klang — Our “Next-of-Kin” — The Decay of Klang — A Remarkable Chinaman — Theatrical Magnificence — Misdeed of a “Rogue Elephant” — “A Cobra! A Cobra!”

S.S. “RAINBOW,” MALACCA ROADS, February 1, 5 P.M.

I am once again on board this quaint little Chinese steamer, which is rolling on a lazy ground-swell on the heated, shallow sea. We were to have sailed at four P.M., but mat-sailed boats, with cargoes of Chinese, Malays, fowls, pine-apples, and sugar-cane, kept coming off and delaying us. The little steamer has long ago submerged her load-line, and is only about ten inches above the water, and still they load, and still the mat-sailed boats and eight-paddled boats, with two red-clothed men facing forward on each thwart, are disgorging men and goods into the overladen craft. A hundred and thirty men, mostly Chinese, with a sprinkling of Javanese and Malays, are huddled on the little deck, with goats and buffaloes, and forty coops of fowls and ducks; the fowls and ducks cackling and quacking, and the Chinese clattering at the top of their voices — such a Babel!

An hour later, “Easy ahead,” shouts the Portuguese–Malay captain, for the Rainbow is only licensed for one hundred passengers, and the water runs in at the scuppers as she rolls, but five of the mat-sailed boats have hooked on. “Run ahead! full speed!” the captain shouts in English; he dances with excitement, and screams in Malay; the Chinamen are climbing up the stern, over the bulwarks, everywhere, fairly boarding us; and with about a hundred and fifty souls on board, and not a white man or a Christian among them, we steam away over the gaudy water into the gaudy sunset, and beautiful, dreamy, tropical Malacca, with its palm-fringed shores, and its colored streets, and Mount Ophir with its golden history, and the stately Stadthaus, whose ancient rooms have come to seem almost like my property, are passing into memories. A gory ball drops suddenly from a gory sky into a flaming sea, and

“With one stride comes the dark.”

There is no place for me except on this little bridge, on which the captain and I have just had an excellent dinner, with hen-coops for seats. These noisy fowls are now quiet in the darkness, but the noisier Chinese are still bawling at the top of their voices. It is too dark for another line.

British Residency, Klang Selangor. — You will not know where Klang is, and I think you won’t find it in any atlas or encyclopedia. Indeed, I almost doubt whether you will find Selangor, the Malay State of which Klang is, after a fashion, the capital. At present I can tell you very little.

Selangor is bounded on the north by the “protected” State of Perak, which became notorious in England a few years ago for a “little war,” in which we inflicted a very heavy chastisement on the Malays for the assassination of Mr. Birch, the British Resident. It has on its south and southeast Sungei Ujong, Jelabu, and Pahang; but its boundaries in these directions are ill-defined. The Strait of Malacca bounds it on the west, and its coast-line is about a hundred and twenty miles long. From its slightly vague interior boundary to the coast, it is supposed to preserve a tolerably uniform depth of from fifty to sixty miles. Klang is on the Klang river, in lat. 3 degrees 3’ N., and long. 101 degrees 29’ 30” E. I call it “the Capital after a fashion,” because the Resident and his myrmidons live here, and because vessels which draw thirteen feet of water can go no higher; but the true capital, created by the enterprise of Chinamen, is thirty-six miles farther inland, the tin-mining settlement of Kwala Lumpor. Selangor thrives, if it does thrive, which I greatly doubt, on tin and gutta; but Klang is a most misthriven, decayed, dejected, miserable-looking place.* The nominal ruler of Selangor is Sultan Abdul Samat, but he hybernates on a pension at Langat, a long way off, and must be nearly obliterated, I think.

[*Kwala Lumpor is now the most important mining entrepot in Selangor, and in 1880 the British Resident and his staff were removed thither.]

It is a great change from Malacca in every respect. I left it with intense regret. Hospitality, kindness, most genial intercourse, and its own semi-mediaeval and tropical fascinations, made it one of the brightest among the many bright spots of my wanderings. Mr. Hayward took me to the Rainbow in a six-oared boat, manned by six policemen, completing the list of “Government facilities” as far as Malacca is concerned. The mercury was 90 degrees in my little cabin or den, and it swarmed not only with mosquitoes, but with cockroaches, which, in the dim light, looked as large as mice. Of course, no one sleeps below in the tropics who can avoid it; so as the deck was thick with Chinamen, I had my mattress laid on a bench on the bridge, which was only occupied by two Malay look-out men. There is not very much comfort when one leaves the beaten tracks of travel, but any loss is far more than made up for by the intense enjoyment.

It was a delightful night. The moon was only a hemisphere, yet I think she gave more light than ours at the full. The night was so exquisite that I was content to rest without sleeping; the Babel noises of fowls and men had ceased, and there were only quiet sounds of rippling water, and the occasional cry of a sea-bird as we slipped through the waveless sea. When the moon set, the sky was wonderful with its tropic purple and its pavement and dust of stars. I have become quite fond of the Southern Cross, and don’t wonder that the early navigators prostrated themselves on deck when they first saw it. It is not an imposing constellation, but it is on a part of the sky which is not crowded with stars, and it always lies aslant and obvious. It has become to me as much a friend as is the Plough of the northern regions.

At daybreak the next morning we were steaming up the Klang river, whose low shores are entirely mangrove swamps, and when the sun was high and hot we anchored in front of the village of Klang, where a large fort on an eminence, with grass embankments in which guns are mounted, is the first prominent object. Above this is a large wooden bungalow with an attap roof, which is the British Residency. There was no air, and the British ensign in front of the house hung limp on the flag-staff. Below there is a village, with clusters of Chinese houses on the ground, and Malay houses on stilts, standing singly, with one or two Government offices bulking largely among them. A substantial flight of stone steps leads from the river to a skeleton jetty with an attap roof, and near it a number of attap-roofed boats were lying, loaded with slabs of tin from the diggings in the interior, to be transhipped to Pinang. A dainty steam-launch, the Abdulsamat, nominally the Sultan’s yacht, flying a large red and yellow flag, was also lying in the river.

Mr. Bloomfield Douglas, the Resident, a tall, vigorous, elderly man, with white hair, a florid complexion, and a strong voice heard everywhere in authoritative tones, met me with a four-oared boat, and a buggy with a good Australian horse brought me here. From this house there is a large but not a beautiful view of river windings, rolling jungle, and blue hills. The lower part of the house, which is supported on pillars, is mainly open, and is used for billiard-room, church, lounging-room, afternoon tea-room, and audience-room; but I see nothing of the friendly, easy-going to and fro of Chinese and Malays, which was a pleasant feature of the Residency in Sungei Ujong. In fact, there is here much of the appearance of an armed post amidst a hostile population. In front of the Residency there is a six-pounder flanked by two piles of shot. Behind it there is a guard-room, with racks of rifles and bayonets for the Resident’s body-guard of twelve men, and quarters for the married soldiers, for soldiers they are, though they are called policemen. A gong hangs in front of the porch on which to sound the alarm, and a hundred men fully armed can turn out at five minutes’ notice.

The family consists of the Resident, his wife, a dignified and gracious woman, with a sweet but plaintive expression of countenance, and an afflicted daughter, on whom her mother attends with a loving, vigilant, and ceaseless devotion of a most pathetic kind. The circle is completed by a handsome black monkey tied to a post, and an ape which they call an ouf, from the solitary monosyllable which it utters, but which I believe to be the “agile gibbon,” a creature so delicate that it has never yet survived a voyage to England.

It is a beautiful creature. I could “put off” hours of time with it. It walks on its hind legs with a curious human walk, hanging its long arms down by its sides like B——. It will walk quietly by your side like another person. It has nice dark eyes, with well-formed lids like ours, a good nose, a human mouth with very nice white teeth, and a very pleasant cheery look when it smiles, but when its face is at rest the expression is sad and wistful. It spends a good deal of its time in swinging itself most energetically. It has very pretty fingers and finger-nails. It looks fearfully near of kin to us, and yet the gulf is measureless. It can climb anywhere, and take long leaps. This morning it went into a house in which a cluster of bananas is hanging, leaped up to the roof, and in no time had peeled two, which it ate very neatly. It has not even a rudimentary tail. When it sits with its arms folded it looks like a gentlemanly person in a close-fitting fur suit.

The village of Klang is not interesting. It looks like a place which has “seen better days,” and does not impress one favorably as regards the prosperity of the State. Above it the river passes through rich alluvial deposits, well adapted for sugar, rice, and other products of low-lying tropical lands; but though land can be purchased on a system of deferred payments for two dollars an acre, these lands are still covered with primeval jungle. Steam-launches and flattish-bottomed native boats go up the river eighteen miles farther to a village called Damarsara, from which a good country road has been made to the great Chinese village and tin mines of Kwala Lumpor. The man-eating tigers, which almost until now infested the old jungle track, have been driven back, and plantations of tobacco, tapioca, and rice have been started along the road. On a single Chinese plantation, near Kwala Lumpor, there are over two thousand acres of tapioca under cultivation, and the enterprising Chinaman who owns it has imported European steam machinery for converting the tapioca roots into the marketable article. Whatever enterprise I hear of in the interior is always in the hands of Chinamen. Klang looks as if an incubus oppressed it, and possibly the Chinese are glad to be as far as possible from the seat of what impresses me as a fussy Government. At all events, Klang, from whatever cause, has a blighted look; and deserted houses rapidly falling into decay, overgrown roads, fields choked with weeds, and an absence of life and traffic in the melancholy streets, have a depressing influence. The people are harassed by a vexatious and uncertain system of fees and taxes, calculated to engender ill feeling, and things connected with the administration seem somewhat “mixed.”

You will be almost tired of the Chinese, but the more I see of them the more I am impressed by them. These States, as well as Malacca, would be jungles with a few rice clearings among them were it not for their energy and industry. Actually the leading man, not only at Kwala Lumpor (now the seat of government), but in Selangor, is Ah Loi, a Chinaman! During the disturbances before we “advised” the State, the Malays burned the town of Kwala Lumpor three times, and he rebuilt it, and, in spite of many disasters stuck to it at the earnest request of the native government. He has made long roads for the purpose of connecting the most important of the tin mines with the town. His countrymen place implicit confidence in him, and Mr. Syers, the admirable superintendent of police, tells me that by his influence and exertions he has so successfully secured peace and order in his town and district that during many years not a single serious crime has been committed. He employs on his estate — in mines, brickfields, and plantations — over four thousand men. He has the largest tapioca estate in the country and the best machinery. He has introduced the manufacture of bricks, has provided the sick with an asylum, has been loyal to British interests, has been a most successful administrator in the populous district intrusted to him, and has dispensed justice to the complete satisfaction of his countrymen. While he is the creator of the commercial interests of Selangor, he is a man of large aims and of an enlightened public spirit. Is there no decoration of St. Michael or St. George in reserve for Ah Loi?* So far, however, from receiving any suitable recognition of his services, it is certain that Ah Loi’s claims for compensation for losses, etc., have not yet been settled.

[*The months after my visit, Ah Loi received the Sultan of Selangor for several days with great magnificence, and in July, 1880, he entertained the Governor of the Straits Settlements and his suite with yet greater splendor, erecting for the occasion a fine banqueting-hall with open sides.

Sir F. A. Weld writes of this visit — “At Kwala Lumpor, besides the reception and a dinner at the Capitan China’s, a Chinese theatrical performance was given representing a sultan and great rajahs, quarreling, but laying aside their quarrels on the appearance of a ‘governor,’ who pacifies the country. Addresses and odes were also sung and recited to me from the stage, and the performers representing the great personages prostrated themselves and made obeisances. The dresses were all real hand-worked gold and silver embroidery on thick silks of the richest colors. The princes were attended by their warriors, some of whose helmets and arms were magnificent, with banners and feather standards, and coats of arms, or their equivalents, borne aloft by heralds; ladies also appeared, one a prima-donna, other actresses rode hobby-horses, only the head of the woman and hobby-horse being visible in the clouds of silk and gold. Jesters jested; and tumblers, in blue, loose tunics and wide scarlet trousers, shot across the stage when there was any room in front of the crowd of actors with the rapidity of meteors. The pace was too great to be even sure that they were human beings. I have seen Kean’s Shakespearian revival pageants formerly in London, but I never realized what a mediaeval court pageant might have been till in the heart of the Malay Peninsula I saw the most gorgeous combination of color and picturesque effect that I have ever set eyes upon.”]

Klang does not improve on further acquaintance. It looks as if half the houses were empty, and certainly half the population is composed of Government employes, chiefly police constables. There is no air of business energy, and the queerly mixed population saunters with limp movements; even the few Chinese look depressed, as if life were too much for them. It looks too as if there were a need for holding down the population (which I am sure there isn’t), for in addition to the fort and its barracks, military police stations are dotted about. A jail, with a very high wall, is in the middle of the village. The jungle comes so near to Klang that tigers and herds of elephants, sometimes forty strong, have been seen within half a mile of it. In Sungei Ujong there was some excitement about a “rogue elephant” (i.e., an elephant which for reasons which appear good to other elephants, has been expelled from the herd, and has been made mad and savage by solitude), which, after killing two men, has crossed the river into Selangor, and is man-killing here. A few days ago a man catching sight of him in the jungle took refuge in a tree, and the brute tore the tree down with its trunk, and trampled the poor fellow to death, his companion escaping during the process.

Yesterday evening we had service in the hall, the whole white population being “rounded up” for it; seven men and two women, three of whom are Roman Catholics. The congregation sat under one punkah and the Resident under another, both being worked by bigoted Mohammedans! Everything was “ship-shape,” as becomes Mr. Douglas’s antecedents; a union jack over the desk, from which the liturgy was read, and a tiger-skin over the tiles in front, the harmonium well played, the singing and chanting excellent. We had one of the most beautiful of the Ambrosian hymns, and possibly Dr. Bonar may like to hear that his hymn, “I heard the voice of Jesus say,” was sung with equal enjoyment by Catholics and Protestants in the wilds of the Golden Chersonese.

There is an almost daily shower here, and it is lovely now, with a balmy freshness in the air. No one could imagine that we are in the torrid zone, and only 3 degrees from the equator. The mercury has not been above 83 degrees since I came, and the sea and land breezes are exquisitely delicious. I wish you could see a late afternoon here in its full beauty, with palms against a golden sky, pink clouds, a pink river, and a balm-breathing air, just strong enough to lift the heavy scented flowers which make the evenings delicious. There has been a respite from mosquitoes, and I am having a “real good time.”

But I had a great fright yesterday (part of the “good time” though). I was going into the garden when six armed policemen leapt past me as if they had been shot, followed by Mr. Daly, the land-surveyor, who has the V.C. for some brave deed, shouting “a cobra! a cobra!” and I saw a hooded head above the plants, and then the form I most fear and loathe twisting itself toward the house with frightful rapidity, every one flying. I was up a ladder in no time, and the next moment one of the policemen, plucking up courage, broke the reptile’s back with the butt of his rifle, and soon it was borne away, dead, by its tail. It was over four feet long. They get about three a day at the fort.

There is a reward of 20 cents per foot for every venomous snake brought in, 50 cents per foot for an alligator, and 25 dollars for every tiger. Lately the police have got two specimens of an ophiophagus, a snake-eating snake over eighteen feet long, whose bite they say is certain death. They have a horrible collection of snakes alive, half dead, dead, and preserved. There was a fright of a different kind late at night, and the two made me so nervous that when the moonlight glinted two or three times on the bayonet of the sentry, which I could see from my bed, I thought it was a Malay going to murder the Resident, against whom I fear there may be many a vendetta.

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