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

Letter xiv (Continued)

Yachting in the Malacca Straits — A Tropic Dream — The Rajah Moussa — Tiger Stories — A Grand Excitement — A “Man–Eating Kris” — A Royal Residence — A Council of State — The Sultan’s Attendants — The “Light of the Harem” — The Sultan’s Offering

S.S. “ABDULSAMAT,” LANGAT RIVER, SELANGOR

I was glad to get up at sunrise, when the whole heaven was flooded with color and glory, and the lingering mists which lay here and there over the jungle gleamed like silver. Before we left, Mrs. Douglas gave me tea, scones, and fresh butter, the first fresh butter that I have tasted for ten months. We left Klang in this beautiful steam-launch, the (so-called) yacht of the Sultan, at eight, with forty souls on board.

I am somewhat hazy as to where I am. “The Langat river” is at present to me only a “geographical expression.” It is now past three o’clock, and we have been going about since eight, sometimes up rivers, but mostly on lovely tropic seas among islands. This is one of the usual business tours of the Resident, with the additional object of presenting a uniform to the Sultan. Besides Mr. Douglas there are his son-in-law, Mr. Daly; Mr. Hawley, who has lately been appointed to a collectorship, and who goes up to be presented to the Sultan; Mr. Syers, formerly a private in the 10th Regiment, now superintendent of the Selangor police force; and thirty policemen, who go up to form the Sultan’s escort to-morrow. Precautions, for some occult reason, seem to be considered indispensable here, and have been increased since the murder of Mr. Lloyd at the Dindings. The yacht has a complete permanent roof of painted canvas, and under this is an armament of boarding pikes. Round the little foremast four cutlasses and a quantity of ball cartridges are displayed. Six rifles are in a rack below, and the policemen and body-guard are armed with rifles and bayonets.

The yacht is perfection. The cabin, in which ten can dine, is high and airy, and, being forward, there is no vibration. Space is exquisitely utilized by all manner of contrivances. She is only 50 tons, and very low in the water, but we are going all the way to Prince of Wales island in her — 200 miles. Everything is perfect on board, even to the cuisine, and I appreciate the low rattan chairs at the bow, in which one can sit in the shade and enjoy the zephyrs.

This day has been a tropic dream. I have enjoyed it and am enjoying it intensely. We steamed down the Klang river, and then down a narrow river-like channel among small palm-fringed islands which suddenly opened upon the sea, which was slightly green toward the coral-sanded, densely wooded, unpeopled shores, but westward the green tint merged into a blue tint, which ever deepened till a line of pure, deep, indescribable blue cut the blue sky on the far-off clear horizon. But, ah! that “many twinkling smile of ocean!” Words cannot convey an idea of what it is under this tropic sun and sky, with the silver-flashing wavelets rippling the surface of the sapphire sea, beneath whose clear warm waters brilliant fishes are darting through the coral groves. These are enchanted seas —

“Where falls not rain, or hail, or any snow,

Or ever wind blows loudly.”

It is unseemly that the Abdulsamat should smoke and puff and leave a foamy wake behind her. “Sails of silk and ropes of sendal,” and poetic noiseless movements only would suit these lovely Malacca Straits. This is one of the very few days in my life in which I have felt mere living to be a luxury, and what it is to be akin to seas and breezes, and birds and insects, and to know why nature sings and smiles.

We had been towing a revenue cutter with stores for a new lighthouse, and cast her adrift at the point where we anchored, and the Resident and Mr. Daly went ashore with thirteen policemen, and I had a most interesting and instructive conversation with Mr. Syers. Afterward we steamed along the low wooded coast, and then up the Langat river till we came to Bukit Jugra, an isolated hill covered with jungle. The landing is up a great face of smooth rock, near the top of which is a pretty police station, and higher still, nearly concealed by bananas and cocoa-palms, is the large bungalow of the revenue officer and police magistrate of Langat. We saw Mr. Ferney, the magistrate, landed the police guard, and then steamed up here for a council.

Mr. Syers went ashore, and returned with the Sultan’s heir, the Rajah Moussa, a very peculiar-looking Malay, a rigid Mohammedan, who is known, the Resident says, to have said that when he becomes Sultan he “will drive the white men into the sea.” He works hard, as an example to his people, and when working dresses like a coolie. He sets his face against cock-fighting and other Malay sports, is a reformer, and a dour, strong-willed man, and his accession seems to be rather dreaded by the Resident, as it is supposed that he will be something more than a mere figure-head prince. He is a Hadji, and was dressed in a turban made of many yards of priceless silk muslin, embroidered in silk, a white baju, and a long white sarong, and full white trousers — a beautiful dress for an Oriental. He shook hands with me. I wish that these people would not adopt our salutations, their own are so much more appropriate to their character.

The yacht is now lying at anchor in a deep coffee-colored stream, near a picturesque Malay village on stilts, surrounded by very extensive groves of palms. Several rivers intersect each other in this neighborhood, flowing through dense jungles and mangrove swamps. The sun is still high. The four white men and the Rajah Moussa have gone ashore snipe shooting, the Malays on board are sleeping, and I am enjoying a delicious solitude.

February 4, 4 P.M. — We are steaming over the incandescent sapphire sea, among the mangrove-bordered islands which fringe the Selangor coast, under a blazing sun, with the mercury 88 degrees in the shade, but the heat, though fierce, is not oppressive, and I have had a delightful day. The men returned when they could no longer see to shoot snipes, with a well filled bag, and after sunset we dropped down to Bukit Jugra or Langat. Most of the river was as black as night with the heavy shadows of the forest, but along the middle there was a lane of lemon-colored water, the exquisite reflection of a lemon-colored sky. The Resident and Mr. Daly went down to the coast in the yacht to avoid the mosquitoes of the interior, but I with Omar, one of the “body guard,” half Malay half Kling, as my attendant, and Mr. Syers, landed, to remain at the magistrate’s bungalow. It was a lovely walk up the hill through the palms and bananas, and the bayonets of our escort gleamed in the intense moonlight, not with anything alarming about them either, for an escort is only necessary because the place is so infested by tigers. The bungalow is large but rambling, and my room was one built out at the end, with six windows with solid shutters, of which Mr. Ferney closed all but two, and half closed those, because of a tiger which is infesting the immediate neighborhood of the house, and whose growling, they say, is most annoying. He killed a heifer belonging to the Sultan two nights ago, and last night the sentry got a shot at him from the veranda outside my room as he was engaged in most undignified depredations upon the hen house.

There was a grand excitement yesterday morning. A tigress was snared in a pitfall and was shot. Her corpse was brought to the bungalow warm and limp. She measured eight feet two inches from her nose to her tail, and her tail was two feet six inches long. She had whelps, and they must be starving in the jungle tonight. Her beautiful skin is hanging up. All the neighborhood, Chinese and Malay, turned out. Some danced; and the Sultan beat gongs. Everybody seized upon a bit of the beast. The Sultan claimed the liver, which, when dried and powdered, is worth twice its weight in gold, as a medicine. The blood was taken, and I saw the Chinamen drying it in the sun on small slabs; it is an invaluable tonic! The eyes, which were of immense size, were eagerly scrambled for, that the hard parts in the centre, which are valuable charms, might be set in gold as rings. It was sad to see the terrible “glaring eyeballs” of the jungle so dim and stiff. The bones were taken to be boiled down to a jelly, which, when some mysterious drug has been added, is a grand tonic. The gall is most precious, and the flesh was all taken, but for what purpose I don’t know. A steak of it was stewed, and I tasted it, and found it in flavor much like the meat of an ancient and overworked draught ox, but Mr. Ferney thought it like good veal. At dinner the whole talk was of the wild beasts of the jungle; and, as we were all but among them, it was very fascinating. I wanted to go out by moonlight, but Mr. Ferney said that it was not safe, because of tigers, and even the Malays there don’t go out after nightfall.

Mr. Ferney has given me a stick with a snake-mark on it, which was given to him as a thing of great value. The Malay donor said that anyone carrying it would become invulnerable and invisible, and that if you were to beat anyone with it, the beaten man would manifest all the symptoms of snake poisoning! Mr. Ferney has also given me a kris. When I showed it to Omar this morning, he passed it across his face and smelt it, and then said, “This kris good — has ate a man.”

I could not sleep much, there were such strange noises, and the sentry made the veranda creak all night outside my room; but this is a splendid climate, and one is refreshed and ready to rise with the sun after very little sleep. The tropic mornings are glorious. There is such an abrupt and vociferous awakening of nature, all dew-bathed and vigorous. The rose-flushed sky looks cool, the air feels cool, one longs to protract the delicious time. Then with a suddenness akin to that of his setting, the sun wheels above the horizon, and is high in the heavens in no time, truly “coming forth as a bridegroom out of his chamber, and rejoicing as a giant to run his course,” and as truly “There is nothing hid from the heat thereof,” for hardly is he visible than the heat becomes tremendous. But tropical trees and flowers, instead of drooping and withering under the solar fury, rejoice in it.

This morning was splendid. The great banana fronds under the still, blue sky looked truly tropical The mercury was 82 degrees at 7 A.M. The “tiger mosquitoes,” day torments, large mosquitoes with striped legs, a loud metallic hum, and a plethora of venom, were in full fury from daylight. Ammonia does not relieve their bites as it does those of the night mosquitoes, and I am covered with inflamed and confluent lumps as large as the half of a bantam’s egg. But these and other drawbacks, I know from experience, will soon be forgotten, and I shall remember only the beauty, the glory, and the intense enjoyment of this day.

Quite early the Rajah Moussa arrived in a baju of rich, gold-colored silk, which suited his swarthy complexion. He sat in the room pretending to look over the Graphic, but in reality watching me, as I wrote to you, just as I should watch an ouf. At last he asked how many Japanese I had killed!!!!

The succession is here hereditary in the male line, and this Rajah Moussa is the Sultan’s eldest son. The Sultan receives 2,000 pounds a year out of the revenue, and this Rajah 960 pounds.

The Resident arrived at nine, wearing a very fine dress sword, and gold epaulettes on his linen coat; and under a broiling sun we all walked through a cleared part of the jungle, through palms and bananas, to the reception at the Sultan’s, which was the “motive” of our visit. The Sultan, Abdulsamat, has three houses in a beautiful situation, at the end of a beautiful valley. They are in the purest style of Malay architecture, and not a Western idea appears anywhere. The wood of which they are built is a rich brown red. The roofs are very high and steep, but somewhat curved. The architecture is simple, appropriate, and beautiful The dwelling consists of the Sultan’s house, a broad, open passage, and then the women’s house or harem. At the end of the above passage is the audience-hall, and the front entrance to the Sultan’s house is through a large porch which forms a convenient reception room on occasions like that of yesterday.

From this back passage or court a ladder, with rungs about two feet apart, leads into the Sultan’s house, and a step-ladder into the women’s house. Two small boys, entirely naked, were incongruous objects sitting at the foot of the ladder. Here we waited for him, two files of policemen being drawn up as a guard of honor. He came out of the women’s house very actively, shook hands with each of us (obnoxious custom!), and passed through the lines of police round to the other side of his house into the porch, the floor of which was covered with fine matting nearly concealed by handsome Persian rugs.

The Sultan sat on a high-backed, carved chair or throne. All the other chairs were plain. The Resident sat on his right, I on his left, and on my left the Rajah Moussa, with other sons of the sultan, and some native princes. Mr. Syers acted as interpreter. Outside there were double lines of military police, and the bright adjacent slopes were covered with the Sultan’s followers and other Malays. The balcony of the audience-hall, which has a handsome balustrade, was full of Malay followers in bright reds and cool white. It was all beautiful, and the palms rustled in the soft air, and bright birds and butterflies flew overhead, rejoicing in mere existence.

If Abdulsamat were not Sultan, I should pick him out as the most prepossessing Malay that I have seen. He is an elderly man, with iron-gray hair, a high and prominent brow, large, prominent, dark, eyes, a well-formed nose, and a good mouth. The face is bright, kindly, and fairly intelligent. He is about the middle height. His dress became him well, and he looked comfortable in it though he had not worn it before. It was a rich, black velvet baju or jacket, something like a loose hussar jacket, braided, frogged, and slashed with gold, trousers with a broad gold strip on the outside, a rich silk sarong in checks and shades of red, and a Malay printed silk handkerchief knotted round his head, forming a sort of peak. No Mohammedan can wear a hat with a rim or stiff crown, or of any kind which would prevent him from bowing his forehead to the earth in worship.

The Resident read the proceedings of the council of the day before, and the Sultan confirmed them. The nominal approval of measures initiated by the Resident and agreed to in council, and the signing of death-warrants, are among the few prerogatives which “his Highness” retains. Then a petition for a pension from Rajah Brean was read, the Rajah, a slovenly-looking man, being present. The petition was refused, and the Sultan, in refusing it, spoke some very strong words about idleness, which seems a great failing of Rajah Brean’s but it has my strong sympathy, for —

“ — Why

Should life all labor be? —

There is no joy but calm;

Why should we only toil, the roof and crown of things?”

During the reception a richly-dressed attendant sat on the floor with an iron tube like an Italian iron in his hand, in which he slowly worked an arrangement which might be supposed to be a heater up and down. I thought that he might be preparing betel-nut, but Mr. Douglas said that he was working a charm for the Sultan’s safety, and it was believed that if he paused some harm would happen. Another attendant, yet more richly dressed, carried a white scarf fringed and embroidered with gold over one shoulder, and two vases of solid gold, with their surfaces wrought by exquisite workmanship into flowers nearly as delicate as filigree work. One of these contained betel-nut, and the other sirih leaves. Meanwhile the police, with their bayonets flashing in the sun, and the swarthy, richly-costumed throng on the palm-shaded slopes, were a beautiful sight. The most interesting figure to me was that of the reforming heir, the bigoted Moslem in his gold-colored baju, with his swarthy face, singular and almost sinister expression, and his total lack of all Western fripperies of dress. I think that there may be trouble when he comes to the throne, at least if the present arrangements continue. He does not look like a man who would be content to be a mere registrar of the edicts of “a dog of an infidel.”

The Sultan has a “godown” containing great treasures, concerning which he leads an anxious life — hoards of diamonds and rubies, and priceless damascened krises, with scabbards of pure gold wrought into marvelous devices and incrusted with precious stones. On Mr. Douglas’s suggestion (as I understood) he sent a kris with an elaborate gold scabbard to the Governor, saying: “It is not from the Sultan to the Governor, but from a friend to a friend.” He seems anxious for Selangor to “get on.” He is making a road at Langat at his own expense; and acting, doubtless, under British advice, has very cordially agreed that the odious system of debt slavery shall be quietly dropped from among the institutions of Selangor.

When this audience was over I asked to be allowed to visit the Sultana, and, with Mrs. Ferney as interpreter, went to the harem, accompanied by the Rajah Moussa. It is a beautiful house, of one very large, lofty room, part of which is divided into apartments by heavy silk curtains. One end of it is occupied by a high dais covered with fine mats, below which is another dais covered with Persian carpets. On this the Sultana received us, the Rajah Moussa, who is not her son, and ourselves sitting on chairs. If I understood rightly that this prince is not her son, I do not see how it is that he can go into the women’s apartments. Two guards sat on the floor just within the door, and numbers of women, some of them in white veils, followers of the Sultana, sat in rows also on the floor.

It must be confessed that the “light of the harem” is not beautiful. She looks nearly middle-aged. She is short and fat, with a flat nose, open wide nostrils, thick lips, and filed teeth, much blackened by betel-nut chewing. Her expression is pleasant, and her manner is prepossessing. She wore a rich, striped, red silk sarong, and a very short, green silk kabaya with diamond clasps; but I saw very little of her dress or herself, because she was almost enveloped in a pure white veil of a fine woolen material spangled with gold stars, and she concealed so much of her face with it, in consequence of the presence of the Rajah Moussa, that I only rarely got a glimpse of the magnificent diamond solitaires in her ears. Our conversation was not brilliant, and the Sultana looked to me as if she had attained nirvana, and had “neither ideas nor the consciousness of the absence of ideas.” We returned and took leave of the Sultan, and after we left I caught a glimpse of him lounging at ease in a white shirt and red sarong, all his gorgeousness having disappeared.

After we returned to the bungalow the Sultan sent me a gift. Eight attendants dressed in pure white came into the room in single file, and each bowing to the earth, sat down a brass salver, with its contents covered with a pure white cloth. Again bowing, they uncovered them, and displayed the fruitage of the tropics. There were young cocoa-nuts, gold-colored bananas of the kind which the Sultan eats, papayas, and clusters of a species of jambu, a pear-shaped fruit, beautiful to look at, each fruit looking as if made of some transparent, polished white wax with a pink flush on one side. The Rajah Moussa also arrived and took coffee, and the verandas were filled with his followers. Every Rajah goes about attended, and seems to be esteemed according to the size of his following.

We left this remote and beautiful place at noon, and after a delightful cruise of five hours down the Jugra, and among islands floating on a waveless sea, we reached dreary, decayed Klang in the evening.

I. L. B.

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/b/bird/isabella/golden/chapter19.html

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