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

Letter xv

Tiger Mosquitoes — Insect Torments — A Hadji’s Fate — Malay Custom — Oaths and Lies — A False Alarm


I have had two days of supposed quiet here after the charming expedition to Langat. The climate seems very healthy. The mercury has been 87 degrees daily, but then it falls to 74 degrees at night. The barometer, as is usual so near the equator, varies only a few tenths of an inch during the year. The rainfall is about 130 inches annually. It is most abundant in January, February and March, and at the change of the monsoon, and there is enough all the year round to keep vegetation in beauty. Here, on uninteresting cleared land with a featureless foreground and level mangrove swamps for the middle distance, it must be terribly monotonous to have no change of seasons, no hope of the mercury falling below 80 degrees in the daytime, or of a bracing wind, or of any marked climatic changes for better or worse all life through.

The mosquitoes are awful, but after a few months of more or less suffering the people who live here become inoculated by the poison, and are more bothered than hurt by the bites. I am almost succumbing to them. The ordinary pests are bad enough, for just when the evenings become cool, and sitting on the veranda would be enjoyable; they begin their foray, and specially attack the feet and ankles; but the tiger mosquitoes of this region bite all day, and they do embitter life. In the evening all the gentlemen put on sarongs over their trousers to protect themselves, and ladies are provided with sarongs which we draw over our feet and dresses, but these wretches bite through two “ply” of silk or cotton; and, in spite of all precautions, I am dreadfully bitten on my ankles, feet, and arms, which are so swollen that I can hardly draw on my sleeves, and for two days stockings have been an impossibility, and I have had to sew up my feet daily in linen! The swellings from the bites have become confluent, and are scarlet with inflammation. It is truly humiliating that “the crown of things” cannot defend himself against these minute enemies, and should be made as miserable as I am just now.

But it is a most healthy climate, and when I write of mosquitoes, land leeches, centipedes and snakes, I have said my say as to its evils. I will now confess that I was bitten by a centipede in my bath-house in Sungei Ujong, but I at once cut the bite deeply with a penknife, squeezed it, and poured ammonia recklessly over it, and in a few hours the pain and swelling went off.

I had been to the fort, the large barrack of the military police, and Mr. Syers showed me many things. In the first place, a snake about eight feet long was let out and killed. The Malays call this a “two-headed” snake, and there is enough to give rise to the ignorant statement, for after the proper head was dead the tail stood up and moved forward. The skin of this reptile was marked throughout with broad bands of black and white alternately. There was an ill-favored skull of a crocodile hanging up to dry, with teeth three inches long. One day lately a poor Hadji was carried off by one, and shortly afterwards this monster was caught, and on opening it they found the skull of the Hadji, part of his body, a bit of his clothing, and part of a goat. I brought away as spoils tiger’s teeth and claws, crocodile’s teeth, bear’s teeth, etc.

I went also to the Government offices. The skin of a superb tiger, which was killed close to Klang after it had devoured six men, decorated the entrance. I heard two cases tried before the Resident. The first criminal was a Malay, who was “in trouble” for the very British crime of nearly beating his wife to death. She said she did not want to prosecute him, but to get a divorce. She was told to apply to the Imaum, and the man was bound over to keep the peace for six months. The next case was a very common one here, and the court was crowded with Chinese onlookers. A Chinaman had bought a girl (very nice-looking she was), and now a man wants to marry her, upon which her owner produces a promissory note from her, and demands $165 as her price! It was impossible to make him understand that the transaction is utterly illegal and immoral. The Resident addressed some very strong and just words to this man in reprobation of his conduct, which were translated for the benefit of the crowd.

I cannot elicit anything very definite, here or elsewhere, about the legal system under which criminals are tried in these States. Apparently, murder, robbery, forgery, and violent assault come under English criminal law, and must be equally punishable whether committed by a Briton, a Chinaman, or a Malay. But then nobody, except a Christian, can be punished for bigamy. So criminal law even undergoes modification by local custom; and the four wives of the Mussulman, and the subordinate wives of the Chinaman, have an equal claim to recognition with the one wife of the Englishman. Even Mohammedan law, by which the Malays profess to be ruled, is modified by Malay custom, which asserts itself specially in connection with marriage, its frequent attendant repudiation, and inheritance.

The “Malay custom” (adat Malayu) seems to have been originally a just and equitable code, though ofttimes severe in its punishments, as you will see if you can get Newbold’s Malacca, and was probably suited to the people; but it has undergone such clippings and emendations by the successive Rajahs or Sultans of these native States, that the custom now in force bears a very faint resemblance to the original adat. It is said, indeed, that each alteration has been for the worse, and that now any chief who introduces anything of his own will, justifies it as “adat Malayu.” Mr. Swettenham, the Assistant Colonial Secretary, says that the few upright Rajahs who exist say that there is no longer any “adat Malayu,” but that everything is done by “adat Suka hate,” i.e., the custom by which a man can best suit his own inclination.

So it seems that a most queerly muddled system of law prevails under our flag, Mohammedan law, modified by degenerate and evil custom, and to some extent by the discretion of the residents, existing alongside of fragments of English criminal law, or more perhaps correctly of “justice’s justice,” the Resident’s notions of “equity,” overriding all else.* Surely, as we have practically acquired those States, and are responsible for their good government, we ought to give them the blessing of a simple code of law, of which the residents shall be only the responsible interpreters, modified by the true “Malay custom” of course, but under the same conditions which are giving such growing satisfaction to the peoples of India and Ceylon.

[*A Colonial friend tells me that he asked an English magistrate in one of the native States, by what law — English, Colonial, or Malay — he had sentenced some culprits to three years’ imprisonment, and that the reply was a shrug, and “The rascals were served right.”]

The oaths are equally inscrutable, and probably no oath, however terrible in formula, would restrain a Chinese coolie witness from telling a lie, if he thought it would be to his advantage.*

[*Sir Benson Maxwell, late Chief Justice of the Straits Settlements, to whose kindness I am much indebted, wrote to me lately thus: “In China I believe an oath is rarely taken; when it is, it is in the form of an imprecation. The witness cuts off a cock’s head, and prays that he may be so treated if he speaks falsely.” “Would you cut off a cock’s head to that?” I once asked a Chinese witness who had made a statement which I did not believe. “I would cut off an elephant’s head to it,” he replied. In the Colonial courts, Chinamen are sworn by burning a piece of paper on which is written some imprecation on themselves if they do not speak the truth.]

I went to see the jail, a tolerable building — a barred cage below, and a long room above — standing in a graveled courtyard, surrounded by a high wall. Formerly there were no prisons, and criminals were punished on the spot, either by being krissed, shot, or flogged. Here they have a liberal diet of rice and salt fish, and “hard labor” is only mild work on the roads. The prisoners, forty-two adult men, were drawn up in a row, and Mr. Syers called the roll, telling the crime of each man, and his conduct in prison; and most of those who had conducted themselves well were to be recommended to the Sultan for remission of part of their sentences. “Flog them if they are lazy,” the Resident often said; but Mr. Syers says that he never punishes them except under aggravated circumstances. The prisoners are nearly all Chinamen, and their crimes are mostly murder, gang-robbery, assault, and theft. About half of them were in chains. There is an unusual mortality in the prison, attributed, though possibly not attributable, to the enforced disuse of opium. We went also to the hospital, mainly used by the police, a long airy shed, with a broad shelf on each side. Mr. Klyne, the apothecary, a half-caste, has a good many Malay dispensary patients.

On our return, four Malay women, including the Imaum’s wife, came to see me. Each one would have made a picturesque picture, but they had no manners, and seized on my hands, which are coarsened, reddened, and swelled from heat and mosquito bites, all exclaiming, “chanti! chanti!” — pretty! pretty! I wondered at their bad taste, specially as they had very small and pretty hands themselves, with almond-shaped nails.

In the evening the “establishment” dined at the Residency. After dinner, as we sat in the darkness in the veranda, maddened by mosquito bites, about 9:30, the bugle at the fort sounded the “alarm,” which was followed in a few seconds by the drum beating “to quarters,” and in less than five minutes every approach to the Residency was held by men with fixed bayonets, and fourteen rounds of ball-cartridges each in their belts, and every road round Klang was being patrolled by pickets. I knew instinctively that it was “humbug,” arranged to show the celerity with which the little army could be turned out; and shortly an orderly arrived with a note — “False alarm;” but Klang never subsided all night, and the Klings beat their tom-toms till daylight. I am writing at dawn now, in order that my letter may “catch the mail.”

I. L. B.

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