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

Letter xvi

A Yachting Voyage — The Destruction of Selangor — Varieties of Slime — Swamp Fever — An Unprosperous Region — A “Deadly–Lively” Morning — A Waif and Stray — The Superintendent of Police

STEAM-LAUNCH “ABDULSAMAT” February 7.

You will certainly think, from the dates of my letters, that I am usually at sea. The Resident, his daughter, Mrs. Daly, Mr. Hawley, a revenue officer, and I, left Klang this morning at eight for a two days’ voyage in this bit of a thing. Blessed be “the belt of calms!” There was the usual pomp of a body-guard, some of whom are in attendance, and a military display on the pier, well drilled, and well officered in quiet, capable, admirable, unobtrusive Mr. Syers; but gentle Mrs. Douglas, devoted to her helpless daughter, standing above the jetty, a lone woman in forlorn, decayed Klang, haunts me as a vision of sadness, as I think of her sorrow and her dignified hospitality in the midst of it.

Now, at half-past eleven, we are aground with an ebb-tide on the bar of the Selangor river; so I may write a little, though I should like to be asleep.

Bernam River, Selangor, February 8th. — “Chi-laka!” (worthless good-for-nothing wretch), “Bodo!” (fool). I hear these words repeated incessantly in tones of thunder and fury, with accompaniments which need not be dwelt upon. The Malays are a revengeful people. If any official in British service were to knock them about and insult them, one can only say what has been said to me since I came to the native States: “Well, some day — all I can say is, God help him!” But then if an official were to be krissed, no matter how deservedly in Malay estimation, a gunboat would be sent up the river to “punish,” and would kill, burn, and destroy; there would be a “little war,” and a heavy war indemnity, and the true bearings of the case would be lost forever.

Yesterday, after a detention on the bar, we steamed up the broad, muddy Selangor river, margined by bubbling slime, on which alligators were basking in the torrid sun, to Selangor. Here the Dutch had a fort on the top of the hill. We destroyed it in August, 1871. Some Chinese whose connection with Selangor is not traceable, after murdering nearly everybody on board a Pinang-owned junk, took the vessel to Selangor. We demanded that the native chiefs should give up the pirates, and they gave up nine readily, but refused the tenth, against whom “it does not appear that there was any proof,” and drew their krises on our police when they tried to arrest the man in defiance of them. The (acting) Governor of the Straits Settlements, instead of representing to the Sultan the misconduct, actual or supposed, of his officers, sent a war-ship to seize and punish them. This attempt was resented by the Selangor chiefs, and they fired on those who made it. The Rinaldo destroyed the town in consequence, and killed many of its inhabitants.

When the Viceroy, a brother of the Sultan of Kedah, retook Selangor two years afterward, he found that what had been a populous and thriving place was almost deserted, the few hovels which remained were in ruins, the plantations were overgrown with rank jungle growths, and their owners had fled; the mines in the interior were deserted, and the roads and jungle paths were infested by bands of half-starved robbers.*

[*This account of Selangor does not rest on local hearsay, but on the authority of two of the leading officials of the Colonial Government.]

Selangor is a most wretched place — worse than Klang. On one side of the river there is a fishing village of mat and attap hovels on stilts raised a few feet above the slime of a mangrove swamp; and on the other an expanse of slime, with larger houses on stilts, and an attempt at a street of Chinese shops, and a gambling-den, which I entered, and found full of gamblers at noonday. The same place serves for a spirit and champagne shop. Slime was everywhere oozing, bubbling, smelling putrid in the sun, all glimmering, shining, and iridescent, breeding fever and horrible life; while land-crabs boring holes, crabs of a brilliant turquoise-blue color, which fades at death, and reptiles like fish, with great bags below their mouths, and innumerable armor-plated insects, were rioting in it under the broiling sun.

We landed by a steep ladder upon a jetty with a gridiron top, only safe for shoeless feet, and Mr. Hawley and I went up to the fort by steps cut in the earth. There are fine mango-trees on the slopes, said to have been planted by the Dutch two centuries ago. The fort is nearly oblong, and has a wall of stones and earth round it, in which, near the entrance, some of the Dutch brickwork is still visible. The trees round it are much tattered and torn by English shell. In front of the entrance there is a large flat stone on a rude support. On this a young girl was sacrificed some years ago, and the Malay guns were smeared with her blood, in the idea that it would make them successful. I was told this story, but have no means of testing its accuracy.

Within the fort the collector and magistrate — a very inert-looking Dutch half-caste — has a wretched habitation, mostly made of attap. We sat there for some time. It looked most miserable, the few things about being empty bottles and meat-tins. A man would need many resources, great energy, and an earnest desire to do his duty, in order to save him from complete degeneracy. He has no better prospect from his elevation, than a nearly level plateau of mangrove swamps and jungle, with low hills in the distance, in which the rivers rise. It was hot — rather.

In the meantime the Resident was trying a case, and when it was concluded we steamed out to sea and hugged all day the most monotonous coast I ever saw, only just, if just, above high-water mark, with a great level of mangrove swamps and dense jungle behind, with high, jungle-covered hills in the very far distance, a vast area of beast-haunted country, of which nothing is known by Europeans, and almost nothing by the Malays themselves. So very small a vessel tumbles about a good deal even with a very light breeze, and instead of going to dinner I lay on the roof of the cabin studying blue-books. At nightfall we anchored at the mouth of the Bernam river, to avoid the inland mosquitoes, but we must have brought some with us, for I was malignantly bitten. Mrs. Daly and I shared the lack of privacy and comfort of the cabin. Perfect though the Abdulsamat is, there is very little rest to be got in a small and overcrowded vessel, and besides, the heat was awful. I think we were not far enough from the swampy shore, for Mrs. Daly was seized with fever during the night, and a Malay servant also. In the morning Mrs. Daly. who is comely and has a very nice complexion, looked haggard, yellow, and much shaken.

At daylight we weighed anchor and steamed for many miles up the muddy, mangrove-fringed river Bernam, the mangroves occasionally varied by the nipah palm. We met several palm-trees floating with their roots and some of their fruits above the water, like those we saw yesterday evening out on the Malacca Straits, looking like crowded Malay prahus with tattered mat-sails.

Before nine we anchored at this place, whose wretchedness makes a great impression on me, because we are to deposit Mr. Hawley here as revenue collector. I have seen him every day for a week; he is amiable and courteous, as well as intelligent and energetic, and it is shocking to leave him alone in a malarious swamp. This dismal revenue station consists of a few exceptionally poor-looking Malay houses on the river bank, a few equally unprosperous-looking Chinese dwellings, a police station of dilapidated thatch among the trees, close to it a cage in which there is a half-human looking criminal lying on a mat, a new house or big room, raised for Mr. Hawley, with the swamp all round it and underneath it, and close to it some pestiferous ditches which have been cut to drain it, but in which a putrid-looking brown ooze has stagnated. There is a causeway about two hundred yards long on the river bank, but no road anywhere. The river is broad, deep, swift and muddy; on its opposite side is Perak, the finest State in the peninsula, and the cluster of mat houses on the farther shore is under the Perak Government.* Sampans are lying on the heated slime. Cocoa-nut trees fringe the river bank for some distance, and there are some large, spreading trees loaded with the largest and showiest crimson blossoms I ever saw, throwing even the gaudy Poinciana regia into the shade; but nothing can look very attractive here, with the swamp in front and the jungle behind, where the rhinoceros is said to roam undisturbed.

[*The Bernam district has recently been handed over to Perak, and is now under Mr. Low’s very capable administration.]

We landed in the police boat at a stilted jetty approached by a ladder with few and slippery rungs. At the top there was a primitive gridiron of loose nibong bars, and the river swirled so rapidly and dizzily below that I was obliged ignominiously to hold on to a Chinaman in order to reach the causeway safely. To add to the natural insecurity of the foothold, some men were killing a goat at the top of the ladder, and its blood made the whole gridiron slippery. The banks of the river are shining slime giving off fetid exhalations under the burning sun; there is a general smell of vegetable decomposition, and miasma fever (one would suppose) is exhaling from every bubble of the teeming slime and swamp.

In the veranda of Mr. Hawley’s house a number of forlorn-looking Rajahs are sitting, each with his forlorn-looking train of followers, and in front of the police station a number of forlorn-looking Malays are sitting motionless hour after hour. The Chinese have a row of shops above the river bank, and even on this deadly-looking shore they display some purpose and energy. Mrs. Daly and I are sitting in Mr. Hawley’s side veranda with the bubbling swamp below us. She reads a dull novel, I watch the dead life, pen in hand, and think how I can convey any impression of it to you. The Resident has gone snipe- shooting to replenish our larder. A boat now and then crosses from the Perak side, a sauntering Malay occasionally joins the squatting group, a fishing hawk now and then swoops down upon a fish, a policeman occasionally rouses up the wretch in the cage, and so the torrid hours pass.

I take this up again as the dew falls, and the sea takes on the coloring of a dying dolphin. The Resident returned with a good bag of snipe, and with Rajah Odoot, a gentle, timid-looking man, and another Rajah with an uncomfortable, puzzled face, took his place at a table, a policeman with a brace of loaded revolvers standing behind him. Policemen filed in; one or two cases were tried and dismissed, the Malay witnesses trembling from head to foot, and then the wretch from the cage was brought in looking hardly human, as, from under his shaggy, unshaven hair and unplaited pigtail which hung over his chest, he cast furtive, frightened glances at the array before him. He was charged with being a waif. A Malay had picked him up at sea in a boat, of which he could give no account, neither of himself. So he is supposed to have been implicated in the murder of Mr. Lloyd, and we are bringing him, heavily ironed, and his boat up to Pinang. I wonder how many of the feelings which we call human exist in the lowest order of Orientals! It is certain that many of them only regard kindness as a confession of weakness. The Chinese seem specially inscrutable; no one seems really to understand them. Even the Canton missionaries said that they knew nearly nothing of them and their feelings. This wretched criminal, with his possible association with a brutal murder, is a most piteous object on deck, and comes between me and the enjoyment of this entrancing evening.

We reembarked late in the afternoon, and with the flood-tide in our favor have left Selangor behind. It has impressed me unfavorably as compared with Sungei Ujong. Of Kwalor Lumpor I cannot give any opinion, but I have seen no signs of progress or life anywhere else. The people of the State are harassed by vexatious imposts which yield very little, cost a great deal to collect, repress industry, and drive away population. Among such are taxes on individuals moving about the country up or down the rivers, cutting wood or in boats, oppressively heavy export duties on certain kinds of produce, and ad valorem duties on all articles of import and export not otherwise specially taxed. The costs of litigation are enormous, and the legal expenses to litigants are as great as in settlements where with the same money every advantage can be obtained. The stamps on all legal documents are also oppressive. The various departments are said to be in a state of “hugger-mugger.”

With all this there is a good deal of display of military power on a small scale, and of such over-aweing implements as bayonets and revolvers, together with marching and counter-marching, body-guards and guards of honor. There must surely be a want of the right kind of vigor in the administration, and a “laisser aller” on the part of some of the minor officials, the result of which is that the great capabilities of the State are not developed, and its resources seem very little known. There has not been any disturbance in Selangor since 1874; and as neither the Sultan, the Malays, nor the Chinese have ever raised objections of any serious kind to the proposals of the British advisers, the “far back” state of things is very singular.

Mr. Syers, the superintendent of military police, appears a thoroughly efficient man, as sensible in his views of what would conduce to the advancement of the State as he is conscientious and careful in all matters of detail which concern his rather complicated position. He is a student of the people and of the country, speaks Malay fluently, and for a European seems to have a sympathetic understanding of the Malays, is studying the Chinese and their language, as well as the flora, fauna, and geology of the country, and is altogether unpretending. I have formed a very high opinion of him and should rely implicitly on anything which he told me as a fact. This is a great blessing, for conflicting statements on every subject, and the difficulty of estimating which one comes probably nearest the truth, are among the great woes of traveling!

I. L. B.

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