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

Letter xvii

The Dindings — The Tragedy on Pulu Pangkor — A Tropic Sunrise — Sir W. Robinson’s Departure — “A Touch of the Sun” — Kling Beauty — A Question and Answer — The Bazaars of Georgetown — The Chinaman Goes Ahead — The Products of Pinang — Pepper–Planting

HOTEL DE L’EUROPE, PINANG, February 9.

In the evening we reached the Dindings, a lovely group of small islands ceded to England by the Pangkor Treaty, and just now in the height of an unenviable notoriety. The sun was low and the great heat past, the breeze had died away, and in the dewy stillness the largest of the islands looked unspeakably lovely as it lay in the golden light between us and the sun, forest-covered to its steep summit, its rocky promontories running out into calm, deep, green water, and forming almost land-locked bays, margined by shores of white coral sand backed by dense groves of cocoa-palms whose curving shadows lay dark upon the glassy sea. Here and there a Malay house in the shade indicated man and his doings, but it was all silent.

On a high, steep point there is a small clearing on which stands a mat bungalow with an attap roof, and below this there is a mat police station, but it was all desolate, nothing stirred, and though we had intended to spend the early hours of the night at the Dindings, we only lay a short time in the deep shadow upon the clear green water, watching scarlet fish playing in the coral forests, and the exquisite beauty of the island with its dense foliage in dark relief against the cool lemon sky. Peace brooded over the quiet shores, heavy aromatic odors of night-blooming plants wrapped us round, the sun sank suddenly, the air became cool, it was a dream of tropic beauty.

“Chalakar! Bondo!” Those jarring sounds seemed to have something linking them with the tragedy of which the peaceful-looking bungalow was lately the scene, and of which you have doubtless read. A Chinese gang swooped down upon the house from behind, beating gongs and shouting. Captain Lloyd got up to see what was the matter, and was felled by a hatchet, calling out to his wife for his revolver. This had been abstracted, and the locks had been taken off his fowling-pieces. The ayah fled to the jungle in the confusion, taking with her the three children, the youngest only four weeks old. The wretches then fractured, Mrs. Lloyd’s skull with the hatchet, and having stunned Mrs. Innes, who was visiting her, they pushed the senseless bodies under the bed, and were preparing to set fire to it when something made them depart.

No more is likely to be known. The police must either have been cowardly or treacherous. The Pyah Pekket called the next day and brought the frightfully mangled corpse, Mrs. Lloyd, whose reason was overturned, and Mrs. Innes, on here. It is supposed that the Chinese secret societies have frustrated justice. A wretch is to be hanged here for the crime this morning on his own confession, but it is believed that he was doomed to sacrifice himself by one of these societies, in order to screen the real murderers. The contrast was awful between the island looking so lovely in the evening light, and this horrid deed which has desolated it.

The mainland approaches close to the Dindings, but the mangrove swamps of Selangor had given place to lofty ranges, forest covered, and a white coral strand fringed with palms. It was a lovely night. The north-east monsoon was fresh and steady, and the stars were glorious. It was very hot below, but when I went up on deck it was cool, and in the colored dawn we were just running up to the island-group of which Pinang is the chief, and reached the channel which divides it from Leper Island just at sunrise. All these islands are densely wooded, and have rocky shores. The high mountains of the native State of Kedah close the view to the north, and on the other side of a very narrow channel are the palm groves and sugar plantations of Province Wellesley. The Leper Island looked beautiful in the dewy morning with its stilted houses under the cocoa-palms; and the island of Pinang, with its lofty peak, dense woods, and shores fringed with palms sheltering Malay kampongs, each with its prahus drawn up on the beach, looked impressive enough.

The fierce glory of a tropic sunrise is ever a new delight. It is always the sun of the Nineteenth Psalm, with the prevailing yellow color of the eastern sky intensifying in one spot, a cool, lingering freshness, a deepening of the yellow east into a brilliant rose color, till suddenly, “like a glory, the broad sun” wheels above the horizon, the dew-bathed earth rejoices, the air is flooded with vitality, all things which rejoice in light and heat come forth, night birds and night prowlers retire, and we pale people hastily put up our umbrellas to avoid being shriveled in less than ten minutes from the first appearance of the sun.

“Pinang,” from the Pinang or areca-palm, is the proper name of the island, but out of compliment to George IV, it was called Prince of Wales Island. Georgetown is the name of the capital, but by an odd freak we call the town Penang, and spell it with an e instead of an i.

There were a great many ships and junks at anchor, and the huge “P. and O.” steamer Peking, and there was a state of universal hurry and excitement, for a large number of the officials of the Colonial Government and of the “protected” States are here to meet Sir W. Robinson, the Governor, who is on his way home on leave. There are little studies of human nature going on all round. Most people have “axes to grind.” There are people pushing rival claims, some wanting promotion, others leave; some frank and above-board in their ways, others descending to mean acts to gain favor, or undermining the good reputation of their neighbors; everybody wanting something, and usually, as it seems, at the expense of somebody else!

Mr. Douglas, who had got up his men in most imposing costume, anchored the Abdulsamat close to the Peking, and at once went on board, with the kris with the gold hilt and scabbard presented by the Sultan of Selangor. In the meantime the Governor sent for me to breakfast on board, and I was obliged to go among clean, trim people without having time to change my traveling dress. On deck I was introduced by the Governor to Mr. Low, the Resident in Perak, who has arranged for my transit thither, and to Mr. Maxwell, the Assistant Resident. I was so glad that I had no claims of my own to push when I saw the many perturbed and anxious faces. I sat next Sir William Robinson at breakfast, and found him most kind and courteous, and he interested himself in my impressions of the native States. No one could make out the flags on the Selangor yacht, four squares placed diagonally, two yellow and two red, in one of the red ones a star and crescent in yellow, and on the mizzenmast the same flag with a blue ensign as one of the squares! I wonder if the faineant Sultan who luxuriates at Langat knows anything of the sensationalism of his “yacht.”

Mr. Douglas took me back to the launch in fierce blazing heat, which smote me just as I put down my umbrella in order to climb up her side, and caused me to fall forward with a sort of vertigo and an icy chill, but as soon as I arrived here I poured deluges of cold water on my head, and lay down with an iced bandage on, and am now much better. In nine months of tropical traveling, and exposure on horseback without an umbrella to the full force of the sun, I have never been affected before. I wear a white straw hat with the sides and low crown thickly wadded. I also have a strip four inches broad of three thicknesses of wadding, sewn into the middle of the back of my jacket, and usually wear in addition a coarse towel wrung out in water, folded on the top of my head, and hanging down the back of my neck.

Soon after I came into the salon Mr. Wood, the Puisne Judge, a very genial, elderly man, called and took me to his house, where I found a very pleasant party, Sir Thomas Sidgreaves, the Chief Justice, Mr. Maxwell, the Assistant Resident in Perak, Mr. Walker, appointed to the (acting) command of the Sikh force in Perak, and Mr. Kinnersley, a Pinang magistrate, with Mr. Isemonger, the police magistrate of the adjacent Province Wellesley. With an alteration in the names of places and people, the conversation was just what I have heard in all British official circles from Prince Edward Island to Singapore, who was likely to go home on leave, who might get a step, whether the Governor would return, what new appointments were likely to be created, etc., the interest in all these matters being intensified by the recent visit of Sir W. Robinson. It was all pleasant and interesting to me.

This evening the moonlight from the window was entrancingly beautiful, the shadows of promontory behind promontory lying blackly on the silver water amidst the scents and silences of the purple night.

As one lands on Pinang one is impressed even before reaching the shore by the blaze of color in the costumes of the crowds which throng the jetty. There are over fifteen thousand Klings, Chuliahs, and other natives of India on the island, and with their handsome but not very intellectual faces, their Turkey-red turbans and loin-cloths, or the soft, white muslins in which both men and women drape themselves, each one might be an artist’s model. The Kling women here are beautiful and exquisitely draped, but the form of the cartilage of the nose and ears is destroyed by heavy rings. There are many Arabs, too, who are wealthy merchants and bankers. One of them, Noureddin, is the millionaire of Pinang, and is said to own landed property here to the extent of 400,000 pounds. There are more than twenty-one thousand Malays on the island, and though their kampongs are mostly scattered among the palm- groves, their red sarongs and white bajus are seen in numbers in the streets; but I have not seen one Malay woman. There are about six hundred and twelve Europeans in the town and on Pinang, but they make little show, though their large massive bungalows, under the shade of great bread-fruit and tamarind-trees, give one the idea of wealth and solidity.

The sight of the Asiatics who have crowded into Georgetown is a wonderful one, Chinese, Burmese, Javanese, Arabs, Malays, Sikhs, Madrassees, Klings, Chuliahs, and Parsees, and still they come in junks and steamers and strange Arabian craft, and all get a living, depend slavishly on no one, never lapse into pauperism, retain their own dress, customs, and religion, and are orderly. One asks what is bringing this swarthy, motley crowd from all Asian lands, from the Red to the Yellow Sea, from Mecca to Canton, and one of my Kling boatmen answers the question, “Empress good — coolie get money; keep it.” This being interpreted is, that all these people enjoy absolute security of life and property under our flag, that they are certain of even-handed justice in our colonial courts, and that “the roll of the British drum” and the presence of a British iron-clad mean to them simply that security which is represented to us by an efficient police force. It is so strange to see that other European countries are almost nowhere in this strange Far East. Possibly many of the Chinese have heard of Russia, but Russia, France, Germany, and America, the whole lot of the “Great Powers” are represented chiefly by a few second-rate war-ships, or shabby consulates in back streets, while England is a “name to conjure with,” and is represented by prosperous colonies, powerful protective forces, law, liberty, and security. These ideas are forced so strongly upon me as I travel westward, that I almost fear that I am writing in a “hifalutin” style, so I will only add that I think that our Oriental Grand Vizier knew Oriental character and the way of influencing Oriental modes of thinking better than his detractors when he added et Imperatrix to the much loved V. R.

This is truly a brilliant place under a brilliant sky, but Oh I weary for the wilds! There is one street, Chulia Street, entirely composed of Chulia and Kling bazaars. Each sidewalk is a rude arcade, entered by passing through heavy curtains, when you find yourself in a narrow, crowded passage, with deep or shallow recesses on one side, in which the handsome, brightly-dressed Klings sit on the floor, surrounded by their bright-hued goods; and over one’s head and all down the narrow, thronged passage, noisy with business, are hung Malay bandannas, red turban cloths, red sarongs in silk and cotton, and white and gold sprinkled muslins, the whole length of the very long bazaar, blazing with color, and picturesque beyond description with beautiful costume. The Klings are much pleasanter to buy from than the Chinese. In addition to all the brilliant things which are sold for native wear, they keep large stocks of English and German prints, which they sell for rather less than the price asked for them at home, and for less than half what the same goods are sold for at the English shops.

I am writing as if the Klings were predominant, but they are so only in good looks and bright colors. Here again the Chinese, who number forty-five thousand souls, are becoming commercially the most important of the immigrant races, as they have long been numerically and industrially. In Georgetown, besides selling their own and all sorts of foreign goods at reasonable rates in small shops, they have large mercantile houses, and, as elsewhere, are gradually gaining a considerable control over the trade of the place. They also occupy positions of trust in foreign houses, and if there were a strike among them all business, not excepting that of the Post Office, would come to a standstill. I went into the Mercantile Bank and found only Chinese clerks, in the Post Office and only saw the same, and when I went to the “P. and O.” office to take my berth for Ceylon, it was still a Chinaman, imperturbable, taciturn, independent, and irreproachably clean, with whom I had to deal in “pidjun English.” They are everywhere the same, keen, quick-witted for chances, markedly self-interested, purpose-like, thrifty, frugal, on the whole regarding honesty as the best policy, independent in manner as in character, and without a trace of “Oriental servility.”

Georgetown, February 11th. — I have not seen very much in my two days; indeed, I doubt whether there is much to see, in my line at least; nor has the island any interesting associations as Malacca has, or any mystery of unexplored jungle as in Sungei Ujong and Selangor. Pinang came into our possession in 1786, through the enterprise of Mr. Light, a merchant captain, who had acquired much useful local knowledge by trading to Kedah and other Malay States. The Indian Government desired a commercial “emporium” and a naval station in the far east, and Mr. Light recommended this island, then completely covered with forest, and only inhabited by two migratory families of Malay fishermen, whose huts were on the beach where this town now stands. In spite of romantic stories of another kind, to which even a recent encyclopedia gives currency, it seems that the Rajah of Kedah, to whom the island belonged, did not bestow it on Mr. Light, but sold it to the British Government for a stipulated payment of 2,000 pounds a year, which his successor receives at this day.

It is little over thirteen miles long; and from five to ten broad. It is a little smaller than the Isle of Wight, its area being one hundred and seven square miles.

The roads are excellent. After one has got inside of the broad belt of cocoa and areca palms which runs along the coast, one comes upon beautiful and fertile country, partly level, and partly rolling, with rocks of granite and mica-schist, and soil of a shallow but rich vegetable mould, with abundance of streams and little cascades, dotted all over with villas (very many of them Chinese) and gardens, and planted with rice, pepper and fruits, while cloves and nutmegs, which last have been long a failure, grow on the higher lands. The centre of Pinang is wooded and not much cultivated, but on the south and south-west coasts there are fine sugar, coffee and pepper plantations. The coffee looks very healthy. From the ridges in the centre of the island the ground rises toward the north, till, at the Peak, it reaches the height of two thousand nine hundred and twenty-two feet. There is a sanitarium there with a glorious view, and a delicious temperature ranging from 60 degrees to 75 degrees, while in the town and on the low lands it ranges from 80 degrees to 90 degrees. A sea breeze blows every day, and rain falls throughout the year, except in January and February. The vegetation is profuse, but less beautiful and tropical than on the mainland, and I have seen very few flowers except in gardens.

The products are manifold — guavas, mangoes, lemons, oranges, bananas, plantains, shaddocks, bread-fruit, etc.; and sugar, rice, sweet potatoes, ginger, areca, and cocoa-nuts, coffee, cloves, some nutmegs, and black and white pepper. My gharrie driver took me to see a Chinese pepper plantation — to me the most interesting thing that I saw on a very long and hot drive. Pepper is a very profitable crop. The vine begins to bear in three or four years after the cuttings have been planted, and yields two crops annually for about thirteen years. It is an East Indian plant, rather pretty, but of rambling and untidy growth, a climber, with smooth, soft stems, ten or twelve feet long, and tough, broadly ovate leaves. It is supported much as hops are. When the berries on a spike begin to turn red they are gathered, as they lose pungency if they are allowed to ripen. They are placed on mats, and are either trodden with the feet or rubbed by the hands to separate them from the spike, after which they are cleaned by winnowing. Black pepper consists of such berries wrinkled and blackened in the process of drying, and white pepper of similar berries freed from the skin and the fleshy part of the fruit by being soaked in water and then rubbed. Some planters bleach with chlorine to improve the appearance; but this process, as may be supposed, does not improve the flavor.

In these climates the natives use enormous quantities of pepper, as they do of all hot condiments, and the Europeans imitate them.

Although there are so many plantations, a great part of Pinang is uncleared, and from the peak most of it looks like a forest. It contains ninety thousand inhabitants, the Chinese more than equaling all the other nationalities put together. Its trade, which in 1860 was valued at 3,500,000 pounds, is now (1880) close upon 8,000,000 pounds, Pinang being, like Singapore, a great entrepot and “distributing point.”

Now for the wilds once more!

I. L. B.

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/b/bird/isabella/golden/chapter22.html

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