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

Letter xviii

Province Wellesley — Water Buffaloes — A Glorious Night — Perak Officials — A “Dismal Swamp” — Elephants at Home — An Epigrammatic Description — The British Residency at Taipeng — Sultan Abdulla’s Boys — A Chinese Mining Town — The “Armed Police” — An Alligator’s Victim — Major Swinburne — A Larut Dinner Party — A Morning Hymn

BRITISH RESIDENCY, LARUT, February 11.

I left Mr. Justice Wood’s yesterday, and his servant dispatched me from the jetty in a large boat with an attap awning and six Kling rowers, whose oars worked in nooses of rope. The narrow Strait was very calm, and the hot, fiery light of the tropic evening resting upon it, made it look like oil rather than water. In half an hour I landed on the other side in the prosperous Province Wellesley, under a row of magnificent casuarina trees, with gray, feathery foliage drooping over a beach of corals and, behind which are the solemn glades of cocoa-nut groves. On the little jetty a Sikh policeman waited for me; and presently Mrs. Isemonger, wife of the police magistrate of the Province, met me on the bright, green lawn studded with clumps of alamanda, which surrounds their lovely, palm-shaded bungalow.

Though the shadows were falling, Mr. Isemonger took me to see something of the back country in a trap with a fiery Sumatra pony. There are miles of cocoa-nut plantations belonging to Chinamen all along the coast, with the trees in straight lines forming long, broad avenues, which have a certain gloomy grandeur about them. Then come sugarcane and padi, and then palm plantations again.

The cocoa-nut palm grows best near salt water, no matter how loose and sandy the soil is, and in these congenial circumstances needs neither manure nor care of any kind. It bends lovingly toward the sea, and drops its ripe fruit into it. But if it is planted more than two hundred yards from the beach, it needs either rich or well-manured soil, or the proximity of human habitations. It begins to bear fruit between its fourth and tenth years, according to soil, and a well-placed, generous tree bears from one hundred and forty to one hundred and fifty nuts a year. They are of wonderfully slow growth. It is three months from the time the blossom appears before the fruit sets, then it takes six months to grow, and three months more to ripen, and after that will hang two months on the tree before it falls — fourteen months from the first appearance of the flower!

It is certainly not beautiful as grown in Province Wellesley, and I am becoming faithless to my allegiance to it in this region of areca and other more graceful palms.

In returning we saw many Malay kampongs under the palms, each with a fire lighted underneath it, and there were many other fires for the water-buffaloes, with groups of these uncouth brutes gathered invariably on the leeward side, glad to be smoked rather than bitten by the mosquitoes. These huge, thin-skinned animals have a strange antipathy to white people. They are petted and caressed by the Malays, and even small boys can do anything with them, and can ride upon their backs, but constantly when they see white people they raise their muzzles, and if there be room charge them madly. A buffalo is enormously strong, but he objects to the sun, and likes to bathe in rivers, and plaster himself with mud, and his tastes are much humored by his owners. A buffalo has often been known to vanquish a tiger when both have had fair play. Most of the drive back was accomplished by nearly incessant flashes of sheet lightning.

We had a most pleasant evening. Mrs. Isemonger, who is a sister of Mr. Maxwell, my present host, is gentle, thoughtful, well-informed, and studious, and instead of creating and living in an artificial English atmosphere which is apt to make a residence in a foreign country a very unproductive period, she has interested herself in the Malays, and has not only acquired an excellent knowledge of Malayan, but is translating a Malayan book.

I felt much humiliated by my ignorance of Province Wellesley, of which in truth I had never heard until I reached Malacca. It is a mere strip, however, only thirty-five miles long by about ten broad, but it is highly cultivated, fertile, rich, prosperous, and populous. From Pinang one sees its broad stretches of bright green sugar-cane and the chimneys of its sugar factories, and it grows rice and cocoa-nuts, and is actually more populous than Pinang or Malacca, and contains as many Malays as Sungei Ujong, Selangor and Pinang together — fifty-eight thousand! Mr. Maxwell had promised to bring the Kinta, a steam- launch, across from Georgetown by 8 P.M., and it shows how very pleasant the evening was, that though I was very tired, eight, nine, ten, and eleven came, and the conversation never flagged.

Soon after eleven the Kinta appeared, a black shadow on a silver sea, roaring for a boat, but the surf was so heavy that it was some time before the police boat was got off; and then Mr. Maxwell, whose cheery, energetic voice precedes him, and Mr. Walker landed, bullying everybody, as people often do when they know that they are the delinquents! It was lovely in the white moonlight with the curving shadows of palms on the dewy grass, the grace of the drooping casuarinas, the shining water, and the long drift of surf. It was hard to get off, and the surf broke into the boat; but when we were once through it, the sea was like oil, the oars dripped flame, and, seen from the water, the long line of surf broke on the shore not in snow, but in a long drift of greenish fire.

The Kinta is a steam-launch of the Perak Government. Her boilers, to use an expressive Japanese phrase, are “very sick,” and she is not nearly so fine as the Abdulsamat, but a quiet, peaceful boat, without any pretensions; and really any “old tub” is safe on the Straits of Malacca except in a “Sumatran.” I stayed on deck for some time enjoying the exquisite loveliness of the night, and the vivacity of two of my companions, Mr. Maxwell, the Assistant Resident here, a really able and most energetic man, very argumentative, bright, and pleasant; and Captain Walker, A.D.C. to Sir W. Robinson, on his way from the ceaseless gayeties of Government House at Singapore to take command of the Sikh military police in the solitary jungles of Perak. The third, Mr. Innes, Superintendent of Lower Perak, whose wife so nearly lost her life in the horrible affair at Pulo Pangkor, was in dejected spirits, as if the swamps of Durion Sabatang had been too much for him.

The little cabin below was frightfully hot, and I shared it not only with two nice Malay boys, sons of the exiled Abdullah, the late Sultan, who are being educated at Malacca, but with a number of large and rampant rats. Finding the heat and rats unbearable, I went on deck in the rosy dawn, just as we were entering the Larut river, a muddy stream, flowing swiftly between dense jungles and mangrove swamps, and shores of shining slime, on which at low water the alligators bask in the sun — one of the many rivers of the Peninsula which do not widen at their mouths.

The tide was high and the river brimming full, looking as if it must drown all the forest, and the trestle-work roots on which the mangroves are hoisted were all submerged. It is a silent, lonely land, all densely green. Many an uprooted palm with its golden plumes and wealth of golden husked nuts came floating down on the swirling waters, and many a narrow creek well suited for murder, overarched with trees, and up which one might travel far and still be among mangrove swamps and alligators, came down into the Larut river; and once we passed a small clearing, where some industrious Chinamen are living in huts on some festering slime between the river and the jungle; and once a police station on stilts, where six policemen stood in a row and saluted as we passed, and at seven we reached Teluk Kartang, with a pier, a long shed, two or three huts, and some officialism, white and partly white, all in a “dismal swamp.” A small but very useful Chinese trading steamer, the Sri Sarawak, was lying against the pier, and we landed over her filthy deck, on which filthy Chinese swine, among half-naked men almost as filthy, were wrangling for decomposing offal. Dismal as this place looks, an immense trade in imports and exports is done there; and all the tin from the rich mines of the district is sent thence to Pinang for transhipment.

While my friends transacted business, I waited for an age in an empty office where was one chair, a table dark with years of ink splotches, a mouldy inkstand, a piece of an old almanac, and an empty gin bottle. Outside, cockle-shells were piled against the wall; then there were ditches or streamlets cutting through profuse and almost loathsome vegetation, and shining slime fat and iridescent, swarming with loathsome forms of insect and reptile life all rioting under the fierce sun, and among them, almost odious by proximity to such vileness, were small crabs with shells of a heavenly blue. The strong vegetable stench was nearly overpowering, but I wrote to you and worked at your embroidery a little, and so got through this detention pleasantly, as through many a longer, though never a hotter one.

After a time three gharries arrived, and Mr. Innes and I went in one, the two other gentlemen in another, and Sultan Abdullah’s boys in the third. No amount of world-wide practice in the getting in and out of strange vehicles is any help to the tortuous process necessary for mounting and dismounting from a Larut gharrie. A gharrie is a two- wheeled cart with a seat across it for two people and a board in front on which the driver sits when he is not running by his horse. This board and the low roof which covers the whole produce the complication in getting in and out. The bottom of the cart is filled up with grass and leaves, and you put your feet on the board in front, and the little rats of fiery Sumatra ponies, which will run till they drop, jolt you along at great speed. Klings, untroubled by much clothing, own and drive these vehicles, which are increasing rapidly. The traffic on the road of heavy buffalo carts, loaded with tin, cuts it up so badly that without care one might often be thrown upon the pony’s back at the river end of it.

Near the port we met three elephants, the centre one of great size, rolling along, one of them with a mahout seated behind his great flapping ears. These are part of the regalia of the deposed Sultan, and were sent down from the interior for me and my baggage. The smallest of them would have carried me and my “Gladstone bag” and canvas roll. The first sight of “elephants at home” is impressive, but they are fearfully ugly, and their rolling gait does not promise well for the ease of my future journey.

We passed through a swampy, but busy-looking Chinese village, masculine almost solely, where Chinamen were building gharries and selling all such things as Chinese coolies buy, just the same there as everywhere, and at home there as everywhere; yellow, lean, smooth-shaven, keen, industrious, self-reliant, sober, mercenary, reliable, mysterious, opium-smoking, gambling, hugging clan ties, forming no others, and managing their own matters even to the post and money-order offices, through which they are constantly sending money to the interior of China. I hope that it is not true that they look at us, as a singularly able and highly educated Chinaman lately said to me that they do, as “the incarnation of brute force allied to brute vices!” This is a Chinese region, so the degression is excusable.

It was bright and hot, the glorious, equable equatorial heat, and when we got out of the mangrove swamps through which the road is causewayed, there was fine tropical foliage, and the trees were festooned with a large, blue Thunbergia of great beauty. It is eight miles from the landing at Teluk Kartang to Taipeng, where the British Residency is. The road crosses uninteresting level country, but every jolt brings one nearer to the Hijan mountains, which rise picturesquely from the plain to a height of over three thousand feet. In the distance there is an extraordinary “butte” or isolated hill, Gunong Pondok, a landmark for the whole region, and on the right to the east a grand mountain range, the highest peak of which cannot fall far short of eight thousand feet; and the blue-green ranges showing the foam of at least one waterfall almost helped one to be cool.

We reached Permatang, another Chinese village of some pretensions and population, near which are two very large two-storied Malay houses in some disrepair, in which the wife of the banished Mentri of Larut lives, with a number of slaves. A quantity of mirthful-looking slave girls were standing behind the window bars looking at us surreptitiously. We alighted at the house of Mr. Wynne, the Government Agent, who at once said something courteous and hospitable about breakfast, which I was longing for; but after I had had a bath I found that we were to pursue our journey, I regretting for the second time already Mr. Maxwell’s abstemiousness and power of going without food!

From this point we drove along an excellent road toward the mountains, over whose cool summits cloud mists now and then drifted; and near noon entered this important Chinese town, with a street about a mile long, with large bazaars and shops making a fine appearance, being much decorated in Chinese style; halls of meeting for the different tribes, gambling houses, workshops, the Treasury (a substantial dark wood building), large detached barracks for the Sikh police, a hospital, a powder magazine, a parade ground, a Government store-house, a large, new jail, neat bungalows for the minor English officials, and on the top of a steep, isolated terraced hill, the British Residency. This hill is really too steep for a vehicle to ascend, but the plucky pony and the Kling driver together pulled the gharrie up the zigzags in a series of spasms, and I was glad to get out of the sunshine into a cool, airy house, where there was a hope of breakfast, or rather tiffin.

The Residency is large and lofty, and thoroughly draughty, a high commendation so near the equator. It consists of a room about thirty feet wide by sixty long, and about twenty feet high at its highest part, open at both ends, the front end a great bow window without glass opening on an immense veranda. This room and its veranda are like the fore cabin of a great Clyde steamer. It has a red screen standing partly across it, the back part being used for eating, and the front for sitting and occupation. My bedroom and sitting-room, and the room in which Sultan Abdullah’s boys sleep are on one side, and Mr. Maxwell’s room and office on the other. Underneath are bath-rooms, and guard-rooms for the Sikh sentries. There are no ornaments or superfluities. There are two simple meals daily, with tea and bananas at 7 A.M., and afternoon tea at 5 P.M. Mr. Maxwell is most abstemious, and is energetically at work from an early hour in the morning. There is a perpetual coming and going of Malays, and an air of business without fuss. There is a Chinese “housemaid,” who found a snake, four feet long, coiled up under my down quilt yesterday, and a Malay butler, but I have not seen any other domestic.

Those boys of Sultan Abdullah’s are the most amusing children I ever saw. They are nine and twelve years old, with monkey-like, irrepressible faces. They have no ballast. They talk ceaselessly, and are very playful and witty, but though a large sum is being paid for their education at Malacca, they speak atrocious “pidjun,” and never use Malayan, in my hearing at least. They are never still for one instant; they chatter, read snatches from books, ask questions about everything, but are too volatile to care for the answers, turn somersaults, lean over my shoulders as I write, bring me puzzles, and shriek and turn head over heels when I can’t find them out, and jump on Mr. Maxwell’s shoulders begging for dollars. I like them very much, for, though they are so restless and mercurial, they are neither rude nor troublesome. They have kept the house alive with their antics, but they are just starting on my elephants for Kwala Kangsa, on a visit to the Regent. I wonder what will become of them? Their father is an exile in the Seychelles, and though it was once thought that one of them might succeed the reigning Rajah, another Rajah is so popular with the Malays, and so intelligent, that it is now unlikely that his claims will be set aside.

The steep little hill on which the Residency stands is planted with miserable coffee, with scanty yellow foliage. The house on my side has a magnificent view of the beautiful Hijan hills, down which a waterfall tumbles in a broad sheet of foam only half a mile off, and which breed a rampageous fresh breeze for a great part of the day. The front veranda looks down on Taipeng and other Chinese villages, on neat and prolific Chinese vegetable gardens, on pits, formerly tin mines, now full of muddy, stagnant water, on narrow, muddy rivulets bearing the wash of the tin mines to the Larut river, on all the weediness and forlornness of a superficially exhausted mining region, and beyond upon an expanse of jungle, the limit of which is beyond the limit of vision, miles of tree tops as level as the ocean, over which the cloud shadows sail in purple all day long. In the early morning the parade ground is gay with “thin red” lines of soldiers, and all day long with a glass I can see the occupations and bustle of Taipeng.

Taipeng is a thriving, increasing place, of over six thousand inhabitants, solely Chinese, with the exception of a small Kling population, which keeps small shops, lends money, drives gharries and bullock-carts, and washes clothes. This place was the focus of the disturbances in 1873, and the Chinese seem still to need to be held in check, for they are not allowed to go out at night without passes and lanterns. They are miners, except those who keep the innumerable shops which supply the miners, and some of them are rich. Taipeng is tolerably empty during the day, but at dusk, when the miners return, the streets and gambling dens are crowded, and the usual Babel of Chinese tongues begins. There are scarcely any Malays in the town.

Mr. Maxwell walks and rides about everywhere unattended and without precautions, but Sikh sentries guard this house by night and day. They wear large blue turbans, scarlet coats and white trousers. There are four hundred and fifty of them, recruited in India from among the Sikhs and Pathans, and many of them have seen service under our flag. They are, to all intents and purposes, soldiers, drilled and disciplined as such, though called “Armed Police,” and are commanded by Major Swinburne of the 80th Regiment. There is a half battery of mountain train rifled guns, and many of these men are drilled as gunners. Their joy would be in shooting and looting, but they have not any scent for crime. They are splendid-looking men, with long moustaches and whiskers, but they plait the long ends of the latter and tuck them up under their turbans. They have good-natured faces generally, and are sober, docile and peaceable, but Major Swinburne says that they indulge in violent wordy warfare on “theological subjects.” They are devoted to the accumulation of money, and very many of them being betrothed to little girls in India, save nearly all their pay in order to buy land and settle there. When off duty they wear turbans and robes nearly as white as snow, and look both classical and colossal. They get on admirably with the Malays, but look down on the Chinese, who are much afraid of them. One sees a single Sikh driving four or five Chinamen in front of him, having knotted their pigtails together for reins. I have been awoke each night by the clank which attends the change of guard, and as the moonlight flashes on the bayonets, I realize that I am in Perak.

The air is so bracing here and the nights so cool, that I have been out by seven each morning, and have been into Taipeng in the evening. This morning I went to see the hospital, mainly used by the Sikhs, who, though very docile patients, are most troublesome in other ways, owing to religious prejudices, which render it nearly impossible to cook for them. There was one wretched Chinaman there, horribly mangled. He was stealing a boat on one of the many creeks, when an alligator got hold of him, and tore both legs, one arm, and his back in such a way that it is wonderful that he lives. The apothecary is a young Madrassee. One or two cases of that terrible disease known in Japan as Kakke, and elsewhere as Beri–Beri, have just appeared.* We walked also to a clear mountain torrent which comes thundering down among great boulders and dense tropical vegetation at the foot of the mountains, as clear and cold as if it were a Highland stream dashing through the purple heather.

[*Since my visit there have been three fatal outbreaks of this epidemic, three thousand deaths having occurred among the neighboring miners and coolies. So firmly did the disease appear to have established itself, that a large permanent hospital was erected by the joint efforts of the chief mining adventurers and the Government, but it has now been taken over altogether by the Government, and is supported by an annual tax of a dollar, levied upon every adult Chinaman. Extensive hospital accommodation and sufficient medical attendance have also been provided in other stricken localities. In the jail, where the disease was very fatal, it has nearly died out, in consequence, it is believed, of supplying the prisoners with a larger quantity of nitrogenous food. It has been proposed to compel the employers of mining coolies to do the same thing, for the ravages of the disease are actually affecting the prosperity of Larut.]

There are “trumpeter beetles” here, with bright green bodies and membranous-looking transparent wings, four inches across, which make noise enough for a creature the size of a horse. Two were in the house tonight, and you could scarcely hear anyone speak. But there is a blessed respite from mosquitoes.

Major Swinburne and Captain Walker have dined here, and we had a simple dinner of roast mutton, the first that I have tasted for ten months. It is a great treat. One becomes tired of made dishes, consisting chiefly of impoverished fowls, disguised in about twenty different ways.

When I left Malacca, Captain Shaw said: “When you see Paul Swinburne you’ll see a man you’ll not see twice in a lifetime,” so yesterday, when a tall, slender, aristocratic-looking man, who scarcely looks severable from the door-steps of a Pall Mall club, strode down the room and addressed me abruptly with the words: “The sooner you go away again the better; there’s nothing to see, nothing to do, and nothing to learn,” I was naturally much interested. He has a dash of acquired eccentricity of tone and manner, is very proud, but, unlike some proud people, appreciates the co-humanity of his inferiors, is a brilliant talker, dashing over art, literature, politics, society, tells stories brilliantly, never flags, is totally regardless of “the equities of conversation,” and is much beloved by the Sikhs, to whom he is just.

At Pinang I heard an anecdote of him which is quite credible. The regent (it is said) wanted him to use the Sikhs to catch a female runaway slave, and on his refusing, the Rajah made use of a very opprobrious epithet, on which he drew himself up, saying: “You are a man of high birth in your country, but I’m a man of high birth in mine, and, so long as I bear Queen Victoria’s commission, I refuse to accept insult. I take no future orders from your highness.” Nor, it is said, has he.

My human surroundings have an unusual amount of piquancy. Mr. Maxwell is very pleasant, strong, both physically and mentally, clever and upright, educated at Oxford and Lincoln’s Inn, but brought up in the Straits Settlements, of which his father was chief-justice. He is able, combative, dogmatic, well-read and well-informed, expresses himself incisively, is self-reliant, strong-willed, thoroughly just, thoroughly a gentleman, and has immense energy and business capacity, and a large amount of governing power. He, too, likes talking, and talks well, but with much perfectly good-natured vehemence. He is a man on whose word one may implicitly rely. Brought up among Malays, and speaking their language idiomatically, he not only likes them, but takes the trouble to understand them and enter into their ideas and feelings. He studies their literature, superstitions, and customs carefully, and has made some valuable notes upon them. I should think that few people understand the Malays better than he does. He dislikes the Chinese. I have the very pleasant feeling regarding him that he is the right man in the right place, and that his work is useful, conscientious, and admirable. As Assistant Resident he is virtually dictator of Larut, only subject to Mr. Low’s interference. He is a judge, and can inflict the penalty of death, the Regent’s signature, however, being required for the death-warrant. He rules the Chinese rigidly.

Captain Walker is a new comer, and does not know more about Perak than I do.

At this dinner of four there was as much noise as twenty stupid people would make! Something brought up the dead lock in Victoria, which excited violent feeling for some reason not obvious. Captain Walker threw off his somewhat suave A.D.C. manner, and looked dangerous, Mr. Maxwell fought for victory, and Major Swinburne to beat Mr. Maxwell, and the row was deafening. I doubt whether such an argument could have been got up in moist, hot Singapore, or steamy Malacca! An energetic difference seems of daily occurrence, and possibly is an essential ingredient of friendship. That it should be possible shows what an invigorating climate this must be. Major Swinburne, in an aggravating tone, begins upon some peculiarity or foible, real or supposed, of his friend, with a deluge or sarcasm, mimicry, ridicule, and invective, torments him mercilessly, and without giving him time to reply, disappears, saying, Parthian-like, “Now, my dear fellow, its no use resenting it, you haven’t such a friend as me in the world — you know if it were not for me you’d be absolutely intolerable!” All this is very amusing. How many differing characters are required to make up even the world that I know!

It is strange to be in a house in which there are no pets, for a small Malay bear which lives at the back can scarcely be called one. Sometimes in the evening a wild animal called a lemur rushes wildly through the house and out at the front veranda. I am always afraid of being startled by his tearing through my room in the depths of the night, for here, as in many other houses, instead of doors there are screens raised a foot from the ground.

This morning I got up before daylight, and went up a hill which is being cleared, to enjoy the sunrise, the loveliest time of the tropic day. It was all dew and rose color, with a delicious freshness in the air, prolonged unusually, because the sun was so slow to climb above the eastern mountain tops. Then there was a sudden glory, and birds, beasts, and insects broke into a vociferous chorus, the tuneless hymn which ascends daily without a discord. There are sumptuously colored sunsets to be seen from this elevation, but one has no time to enjoy them, and they make one long for the lingering gold and purple of more northern latitudes. I have really been industrious since I came here, both in writing to you, and in “reading up” the native states in blue books, etc.

I. L. B.

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