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

Introductory Chapter

The Aurea Chersonesus — The Conquest of Malacca — The Straits Settlements — The Configuration of the Peninsula — A Terra Incognita — The Monsoons — Products of the Peninsula — The Great Vampire — Beasts and Reptiles — Malignant and Harmless Insects — Land and Water Birds — Traditions of Malay Immigration — Wild and Civilized Races — Kafirs — The Samangs and Orang-outang — Characteristics of the Jakuns — Babas and Sinkehs — The Malay Physiognomy — Language andLiterature — Malay Poetry and Music — Malay Astronomy — Education and Law — Malay Sports — Domestic Habits — Weapons — Slavery and Debt Bondage — Government — “No Information”

Canton and Saigon, and whatever else is comprised in the second half of my title, are on one of the best beaten tracks of travelers, and need no introductory remarks.

But the Golden Chersonese is still somewhat of a terra incognita; there is no point on its mainland at which European steamers call, and the usual conception of it is as a vast and malarious equatorial jungle, sparsely peopled by a race of semi-civilized and treacherous Mohammedans. In fact, it is as little known to most people as it was to myself before I visited it; and as reliable information concerning it exists mainly in valuable volumes now out of print, or scattered through blue books and the Transactions of the Asiatic Society of Singapore, I make no apology for prefacing my letters from the Malay Peninsula with as many brief preliminary statements as shall serve to make them intelligible, requesting those of my readers who are familiar with the subject to skip this chapter altogether.

The Aurea Chersonesus of Ptolemy, the “Golden Chersonese” of Milton, the Malay Peninsula of our day, has no legitimate claim to an ancient history. The controversy respecting the identity of its Mount Ophir with the Ophir of Solomon has been “threshed out” without much result, and the supposed allusion to the Malacca Straits by Pliny is too vague to be interesting.

The region may be said to have been rediscovered in 1513 by the Portuguese, and the first definite statement concerning it appears to be in a letter from Emanuel, King of Portugal, to the Pope. In the antique and exaggerated language of the day, he relates that his general, the famous Albuquerque, after surprising conquests in India, had sailed to the Aurea Chersonesus, called by its inhabitants Malacca. He had captured the city of Malacca, sacked it, slaughtered the Moors (Mohammedans) who defended it, destroyed its twenty-five thousand houses abounding in gold, pearls, precious stones, and spices, and on its site had built a fortress with walls fifteen feet thick, out of the ruins of its mosques. The king, who fought upon an elephant, was badly wounded and fled. Further, on hearing of the victory, the King of Siam, from whom Malacca had been “usurped by the Moors,” sent to the conqueror a cup of gold, a carbuncle, and a sword inlaid with gold. This conquest was vaunted of as a great triumph of the Cross over the Crescent, and as its result, by the year 1600 nearly the whole commerce of the Straits had fallen into the hands of the Portuguese.

Of the remaining “Moorish”, or Malay kingdoms, Acheen, in Sumatra, was the most powerful, so powerful, indeed, that its king was able to besiege the great stronghold of Malacca more than once with a fleet, according to the annalist, of “more than five hundred sail, one hundred of which were of greater size than any then constructed in Europe, and the warriors or mariners that it bore amounted to sixty thousand, commanded by the king in person.” The first mention of Johore, or Jhor, and Perak occurs about the same time, Perak being represented as a very powerful and wealthy State.

The Portuguese, by their persevering and relentless religious crusade against the Mohammedans, converted all the States which were adjacent to their conquests into enemies, and by 1641 their empire in the Straits was seized upon by the Dutch, who, not being troubled by much religious earnestness, got on very well with the Malay Princes, and succeeded in making advantageous commercial treaties with them.

A curious but fairly accurate map of the coasts of the Peninsula was prepared in Paris in 1668 to accompany the narrative of the French envoy to the Court of Siam, but neither the mainland nor the adjacent islands attracted any interest in this country till the East India Company acquired Pinang in 1775, Province Wellesley in 1798, Singapore in 1823, and Malacca in 1824. These small but important colonies were consolidated in 1867 into one Government under the Crown, and are now known as the Straits Settlements, and prized as among the most valuable of our possessions in the Far East. Though these settlements are merely small islands or narrow strips of territory on the coast, their population, by the census of 1881, exceeded four hundred and twenty-two thousand souls, and in 1880 their exports and imports amounted to 32,353,000 pounds!

Besides these little bits of British territory scattered along a coast-line nearly four hundred miles in length, there are, on the west side of the Peninsula, the native States of Kedah, Perak, Selangor, and Sungei Ujong, the last three of which are under British “protection;” and on the east are Patani, Kelantan, Tringganu, and Pahang; the southern extremity being occupied by the State of Johore. The interior, which is scarcely at all known, contains toward its centre the Negri Sembilan, a confederation of eight (formerly nine) small States. The population of the native States of the Peninsula is not accurately known, but, inclusive of a few wild tribes and the Chinese immigrants, it is estimated at three hundred and ten thousand; which gives under nine inhabitants to the square mile, the population of the British settlements being about four hundred and twenty to the square mile.

The total length of the Peninsula is eight hundred miles, and its breadth varies from sixty to one hundred and fifty miles. It runs down from lat. 13 degrees 50’ N. to 1 degree 41’ N. The northern part, forming the Isthmus of Kraw, which it is proposed to pierce for a ship canal, runs nearly due north and south for one hundred and forty miles, and is inhabited by a mixed race, mainly Siamese, called by the Malays Sansam. This Isthmus is under the rule of Siam, which is its northern boundary; and the northern and eastern States of Kedah, Patani, Kelantan, Pahang, and Tringganu, are more or less tributary to this ambitious empire, which at intervals has exacted a golden rose, the token of vassalage, from every State in the Peninsula. Except at the point where the Isthmus of Kraw joins Siam, the Peninsula is surrounded by the sea to the east by the China Sea and the Gulf of Siam, and to the south and west by the Straits of Malacca and the Bay of Bengal. The area of the mainland is conjectured to be the same as that of Britain, but the region occupied by the Malays does not exceed sixty-one thousand one hundred and fifty square miles, and is about half the size of Java.

Its configuration is not very well known, but a granitic mountain chain, rising in Perak to ascertained heights of eight thousand feet, runs down its whole length near the centre, with extensive outlying spurs, and alluvial plains on both sides densely covered with jungle, as are also the mountains. There are no traces of volcanic formation, though thermal springs exist in Malacca. The rivers are numerous, but with one exception small, and are seldom navigable beyond the reach of the tides, except by flat-bottomed boats. It is believed that there are scarcely any lakes.

The general formation is granitic, overlaid by sandstone, laterite or clay ironstone, and to the north by limestone. Iron ores are found everywhere, and are so little regarded for their metallic contents that, though containing, according to Mr. Logan, a skillful geologist, sixty percent of pure metal, they are used in Singapore for macadamizing the roads! Gold has been obtained in all ages, and formerly in considerable quantities, but the annual yield does not now exceed nineteen thousand ounces. The vastest tin fields in the world are found in the western Malay States, and hitherto the produce has been “stream tin” only, the metal not having been traced to its veins in the rock.

The map, the result of recent surveys by Mr. Daly, and published in 1882 by the Royal Geographical Society, shows that there is a vast extent, more than half of the Malay Peninsula, unexplored. Its most laborious explorer confesses that “of the internal government, geography, mineral products, and geology of these regions, we do not know anything,” and, he adds, that “even in this nineteenth century, a country rich in its resources, and important through its contiguity to our British possessions, is still a closed volume.” “If we let the needle in, the thread is sure to follow” (meaning that if they let an Englishman pass through their territories, British annexation would be the natural sequence), was the reason given to Mr. Daly for turning him back from the States of the Negri Sembilan.

The climate is singularly healthy for Europeans as well as natives, although both hot and moist, as may be expected from being so close to the equator. Besides, the Peninsula is very nearly an insular region; it is densely covered with evergreen forests, and few parts of it are more than fifty miles from the sea. There are no diseases of climate except marsh fevers, which assail Europeans if they camp out at night on low, swampy grounds.

In 5 degrees 15’ N., about the latitude of the northern boundary of Perak, at the sea-level the mean annual temperature is nearly 80 degrees, with a range of 20 degrees; at Malacca in 2 degrees 14’ N. it is 80 degrees, with a range of 15 degrees; and at Singapore, in lat. 1 degree 17’, it is 82 degrees, with a range of 24 degrees. Though the climate is undeniably a “hot” one, the heat, tempered by alternating land and sea breezes, is seldom oppressive except just before rain, and the thermometer never attains anything approaching those torrid temperatures which are registered in India, Japan, the United States, and other parts of the temperate zones.

The rainfall is not excessive, averaging about one hundred and ten inches annually, and there is no regular rainy season. In fact it rains in moderation all the year round. Three days seldom pass without refreshing showers, and if there are ten rainless days together, a rare phenomenon, people begin to talk of “the drought.” Practically the year is divided into two parts by the “monsoons.”* The monsoon is not a storm, as many people suppose, from a vague association of the word “typhoon,” but a steady wind blowing, in the case of the Malay Peninsula, for six months from the north-east, bringing down the Chinamen in their junks, and for six months from the southwest, bringing traders from Arabia and India. The climate is the pleasantest during the north-east monsoon, which lasts from October to April. It is during the south-west monsoon that the heavier rains, accompanied by electrical disturbances, occur. The central mountain range protects the Peninsula alternately from both monsoons, the high Sumatran mountains protecting its west side from the south-west winds. The east side is exposed for six months to a modified north-east monsoon. Everywhere else throughout the almost changeless year, steadily alternating land and sea breezes with gentle variable winds and calms prevail, interrupted occasionally on the west coast during the “summer” by squalls from the south-west, which last for one or two hours, and are known as “Sumatrans.” Hurricanes and earthquakes are unknown. Drenching dews fall on clear nights.

[*This word is recognized as a corruption by Portuguese and British tongues of the Arabic word “musim,” “season.”]

The Peninsula is a gorgeous tropic land, and, with its bounteous rainfall and sunshine, brings forth many of the most highly prized productions of the tropics, with some that are peculiar to itself. Its botany is as yet very imperfectly known. Some of its forest trees are very valuable as timber, and others produce hard-veined woods which take a high polish. Rattans, Malacca canes, and gutta are well known as among its forest products; gutta, with its extensive economical uses, having been used only for Malay horsewhips and knife-handles previous to 1843. The wild nutmeg is indigenous, and the nutmeg of commerce and the clove have been introduced and thrive. Pepper and some other spices flourish, and the soil with but a little cultivation produces rice wet and dry, tapioca, gambier, sugar-cane, coffee, yams, sweet potatoes, cocoa, sago, cotton, tea, cinchona, india rubber, and indigo. Still it is doubtful whether a soil can be called fertile which is incapable of producing the best kinds of cereals. European vegetables are on the whole a dismal failure. Conservatism in diet must be given up by Europeans; the yam, edible arum, and sweet potato must take the place of the “Irish potato,” and water-melons and cucumbers that of our peas, beans, artichokes, cabbages, and broccoli. The Chinese raise coarse radishes and lettuce, and possibly the higher grounds may some day be turned into market gardens. The fruits, however, are innumerable, as well as wholesome and delicious. Among them the durion is the most esteemed by the natives, and the mangosteen by Europeans.

The fauna of the Peninsula is most remarkable and abundant; indeed, much of its forest-covered interior is inhabited by wild beasts alone, and gigantic pachyderms, looking like monsters of an earlier age, roam unmolested over vast tracts of country. Among this thick-skinned family are the elephant, the one-horned rhinoceros, the Malayan tapir, and the wild hog; the last held in abomination by the Malays, but constituting the chief animal food of some of the wild tribes.

A small bear with a wistful face represents the Plantigrade family. The Quadrumana are very numerous. There are nine monkeys, one, if not two apes, and a lemur or sloth, which screens its eyes from the light.

Of the Digitigrada there are the otter or water-dog, the musang and climbing musang, the civet cat, the royal tiger, the spotted black tiger, in whose glossy raven-black coat the characteristic markings are seen in certain lights; the tiger cat, the leopard, the Java cat, and four or five others. Many of these feline animals abound.

Among the ruminants are four species of deer, two smaller than a hare, and one as large as an elk; a wild goat similar to the Sumatran antelope; the domestic goat, a mean little beast; the buffalo, a great, nearly hairless, gray or pink beast, bigger than the buffalo of China and India; a short-legged domestic ox, and two wild oxen or bisons, which are rare.

The bat family is not numerous. The vampire flies high, in great flocks, and is very destructive to fruit. This frugiverous bat, known popularly as the “flying fox,” is a very interesting-looking animal, and is actually eaten by the people of Ternate. At the height of the fruit season, thousands of these creatures cross from Sumatra to the mainland, a distance never less than forty miles. Their strength of wing is enormous. I saw one captured in the steamer Nevada, forty-five miles from the Navigators, with wings measuring, when extended, nearly five feet across. These are formed of a jet black membrane, and have a highly polished claw at the extremity of each. The feet consist of five polished black claws, with which the bat hangs on, head downward, to the forest trees. His body is about twice the size of that of a very large rat, black and furry underneath, and with red foxy fur on the head and neck. He has a pointed face, a very black nose, and prominent black eyes, with a remorseless expression in them. An edible bat of vagrant habits is also found.

Ponies are imported from Sumatra, and a few horses from Australia, but the latter do not thrive.

The domestic cat always looks as if half his tail had been taken off in a trap. The domestic dog is the Asiatic, not the European dog, a leggy, ugly, vagrant, uncared-for fellow, furnishing a useful simile and little more.

Weasels, squirrels, polecats, porcupines, and other small animals exist in numbers, and the mermaid, of the genus Halicore, connects the inhabitants of the land and water. This Duyong, described as a creature seven or eight feet long, with a head like that of an elephant deprived of its proboscis, and the body and tail of a fish, frequents the Sumatran and Malayan shores, and its flesh is held in great estimation at the tables of sultans and rajahs. Besides these (and the list is long enough) there are many small beasts.

The reptiles are unhappily very numerous. Crawfurd mentions forty species of snakes, including the python and the cobra. Alligators in great numbers infest the tidal waters of the rivers. Iguanas and lizards of several species, marsh-frogs, and green tree-frogs abound. The land-leeches are a great pest. Scorpions and centipedes are abundant. There are many varieties of ants, among them a formidable- looking black creature nearly two inches long, a large red ant, whose bite is like a bad pinch from forceps, and which is the chief source of formic acid, and the termes, or white ant, most destructive to timber.

The carpenter beetle is also found, an industrious insect, which riddles the timber of any building in which he effects a lodgment, and is as destructive as dry rot. There are bees and wasps, and hornets of large size, and a much-dreaded insect, possibly not yet classified, said to be peculiar to the Peninsula, which inflicts so severe a wound as to make a strong man utter a cry of agony. But of all the pests the mosquitoes are the worst. A resident may spend some time in the country and know nothing from experience of scorpions, centipedes, land-leeches, and soldier ants, but he cannot escape from the mosquito, the curse of these well-watered tropic regions. In addition to the night mosquito, there is a striped variety of large size, known as the “tiger mosquito,” much to be feared, for it pursues its bloodthirsty work in the daytime.

Among the harmless insects may be mentioned the cicada, which fills the forest with its cheery din, the green grasshopper, spiders, and flies of several species, dragon-flies of large size and brilliant coloring, and butterflies and moths of surpassing beauty, which delight in the hot, moist, jungle openings, and even surpass the flowers in the glory and variety of their hues. Among them the atlas moth is found, measuring from eight to ten inches across its wings. The leaf insects are also fascinating, and the fire-flies in a mangrove swamp on a dark, still night, moving in gentle undulations, or flashing into coruscations after brief intervals of quiescence, are inconceivably beautiful.

The birds of the Peninsula are many and beautiful. Sun-birds rival the flashing colors of the humming-birds in the jungle openings; king-fishers of large size and brilliant blue plumage make the river banks gay; shrieking paroquets with coral-colored beaks and tender green feathers, abound in the forests; great, heavy-billed hornbills hop cumbrously from branch to branch, rivaling in their awkward gait the rhinoceros hornbills; the Javanese peacock, with its gorgeous tail and neck covered with iridescent green feathers instead of blue ones, moves majestically along the jungle tracks, together with the ocellated pheasant, the handsome and high-couraged jungle cock, and the glorious Argus pheasant, a bird of twilight and night, with “a hundred eyes” on each feather of its stately tail.

According to Mr. Newbold, two birds of paradise (Paradisea regia and Paradisea gularis) are natives of the Peninsula,* and among other bright-winged creatures are the glorious crimson-feathered pergam, the penciled pheasant, the peacock pheasant, the blue pheasant partridge, the mina, and the dial bird, with an endless variety of parrots, lories, green-feathered pigeons of various sizes, and wood-peckers. Besides these there are falcons, owls, or “spectre birds,” sweet-voiced butcher birds, storks, fly-catchers, and doves, and the swallow which builds the gelatinous edible nest, which is the foundation of the expensive luxury “Bird’s Nest Soup,” frequents the verdant islands on the coast.

[*Mr. Newbold is ordinarily so careful and accurate that it is almost presumptuous to hint that in this particular case he may not have been able to verify the statements of the natives by actual observation.]

Nor are our own water birds wanting. There are bitterns, rails, wild-duck, teal, snipes; the common, gray, and whistling plover; green, black, and red quails; and the sport on the plains and reedy marshes, and along the banks of rivers, is most excellent.

Turtles abound off the coast, and tortoises, one variety with a hard shell, and the other with a soft one and a rapid movement, are found in swampy places. The river fish are neither abundant nor much esteemed; but the sea furnishes much of the food of both Malays and Chinese, and the dried and salted fish prepared on the coast is considered very good.

At European tables in the settlements the red mullet, a highly prized fish, the pomfret, considered more delicious than the turbot, and the tungeree, with cray-fish, crabs, prawns, and shrimps, are usually seen. The tongue-fish, something like a sole, the gray mullet, the hammer-headed shark, and various fish, with vivid scarlet and yellow stripes alternating with black, are eaten, along with cockles, “razor shells,” and king-crabs. The lover of fishy beauty is abundantly gratified by the multitudes of fish of brilliant colors, together with large medusae, which dart or glide through the sunlit waters among the coral-groves, where every coral spray is gemmed with zoophytes, whose rainbow-tinted arms sway with the undulations of the water, and where sea-snakes writhe themselves away into the recesses of coral caves.

Nature is so imposing, so magnificent, and so prolific on the Malay Peninsula, that one naturally gives man the secondary place which I have assigned to him in this chapter. The whole population of the Golden Chersonese, a region as large as Great Britain, is not more than three-quarters of a million, and less than a half of this is Malay. Neither great wars, nor an ancient history, nor a valuable literature, nor stately ruins, nor barbaric splendors, attract scholars or sight-seers to the Peninsula.

The Malays are not the Aborigines of this singular spit of land, and, they are its colonists rather than its conquerors. Their histories, which are chiefly traditional, state that the extremity of the Peninsula was peopled by a Malay emigration from Sumatra about the middle of the twelfth century, and that the descendants of these colonists settled Malacca and other places on the coast about a century later. Tradition refers the peopling of the interior States to another and later migration from Sumatra, with a chief at its head, who, with all his followers, married Aboriginal wives; the Aboriginal tribes retreating into the jungles and mountains as the Malays spread themselves over the region now known as the States of the Negri Sembilan. The conquest or colonization of the Malay Peninsula by the Malays is not, however, properly speaking, matter of history, and the origin of the Malay race and its early history are only matters of more or less reasonable hypothesis. It is fair, however, to presume that Sumatra was the ancient seat of the race, and the wonderful valley of Menangkabau, surrounded by mountains ten thousand feet in height, that of its earliest civilization. The only Malay “colonial” kingdoms on the Peninsula which ever attained any importance were those of Malacca and Johore, and even their reliable history begins with the arrival of the Portuguese. The conversion of the Sumatra Malays to Mohammedanism arose mainly out of their commercial intercourse with Arabia; it was slow, not violent, and is supposed to have begun in the thirteenth century.

A population of “Wild Tribes,” variously estimated at from eight thousand to eleven thousand souls, is still found in the Peninsula, and even if research should eventually prove them not to be its Aborigines, they are, without doubt, the same races which were found inhabiting it by the earliest Malay colonists.

These are frequently called by the Malays “Orang Benua,” or “men of the country,” but they are likewise called “Orang-outang,” the name which we apply to the big ape of Borneo. The accompanying engraving represents very faithfully the “Orang-outang” of the interior. The few accounts given of the wild tribes vary considerably, but apparently they may be divided into two classes, the Samangs, or Oriental Negroes or Negritos and the Orang Benua, frequently called Jakuns, and in Perak Sakei. By the Malays they are called indiscriminately Kafirs or infidels, and are interesting to them only in so far as they can use them for bearing burdens, clearing jungle, procuring gutta, and in child-stealing, an abominable Malay custom, which, it is hoped, has received its death-blow in Perak at least.

The Samangs are about the same height as the Malays, but their hair, instead of being lank and straight like theirs, is short and curly, though not woolly like that of the African negro, and their complexions, or rather skins, are of a dark brown, nearly black. Their noses, it is said, incline to be flat, their foreheads recede, and their lips are thick. They live in rude and easily removable huts made of leaves and branches, subsist on jungle birds, beasts, roots, and fruits, and wear a scanty covering made from the inner bark of a species of Artocarpus. They are expert hunters, and have most ingenious methods of capturing both the elephant and the “recluse rhinoceros.” They are divided into tribes, which are ruled by chiefs on the patriarchal system. Of their customs and beliefs, if they have any, almost nothing is known. They are singularly shy, and shun intercourse with men of other races. It has been supposed that they worship the sun.

The Orang Benua or Orang-outang, frequently called Sakeis or Jakuns, consist of various tribes with different names, thinly scattered among the forests of the chain of mountains which runs down the middle of the Peninsula from Kedah to Point Romania.* In appearance and color they greatly resemble the Malays, and there is a very strong general resemblance between their dialects and pure Malayan. They have remarkably bright and expressive eyes, with nothing Mongolian about their internal angles, and the forehead is low rather than receding. The mouth is wide and the lips are large, the lower part of the face projects, the nose is small, the nostrils are divergent, and the cheek bones are prominent. The hair is black, but it often looks rusty or tawny from exposure to the sun, against which it is their only protection. It is very abundant and long, and usually matted and curly, but not woolly. They have broad chests and very sturdy muscular limbs. They are, however, much shorter in stature than the Malays, the men in some of the tribes rarely exceeding four feet eight inches in height, and the women four feet four. Their clothing consists of a bark cloth waist-cloth. Some of the tribes live in huts of the most primitive description supported on posts, while others, often spoken of as the “tree people,” build wigwams on platforms, mainly supported by the forking branches of trees, at a height of from twenty to thirty feet. These wild people, says Mr. Daly, lead a gregarious life, rarely remaining long in one place for fear of their wives and children being kidnapped by the Malays. They fly at the approach of strangers. As a rule, their life is nomadic, and they live by hunting, fishing, and on jungle fruits. They are divided into tribes governed by elders. They reverence the sun, but have no form of worship, and are believed to be destitute of even the most rudimentary ideas of religion. Their weapon is the sumpitan, a blow-gun, from which poisoned arrows are expelled. They have no ceremonies at birth, marriage, or death. They are monogamists, and, according to Mr. Syers, extremely affectionate. One of their strongest emotions is fear, and their timidity is so great that they frequently leave the gutta which they have collected at the foot of the tree, not daring to encounter the trader from whom they expect some articles in exchange; while the fear of ridicule, according to Mr. Maxwell, keeps them far from the haunts of the Malays.

[*I was so fortunate as to see two adult male Jakuns and one female, but my information respecting them is derived chiefly from Mr. Syers, Superintendent of Police in Selangor, and from Mr. Maxwell, the Assistant–Resident in Perak.]

The Rayet, or Orang Laut, “subjects,” or men of the sea, inhabit the coast and the small islets off the coast, erecting temporary sheds when they go ashore to build boats, mend nets, or collect gum dammar and wood oil, but usually living in their boats. They differ little from the Malays, who, however, they look down upon as an inferior race, except that they are darker and more uncouth looking. They have no religious (!) beliefs but in the influence of evil spirits, to whom at times they perform a few propitiatory rites. Many of them become Mohammedans. They live almost entirely upon fish. They are altogether restless and impatient of control, but, unlike some savages, are passionately fond of music, and are most ingenious in handicrafts, specially in boat-building.

The Chinese in the Peninsula and on the small islands of Singapore and Pinang are estimated at two hundred and forty thousand, and their numbers are rapidly increasing, owing to direct immigration from China. It is by their capital, industry, and enterprise that the resources of the Peninsula are being developed. The date of their arrival is unknown, but the Portuguese found them at Malacca more than three centuries ago. They have been settled in Pinang and Singapore for ninety-three and sixty-three years respectively; but except that they have given up the barbarous custom of crushing the feet of girls, they are, in customs, dress, and habits, the exact counterparts of the Chinese of Canton or Amoy. Many of them have become converts to Christianity, but this has not led to the discarding of their queues or national costume. The Chinese who are born in the Straits are called Babas. The immigrant Chinese, who are called Sinkehs, are much despised by the Babas, who glory specially in being British-born subjects. The Chinese promise to be in some sort the commercial rulers of the Straits.

The Malays proper inhabit the Malay Peninsula, and almost all the coast regions of Borneo and Sumatra. They all speak more or less purely the Malay language; they are all Mohammedans, and they all write in the Arabic character. Their color is a lightish, olive-tinted, reddish brown. Their hair is invariably black, straight, and coarse, and their faces and bodies are nearly hairless. They have broad and slightly flat faces, with high cheek bones; wide mouths, with broad and shapely lips, well formed chins, low foreheads, black eyes, oblique, but not nearly so much so as those of the Chinese, and smallish noses, with broad and very open nostrils. They vary little in their height, which is below that of the average European. Their frames are lithe and robust, their chests are broad, their hands are small and refined, and their feet are thick and short. The men are not handsome, and the women are decidedly ugly. Both sexes look old very early.

The Malays undoubtedly must be numbered among civilized peoples. They live in houses which are more or less tasteful and secluded. They are well clothed in garments of both native and foreign manufacture; they are a settled and agricultural people; they are skilful in some of the arts, specially in the working of gold and the damascening of krises; the upper classes are to some extent educated; they have a literature, even though it be an imported one, and they have possessed for centuries systems of government and codes of land and maritime laws which, in theory at least, show a considerable degree of enlightenment.

Their religion, laws, customs, and morals are bound up together. They are strict Mussulmen, but among the uneducated especially they mix up their own traditions and superstitions with the Koran. The pilgrimage to Mecca is the universal object of Malay ambition. They practice relic worship, keep the fast of Ramadhan, wear rosaries of beads, observe the hours of prayer with their foreheads on the earth, provide for the “religious welfare” of their villages, circumcise their children, offer buffaloes in sacrifice at the religious ceremonies connected with births and marriages, build mosques everywhere, regard Mecca as the holy city, and the Koran, as expounded by Arab teachers, as the rule of faith and practice.

Much learning has been expended upon the origin of Malayan, but it has not been reliably traced beyond the ancient empire of Menangkabau in Sumatra. Mohammedanism undoubtedly brought with it a large introduction of Arabic words, and the language itself is written in the Arabic character. It has been estimated by that most painstaking and learned scholar, Mr. Crawfurd, that one hundred parts of modern Malayan are composed of twenty-seven parts of primitive Malayan, fifty of Polynesian, sixteen of Sanskrit, five of Arabic, and two of adventitious words, the Arabic predominating in all literature relating to religion. Malay is the lingua franca of the Straits Settlements, and in the seaports a number of Portuguese and Dutch words have been incorporated with it.

The Malays can hardly be said to have an indigenous literature, for it is almost entirely derived from Persia, Siam, Arabia, and Java. Arabic is their sacred language. They have, however, a celebrated historic Malay romance called the Hang Tuah, parts of which are frequently recited in their villages after sunset prayers by their village raconteurs, and some Arabic and Hindu romances stand high in popular favor. Their historians all wrote after the Mohammedan era, and their histories are said to contain little that is trustworthy; each State also has a local history preserved with superstitious care and kept from common eyes, but these contain little but the genealogies of their chiefs. They have one Malay historical composition, dated 1021 A.H., which treats of the founding of the Malay empire of Menangkabau in Sumatra, and comes down to the founding of the empire of Johore and the conquest of Malacca by Albuquerque in 1511. This has been thought worthy of translation by Dr. Leyden.

Their ethical books consist mainly of axioms principally derived from Arabic and Persian sources. Their religious works are borrowed from the Arabs. The Koran, of course, stands first, then comes a collection of prayers, and next a guide to the religious duties required from Mussulmen. Then there are books containing selections from Arabic religious works, with learned commentaries upon them by a Malay Hadji. It is to be noticed that the Malays present a compact front against Christianity, and have successfully resisted all missionary enterprise.

They have a good deal of poetry, principally of an amorous kind, characterized, it is said, by great simplicity, natural and pleasing metaphor, and extremely soft and melodious rhyme. They sing their poems to certain popular airs, which are committed to memory. Malay music, though plaintive and less excruciating than Chinese and Japanese, is very monotonous and dirge-like, and not pleasing to a European ear. The pentatonic scale is employed. The violin stands first among musical instruments in their estimation. They have also the guitar, the flageolet, the aeolian flute, a bamboo in which holes are cut, which produce musical sounds when acted upon by the wind, and both metallic and wooden gongs.

They have no written system of common arithmetic, and are totally unacquainted with its higher branches. Their numerals above one thousand are borrowed from the Hindus, and their manner of counting is the same as that of the Ainos of Yezo.

Their theory of medicine is derived from Arabia, and abounds in mystery and superstition. They regard man as composed of four elements and four essences, and assimilate his constitution and passions to the twelve signs of the zodiac, the seven planets, etc., exaggerating the mysterious sympathy between man and external nature. The successful practice of the hakim or doctor must be based on the principle of “preserving the balance of power” among the four elements, which is chiefly effected by moderation in eating.

They know nothing of astronomy, except of some meagre ideas derived through the Arabs from the Ptolemaic system, and Mr. Newbold, after most painstaking research, failed to discover any regular treatise on astronomy, though Arabic and Hindu tracts on interpretations of dreams, horoscopes, spells, propitious and unpropitious moments, auguries, talismans, love philters, medicinal magic and recipes for the destruction of people at a distance, are numerous. They acknowledge the solar year, but adopt the lunar, and reckon the months in three different ways, dividing them, however, into weeks of seven days, marking them by the return of the Mohammedan Sabbath. They suppose the world to be an oval body revolving on its axis four times within a year, with the sun, a circular body of fire, moving round it. The majority of the people still believe that eclipses are caused by the sun or moon being devoured by a serpent, and they lament loudly during their continuance. The popular modes of measuring distance are ingenious, but, to a stranger at least, misleading. Thus Mr. Daly, in attempting to reach the interior States, received these replies to his inquiries about distance — “As far as a gunshot may be heard from this particular hill;” “If you wash your head before starting it will not be dry before you reach the place,” etc. They also measure distances by the day’s walk, and by the number of times it is necessary to chew betel between two places. The hours are denoted by terms not literally accurate. Cockcrowing is daybreak, 1 P.M., and midnight; 9 A.M., Lepas Baja, is the time when the buffaloes, which cannot work when the sun is high, are relieved from the plough; Tetabawe is 6 P.M., the word signifying the cry of a bird which is silent till after sunset. The Malay day begins at sunset.

They are still maritime in their habits, and very competent practical sailors and boat-builders; but though for centuries they divided with the Arabs the carrying trade between Eastern and Western Asia, and though a mongrel Malay is the nautical language of nearly all the peoples from New Guinea to the Tenasserim coast, the Malays knew little of the science of navigation. They timed their voyages by the constant monsoons, and in sailing from island to island coasted the Asiatic shores, trusting, when for a short time out of sight of land, not to the compass, though they were acquainted with it, but to known rocks, glimpses of headlands, the direction of the wind, and their observation of the Pleiades.

They have no knowledge of geography, architecture, painting, sculpture, or even mechanics; they no longer make translations from the Arabic or create fiction, and the old translations of works on law, ethics, and science are now scarcely studied. Education among them is at a very low ebb; but the State of Kedah is beginning to awake to its advantages. Where schools exist the instruction consists mainly in teaching the children to repeat, in a tongue which they do not understand, certain passages from the Koran and some set prayers.

As to law, Sir Stamford Raffles observed in a formal despatch, “Nothing has tended more decidedly to the deterioration of the Malay character than the want of a well-defined and generally acknowledged system of law.” There are numerous legal compilations, however, and nearly every State has a code of its own to a certain extent; there are maritime and land codes, besides “customs” bad and good, which override the written law; while in Perak, Selangor, and Sungei Ujong an ill understood adaptation of some portions of British law further complicates matters. “The glorious uncertainty” of law is nowhere more fully exemplified than on this Peninsula. It is from the Golden Island, the parent Empire of Menangkabau, that the Malays profess to derive both their criminal and civil law, their tribal system, their rules for the division of land by boundary marks, and the manner of government as adapted for sovereigns and their ministers. The existence of the various legal compilations has led to much controversy and even bloodshed between zealots for the letter of the Koran on one side, and the advocates of ancient custom on the other. Among the reasons which have led to the migration of Malays from the native states into the Straits Settlements, not the least powerful is the equality of rights before English law, and the security given by it to property of every kind. In the Malay country itself, occupied by Malays and the Chinese associated with them, there are four Malays to the square mile, whilst under the British flag some one hundred and twenty-five Malays to the square mile have taken refuge and sought protection for their industry under our law!

Cock-fighting, which has attained to the dignity of a literature of its own, is the popular Malay sport; but the grand sport is a tiger and buffalo fight, reserved for rare occasions, however, on account of its expense. Cock-fighting is a source of gigantic gambling and desperate feuds. The birds, which fight in full feather and with sharpened steel spurs, are very courageous, and die rather than give in. Wrestling among young men and tossing the wicker ball, are favorite amusements. There are professional dancing girls, but dancing as a social amusement is naturally regarded with disfavor. Children have various games peculiar to themselves, which are abandoned as childish things at a given age. Riddles and enigmas occupy a good deal of time among the higher classes. Chess also occupies much time, but it is much to be feared that the vice of gambling stimulated by the Chinese, who have introduced both cards and dice, is taking the place of more innocent pastimes.

The Malays, like other Mohammedans, practice polygamy. They are very jealous, and their women are veiled and to a certain extent secluded; but they are affectionate, and among the lower classes there is a good deal of domesticity. Their houses are described in the following letters. The food of the poorer classes consists mainly of rice and salt-fish, curries of both, maize, sugar-cane, bananas, and jungle fruits, cocoa-nut milk being used in the preparation of food as well as for a beverage. As luxuries they chew betelnut and smoke tobacco, and although intoxicants are forbidden, they tap the toddy palm and drink of its easily fermented juice. Where metal finds its way into domestic utensils it is usually in the form of tin water-bottles and ewers. Every native possesses a sweeping broom, sleeping mats, coarse or fine, and bamboo or grass baskets. Most families use an iron pan for cooking, with a half cocoa-nut shell for a ladle. A large nut shell filled with palm-oil, and containing a pith wick, is the ordinary Malay lamp. Among the poor, fresh leaves serve as plates and dishes, but the chiefs possess china.

The Malay weapons consist of the celebrated kris, with its flame-shaped wavy blade; the sword, regarded, however, more as an ornament; the parang, which is both knife and weapon; the steel-headed spear, which cost us so many lives in the Perak war; matchlocks, blunderbusses, and lelahs, long heavy brass guns used for the defense of the stockades behind which the Malays usually fight. They make their own gunpowder, and use cartridges made of cane.

The Malays, like the Japanese, have a most rigid epistolary etiquette, and set forms for letter writing. Letters must consist of six parts, and are so highly elaborate that the scribes who indite them are almost looked upon as litterateurs. There is an etiquette of envelopes and wafers, the number and color of which vary with the relative positions of the correspondents, and any error in these details is regarded as an insult. Etiquette in general is elaborate and rigid, and ignorant breaches of it on the part of Europeans have occasionally cost them their lives.

The systems of government in the Malay States vary in detail, but on the whole may be regarded as absolute despotisms, modified by certain rights, of which no rulers in a Mohammedan country can absolutely deprive the ruled, and by the assertion of the individual rights of chiefs. Sultans, rajahs, maharajahs, datus, etc., under ordinary circumstances have been and still are in most of the unprotected States unable to control the chiefs under them, who have independently levied taxes and blackmail till the harassed cultivators came scarcely to care to possess property which might at any time be seized. Forced labor for a quarter of the laboring year was obligatory on all males, besides military service when called upon.

Slavery and debt bondage exist in all the native States; except in Selangor and Sungei Ujong, where it has recently been abolished, as it is hoped it will be in Perak. The slaves of the reigning princes were very easily acquired, for a prince had only to send a messenger bearing a sword or kris to a house, and the parents were obliged to give up any one of their children without delay or question. In debt slavery, which prevails more or less among all classes, and has done a great deal to degrade the women of the Peninsula, a man owing a trifling debt incurred through extravagance, misfortune or gambling, can be seized by his creditor; when he, his wife, and children, including those who may afterwards be born, and probably their descendants, become slaves.

In most of the States the reigning prince has regular officers under him, chief among whom are the Bandahara or treasurer, who is the first minister, chief executive officer, and ruler over the peasantry, and the Tumongong or chief magistrate. Usually the throne is hereditary, but while the succession in some States is in the male line, in others it is in the female, a sister’s son being the heir; and there are instances in which the chiefs have elected a sultan or rajah. The theory of government does not contain anything inherently vicious, and is well adapted to Malay circumstances. Whatever is evil in practice is rather contrary to the theory than in accordance with it. The States undoubtedly have fallen, in many ways, into evil case; the privileged few, consisting of rajahs and their numerous kindred and children, oppressing the unprivileged many, living in idleness on what is wrung from their toil. The Malay sovereigns in most cases have come to be little more than the feudal heads of bodies of insubordinate chiefs, while even the headmen of the villages take upon themselves to levy taxes and administer a sort of justice. Nomadic cultivation, dislike of systematic labor, and general insecurity as to the boundaries and tenure of land, have further impoverished the common people, while Islamism exercises its usual freezing and retarding influence, producing the fatal isolation which to weak peoples is slow decay.

When Sir A. Clarke was appointed Governor of the Straits Settlements in 1873 he went to the Curator of the Geographical Society’s library in quest of maps and information of any kind about the country to which he was going, but was told by that courteous functionary that there was absolutely no information of the slightest value in their archives. Since then the protectorate which we have acquired over three of the native States and the war in Perak have mended matters somewhat; but Mr. Daly, on appearing in May last before the same Society with the map which is the result of his partial survey, regrets that we have of half of the Peninsula “only the position of the coast-line!” Of the States washed by the China Sea scarcely anything is known, and the eastern and central interior offer a wide field for the explorer.

The letters which follow those written from China and Saigon relate to the British settlements in the Straits of Malacca, and to the native States of Perak, Selangor, and Sungei Ujong, which, since 1874, have passed. under British “protection.” The preceding brief sketch is necessarily a very imperfect one, as to most of my questions addressed on the spot and since to the best informed people, the answer has been, “No information.” The only satisfaction that I have in these preliminary pages is, that they place the reader in a better position than I was in when I landed at Malacca. To a part of this beautiful but little known region I propose to conduct my readers, venturing to hope for their patient interest in my journeyings over the bright waters of the Malacca Straits and in the jungles of the Golden Chersonese.

I. L. B.

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