The Malay Archipelago, by Alfred Russel Wallace

Chapter 10

Bali and Lombock.

(JUNE, JULY, 1856.)

THE islands of Bali and Lombock, situated at the eastern end of Java, are particularly interesting. They are the only islands of the whole Archipelago in which the Hindu religion still maintains itself — and they form the extreme points of the two great zoological divisions of the Eastern hemisphere; for although so similar in external appearance and in all physical features, they differ greatly in their natural productions. It was after having spent two years in Borneo, Malacca and Singapore, that I made a somewhat involuntary visit to these islands on my way to Macassar. Had I been able to obtain a passage direct to that place from Singapore, I should probably never have gone near them, and should have missed some of the most important discoveries of my whole expedition the East.

It was on the 13th of June, 1856, after a twenty days’ passage from Singapore in the “Kembang Djepoon” (Rose of Japan), a schooner belonging to a Chinese merchant, manned by a Javanese crew, and commanded by an English captain, that we cast anchor in the dangerous roadstead of Bileling on the north side of the island of Bali. Going on shore with the captain and the Chinese supercargo, I was at once introduced to a novel and interesting scene. We went first to the house of the Chinese Bandar, or chief merchant, where we found a number of natives, well dressed, and all conspicuously armed with krisses, displaying their large handles of ivory or gold, or beautifully grained and polished wood.

The Chinamen had given up their national costume and adopted the Malay dress, and could then hardly be distinguished from the natives of the island — an indication of the close affinity of the Malayan and Mongolian races. Under the thick shade of some mango-trees close by the house, several women-merchants were selling cotton goods; for here the women trade and work for the benefit of their husbands, a custom which Mahometan Malays never adopt. Fruit, tea, cakes, and sweetmeats were brought to us; many questions were asked about our business and the state of trade in Singapore, and we then took a walk to look at the village. It was a very dull and dreary place; a collection of narrow lanes bounded by high mud walls, enclosing bamboo houses, into some of which we entered and were very kindly received.

During the two days that we remained here, I walked out into the surrounding country to catch insects, shoot birds, and spy out the nakedness or fertility of the land. I was both astonished and delighted; for as my visit to Java was some years later, I had never beheld so beautiful and well cultivated a district out of Europe. A slightly undulating plain extends from the seacoast about ten or twelve miles inland, where it is bounded by a wide range of wooded and cultivated hills. Houses and villages, marked out by dense clumps of cocoa-nut palms, tamarind and other fruit trees, are dotted about in every direction; while between then extend luxuriant rice-grounds, watered by an elaborate system of irrigation that would be the pride of the best cultivated parts of Europe. The whole surface of the country is divided into irregular patches, following the undulations of the ground, from many acres to a few perches in extent, each of which is itself perfectly level, but stands a few inches or several feet above or below those adjacent to it. Every one of these patches can be flooded or drained at will by means of a system of ditches and small channels, into which are diverted the whole of the streams that descend from the mountains. Every patch now bore crops in various stages of growth, some almost ready for cutting, and all in the most flourishing condition and of the most exquisite green tints.

The sides of the lanes and bridle roads were often edged with prickly Cacti and a leafless Euphorbia, but the country being so highly cultivated there was not much room for indigenous vegetation, except upon the sea-beach. We saw plenty of the fine race of domestic cattle descended from the Bos banteng of Java, driven by half naked boys, or tethered in pasture-grounds. They are large and handsome animals, of a light brown colour, with white legs, and a conspicuous oval patch behind of the same colour. Wild cattle of the same race are said to be still found in the mountains. In so well-cultivated a country it was not to be expected that I could do much in natural history, and my ignorance of how important a locality this was for the elucidation of the geographical distribution of animals, caused me to neglect obtaining some specimens which I never met with again. One of these was a weaver bird with a bright yellow head, which built its bottle-shaped nests by dozens on some trees near the beach. It was the Ploceus hypoxantha, a native of Java; and here, at the extreme limits of its range westerly, I shot and preserved specimens of a wagtail-thrush, an oriole, and some starlings, all species found in Java, and some of them peculiar to that island. I also obtained some beautiful butterflies, richly marked with black and orange on a white ground, and which were the most abundant insects in the country lanes. Among these was a new species, which I have named Pieris tamar.

Leaving Bileling, a pleasant sail of two days brought us to Ampanam in the island of Lombock, where I proposed to remain till I could obtain a passage to Macassar. We enjoyed superb views of the twin volcanoes of Bali and Lombock, each about eight thousand feet high, which form magnificent objects at sunrise and sunset, when they rise out of the mists and clouds that surround their bases, glowing with the rich and changing tints of these the most charming moments in a tropical day.

The bay or roadstead of Ampanam is extensive, and being at this season sheltered from the prevalent southeasterly winds, was as smooth as a lake. The beach of black volcanic sand is very steep, and there is at all times, a heavy surf upon it, which during spring-tides increases to such an extent that it is often impossible for boats to land, and many serious accidents have occurred. Where we lay anchored, about a quarter of a mile from the shore, not the slightest swell was perceptible, but on approaching nearer undulations began, which rapidly increased, so as to form rollers which toppled over onto the beach at regular intervals with a noise like thunder. Sometimes this surf increases suddenly during perfect calms to as great a force and fury as when a gale of wind is blowing, beating to pieces all boats that may not have been hauled sufficiently high upon the beach, and carrying away uncautious natives. This violent surf is probably in some way dependent upon the swell of the great southern ocean and the violent currents that flow through the Straits of Lombock. These are so uncertain that vessels preparing to anchor in the bay are sometimes suddenly swept away into the straits, and are not able to get back again for a fortnight.

What seamen call the “ripples” are also very violent in the straits, the sea appearing to boil and foam and dance like the rapids below a cataract; vessels are swept about helplessly, and small ones are occasionally swamped in the finest weather and under the brightest skies.

I felt considerably relieved when all my boxes and myself had passed in safety through the devouring surf, which the natives look upon with some pride, saying, that “their sea is always hungry, and eats up everything it can catch.” I was kindly received by Mr. Carter, an Englishman, who is one of the Bandars or licensed traders of the port, who offered me hospitality and every assistance during my stay. His house, storehouses, and offices were in a yard surrounded by a tall bamboo fence, and were entirely constructed of bamboo with a thatch of grass, the only available building materials. Even these were now very scarce, owing to the great consumption in rebuilding the place since the great fire some months before, which in an hour or two had destroyed every building in the town.

The next day I went to see Mr. S., another merchant to whom I had brought letters of introduction, and who lived about seven miles off. Mr. Carter kindly lent me a horse, and I was accompanied by a young Dutch gentleman residing at Ampanam, who offered to be my guide. We first passed through the town and suburbs along a straight road bordered by mud walls and a fine avenue of lofty trees; then through rice-fields, irrigated in the same manner as I had seen them at Bileling; and afterwards over sandy pastures near the sea, and occasionally along the beach itself. Mr. S. received us kindly, and offered me a residence at his house should I think the neighbourhood favourable for my pursuits. After an early breakfast we went out to explore, taking guns and insect nets. We reached some low hills which seemed to offer the most favourable ground, passing over swamps, sandy flats overgrown with coarse sedges, and through pastures and cultivated grounds, finding however very little in the way of either birds or insects. On our way we passed one or two human skeletons, enclosed within a small bamboo fence, with the clothes, pillow, mat, and betel-box of the unfortunate individual, who had been either murdered or executed. Returning to the house, we found a Balinese chief and his followers on a visit. Those of higher rank sat on chairs, the others squatted on the floor. The chief very coolly asked for beer and brandy, and helped himself and his followers, apparently more out of curiosity than anything else as regards the beer, for it seemed very distasteful to them, while they drank the brandy in tumblers with much relish.

Returning to Ampanam, I devoted myself for some days to shooting the birds of the neighbourhood. The fine fig-trees of the avenues, where a market was held, were tenanted by superb orioles (Oriolus broderpii) of a rich orange colour, and peculiar to this island and the adjacent ones of Sumbawa and Flores. All round the town were abundance of the curious Tropidorhynchus timoriensis, allied to the Friar bird of Australia. They are here called “Quaich-quaich,” from their strange loud voice, which seems to repeat these words in various and not unmelodious intonations.

Every day boys were to be seen walking along the roads and by the hedges and ditches, catching dragonflies with birdlime. They carry a slender stick, with a few twigs at the end well annointed, so that the least touch captures the insect, whose wings are pulled off before it is consigned to a small basket. The dragon-flies are so abundant at the time of the rice flowering that thousands are soon caught in this way. The bodies are fried in oil with onions and preserved shrimps, or sometimes alone, and are considered a great delicacy. In Borneo, Celebes, and many other islands, the larvae of bees and wasps are eaten, either alive as pulled out of the cells, or fried like the dragonflies. In the Moluccas the grubs of the palm-beetles (Calandra) are regularly brought to market in bamboos and sold for food; and many of the great horned Lamellicorn beetles are slightly roasted on the embers and eaten whenever met with. The superabundance of insect life is therefore turned to some account by these islanders.

Finding that birds were not very numerous, and hearing much of Labuan Tring at the southern extremity of the bay, where there was said to be much uncultivated country and plenty of birds as well as deer and wild pigs, I determined to go there with my two servants, Ali, the Malay lad from Borneo, and Manuel, a Portuguese of Malacca accustomed to bird-skinning. I hired a native boat with outriggers to take us with our small quantity of luggage, on a day’s rowing and tracking along the shore brought us to the place.

I had a note of introduction to an Amboynese Malay, and obtained the use of part of his house to live and work in. His name was “Inchi Daud” (Mr. David), and he was very civil; but his accommodations were limited, and he could only hire me part of his reception-room. This was the front part of a bamboo house (reached by a ladder of about six rounds very wide apart), and having a beautiful view over the bay. However, I soon made what arrangements were possible, and then set to work. The country around was pretty and novel to me, consisting of abrupt volcanic hills enclosing flat valleys or open plains. The hills were covered with a dense scrubby bush of bamboos and prickly trees and shrubs, the plains were adorned with hundreds of noble palm-trees, and in many places with a luxuriant shrubby vegetation. Birds were plentiful and very interesting, and I now saw for the first time many Australian forms that are quite absent from the islands westward. Small white cockatoos were abundant, and their loud screams, conspicuous white colour, and pretty yellow crests, rendered them a very important feature in the landscape. This is the most westerly point on the globe where any of the family are to be found. Some small honeysuckers of the genus Ptilotis, and the strange moundmaker (Megapodius gouldii), are also here first met with on the traveller’s journey eastward. The last mentioned bird requires a fuller notice.

The Megapodidae are a small family of birds found only in Australia and the surrounding islands, but extending as far as the Philippines and Northwest Borneo. They are allied to the gallinaceous birds, but differ from these and from all others in never sitting upon their eggs, which they bury in sand, earth, or rubbish, and leave to be hatched by the heat of the sun or by fermentation. They are all characterised by very large feet and long curved claws, and most of the species of Megapodius rake and scratch together all kinds of rubbish, dead leaves, sticks, stones, earth, rotten wood, etc., until they form a large mound, often six feet high and twelve feet across, in the middle of which they bury their eggs. The natives can tell by the condition of these mounds whether they contain eggs or not; and they rob them whenever they can, as the brick-red eggs (as large as those of a swan) are considered a great delicacy. A number of birds are said to join in making these mounds and lay their eggs together, so that sometimes forty or fifty may be found. The mounds are to be met with here and there in dense thickets, and are great puzzles to strangers, who cannot understand who can possibly have heaped together cartloads of rubbish in such out-of-the-way places; and when they inquire of the natives they are but little wiser, for it almost always appears to them the wildest romance to be told that it is all done by birds. The species found in Lombock is about the size of a small hen, and entirely of dark olive and brown tints. It is a miscellaneous feeder, devouring fallen fruits, earthworms, snails, and centipedes, but the flesh is white and well-flavoured when properly cooked.

The large green pigeons were still better eating, and were much more plentiful. These fine birds, exceeding our largest tame pigeons in size, abounded on the palm-trees, which now bore huge bunches of fruits — mere hard globular nuts, about an inch in diameter, and covered with a dry green skin and a very small portion of pulp. Looking at the pigeon’s bill and head, it would seem impossible that it could swallow such large masses, or that it could obtain any nourishment from them; yet I often shot these birds with several palm-fruits in the crop, which generally burst when they fell to the ground. I obtained here eight species of Kingfishers; among which was a very beautiful new one, named by Mr. Gould, Halcyon fulgidus. It was found always in thickets, away from water, and seemed to feed on snails and insects picked up from the ground after the manner of the great Laughing Jackass of Australia. The beautiful little violet and orange species (Ceyx rufidorsa) is found in similar situations, and darts rapidly along like a flame of fire. Here also I first met with the pretty Australian Bee-eater (Merops ornatus). This elegant little bird sits on twigs in open places, gazing eagerly around, and darting off at intervals to seize some insect which it sees flying near; returning afterwards to the same twig to swallow it. Its long, sharp, curved bill, the two long narrow feathers in its tail, its beautiful green plumage varied with rich brown and black and vivid blue on the throat, render it one of the most graceful and interesting objects a naturalist can see for the first time.

Of all the birds of Lombock, however, I sought most after the beautiful ground thrushes (Pitta concinna), and always thought myself lucky if I obtained one. They were found only in the dry plains densely covered with thickets, and carpeted at this season with dead leaves. They were so shy that it was very difficult to get a shot at them, and it was only after a good deal of practice that I discovered low to do it. The habit of these birds is to hop about on the ground, picking up insects, and on the least alarm to run into the densest thicket or take a flight close to the ground. At intervals they utter a peculiar cry of two notes which when once heard is easily recognised, and they can also be heard hopping along among the dry leaves.

My practice was, therefore, to walk cautiously along the narrow pathways with which the country abounded, and on detecting any sign of a Pitta’s vicinity to stand motionless and give a gentle whistle occasionally, imitating the notes as near as possible. After half an hour’s waiting I was often rewarded by seeing the pretty bird hopping along in the thicket. Then I would perhaps lose sight of it again, until leaving my gun raised and ready for a shot, a second glimpse would enable me to secure my prize, and admire its soft puffy plumage and lovely colours. The upper part is rich soft green, the head jet black with a stripe of blue and brown over each eye; at the base of the tail and on the shoulders are bands of bright silvery blue; the under side is delicate buff with a stripe of rich crimson, bordered with black on the belly. Beautiful grass-green doves, little crimson and black flower-peckers, large black cuckoos, metallic king-crows, golden orioles, and the fine jungle-cocks — the origin of all our domestic breeds of poultry — were among the birds that chiefly attracted my attention during our stay at Labuan Tring.

The most characteristic feature of the jungle was its thorniness. The shrubs were thorny; the creepers were thorny; the bamboos even were thorny. Everything grew zigzag and jagged, and in an inextricable tangle, so that to get through the bush with gun or net or even spectacles, was generally not to be done, and insect-catching in such localities was out of the question. It was in such places that the Pittas often lurked, and when shot it became a matter of some difficulty to secure the bird, and seldom without a heavy payment of pricks and scratches and torn clothes could the prize be won. The dry volcanic soil and arid climate seem favourable to the production of such stunted and thorny vegetation, for the natives assured me that this was nothing to the thorns and prickles of Sumbawa whose surface still bears the covering of volcanic ashes thrown out forty years ago by the terrible eruption of Tomboro.

Among the shrubs and trees that are not prickly the Apocynaceae were most abundant, their bilobed fruits of varied form and colour and often of most tempting appearance, hanging everywhere by the waysides as if to invite to destruction the weary traveller who may be unaware of their poisonous properties. One in particular with a smooth shining skin of a golden orange colour rivals in appearance the golden apples of the Hesperides, and has great attractions for many birds, from the white cockatoos to the little yellow Zosterops, who feast on the crimson seeds which are displayed when the fruit bursts open. The great palm called “Gubbong” by the natives, a species of Corypha, is the most striking feature of the plains, where it grows by thousands and appears in three different states — in leaf, in flower and fruit, or dead. It has a lofty cylindrical stem about a hundred feet high and two to three feet in diameter; the leaves are large and fan-shaped, and fall off when the tree flowers, which it does only once in its life in a huge terminal spike, upon which are produced masses of a smooth round fruit of a green colour rind about an inch in diameter. When those ripen and fall the tree dies, and remains standing a year or two before it falls. Trees in leaf only are by far the most numerous, then those in flower and fruit, while dead trees are scattered here and there among them. The trees in fruit are the resort of the great green fruit pigeons, which have been already mentioned. Troops of monkeys (Macacus cynoraolgus) may often be seen occupying a tree, showering down the fruit in great profusion, chattering when disturbed and making an enormous rustling as they scamper off among the dead palm leaves; while the pigeons have a loud booming voice more like the roar of a wild beast than the note of a bird.

My collecting operations here were carried on under more than usual difficulties. One small room had to serve for eating, sleeping and working,and one for storehouse and dissecting-room; in it were no shelves, cupboards, chairs or tables; ants swarmed in every part of it, and dogs, cats and fowls entered it at pleasure. Besides this it was the parlour and reception-room of my host, and I was obliged to consult his convenience and that of the numerous guests who visited us. My principal piece of furniture was a box, which served me as a dining table, a seat while skinning birds, and as the receptacle of the birds when skinned and dried. To keep them free from ants we borrowed, with some difficulty, an old bench, the four legs of which being placed in cocoa-nut shells filled with water kept us tolerably free from these pests. The box and the bench were, however, literally the only places where anything could be put away, and they were generally well occupied by two insect boxes and about a hundred birds’ skins in process of drying. It may therefore be easily conceived that when anything bulky or out of the common way was collected, the question “Where is it to be put?” was rather a difficult one to answer. All animal substances moreover require some time to dry thoroughly, emit a very disagreeable odour while doing so, and are particularly attractive to ants, flies, dogs, rats, cats, and other vermin, calling for special cautions and constant supervision, which under the circumstances above described were impossible.

My readers may now partially understand why a travelling naturalist of limited means, like myself, does so much less than is expected or than he would himself wish to do. It would be interesting to preserve skeletons of many birds and animals, reptiles and fishes in spirits, skins of the larger animals, remarkable fruits and woods and the most curious articles of manufacture and commerce; but it will be seen that under the circumstances I have just described, it would have been impossible to add these to the collections which were my own more especial favourites. When travelling by boat the difficulties are as great or greater, and they are not diminished when the journey is by land. It was absolutely necessary therefore to limit my collections to certain groups to which I could devote constant personal attention, and thus secure from destruction or decay what had been often obtained by much labour and pains.

While Manuel sat skinning his birds of an afternoon, generally surrounded by a little crowd of Malays and Sassaks (as the indigenes of Lombock are termed), he often held forth to them with the air of a teacher, and was listened to with profound attention. He was very fond of discoursing on the “special providences” of which he believed he was daily the subject. “Allah has been merciful today,” he would say — for although a Christian he adopted the Mahometan mode of speech — “and has given us some very fine birds; we can do nothing without him.” Then one of the Malays would reply, “To be sure, birds are like mankind; they have their appointed time to die; when that time comes nothing can save them, and if it has not come you cannot kill them.” A murmur of assent follow, until sentiments and cries of “Butul! Butul!” (Right, right.) Then Manuel would tell a long story of one of his unsuccessful hunts — how he saw some fine bird and followed it a long way, and then missed it, and again found it, and shot two or three times at it, but could never hit it, “Ah!” says an old Malay, “its time was not come, and so it was impossible for you to kill it.” A doctrine is this which is very consoling to the bad marksman, and which quite accounts for the facts, but which is yet somehow not altogether satisfactory.

It is universally believed in Lombock that some men have the power to turn themselves into crocodiles, which they do for the sake of devouring their enemies, and many strange tales are told of such transformations. I was therefore rather surprised one evening to hear the following curious fact stated, and as it was not contradicted by any of the persons present, I am inclined to accept it provisionally as a contribution to the Natural History of the island. A Bornean Malay who had been for many years resident here said to Manuel, “One thing is strange in this country — the scarcity of ghosts.” “How so? “asked Manuel. “Why, you know,” said the Malay, “that in our countries to the westward, if a man dies or is killed, we dare not pass near the place at night, for all sorts of noises are heard which show that ghosts are about. But here there are numbers of men killed, and their bodies lie unburied in the fields and by the roadside, and yet you can walk by them at night and never hear or see anything at all, which is not the case in our country, as you know very well.” “Certainly I do,” said Manuel; and so it was settled that ghosts were very scarce, if not altogether unknown in Lombock. I would observe, however, that as the evidence is purely negative we should be wanting in scientific caution if we accepted this fact as sufficiently well established.

One evening I heard Manuel, Ali, and a Malay man whispering earnestly together outside the door, and could distinguish various allusions to “krisses,” throat-cutting, heads, etc. etc. At length Manuel came in, looking very solemn and frightened, and said to me in English, “Sir — must take care — no safe here; — want cut throat.” On further inquiry, I found that the Malay had been telling them that the Rajah had just sent down an order to the village, that they were to get a certain number of heads for an offering in the temples to secure a good crop of rice. Two or three other Malays and Bugis, as well as the Amboyna man in whose house we lived, confirmed this account, and declared that it was a regular thing every year, and that it was necessary to keep a good watch and never go out alone. I laughed at the whole thing, and tried to persuade them that it was a mere tale, but to no effect. They were all firmly persuaded that their lives were in danger. Manuel would not go out shooting alone, and I was obliged to accompany him every morning, but I soon gave him the slip in the jungle. Ali was afraid to go and look for firewood without a companion, and would not even fetch water from the well a few yards behind the house unless armed with an enormous spear. I was quite sure all the time that no such order had been sent or received, and that we were in perfect safety. This was well shown shortly afterwards, when an American sailor ran away from his ship on the east side of the island, and made his way on foot and unarmed across to Ampanam, having met with the greatest hospitality on the whole route. Nowhere would the smallest payment be taken for the food and lodging which were willingly furbished him. On pointing out this fact to Manuel, he replied, “He one bad man — run away from his ship — no one can believe word he say;” and so I was obliged to leave him in the uncomfortable persuasion that he might any day have his throat cut.

A circumstance occurred here which appeared to throw some light on the cause of the tremendous surf at Ampanam. One evening I heard a strange rumbling noise, and at the same time the house shook slightly. Thinking it might be thunder, I asked, “What is that?” “It is an earthquake,” answered Inchi Daud, my host; and he then told me that slight shocks were occasionally felt there, but he had never known them to be severe. This happened on the day of the last quarter of the moon, and consequently when tides were low and the surf usually at its weakest. On inquiry afterwards at Ampanam, I found that no earthquake had been noticed, but that on one night there had been a very heavy surf, which shook the house, and the next day there was a very high tide, the water having flooded Mr. Carter’s premises, higher than he had ever known it before. These unusual tides occur every now and then, and are not thought much of; but by careful inquiry I ascertained that the surf had occurred on the very night I had felt the earthquake at Labuan Tring, nearly twenty miles off. This would seem to indicate, that although the ordinary heavy surf may be due to the swell of the great Southern Ocean confined in a narrow channel, combined with a peculiar form of bottom near the shore, yet the sudden heavy surfs and high tides that occur occasionally in perfectly calm weather, may be due to slight upheavals of the ocean-bed in this eminently volcanic region.

Last updated Tuesday, March 4, 2014 at 12:30