The Malay Archipelago, by Alfred Russel Wallace

Chapter 20

Amboyna

(DECEMBER 1857, OCTOBER 1859, FEBRUARY 1860.)

TWENTY hours from Banda brought us to Amboyna, the capital of the Moluccas, and one of the oldest European settlements in the East. The island consists of two peninsulas, so nearly divided by inlets of the sea, as to leave only a sandy isthmus about a mile wide near their eastern extremity. The western inlet is several miles long and forms a fine harbour on the southern side of which is situated the town of Amboyna. I had a letter of introduction to Dr. Mohnike, the chief medical officer of the Moluccas, a German and a naturalist. I found that he could write and read English, but could not speak it, being like myself a bad linguist; so we had to use French as a medium of communication. He kindly offered me a room during my stay in Amboyna, and introduced me to his junior, Dr. Doleschall, a Hungarian and also an entomologïst. He was an intelligent and most amiable young man but I was shocked to find that he was dying of consumption, though still able to perform the duties of his office. In the evening my host took me to the residence of the Governor, Mr. Goldmann, who received me in a most kind and cordial manner, and offered me every assistance. The town of Amboyna consists of a few business streets, and a number of roads set out at right angles to each other, bordered by hedges of flowering shrubs, and enclosing country houses and huts embossed in palms and fruit trees. Hills and mountains form the background in almost every direction, and there are few places more enjoyable for a morning or evening stroll than these sandy roads and shady lanes in the suburbs of the ancient city of Amboyna.

There are no active volcanoes in the island, nor is it now subject to frequent earthquakes, although very severe ones have occurred and may be expected again. Mr. William Funnell, in his voyage with Dampier to the South Seas in 1705, says: “Whilst we were here, (at Amboyna) we had a great earthquake, which continued two days, in which time it did a great deal of mischief, for the ground burst open in many places, and swallowed up several houses and whole families. Several of the people were dug out again, but most of them dead, and many had their legs or arms broken by the fall of the houses. The castle walls were rent asunder in several places, and we thought that it and all the houses would have fallen down. The ground where we were swelled like a wave in the sea, but near us we had no hurt done.” There are also numerous records of eruptions of a volcano on the west side of the island. In 1674 an eruption destroyed a village. In 1694 there was another eruption. In I797 much vapour and heat was emitted. Other eruptions occurred in 1816 and 1820, and in 1824 a new crater is said to have been formed. Yet so capricious is the action of these subterranean fires, that since the last-named epoch all eruptive symptoms have so completely ceased, that I was assured by many of the most intelligent European inhabitants of Amboyna, that they had never heard of any such thing as a volcano on the island.

During the few days that elapsed before I could make arrangements to visit the interior, I enjoyed myself much in the society of the two doctors, both amiable and well-educated men, and both enthusiastic entomologists, though obliged to increase their collections almost entirely by means of native collectors. Dr. Doleschall studied chiefly the flies and spiders, but also collected butterflies and moths, and in his boxes I saw grand specimens of the emerald Ornithoptera priamus and the azure Papilio Ulysses, with many more of the superb butterflies of this rich island. Dr. Mohnike confined himself chiefly to the beetles, and had formed a magnificent collection during many years residence in Java, Sumatra, Borneo, Japan, and Amboyna. The Japanese collection was especially interesting, containing both the fine Carabi of northern countries, and the gorgeous Buprestidae and Longicorns of the tropics. The doctor made the voyage to Jeddo by land from Nagasaki, and is well acquainted with the character, manners, and customs of the people of Japan, and with the geology, physical features, and natural history of the country. He showed me collections of cheap woodcuts printed in colours, which are sold at less than a farthing each, and comprise an endless variety of sketches of Japanese scenery and manners. Though rude, they are very characteristic, and often exhibit touches of great humour. He also possesses a large collection of coloured sketches of the plants of Japan, made by a Japanese lady, which are the most masterly things I have ever seen. Every stem, twig, and leaf is produced by single touches of the brush, the character and perspective of very complicated plants being admirably given, and the articulations of stem and leaves shown in a most scientific manner.

Having made arrangements to stay for three weeks at a small hut on a newly cleared plantation in the interior of the northern half of the island, I with some difficulty obtained a boat and men to take me across the water — for the Amboynese are dreadfully lazy. Passing up the harbour, in appearance like a fine river, the clearness of the water afforded me one of the most astonishing and beautiful sights I have ever beheld. The bottom was absolutely hidden by a continuous series of corals, sponges, actinic, and other marine productions of magnificent dimensions, varied forms, and brilliant colours. The depth varied from about twenty to fifty feet, and the bottom was very uneven, rocks and chasms and little hills and valleys, offering a variety of stations for the growth of these animal forests. In and out among them, moved numbers of blue and red and yellow fishes, spotted and banded and striped in the most striking manner, while great orange or rosy transparent medusa floated along near the surface. It was a sight to gaze at for hours, and no description can do justice to its surpassing beauty and interest. For once, the reality exceeded the most glowing accounts I had ever read of the wonders of a coral sea. There is perhaps no spot in the world richer in marine productions, corals, shells and fishes, than the harbour of Amboyna.

From the north side of the harbour, a good broad path passes through swamp clearing and forest, over hill and valley, to the farther side of the island; the coralline rock constantly protruding through the deep red earth which fills all the hollows, and is more or less spread over the plains and hill-sides. The forest vegetation is here of the most luxuriant character; ferns and palms abound, and the climbing rattans were more abundant than I had ever seen them, forming tangled festoons over almost every large forest tree. The cottage I was to occupy was situated in a large clearing of about a hundred acres, part of which was already planted with young cacao-trees and plantains to shade them, while the rest was covered with dead and half-burned forest trees; and on one side there was a tract where the trees had been recently felled and were not yet burned. The path by which I had arrived continued along one side of this clearing, and then again entering the virgin forest passed over hill and dale to the northern aide of the island.

My abode was merely a little thatched hut, consisting of an open verandah in front and a small dark sleeping room behind. It was raised about five feet from the ground, and was reached by rude steps to the centre of the verandah. The walls and floor were of bamboo, and it contained a table, two bamboo chairs, and a couch. Here I soon made myself comfortable, and set to work hunting for insects among the more recently felled timber, which swarmed with fine Curculionidae, Longicorns, and Buprestidae, most of them remarkable for their elegant forms or brilliant colours, and almost all entirely new to me. Only the entomologist can appreciate the delight with which I hunted about for hours in the hot sunshine, among the branches and twigs and bark of the fallen trees, every few minutes securing insects which were at that time almost all rare or new to European collections.

In the shady forest paths were many fine butterflies, most conspicuous among which was the shining blue Papilio Ulysses, one of the princes of the tribe, though at that time so rare in Europe, I found it absolutely common in Amboyna, though not easy to obtain in fine condition, a large number of the specimens being found when captured to have the wings torn or broken. It flies with a rather weak undulating motion, and from its large size, its tailed wings and brilliant colour, is one of the most tropical-looking insects the naturalist can gaze upon.

There is a remarkable contrast between the beetles of Amboyna and those of Macassar, the latter generally small and obscure, the former large and brilliant. On the whole, the insects here most resemble those of the Aru islands, but they are almost always of distinct species, and when they are most nearly allied to each other, the species of Amboyna are of larger size and more brilliant colours, so that one might be led to conclude that in passing east and west into a less favourable soil and climate, they had degenerated into less striking forms.

Of an evening I generally sat reading in the verandah, ready to capture any insects that were attracted to the light. One night about nine o’clock, I heard a curious noise and rustling overhead, as if some heavy animal were crawling slowly over the thatch. The noise soon ceased, and I thought no more about it and went to bed soon afterwards. The next afternoon just before dinner, being rather tired with my day’s work, I was lying on the couch with a book in my hand, when gazing upwards I saw a large mass of something overhead which I had not noticed before. Looking more carefully I could see yellow and black marks, and thought it must be a tortoise-shell put up there out of the way between the ridge-pole and the roof Continuing to gaze, it suddenly resolved itself into a large snake, compactly coiled up in a kind of knot; and I could detect his head and his bright eyes in the very centre of the folds. The noise of the evening before was now explained. A python had climbed up one of the posts of the house, and had made his way under the thatch within a yard of my head, and taken up a comfortable position in the roof — and I had slept soundly all night directly under him.

I called to my two boys who were skinning birds below and said, “Here’s a big snake in the roof;” but as soon as I had shown it to them they rushed out of the house and begged me to come out directly. Finding they were too much afraid to do anything, we called some of the labourers in the plantation, and soon had half a dozen men in consultation outside. One of these, a native of Bouru, where there are a great many snakes, said he would get him out, and proceeded to work in a businesslike manner. He made a strong noose of rattan, and with a long pole in the other hand poked at the snake, who then began slowly to uncoil itself. He then managed to slip the noose over its head, and getting it well on to the body, dragged the animal down. There was a great scuffle as the snake coiled round the chairs and posts to resist his enemy, but at length the man caught hold of its tail, rushed out of the house (running so quick that the creature seemed quite confounded), and tried to strike its head against a tree. He missed however, and let go, and the snake got under a dead trunk close by. It was again poked out, and again the Bourn man caught hold of its tail, and running away quickly dashed its head with a swing against a tree, and it was then easily killed with a hatchet. It was about twelve feet long and very thick, capable of doing much mischief and of swallowing a dog or a child.

I did not get a great many birds here. The most remarkable were the fine crimson lory, Eos rubra — a brush-tongued parroquet of a vivid crimson colour, which was very abundant. Large flocks of them came about the plantation, and formed a magnificent object when they settled down upon some flowering tree, on the nectar of which lories feed. I also obtained one or two specimens of the fine racquet-tailed kingfisher of Amboyna, Tanysiptera nais, one of the most singular and beautiful of that beautiful family. These birds differ from all other kingfishers (which have usually short tails) by having the two middle tail-feathers immensely lengthened and very narrowly webbed, but terminated by a spoon-shaped enlargement, as in the motmots and some of the humming — birds. They belong to that division of the family termed king — hunters, living chiefly on insects and small land-molluscs, which they dart down upon and pick up from the ground, just as a kingfisher picks a fish out of the water. They are confined to a very limited area, comprising the Moluccas, New Guinea and Northern Australia. About ten species of these birds are now known, all much resembling each other, but yet sufficiently distinguishable in every locality. The Amboynese species, of which a very accurate representation is here given, is one of the largest and handsomest. It is full seventeen inches long to the tips of the tail-feathers; the bill is coral red, the under-surface pure white, the back and wings deep purple, while the shoulders, head and nape, and some spots on the upper part of the back and wings, are pure azure blue; the tail is white, with the feathers narrowly blue-edged, but the narrow part of the long feathers is rich blue. This was an entirely new species, and has been well named after an ocean goddess, by Mr. R. G. Gray.

On Christmas eve I returned to Amboyna, where I stayed about ten days with my kind friend Dr. Mohnike. Considering that I had been away only twenty days, and that on five or six of those I was prevented doing any thing by wet weather and slight attacks of fever, I had made a very nice collection of insects, comprising a much larger proportion of large and brilliant species than I had ever before obtained in so short a time. Of the beautiful metallic Buprestidae I had about a dozen handsome species, yet in the doctor’s collection I observed four or five more very fine ones, so that Amboyna is unusually rich in this elegant group.

During my stay here I had a good opportunity of seeing how Europeans live in the Dutch colonies, and where they have adopted customs far more in accordance with the climate than we have done in our tropical possessions. Almost all business is transacted in the morning between the hours of seven and twelve, the afternoon being given up to repose, and the evening to visiting. When in the house during the heat of the day, and even at dinner, they use a loose cotton dress, only putting on a suit of thin European-made clothes for out of doors and evening wear. They often walk about after sunset bareheaded, reserving the black hat for visits of ceremony. Life is thus made far more agreeable, and the fatigue and discomfort incident to the climate greatly diminished. Christmas day is not made much of, but on New Year’s day official and complimentary visits are paid, and about sunset we went to the Governor’s, where a large party of ladies and gentlemen were assembled. Tea and coffee were handed around, as is almost universal during a visit, as well as cigars, for on no occasion is smoking prohibited in Dutch colonies, cigars being generally lighted before the cloth is withdrawn at dinner, even though half the company are ladies. I here saw for the first time the rare black lory from New Guinea, Chalcopsitta atra. The plumage is rather glossy, and slightly tinged with yellowish and purple, the bill and feet being entirely black.

The native Amboynese who reside in the city are a strange half-civilized, half-savage lazy people, who seem to be a mixture of at least three races — Portuguese, Malay, and Papuan or Ceramese, with an occasional cross of Chinese or Dutch. The Portuguese element decidedly predominates in the old Christian population, as indicated by features, habits, and the retention of many Portuguese words in the Malay, which is now their language. They have a peculiar style of dress which they wear among themselves, a close-fitting white shirt with black trousers, and a black frock or upper shirt. The women seem to prefer a dress entirely black. On festivals and state occasions they adopt the swallow-tail coat, chimneypot hat, and their accompaniments, displaying all the absurdity of our European fashionable dress. Though now Protestants, they preserve at feasts and weddings the processions and music of the Catholic Church, curiously mixed up with the gongs and dances of the aborigines of the country. Their language has still much more Portuguese than Dutch in it, although they have been in close communication with the latter nation for more than two hundred and fifty years; even many names of birds, trees and other natural objects, as well as many domestic terms, being plainly Portuguese. [The following are a few of the Portuguese words in common use by the Malay-speaking natives of Amboyna and the other Molucca islands: Pombo (pigeon); milo (maize); testa (forehead); horas (hours); alfinete (pin); cadeira (chair); lenco (handkerchief); fresco (cool); trigo (flour); sono (sloop); familia (family); histori (talk); vosse (you); mesmo (even); cunhado (brother-inlaw); senhor (sir); nyora for signora (madam). None of them, however, have the least notion that these words belong to a European language.] This people seems to have had a marvellous power of colonization, and a capacity for impressing their national characteristics on every country they conquered, or in which they effected a merely temporary settlement. In a suburb of Amboyna there is a village of aboriginal Malays who are Mahometans, and who speak a peculiar language allied to those of Ceram, as well as Malay. They are chiefly fishermen, and are said to be both more industrious and more honest than the native Christians.

I went on Sunday, by invitation, to see a collection of shells and fish made by a gentleman of Amboyna. The fishes are perhaps unrivalled for variety and beauty by those of any one spot on the earth. The celebrated Dutch ichthyologist, Dr. Blecker, has given a catalogue of seven hundred and eighty species found at Amboyna, a number almost equal to those of all the seas and rivers of Europe. A large proportion of them are of the most brilliant colours, being marked with bands and spots of the purest yellows, reds, and blues; while their forms present all that strange and endless variety so characteristic of the inhabitants of the ocean. The shells are also very numerous, and comprise a number of the finest species in the world. The Mactras and Ostreas in particular struck me by the variety and beauty of their colours. Shells have long been an object of traffic in Amboyna; many of the natives get their living by collecting and cleaning them, and almost every visitor takes away a small collection. The result is that many of the commoner-sorts have lost all value in the eyes of the amateur, numbers of the handsome but very common cones, cowries, and olives sold in the streets of London for a penny each, being natives of the distant isle of Amboyna, where they cannot be bought so cheaply. The fishes in the collection were all well preserved in clear spirit in hundreds of glass jars, and the shells were arranged in large shallow pith boxes lined with paper, every specimen being fastened down with thread. I roughly estimated that there were nearly a thousand different kinds of shells, and perhaps ten thousand specimens, while the collection of Amboyna fishes was nearly perfect.

On the 4th of January I left Amboyna for Ternate; but two years later, in October 1859, I again visited it after my residence in Menado, and stayed a month in the town in a small house which I hired for the sake of assorting and packing up a large and varied collection which I had brought with me from North Celebes, Ternate, and Gilolo. I was obliged to do this because the mail steamer would have come the following month by way of Amboyna to Ternate, and I should have been delayed two months before I could have reached the former place. I then paid my first visit to Ceram, and on returning to prepare for my second more complete exploration of that island, I stayed (much against my will) two months at Paso, on the isthmus which connects the two portions of the island of Amboyna. This village is situated on the eastern side of the isthmus, on sandy ground, with a very pleasant view over the sea to the island of Haruka. On the Amboyna side of the isthmus there is a small river which has been continued by a shallow canal to within thirty yards of high-water mark on the other side. Across this small space, which is sandy and but slightly elevated, all small boats and praus can be easily dragged, and all the smaller traffic from Ceram and the islands of Saparúa and Harúka, passes through Paso. The canal is not continued quite through, merely because every spring-tide would throw up just such a sand-bank as now exists.

I had been informed that the fine butterfly Ornithoptera priamus was plentiful here, as well as the racquet-tailed kingfisher and the ring-necked lory. I found, however, that I had missed the time for the former: and birds of all kinds were very scarce, although I obtained a few good ones, including one or two of the above-mentioned rarities. I was much pleased to get here the fine long-armed chafer, Euchirus longimanus. This extraordinary insect is rarely or never captured except when it comes to drink the sap of the sugar palms, where it is found by the natives when they go early in the morning to take away the bamboos which have been filled during the night. For some time one or two were brought me every day, generally alive. They are sluggish insects, and pull themselves lazily along by means of their immense forelegs. A figure of this and other Moluccan beetles is given in the 27th chapter of this work.

I was kept at Paso by an inflammatory eruption, brought on by the constant attacks of small acari-like harvest-bugs, for which the forests of Ceram are famous, and also by the want of nourishing food while in that island. At one time I was covered with severe boils. I had them on my eye, cheek, armpits, elbows, back, thighs, knees, and ankles, so that I was unable to sit or walk, and had great difficulty in finding a side to lie upon without pain. These continued for some weeks, fresh ones coming out as fast as others got well; but good living and sea baths ultimately cured them.

About the end of January Charles Allen, who had been my assistant in Malacca and Borneo, again joined me on agreement for three years; and as soon as I got tolerably well, we had plenty to do laying in stores and making arrangements for our ensuing campaign. Our greatest difficulty was in obtaining men, but at last we succeeded in getting two each. An Amboyna Christian named Theodorus Watakena, who had been some time with me and had learned to skin birds very well, agreed to go with Allen, as well as a very quiet and industrious lad named Cornelius, whom I had brought from Menado. I had two Amboynese, named Petrus Rehatta, and Mesach Matahena; the latter of whom had two brothers, named respectively Shadrach and Abednego, in accordance with the usual custom among these people of giving only Scripture names to their children.

During the time I resided in this place, I enjoyed a luxury I have never met with either before or since — the true bread-fruit. A good deal of it has been planted about here and in the surrounding villages, and almost everyday we had opportunities of purchasing some, as all the boats going to Amboyna were unloaded just opposite my door to be dragged across the isthmus. Though it grows in several other parts of the Archipelago, it is nowhere abundant, and the season for it only lasts a short time. It is baked entire in the hot embers, and the inside scooped out with a spoon. I compared it to Yorkshire pudding; Charles Allen said it was like mashed potatoes and milk. It is generally about the size of a melon, a little fibrous towards the centre, but everywhere else quite smooth and puddingy, something in consistence between yeast-dumplings and batter-pudding. We sometimes made curry or stew of it, or fried it in slices; but it is no way so good as simply baked. It may be eaten sweet or savory. With meat and gravy it is a vegetable superior to any I know, either in temperate or tropical countries. With sugar, milk, butter, or treacle, it is a delicious pudding, having a very slight and delicate but characteristic flavour, which, like that of good bread and potatoes, one never gets tired of. The reason why it is comparatively scarce is that it is a fruit of which the seeds are entirely aborted by cultivation, and the tree can therefore only be propagated by cuttings. The seed-bearing variety is common all over the tropics, and though the seeds are very good eating, resembling chestnuts, the fruit is quite worthless as a vegetable. Now that steam and Ward’s cases render the transport of young plants so easy, it is much to be wished that the best varieties of this unequalled vegetable should be introduced into our West India islands, and largely propagated there. As the fruit will keep some time after being gathered, we might then be able to obtain this tropical luxury in Covent Garden Market.

Although the few months I at various times spent in Amboyna were not altogether very profitable to me in the way of collections, it will always remain as a bright spot in the review of my Eastern travels, since it was there that I first made the acquaintance of those glorious birds and insects which render the Moluccas classic ground in the eyes of the naturalist, and characterise its fauna as one of the most remarkable and beautiful upon the globe. On the 20th of February I finally quitted Amboyna for Ceram and Waigiou, leaving Charles Allen to go by a Government boat to Wahai on the north coast of Ceram, and thence to the unexplored island of Mysol.

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