The Malay Archipelago, by Alfred Russel Wallace

Chapter 26



I HAD long wished to visit the large island of Bouru, which lies due west of Ceram, and of which scarcely anything appeared to be known to naturalists, except that it contained a babirusa very like that of Celebes. I therefore made arrangements for staying there two months after leaving Timor Delli in 1861. This I could conveniently do by means of the Dutch mail-steamers, which make a monthly round of the Moluccas.

We arrived at the harbour of Cajeli on the 4th of May; a gun was fired, the Commandant of the fort came alongside in a native boat to receive the post-packet, and took me and my baggage on shore, the steamer going off again without coming to an anchor. We went to the horse of the Opzeiner, or overseer, a native of Amboyna — Bouru being too poor a place to deserve even an Assistant Resident; yet the appearance of the village was very far superior to that of Delli, which possesses “His Excellency the Governor,” and the little fort, in perfect order, surrounded by neat brass-plots and straight walks, although manned by only a dozen Javanese soldiers with an Adjutant for commander, was a very Sebastopol in comparison with the miserable mud enclosure at Delli, with its numerous staff of Lieutenants, Captain, and Major. Yet this, as well as most of the forts in the Moluccas, was originally built by the Portuguese themselves. Oh! Lusitania, how art thou fallen!

While the Opzeiner was reading his letters, I took a walk round the village with a guide in search of a horse. The whole place was dreadfully damp and muddy, being built in a swamp with not a spot of ground raised a foot above it, and surrounded by swamps on every side. The houses were mostly well built, of wooden framework filled in with gaba-gaba (leaf-stems of the sago-palm), but as they had no whitewash, and the floors were of bare black earth like the roads, and generally on the same level, they were extremely damp and gloomy. At length I found one with the floor raised about a foot, and succeeded in making a bargain with the owner to turn out immediately, so that by night I had installed myself comfortably. The chairs and tables were left for me; and as the whole of the remaining furniture in the house consisted of a little crockery and a few clothes-boxes, it was not much trouble for the owners to move into the house of some relatives, and thus obtain a few silver rupees very easily. Every foot of ground between the homes throughout the village is crammed with fruit trees, so that the sun and air have no chance of penetrating. This must be very cool and pleasant in the dry season, but makes it damp and unhealthy at other times of the year. Unfortunately I had come two months too soon, for the rains were not yet over, and mud and water were the prominent features of the country.

About a mile behind and to the east of the village the hills commence, but they are very barren, being covered with scanty coarse grass and scattered trees of the Melaleuca cajuputi, from the leaves of which the celebrated cajeput oil is made. Such districts are absolutely destitute of interest for the zoologist. A few miles further on rose higher mountains, apparently well covered with forest, but they were entirely uninhabited and trackless, and practically inaccessible to a traveller with limited time and means. It became evident, therefore, that I must leave Cajeli for some better collecting ground, and finding a man who was going a few miles eastward to a village on the coast where he said there were hills and forest, I sent my boy Ali with him to explore and report on the capabilities of the district. At the same time I arranged to go myself on a little excursion up a river which flows into the bay about five miles north of the town, to a village of the Alfuros, or indigenes, where I thought I might perhaps find a good collecting ground.

The Rajah of Cajeli, a good-tempered old man, offered to accompany me, as the village was under his government; and we started one morning early, in a long narrow boat with eight rowers. In about two hours we entered the river, and commenced our inland journey against a very powerful current. The stream was about a hundred yards wide, and was generally bordered with high grass, and occasionally bushes and palm-trees. The country round was flat and more or less swampy, with scattered trees and shrubs. At every bend we crossed the river to avoid the strength of the current, and arrived at our landing-place about four o’clock in a torrent of rain. Here we waited for an hour, crouching under a leaky mat till the Alfuros arrived who had been sent for from the village to carry my baggage, when we set off along a path of whose extreme muddiness I had been warned before starting.

I turned up my trousers as high as possible, grasped a stoat stick to prevent awkward falls, and then boldly plunged into the first mud-hole, which was immediately succeeded by another and another. The marl or mud and water was knee-deep with little intervals of firmer ground between, making progression exceedingly difficult. The path was bordered with high rigid grass, brewing in dense clumps separated by water, so that nothing was to be gained by leaving the beaten track, and we were obliged to go floundering on, never knowing where our feet would rest, as the mud was now a few inches, now two feet deep, and the bottom very uneven, so that the foot slid down to the lowest part, and made it difficult to keep one’s balance. One step would be upon a concealed stick or log, almost dislocating the ankle, while the next would plunge into soft mud above the knee. It rained all the way, and the long grass, six feet high, met over the path; so that we could not see a step of the way ahead, and received a double drenching. Before we got to the village it was dark, and we had to cross over a small but deep and swollen stream by a narrow log of wood, which was more than a foot under water. There was a slender shaking stick for a handrail, and it was nervous work feeling in the dark in the rushing water for a safe place on which to place the advanced foot. After au hour of this most disagreeable and fatiguing walk we reached the village, followed by the men with our guns, ammunition, boxes, and bedding all more or less soaked. We consoled ourselves with some hot tea and cold fowl, and went early to bed.

The next morning was clear and fine, and I set out soon after sunrise to explore the neighbourhood. The village had evidently been newly formed, and consisted of a single straight street of very miserable huts totally deficient in every comfort, and as bare and cheerless inside as out. It was situated on a little elevated patch of coarse gravelly soil, covered with the usual high rigid grass, which came up close to the backs of the houses. At a short distance in several directions were patches of forest, but all on low and swampy ground. I made one attempt along the only path I could find, but soon came upon a deep mud-hole, and found that I must walk barefoot if at all; so I returned and deferred further exploration till after breakfast. I then went on into the jungle and found patches of sago-palms and a low forest vegetation, but the paths were everywhere full of mud-holes, and intersected by muddy streams and tracts of swamp, so that walking was not pleasurable, and too much attention to one’s steps was not favourable to insect catching, which requires above everything freedom of motion. I shot a few birds, and caught a few butterflies, but all were the same as I had already obtained about Cajeli.

On my return to the village I was told that the same kind of ground extended for many miles in every direction, and I at once decided that Wayapo was not a suitable place to stay at. The next morning early we waded back again through the mud and long wet grass to our boat, and by mid-day reached Cajeli, where I waited Ali’s return to decide on my future movements. He came the following day, and gave a very bad account of Pelah, where he had been. There was a little brush and trees along the beach, and hills inland covered with high grass and cajuputi trees — my dread and abhorrence. On inquiring who could give me trustworthy information, I was referred to the Lieutenant of the Burghers, who had travelled all round the island, and was a very intelligent fellow. I asked him to tell me if he knew of any part of Bouru where there was no “kusu-kusu,” as the coarse grass of the country is called. He assured me that a good deal of the south coast was forest land, while along the north was almost entirely swamp and grassy hills. After minute inquiries, I found that the forest country commenced at a place called Waypoti, only a few miles beyond Pelah, but that, as the coast beyond that place was exposed to the east monsoon and dangerous for praus, it was necessary to walk. I immediately went to the Opzeiner, and he called the Rajah. We had a consultation, and arranged for a boat to take me the next evening but one, to Pelah, whence I was to proceed on foot, the Orang-kaya going the day before to call the Alfuros to carry my baggage.

The journey was made as arranged, and on May 19th we arrived at Waypoti, having walked about ten miles along the beach, and through stony forest bordering the sea, with occasional plunges of a mile or two into the interior. We found no village, but scattered houses and plantations, with hilly country pretty well covered with forest, and looking rather promising. A low hut with a very rotten roof, showing the sky through in several places, was the only one I could obtain. Luckily it did not rain that night, and the next day we pulled down some of the walls to repair the roof, which was of immediate importance, especially over our beds and table.

About half a mile from the house was a fine mountain stream, running swiftly over a bed of rocks and pebbles, and beyond this was a hill covered with fine forest. By carefully picking my way I could wade across this river without getting much above my knees, although I would sometimes slip off a rock and go into a hole up to my waist, and about twice a week I went across it in order to explore the forest. Unfortunately there were no paths here of any extent, and it did not prove very productive either in insects or birds. To add to my difficulties I had stupidly left my only pair of strong hoots on board the steamer, and my others were by this time all dropping to pieces, so that I was obliged to walk about barefooted, and in constant fear of hurting my feet, and causing a wound which might lay me up for weeks, as had happened in Borneo, Are, and Dorey. Although there were numerous plantations of maize and plantains, there were no new clearings; and as without these it is almost impossible to find many of the best kinds of insects, I determined to make one myself, and with much difficulty engaged two men to clear a patch of forest, from which I hoped to obtain many fine beetles before I left.

During the whole of my stay, however, insects never became plentiful. My clearing produced me a few fine, longicorns and Buprestidae, different from any I had before seen, together with several of the Amboyna species, but by no means so numerous or, so beautiful as I had found in that small island. For example, I collected only 210 different kinds of beetles during my two months’ stay at Bourn, while in three weeks at Amboyna, in 1857, I found more than 300 species: One of the finest insects found at Bouru was a large Cerambyx, of a deep shining chestnut colour, and with very long antennae. It varied greatly in size, the largest specimens being three inches long, while the smallest were only an inch, the antenna varying from one and a half to five inches.

One day my boy Ali came home with a story of a big snake. He was walking through some high grass, and stepped on something which he took for a small fallen tree, but it felt cold and yielding to his feet, and far to the right and left there was a waving and rustling of the herbage. He jumped back in affright and prepared to shoot, but could not get a good vies of the creature, and it passed away, he said, like a tree being dragged along through the grass. As he lead several times already shot large snakes, which he declared were all as nothing compared with this, I am inclined to believe it must really have been a monster. Such creatures are rather plentiful here, for a man living close by showed me on his thigh the marks where he bad been seized by one close to his house. It was big enough to take the man’s thigh in its mouth, and he would probably have been killed and devoured by it had not his cries brought out his neighbours, who destroyed it with their choppers. As far as I could make out it was about twenty feet long, but Ali’s was probably much larger.

It sometimes amuses me to observe how, a few days after I have taken possession of it, a native hut seems quite a comfortable home. My house at Waypoti was a bare shed, with a large bamboo platform at one side. At one end of this platform, which was elevated about three feet, I fixed up my mosquito curtain, and partly enclosed it with a large Scotch plaid, making a comfortable little sleeping apartment. I put up a rude table on legs buried in the earthen floor, and had my comfortable rattan-chair for a seat. A line across one corner carried my daily — washed cotton clothing, and on a bamboo shelf was arranged my small stock of crockery and hardware: Boxes were ranged against the thatch walls, and hanging shelves, to preserve my collections from ants while drying, were suspended both without and within the house. On my table lay books, penknives, scissors, pliers, and pins, with insect and bird labels, all of which were unsolved mysteries to the native mind.

Most of the people here had never seen a pin, and the better informed took a pride in teaching their more ignorant companions the peculiarities and uses of that strange European production — a needle with a head, but no eye! Even paper, which we throw away hourly as rubbish, was to them a curiosity; and I often saw them picking up little scraps which had been swept out of the house, and carefully putting them away in their betel-pouch. Then when I took my morning coffee and evening tea, how many were the strange things displayed to them! Teapot, teacups, teaspoons, were all more or less curious in their eyes; tea, sugar, biscuit, and butter, were articles of human consumption seen by many of them for the first time. One asks if that whitish powder is “gula passir” (sand-sugar), so called to distinguish it from the coarse lump palm-sugar or molasses of native manufacture; and the biscuit is considered a sort of European sago-cake, which the inhabitants of those remote regions are obliged to use in the absence of the genuine article. My pursuit, were of course utterly beyond their comprehension. They continually asked me what white people did with the birds and insects I tools so much care to preserve. If I only kept what was beautiful, they might perhaps comprehend it; but to see ants and files and small ugly insects put away so carefully was a great puzzle to them, and they were convinced that there must be some medical or magical use for them which I kept a profound secret. These people were in fact as completely unacquainted with civilized life as the Indians of the Rocky Mountains, or the savages of Central Africa — yet a steamship, that highest triumph of human ingenuity, with its little floating epitome of European civilization, touches monthly at Cajeli, twenty miles off; while at Amboyna, only sixty miles distant, a European population and government have been established for more than three hundred years.

Having seen a good many of the natives of Bouru from different villages, and from distant parts of the island, I feel convinced that they consist of two distinct races now partially amalgamated. The larger portion are Malays of the Celebes type, often exactly similar to the Tomóre people of East Celebes, whom I found settled in Batchian; while others altogether resemble the Alfuros of Ceram.

The influx of two races can easily be accounted for. The Sula Islands, which are closely connected with East Celebes, approach to within forty miles of the north coast of Bouru, while the island of Manipa offers an easy point of departure for the people of Ceram. I was confirmed in this view by finding that the languages of Bouru possessed distinct resemblances to that of Sula, as well as to those of Ceram.

Soon after we had arrived at Waypoti, Ali had seen a beautiful little bird of the genus Pitta, which I was very anxious to obtain, as in almost every island the species are different, and none were yet known from Bourn. He and my other hunter continued to see it two or three times a week, and to hear its peculiar note much oftener, but could never get a specimen, owing to its always frequenting the most dense thorny thickets, where only hasty glimpses of it could be obtained, and at so short a distance that it would be difficult to avoid blowing the bird to pieces. Ali was very much annoyed that he could not get a specimen of this bird, in going after which he had already severely, wounded his feet with thorns; and when we had only two days more to stay, he went of his own accord one evening to sleep at a little but in the forest some miles off, in order to have a last try for it at daybreak, when many birds come out to feed, and are very intent on their morning meal. The next evening he brought me home two specimens, one with the head blown completely off, and otherwise too much injured to preserve, the other in very good order, and which I at once saw to be a new species, very like the Pitta celebensis, but ornamented with a square patch of bright red on the nape of the neck.

The next day after securing this prize we returned to Cajeli, and packing up my collections left Bouru by the steamer. During our two days’ stay at Ternate, I took on board what baggage I had left there, and bade adieu to all my friends. We then crossed over to Menado, on our way to Macassar and Java, and I finally quitted the Moluccas, among whose luxuriant and beautiful islands I had wandered for more than three years.

My collections in Bouru, though not extensive, were of considerable interest; for out of sixty-six species of birds which I collected there, no less than seventeen were new, or had not been previously found in any island of the Moluccas. Among these were two kingfishers, Tanysiptera acis and Ceyx Cajeli; a beautiful sunbird, Nectarines proserpina; a handsome little black and white flycatcher, Monarcha loricata, whose swelling throat was beautifully scaled with metallic blue; and several of less interest. I also obtained a skull of the babirusa, one specimen of which was killed by native hunters during my residence at Cajeli.

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