The Malay Archipelago, by Alfred Russel Wallace

Chapter 28

Macassar to the Aru Islands in a Native Prau.

(DECEMBER, 1856.)

IT was the beginning of December, and the rainy season at Macassar had just set in. For nearly three months had beheld the sun rise daily above the palm-groves, mount to the zenith, and descend like a globe of fire into the ocean, unobscured for a single moment of his course. Now dark leaden clouds had gathered over the whole heavens, and seemed to have rendered him permanently invisible. The strong east winds, warm and dry and dust-laden, which had hitherto blown as certainly as the sun had risen, were now replaced by variable gusty breezes and heavy rains, often continuous for three days and nights together; and the parched and fissured rice stubbles which during the dry weather had extended in every direction for miles around the town, were already so flooded as to be only passable by boats, or by means of a labyrinth of paths on the top of the narrow banks which divided the separate properties.

Five months of this kind of weather might be expected in Southern Celebes, and I therefore determined to seek some more favourable climate for collecting in during that period, and to return in the next dry season to complete my exploration of the district. Fortunately for me I was in one of the treat emporiums of the native trade of the archipelago. Rattans from Borneo, sandal-wood and bees’-was from Flores and Timor, tripang from the Gulf of Carpentaria, cajputi-oil from Bouru, wild nutmegs and mussoi-bark from New Guinea, are all to be found in the stores of the Chinese and Bugis merchants of Macassar, along with the rice and coffee which are the chief products of the surrounding country. More important than all these however is the trade to Aru, a group of islands situated on the south-west coast of New Guinea, and of which almost the whole produce comes to Macassar in native vessels. These islands are quite out of the track of all European trade, and are inhabited only by black mop-headed savages, who yet contribute to the luxurious tastes of the most civilized races. Pearls, mother-of-pearl, and tortoiseshell find their way to Europe, while edible birds’ nests and “tripang” or sea-slug are obtained by shiploads for the gastronomic enjoyment of the Chinese.

The trade to these islands has existed from very early times, and it is from them that Birds of Paradise, of the two kinds known to Linnaeus were first brought The native vessels can only make the voyage once a year, owing to the monsoons. They leave Macassar in December or January at the beginning of the west monsoon, and return in July or August with the full strength of the east monsoon. Even by the Macassar people themselves, the voyage to the Aru Islands is looked upon as a rather wild and romantic expedition, fall of novel sights and strange adventures. He who has made it is looked up to as an authority, and it remains with many the unachieved ambition of their lives. I myself had hoped rather than expected ever to reach this “Ultima Thule” of the East: and when I found that I really could do so now, had I but courage to trust myself for a thousand miles’ voyage in a Bugis prau, and for six or seven months among lawless traders and ferocious savages, I felt somewhat as I did when, a schoolboy, I was for the first time allowed to travel outside the stage-coach, to visit that scene of all that is strange and new and wonderful to young imaginations-London!

By the help of some kind friends I was introduced to the owner of one of the large praus which was to sail in a few days. He was a Javanese half-caste, intelligent, mild, and gentlemanly in his manners, and had a young and pretty Dutch wife, whom he was going to leave behind during his absence. When we talked about passage money he would fix no sum, but insisted on leaving it entirely to me to pay on my return exactly what I liked. “And then,” said he, “whether you give me one dollar or a hundred, I shall he satisfied, and shall ask no more.”

The remainder of my stay was fully occupied in laying in stores, engaging servants, and making every other preparation for an absence of seven months from even the outskirts of civilization. On the morning of December 13th, when we went on board at daybreak, it was raining hard. We set sail and it came on to blow. Our boat was lost astern, our sails damaged, and the evening found us hack again in Macassar harbour. We remained there four days longer, owing to its raining all the time, thus rendering it impossible to dry and repair the huge mat sails. All these dreary days I remained on board, and during the rare intervals when it didn’t rain, made myself acquainted with our outlandish craft, some of the peculiarities of which I will now endeavour to describe.

It was a vessel of about seventy tons burthen, and shaped something like a Chinese junk. The deck sloped considerably downward to the bows, which are thus the lowest part of the ship. There were two large rudders, but instead of being planed astern they were hung on the quarters from strong cross beams, which projected out two or three feet on each side, and to which extent the deck overhung the sides of the vessel amidships. The rudders were not hinged but hung with slings of rattan, the friction of which keeps them in any position in which they are placed, and thus perhaps facilitates steering. The tillers were not on deck, but entered the vessel through two square openings into a lower or half deck about three feet high, in which sit the two steersmen. In the after part of the vessel was a low poop, about three and a half feet high, which forms the captain’s cabin, its furniture consisting of boxes, mats, and pillows. In front of the poop and mainmast was a little thatched house on deck, about four feet high to the ridge; and one compartment of this, forming a cabin six and a half feet long by five and a half wide, I had all to myself, and it was the snuggest and most comfortable little place I ever enjoyed at sea. It was entered by a low sliding door of thatch on one side, and had a very small window on the other. The floor was of split bamboo, pleasantly elastic, raised six inches above the deck, so as to be quite dry. It was covered with fine cane mats, for the manufacture of which Macassar is celebrated; against the further wall were arranged my guncase, insect-boxes, clothes, and books; my mattress occupied the middle, and next the door were my canteen, lamp, and little store of luxuries for the voyage; while guns, revolver, and hunting knife hung conveniently from the roof. During these four miserable days I was quite jolly in this little snuggery more so than I should have been if confined the same time to the gilded and uncomfortable saloon of a first-class steamer. Then, how comparatively sweet was everything on board — no paint, no tar, no new rope, (vilest of smells to the qualmish!) no grease, or oil, or varnish; but instead of these, bamboo and rattan, and coir rope and palm thatch; pure vegetable fibres, which smell pleasantly if they smell at all, and recall quiet scenes in the green and shady forest.

Our ship had two masts, if masts they can be called c which were great moveable triangles. If in an ordinary ship you replace the shrouds and backstay by strong timbers, and take away the mast altogether, you have the arrangement adopted on board a prau. Above my cabin, and resting on cross-beams attached to the masts, was a wilderness of yards and spars, mostly formed of bamboo. The mainyard, an immense affair nearly a hundred feet long, was formed of many pieces of wood and bamboo bound together with rattans in an ingenious manner. The sail carried by this was of an oblong shape, and was hung out of the centre, so that when the short end was hauled down on deck the long end mounted high in the air, making up for the lowness of the mast itself. The foresail was of the same shape, but smaller. Both these were of matting, and, with two jibs and a fore and aft sail astern of cotton canvas, completed our rig.

The crew consisted of about thirty men, natives of Macassar and the adjacent coasts and islands. They were mostly young, and were short, broad-faced, good-humoured looking fellows. Their dress consisted generally of a pair of trousers only, when at work, and a handkerchief twisted round the head, to which in the evening they would add a thin cotton jacket. Four of the elder men were “jurumudis,” or steersmen, who had to squat (two at a time) in the little steerage before described, changing every six hours. Then there was an old man, the “juragan,” or captain, but who was really what we should call the first mate; he occupied the other half of the little house on deck. There were about ten respectable men, Chinese or Bugis, whom our owner used to call “his own people.” He treated them very well, shared his meals with them, and spoke to them always with perfect politeness; yet they were most of them a kind of slave debtors, bound over by the police magistrate to work for him at mere nominal wages for a term of years till their debts were liquidated. This is a Dutch institution in this part of the world, and seems to work well. It is a great boon to traders, who can do nothing in these thinly-populated regions without trusting goods to agents and petty dealers, who frequently squander them away in gambling and debauchery. The lower classes are almost all in a chronic state of debt. The merchant trusts them again and again, till the amount is something serious, when he brings them to court and has their services allotted to him for its liquidation. The debtors seem to think this no disgrace, but rather enjoy their freedom from responsibility, and the dignity of their position under a wealthy and well-known merchant. They trade a little on their own account, and both parties seem to get on very well together. The plan seems a more sensible one than that which we adopt, of effectually preventing a man from earning anything towards paying his debts by shutting him up in a jail.

My own servants were three in number. Ali, the Malay boy whom I had picked up in Borneo, was my head man. He had already been with me a year, could turn his hand to anything, and was quite attentive and trustworthy. He was a good shot, and fond of shooting, and I had taught him to skin birds very well. The second, named Baderoon, was a Macassar lad; also a pretty good boy, but a desperate gambler. Under pretence of buying a house for his mother, and clothes, for himself, he had received four months’ wages about a week before we sailed, and in a day or two gambled away every dollar of it. He had come on board with no clothes, no betel, or tobacco, or salt fish, all which necessary articles I was obliged to send Ali to buy for him. These two lads were about sixteen, I should suppose; the third was younger, a sharp little rascal named Baso, who had been with me a month or two, and had learnt to cook tolerably. He was to fulfil the important office of cook and housekeeper, for I could not get any regular servants to go to such a terribly remote country; one might as well ask a chef de cuisine to go to Patagonia.

On the fifth day that I had spent on board (Dec. 15th) the rain ceased, and final preparations were made for starting. Sails were dried and furled, boats were constantly coming and going, and stores for the voyage, fruit, vegetables, fish, and palm sugar, were taken on board. In the afternoon two women arrived with a large party of friends and relations, and at parting there was a general noserubbing (the Malay kiss), and some tears shed. These were promising symptoms for our getting off the next day; and accordingly, at three in the morning, the owner came on board, the anchor was immediately weighed, and by four we set sail. Just as we were fairly off and clear of the other praus, the old juragan repeated some prayers, all around responding with “Allah il Allah,” and a few strokes on a gong as an accompaniment, concluding with all wishing each other “Salaamat jalan,” a safe and happy journey. We had a light breeze, a calm sea, and a fine morning, a prosperous commencement of our voyage of about a thousand miles to the far-famed Aru Islands.

The wind continued light and variable all day, with a calm in the evening before the land breeze sprang up, were then passing the island of “Tanakaki “(foot of the land), at the extreme south of this part of Celebes. There are some dangerous rocks here, and as I was standing by the bulwarks, I happened to spit over the side; one of the men begged I would not do so just now, but spit on deck, as they were much afraid of this place. Not quite comprehending, I made him repeat his request, when, seeing he was in earnest, I said, “Very well, I suppose there are ‘hantus’ (spirits) here.” “Yes,” said he, “and they don’t like anything to be thrown overboard; many a prau has been lost by doing it.” Upon which I promised to be very careful. At sunset the good Mahometans on board all repeated a few words of prayer with a general chorus, reminding me of the pleasing and impressive “Ave. Maria” of Catholic countries.

Dec. 20th.-At sunrise we were opposite the Bontyne mountain, said to be one of the highest in Celebes. In the afternoon we passed the Salayer Straits and had a little squall, which obliged us to lower our huge mast, sails, and heavy yards. The rest of the evening we had a fine west wind, which carried us on at near five knots an hour, as much as our lumbering old tub can possibly go.

Dec. 21st.-A heavy swell from the south-west rolling us about most uncomfortably. A steady wind was blowing however, and we got on very well.

Dec. 22d.-The swell had gone down. We passed Boutong, a large island, high, woody, and populous, the native place of some of our crew. A small prau returning from Bali to the, island of Goram overtook us. The nakoda (captain) was known to our owner. They had been two years away, but were full of people, with several black Papuans on board. At 6 P.M. we passed Wangiwangi, low but not flat, inhabited and subject to Boutong. We had now fairly entered the Molucca Sea. After dark it was a beautiful sight to look down on our rudders, from which rushed eddying streams of phosphoric light gemmed with whirling sparks of fire. It resembled (more nearly than anything else to which I can compare it) one of the large irregular nebulous star-clusters seen through a good telescope, with the additional attraction of ever-changing form and dancing motion.

Dec. 23d.-Fine red sunrise; the island we left last evening barely visible behind us. The Goram prau about a mile south of us. They have no compass, yet they have kept a very true course during the night. Our owner tells me they do it by the swell of the sea, the direction of which they notice at sunset, and sail by it during the night. In these seas they are never (in fine weather) more than two days without seeing land. Of course adverse winds or currents sometimes carry them away, but they soon fall in with some island, and there are always some old sailors on board who know it, and thence take a new course. Last night a shark about five feet long was caught, and this morning it was cut up and cooked. In the afternoon they got another, and I had a little fried, and found it firm and dry, but very palatable. In the evening the sun set in a heavy bank of clouds, which, as darkness came on, assumed a fearfully black appearance. According to custom, when strong wind or rain is expected, our large sails — were furled, and with their yards let down on deck, and a small square foresail alone kept up. The great mat sails are most awkward things to manage in rough weather. The yards which support them are seventy feet long, and of course very heavy, and the only way to furl them being to roll up the sail on the boom, it is a very dangerous thing to have them standing when overtaken by a squall. Our crew; though numerous enough for a vessel of 700 instead of one of 70 tons, have it very much their own way, and there seems to be seldom more than a dozen at work at a time. When anything important is to be done, however, all start up willingly enough, but then all think themselves at liberty to give their opinion, and half a dozen voices are heard giving orders, and there is such a shrieking and confusion that it seems wonderful anything gets done at all.

Considering we have fifty men of several tribes and tongues onboard, wild, half-savage looking fellows, and few of them feeling any of the restraints of morality or education, we get on wonderfully well. There is no fighting or quarrelling, as there would certainly be among the same number of Europeans with as little restraint upon their actions, and there is scarcely any of that noise and excitement which might be expected. In fine weather the greater part of them are quietly enjoying themselves — some are sleeping under the shadow of the sails; others, in little groups of three or four, are talking or chewing betel; one is making a new handle to his chopping-knife, another is stitching away at a new pair of trousers or a shirt, and all are as quiet and well-conducted as on board the best-ordered English merchantman. Two or three take it by turns to watch in the bows and see after the braces and halyards of the great sails; the two steersmen are below in the steerage; our captain, or the juragan, gives the course, guided partly by the compass and partly by the direction of the wind, and a watch of two or three on the poop look after the trimming of the sails and call out the hours by the water-clock. This is a very ingenious contrivance, which measures time well in both rough weather and fine. It is simply a bucket half filled with water, in which floats the half of a well-scraped cocoa-nut shell. In the bottom of this shell is a very small hole, so that when placed to float in the bucket a fine thread of water squirts up into it. This gradually fills the shell, and the size of the hole is so adjusted to the capacity of the vessel that, exactly at the end of an hour, plump it goes to the bottom. The watch then cries out the number of hours from sunrise and sets the shell afloat again empty. This is a very good measurer of time. I tested it with my watch and found that it hardly varied a minute from one hour to another, nor did the motion of the vessel have any effect upon it, as the water in the bucket of course kept level. It has a great advantage for a rude people in being easily understood, in being rather bulky and easy to see, and in the final submergence being accompanied with a little bubbling and commotion of the water, which calls the attention to it. It is also quickly replaced if lost while in harbour.

Our captain and owner I find to be a quiet, good-tempered man, who seems to get on very well with all about him. When at sea he drinks no wine or spirits, but indulges only in coffee and cakes, morning and afternoon, in company with his supercargo and assistants. He is a man of some little education, can read and write well both Dutch and Malay, uses a compass, and has a chart. He has been a trader to Aru for many years, and is well known to both Europeans and natives in this part of the world.

Dec. 24th.-Fine, and little wind. No land in sight for the first time since we left Macassar. At noon calm, with heavy showers, in which our crew wash their clothes, anti in the afternoon the prau is covered with shirts, trousers, and sarongs of various gay colours. I made a discovery today which at first rather alarmed me. The two ports, or openings, through which the tillers enter from the lateral rudders are not more than three or four feet above the surface of the water, which thus has a free entrance into the vessel. I of course had imagined that this open space from one side to the other was separated from the hold by a water-tight bulkhead, so that a sea entering might wash out at the further side, and do no more harm than give the steersmen a drenching. To my surprise end dismay, however, I find that it is completely open to the hold, so that half-a-dozen seas rolling in on a stormy night would nearly, or quite, swamp us. Think of a vessel going to sea for a month with two holes, each a yard square, into the hold, at three feet above the water-line,-holes, too, which cannot possibly be closed! But our captain says all praus are so; and though he acknowledges the danger, “he does not know how to alter it — the people are used to it; he does not understand praus so well as they do, and if such a great alteration were made, he should be sure to have difficulty in getting a crew!” This proves at all events that praus must be good sea-boats, for the captain has been continually making voyages in them for the last ten years, and says he has never known water enough enter to do any harm.

Dec.25th.-Christmas-day dawned upon us with gusts of wind, driving rain, thunder and lightning, added to which a short confused sea made our queer vessel pitch and roll very uncomfortably. About nine o’clock, however, it cleared up, and we then saw ahead of us the fine island of Bouru, perhaps forty or fifty miles distant, its mountains wreathed with clouds, while its lower lands were still invisible. The afternoon was fine, and the wind got round again to the west; but although this is really the west monsoon, there is no regularity or steadiness about it, calms and breezes from every point of the compass continually occurring. The captain, though nominally a Protestant, seemed to have no idea of Christmas-day as a festival. Our dinner was of rice and curry as usual, and an extra glass of wine was all I could do to celebrate it.

Dec. 26th. — Fine view of the mountains of Bouru, which we have now approached considerably. Our crew seem rather a clumsy lot. They do not walk the deck with the easy swing of English sailors, but hesitate and stagger like landsmen. In the night the lower boom of our mainsail broke, and they were all the morning repairing it. It consisted of two bamboos lashed together, thick end to thin, and was about seventy feet long. The rigging and arrangement of these praus contrasts strangely with that of European vessels, in which the various ropes and spars, though much more numerous, are placed so as not to interfere with each other’s action. Here the case is quite different; for though there are no shrouds or stays to complicate the matter, yet scarcely anything can be done without first clearing something else out of the way. The large sails cannot be shifted round to go on the other tack without first hauling down the jibs, and the booms of the fore and aft sails have to be lowered and completely detached to perform the same operation. Then there are always a lot of ropes foul of each other, and all the sails can never be set (though they are so few) without a good part of their surface having the wind kept out of them by others. Yet praus are much liked even by those who have had European vessels, because of their cheapness both in first cost and in keeping up; almost all repairs can be done by the crew, and very few European stores are required.

Dec. 28th. — This day we saw the Banda group, the volcano first appearing — a perfect cone, having very much the outline of the Egyptian pyramids, and looking almost as regular. In the evening the smoke rested over its summit like a small stationary cloud. This was my first view of an active volcano, but pictures and panoramas have so impressed such things on one’s mind, that when we at length behold them they seem nothing extraordinary.

Dec. 30th. — Passed the island of Teor, and a group near it, which are very incorrectly marked on the charts. Flying-fish were numerous today. It is a smaller species than that of the Atlantic, and more active and elegant in its motions. As they skim along the surface they turn on their sides, so as fully to display their beautiful fins, taking a flight of about a hundred yards, rising and falling in n most graceful manner. At a little distance they exactly resemble swallows, and no one who sees them can doubt that they really do fly, not merely descend in an oblique direction from the height they gain by their first spring. In the evening an aquatic bird, a species of booby (Sula fiber.) rested on our hen-coop, and was caught by the neck by one of my boys.

Dec. 31st,. — At daybreak the Ke Islands (pronounced Kay) were in sight, where we are to stay a few days. About noon we rounded the northern point, and endeavoured to coast along to the anchorage; but being now on the leeward side of the island, the wind came in violent irregular gusts, and then leaving us altogether, we were carried back by a strong current. Just then two boats-load of natives appeared, and our owner having agreed with them to tow us into harbour, they tried to do so, assisted by our own boat, but could make no way. We were therefore obliged to anchor in a very dangerous place on a rocky bottom, and we were engaged till nearly dark getting hawsers secured to some rocks under water. The coast of Ke along which we had passed was very picturesque. Light coloured limestone rocks rose abruptly from the water to the height of several hundred feet, everywhere broken into jutting peaks and pinnacles, weather-worn into sharp points and honeycombed surfaces, and clothed throughout with a most varied and luxuriant vegetation. The cliffs above the sea offered to our view screw-pines and arborescent Liliaceae of strange forms, mingled with shrubs and creepers; while the higher slopes supported a dense growth of forest trees. Here and there little bays and inlets presented beaches of dazzling whiteness. The water was transparent as crystal, and tinged the rock-strewn slope which plunged steeply into its unfathomable depths with colours varying from emerald to lapis-lazuli. The sea was calm as a lake, and the glorious sun of the tropics threw a flood of golden light over all. The scene was to me inexpressibly delightful. I was in a new world, and could dream of the wonderful productions hid in those rocky forests, and in those azure abysses. But few European feet had ever trodden the shores I gazed upon its plants, and animals, and men were alike almost unknown, and I could not help speculating on what my wanderings there for a few days might bring to light.

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