The Malay Archipelago, by Alfred Russel Wallace

Chapter 29

The Ke Islands.

(JANUARY 1857)

THE native boats that had come to meet us were three or four in number, containing in all about fifty men.

They were long canoes, with the bow and stern rising up into a beak six or night feet high, decorated with shells and waving plumes of cassowaries hair. I now had my first view of Papuans in their own country, and in less than five minutes was convinced that the opinion already arrived at by the examination of a few Timor and New Guinea slaves was substantially correct, and that the people I now had an opportunity of comparing side by side belonged to two of the most distinct and strongly marked races that the earth contains. Had I been blind, I could have been certain that these islanders were not Malays. The loud, rapid, eager tones, the incessant motion, the intense vital activity manifested in speech and action, are the very antipodes of the quiet, unimpulsive, unanimated Malay These Ke men came up singing and shouting, dipping their paddles deep in the water and throwing up clouds of spray; as they approached nearer they stood up in their canoes and increased their noise and gesticulations; and on coming alongside, without asking leave, and without a moment’s hesitation, the greater part of them scrambled up on our deck just as if they were come to take possession of a captured vessel. Then commenced a scene of indescribable confusion. These forty black, naked, mop-headed savages seemed intoxicated with joy and excitement. Not one of them could remain still for a moment. Every individual of our crew was in turn surrounded and examined, asked for tobacco or arrack, grinned at and deserted for another. All talked at once, and our captain was regularly mobbed by the chief men, who wanted to be employed to tow us in, and who begged vociferously to be paid in advance. A few presents of tobacco made their eyes glisten; they would express their satisfaction by grins and shouts, by rolling on deck, or by a headlong leap overboard. Schoolboys on an unexpected holiday, Irishmen at a fair, or mid-shipmen on shore, would give but a faint idea of the exuberant animal enjoyment of these people.

Under similar circumstances Malays could not behave as these Papuans did. If they came on board a vessel (after asking permission), not a word would be at first spoken, except a few compliments, and only after some time, and very cautiously, world any approach be made to business. One would speak at a time, with a low voice and great deliberation, and the mode of making a bargain would be by quietly refusing all your offers, or even going away without saying another word about the matter, unless advanced your price to what they were willing to accept. Our crew, many of whom had not made the voyage before, seemed quite scandalized at such unprecedented bad manners, and only very gradually made any approach to fraternization with the black fellows. They reminded me of a party of demure and well-behaved children suddenly broken in upon by a lot of wild romping, riotous boys, whose conduct seems most extraordinary and very naughty. These moral features are more striking and more conclusive of absolute diversity than oven the physical contrast presented by the two races, though that is sufficiently remarkable. The sooty blackness of the skin, the mop-like head of frizzly hair, and, most important of all, the marked form of countenance of quite a different type from that of the Malay, are what we cannot believe to result from mere climatal or other modifying influences on one and the same race. The Malay face is of the Mongolian type, broad and somewhat flat. The brows are depressed, the mouth wide, but not projecting, and the nose small and well formed but for the great dilatation of the nostrils. The face is smooth, and rarely develops the trace of a beard; the hair black, coarse, and perfectly straight. The Papuan, on the other hand, has a face which we may say is compressed and projecting. The brows are protuberant and overhanging, the mouth large and prominent, while the nose is very large, the apex elongated downwards, the ridge thick, and the nostrils large. It is an obtrusive and remarkable feature in the countenance, the very reverse of what obtains in the Malay face. The twisted beard and frizzly hair complete this remarkable contrast. Hero then I had reached a new world, inhabited by a strange people. Between the Malayan tribes, among whom I had for some years been living, and the Papuan races, whose country I had now entered, we may fairly say that there is as much difference, both moral and physical, as between the red Indians of South America and the negroes of Guinea on the opposite side of the Atlantic.

Jan. 1st, 1857.-This has been a day of thorough enjoyment. I have wandered in the forests of an island rarely seen by Europeans. Before daybreak we left our anchorage, and in an hour reached the village of Har, where we were to stay three or four days. The range of hills here receded so as to form a small bay, and they were broken up into peaks and hummocks with intervening flats and hollows. A broad beach of the whitest sand lined the inner part of the bay, backed by a mass of cocoa-nut palms, among which the huts were concealed, and surmounted by a dense and varied growth of timber. Canoes and boats of various sizes were drawn up on the beach and one or two idlers, with a few children and a dog, gazed at our prau as we came to an anchor.

When we went on shore the first thing that attracted us was a large and well-constructed shed, under which a long boat was being built, while others in various stages of completion were placed at intervals along the beach. Our captain, who wanted two of moderate size for the trade among the islands at Aru, immediately began bargaining for them, and in a short tine had arranged the nuns number of brass guns, gongs, sarongs, handkerchiefs, axes, white plates, tobacco, and arrack, which he was to give for a hair which could be got ready in four days. We then went to the village, which consisted only of three or four huts, situated immediately above the beach on an irregular rocky piece of ground overshadowed with cocoa-nuts, palms, bananas, and other fruit trees. The houses were very rude, black, and half rotten, raised a few feet on posts with low sides of bamboo or planks, and high thatched roofs. They had small doors and no windows, an opening under the projecting gables letting the smoke out and a little light in. The floors were of strips of bamboo, thin, slippery, and elastic, and so weak that my feet were in danger of plunging through at every step. Native boxes of pandanus-leaves and slabs of palm pith, very neatly constructed, mats of the same, jars and cooking pots of native pottery, and a few European plates and basins, were the whole furniture, and the interior was throughout dark and smoke-blackened, and dismal in the extreme.

Accompanied by Ali and Baderoon, I now attempted to make some explorations, and we were followed by a train of boys eager to see what we were going to do. The most trodden path from the beach led us into a shady hollow, where the trees were of immense height and the undergrowth scanty. From the summits of these trees came at intervals a deep booming sound, which at first puzzled us, but which we soon found to proceed from some large pigeons. My boys shot at them, and after one or two misses, brought one down. It was a magnificent bird twenty inches long, of a bluish white colour, with the back wings and tail intense metallic green, with golden, blue, and violet reflexions, the feet coral red, and the eyes golden yellow. It is a rare species, which I have named Carpophaga concinna, and is found only in a few small islands, where, however, it abounds. It is the same species which in the island of Banda is called the nutmeg-pigeon, from its habit of devouring the fruits, the seed or nutmeg being thrown up entire and uninjured. Though these pigeons have a narrow beak, yet their jaws and throat are so extensible that they can swallow fruits of very large size. I had before shot a species much smaller than this one, which had a number of hard globular palm-fruits in its crop, each more than an inch in diameter.

A little further the path divided into two, one leading along the beach, and across mangrove and sago swamps the other rising to cultivated grounds. We therefore returned, and taking a fresh departure from the village, endeavoured to ascend the hills and penetrate into the interior. The path, however, was a most trying one. Where there was earth, it was a deposit of reddish clay overlying the rock, and was worn so smooth by the attrition of naked feet that my shoes could obtain no hold on the sloping surface. A little farther we came to the bare rock, and this was worse, for it was so rugged and broken, and so honeycombed and weatherworn into sharp points and angles, that my boys, who had gone barefooted all their lives, could not stand it. Their feet began to bleed, and I saw that if I did not want them completely lamed it would be wise to turn lack. My own shoes, which were rather thin, were but a poor protection, and would soon have been cut to pieces; yet our little naked guides tripped along with the greatest ease and unconcern, and seemed much astonished at our effeminacy in not being able to take a walk which to them was a perfectly agreeable one. During the rest of our stay in the island we were obliged to confine ourselves to the vicinity of the shore and the cultivated grounds, and those more level portions of the forest where a little soil had accumulated and the rock had been less exposed to atmospheric action.

The island of Ke (pronounced exactly as the letter K, but erroneously spelt in our maps Key or Ki) is long and narrow, running in a north and south direction, and consists almost entirely of rock and mountain. It is everywhere covered with luxuriant forests, and in its bays and inlets the sand is of dazzling whiteness, resulting from the decomposition of the coralline limestone of which it is entirely composed. In all the little swampy inlets and valleys sago trees abound, and these supply the main subsistence of the natives, who grow no rice, and have scarcely any other cultivated products but cocoa-nuts, plantains, and yams. From the cocoa-nuts, which surround every hut, and which thrive exceedingly on the porous limestone soil and under the influence of salt breezes, oil is made which is sold at a good price to the Aru traders, who all touch here to lay in their stuck of this article, as well as to purchase boats and native crockery. Wooden bowls, pans, and trays are also largely made here, hewn out of solid blocks of wood with knife and adze; and these are carried to all parts of the Moluccas. But the art in which the natives of Ke pre-eminently excel is that of boat building. Their forests supply abundance of fine timber, though, probably not more so than many other islands, and from some unknown causes these remote savages have come to excel in what seems a very difficult art. Their small canoes are beautifully formed, broad and low in the centre, but rising at each end, where they terminate in high-pointed beaks more or less carved, and ornamented with a plume of feathers. They are not hollowed out of a tree, but are regularly built of planks running from ego to end, and so accurately fitted that it is often difficult to find a place where a knife-blade can be inserted between the joints. The larger ones are from 20 to 30 tons burthen, and are finished ready for sea without a nail or particle of iron being used, and with no other tools than axe, adze, and auger. These vessels are handsome to look at, good sailers, and admirable sea-boats, and will make long voyages with perfect safety, traversing the whole Archipelago from New Guinea to Singapore in seas which, as every one who has sailed much in them can testify, are not so smooth and tempest-free as word-painting travellers love to represent them.

The forests of Ke produce magnificent timber, tall, straight, and durable, of various qualities, some of which are said to be superior to the best Indian teak. To make each pair of planks used in the construction of the larger boats an entire tree is consumed. It is felled, often miles away from the shore, cut across to the proper length, and then hewn longitudinally into two equal portions. Each of these forms a plank by cutting down with the axe to a uniform thickness of three or four inches, leaving at first a solid block at each end to prevent splitting. Along the centre of each plank a series of projecting pieces are left, standing up three or four inches, about the same width, and a foot long; these are of great importance in the construction of the vessel. When a sufficient number of planks have been made, they are laboriously dragged through the forest by three or four men each to the beach, where the boat is to be built. A foundation piece, broad in the middle and rising considerably at each end, is first laid on blocks and properly shored up. The edges of this are worked true and smooth with the adze, and a plank, properly curved and tapering at each end, is held firmly up against it, while a line is struck along it which allows it to be cut so as to fit exactly. A series of auger holes, about as large as one’s finger, are then bored along the opposite edges, and pins of very hard wood are fitted to these, so that the two planks are held firmly, and can be driven into the closest contact; and difficult as this seems to do without any other aid than rude practical skill in forming each edge to the true corresponding curves, and in poring the holes so as exactly to match both in position and direction, yet so well is it done that the best European shipwright cannot produce sounder or closer-fitting joints. The boat is built up in this way by fitting plank to plank till the proper height and width are obtained. We have now a skin held together entirely by the hardwood pins connecting the edges of the planks, very strong and elastic, but having nothing but the adhesion of these pins to prevent the planks gaping. In the smaller boats seats, in the larger ones cross-beams, are now fixed. They are sprung into slight notches cut to receive them, and are further secured to the projecting pieces of the plank below by a strong lashing of rattan. Ribs are now formed of single pieces of tough wood chosen and trimmed so as exactly to fit on to the projections from each plank, being slightly notched to receive them, and securely bound to them by rattans passed through a hole in each projecting piece close to the surface of the plank. The ends are closed against the vertical prow and stern posts, and further secured with pegs and rattans, and then the boat is complete; and when fitted with rudders, masts, and thatched covering, is ready to do battle with, the waves. A careful consideration of the principle of this mode of construction, and allowing for the strength and binding qualities of rattan (which resembles in these respects wire rather than cordage), makes me believe that a vessel carefully built in this manner is actually stronger and safer than one fastened in the ordinary way with nails.

During our stay here we were all very busy. Our captain was daily superintending the completion of his two small praus. All day long native boats were coming with fish, cocoa-nuts, parrots and lories, earthen pans, sirip leaf, wooden bowls, and trays, &c. &e., which every one of the fifty inhabitants of our prau seemed to be buying on his own account, till all available and most unavailable space of our vessel was occupied with these miscellaneous articles: for every man on board a prau considers himself at liberty to trade, and to carry with him whatever he can afford to buy.

Money is unknown and valueless here — knives, cloth, and arrack forming the only medium of exchange, with tobacco for small coin. Every transaction is the subject of a special bargain, and the cause of much talking. It is absolutely necessary to offer very little, as the natives are never satisfied till you add a little more. They are then far better pleased than if you had given them twice the amount at first and refused to increase it.

I, too, was doing a little business, having persuaded some of the natives to collect insects for me; and when they really found that I gave them most fragrant tobacco for worthless black and green beetles, I soon had scores of visitors, men, women, and children, bringing bamboos full of creeping things, which, alas! too frequently had eaten each other into fragments during the tedium of a day’s confinement. Of one grand new beetle, glittering with ruby and emerald tints, I got a large quantity, having first detected one of its wing-cases ornamenting the outside of a native’s tobacco pouch. It was quite a new species, and had not been found elsewhere than on this little island. It is one of the Buprestidae, and has been named Cyphogastra calepyga.

Each morning after an early breakfast I wandered by myself into the forest, where I found delightful occupation in capturing the large and handsome butterflies, which were tolerably abundant, and most of them new to me; for I was now upon the confines of the Moluccas and New Guinea — a region the productions of which were then among the most precious and rare in the cabinets of Europe. Here my eyes were feasted for the first time with splendid scarlet lories on the wing, as well as by the sight of that most imperial butterfly, the “Priamus “of collectors, or a closely allied species, but flying so high that I did not succeed in capturing a specimen. One of them was brought me in a bamboo, bored up with a lot of beetles, and of course torn to pieces. The principal drawback of the place for a collector is the want of good paths, and the dreadfully rugged character of the surface, requiring the attention to be so continually directed to securing a footing, as to make it very difficult to capture active winged things, who pass out of reach while one is glancing to see that the next step may not plunge one into a chasm or over a precipice. Another inconvenience is that there are no running streams, the rock being of so porous a nature that the surface-water everywhere penetrates its fissures; at least such is the character of the neighbourhood we visited, the only water being small springs trickling out close to the sea-beach.

In the forests of Ke, arboreal Liliaceae and Pandanaceae abound, and give a character to the vegetation in the more exposed rocky places. Flowers were scarce, and there were not many orchids, but I noticed the fine white butterfly-orchis, Phalaenopsis grandiflora, or a species closely allied to it. The freshness and vigour of the vegetation was very pleasing, and on such an arid rocky surface was a sure indication of a perpetually humid climate. Tall clean trunks, many of them buttressed, and immense trees of the fig family, with aerial roots stretching out and interlacing and matted together for fifty or a hundred feet above the ground, were the characteristic features; and there was an absence of thorny shrubs and prickly rattans, which would have made these wilds very pleasant to roam in, had it not been for the sharp honeycombed rocks already alluded to. In damp places a fine undergrowth of broadleaved herbaceous plants was found, about which swarmed little green lizards, with tails of the most “heavenly blue,” twisting in and out among the stalks and foliage so actively that I often caught glimpses of their tails only, when they startled me by their resemblance to small snakes. Almost the only sounds in these primeval woods proceeded from two birds, the red lories, who utter shrill screams like most of the parrot tribe, and the large green nutmeg-pigeon, whose voice is either a loud and deep boom, like two notes struck upon a very large gong, or sometimes a harsh toad-like croak, altogether peculiar and remarkable. Only two quadrupeds are said by the natives to inhabit the island — a wild pig and a Cuscus, or Eastern opossum, of neither of which could I obtain specimens.

The insects were more abundant, and very interesting. Of butterflies I caught thirty-five species, most of them new to me, and many quite unknown in European collections. Among them was the fine yellow and black Papilio euchenor, of which but few specimens had been previously captured, and several other handsome butterflies of large size, as well as some beautiful little “blues,” and some brilliant dayflying moths. The beetle tribe were less abundant, yet I obtained some very fine and rare species. On the leaves of a slender shrub in an old clearing I found several fine blue and black beetles of the genus Eupholus, which almost rival in beauty — the diamond beetles of South America. Some cocoa-nut palms in blossom on the beach were frequented by a fine green floral beetle (Lomaptera which, when the flowers were shaken, flew off like a small swarm of bees. I got one of our crew to climb up the tree, and he brought me a good number in his hand; and seeing they were valuable, I sent him up again with my net to shake the flowers into, and thus secured a large quantity. My best capture, however, was the superb insect of the Buprestis family, already mentioned as having been obtained from the natives, who told me they found it in rotten trees in the mountains.

In the forest itself the only common and conspicuous coleoptera were two tiger beetles. One, Therates labiata, was much larger than our green tiger beetle, of a purple black colour, with green metallic glosses, and the broad upper lip of a bright yellow. It was always found upon foliage, generally of broad-leaned herbaceous plants, and in damp and gloomy situations, taking frequent short flights from leaf to leaf, and preserving an alert attitude, as if always looking out for its prey. Its vicinity could be immediately ascertained, often before it was seen, by a very pleasant odour, like otto of roses, which it seems to emit continually, and which may probably be attractive to the small insects on which it feeds. The other, Tricondyla aptera, is one of the most curious forms in the family of the Cicindelidae, and is almost exclusively confined to the Malay islands. In shape it resembles a very large ant, more than an inch long, and of a purple black colour. Like an ant also it is wingless, and is generally found ascending trees, passing around the trunks in a spiral direction when approached, to avoid capture, so that it requires a sudden run and active fingers to secure a specimen. This species emits the usual fetid odour of the ground beetles. My collections during our four days’ stay at Ke were as follow:— Birds, 13 species; insects, 194 species; and 3 kinds of land-shells.

There are two kinds of people inhabiting these islands — the indigenes, who have the Papuan characters strongly marked, and who are pagans; and a mixed race, who are nominally Mahometans, and wear cotton clothing, while the former use only a waist cloth of cotton or bark. These Mahometans are said to have been driven out of Banda by the early European settlers. They were probably a brown race, more allied to the Malays, and their mixed descendants here exhibit great variations of colour, hair, and features, graduating between the Malay and Papuan types. It is interesting to observe the influence of the early Portuguese trade with these countries in the words of their language, which still remain in use even among these remote and savage islanders. “Lenco” for handkerchief, and “faca” for knife, are here used to the exclusion of the proper Malay terms. The Portuguese and Spaniards were truly wonderful conquerors and colonizers. They effected more rapid changes in the countries they conquered than any other nations of modern times, resembling the Romans in their power of impressing their own language, religion, and manners on rode and barbarous tribes.

The striking contrast of character between these people and the Malays is exemplified in many little traits. One day when I was rambling in the forest, an old man stopped to look at me catching an insect. He stood very quiet till I had pinned and put it away in my collecting box, when he could contain himself no longer, but bent almost double, and enjoyed a hearty roar of laughter. Every one will recognise this as a true negro trait. A Malay would have stared, and asked with a tone of bewilderment what I was doing, for it is but little in his nature to laugh, never heartily, and still less at or in the presence of a stranger, to whom, however, his disdainful glances or whispered remarks are less agreeable than the most boisterous open expression of merriment. The women here were not so much frightened at strangers, or made to keep themselves so much secluded as among the Malay races; the children were more merry and had the “nigger grin,” while the noisy confusion of tongues among the men, and their excitement on very ordinary occasions, are altogether removed from the general taciturnity and reserve of the Malay.

The language of the Ke people consists of words of one, two, or three syllables in about equal proportions, and has many aspirated and a few guttural sounds. The different villages have slight differences of dialect, but they are mutually intelligible, and, except in words that have evidently been introduced during a long-continued commercial intercourse, seem to have no affinity whatever with the Malay languages.

Jan. 6th.-The small boats being finished, we sailed for Aru at 4 P.M., and as we left the shores of Ke had a line view of its rugged and mountainous character; ranges of hills, three or four thousand feet high, stretching southwards as far as the eye could reach, everywhere covered with a lofty, dense, and unbroken forest. We had very light winds, and it therefore took us thirty hours to make the passage of sixty miles to the low, or flat, but equally forest-covered Aru Islands, where we anchored in the harbour of Dobbo at nine in the evening of the next day.

My first voyage in a prau being thus satisfactorily terminated, I must, before taking leave of it for some months, bear testimony to the merits of the queer old-world vessel. Setting aside all ideas of danger, which is probably, after all, not more than in any other craft, I must declare that I have never, either before or since, made a twenty days’ voyage so pleasantly, or perhaps, more correctly speaking, with so little discomfort. This I attribute chiefly to having my small cabin on deck, and entirely to myself, to having my own servants to wait upon me, and to the absence of all those marine-store smells of paint, pitch, tallow, and new cordage, which are to me insupportable. Something is also to be put down to freedom from all restraint of dress, hours of meals, &c., and to the civility and obliging disposition of the captain. I had agreed to have my meals with him, but whenever I wished it I had them in my own berth, and at what hours I felt inclined. The crew were all civil and good-tempered, and with very little discipline everything went on smoothly, and the vessel was kept very clean and in pretty good order, so that on the whole I was much delighted with the trip, and was inclined to rate the luxuries of the semi-barbarous prau as surpassing those of the most magnificent screw-steamer, that highest result of our civilisation.

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