The Malay Archipelago, by Alfred Russel Wallace

Chapter 3

Malacca and Mount Ophir.

(JULY TO SEPTEMBER, 1854.)

BIRDS and most other kinds of animals being scarce at Singapore, I left it in July for Malacca, where I spent more than two months in the interior, and made an excursion to Mount Ophir. The old and picturesque town of Malacca is crowded along the banks of the small river, and consists of narrow streets of shops and dwelling houses, occupied by the descendants of the Portuguese, and by Chinamen. In the suburbs are the houses of the English officials and of a few Portuguese merchants, embedded in groves of palms and fruit-trees, whose varied and beautiful foliage furnishes a pleasing relief to the eye, as well as most grateful shade.

The old fort, the large Government House, and the ruins of a cathedral attest the former wealth and importance of this place, which was once as much the centre of Eastern trade as Singapore is now. The following description of it by Linschott, who wrote two hundred and seventy years ago, strikingly exhibits the change it has undergone:

“Malacca is inhabited by the Portuguese and by natives of the country, called Malays. The Portuguese have here a fortress, as at Mozambique, and there is no fortress in all the Indies, after those of Mozambique and Ormuz, where the captains perform their duty better than in this one. This place is the market of all India, of China, of the Moluccas, and of other islands around about — from all which places, as well as from Banda, Java, Sumatra, Siam, Pegu, Bengal, Coromandel, and India — arrive ships which come and go incessantly, charged with an infinity of merchandises. There would be in this place a much greater number of Portuguese if it were not for the inconvenience, and unhealthiness of the air, which is hurtful not only to strangers, but also to natives of the country. Thence it is that all who live in the country pay tribute of their health, suffering from a certain disease, which makes them lose either their skin or their hair. And those who escape consider it a miracle, which occasions many to leave the country, while the ardent desire of gain induces others to risk their health, and endeavour to endure such an atmosphere. The origin of this town, as the natives say, was very small, only having at the beginning, by reason of the unhealthiness of the air, but six or seven fishermen who inhabited it. But the number was increased by the meeting of fishermen from Siam, Pegu, and Bengal, who came and built a city, and established a peculiar language, drawn from the most elegant nodes of speaking of other nations, so that in fact the, language of the Malays is at present the most refined, exact, and celebrated of all the East. The name of Malacca was given to this town, which, by the convenience of its situation, in a short time grew to such wealth, that it does not yield to the most powerful towns and regions around about. The natives, both men and women, are very courteous and are reckoned the most skillful in the world in compliments, and study much to compose and repeat verses and love-songs. Their language is in vogue through the Indies, as the French is here.

At present, a vessel over a hundred tons hardly ever enters its port, and the trade is entirely confined to a few petty products of the forests, and to the fruit, which the trees, planted by the old Portuguese, now produce for the enjoyment of the inhabitants of Singapore. Although rather subject to fevers, it is not at present considered very unhealthy.

The population of Malacca consists of several races. The ubiquitous Chinese are perhaps the most numerous, keeping up their manners, customs, and language; the indigenous Malays are next in point of numbers, and their language is the Lingua-franca of the place. Next come the descendants of the Portuguese — a mixed, degraded, and degenerate race, but who still keep up the use of their mother tongue, though ruefully mutilated in grammar; and then there are the English rulers, and the descendants of the Dutch, who all speak English. The Portuguese spoken at Malacca is a useful philological phenomenon. The verbs have mostly lost their inflections, and one form does for all moods, tenses, numbers, and persons. Eu vai, serves for “I go,” “I went,” or, “I will go.” Adjectives, too, have been deprived of their feminine and plural terminations, so that the language is reduced to a marvellous simplicity, and, with the admixture of a few Malay words, becomes rather puzzling to one who has heard only the pure Lusitanian.

In costume these several peoples are as varied as in their speech. The English preserve the tight-fitting coat, waistcoat, and trousers, and the abominable hat and cravat; the Portuguese patronise a light jacket, or, more frequently, shirt and trousers only; the Malays wear their national jacket and sarong (a kind of kilt), with loose drawers; while the Chinese never depart in the least from their national dress, which, indeed, it is impossible to improve for a tropical climate, whether as regards comfort or appearance. The loosely-hanging trousers, and neat white half-shirt half jacket, are exactly what a dress should be in this low latitude.

I engaged two Portuguese to accompany me into the interior; one as a cook, the other to shoot and skin birds, which is quite a trade in Malacca. I first stayed a fortnight at a village called Gading, where I was accommodated in the house of some Chinese converts, to whom I was recommended by the Jesuit missionaries. The house was a mere shed, but it was kept clean, and I made myself sufficiently comfortable. My hosts were forming a pepper and gambir plantation, and in the immediate neighbourhood were extensive tin-washings, employing over a thousand Chinese. The tin is obtained in the form of black grains from beds of quartzose sand, and is melted into ingots in rude clay furnaces. The soil seemed poor, and the forest was very dense with undergrowth, and not at all productive of insects; but, on the other hand, birds were abundant, and I was at once introduced to the rich ornithological treasures of the Malayan region.

The very first time I fired my gun I brought down one of the most curious and beautiful of the Malacca birds, the blue-billed gaper (Cymbirhynchus macrorhynchus), called by the Malays the “Rainbird.” It is about the size of a starling, black and rich claret colour with white shoulder stripes, and a very large and broad bill of the most pure cobalt blue above and orange below, while the iris is emerald green. As the skins dry the bill turns dull black, but even then the bird is handsome. When fresh killed, the contrast of the vivid blue with the rich colours of the plumage is remarkably striking and beautiful. The lovely Eastern trogons, with their rich-brown backs, beautifully pencilled wings, and crimson breasts, were also soon obtained, as well as the large green barbets (Megalaema versicolor)— fruit-eating birds, something like small toucans, with a short, straight bristly bill, and whose head and neck are variegated with patches of the most vivid blue and crimson. A day or two after, my hunter brought me a specimen of the green gaper (Calyptomena viridis), which is like a small cock-of-the-rock, but entirely of the most vivid green, delicately marked on the wings with black bars. Handsome woodpeckers and gay kingfishers, green and brown cuckoos with velvety red faces and green beaks, red-breasted doves and metallic honeysuckers, were brought in day after day, and kept me in a continual state of pleasurable excitement. After a fortnight one of my servants was seized with fever, and on returning to Malacca, the same disease, attacked the other as well as myself. By a liberal use of quinine, I soon recovered, and obtaining other men, went to stay at the Government bungalow of Ayer-panas, accompanied by a young gentleman, a native of the place, who had a taste for natural history.

At Ayer-panas we had a comfortable house to stay in, and plenty of room to dry and preserve our specimens; but, owing to there being no industrious Chinese to cut down timber, insects were comparatively scarce, with the exception of butterflies, of which I formed a very fine collection. The manner in which I obtained one fine insect was curious, and indicates bow fragmentary and imperfect a traveller’s collection must necessarily be. I was one afternoon walking along a favourite road through the forest, with my gun, when I saw a butterfly on the ground. It was large, handsome, and quite new to me, and I got close to it before it flew away. I then observed that it had been settling on the dung of some carnivorous animal. Thinking it might return to the same spot, I next day after breakfast took my net, and as I approached the place was delighted to see the same butterfly sitting on the same piece of dung, and succeeded in capturing it. It was an entirely new species of great beauty, and has been named by Mr. Hewitson — Nymphalis calydona. I never saw another specimen of it, and it was only after twelve years had elapsed that a second individual reached this country from the northwestern part of Borneo.

Having determined to visit Mount Ophir, which is situated in the middle of the peninsula about fifty miles east of Malacca, we engaged six Malays to accompany us and carry our baggage. As we meant to stay at least a week at the mountain, we took with us a good supply of rice, a little biscuit, butter and coffee, some dried fish and a little brandy, with blankets, a change of clothes, insect and bird boxes, nets, guns and ammunition. The distance from Ayer-panas was supposed to be about thirty miles.

Our first day’s march lay through patches of forest, clearings, and Malay villages, and was pleasant enough. At night we slept at the house of a Malay chief, who lent us a verandah, and gave us a fowl and some eggs. The next day the country got wilder and more dilly. We passed through extensive forests, along paths often up to our knees in mud, and were much annoyed by the leeches for which this district is famous. These little creatures infest the leaves and herbage by the side of the paths, and when a passenger comes along they stretch themselves out at full length, and if they touch any part of his dress or body, quit their leaf and adhere to it. They then creep on to his feet, legs, or other part of his body and suck their fill, the first puncture being rarely felt during the excitement of walking. On bathing in the evening we generally found half a dozen or a dozen on each of us, most frequently on our legs, but sometimes on our bodies, and I had one who sucked his fill from the side of my neck, but who luckily missed the jugular vein. There are many species of these forest leeches. All are small, but some are beautifully marked with stripes of bright yellow. They probably attach themselves to deer or other animals which frequent the forest paths, and have thus acquired the singular habit of stretching themselves out at the sound of a footstep or of rustling foliage. Early in the afternoon we reached the foot of the mountain, and encamped by the side of a fine stream, whose rocky banks were overgrown with ferns. Our oldest Malay had been accustomed to shoot birds in this neighbourhood for the Malacca dealers, and had been to the top of the mountain, and while we amused ourselves shooting and insect hunting, he went with two others to clear the path for our ascent the next day.

Early next morning we started after breakfast, carrying blankets and provisions, as we intended to sleep upon the mountain. After passing a little tangled jungle and swampy thickets through which our men had cleared a path, we emerged into a fine lofty forest pretty clear of undergrowth, and in which we could walk freely. We ascended steadily up a moderate slope for several miles, having a deep ravine on our left. We then had a level plateau or shoulder to cross, after which the ascent was steeper and the forest denser until we came out upon the “Padang-batu,” or stone field, a place of which we had heard much, but could never get anyone to describe intelligibly. We found it to be a steep slope of even rock, extending along the mountain side farther than we could see. Parts of it were quite bare, but where it was cracked and fissured there grew a most luxuriant vegetation, among which the pitcher plants were the most remarkable. These wonderful plants never seem to succeed well in our hot-houses, and are there seen to little advantage. Here they grew up into half climbing shrubs, their curious pitchers of various sizes and forms hanging abundantly from their leaves, and continually exciting our admiration by their size and beauty. A few coniferae of the genus Dacrydium here first appeared, and in the thickets just above the rocky surface we walked through groves of those splendid ferns Dipteris Horsfieldii and Matonia pectinata, which bear large spreading palmate fronds on slender stems six or eight feet high. The Matonia is the tallest and most elegant, and is known only from this mountain, and neither of them is yet introduced into our hot-houses.

It was very striking to come out from the dark, cool, and shady forest in which we had been ascending since we started, on to this hot, open rocky slope where we seemed to have entered at one step from a lowland to an alpine vegetation. The height, as measured by a sympiesometer, was about 2,800 feet. We had been told we should find water at Padang-batuas we were exceedingly thirsty; but we looked about for it in vain. At last we turned to the pitcher-plants, but the water contained in the pitchers (about half a pint in each) was full of insects, and otherwise uninviting. On tasting it, however, we found it very palatable though rather warm, and we all quenched our thirst from these natural jugs. Farther on we came to forest again, but of a more dwarf and stunted character than below; and alternately passing along ridges and descending into valleys, we reached a peak separated from the true summit of the mountain by a considerable chasm. Here our porters gave in, and declared they could carry their loads no further; and certainly the ascent to the highest peak was very precipitous. But on the spot where we were there was no water, whereas it was well known that there was a spring close to the summit, so we determined to go on without them, and carry with us only what was absolutely necessary. We accordingly took a blanket each, and divided our food and other articles among us, and went on with only the old Malay and his son.

After descending into the saddle between the two peaks we found the ascent very laborious, the slope being so steep, as often to necessitate hand-climbing. Besides a bushy vegetation the ground was covered knee-deep with mosses on a foundation of decaying leaves and rugged rock, and it was a hard hour’s climb to the small ledge just below the summit, where an overhanging rock forms a convenient shelter, and a little basin collects the trickling water. Here we put down our loads, and in a few minutes more stood on the summit of Mount Ophir, 4,000 feet above the sea. The top is a small rocky platform covered with rhododendrons and other shrubs. The afternoon was clear, and the view fine in its way — ranges of hill and valley everywhere covered with interminable forest, with glistening rivers winding among them.

In a distant view a forest country is very monotonous, and no mountain I have ever ascended in the tropics presents a panorama equal to that from Snowdon, while the views in Switzerland are immeasurably superior. When boiling our coffee I took observations with a good boiling-point thermometer, as well as with the sympiesometer, and we then enjoyed our evening meal and the noble prospect that lay before us. The night was calm and very mild, and having made a bed of twigs and branches over which we laid our blankets, we passed a very comfortable night. Our porters had followed us after a rest, bringing only their rice to cook, and luckily we did not require the baggage they left behind them. In the morning I caught a few butterflies and beetles, and my friend got a few land-shells; and we then descended, bringing with us some specimens of the ferns and pitcher-plants of Padang-batu.

The place where we had first encamped at the foot of the mountain being very gloomy, we chose another in a kind of swamp near a stream overgrown with Zingiberaceous plants, in which a clearing was easily made. Here our men built two little huts without sides that would just shelter us from the rain; we lived in them for a week, shooting and insect-hunting, and roaming about the forests at the foot of the mountain. This was the country of the great Argus pheasant, and we continually heard its cry. On asking the old Malay to try and shoot one for me, he told me that although he had been for twenty years shooting birds in these forests he had never yet shot one, and had never even seen one except after it had been caught. The bird is so exceedingly shy and wary, and runs along the ground in the densest parts of the forest so quickly, that it is impossible to get near it; and its sober colours and rich eye-like spots, which are so ornamental when seen in a museum, must harmonize well with the dead leaves among which it dwells, and render it very inconspicuous. All the specimens sold in Malacca are caught in snares, and my informant, though he had shot none, had snared plenty.

The tiger and rhinoceros are still found here, and a few years ago elephants abounded, but they have lately all disappeared. We found some heaps of dung, which seemed to be that of elephants, and some tracks of the rhinoceros, but saw none of the animals. However, we kept a fire up all night in case any of these creatures should visit us, and two of our men declared that they did one day see a rhinoceros. When our rice was finished, and our boxes full of specimens, we returned to Ayer–Panas, and a few days afterwards went on to Malacca, and thence to Singapore. Mount Ophir has quite a reputation for fever, and all our friends were astonished at our recklessness in staying so long at its foot; but none of us suffered in the least, and I shall ever look back with pleasure to my trip as being my first introduction to mountain scenery in the Eastern tropics.

The meagreness and brevity of the sketch I have here given of my visit to Singapore and the Malay Peninsula is due to my having trusted chiefly to some private letters and a notebook, which were lost; and to a paper on Malacca and Mount Ophir which was sent to the Royal Geographical Society, but which was neither read nor printed owing to press of matter at the end of a session, and the MSS. of which cannot now be found. I the less regret this, however, as so many works have been written on these parts; and I always intended to pass lightly over my travels in the western and better known portions of the Archipelago, in order to devote more space to the remoter districts, about which hardly anything has been written in the English language.

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