The Malay Archipelago, by Alfred Russel Wallace

Chapter 30

The Aru Islands — Residence in Dobbo


On the 8th of January, 1857, I landed at Dobbo, the trading settlement of the Bugis and Chinese, who annually visit the Aru Islands. It is situated on the small island of Wamma, upon a spit of sand which projects out to the north, and is just wide enough to contain three rows of houses. Though at first sight a most strange and desolate-looking place to build a village on, it has many advantages. There is a clear entrance from the west among the coral reefs that border the land, and there is good anchorage for vessels, on one side of the village or the other, in both the east and west monsoons. Being fully exposed to the sea-breezes in three directions it is healthy, and the soft sandy heath offers great facilities for hauling up the praus, in order to secure them from sea-worms and prepare them for the homeward voyage. At its southern extremity the sand-bank merges in the beach of the island, and is backed by a luxuriant growth of lofty forest. The houses are of various sizes, but are all built after one pattern, being merely large thatched sheds, a small portion of which, next the entrance, is used as a dwelling, while the rest is parted oft; and often divided by one or two floors, in order better to stow away merchandise and native produce.

As we had arrived early in the season, most of the houses were empty, and the place looked desolate in the extreme — the whole of the inhabitants who received us on our landing amounting to about half-a-dozen Bugis and Chinese. Our captain, Herr Warzbergen, had promised to obtain a house for me, but unforeseen difficulties presented themselves. One which was to let had no roof; and the owner, who was building it on speculation, could not promise to finish it in less than a month. Another, of which the owner was dead, and which I might therefore take undisputed possession of as the first comer, wanted considerable repairs, and no one could be found to do the work, although about four times its value was offered. The captain, therefore, recommended me to take possession of a pretty good house near his own, whose owner was not expected for some weeks; and as I was anxious to be on shore, I immediately had it cleared out, and by evening had all my things housed, and was regularly installed as an inhabitant of Dobbo. I had brought with me a cane chair, and a few light boards, which were soon rigged up into a table and shelves. A broad bamboo bench served as sofa and bedstead, my boxes were conveniently arranged, my mats spread on the floor, a window cut in the palm-leaf wall to light my table, and though the place was as miserable and gloomy a shed as could be imagined, I felt as contented as if I had obtained a well-furnished mansion, and looked forward to a month’s residence in it with unmixed satisfaction.

The next morning, after an early breakfast, I set off to explore the virgin forests of Aru, anxious to set my mind at rest as to the treasures they were likely to yield, and the probable success of my long-meditated expedition. A little native imp was our guide, seduced by the gift of a German knife, value three-halfpence, and my Macassar boy Baderoon brought his chopper to clear the path if necessary.

We had to walk about half a mile along the beach, the ground behind the village being mostly swampy, and then turned into the forest along a path which leads to the native village of Wamma, about three miles off on the other side of the island. The path was a narrow one, and very little used, often swampy and obstructed by fallen trees, so that after about a mile we lost it altogether, our guide having turned back, and we were obliged to follow his example. In the meantime, however, I had not been idle, and my day’s captures determined the success of my journey in an entomological point of view. I had taken about thirty species of butterflies, more than I had ever captured in a day since leaving the prolific banks of the Amazon, and among them were many most rare and beautiful insects, hitherto only known by a few specimens from New Guinea. The large and handsome spectre butterfly, Hestia durvillei; the pale-winged peacock butterfly, Drusilla catops; and the most brilliant and wonderful of the clear-winged moths, Cocytia durvillei, were especially interesting, as well, as several little “blues,” equalling in brilliancy and beauty anything the butterfly world can produce. In the other groups of insects I was not so successful, but this was not to be wondered at in a mere exploring ramble, when only what is most conspicuous and novel attracts the attention. Several pretty beetles, a superb “bug,” and a few nice land-shells were obtained, and I returned in the afternoon well satisfied with my first trial of the promised land.

The next two days were so wet and windy that there was no going out; but on the succeeding one the sun shone brightly, and I had the good fortune to capture one of the most magnificent insects the world contains, the great bird-winged butterfly, Ornithoptera Poseidon. I trembled with excitement as I saw it coming majestically towards me, and could hardly believe I had really succeeded in my stroke till I had taken it out of the net and was gazing, lost in admiration, at the velvet black and brilliant green of its wings, seven inches across, its bolder body, and crimson breast. It is true I had seen similar insects in cabinets at home, but it is quite another thing to capture such oneself-to feel it struggling between one’s fingers, and to gaze upon its fresh and living beauty, a bright gem shirring out amid the silent gloom of a dark and tangled forest. The village of Dobbo held that evening at least one contented man.

Jan. 26th. — Having now been here a fortnight, I began to understand a little of the place and its peculiarities. Praus continually arrived, and the merchant population increased almost daily. Every two or three days a fresh house was opened, and the necessary repairs made. In every direction men were bringing in poles, bamboos, rattans, and the leaves of the nipa palm to construct or repair the walls, thatch, doors, and shutters of their houses, which they do with great celerity. Some of the arrivals were Macassar men or Bugis, but more from the small island of Goram, at the east end of Ceram, whose inhabitants are the petty traders of the far East. Then the natives of Aru come in from the other side of the islands (called here “blakang tana,” or “back of the country”) with the produce they have collected during the preceding six months, and which they now sell to the traders, to some of whom they are most likely in debt.

Almost all, or I may safely say all, the new arrivals pay me a visit, to see with their own eyes the unheard-of phenomenon of a person come to stay at Dobbo who does not trade! They have their own ideas of the uses that may possibly be made of stuffed birds, beetles, and shells which are not the right shells — that is, “mother-of-pearl.” They every day bring me dead and broken shells, such as l can pick up by hundreds on the beach, and seem quite puzzled and distressed when I decline them. If, however, there are any snail shells among a lot, I take them, and ask for more — a principle of selection so utterly unintelligible to them, that they give it up in despair, or solve the problem by imputing hidden medical virtue to those which they see me preserve so carefully.

These traders are all of the Malay race, or a mixture of which Malay is the chef ingredient, with the exception of a few Chinese. The natives of Aru, on the other hand, are, Papuans, with black or sooty brown skims, woolly or frizzly hair, thick-ridged prominent noses, and rather slender limbs. Most of them wear nothing but a waist-cloth, and a few of them may be seen all day long wandering about the half-deserted streets of Dobbo offering their little bit of merchandise for sale.

Living in a trader’s house everything is brought to me as well as to the rest — bundles of smoked tripang, or “beche de mer,” looking like sausages which have been rolled in mud and then thrown up the chimney; dried sharks’ fins, mother-of-pearl shells, as well as birds of Paradise, which, however, are so dirty and so badly preserved that I have as yet found no specimens worth purchasing. When I hardly look at the articles, and make no offer for them, they seem incredulous, and, as if fearing they have misunderstood me, again offer them, and declare what they want in return — knives, or tobacco, or sago, or handkerchiefs. I then have to endeavour to explain, through any interpreter who may be at hand, that neither tripang nor pearl oyster shells have any charms for me, and that I even decline to speculate in tortoiseshell, but that anything eatable I will buy — fish, or turtle, or vegetables of any sort. Almost the only food, however, that we can obtain with any regularity, are fish and cockles of very good quality, and to supply our daily wants it is absolutely necessary to be always provided with four articles — tobacco, knives, sago-cakes, and Dutch copper doits — because when the particular thing asked for is not forthcoming, the fish pass on to the next house, and we may go that day without a dinner. It is curious to see the baskets and buckets used here. The cockles are brought in large volute shells, probably the Cymbium ducale, while gigantic helmet-shells, a species of Cassis, suspended by a rattan handle, form the vessels in which fresh water is daily carried past my door. It is painful to a naturalist to see these splendid shells with their inner whorls ruthlessly broken away to fit them for their ignoble use.

My collections, however, got on but slowly, owing to the unexpectedly bad weather, violent winds with heavy showers having been so continuous as only to give me four good collecting days out of the first sixteen I spent here. Yet enough had been collected to show me that with time and fine weather I might expect to do something good. From the natives I obtained some very fine insects and a few pretty land-shells; and of the small number of birds yet shot more than half were known New Guinea species, and therefore certainly rare in European collections, while the remainder were probably new. In one respect my hopes seemed doomed to be disappointed. I had anticipated the pleasure of myself preparing fine specimens of the Birds of Paradise, but I now learnt that they are all at this season out of plumage, and that it is in September and October that they have the long plumes of yellow silky feathers in full perfection. As all the praus return in July, I should not be able to spend that season in Aru without remaining another whole year, which was out of the question. I was informed, however, that the small red species, the “King Bird of Paradise,” retains its plumage at all seasons, and this I might therefore hope to get.

As I became familiar with the forest scenery of the island, (perceived it to possess some characteristic features that distinguished it from that of Borneo and Malacca, while, what is very singular and interesting, it recalled to my mind the half-forgotten impressions of the forests of Equatorial America. For example, the palms were much more abundant than I had generally found them in the East, more generally mingled with the other vegetation, more varied in form and aspect, and presenting some of those lofty and majestic smooth-stemmed, pinnate-leaved species which recall the Uauassu (Attalea speciosa) of the Amazon, but which I had hitherto rarely met with in the Malayan islands.

In animal life the immense number and variety of spiders and of lizards were circumstances that recalled the prolific regions of south America, more especially the abundance and varied colours of the little jumping spiders which abound on flowers and foliage, and are often perfect gems of beauty. The web-spinning species were also more numerous than I had ever seen them, and were a great annoyance, stretching their nets across the footpaths just about the height of my face; and the threads composing these are so strong and glutinous as to require much trouble to free oneself from them. Then their inhabitants, great yellow-spotted monsters with bodies two inches long, and legs in proportion, are not pleasant to o run one’s nose against while pursuing some gorgeous butterfly, or gazing aloft in search of some strange-voiced bird. I soon found it necessary not only to brush away the web, but also to destroy the spinner; for at first, having cleared the path one day, I found the next morning that the industrious insects had spread their nets again in the very same places.

The lizards were equally striking by their numbers, variety, and the situations in which they were found. The beautiful blue-tailed species so abundant in Ke was not seen here. The Aru lizards are more varied but more sombre in their colours — shades of green, grey, brown, and even black, being very frequently seen. Every shrub and herbaceous plant was alive with them, every rotten trunk or dead branch served as a station for some of these active little insect-hunters, who, I fear, to satisfy their gross appetites, destroy many gems of the insect world, which would feast the eyes and delight the heart of our more discriminating entomologists. Another curious feature of the jungle here was the multitude of sea-shells everywhere met with on the ground and high up on the branches and foliage, all inhabited by hermit-crabs, who forsake the beach to wander in the forest. I lave actually seen a spider carrying away a good-sized shell and devouring its (probably juvenile) tenant. On the beach, which I had to walls along every morning to reach the forest, these creatures swarmed by thousands. Every dead shell, from the largest to the most minute, was appropriated by them. They formed small social parties of ten or twenty around bits of stick or seaweed, but dispersed hurriedly at the sound of approaching footsteps. After a windy night, that nasty-looking Chinese delicacy the sea-slug was sometimes thrown up on the beach, which was at such times thickly strewn with some of the most beautiful shells that adorn our cabinets, along with fragments and masses of coral and strange sponges, of which I picked up more than twenty different sorts. In many cases sponge and coral are so much alike that it is only on touching them that they can be distinguished. Quantities of seaweed, too, are thrown up; but strange as it may seem, these are far less beautiful and less varied than may be found on any favourable part of our own coasts.

The natives here, even those who seem to be of pare Papuan race, were much more reserved and taciturn than those of Ke. This is probably because I only saw them as yet among strangers and in small parties, One must see the savage at home to know what he really is. Even here, however, the Papuan character sometimes breaks out. Little boys sing cheerfully as they walk along, or talk aloud to themselves (quite a negro characteristic); and try all they can, the men cannot conceal their emotions in the true Malay fashion. A number of them were one day in my house, and having a fancy to try what sort of eating tripang would be, I bought a couple, paying for them with such an extravagant quantity of tobacco that the seller saw I was a green customer. He could not, however, conceal his delight, but as he smelt the fragrant weed, and exhibited the large handful to his companions, he grinned and twisted and gave silent chuckles in a most expressive pantomime. I had often before made the same mistake in paying a Malay for some trifle. In no case, however, was his pleasure visible on his countenance — a dull and stupid hesitation only showing his surprise, which would be exhibited exactly in the same way whether he was over or under paid. These little moral traits are of the greatest interest when taken in connexion with physical features. They do not admit of the same ready explanation by external causes which is so frequently applied to the latter. Writers on the races of mankind have too often to trust to the information of travellers who pass rapidly from country to country, and thus have few opportunities of becoming acquainted with peculiarities of national character, or even of ascertaining what is really the average physical conformation of the people. Such are exceedingly apt to be deceived in places where two races have long, intermingled, by looking on intermediate forms and mixed habits as evidences of a natural transition from one race to the other, instead of an artificial mixture of two distinct peoples; and they will be the more readily led into this error if, as in the present case, writers on the subject should have been in the habit of classing these races as mere varieties of one stock, as closely related in physical conformation as from their geographical proximity one might suppose they ought to be. So far as I have yet seen, the Malay and Papuan appear to be as widely separated as any two human races that exist, being distinguished by physical, mental, and moral characteristics, all of the most marked and striking kind.

Feb 5th. — I took advantage of a very fine calm day to pay a visit to the island of Wokan, which is about a mile from us, and forms part of the “canna busar,” or mainland of Aru. This is a large island, extending from north to south about a hundred miles, but so low in many parts as to be intersected by several creeks, which run completely through it, offering a passage for good-sized vessels. On the west side, where we are, there are only a few outlying islands, of which ours (Wamma) is the principal; but on the east coast are a great number of islands, extending some miles beyond the mainland, and forming the “blakang tang,” or “back country,” of the traders, being the principal seat of the pearl, tripang, and tortoiseshell fisheries. To the mainland many of the birds and animals of the country are altogether confined; the Birds of paradise, the black cockatoo, the great brush-turkey, and the cassowary, are none of them found on Wamma or any of the detached islands. I did not, however, expect in this excursion to see any decided difference in the forest or its productions, and was therefore agreeably surprised. The beach was overhung with the drooping branches of lame trees, loaded with Orchideae, ferns, and other epiphytal plants. In the forest there was more variety, some parts being dry, and with trees of a lower growth, while in others there were some of the most beautiful palms I have ever seen, with a perfectly straight, smooth, slender stem, a hundred feet high, and a crown of handsome drooping leaves. But the greatest novelty and most striking feature to my eyes were the tree-ferns, which, after seven years spent in the tropics, I now saw in perfection for the first time. All I had hitherto met with were slender species, not more than twelve feet high, and they gave not the least idea of the supreme beauty of trees bearing their elegant heads of fronds more than thirty feet in the air, like those which were plentifully scattered about this forest. There is nothing in tropical vegetation so perfectly beautiful.

My boys shot five sorts of birds, none of which we had obtained during a month’s shooting in Wamma. Two were very pretty flycatchers, already known from New Guinea; one of them (Monarcha chrysomela), of brilliant black and bright orange colours, is by some authors considered to be the most beautiful of all flycatchers; the other is pure white and velvety black, with a broad fleshy ring round the eye of are azure blue colour; it is named the “spectacled flycatcher” (Monarcha telescopthalma), and was first found in New Guinea, along with the other, by the French naturalists during the voyage of the discovery-ship Coquille.

Feb. 18th. — Before leaving Macassar, I had written to the Governor of Amboyna requesting him to assist me with the native chiefs of Aru. I now received by a vessel which had arrived from Amboyna a very polite answer informing me that orders had been sent to give me every assistance that I might require; and I was just congratulating myself on being at length able to get a boat and men to go to the mainland and explore the interior, when a sudden check carne in the form of a piratical incursion. A small prau arrived which had been attacked by pirates and had a man wounded. They were said to have five boats, but more were expected to be behind and the traders were all in consternation, fearing that their small vessels sent trading to the “blakang tana” would be plundered. The Aru natives were of course dreadfully alarmed, as these marauders attack their villages, burn and murder, and carry away women and children for slaves. Not a man will stir from his village for some time, and I must remain still a prisoner in Dobbo. The Governor of Amboyna, out of pure kindness, has told the chiefs that they are to be responsible for my safety, so that they have au excellent excuse for refusing to stir.

Several praus went out in search of the pirates, sentinels were appointed, and watch-fires lighted on the beach to guard against the possibility of a night attack, though it was hardly thought they would be bold enough to attempt to plunder Dobbo. The next day the praus returned, and we had positive information that these scourges of the Eastern seas were really among us. One of Herr Warzbergen’s small praus also arrived in a sad plight. It had been attacked six days before, just as it was returning, from the “blakang tana.” The crew escaped in their small boat and hid in the jungle, while the pirates came up and plundered the vessel. They took away everything but the cargo of mother-of-pearl shell, which was too bulky for them. All the clothes and boxes of the men, and the sails and cordage of the prau, were cleared off. They had four large war boats, and fired a volley of musketry as they came up, and sent off their small boats to the attack. After they had left, our men observed from their concealment that three had stayed behind with a small boat; and being driven to desperation by the sight of the plundering, one brave fellow swam off armed only with his parang, or chopping-knife, and coming on them unawares made a desperate attack, killing one and wounding the other two, receiving himself numbers of slight wounds, and then swimming off again when almost exhausted. Two other prams were also plundered, and the crew of one of them murdered to a man. They are said to be Sooloo pirates, but have Bugis among them. On their way here they have devastated one of the small islands east of Ceram. It is now eleven years since they have visited Aru, and by thus making their attacks at long and uncertain intervals the alarm dies away, and they find a population for the most part unarmed and unsuspicious of danger. None of the small trading vessels now carry arms, though they did so for a year or two after the last attack, which was just the time when there was the least occasion for it. A week later one of the smaller pirate boats was captured in the “blakang tana.” Seven men were killed and three taken prisoners. The larger vessels have been often seen but cannot be caught, as they have very strong crews, and can always escape by rowing out to sea in the eye of the wind, returning at night. They will thus remain among the innumerable islands and channels, till the change of the monsoon enables them to sail westward.

March 9th.-For four or five days we have had a continual gale of wind, with occasional gusts of great fury, which seem as if they would send Dobbo into the sea. Rain accompanies it almost every alternate hour, so that it is not a pleasant time. During such weather I can do little, but am busy getting ready a boat I have purchased, for an excursion into the interior. There is immense difficulty about men, but I believe the “Orang-kaya,” or head man of Wamma, will accompany me to see that I don’t run into danger.

Having become quite an old inhabitant of Dobbo, I will endeavour to sketch the sights and sounds that pervade it, and the manners and customs of its inhabitants. The place is now pretty full, and the streets present a far more cheerful aspect than when we first arrived. Every house is a store, where the natives barter their produce for what they are most in need of. Knives, choppers, swords, guns, tobacco, gambier, plates, basins, handkerchiefs, sarongs, calicoes, and arrack, are the principal articles wanted by the natives; but some of the stores contain also tea, coffee, sugar, wine, biscuits, &c., for the supply of the traders; and others are full of fancy goods, china ornaments, looking-glasses, razors, umbrellas, pipes, and purses, which take the fancy of the wealthier natives. Every fine day mats are spread before the doors and the tripang is put out to dry, as well as sugar, salt, biscuit, tea, cloths, and other things that get injured by an excessively moist atmosphere. In the morning and evening, spruce Chinamen stroll about or chat at each other’s doors, in blue trousers, white jacket, and a queue into which red silk is plaited till it reaches almost to their heels. An old Bugis hadji regularly takes an evening stroll in all the dignity of flowing green silk robe and gay turban, followed by two small boys carrying his sirih and betel boxes.

In every vacant space new houses are being built, and all sorts of odd little cooking-sheds are erected against the old ones, while in some out-of-the-way corners, massive log pigsties are tenanted by growing porkers; for how can the Chinamen exist six months without one feast of pig?

Here and there are stalls where bananas are sold, and every morning two little boys go about with trays of sweet rice and crated cocoa-nut, fried fish, or fried plantains; and whichever it may be, they have but one cry, and that is “Chocolat-t — t!” This must be a Spanish or Portuguese cry, handed down for centuries, while its meaning has been lost. The Bugis sailors, while hoisting the main sail, cry out, “Vela a vela — vela, vela, vela!” repeated in an everlasting chorus. As “vela” is Portuguese a sail, I supposed I had discovered the origin of this, but I found afterwards they used the same cry when heaving anchor, and often chanted it to “hela,” which is so much an universal expression of exertion and hard breathing that it is most probably a mere interjectional cry.

I daresay there are now near five hundred people in Dobbo of various races, all met in this remote corner of the East, as they express it, “to look for their fortune;” to get money any way they can. They are most of them people who have the very worst reputation for honesty as well as every other form of morality — Chinese, Bugis, Ceramese, and half-caste Javanese, with a sprinkling of half-wild Papuans from Timor, Babber, and other islands, yet all goes on as yet very quietly. This motley, ignorant, bloodthirsty, thievish population live here without the shadow of a government, with no police, no courts, and no lawyers; yet they do not cut each other’s throats, do not plunder each other day and night, do not fall into the anarchy such a state of things might be supposed to lead to. It is very extraordinary! It puts strange thoughts into one’s head about the mountain-load of government under which people exist in Europe, and suggests the idea that we may be over-governed. Think of the hundred Acts of Parliament annually enacted to prevent us, the people of England, from cutting each other’s throats, or from doing to our neighbour as we would not be done by. Think of the thousands of lawyers and barristers whose whole lives are spent in telling us what the hundred Acts of Parliament mean, and one would be led to infer that if Dobbo has too little law England has too much.

Here we may behold in its simplest form the genius of Commerce at the work of Civilization. Trade is the magic that keeps all at peace, and unites these discordant elements into a well-behaved community. All are traders, and know that peace and order are essential to successful trade, and thus a public opinion is created which puts down all lawlessness. Often in former year, when strolling along the Campong Glam in Singapore, I have thought how wild and ferocious the Bugis sailors looked, and how little should like to trust myself among them. But now I find them to be very decent, well-behaved fellows; I walk daily unarmed in the jungle, where I meet them continually; I sleep in a palm-leaf hut, which any one may enter, with as little fear and as little danger of thieves or murder as if I were under the protection of the Metropolitan police. It is true the Dutch influence is felt here. The islands are nominally under the government of the Moluccas, which the native chiefs acknowledge; and in most years a commissioner arrives from Amboyna, who makes the tour of the islands, hears complaints, settle disputes, and carries away prisoner any heinous offender. This year he is not expected to come, as no orders have yet been received to prepare for him; so the people of Dobbo will probably be left to their own devices. One day a man was caught in the act of stealing a piece of iron from Herr Warzbergen’s house, which he had entered by making a hole through the thatch wall. In the evening the chief traders of the place, Bugis and Chinese, assembled, the offender was tried and found guilty, and sentenced to receive twenty lashes on the spot. They were given with a small rattan in the middle of the street, not very severely, the executioner appeared to sympathise a little with the culprit. The disgrace seemed to be thought as much of as the pain; for though any amount of clever cheating is thought rather meritorious than otherwise, open robbery and housebreaking meet with universal reprobation.

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