The Malay Archipelago, by Alfred Russel Wallace

Chapter 32

The Aru Islands. — Second Residence at Dobbo.

(MAY AND JUNE 1857.)

DOBBO was full to overflowing, and I was obliged to occupy the court-house where the Commissioners hold their sittings. They had now left the island, and I found the situation agreeable, as it was at the end of the village, with a view down the principal street. It was a mere shed, but half of it had a roughly boarded floor, and by putting up a partition and opening a window I made it a very pleasant abode. In one of the boxes I had left in charge of Herr Warzbergen, a colony of small ants had settled and deposited millions of eggs. It was luckily a fine hot day, and by carrying the box some distance from the house, and placing every article in the sunshine for an hour or two, I got rid of them without damage, as they were fortunately a harmless species.

Dobbo now presented an animated appearance. Five or six new houses had been added to the street; the praus were all brought round to the western side of the point, where they were hauled up on the beach, and were being caulked and covered with a thick white lime-plaster for the homeward voyage, making them the brightest and cleanest looking things in the place. Most of the small boats had returned from the “blakang-tana “(back country), as the side of the islands towards New Guinea is called. Piles of firewood were being heaped up behind the houses; sail-makers and carpenters were busy at work; mother-of-pearl shell was being tied up in bundles, and the black and ugly smoked tripang was having a last exposure to the sun before loading. The spare portion of the crews were employed cutting and squaring timber, and boats from Ceram and Goram were constantly unloading their cargoes of sago-cake for the traders’ homeward voyage. The fowls, ducks, and goats all looked fat and thriving on the refuse food of a dense population, and the Chinamen’s pigs were in a state of obesity that foreboded early death. Parrots and Tories and cockatoos, of a dozen different binds, were suspended on bamboo perches at the doors of the houses, with metallic green or white fruit-pigeons which cooed musically at noon and eventide. Young cassowaries, strangely striped with black and brown, wandered about the houses or gambolled with the playfulness of kittens in the hot sunshine, with sometimes a pretty little kangaroo, caught in the Aru forests, but already tame and graceful as a petted fawn.

Of an evening there were more signs of life than at the time of my former residence. Tom-toms, jews’-harps, and even fiddles were to be heard, and the melancholy Malay songs sounded not unpleasantly far into the night. Almost every day there was a cock-fight in the street. The spectators make a ring, and after the long steel spurs are tied on, and the poor animals are set down to gash and kill each other, the excitement is immense. Those who lave made bets scream and yell and jump frantically, if they think they are going to win or lose, but in a very few minutes it is all over; there is a hurrah from the winners, the owners seize their cocks, the winning bird is caressed and admired, the loser is generally dead or very badly wounded, and his master may often be seen plucking out his feathers as he walks away, preparing him for the cooking pot while the poor bird is still alive.

A game at foot-ball, which generally took place at sunset, was, however, much more interesting to me. The ball used is a rather small one, and is made of rattan, hollow, light, and elastic. The player keeps it dancing a little while on his foot, then occasionally on his arm or thigh, till suddenly he gives it a good blow with the hollow of the foot, and sends it flying high in the air. Another player runs to meet it, and at its first bound catches it on his foot and plays in his turn. The ball must never be touched with the hand; but the arm, shoulder, knee, or thigh are used at pleasure to rest the foot. Two or three played very skilfully, keeping the ball continually flying about, but the place was too confined to show off the game to advantage. One evening a quarrel arose from some dispute in the game, and there was a great row, and it was feared there would be a fight about it — not two men only, but a party of a dozen or twenty on each side, a regular battle with knives and krisses; but after a large amount of talk it passed off quietly, and we heard nothing about it afterwards.

Most Europeans being gifted by nature with a luxuriant growth of hair upon their faces, think it disfigures them, and keep up a continual struggle against her by mowing down every morning the crop which has sprouted up flaring the preceding twenty-four hours. Now the men of Mongolian race are, naturally, just as many of us want to he. They mostly pass their lives with faces as smooth and beardless as an infant’s. But shaving seems an instinct of the human race; for many of these people, having no hair to take off their faces, shave their heads. Others, however, set resolutely to work to force nature to give them a beard. One of the chief cock-fighters at Dobbo was a Javanese, a sort of master of the ceremonies of the ring, who tied on the spars and acted as backer-up to one of the combatants. This man had succeeded, by assiduous cultivation, in raising a pair of moustaches which were a triumph of art, for they each contained about a dozen hairs more than three inches long, and which, being well greased and twisted, were distinctly visible (when not too far off) as a black thread hanging down on each side of his mouth. But the beard to match was the difficulty, for nature had cruelly refused to give him a rudiment of hair on his chin, and the most talented gardener could not do much if he had nothing to cultivate. But true genius triumphs over difficulties. Although there was no hair proper on the chin; there happened to be, rather on one side of it, a small mole or freckle which contained (as such things frequently do) a few stray hairs. These had been made the most of. They had reached four or five inches in length, and formed another black thread dangling from the left angle of the chin. The owner carried this as if it were something remarkable (as it certainly was); he often felt it affectionately, passed it between his fingers, and was evidently extremely proud of his moustaches and beard!

One of the most surprising things connected with Aru was the excessive cheapness of all articles of European or native manufacture. We were here two thousand miles beyond Singapore and Batavia, which are themselves emporiums of the “far east,” in a place unvisited by, and almost unknown to, European traders; everything reached us through at least two or three hands, often many more; yet English calicoes and American cotton cloths could be bought for 8s. the piece, muskets for 15s., common scissors and German knives at three-halfpence each, and other cutlery, cotton goods, and earthenware in the same proportion. The natives of this out-of-the-way country can, in fact, buy all these things at about the same money price as our workmen at home, but in reality very much cheaper, for the produce of a few hours’ labour enables the savage to purchase in abundance what are to him luxuries, while to the European they are necessaries of life. The barbarian is no happier and no better off for this cheapness. On the contrary, it has a most injurious effect on him. He wants the stimulus of necessity to force him to labour; and if iron were as dear as silver, and calico as costly as satin, the effect would be beneficial to him. As it is, he has more idle hours, gets a more constant supply of tobacco, and can intoxicate himself with arrack more frequently and more thoroughly; for your Aru man scorns to get half drunk-a tumbler full of arrack is but a slight stimulus, and nothing less than half a gallon of spirit will make him tipsy to his own satisfaction.

It is not agreeable to reflect on this state of things. At least half of the vast multitudes of uncivilized peoples, on whom our gigantic manufacturing system, enormous capital, and intense competition force the produce of our looms and workshops, would be not a whit worse off physically, and would certainly be improved morally, if all the articles with which w e supply them were double or treble their present prices. If at the same time the difference of cost, or a large portion of it, could find its way into the pockets of the manufacturing workmen, thousands would be raised from want to comfort, from starvation to health, and would be removed from one of the chief incentives to crime. It is difficult for an Englishman to avoid contemplating with pride our gigantic and ever-increasing manufactures and commerce, and thinking everything good that renders their progress still more rapid, either by lowering the price at which the articles can be produced, or by discovering new markets to which they may be sent. If, however, the question that is so frequently asked of the votaries of the less popular sciences were put here —“Cui bono?”— it would be found more difficult to answer than had been imagined. The advantages, even to the few who reap them, would be seen to be mostly physical, while the wide-spread moral and intellectual evils resulting from unceasing labour, low wages, crowded dwellings, and monotonous occupations, to perhaps as large a number as those who gain any real advantage, might be held to show a balance of evil so great, as to lead the greatest admirers of our manufactures and commerce to doubt the advisability of their further development. It will be said: “We cannot stop it; capital must be employed; our population must be kept at work; if we hesitate a moment, other nations now hard pressing us will get ahead, and national ruin will follow.” Some of this is true, some fallacious. It is undoubtedly a difficult problem which we have to solve; and I am inclined to think it is this difficulty that makes men conclude that what seems a necessary and unalterable state of things must be good-that its benefits must he greater than its evils. This was the feeling of the American advocates of slavery; they could not see an easy, comfortable way out of it. In our own case, however, it is to be hoped, that if a fair consideration of the matter in all its hearings shows that a preponderance of evil arises from the immensity of our manufactures and commerce-evil which must go on increasing with their increase-there is enough both of political wisdom and true philanthropy in Englishmen, to induce them to turn their superabundant wealth into other channels. The fact that has led to these remarks is surely a striking one: that in one of the most remote corners of the earth savages can buy clothing cheaper than the people of the country where it is made; that the weaver’s child should shiver in the wintry wind, unable to purchase articles attainable by the wild natives of a tropical climate, where clothing is mere ornament or luxury, should make us pause ere we regard with unmixed admiration the system which has led to such a result, and cause us to look with some suspicion on the further extension of that system. It must be remembered too that our commerce is not a purely natural growth. It has been ever fostered by the legislature, and forced to an unnatural luxuriance by the protection of our fleets and armies. The wisdom and the justice of this policy have been already doubted. So soon, therefore, as it is seen that the further extension of our manufactures and commerce would be an evil, the remedy is not far to seek.

After six weeks’ confinement to the house I was at length well, and could resume my daily walks in the forest. I did not, however, find it so productive as when I had first arrived at Dobbo. There was a damp stagnation about the paths, and insects were very scarce. In some of my best collecting places I now found a mass of rotting wood, mingled with young shoots, and overgrown with climbers, yet I always managed to add something daily to my extensive collections. I one day met with a curious example of failure of instinct, which, by showing it to be fallible, renders it very doubtful whether it is anything more than hereditary habit, dependent on delicate modifications of sensation. Some sailors cut down a good-sized tree, and, as is always my practice, I visited it daily for some time in search of insects. Among other beetles came swarms of the little cylindrical woodborers (Platypus, Tesserocerus, &c.), and commenced making holes in the bark. After a day or two I was surprised to find hundreds of them sticking in the holes they had bored, and on examination discovered that the milky sap of the tree was of the nature of gutta-percha, hardening rapidly on exposure to the air, and glueing the little animals in self-dug graves. The habit of boring holes in trees in which to deposit their eggs, was not accompanied by a sufficient instinctive knowledge of which trees were suitable, and which destructive to them. If, as is very probable, these trees have an attractive odour to certain species of borers, it might very likely lead to their becoming extinct; while other species, to whom the same odour was disagreeable, and who therefore avoided the dangerous trees, would survive, and would be credited by us with an instinct, whereas they would really be guided by a simple sensation.

Those curious little beetles, the Brenthidae, were very abundant in Aru. The females have a pointed rostrum, with which they bore deep holes in the bark of dead trees, often burying the rostrum up to the eyes, and in these holes deposit their eggs. The males are larger, and have the rostrum dilated at the end, and sometimes terminating in a good-sized pair of jaws. I once saw two males fighting together; each had a fore-leg laid across the neck of the other, and the rostrum bent quite in an attitude of defiance, and looking most ridiculous. Another time, two were fighting for a female, who stood close by busy at her boring. They pushed at each other with their rostra, and clawed and thumped, apparently in the greatest rage, although their coats of mail must have saved both from injury. The small one, however, soon ran away, acknowledging himself vanquished. In most Coleoptera the female is larger than the male, and it is therefore interesting, as bearing on the question of sexual selection, that in this case, as in the stag-beetles where the males fight together, they should be not only better armed, but also much larger than the females. Just as we were going away, a handsome tree, allied to Erythrina, was in blossom, showing its masses of large crimson flowers scattered here and there about the forest. Could it have been seen from an elevation, it would have had a fine effect; from below I could only catch sight of masses of gorgeous colour in clusters and festoons overhead, about which flocks of blue and orange lories were fluttering and screaming.

A good many people died at Dobbo this season; I believe about twenty. They were buried in a little grove of Casuarinas behind my house. Among the traders was a. Mahometan priest, who superintended the funerals, which were very simple. The body was wrapped up in new white cotton cloth, and was carried on a bier to the grave. All the spectators sat down on the ground, and the priest chanted some verses from the Koran. The graves were fenced round with a slight bamboo railing, and a little carved wooden head-post was put to mark the spot. There was also in the village a small mosque, where every Friday the faithful went to pray. This is probably more remote from Mecca than any other mosque in the world, and marks the farthest eastern extension of the Mahometan religion. The Chinese here, as elsewhere, showed their superior wealth and civilization by tombstones of solid granite brought from Singapore, with deeply-cut inscriptions, the characters of which are painted in red, blue, and gold. No people have more respect for the graves of their relations and friends than this strange, ubiquitous, money-getting people.

Soon after we had returned to Dobbo, my Macassar boy, Baderoon, took his wages and left me, because I scolded him for laziness. He then occupied himself in gambling, and at first had some luck, and bought ornaments, and had plenty of money. Then his luck turned; he lost everything, borrowed money and lost that, and was obliged to become the slave of his creditor till he had worked out the debt. He was a quick and active lad when he pleased, but was apt to be idle, and had such an incorrigible propensity for gambling, that it will very likely lead to his becoming a slave for life.

The end of June was now approaching, the east monsoon had set in steadily, and in another week or two Dobbo would be deserted. Preparations for departure were everywhere visible, and every sunny day (rather rare now) the streets were as crowded and as busy as beehives. Heaps of tripang were finally dried and packed up in sacks; mother-of-pearl shell, tied up with rattans into convenient bundles, was all day long being carried to the beach to be loaded; water-casks were filled, and cloths and mat-sails mended and strengthened for the run home before the strong east wind. Almost every day groups of natives arrived from the most distant parts of the islands, with cargoes of bananas and sugar-cane to exchange for tobacco, sago, bread, and other luxuries, before the general departure. The Chinamen killed their fat pig and made their parting feast, and kindly sent me some pork, and a basin of birds’ nest stew, which had very little more taste than a dish of vermicelli. My boy Ali returned from Wanumbai, where I had sent him alone for a fortnight to buy Paradise birds and prepare the skins; he brought me sixteen glorious specimens, and had he not been very ill with fever and ague might have obtained twice the number. He had lived with the people whose house I had occupied, and it is a proof of their goodness, if fairly treated, that although he took with him a quantity of silver dollars to pay for the birds they caught, no attempt was made to rob him, which might have been done with the most perfect impunity. He was kindly treated when ill, and was brought back to me with the balance of the dollars he had not spent.

The Wanumbai people, like almost all the inhabitants of the Aru Islands, are perfect savages, and I saw no signs of any religion. There are, however, three or four villages on the coast where schoolmasters from Amboyna reside, and the people are nominally Christians, and are to some extent educated and civilized. I could not get much real knowledge of the customs of the Aru people during the short time I was among them, but they have evidently been considerably influenced by their long association with Mahometan traders. They often bury their dead, although the national custom is to expose the body an a raised stage till it decomposes. Though there is no limit to the number of wives a man may have, they seldom exceed one or two. A wife is regularly purchased from the parents, the price being a large assortment of articles, always including gongs, crockery, and cloth. They told me that some of the tribes kill the old men and women when they can no longer work, but I saw many very old and decrepid people, who seemed pretty well attended to. No doubt all who have much intercourse with the Bugis and Ceramese traders gradually lose many of their native customs, especially as these people often settle in their villages and marry native women.

The trade carried on at Dobbo is very considerable. This year there were fifteen large praus from Macassar, and perhaps a hundred small boats from Ceram, Goram, and Ke. The Macassar cargoes are worth about £1,000. each, and the other boats take away perhaps about £3,000, worth, so that the whole exports may be estimated at £18,000. per annum. The largest and most bulky items are pearl-shell and tripang, or “beche-de-mer,” with smaller quantities of tortoise-shell, edible birds’ nests, pearls, ornamental woods, timber, and Birds of Paradise. These are purchased with a variety of goods. Of arrack, about equal in strength to ordinary West India rum, 3,000 boxes, each containing fifteen half-gallon bottles, are consumed annually. Native cloth from Celebes is much esteemed for its durability, and large quantities are sold, as well as white English calico and American unbleached cottons, common crockery, coarse cutlery, muskets, gunpowder, gongs, small brass cannon, and elephants’ tusks. These three last articles constitute the wealth of the Aru people, with which they pay for their wives, or which they hoard up as “real property.” Tobacco is in immense demand for chewing, and it must be very strong, or an Aru man will not look at it. Knowing how little these people generally work, the mass of produce obtained annually shows that the islands must be pretty thickly inhabited, especially along the coasts, as nine-tenths of the whole are marine productions.

It was on the 2d of July that we left Aru, followed by all the Macassar praus, fifteen in number, who had agreed to sail in company. We passed south of Banda, and then steered due west, not seeing land for three days, till we sighted some low islands west of Bouton. We had a strong and steady south-east wind day and night, which carried us on at about five knots an hour, where a clipper ship would have made twelve. The sky was continually cloudy, dark, and threatening, with occasional drizzling showers, till we were west of Bouru, when it cleared up and we enjoyed the bright sunny skies of the dry season for the rest of our voyage. It is about here, therefore that the seasons of the eastern and western regions of the Archipelago are divided. West of this line from June to December is generally fine, and often very dry, the rest of the year being the wet season. East of it the weather is exceedingly uncertain, each island, and each side of an island, having its own peculiarities. The difference seems to consist not so much in the distribution of the rainfall as in that of the clouds and the moistness of the atmosphere. In Aru, for example, when we left, the little streams were all dried up, although the weather was gloomy; while in January, February, and March, when we had the hottest sunshine and the finest days, they were always flowing. The driest time of all the year in Aru occurs in September and October, just as it does in Java and Celebes. The rainy seasons agree, therefore, with those of the western islands, although the weather is very different. The Molucca sea is of a very deep blue colour, quite distinct from the clear light blue of the Atlantic. In cloudy and dull weather it looks absolutely black, and when crested with foam has a stern and angry aspect. The wind continued fair and strong during our whole voyage, and we reached Macassar in perfect safety on the evening of the 11th of July, having made the passage from Aru (more than a thousand miles) in nine and a half days.

My expedition to the Aru Islands had been eminently successful. Although I had been for months confined to the house by illness, and had lost much time by the want of the means of locomotion, and by missing the right season at the right place, I brought away with me more than nine thousand specimens of natural objects, of about sixteen hundred distinct species. I had made the acquaintance of a strange and little-known race of men; I had become familiar with the traders of the far East; I had revelled in the delights of exploring a new fauna and flora, one of the most remarkable and most beautiful and least-known in the world; and I had succeeded in the main object for which I had undertaken the journey-namely, to obtain fine specimens of the magnificent Birds of Paradise, and to be enabled to observe them in their native forests. By this success I was stimulated to continue my researches in the Moluccas and New Guinea for nearly five years longer, and it is still the portion of my travels to which I look back with the most complete satisfaction.

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