The Malay Archipelago, by Alfred Russel Wallace

Chapter 36



THE village of Muka, on the south coast of Waigiou, consists of a number of poor huts, partly in the water and partly on shore, and scattered irregularly over a space of about half a mile in a shallow bay. Around it are a few cultivated patches, and a good deal of second-growth woody vegetation; while behind, at the distance of about half a mile, rises the virgin forest, through which are a few paths to some houses and plantations a mile or two inland. The country round is rather flat, and in places swampy, and there are one or two small streams which run behind the village into the sea below it. Finding that no house could be had suitable to my purpose, and hawing so often experienced the advantages of living close to or just within the forest, I obtained the assistance of half-a-dozen men; and having selected a spot near the path and the stream, and close to a fine fig-tree, which stood just within the forest, we cleared the ground and set to building a house. As I did not expect to stay here so long as I had done at Dorey, I built a long, low, narrow shed, about seven feet high on one side and four on the other, which required but little wood, and was put up very rapidly. Our sails, with a few old attaps from a deserted but in the village, formed the walls, and a quantity of “cadjans,” or palm-leaf mats, covered in the roof. On the third day my house was finished, and all my things put in and comfortably arranged to begin work, and I was quite pleased at having got established so quickly and in such a nice situation.

It had been so far fine weather, but in the night it rained hard, and we found our mat roof would not keep out water. It first began to drop, and then to stream over everything. I had to get up in the middle of the night to secure my insect-boxes, rice, and other perishable articles, and to find a dry place to sleep in, for my bed was soaked. Fresh leaks kept forming as the rain continued, and w e all passed a very miserable and sleepless night. In the morning the sun shone brightly, and everything was put out to dry. We tried to find out why the mats leaked, and thought we had discovered that they had been laid on upside down. Having shifted there all, and got everything dry and comfortable by the evening, we again went to bed, and before midnight were again awaked by torrent of rain and leaks streaming in upon us as bad as ever. There was no more sleep for us that night, and the next day our roof was again taken to pieces, and we came to the conclusion that the fault was a want of slope enough in the roof for mats, although it would be sufficient for the usual attap thatch. I therefore purchased a few new and some old attaps, and in the parts these would not cover we put the mats double, and then at last had the satisfaction of finding our roof tolerably water-tight.

I was now able to begin working at the natural history of the island. When I first arrived I was surprised at being told that there were no Paradise Birds at Muka, although there were plenty at Bessir, a place where the natives caught them and prepared the skins. I assured the people I had heard the cry of these birds close to the village, but they world not believe that I could know their cry. However, the very first time I went into the forest I not only heard but saw them, and was convinced there were plenty about; but they were very shy, and it was some time before we got any. My hunter first shot a female, and I one day got very close to a fine male. He was, as I expected, the rare red species, Paradisea rubra, which alone inhabits this island, and is found nowhere else. He was quite low down, running along a bough searching for insects, almost like a woodpecker, and the long black riband-like filaments in his tail hung down in the most graceful double curve imaginable. I covered him with my gun, and was going to use the barrel which had a very small charge of powder and number eight shot, so as not to injure his plumage, but the gun missed fire, and he was off in an instant among the thickest jungle. Another day we saw no less than eight fine males at different times, and fired four times at them; but though other birds at the same distance almost always dropped, these all got away, and I began to think we were not to get this magnificent species. At length the fruit ripened on the fig-tree close by my house, and many birds came to feed on it; and one morning, as I was taking my coffee, a male Paradise Bird was seen to settle on its top. I seized my gun, ran under the tree, and, gazing up, could see it flying across from branch to branch, seizing a fruit here and another there, and then, before I could get a sufficient aim to shoot at such a height (for it was one of the loftiest trees of the tropics), it was away into the forest. They now visited the tree every morning; but they stayed so short a time, their motions were so rapid, and it was so difficult to see them, owing to the lower trees, which impeded the view, that it was only after several days’ watching, and one or two misses, that I brought down my bird — a male in the most magnificent plumage.

This bird differs very much from the two large species which I had already obtained, and, although it wants the grace imparted by their long golden trains, is in many respects more remarkable and more beautiful. The head, back, and shoulders are clothed with a richer yellow, the deep metallic green colour of the throat extends further over the head, and the feathers are elongated on the forehead into two little erectile crests. The side plumes are shorter, but are of a rich red colour, terminating in delicate white points, and the middle tail-feathers are represented by two long rigid glossy ribands, which are black, thin, and semi-cylindrical, and droop gracefully in a spiral curve. Several other interesting birds were obtained, and about half-a-dozen quite new ones; but none of any remarkable beauty, except the lovely little dove, Ptilonopus pulchellus, which with several other pigeons I shot on the same fig-tree close to my house. It is of a beautiful green colour above, with a forehead of the richest crimson, while beneath it is ashy white and rich yellow, banded with violet red.

On the evening of our arrival at Muka I observed what appeared like a display of Aurora Borealis, though I could hardly believe that this was possible at a point a little south of the equator. The night was clear and calm, and the northern sky presented a diffused light, with a constant succession of faint vertical flashings or flickerings, exactly similar to an ordinary aurora in England. The next day was fine, but after that the weather was unprecedentedly bad, considering that it ought to have been the dry monsoon. For near a month we had wet weather; the sun either not appearing at all, or only for an hour or two about noon. Morning and evening, as well as nearly all night, it rained or drizzled, and boisterous winds, with dark clouds, formed the daily programme. With the exception that it was never cold, it was just such weather as a very bad English November or February.

The people of Waigiou are not truly indigenes of the island, which possesses no “Alfuros,” or aboriginal inhabitants. They appear to be a mixed race, partly from Gilolo, partly from New Guinea. Malays and Alfuros from the former island have probably settled here, and many of them have taken Papuan wives from Salwatty or Dorey, while the influx of people from those places, and of slaves, has led to the formation of a tribe exhibiting almost all the transitions from a nearly pure Malayan to an entirely Papuan type. The language spoken by them is entirely Papuan, being that which is used on all the coasts of Mysol, Salwatty, the north-west of New Guinea, and the islands in the great Geelvink Bay — a fact which indicates the way in which the coast settlements have been formed. The fact that so many of the islands between New Guinea and the Moluccas — such as Waigiou, Guebe, Poppa, Obi, Batchian, as well as the south and east peninsulas of Gilolo — possess no aboriginal tribes, but are inhabited by people who are evidently mongrels and wanderers, is a remarkable corroborative proof of the distinctness of the Malayan and Papuan races, and the separation of the geographical areas they inhabit. If these two great races were direct modifications, the one of the other, we should expect to find in the intervening region some homogeneous indigenous race presenting intermediate characters. For example, between the whitest inhabitants of Europe and the black Klings of South India, there are in the intervening districts homogeneous races which form a gradual transition from one to the other; while in America, although there is a perfect transition from the Anglo–Saxon to the negro, and from the Spaniard to the Indian, there is no homogeneous race forming a natural transition from one to the other. In the Malay Archipelago we have an excellent example of two absolutely distinct races, which appear to have approached each other, and intermingled in an unoccupied territory at a very recent epoch in the history of man; and I feel satisfied that no unprejudiced person could study them on the spot without being convinced that this is the true solution of the problem, rather than the almost universally accepted view that they are but modifications of one and the same race.

The people of Muka live in that abject state of poverty that is almost always found where the sago-tree is abundant. Very few of them take the trouble to plant any vegetables or fruit, but live almost entirely on sago and fish, selling a little tripang or tortoiseshell to buy the scanty clothing they require. Almost all of them, however, possess one or more Papuan slaves, on whose labour they live in almost absolute idleness, just going out on little fishing or trading excursions, as an excitement in their monotonous existence. They are under the rule of the Sultan of Tidore, and every year have to pay a small tribute of Paradise birds, tortoiseshell, or sago. To obtain these, they go in the fine season on a trading voyage to the mainland of New Guinea, and getting a few goods on credit from some Ceram or Bugis trader, make hard bargains with the natives, and gain enough to pay their tribute, and leave a little profit for themselves.

Such a country is not a very pleasant one to live in, for as there are no superfluities, there is nothing to sell; and had it not been for a trader from Ceram who was residing there during my stay, who had a small vegetable garden, and whose men occasionally got a few spare fish, I should often have had nothing to eat. Fowls, fruit, and vegetables are luxuries very rarely to be purchased at Muka; and even cocoa-nuts, so indispensable for eastern cookery, are not to be obtained; for though there are some hundreds of trees in the village, all the fruit is eaten green, to supply the place of the vegetables the people are too lazy to cultivate. Without eggs, cocoa-nuts, or plantains, we had very short commons, and the boisterous weather being unpropitious for fishing, we had to live on what few eatable birds we could shoot, with an occasional cuscus, or eastern opossum, the only quadruped, except pigs, inhabiting the island.

I had only shot two male Paradiseas on my tree when they ceased visiting it, either owing to the fruit becoming scarce, or that they were wise enough to know there was danger. We continued to hear and see them in the forest, but after a month had not succeeded in shooting any more; and as my chief object in visiting Waigiou was to get these birds, I determined to go to Bessir, where there are a number of Papuans who catch and preserve them. I hired a small outrigger boat for this journey, and left one of my men to guard my house and goods. We had to wait several days for fine weather, and at length started early one morning, and arrived late at night, after a rough and disagreeable passage. The village of Bessir was built in the water at the point of a small island. The chief food of the people was evidently shell-fish, since great heaps of the shells had accumulated in the shallow water between the houses and the land, forming a regular “kitchen-midden “for the exploration of some future archeologist. We spent the night in the chief’s house, and the next morning went over to the mainland to look out for a place where I could reside. This part of Waigiou is really another island to the south of the narrow channel we had passed through in coming to Muka. It appears to consist almost entirely of raised coral, whereas the northern island contains hard crystalline rocks. The shores were a range of low limestone cliffs, worn out by the water, so that the upper part generally overhung. At distant intervals were little coves and openings, where small streams came down from the interior; and in one of these we landed, pulling our boat up on a patch of white sandy beach. Immediately above was a large newly-made plantation of yams and plantains, and a small hot, which the chief said we might have the use of, if it would do for me. It was quite a dwarf’s house, just eight feet square, raised on posts so that the floor was four and a half feet above the ground, and the highest part of the ridge only five feet above the flour. As I am six feet and an inch in my stockings, I looked at this with some dismay; but finding that the other houses were much further from water, were dreadfully dirty, and were crowded with people, I at once accepted the little one, and determined to make the best of it. At first I thought of taking out the floor, which would leave it high enough to walk in and out without stooping; but then there would not be room enough, so I left it just as it was, had it thoroughly cleaned out, and brought up my baggage. The upper story I used for sleeping in, and for a store-room. In the lower part (which was quite open all round) I fixed up a small table, arranged my boxes, put up hanging-shelves, laid a mat on the ground with my wicker-chair upon it, hung up another mat on the windward side, and then found that, by bending double and carefully creeping in, I could sit on my chair with my head just clear of the ceiling. Here I lived pretty comfortably for six weeks, taking all my meals and doing all my work at my little table, to and from which I had to creep in a semi-horizontal position a dozen times a day; and, after a few severe knocks on the head by suddenly rising from my chair, learnt to accommodate myself to circumstances. We put up a little sloping cooking-but outside, and a bench on which my lads could skin their birds. At night I went up to my little loft, they spread their mats on the, floor below, and we none of us grumbled at our lodgings.

My first business was to send for the men who were accustomed to catch the Birds of Paradise. Several came, and I showed them my hatchets, beads, knives, and handkerchiefs; and explained to them, as well as I could by signs, the price I would give for fresh-killed specimens. It is the universal custom to pay for everything in advance; but only one man ventured on this occasion to take goods to the value of two birds. The rest were suspicious, and wanted to see the result of the first bargain with the strange white man, the only one who had ever come to their island. After three days, my man brought me the first bird — a very fine specimen, and alive, but tied up in a small bag, and consequently its tail and wing feathers very much crushed and injured. I tried to explain to him, and to the others that came with him, that I wanted them as perfect as possible, and that they should either kill them, or keep them on a perch with a string to their leg. As they were now apparently satisfied that all was fair, and that I had no ulterior designs upon them, six others took away goods; some for one bird, some for more, and one for as many as six. They said they had to go a long way for them, and that they would come back as soon as they caught any. At intervals of a few days or a week, some of them would return, bringing me one or more birds; but though they did not bring any more in bags, there was not much improvement in their condition. As they caught them a long way off in the forest, they would scarcely ever come with one, but would tie it by the leg to a stick, and put it in their house till they caught another. The poor creature would make violent efforts to escape, would get among the ashes, or hang suspended by the leg till the limb was swollen and half-putrefied, and sometimes die of starvation and worry. One had its beautiful head all defiled by pitch from a dammar torch; another had been so long dead that its stomach was turning green. Luckily, however, the skin and plumage of these birds is so firm and strong, that they bear washing and cleaning better than almost any other sort; and I was generally able to clean them so well that they did not perceptibly differ from those I had shot myself.

Some few were brought me the same day they were caught, and I had an opportunity of examining them in all their beauty and vivacity. As soon as I found they were generally brought alive, I set one of my men to make a large bamboo cage with troughs for food and water, hoping to be able to keep some of them. I got the natives to bring me branches of a fruit they were very fond of, and I was pleased to find they ate it greedily, and would also take any number of live grasshoppers I gave them, stripping off the legs and wings, and then swallowing them. They drank plenty of water, and were in constant motion, jumping about the cage from perch to perch, clinging on the top and sides, and rarely resting a moment the first day till nightfall. The second day they were always less active, although they would eat as freely as before; and on the morning of the third day they were almost always found dead at the bottom of the cage, without any apparent cause. Some of them ate boiled rice as well as fruit and insects; but after trying many in succession, not one out of ten lived more than three days. The second or third day they would be dull, and in several cases they were seized with convulsions, and fell off the perch, dying a few hours afterwards. I tried immature as well as full-plumaged birds, but with no better success, and at length gave it up as a hopeless task, and confined my attention to preserving specimens in as good a condition as possible.

The Red Birds of Paradise are not shot with blunt arrows, as in the Aru Islands and some parts of New Guinea, but are snared in a very ingenious manner. A large climbing Arum bears a red reticulated fruit, of which the birds are very fond. The hunters fasten this fruit on a stout forked stick, and provide themselves with a fine but strong cord. They then seep out some tree in the forest on which these birds are accustomed to perch, and climbing up it fasten the stick to a branch and arrange the cord in a noose so ingeniously, that when the bird comes to eat the fruit its legs are caught, and by pulling the end of the cord, which hangs down to the ground, it comes free from the branch and brings down the bird. Sometimes, when food is abundant elsewhere, the hunter sits from morning till night under his tree with the cord in his hand, and even for two or three whole days in succession, without even getting a bite; while, on the other hand, if very lucky, he may get two or three birds in a day. There are only eight or ten men at Bessir who practise this art, which is unknown anywhere else in the island. I determined, therefore, to stay as long as possible, as my only chance of getting a good series of specimens; and although I was nearly starved, everything eatable by civilized man being scarce or altogether absent, I finally succeeded.

The vegetables and fruit in the plantations around us did not suffice for the wants of the inhabitants, and were almost always dug up or gathered before they were ripe. It was very rarely we could purchase a little fish; fowls there were none; and we were reduced to live upon tough pigeons and cockatoos, with our rice and sago, and sometimes we could not get these. Having been already eight months on this voyage, my stock of all condiments, spices and butter, was exhausted, and I found it impossible to eat sufficient of my tasteless and unpalatable food to support health. I got very thin and weak, and had a curious disease known (I have since heard) as brow-ague. Directly after breakfast every morning an intense pain set in on a small spot on the right temple. It was a severe burning ache, as bad as the worst toothache, and lasted about two hours, generally going off at noon. When this finally ceased, I had an attack of fever, which left me so weak and so unable to eat our regular food, that I feel sure my life was saved by a couple of tins of soup which I had long reserved for some such extremity. I used often to go out searching after vegetables, and found a great treasure in a lot of tomato plants run wild, and bearing little fruits about the size of gooseberries. I also boiled up the tops of pumpkin plants and of ferns, by way of greens, and occasionally got a few green papaws. The natives, when hard up for food, live upon a fleshy seaweed, which they boil till it is tender. I tried this also, but found it too salt and bitter to be endured.

Towards the end of September it became absolutely necessary for me to return, in order to make our homeward voyage before the end of the east monsoon. Most of the men who had taken payment from me had brought the birds they had agreed for. One poor fellow had been so unfortunate as not to get one, and he very honestly brought back the axe he had received in advance; another, who had agreed for six, brought me the fifth two days before I was to start, and went off immediately to the forest again to get the other. He did not return, however, and we loaded our boat, and were just on the point of starting, when he came running down after us holding up a bird, which he handed to me, saying with great satisfaction, “Now I owe you nothing.” These were remarkable and quite unexpected instances of honesty among savages, where it would have been very easy for them to have been dishonest without fear of detection or punishment.

The country round about Bessir was very hilly and rugged, bristling with jagged and honey-combed coralline rocks, and with curious little chasms and ravines. The paths often passed through these rocky clefts, which in the depths of the forest were gloomy and dark in the extreme, and often full of fine-leaved herbaceous plants and curious blue-foliaged Lycopodiaceae. It was in such places as these that I obtained many of my most beautiful small butterflies, such as Sospita statira and Taxila pulchra, the gorgeous blue Amblypodia hercules, and many others. On the skirts of the plantations I found the handsome blue Deudorix despoena, and in the shady woods the lovely Lycaena wallacei. Here, too, I obtained the beautiful Thyca aruna, of the richest orange on the upper side; while below it is intense crimson and glossy black; and a superb specimen of a green Ornithoptera, absolutely fresh and perfect, and which still remains one of the glories of my cabinet.

My collection of birds, though not very rich in number of species, was yet very interesting. I got another specimen of the rare New Guinea kite (Henicopernis longicauda), a large new goatsucker (Podargus superciliaris), and a most curious ground-pigeon of an entirely new genus, and remarkable for its long and powerful bill. It has been named Henicophaps albifrons. I was also much pleased to obtain a fine series of a large fruit-pigeon with a protuberance on the bill (Carpophaga tumida), and to ascertain that this was not, as had been hitherto supposed, a sexual character, but was found equally in male and female birds. I collected only seventy-three species of birds in Waigiou, but twelve of them were entirely new, and many others very rare; and as I brought away with me twenty-four fine specimens of the Paradisea rubra, I did not regret my visit to the island, although it had by no means answered my expectations.

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