The Malay Archipelago, by Alfred Russel Wallace

Chapter 8


(NOVEMBER 1861 to JANUARY 1862.)

The mail steamer from Batavia to Singapore took me to Muntok (or as on English maps, “Minto”), the chief town and port of Banca. Here I stayed a day or two, until I could obtain a boat to take me across the straits, and all the river to Palembang. A few walks into the country showed me that it was very hilly, and full of granitic and laterite rocks, with a dry and stunted forest vegetation; and I could find very few insects. A good-sized open sailing-boat took me across to the mouth of the Palembang river where, at a fishing village, a rowing-boat was hired to take me up to Palembang — a distance of nearly a hundred miles by water. Except when the wind was strong and favourable we could only proceed with the tide, and the banks of the river were generally flooded Nipa-swamps, so that the hours we were obliged to lay at anchor passed very heavily. Reaching Palembang on the 8th of November, I was lodged by the Doctor, to whom I had brought a letter of introduction, and endeavoured to ascertain where I could find a good locality for collecting. Everyone assured me that I should have to go a very long way further to find any dry forest, for at this season the whole country for many miles inland was flooded. I therefore had to stay a week at Palembang before I could determine my future movements.

The city is a large one, extending for three or four miles along a fine curve of the river, which is as wide as the Thames at Greenwich. The stream is, however, much narrowed by the houses which project into it upon piles, and within these, again, there is a row of houses built upon great bamboo rafts, which are moored by rattan cables to the shore or to piles, and rise and fall with the tide.

The whole riverfront on both sides is chiefly formed of such houses, and they are mostly shops open to the water, and only raised a foot above it, so that by taking a small boat it is easy to go to market and purchase anything that is to be had in Palembang. The natives are true Malays, never building a house on dry land if they can find water to set it in, and never going anywhere on foot if they can reach the place in a heat. A considerable portion of the population are Chinese and Arabs, who carry on all the trade; while the only Europeans are the civil and military officials of the Dutch Government. The town is situated at the head of the delta of the river, and between it and the sea there is very little ground elevated above highwater mark; while for many miles further inland, the banks of the main stream and its numerous tributaries are swampy, and in the wet season hooded for a considerable distance. Palembang is built on a patch of elevated ground, a few miles in extent, on the north bank of the river. At a spot about three miles from the town this turns into a little hill, the top of which is held sacred by the natives, shaded by some fine trees,and inhabited by a colony of squirrels which have become half-tame. On holding out a few crumbs of bread or any fruit, they come running down the trunk, take the morsel out of your fingers, and dart away instantly. Their tails are carried erect, and the hair, which is ringed with grey, yellow, and brown, radiates uniformly around them, and looks exceedingly pretty. They have somewhat of the motions of mice, coming on with little starts, and gazing intently with their large black eyes before venturing to advance further. The manner in which Malays often obtain the confidence of wild animals is a very pleasing trait in their character, and is due in some degree to the quiet deliberation of their manners, and their love of repose rather than of action. The young are obedient to the wishes of their elders, and seem to feel none of that propensity to mischief which European boys exhibit. How long would tame squirrels continue to inhabit trees in the vicinity of an English village, even if close to the church? They would soon be pelted and driven away, or snared and confined in a whirling cage. I have never heard of these pretty animals being tamed in this way in England, but I should think it might be easily done in any gentleman’s park, and they would certainly be as pleasing and attractive as they would be uncommon.

After many inquiries, I found that a day’s journey by water above Palembang there commenced a military road which extended up to the mountains and even across to Bencoolen, and I determined to take this route and travel on until I found some tolerable collecting ground. By this means I should secure dry land and a good road, and avoid the rivers, which at this season are very tedious to ascend owing to the powerful currents, and very unproductive to the collector owing to most of the lands in their vicinity being underwater. Leaving early in the morning we did not reach Lorok, the village where the road begins, until late at night. I stayed there a few days, but found that most all the ground in the vicinity not underwater was cultivated, and that the only forest was in swamps which were now inaccessible. The only bird new to me which I obtained at Lorok was the fine long-tailed parroquet (Palaeornis longicauda). The people here assured me that the country was just the same as this for a very long way — more than a week’s journey, and they seemed hardly to have any conception of an elevated forest-clad country, so that I began to think it would be useless going on, as the time at my disposal was too short to make it worth my while to spend much more of it in moving about. At length, however, I found a man who knew the country, and was more intelligent; and he at once told me that if I wanted forest I must go to the district of Rembang, which I found on inquiry was about twenty-five or thirty miles off.

The road is divided into regular stages of ten or twelve miles each, and, without sending on in advance to have coolies ready, only this distance can be travelled in a day. At each station there are houses for the accommodation of passengers, with cooking-house and stables, and six or eight men always on guard. There is an established system for coolies at fixed rates, the inhabitants of the surrounding villages all taking their turn to be subject to coolie service, as well as that of guards at the station for five days at a time. This arrangement makes travelling very easy, and was a great convenience for me. I had a pleasant walk of ten or twelve miles in the morning, and the rest of the day could stroll about and explore the village and neighbourhood, having a house ready to occupy without any formalities whatever. In three days I reached Moera-dua, the first village in Rembang, and finding the country dry and undulating, with a good sprinkling of forest, I determined to remain a short time and try the neighbourhood. Just opposite the station was a small but deep river, and a good bathing-place; and beyond the village was a fine patch of forest, through which the road passed, overshadowed by magnificent trees, which partly tempted me to stay; but after a fortnight I could find no good place for insects, and very few birds different from the common species of Malacca. I therefore moved on another stage to Lobo Raman, where the guard-house is situated quite by itself in the forest, nearly a mile from each of three villages. This was very agreeable to me, as I could move about without having every motion watched by crowds of men, women and children, and I had also a much greater variety of walks to each of the villages and the plantations around them.

The villages of the Sumatran Malays are somewhat peculiar and very picturesque. A space of some acres is surrounded with a high fence, and over this area the houses are thickly strewn without the least attempt at regularity. Tall cocoa-nut trees grow abundantly between them, and the ground is bare and smooth with the trampling of many feet. The houses are raised about six feet on posts, the best being entirely built of planks, others of bamboo. The former are always more or less ornamented with carving and have high-pitched roofs and overhanging eaves. The gable ends and all the chief posts and beams are sometimes covered with exceedingly tasteful carved work, and this is still more the case in the district of Menangkabo, further west. The floor is made of split bamboo, and is rather shaky, and there is no sign of anything we should call furniture. There are no benches or chairs or stools, but merely the level floor covered with mats, on which the inmates sit or lie. The aspect of the village itself is very neat, the ground being often swept before the chief houses; but very bad odours abound, owing to there being under every house a stinking mud-hole, formed by all waste liquids and refuse matter, poured down through the floor above. In most other things Malays are tolerably clean — in some scrupulously so; and this peculiar and nasty custom, which is almost universal, arises, I have little doubt, from their having been originally a maritime and water-loving people, who built their houses on posts in the water, and only migrated gradually inland, first up the rivers and streams, and then into the dry interior. Habits which were at once so convenient and so cleanly, and which had been so long practised as to become a portion of the domestic life of the nation, were of course continued when the first settlers built their houses inland; and without a regular system of drainage, the arrangement of the villages is such that any other system would be very inconvenient.

In all these Sumatran villages I found considerable difficulty in getting anything to eat. It was not the season for vegetables, and when, after much trouble, I managed to procure some yams of a curious variety, I found them hard and scarcely eatable. Fowls were very scarce; and fruit was reduced to one of the poorest kinds of banana. The natives (during the wet season at least) live exclusively on rice, as the poorer Irish do on potatoes. A pot of rice cooked very dry and eaten with salt and red peppers, twice a day, forms their entire food during a large part of the year. This is no sign of poverty, but is simply custom; for their wives and children are loaded with silver armlets from wrist to elbow, and carry dozens of silver coins strung round their necks or suspended from their ears.

As I had moved away from Palembang, I had found the Malay spoken by the common people less and less pure, until at length it became quite unintelligible, although the continual recurrence of many well-known words assured me it was a form of Malay, and enabled me to guess at the main subject of conversation. This district had a very bad reputation a few years ago, and travellers were frequently robbed and murdered. Fights between village and village were also of frequent occurrence, and many lives were lost, owing to disputes about boundaries or intrigues with women. Now, however, since the country has been divided into districts under “Controlleurs,” who visit every village in turn to hear complaints and settle disputes, such things are heard of no more. This is one of the numerous examples I have met with of the good effects of the Dutch Government. It exercises a strict surveillance over its most distant possessions, establishes a form of government well adapted to the character of the people, reforms abuses, punishes crimes, and makes itself everywhere respected by the native population.

Lobo Raman is a central point of the east end of Sumatra, being about a hundred and twenty miles from the sea to the east, north, and west. The surface is undulating, with no mountains or even hills, and there is no rock, the soil being generally a red pliable clay. Numbers of small streams and rivers intersect the country, and it is pretty equally divided between open clearings and patches of forest, both virgin and second growth, with abundance of fruit trees; and there is no lack of paths to get about in any direction. Altogether it is the very country that would promise most for a naturalist, and I feel sure that at a more favourable time of year it would prove exceedingly rich; but it was now the rainy season, when, in the very best of localities, insects are always scarce, and there being no fruit on the trees, there was also a scarcity of birds. During a month’s collecting, I added only three or four new species to my list of birds, although I obtained very fine specimens of many which were rare and interesting. In butterflies I was rather more successful, obtaining several fine species quite new to me, and a considerable number of very rare and beautiful insects. I will give here some account of two species of butterflies, which, though very common in collections, present us with peculiarities of the highest interest.

The first is the handsome Papilio memnon, a splendid butterfly of a deep black colour, dotted over with lines and groups of scales of a clear ashy blue. Its wings are five inches in expanse, and the hind wings are rounded, with scalloped edges. This applies to the males; but the females are very different, and vary so much that they were once supposed to form several distinct species. They may be divided into two groups — those which resemble the male in shape, and, those which differ entirely from him in the outline of the wings. The first vary much in colour, being often nearly white with dusky yellow and red markings, but such differences often occur in butterflies. The second group are much more extraordinary, and would never be supposed to be the same insect, since the hind wings are lengthened out into large spoon-shaped tails, no rudiment of which is ever to be perceived in the males or in the ordinary form of females. These tailed females are never of the dark and blue-glossed tints which prevail in the male and often occur in the females of the same form, but are invariably ornamented with stripes and patches of white or buff, occupying the larger part of the surface of the hind wings. This peculiarity of colouring led me to discover that this extraordinary female closely resembles (when flying) another butterfly of the same genus but of a different group (Papilio coön), and that we have here a case of mimicry similar to those so well illustrated and explained by Mr. Bates. [Trans. Linn. Soc. vol. xviii. p. 495; “Naturalist on the Amazons,” vol. i. p. 290.]

That the resemblance is not accidental is sufficiently proved by the fact, that in the North of India, where Papilio coön is replaced by all allied forms, (Papilio Doubledayi) having red spots in place of yellow, a closely-allied species or variety of Papilio memnon (P. androgens) has the tailed female also red spotted. The use and reason of this resemblance appears to be that the butterflies imitated belong to a section of the genus Papilio which from some cause or other are not attacked by birds, and by so closely resembling these in form and colour the female of Memnon and its ally, also escape persecution. Two other species of this same section (Papilio antiphus and Papilio polyphontes) are so closely imitated by two female forms of Papilio theseus (which comes in the same section with Memnon), that they completely deceived the Dutch entomologist De Haan, and he accordingly classed them as the same species!

But the most curious fact connected with these distinct forms is that they are both the offspring of either form. A single brood of larva were bred in Java by a Dutch entomologist, and produced males as well as tailed and tailless females, and there is every reason to believe that this is always the case, and that forms intermediate in character never occur. To illustrate these phenomena, let us suppose a roaming Englishman in some remote island to have two wives — one a black-haired red-skinned Indian, the other a woolly-headed sooty-skinned negress; and that instead of the children being mulattoes of brown or dusky tints, mingling the characteristics of each parent in varying degrees, all the boys should be as fair-skinned and blue-eyed as their father, while the girls should altogether resemble their mothers. This would be thought strange enough, but the case of these butterflies is yet more extraordinary, for each mother is capable not only of producing male offspring like the father, and female like herself, but also other females like her fellow wife, and altogether differing from herself!

The other species to which I have to direct attention is the Kallima paralekta, a butterfly of the same family group as our Purple Emperor, and of about the same size or larger. Its upper surface is of a rich purple, variously tinged with ash colour, and across the forewings there is a broad bar of deep orange, so that when on the wing it is very conspicuous. This species was not uncommon in dry woods and thickets, and I often endeavoured to capture it without success, for after flying a short distance it would enter a bush among dry or dead leaves, and however carefully I crept up to the spot I could never discover it until it would suddenly start out again and then disappear in a similar place. If at length I was fortunate enough to see the exact spot where the butterfly settled, and though I lost sight of it for some time, I would discover that it was close before my eyes, but that in its position of repose it so closely resembled a dead leaf attached to a twig as almost certainly to deceive the eye even when gazing full upon it. I captured several specimens on the wing, and was able fully to understand the way in which this wonderful resemblance is produced.

The end of the upper wings terminates in a fine point, just as the leaves of many tropical shrubs and trees are pointed, while the lower wings are somewhat more obtuse, and are lengthened out into a short thick tail. Between these two points there runs a dark curved line exactly representing the midrib of a leaf, and from this radiate on each side a few oblique marks which well imitate the lateral veins. These marks are more clearly seen on the outer portion of the base of the wings, and on the innerside towards the middle and apex, and they are produced by striae and markings which are very common in allied species, but which are here modified and strengthened so as to imitate more exactly the venation of a leaf. The tint of the undersurface varies much, but it is always some ashy brown or reddish colour, which matches with those of dead leaves. The habit of the species is always to rest on a twig and among dead or dry leaves, and in this position with the wings closely pressed together, their outline is exactly that of a moderately-sized leaf, slightly curved or shrivelled. The tail of the hind wings forms a perfect stalk, and touches the stick while the insect is supported by the middle pair of legs, which are not noticed among the twigs and fibres that surround it. The head and antennae are drawn back between the wings so as to be quite concealed, and there is a little notch hollowed out at the very base of the wings, which allows the head to be retracted sufficiently. All these varied details combine to produce a disguise that is so complete and marvellous as to astonish everyone who observes it; and the habits of the insects are such as to utilize all these peculiarities, and render them available in such a manner as to remove all doubt of the purpose of this singular case of mimicry, which is undoubtedly a protection to the insect.

Its strong and swift flight is sufficient to save it from its enemies when on the wing, but if it were equally conspicuous when at rest it could not long escape extinction, owing to the attacks of the insectivorous birds and reptiles that abound in the tropical forests. A very closely allied species, Kallima inachis, inhabits India, where it is very common, and specimens are sent in every collection from the Himalayas. On examining a number of these, it will be seen that no two are alike, but all the variations correspond to those of dead leaves. Every tint of yellow, ash, brown, and red is found here, and in many specimens there occur patches and spots formed of small black dots, so closely resembling the way in which minute fungi grow on leaves that it is almost impossible at first not to believe that fungi have gown on the butterflies themselves!

If such an extraordinary adaptation as this stood alone, it would be very difficult to offer any explanation of it; but although it is perhaps the most perfect case of protective imitation known, there are hundreds of similar resemblances in nature, and from these it is possible to deduce a general theory of the manner in which they have been slowly brought about. The principle of variation and that of “natural selection,” or survival of the fittest, as elaborated by Mr. Darwin in his celebrated “Origin of Species,” offers the foundation for such a theory; and I have myself endeavoured to apply it to all the chief cases of imitation in an article published in the “Westminster Review” for 1867, entitled, “Mimicry, and other Protective Resemblances Among Animals,” to which any reader is referred who wishes to know more about this subject.

In Sumatra, monkeys are very abundant, and at Lobo Kaman they used to frequent the trees which overhang the guard-house, and give me a fine opportunity of observing their gambols. Two species of Semnopithecus were most plentiful — monkeys of a slender form, with very long tails. Not being much shot at they are rather bold, and remain quite unconcerned when natives alone are present; but when I came out to look at them, they would stare for a minute or two and then make off. They take tremendous leaps from the branches of one tree to those at another a little lower, and it is very amusing when a one strong leader takes a bold jump, to see the others following with more or less trepidation; and it often happens that one or two of the last seem quite unable to make up their minds to leap until the rest are disappearing, when, as if in desperation at being left alone, they throw themselves frantically into the air, and often go crashing through the slender branches and fall to the ground.

A very curious ape, the Siamang, was also rather abundant, but it is much less bold than the monkeys, keeping to the virgin forests and avoiding villages. This species is allied to the little long-armed apes of the genus Hylobates, but is considerably larger, and differs from them by having the two first fingers of the feet united together, nearly to the endm as does its Latin native, Siamanga syndactyla. It moves much more slowly than the active Hylobates, keeping lower down in trees, and not indulging in such tremendous leaps; but it is still very active, and by means of its immense long arms, five feet six inches across in an adult about three feet high, can swing itself along among the trees at a great rate. I purchased a small one, which had been caught by the natives and tied up so tightly as to hurt it. It was rather savage at first, and tried to bite; but when we had released it and given it two poles under the verandah to hang upon, securing it by a short cord, running along the pole with a ring so that it could move easily, it became more contented, and would swing itself about with great rapidity. It ate almost any kind of fruit and rice, and I was in hopes to have brought it to England, but it died just before I started. It took a dislike to me at first, which I tried to get over by feeding it constantly myself. One day, however, it bit me so sharply while giving it food, that I lost patience and gave it rather a severe beating, which I regretted afterwards, as from that time it disliked me more than ever. It would allow my Malay boys to play with it, and for hours together would swing by its arms from pole to pole and on to the rafters of the verandah, with so much ease and rapidity, that it was a constant source of amusement to us. When I returned to Singapore it attracted great attention, as no one had seen a Siamang alive before, although it is not uncommon in some parts of the Malay peninsula.

As the Orangutan is known to inhabit Sumatra, and was in fact first discovered there, I made many inquiries about it; but none of the natives had ever heard of such an animal, nor could I find any of the Dutch officials who knew anything about it. We may conclude, therefore, that it does not inhabit the great forest plains in the east of Sumatra where one would naturally expect to find it, but is probably confined to a limited region in the northwest part of the island entirely in the hands of native rulers. The other great Mammalia of Sumatra, the elephant and the rhinoceros, are more widely distributed; but the former is much more scarce than it was a few years ago, and seems to retire rapidly before the spread of cultivation. Lobo Kaman tusks and bones are occasionally found about in the forest, but the living animal is now never seen. The rhinoceros (Rhinoceros sumatranus) still abounds, and I continually saw its tracks and its dung, and once disturbed one feeding, which went crashing away through the jungle, only permitting me a momentary glimpse of it through the dense underwood. I obtained a tolerably perfect cranium, and a number of teeth, which were picked up by the natives.

Another curious animal, which I had met with in Singapore and in Borneo, but which was more abundant here, is the Galeopithecus, or flying lemur. This creature has a broad membrane extending all aound its body to the extremities of the toes, and to the point of the rather long tail. This enables it to pass obliquely through the air from one tree to another. It is sluggish in its motions, at least by day, going up a tree by short runs of a few feet, and then stopping a moment as if the action was difficult. It rests during the day clinging to the trunks of trees, where its olive or brown fur, mottled with irregular whitish spots and blotches, resembles closely the colour of mottled bark, and no doubt helps to protect it. Once, in a bright twilight, I saw one of these animals run up a trunk in a rather open place, and then glide obliquely through the air to another tree, on which it alighted near its base, and immediately began to ascend. I paced the distance from the one tree to the other, and found it to be seventy yards; and the amount of descent I estimated at not more than thirty-five or forty feet, or less than one in five. This I think proves that the animal must have some power of guiding itself through the air, otherwise in so long a distance it would have little chance of alighting exactly upon the trunk. Like the Cuscus of the Moluccas, the Galeopithecus feeds chiefly on leaves, and possesses a very voluminous stomach and long convoluted intestines. The brain is very small, and the animal possesses such remarkable tenacity of life, that it is exceedingly difficult to kill it by any ordinary means. The tail is prehensile; and is probably made use of as an additional support while feeding. It is said to have only a single young one at a time, and my own observation confirms this statement, for I once shot a female with a very small blind and naked little creature clinging closely to its breast, which was quite bare and much wrinkled, reminding me of the young of Marsupials, to which it seemed to form a transition. On the back, and extending over the limbs and membrane, the fur of these animals is short, but exquisitely soft, resembling in its texture that of the Chinchilla.

I returned to Palembang by water, and while staying a day at a village while a boat was being made watertight, I had the good fortune to obtain a male, female, and young bird of one of the large hornbills. I had sent my hunters to shoot, and while I was at breakfast they returned, bringing me a fine large male of the Buceros bicornis, which one of them assured me he had shot while feeding the female, which was shut up in a hole in a tree. I had often read of this curious habit, and immediately returned to the place, accompanied by several of the natives. After crossing a stream and a bog, we found a large tree leaning over some water, and on its lower side, at a height of about twenty feet, appeared a small hole, and what looked like a quantity of mud, which I was assured had been used in stopping up the large hole. After a while we heard the harsh cry of a bird inside, and could see the white extremity of its beak put out. I offered a rupee to anyone who would go up and get the bird out, with the egg or young one; but they all declared it was too difficult, and they were afraid to try. I therefore very reluctantly came away. About an hour afterwards, much to my surprise, a tremendous loud, hoarse screaming was heard, and the bird was brought me, together with a young one which had been found in the hole. This was a most curious object, as large as a pigeon, but without a particle of plumage on any part of it. It was exceedingly plump and soft, and with a semi-transparent skin, so that it looked more like a bag of jelly, with head and feet stuck on, than like a real bird.

The extraordinary habit of the male, in plastering up the female with her egg, and feeding her during the whole time of incubation, and until the young one is fledged, is common to several of the large hornbills, and is one of those strange facts in natural history which are “stranger than fiction.”

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