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E.Sumatra -1854

E.Sumatra -1854

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Published by Martin Laverty
James Motley reports on natural history and geography on a job-hunting journey to the Indragiri river in eastern Sumatra
James Motley reports on natural history and geography on a job-hunting journey to the Indragiri river in eastern Sumatra

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Published by: Martin Laverty on Jul 13, 2010
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12/28/2010

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Hooker's Journal of Botany & Kew Garden Miscellany Vol VII (1855) pp 257-269, 289-296
1
 
 Notes written on a Voyage from Singapore to Banjermassing, in thesouthern extremity of Borneo; in a letter from JAMES MOTLEY, E
SQ
.
2
,to Sir, W. J. HOOKER.Machipora
3
(Banjermassing, S. Borneo), March, 1855.When I last wrote to you I gave you an account of my first attempt to reach Sumatra
4
, when Iwas obliged to return to Singapore for a larger boat. I started again on the 24th of January with aBugis prahu, of about four tons' burden, and six men besides my servant. I slept that night at a smallsettlement among the islands, which I have already described to you; and next day, about ten A.M.,I got clear of the Archipelago and sailed down the coast of Sumatra: it is a mere line of low trees,and, as far as I could see, when the high water allowed us to approach it, of one species only,
 AEgiceras majus
5
 I believe, called in Malay “Api Api." The natives assured me that for miles alongthe coast no other plant is seen, except in the creeks, where there is a little mixture of fresh water.The shore is exceedingly flat, of mud so soft that it is hard to say where it ends and the water  begins. Though the rise and fall of the tide is not more than six feet, the beach dries for some milesout, and we were aground at low water, where we could only see the trees like a dark line on thehorizon; indeed about 150 miles to the southward the coast has literally never been seen from thesea, even by the surveyors who made the charts, from the impossibility of approaching it in a boatsufficiently near. Not a break nor a hillock could be seen nor indeed does one exist on the wholeline of coast for fifty miles. The country can hardly be said to be dry land, and the whole coast isnotoriously unhealthy, and swarms with tigers and other wild beasts. At ten P.M. we anchored juston the equator, off Taryong Daloo
6
,close to which the water is perhaps deeper, and there is probably a reef of coral, as the sea made a great noise all night.25th. We had no wind this morning, but being high water we pulled along close under the ApiApi jungle. The number of birds here is astonishing : there were flocks of sandpipers and plovers,which must have consisted of hundreds of thousands of individuals, looking at a distance like largeclouds, and completely whitening the jungle where they perched. Of herons I counted nine species;all around us were fishing innumerable terns, of two species; knee-deep in the water, close under the bushes, stood long rows of tall black and white ibises, looking like soldiers at drill, their headslaid back, their long flesh-coloured beaks resting on their white breasts; and every moment brilliantkingfishers glanced in and out among the trees.About ten A.M. we came up to a tribe of a very singular race of Malays, the Orang Laut, or Menof the Sea; though they might with greater propriety be called men of the mud. There are said to benine tribes of them; they live entirely in their boats, never quitting the coast, but moving up anddown over a certain district at the rate of a mile or two each day. The Malays of Singapore and thenatives of Singu Rhio and the interior of Sumatra come here to trade with them, exchanging rice,cloth, sago, and salt, for dried fish and Karang, a species of 
 Arca
much used for food, and the shellsof which are supposed to yield the purest and best lime for eating with the sirik 
8
and areca
9
nut.They speak a little Malay, but have also a peculiar dialect of their own, which few of the Malaysunderstand; and they are exceedingly averse to associating with other people, or marrying out of their own tribe. They differ a little in physiognomy from the Malays generally, the lower jaw beingnarrower, and the alae of the nose suddenly enlarged, as in the Papuans. A good many of the menhad, for Malays, very strong black beards, and, though short, they are well formed; the calf of theleg is low down, large and decurrent; the shoulders high and broad and the fore-arm muscular andwell-developed. They are professedly Mahometans ,but know very little about it, and retain many pagan customs, such as faith in augury, offering libations to spirits, etc., like the Dyaks of Borneo.Their language is said to resemble that of the Battas of the interior of Sumatra, a people I have notyet met with. This tribe was divided into two Kampongs, or villages as they call then, one of twenty,the other of about fifty boats of various sizes, and may have consisted of 300 to 400 persons. The
 
smaller boats were laden with their fishing apparatus, to be hereafter described, and the larger formed their habitations These boats are sheathed with thin planks or with the bark of themangrove, to protect them from the Kapang, or teredo
, so destructive in these seas; the longestwere perhaps forty feet long, and of three or four tons' burden. A sort of house, not high enough tostand in, is constructed over the whole length of the boat, to the ridge-pole of which are usuallysuspended two or three infants swinging in small hammocks. The sides and roofs of these housesare completely covered with fish, split open and drying in the sun, giving out a horrible stench, andattracting a vast number of hawks, who sailed round and round, swooping every now and then at thetempting morsels, and succeeded occasionally in carrying a piece off, in spite of the numerousnaked urchins who kept guard with long sticks. There were four species of these birds, the mostnumerous being the red Brahminee kite
of India : they were perfectly fearless, sweeping past closeto one's head; and it was interesting to watch them devouring their prey on the wing, and really picking out the pieces of meat with their beaks from between their clenched talons. There wereseveral Singapore prahus in company with these people, waiting to buy fish. As we rowed past, anextremely filthy old savage, who called himself Orang Kaya, or chief, came on board; he told usthat his office was hereditary, and that every man of his family bore the same name, Pulek. He toldme that his people sometimes entered the rivers, but only far enough to get fresh water to drink,which he said was very good. I felt somewhat interested about this matter, as I began to suspect weshould be some time in reaching Indragiri, so I asked him to let me see it. He fetched a cupfull fromhis boat: it was muddy, nearly black, and not brackish, but so actually salt that I could not touch it;yet he drank it with great relish, and said it was better than the clear water we had brought fromSingapore: so much will habit do in modifying human tastes. I exchanged with him some tobaccoand an old pair of trowsers, to which he took a great fancy, for a bundle of dried fish for the boatmen; and after a most barefaced attempt steal my short clay pipe (a high crime, for it was theonly one I had with me), he took his leave, and we pulled on. We soon got aground however, aboutmile from the trees, and were of course obliged wait for the tide. Shortly afterwards the whole tribewas in motion, following us, and they moored themselves to poles stuck in the mud in a long line,of which our boat was nearly the centre. They now began to prepare their balat, or fishing weir; itwas a sort of flexible paling, made of strips of bamboo, an inch wide and four or five feet long,fastened together by the twisted stems of a species of 
Cissus
(ths material, like their boat they getfrom the Malays). This paling is doubled up and piled upon the small boats before mentioned, inlengths of 100 to 200 feet in each boat, and from these it is shot like a seine net, when the tide begins to ebb, in about six feet water, and in a line parallel with the shore; as fast as one boat wasexhausted another was brought up, and a fresh length joined on. A number of boys followed the boats, swimming, and with their feet striking the bamboos upright in the mud in a perfectly straightline, though it was impossible to see an inch into the muddy water. In a quarter of an hour they hadlaid down more than half a mile, besides a long piece at each end, at right angles to the main line,and moving up to the shore, enclosing altogether perhaps fifty or sixty acres of water. As soon asthe water had ebbed far enough to allow the wakes of the larger fish to be seen as they swam aboutin this enclosure, the boys, taking advantage of the now unoccupied canoes, went paddling aboutafter them with great agility, holding a long light spear, with the head of the paddle in the righthand, and seldom failing to transfix, even from considerable distance, any unfortunate fish whoventured near enough to the surface to show his back free for a moment. When the water was aboutthree feet deep, and the tops of the bamboos sufficiently above water effectually to confine the fish,the men began their work in good earnest. The fish, in their efforts to escape to deeper water,travelled along the inside of the enclosure, close to the bamboos, and the fishermen accordinglystationed themselves at intervals of about twelve or fourteen yards, with a large bag-net openagainst the set of the tide; the water is so muddy that the fish cannot see this net before they strike it,when it is immediately raised, and the captive secured. The mud here is so excessively soft, that it isimpossible to walk or even to stand upon it; and therefore every man, woman, and child is providedwith a strange instrument of locomotion, without which life would be impossible for these people; itis called "tongka," and is merely a piece of plank, about four feet long, and eighteen inches wide,
 
rounded and slightly turned up at each end. I was much puzzled at first to imagine what these planks could be, of which I saw so many in every boat; but when the tide went down the mysterywas soon solved. Supported on the hands and one knee on the "tongka," they paddled with the other foot in the mud, and skimmed over the surface with most wonderful rapidity, making the mud andwater fly in all directions, and bespattering one another from head to foot with filth, which of course cannot be washed off again until the tide rises, - a matter which distresses them but little. A brisk intercourse was now kept up from boat to boat by this means, and you can conceive nothingmore absurd than the attitudes and action; it all looked natural enough as long as it was confined tothe naked children, but to see grey-headed old men and women scuttling away among the sludge,and plastered with mud all over their grave wrinkled brown faces, was really most ridiculous: theylooked so very little like human beings, that I felt almost surprised to hear them speak. From thismode of life the women are obliged to wear most grotesquely short drapery, not reaching their knees; and the upper part of their dress being in the usual Malay style, this too gives them a veryodd appearance. The quantity of fish caught was very great, judging by the success of those near me; they were chiefly
Scombridae
and
 Pleuronectidae
,but there were many other species. Twoor three small sharks were taken; their flesh is highly valued. I saw several specimens of a ray,covered with blue spots and with a formidable spine near the base of bis long filiform tail: this fishis much dreaded by the natives, and with good reason; it is exceedingly venomous. I have seen aEuropean at Labuan suffer for twenty-four hours intense pain from a scarcely visible puncture in theankle from one of these fish; the pain was accompanied by vomiting, shivering, spasms, and other symptoms of poisoning; it was followed by extensive ecchymosis
up to the thigh, swelling andsuppuration of the glands of the groin and axillae, and great general constitutional disturbance; andthe wound was five months in healing, after forming several deep-seated abscesses and sloughingextensively. Several flat-tailed sea snakes of a dingy grey colour, called Maroke, were within theweir; the natives say they are very poisonous, which I have reason to believe, but they refused to letme kill one, saying it would bring
cheloka
, or ill-luck, to their fishing; they were gently raised in thehand-net and put outside the enclosure. A small alligator was hotly chased, but he broke through theweir and escaped to sea. Great number of fish were rejected, among them two species of 
Syngnathus
, one very large, and all the
Chaetodon
tribe, some very curious and beautiful; but Ihad with me no means of preserving them. The natives believe them all to be poisonous; a vastnumber of shrimp, prawns, squillae, and other crustacea were also rejected, not, as the people said, because they were not good, but because they had plenty of fish without them. An ichthyologistwho did not mind roughing it a little, and who would follow these people for a week, would reap arich harvest indeed. I was told hat the weir was the common property of the tribe, but that everyman fished in it on his own account. When the mud was quite dry, or as nearly so as it could be,countless multitudes of small crabs, of five or six species made their appearance, and were inconstant motion, raking over the semi-liquid mud with their claws and feet, and every now and thenraising themselves on four feet above the surface, and spreading their extended chelae in the air. Igot two or three specimens of a little varnished black 
Mitra
, crawling on the mud, but no other shells, except the
 Arca
before mentioned. It rained heavily all the afternoon, and when during thenight the tide rose and floated us, we had a strong head wind; so we were obliged to remain wherewe were until morning, only going out into deeper water.26th. Got under weigh this morning at five A.M., with a fine fair wind, and stood across thenorthern part of Amphitrite Bay
, as it is called on the charts. The shore is still of the samecharacter, but we were not so near it. I saw many wide gaps in the line of trees, being the mouths of considerable rivers or creeks, all named correctly and with minuteness on the Dutch charts; in spiteof all this correctness, there is a small but very conspicuous island off a point named JangongKangka
, which is not laid down at all. It is a mere mud bank, covered with Api Api trees, and iscalled Pulo Barang, or Mud Island; and I am inclined to look upon it as a proof, if indeed one wereneeded, of the extremely rapid growth of the land on this coast. The survey is some fifteen or sixteen years old, and the island must have been all day long, for weeks, before the eyes of allemployed, had it existed at that time; it is besides visible from so many points, and is so well

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