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43-471 Letters from James Motley, Esq. TO W. MITTEN, ESQ.2 Singapore, 18543. Mv dear Mitten,-When I last wrote you, I promised to give you some account of my late trip to Sumatra, and I now sit down to fulfil that promise. The river I went up, the Indragiri, joins the sea on the east coast of Sumatra in about 35' south. It has four or five mouths, all of the size of large rivers, and between them are large islands, perfectly flat and hardly above water, covered with Nipa Palm4, Mangroves5, Avicennia6, and other such amphibious plants; if there is anything else in the centre of them, which is unlikely, it will never be known, for they are too large to traverse in a day, and no human being could live a night in them from mosquitoes and miasma, though they are inhabited by myriads of wild pigs and monkeys. As you get a little further inland, these plants give way to another species of Mangrove, a very elegant plant, with long drooping branches like a willow, and rose-coloured flowers, which bears an eatable acid fruit, and grows in the water like Mangrove; it is an Anacardiaceous7 plant, with corky-skinned fruit, and very venomous juice. A little palmate-leaved Palm8 is also very common, and a few Orchideae9 begin to appear on the trees; this is the region of the freshwater tide, after passing which, a marked difference takes place in the vegetation, from the absence of the Anacardiaceous plant, whose bright red young leaves make it very conspicuous. The banks are now fringed chiefly with two or three species of Arundo10 and Saccharum11, mingled with several species of Phyllanthus12, in habit very much like willows, the whole matted together with Ipomoeae13, a small Cucumis14, and a weedy-looking Cissus15, or something of that kind. Plants here are very social in their habits. After the river's bank has been clothed for a mile or two as described, the grasses and climbers will vanish for a similar distance, giving place to a dense thicket of Hibiscus populneus16, one of the most beautiful plants we have; though very common; the flowers are large, golden yellow, with a deep puce centre; they are however in beauty early in the morning only, unless on a cloudy day, fading after a few hours' sunshine to a dingy dirty red. This in its turn will give way to a species of Pandanus17 with long straight trunks, ten or twelve feet high, and very glaucous leaves; and here and there, where the bank has slipped down into the stream with the waterside vegetation, you get a glimpse, among the tall trunks, green and grey with Lichens and Hepaticae18, into the dark, swampy forest, tangled with huge creepers, and reeking with vapour. I always used to contrive, if possible, to stop at one of these places to cook, because elsewhere I could not get into the jungle. But except Cryptogams19 there is little to be seen; below, Pipers20, Pothos21 and Freycinetias22 are the principal visible plants, sticking close to the trees, and a few Arums and Scitamineae23 are generally to be found growing in the mud and water. I got however a few Mosses and abundance of Hepaticeae, but rarely in fruit; some of the latter, growing upon living leaves, are very curious. We went up the river four days before coming to any houses, which with their rice clearings materially altered the landscape; but there was not a hill to be seen two feet above the water. The people are all Malays and Mahommedans, and are well off, and apparently happy. At this part of the river the prevailing features are the Cocoa-nut24 and Gomuti25 Palms, and vast plantations or rather jungles of Plantains26; these are generally of a coarse seedy kind, but contain a great deal of farina, and are most valued as food, not as a luxury; whenever they are planted, they soon take possession of the ground, to the exclusion of everything else, and are very ornamental, as they grow to a great height and size. A vast variety of fruit-trees are cultivated, but very few vegetables; some species of Luffa and Cucumis, the common red Pumpkin, some Capsicums, and one or two species of Celosia and Amaranthus, used as spinach, are nearly all, except, of course, Yams and Sweet Potatoes, which are universal here. Of sweet-scented flowers, such as Jasmines, Michelia, Tabernaemontana, and several strong-scented Anonaceae, they are very fond; the Tuberose is a prime favourite, but Roses are in no esteem--they are not strong enough for Malay organs. They make amends however for the paucity of their flower-gardens by cultivating a great abundance of
medicinal plants of real or fancied virtues, and about these they are never tired of talking; most of their properties are rather magical than remedial. The object of my journey was to examine some beds of coal; so when I reached the Rajah's town27, I asked him for a boat and men, mine being too big to go up the rivers. After the two or three days' delay, without which no Malay ever did or can do anything, I got them, and away we went. It was a small canoe, about eighteen feet long, and just wide enough for two people to lie down abreast, rather closely packed; in this there were nine of us, so you may believe it was rather close work, but it was a delightful trip. We went up a smaller river, called Chenaku; it was at first a black, alligatorish-looking stream, fringed chiefly with a Ficus with small oval polished leaves and little pink fruit, whose pendent roots dropped everywhere into the stream, which for a long distance was very tortuous. The jungle here was very fine, the most striking tree being an enormous Terminalia28, with a candelabriform head, and a tall smooth trunk; this and an equally large Dipteraceous tree were the most common. Calami29 were in great abundance, and some very handsome: I counted sixteen species, and nearly all different to those I knew at Labuan. There was also a splendid caulescent Palm, called Ibul, with a very tall straight stem, as white as ivory, and a noble light green head, but this we did not see until we got to the hills, nearly one hundred miles from the sea. Two species of Caloplyllum were very abundant, and, being covered with blossom, completely perfumed the air with the scent of Rosa canina30; a splendid scarlet Ixora31, and a climbing sensitive Mimosa32, with yellow-white stamens, four inches long, were among the most ornamental plants I saw; another, of which I sent seeds to Kew, was a Cucurbitaceous plant, with large brilliant scarlet fruit. The river, after going up about three days, had become shallow and rapid, so as to make the navigation of our canoe rather hazardous at times, though the only risk was of a bath in the bright cold water, bubbling over a bed of white quartz pebbles, the very beau idéal of a trout-stream, and swarming with fish. Wherever the rocks came down to the water, they were covered with Ferns, many of them very beautiful, and I saw some majestic Tree Ferns here and there, but I had no means of drying them. Nothing is more remarkable than the wonderful quantity of fruit up this river, especially the celebrated Durian33; my boat's crew almost lived upon them; they were so abundant as to be of no value, and we went ashore and helped ourselves, before the people's eyes, to the produce of their gardens, which was literally rotting in heaps. The Rambutan34, and six or seven other species of Nephelium, were in equal profusion, as were also near a dozen Meliaceae35. A very abundant creeper was the India-rubber-producing Urceola36; its fruit is about the size of an orange, and colour of an apricot, the thick outer skin full of milky juice, while within are about eight or ten seeds, enveloped in a tawny pulp, tasting like well-bletted Medlars ; the natives use the juice only for bird-lime. I came across two curious Scitamineae, one with small yellow flowers, which were generally abortive, their place being supplied by a small tuber, which drops and grows; the other, a dazzling little plant, only a few inches high, with a large bunch of scarlet and yellow flowers and bracts. Another curious plant of this tribe has large tufts of barren leafy stems seven or eight feet high, while the small red flowers hardly peep out of the ground, at several feet distance. The people here are probably aborigines, but have become Mahommedans, and call themselves Malays; they are very industrious cultivators and gutta-percha collectors, but though I was just in the district, I could not get them to show me the trees; they also procure Gum Benjamin 37; this I saw, and procured some seeds, which I have sent to Kew. They cultivate Coffee, but do not use the berry; they make a infusion of the parched leaf, which is very pleasant and refreshing; of this prepared leaf I also sent home a specimen. I suppose there is no such country in the world for sporting as Sumatra; elephants go about in large herds, and deer, bears, tigers, pigs, and rhinoceros are quite common. Should I go there to work this coal, which is very possible, I shall, I suppose, become quite a Nimrod38. The coal I saw was very good, and very easily to be worked, but unfortunately a long way from the sea. Do you think a collection of Grasses and Cyperaceae39 would interest Botanists? They are very abundant here; I think I could certainly get 150 species, probably more. I have indeed begun to
collect specimens enough for twenty to twenty-five sets, and as I do this in my morning walks, which, without some such object, would become very irksome, there will be nothing lost if it will not succeed; if however you think it would do, I should feel much obliged if you would be my agent in the matter, and make the necessary announcements, for I should think it would be best to send home the first hundred or so, as soon as collected; in the meantime I will go on for my own amusement. The collection of Mosses, Hepaticae, and Lichens which I am making, accumulates slowly, as there are but few species, and those not easy to get in fruit, but I keep adding one now and then: they now number about twenty species, but all are good specimens in a good state.-J. M.
1 Transcribed, annotated, and hyperlinked by Martin Laverty, July 2010 2 William Mitten (1819-1906), a bryologist (and father-in-law, from 1866, of A.R.Wallace) 3 Two letters to Hooker written later, in March and June 1855, show that the journey set off from Singapore on 24 January and left Rengat for the Chenaku on 3 February, at which point that letter leaves off. 4 Nipa, mangrove palm 5 Mangrove, a more or less generic name 6 Avicennia, a genus including the black mangrove 7 Anacardiaceous, member of Anacardiaceae family, which includes cashews, mangos, and sumacs 8 Palm, 9 Orchideae, or orchidaceae, the orchids 10 Arundo, a cane grass 11 Saccharum, sugarcane 12 Phyllanthus, or leafflower genus 13 Ipomoeae, or Ipomoea, bindweed (morning glory) 14 Cucumis, melons and cucumbers 15 Cissus, vines 16 Hibiscus populneus, now a synonym of Thespesia populnea 17 Pandanus, screw-pines 18 Hepaticae, now known as Marchantiophyta, or liverworts 19 Cryptogams, plants reproducing via spores: algae, lichens, mosses, and ferns 20 Pipers, pepper vines 21 Pothos, a genus of root climber in the arum family. P.motleyanus Schott was named after Motley in 1856: Kew has type specimens which show that he had found it in Labuan (not Kalimantan as other records show; also, Barber bought some of his specimens when he left) 22 Freycinetias, a genus of screw pine 23 Scitamineae, 24 Cocoa-nut, or coconut 25 Gomuti Palm 26 Plantains, bananas, generally for cooking 27 Named in the later letter to W.J.Hooker as Rengat 28 Terminalia, 29 Calami, rattans 30 Rosa canina, dog rose (used as an example, not actually there) 31 Ixora, 32 Mimosa, 33 Durian: remarkably, for a European, Motley makes no comment on its smell 34 Rambutan, a fruit 35 Meliaceae, the mahogony family 36 Urceola is now a genus of fungi; this might be Ficus elastica? 37 Gum Benjamin, benzoin or Styrax resin, aromatic 38 Nimrod, sensu mighty hunter 39 Cyperaceae, the sedge family
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