MY FRIENDS THE SAVAGES
BY Captain G. B. CERRUTI
TRANSLATED FROM THE ITALIAN BY I. STONE SANPIETRO
NOTES AND OBSERVATIONS OF A PERAK SETTLER (MALAY PENINSULA). RICHLY ILLUSTRATED WITH ORIGINAL PHOTOGRAPHS TAKEN BY THE AUTHOR.
COMO (Italy) TIPOGRAFIA COOPERATIVA COMENSE 1908
Every copy of this work not bearing the author's signature will be retained by him as an infringement of his rights.
[Signature of author]
These notes, the fruit of much sacrifice, I dedicate to the memory of my dear ones.
The fond embrace of parents and a sister, which for me was a sweet augury at my departure, greeted me no more at my return!
Varazze, June 1906.
[Transcriber's Note: This table of contents was originally at the end of the book but has been moved here for the convenience of users.]
Chapter I: Malacca and its contrasts—Devourers of the soul and devourers of the body—The realization of a poet's dream—Temptations—A call from the forest—Auri sacra fames—Baggage—Farewell to civilization Page 5
Chapter II: My escort—By steamer to Telok Anson—The other bank of the Perak—Towards the forest—First news—Blood-letting in the swamp—Robbed and forsaken—Revenge in due time—The Malay's instigation—My little Sam Sam's fidelity— Philosophical reflections under a heavy weight " 11
Chapter III: A fearful nocturnal concert—Fire! Fire!—A clearing in the forest—A general flight—Masters of the camp!—Mortal weariness—A morning greeting without any compliments—A first meeting—In the village—Ala against the Orang-putei " 22
Chapter IV: New friends—Gold—An English official— The purchase of my future treasure—Administrative simplicity—England teaches!—The "sla pui"—Bitter disappointment—The Sam-Sam—The poison of the Savage and the venom of the Civilized " 31
Chapter V: Great Mother Earth—A dangerous meeting— A living statue—Here or there?—An unrelished supper—A dreaded immigration—A glance into the past—A rape which was not a rape—A noble task—Towards the mountain—Tiger-shooting—The Sakais in town—Alloyed sweets—Musical tastes— Hurrah for the free forest! " 42
Chapter VI: The great Sorceress—The forest seen from above—A struggle for life—The crimes of plants— Everlasting twilight—Births and deaths—Concerts by forest vocalists—The "durian"—The "ple-lok"— Vastnesses unexplored by science—Treasures intact—Para Rubber—The Samaritans of the jungle—The forest and its history " 59
Chapter VII: The snares of civilized life—Faust's invocation—The dangers of the forest—Serpents— A perilous adventure—Carnivorous and herbivorous animals—The "sladan"—The man of the wood " 75
Chapter VIII: An official appointment—A tour of inspection—Lost in the forest—I find a philosopher—Lycurgus and his laws—A contented mind is a continual feast—A night among the tigers—On the Berumbum—I sleep with a serpent— The last of many—Safe from trap and arrow—The coronation of King Edward VII " 85
Chapter IX: The origin of the Sakais—Hypothesis and legend—Physical character—Thick tresses, gay flowers and troublesome guests—Hereditary antipathy—The five senses reduced to two— Food and drink—Tranquil life—Intolerance of authority—Mother-in-law and daughter-in-law— Logical laziness—A Sakai journalist—The story of a mattress " 107
Chapter X: The Sakai woman—Conjugal fidelity—A life of labour—Betrothals and nuptials—Love among the Sakais—Divorcement—No kissing—Chastity— Bigamy—Maternity and its excesses—Aged before the time—Fashion and coquetry " 125
Chapter XI: A Sakai village—The "elder"—The family— Degrees of relationship—Humorists disoccupied—On the march—Tender hearts—Kindling the fire—A hecatomb of giants—The hut—Household goods and utensils—Work and repose " 141
Chapter XII: Intellectual development—Sakais of the plain and Sakais of the hills—Laziness and intelligence—Falsehood and the Evil Spirit— The Sakai language—When the "Orang Putei" gets angry—Counting time—Novel calendars—Moral gifts " 152
Chapter XIII: First attempts at industry—The story of a hat—Multiplicity—Primitive arts—Sakai music— Songs—Instruments—Dances—Ball dresses—Serpentine gracefulness—An unpublished Sakai song " 172
Chapter XIV: The beliefs and superstitions of the Sakais—Metempsychosis—The Evil Spirit— Superstition among savages and ignorance among civilized people—The two sources of life—The wind—The Ala priest and physician—A scientific vigil—Venerable imposture!-Tenac and Cintok— Therapeutic torture—Contagion—A Sakai's death—The deserted village—Mourning—Births— Fire—Intellectual darkness—The Sakais and Islamism " 183
Chapter XV: Sakai arms—Shooting—Serpent catchers—The Sakai and his poisons—Toalang, rengas and sagol—Sla dol, sla plek and sla clob—Akar toka—Ipok—An antidote— The labar, lampat, mase and loo—The legop—The Mai Bretaks—The preparation of legop—Curious and superfluous ingredients—The effects of legop—Strange contradictions— Experiments—Poisons and antidotes—The settler and science " 202
Chapter XVI: Past and future geography—Mountains and plateaus—An attempt at a census—Temperature— Maladies and remedies—Ala a quack. " 221
AMONG THE SAKAIS
Malacca and its contrasts—Devourers of the soul and devourers of the body—The realization of a poet's dream—Temptations—A call from the forest—Auri sacra fames—Baggage—Farewell to civilization.
From the Bay of Bengal and the Gulf of Siam the Malay Peninsula, once known as the Golden Chersonese, jets out into the Indian Ocean like an arm stretched forth to unite once more within its embrace the innumerable isles that belt its coasts and that have probably been severed from the mainland by the combined force of Time and Sea.
In these surrounding islands, some as large as continents, others as narrow as reefs, over which civilization passes in squalls of cupidity, are concealed the strangest contrasts, for whilst around the shore human wolves disguised as civilized men are devouring souls, or (with due observance of the law) are usurping and stealing their neighbour's property and products, (the cleverest and most respected being he who best dissembles his rapacity or who knows how best to substitute unscrupulous shrewdness for industrial activity) not far off towards the centre of these scattered lands other men, in primitive ignorance of the law, are devouring their neighbours' flesh and skin or stealing their live bodies to serve as slaves.
But such curious contrasts are not after all so very striking when one considers that to devour souls and to devour flesh are both natural instincts of Man!
Around the coast of the Peninsula are many flourishing towns where every modern and up-to-date accommodation is to be found. These seaside resorts are thronged with a cosmopolitan population composed of tourists, business men, nabobs and adventurers. There life rolls on in the refined corruption of fashionable society amidst sports and amusements, scandals and intrigues, every race and every tongue contributing its share of good and evil. A motley crowd swarms their streets, presenting to the eye of an onlooker the picturesque spectacle that the contrast of costumes always produces. They are people of different colours, dress and education, attracted thither by the loadstone of wealth. The fortunate, the clever, the unscrupulous have already gained the victory in Life's struggles and now ride about in motor-cars of the newest types; the others look at them, most likely envy them, and work all the harder to get rich themselves. Will they succeed? The way, here is a short one but can only be successfully trodden by those who possess sound energy and blind confidence in their own brains and in their own muscles. It must not be thought, however, that the motor-car is a prerogative, in these parts, of opulent Europeans and Chinese for it is also a powerful auxiliary for those who are striving to make their fortunes through agricultural and mining speculations in the wildest regions of the Peninsula.
But whilst near the sea the inhabitants and travellers can enjoy all the luxuries and conveniences of the 20th century, in the interior of the Peninsula, leading a nomadic life in the thick of the jungle, which covers the range of mountains from north to south, a primitive people still exists. All unconscious of the violent passions and turbulent emotions that disturb the tranquillity of their fellow-creatures (civilized in form if not in fact) at some miles distant from them, they live quietly and peaceably in their forest homes preserving intact their original simplicity and ingenuousness.
The hot breath of our fagging life, that generates every sort of nerve complaint, has not yet reached their mountain haunts. On those wild heights the nerves rest; the affections are not tormented; love is pure and, for this, lasting; ambition neither perverts the mind, nor consumes the conscience; there are no honours or favours to arouse envy; no artificial boundaries to liberty or difficult problems about Capital and Labour; there are no rich and no poor, for in that blessed spot money is an unknown article and what is more—strange triumph of the Savage over the Civilized—every man is a brother to the other!
Up there in the forest there are neither princes nor subjects; Governments nor Police; no Tax-gatherers, public meetings or strikes so that if Stecchetti were still living he might have been sent among the Sakais to find the ideal place of which he was always seeking the address.
* * * * *
The 15th of June 1891 I landed at Penang (the Prince of Wales's Island) on my return from an exploring tour in the Isle of Nias. I was feeling rather worn out with the fatigues lately undergone so resolved to rest awhile on British territory.
I had brought with me a rich and interesting ethnographical collection I found no difficulty in selling to the Perak Government that destined it to the Museum at Taiping, a small town where is the British Residence.
During my well-earned repose I often heard speak of the Mai Darats, a tribe of Aborigines dwelling in the interior of the Peninsula and who were called by the name of Sakais by the Malays, a scornful appellation which signifies a people of slaves, and this insulting term is explained by the fact that formerly their neighbours carried on an extensive slave-trade by making them victims and also took advantage of their simplicity and good faith in many other ways, until the British Protectorate was established and these poor wandering tribes were put upon a par with more civilized races.
I began to gather information concerning these wild men of the bush and learnt that they inhabited the unfrequented parts of the Perak and Pahang States, that they were a nomadic race and that they passed most of their time in the abstraction and preparation of vegetable and animal poisons in which art they were exceptionally expert and that they were equally skilful in shooting poisoned arrows. Some of my informants wanted to make me believe that they were exceedingly ferocious by nature and so superstitious that they would aim their deadly dart at whatever stranger ventured to approach them, believing him to be the messenger of some Evil Spirit and that afterwards they would make of him a dainty meal to comfort their insatiable stomachs.
But knowing something of the previous relations between the Sakais and the people surrounding them I was put on my guard against certain exaggerated and prejudiced reports and felt strongly tempted to try and dissipate the vague mystery—that I somehow guessed was based upon self-interest—in which they wished to envelop the Mai Darats.
The more they told me about them the more I felt attracted towards the Sakais, it seeming to me that a people so foreign to every light of civilization, so bold as they were described to be, so free from every regime or authority, must needs afford an interesting study to one who sought to know them at close quarters. Perhaps, when once I had overcome the, not always surmountable, difficulty of getting into their company, I might find amongst them a tranquil life and settle down in their midst as a planter or agriculturist for I was already convinced that I was unfitted for commercial enterprises in which very often scruples of conscience and uprightness are encumbrances.
My brief sojourn in civilized society made me long for the freedom and peace which, may be, awaited me there; I longed to know intimately these people who, I reasoned to myself, must be exempt from corruption as they were so much hated by those who lived in its midst, and who were surrounded by so much mystery.
There was, I must confess, another reason that helped to draw me towards the Sakai camps. I know not how the germ took root, but in my brain the conviction was always growing that in the heart of the Peninsula, already proved to be rich in metals, a gold vein might be discovered.
The Virgilian auri sacra fames took possession of me little by little, solved every remaining doubt, conquered all my hesitations and removed every obstacle.
This impetus united with the longing for new adventures, for profound emotions, for a life far different in every respect to that I was then passing in a sphere of elegant slavery, imposed by ridiculous conventionalisms, decided me, and I packed up my baggage.
Just imagine: a strong piece of tarred canvas to be converted into a camp-bed by means of four wooden pegs; a hat, four shirts and some woollen undervests, a few pairs of trousers and socks, some very light canvas shoes, and one or two khaki jackets as used by the soldiers in Africa.
I did not forget though that it was very possible to catch some sort of illness and as in those parts a malady followed by death may be considered an involuntary suicide but never a homicide because.... there are no doctors to cure you, I also provided myself with a small stock of purgative lozenges, quinine, some antiseptic preparations and a bistoury.
Thus having quickly arranged for my new journey and having supplied myself with such elements as would be useful to me under the circumstances, I added to them a large quantity of tobacco and coloured beads—two things that exercise a great power over savages—and bidding farewell to all the culinary delicacies adapted to weak digestions, and turning my back upon all domestic comfort, I started forth towards the Unknown.
[Footnote 1: An Italian poet who wrote many humorous verses.—Translator's Note.]
My escort—By steamer to Telok Anson—The other bank of the Perak—Towards the forest—First news—Blood-letting in the swamp—Robbed and forsaken—Revenge in due time—The Malay's instigation—My little Sam Sam's fidelity—Philosophical reflections under a heavy weight.
The kind reader who peruses these poor pages of notes and memories, accustomed to hear speak of expeditions organised for the purpose of penetrating into inhospitable lands or into regions encompassed by all the terrors of the unknown, will perhaps think that I was jesting when I gave the inventory of my luggage in the last chapter and that from sheer vaunt I did not mention the support of some Geographical or Commercial Society and neither the tons of goods which would follow in my wake, nor the numerous waggons and armed battalion that had to escort me.
No, nothing of all this, for to tell the truth I have always found more harm than good done by these etceteras to an explorer's equipment, and for this reason, even in my most arduous travels, I always set out, as it were, alone, confiding only in my own forces. And let me explain why.
From the very beginning of my wanderings in countries populated by savages, to some of whom is attributed the most sanguinary instincts, I reassured myself by a logical conclusion which experience has shown me to be quite right.
If the fierceness of wild beasts, I reasoned to myself, is nothing else but a paroxysm of fear why should we consider the fierceness of the savages caused by other motives? Man, however wild may be his state, has been endowed with intelligence although in some cases this intellectual faculty is possessed in the smallest possible degree. Let us then make him understand that he has nothing to fear from us and little by little, if our patience does not fail, he will grow more gentle and become a friend instead of an enemy.
Therefore to-day, as well as in the past, I carefully avoid warlike preparations, brigandish masquerades or any escort of a prepotent or menacing appearance. I go ahead like a simple wayfarer, with a smiling face and friendly gestures, leaving my gun (which is indispensable in defending oneself from the attacks of wild beasts) slung over my shoulder.
The first welcome, I admit, is far from being cordial, and there is always the risk of falling into a trap dexterously laid for big game and strangers or of being ably struck by a poisoned dart, but once a meeting has been obtained without any serious consequences accruing, it is not so difficult as it might be supposed to follow it up with a parley, for the feared (and fearing) individual is dumbfounded at the extraordinary double event of either not having killed you or of not having been killed himself, according to the law of reciprocity which for him is inviolable.
Under the impression of this very strange fact he will not oppose resistance to a peaceable understanding and afterwards in order to ensure his friendship there only needs a quick intuition of the poor creature's superstitions, beliefs and susceptibilities and a spirit of precaution against offending his puerile vanity or of in any way provoking jealousy or mistrust.
When he is persuaded that the presence of his undesired guest brings him no evil he will give you his full confidence and spontaneously accept you as a benevolent and powerful protector.
The perils, I grant, are many and great, but greater still are those that lie in wait for an armed traveller. The savage may be terrified and overpowered by the massacres with which civilization asserts its tyrannical superiority but the venom of hatred has entered his soul and he meditates and prepares an ambush which sooner or later, without fail, will give him his revenge.
The use of brutal force (that for me is a political error) is an enormous damage to the study of the customs, beliefs, and psychological peculiarities of the people with whom we are in contact, for they will back out of every enquiry or investigation, will either refuse to respond or will tell you lies, and this accounts for the contradictory reports that different travellers give about the same tribe or race.
This, kind reader, is my modest conviction as, from their method of proceeding, it is also of the English, who are Masters in everything that concerns colonization.
* * * * *
My baggage being ready it only remained for me to find some carriers who would be useful to me, if not as guides to the country of the Sakais, at least as interpreters between me and its inhabitants.
Penang is populated chiefly by Malays but numerous other races are represented there, especially Chinese and Indians. Without much trouble I succeeded in engaging the services of five porters: a Malay, an Indian, a Chinese, a Siamese and a Sam-Sam, quite a lad. Together they formed a little Babel which I congratulated myself would prove of great help in making overtures with the Sakais.
All my followers, with the exception of the Sam-Sam, had faces which would have graced the gallows and I am sure that Lombroso would have classified them without hesitation as born-criminals. But their forbidding countenances did not alarm me as it is well known that the basest villain becomes timid and servile when confronted by unexpected danger, and I was well aware that the dread of tigers, snakes, traps and poisoned arrows, the thousand mysteries of Death which the wonderful forest encloses amidst its countless trees, amongst the confusion of its thick interlaced creepers and under its soft moss and long grass would have converted these ugly-faced, crooked-souled individuals into docile lambs. I knew that once they had entered a land, to them not known, they would not forsake me, for the Oriental has faith in the European and will follow whither the latter leads, attributing to him rare qualities of courage and energy as well as a marvellous ability in overcoming obstacles and getting out of difficult positions.
* * * * *
We left Penang on a coasting steamer and after going up the River Perak for about 60 miles we reached the little town of Telok Anson where we landed.
It was too early in the morning, when, we arrived for me to present myself to the British Authority and as the local officials did not in the slightest way interfere with my free passage nor subject me to any sort of inquisitorial interrogations (which in other colonies and under other Protectorates I had been obliged to undergo) I gave orders for our immediate departure as I was anxious to commence our march as soon as possible.
Having divided our load of provisions in equal parts we crossed the Perak on a pontoon and with a "slamat gialat" (pleasant journey) from the man on board we found ourselves upon the shores where my adventures had to begin.
I was there, then, with my face turned towards a new land, and a thrill of joyous emotion pervaded me. What surprises were reserved for me up on the wooded mountains towards which we were bending our steps? What things, what habits would be revealed to me when I reached my goal?
I was leaving behind me civilized company. I was isolating myself from educated society but I was not perturbed at the thought of the hardship, the sufferings, the dangers that lay before me. Vague and pleasant hopes smiled upon me from the Future. Of what nature were they? I could not tell.
"Forward!" I said to myself and my carriers. And the march began.
* * * * *
The first day passed very well, in spite of the intense heat, and nothing occurred worth mentioning. It was growing dark and we had already done about 20 miles when we came in sight of a hut erected amongst some cocoanut and banana trees. We soon found that it was occupied by a Malay, with his wife and children, who had come there for the cultivation of rice.
My request for hospitality, until the morning, was received with evident distrust, but the hope of coveted gifts in the end, got the better of Islamatic superstition in the soul of the Malay, and a covered corner of his humble residence was accorded me and my men.
During the night I tried to make the Malay talk about the Sakais but I could not ask him any direct questions as it would have been a serious affair if my companions came to suspect that our way through the forest was entirely new to me and that I was ignorant of the place where our journey would end.
I managed, however, to find out that quite recently some Sakais had ventured as far as there to exchange rattan (Malacca cane) and rubber, for tobacco and rice. They had then departed, but the Malay did not know from whence they had come or whither they had gone. He believed that they could not be very far off as a few days before he had distinctly heard their call-whistles.
For various causes I felt obliged to doubt the truth of what the man related, not the least of which being his ill-disguised desire to rid himself of our company as soon as possible.
* * * * *
At day-break we started off again, following an almost untracked path which led us over miasmatic marshes swarming with insects. Our poor legs were attacked by a perfect army of leeches and subjected to a most inopportune and undesirable bleeding. From time to time we were compelled to stop and free ourselves from their tenacious hold. They seemed to prefer European blood to Asiatic and made me suffer more than my escort, perhaps because my skin being more tender they could better succeed in their sanguinary intent, but although my flesh smarted and my strength failed it was necessary to keep cheerful and pretend, every now and then, to recognize our whereabouts just as if I had passed the same way other times. I even assured my five companions that when we reached the Sakais there would be no more difficulties, and so urged them on the faster.
I hoped that the farther we penetrated into the vast wilds around us the more I might depend upon the fidelity of my carriers as they would have to rely upon my supposed knowledge of the country we were entering and so would be less likely to beat a retreat. As we went along, however, I leading the way which. I did not know myself, I could not help noticing that they paid particular attention to every characteristic point we passed, cutting notches in the trees with their parang, or knives, after we had waded through a brook or taken a sudden turn in our course, but my mind was too much occupied with the duties of my self-assumed pilotage for me to attach any importance to the fact.
The weather was fine all day so that we were able to go a long way before night fell. Not having come across any sort of refuge we were obliged to improvise one for ourselves and in about an hour we were resting from our fatigues whilst the little Sam-Sam served us with boiled rice, dried fish and certain capsicums which would have made cayenne pepper seem sugar in comparison! There being nothing better to eat I too had to take my share of the frugal repast.
Sleep soon stole over us all, but I was somehow uneasy, for certain strange demands my companions made me had reminded me of the marks I had seen them making on the trees a while before, and my suspicions were aroused without my knowing exactly how to define them; therefore, with the excuse of writing, I determined to keep watch. Until about four o'clock in the morning I was able to resist the somnolence which weighed down my eyelids but at last, exhausted with so many hours' march, with the high tension to which my nerves had been pitched and weakened by the abundant blood-letting in the swamp, my body triumphed over my will and I also slept.
At dawn the little wild bird, the cep plot, broke the silent air with its characteristic and shrill ci ti ria. To him the smaller and tamer cep rio replied with a sweetly modulated solfeggio of extraordinary precision, and I awoke. At the same time I felt myself being roughly shaken and the voice of my little Sam-Sam cried into my ear:
"Tuan lakas bangun samoa Orang suda lari" (Wake up quickly, sir; the men have all run away)!
Ah, then, my misgivings had not been unfounded and it was Slumber that had betrayed me. I jumped up and looked around. There was nobody to be seen and nothing to be heard. I turned anxiously towards our heap of provisions and discovered instantly that the four rascals had made off with a large booty of my rice, tobacco, and matches, things that were very precious to me at that moment.
What was to be done? Follow them? And if we did not find them? It would be loss of time as well as goods. The only thing to do was to treat the incident with philosophy, comforting myself with the remote hope of some day meeting with the scoundrels and of making them pay dear for their knavish trick. This hope, I may say in parenthesis, was not a vain one, for a year later I met my Chinese culprit at Telok Anson and not long after, his Malay confederate at Penang, on both of which occasions I had the satisfaction—without troubling the legal authority to intercede for or against me—of giving them a lesson in honesty that I dare warrant will have made them lose the gust of treating others as they had treated me.
I was glad to find that the Sam-Sam boy had not deserted me for I had taken a kind of liking to him. He told me that the Malay who had accorded us hospitality had narrated to his countryman most terrible things about the Sakais, describing so many perils, and such ferocious treatment, which awaited those who risked getting into their midst, that even a man of dauntless courage would have shuddered. Nothing was said to me of this, but the man had informed the other three, who understood the Malay language, and between the four it was quickly decided to escape.
The boy had heard it all but did not give me any hint, never thinking that the wicked project of robbing and abandoning me would have been so speedily carried into effect.
I asked the only companion left me if he was disposed to be faithful to his engagement and to me, no matter where we went, or whom we met with, and he expressed his readiness to accompany me. The answer put me into better spirits and I made arrangements for continuing our journey.
* * * * *
We boiled enough rice and broiled enough fish to last us for two meals and then divided both in two parts. We each took our own share and wrapped it up in some leaves ready to eat when we made a brief halt on the banks of the many streams flowing through the forest.
With the remaining provisions we made two bundles, as bulky as seemed possible to carry, but their weight surpassed our strength so we were compelled to sacrifice a large quantity of our victuals which we put into a sack and left in the hut, hoping that there it would not be damaged by the rain, and afterwards, still well-laden, we once more set off.
Under the scorching rays of the sun and the weight of my burden I plodded on, philosophizing to myself—like a Boetius lost in the jungle—in order to draw some comforting conclusion out of this, my first, unpleasant adventure. But my philosophy soon took the form of certain meditations and comparisons that were not all serene. My thoughts flew to the heroes of the Bar-room and the Club to whom Sport means fatigue, boldness, development of the muscles, and sacrifice provided.... that every athletic exercise, however slight, be followed up by a tepid or shower bath, massage, or the rest prescribed by the hygienist or trainer. I thought of those so-called explorers who enlighten the civilized part of the world upon the habits and customs of the uncivilized part; those literary swindlers who travel in a Pullman's car or some other vehicle, equally convenient and comfortable, to a safe place, near the land to be explored, there to make notes of the vague reports and yet more vague "they says" that circulate about the Aborigines in question, and afterwards with the help of their fertile imagination turn these mere voices into startling facts, add a few extraordinary occurrences in the Robinson Crusoe and Gulliver style (in which they themselves always play the principal part) and then present their interesting writings to the public as a scientific and instructive volume. I was inclined to envy them their ability and to admire the ineffable good-nature of Society that pays the expenses for these triumphs of Humbug.
"Ah!" I went on grumbling to myself, and it seemed to relieve me to thus apostrophize them in their absence, "if you were only here now, you gentlemen of sportive tastes and you, illustrious explorers of wonderful lands and mysterious islands, how I should like to see your virtue put to the test: here in the forest from whose black depths a poisoned dart may at any moment fly towards you as a Messenger of Death or from whence a huge wild beast may, unexpectedly, rush furiously forth: here where one's steps may be suddenly arrested by the up-rising of a venomous snake. Who knows what an assistance to your fervid fantasy it would be to hear in the freedom of Nature's own menagerie the sinister hissing of the serpent, the bellowing of the elephant, the lowing of the sladan, the roar of the tiger, the grunt of the wild-boar, the squeal of the monkey, and the peevish notes of the cockatoo all blended into a formidable concert, the accompaniment being the rustling of reeds and climbing plants, moved more by animal life than by the air; the fluttering of leaves; the humming and buzzing of myriads of insects: the murmuring of the brooks: voices and sounds that announce to the traveller a continual increase of danger".
But I must apologize to my readers for this digression. The jungle and its concerts often make one commit the sin of philosophy, and, in thus sinning, I had involuntarily forgotten you.
[Footnote 2: An Italian celebrated for his psychological studies.—Translator's note.]
A fearful nocturnal concert—Fire! Fire!—A clearing in the forest—A general flight—Masters of the camp!—Mortal weariness—A morning greeting without any compliments—A first meeting—In the village—ALA against the Orang-putei.
Not having found even a trace of human habitation either on the second day of our march we were once more compelled to prepare a shelter for the night as best we could. We made two little alcoves of boughs and leaves, and having satisfied the cravings of appetite we lighted a fire on each side of our miniature encampment, piled up enough wood at hand to keep them burning, and settled ourselves down to sleep, or rather one of us had to sleep whilst the other watched, as we had agreed to take turns. In our ignorance we had calculated upon finding ourselves surrounded by a solemn nocturnal stillness in these remote regions; such calm quietness as one enjoys during the night on the Alpine and Appennine woods. We were soon made aware of our mistake, however, for the monkeys, frightened at the glare of the fires, raised a hubbub of protests, their shrill cries and chattering voices reaching to the most acute notes. Leaping up to the very highest branches of the trees they began to shower down upon us broken twigs, leaves, nuts and other fruits. They seemed to be holding a meeting overhead at which each one—and they were a multitude—tried to gabble out a speech and to make himself heard above all the others.
Deeper and more ominous notes were not long wanting to complete the infernal chorus. From the dense, dark forest came the blood-curdling roars of tigers, panthers, and bears mingled with the loud bellowing and heavy stampede of elephants; we could distinctly here the cracking of boughs hurled to the ground in their furious course, and the crashing of bamboo, which with them is a favourite food. One might have said that an immense legion of demons had invaded the forest, because in its intense, impenetrable obscurity, only dimly lighted for a yard or two by the blaze of our fires, everything seemed to turn into life. Every creature, every reed, every leaf had a voice of its own; a howl, a rustle, a sigh that filled the night air with diabolical sounds. It was a fearful pandemonium; a mighty strife twixt victim and victor; an insatiable lust for blood; a ferocious manifestation of ferocious love.
"Fire! Fire! let us put on fuel!" and we threw log after log upon the burning piles whilst thousands of sparks flew upwards and the bright flames cast a red glow around.
But the great voice of the forest did not cease; it still spoke on in the roars and the bellows of the strong and in the yells and wails of the weak. It rose up against us, as though pronouncing a malediction upon the intruders, upon the profaners of those mysteries that, in the inmost recesses of the jungle, great Mother Nature celebrates during the night.
For hours we remained there, in a state it is useless for me even to attempt to describe, and then as day-break approached the fearful clamour began gradually to die away. Evidently at the first streak of dawn the wild beasts had returned to their dens. The monkeys were the last to finish as they had been the first to begin, but what was their chattering and gibbering compared to that terrible chorus which, with freezing veins and paralized brains, we had been obliged to listen to all night?
It has never happened to me to greet a friend with such fervour as I did the sun that morning. At its appearance a new concert commenced, but now it was with the pleasant harmony of the buzzing and humming of insects, blended with the gay singing of birds.
It reanimated us and we began to stretch our poor limbs which, besides being stiffened and benumbed by the horrors of the past night, and the thick dew that had fallen upon us, had also been an unconscious prey to leech and mosquito.
Comparisons are odious. Granted. But between a tiger and a leech, a panther and a mosquito, notwithstanding their affinity in the liking of human blood, believe me there is a great difference, and it was perhaps for this reason that we had not previously noticed the onslaught made by these lesser carnivora upon our appalled flesh.
A few hurried mouthfuls and we were on the tramp again. Our sleepless night, and the strong emotions that had kept us awake, made us feel tired and listless, but the bare idea of being exposed to the same torment and fear another time, gave us courage and strength to press on as far as possible in search of some nocturnal refuge, more secure from the four-footed inhabitants of the land, before sunset should have enticed them from their lairs.
Weary, and mechanically, we trudged along, anxiously peering in front of us for some opening in the thick foliage and closely packed trees, or of some other sign of human life.
It must have been about three o clock in the afternoon—for my watch had stopped—and it had begun to drizzle, when we saw, at not a great distance from us, the everlasting twilight of the wild forest dispersed by the full light of day.
Our spirits revived at the sight, for in all probability it meant a vast clearing for the erection of huts and, in consequence, the presence of fellow beings, however savage they might be.
We advanced with alacrity and soon came out in a large open space closed in by the felled trunks of enormous trees and planted with Indian corn, yams and sweet potatoes.
In the middle stood two cabins made of the strong branches and gigantic leaves of the plants and trees which had been cut down. We were just able to catch a glimpse of some men lying about on the ground, whilst some women were busily cooking monkey's, serpents, and colossal rats, and several younger men were preparing poisoned arrows.
We took in the whole scene in a rapid glance for in an instant the dogs began to bark and their masters were thrown into a state of alarm. We stopped, and they saw us, saw me—a white man—and full of fright they sprang to their feet. Like lightning they gathered up their provisions, the women slung the children on to their shoulders and they all disappeared, over the stout fence they had erected round their dwelling place, with the agility and the speed of a troop of monkeys.
I really think that if the head of the Medusa, instead of turning into stone those who looked at it, had given them wings to escape they could not have flown away faster than did those poor savages at the sight of me.
I had only time to see that they were quite naked and that their skin was of a light brownish tint, but this for the moment satisfied me as I knew that at last I had come into contact with the May Darats in search of whom I had ventured there.
But I was so thoroughly exhausted in every way that I had even lost the power of thinking about them or anything else.
I, and my faithful follower, entered the abandoned huts where we found some hot potatoes (which were quickly devoured) and a curious stringed instrument that had been left behind in the hasty flight.
Having taken the usual precautions for the night, too tired out to care for the dangers that might be menacing us, dangers that might prove worse than those we had experienced the previous night (for we knew what we had to expect from quadruped enemies, but were ignorant of how our biped foes would treat our presence in their domain) unmindful and heedless of everything, dizzy with the need of rest, I threw myself down on the rude floor and fell heavily asleep.
* * * * *
Towards two o'clock in the morning (as far as we could judge) my Sam-Sam, who had been keeping watch, awoke me. It was his turn to sleep. Nothing had happened, as yet, to excite suspicion or inquietude and this made me hope that we should not receive any serious hostility from the Aborigines.
By straining my gaze into the darkness of the forest I discerned that some fires were lighted not very far off, a sure sign that the Sakais were still near us. Was this a good or a bad omen? Day would without doubt bring the answer. And day soon came, gladly welcomed by all Creation save by those people and beasts whose deeds are better suited to obscurity.
I was preparing a nice strong cup of tea to refresh my stomach and cheer up my spirits (for recent events had greatly depressed them) when something lightly whistled above my ear and glided over my head.
I gave a violent start and taking off my hat discovered that it had two little holes in it, one on each side. At a few steps from me lay an arrow, which had just fallen there, after having perforated my head-covering and softly touched my thin locks. It was a hair breadth escape, in a true sense of the saying, for the sharp missile shot at me from the Sakais infallible blow-pipe had first been carefully poisoned.
That unexpected and not very friendly "good morning" called me back to the bitter reality of my position, and warned me not to delay coming to an understanding with them at once.
Prudence forbade my presenting myself in their midst because the colour of my skin, although well sunburnt, would have drawn upon me certain death. I was convinced that in their primitive superstition they would have believed me an evil spirit and as such would have speedily despatched me to another world. The only thing to be done was to send hither my intelligent Sam-Sam who willingly allowed himself to be loaded with tobacco, coloured beads, sirih and matches and then sallied forth to make a truce.
He was accorded an audience without any difficulty which fact was perhaps due to the similitude of his race with theirs but more probably to the gifts he carried with him.
My ambassador was interrogated with eagerness and curiosity about the orang putei (white man), and he told them that I had come laden with gifts and full of good-will towards them. But the Sakais would not hear of my approaching their new encampment and sent word that they would soon favour me with a visit.
And they kept their promise without losing any time in making a toilet or getting into a dress suit. They were in three, two stalwart youths and a man of between forty and fifty, all armed with their sumpitans (blow-pipes).
By means of the Malay language and the universal one of gestures, I explained to them that I did not mean them any harm, that on the contrary it was my desire to help them in whatever way I could and that I should like to live amongst them if they would let me, as I wanted to initiate some plantations in their part.
They replied by first trying to dissuade me from taking up my abode with them, and then suggested that it would be better for me to go to a small village at a short distance off, whither they offered to accompany me.
I thanked them and accepted the offer, telling them, as a recompense, where we had left our sack of provisions. I afterwards heard that they had succeeded in finding it.
* * * * *
I felt so contented at having made the first step—which is always the most difficult—that notwithstanding the thoroughly exhausted state in which I knew myself to be, I re-commenced my journey with a light heart, escorted by the three Sakais and my Sam-Sam. But arrived at a certain point it was impossible for me to proceed.
Besides the stiffness of my joints, my flesh was tingling and bleeding with the bites and stings of many insects. In order to prove my sufferings to my companions I showed my livid limbs to them and I saw an expression of pity pass over their countenances. It seemed to me a good augury for one who was joining their tribe.
We stopped, and the Sakais quickly built up the huts, lighted the fires and afterwards ate some rice with us. We then lay down to repose for the night, but if Sleep closed our eyes I think Mistrust opened them and none of us enjoyed much slumber in the end.
Early the next morning we continued our course and reached the group of cabins dignified by the name of village. Here the same thing took place as on the previous day. In spite of my being in the company of three of their own people, which I thought would have reassured them, at my appearance the huts were rapidly deserted amidst cries of terror.
My three guides, however, managed to get into communication with their brethren and after a while led them to me without their making any resistance.
I got their consent to let me settle down near them on the condition that I did not seek to enter their huts. The reason of this interdiction I learnt later on. It had been a prescription of the Ala, a sort of sorcerer, who believed, or made believe that my presence would have an evil effect upon a sick mother and her new-born babe.
The Sakais, stimulated by my presents, built me a solid and pretty comfortable cabin near a rivulet and not far from them, and I installed myself there forthwith.
The first day of our acquaintance it happened that I accidentally called them Sakais. They changed face and some of them protested angrily:
"You are not good, because you insult us and call us bad names!".
It was a dangerous slip of the tongue and I hastened to make my peace by explaining that I had heard the term used by the other people but that I knew they were really May Darats whose kindness and gentleness had often been abused by their neighbours, and in the future I meant to save them from being cheated and deceived by their former aggressors.
This declaration calmed their resentment and I was able to begin a quiet, tranquil life amongst those simple, sincere beings, a life so calm and undisturbed that I have never had cause, then or now, to regret the civilized society from which I had voluntarily withdrawn myself, persuaded that if my character and habits incapacitated me for the dubious and not always straightforward transactions of the commercial world, the same moral qualities which impeded me from becoming a business man might find good ground for bringing forth fruit in the pure hearts and minds of a primitive people, who knew neither fraud, nor hypocrisy.
New friends—Gold—An English official—The purchase of my future treasure—Administrative simplicity—England teaches!—The "sla pui"—Bitter disappointment—The Sam-Sam—The poison of the Savage and the venom of the Civilized.
My strength and health, which had suffered in consequence of those few days' strain of muscle and nerve, soon returned to their normal state in that peaceful retreat upon the grassy banks of the stream that is an affluent of the Bidor.
My friendship with the Sakais increased every day because little by little their suspicions concerning me were allayed and the curiosity with which they watched my every act was no longer mixed with fear. They did not attempt to run away when I bent my steps towards their rough habitations in spite of the Ala's veto to my passage through their village and it was not a rare thing for my gifts of tobacco and sirih to be exchanged with pheasants and other game and sometimes even with a chicken. I found it easy to talk with the men and prized these conversations as a means of studying their characters and of learning their language, which is composed of short, strongly accented words. It was very seldom that I could find any sort of derivation from the Malay tongue in these terse syllables.
At the same time that I sought to get upon a familiar footing with my new friends I did not forget one of the principal motives that had induced me to wander so far from the haunts of ordinary men, so one day I cracked a cocoanut in half and, cleaning it well out, I dipped the shell into the bed of the stream and drew it out again full of water and sand.
I examined the contents with great care and found a few grains of gold in the alluvion! This was joy indeed, and mentally I bade goodbye to the life of a planter (although I had not yet begun it) and there on the spot decided to dedicate my time and energy to the gathering of gold which would be far the quickest way of making a fortune.
All at once, however, an unpleasant thought crossed my mind and dimmed my bright hopes.
In my chats with the Sakais they had told me that there was another orang putei at Tapah. I endeavoured to discover who this person was, and what he was doing, in the little Malay town, but I was unable to obtain any information about him.
Now the idea suggested itself that this white man could be no other than a British Government Officer to whom, from a feeling of delicacy, respect of the law, and as a means of avoiding future trouble, I was bound to explain what I wished to do before setting myself to work, as his permission would be necessary for the execution of my desire.
My unfortunate experience of other colonial authorities inspired me with very little confidence in that of the English and nothing seemed to me more likely than to find myself expelled from the Protected States instead of having my petition granted.
But on the other hand it would be very rash to commence work in earnest without legal authorization, so one day, accompanied by some Sakais to the confines of the forest, I betook myself to Tapah.
* * * * *
I could not help wondering to myself what sort of a gruff, bureaucratic functionary I should find to deny me my fortune. Who knew how my Italian enterprise would be judged on territory protected by H. B. M.?
But calling up my courage I was introduced into the presence of a young and pleasant-mannered gentleman who received me with much politeness.
He had already been informed that a white man was to be found amongst the Sakais and he had been greatly surprised, not understanding what attractions anyone could find in the midst of a people so ignorant and savage. He congratulated himself upon the opportunity of meeting and knowing me, was pleased to hear that I was an Italian and wound up with the stereotyped demand:
"What can I have the pleasure of doing for you?".
Encouraged by his kindness, but not without a little secret misgiving, I told him frankly what I proposed doing and related all particulars.
Mr. Wise (for this was his name) listened to everything attentively, now and then expressing a word of sympathy or approval and finally, for the sum of a few dollars, made me the owner of the tract of land upon which I had fixed my mind.
Thus it was that in the short space of an hour, without having to surmount any obstacles, and at an almost ridiculous price I became the legitimate possessor of a piece of ground that perhaps concealed a treasure in its bosom.
* * * * *
As I had never before been at Tapah I took advantage of the time spared in my business affairs to visit it a little and to form an opinion upon the expedients used in a half-desert Eastern country, scorched by the sun, populated by different tribes, infested by poisonous insects and terrible microbes, to say nothing of a host of wild beasts!
Tapah is a modern little town, all villas and gardens. It rises white and coquettishly at the foot of green hills and its smiling panorama, although without the magnificent background of the sea, recalled to my sight the sweet vision of my native Varazze, one of the most beautiful gems that adorn the Riviera Ponente.
It is the chief-town of a district counting 30,000 inhabitants amongst which about a thousand of diverse races and nationalities. It has two large streets lined with shops where Malays, Indians, and Chinese offer a varied and heterogeneous stock of goods for sale.
It is divided in the middle by the big river Batang Padang which afterwards discharges itself into the Bidor, that too.
As capital of the district it possesses a Post Office, a very large room where two Indian clerks perform their duties under the direction of an English Postmaster who has also to overlook the branch offices of the circuit.
My attention was attracted by an unpretending edifice in front of which some Malay and Indian soldiers were seated. I was asking them what building it was when an Englishman came out and courteously told me that it was the Head Police Station of which he was the inspector.
During a subsequent conversation I learnt that the Police Service was everything that could be desired as also that of all the other Public Offices and that Indigenes and Indians were everywhere employed under the direction of English chiefs. The number of clerks, as in other British colonies, was according to strict necessity; no extra posts were ever created for political or personal interest but when assistance was required there was never any difficulty in selecting local aspirant, as long as they had a sufficient knowledge of the official language.
So I found that Tapah, the chief-town of the district, is under the direction of an Englishman, who is called the District Officer, and who performs all administrative and magisterial functions.
Not much time lost here in the labyrinths of Bureaucracy! And yet I heard that both the District Officer and the Police Inspector who are under the control of the Authority residing in Taiping, capital of Perak but who in reality enjoy almost complete liberty of action, find the time not only to discharge all the various duties of their office but also to take recreation in a little football and cricket. It is said that sometimes the menservants too are called in to take part in these national sports and for an hour freely compete with their masters in the art of kicking and batting, returning serious and respectful to their proper places at the end of the game.
Whilst I was passing the time pleasantly, talking with one and the other I saw a little party approaching that was the object of great respect from the bystanders.
It was Mr. Wise the District Officer who had received me so politely a few hours before.
He was on his return from a survey made in order to define the boundary of some land belonging to two Malays. Without donning any sort of uniform or insignia, this British delegate had known how to preserve all the solemnity and dignity of form due to the occasion, a virtue peculiar to the English who are always and everywhere the most rigorous observers of social and official etiquette.
Mr. Wise kindly invited me to follow him the Club where he kept me in friendly conservation, answering all the questions I could not refrain from asking him in my desire to become better acquainted with the colony and its method of government.
Now Mr. Wise is no more, but in him his country lost a model functionary for intelligence, solicitude and uprightness.
He died at the very moment his future seemed to smile its brightest; when his fondest hopes were about to be crowned by matrimony with the young lady of his choice.
Let me, through these pages, render to his memory the modest, affectionate homage of admiration and deferential friendship.
* * * * *
That day, having made my peace with the authorities, I returned with a clear conscience to the quiet nook I had found in the vast forest; to that domestic corner reserved for me in Dame Nature's grand and wondrous saloon: to that rude home so far removed from the generality of mankind, but so close to the kings and princes of the animal kingdom, commonly called—wild beasts.
Keeping tight hold of the receipt which had suddenly made me the owner of a possible gold mine, I alternately made castles in the air and meditated upon the simplicity of English administration that in a few short instants had conceded to me an extensive zone of land with which to do what I liked, without any need of setting in motion the intricate machinery of the bureaucracy; without any stamped legal forms, surveys and expensive reports; the presentation of birth certificate and that of British citizenship; without digging into the past and the future, into the state and position of one's family, etc. etc.
And because everything that happens to one abroad recalls one's fatherland (a natural habit that neither distance nor time can change) I thought of my native country and of the complicated organization of its many bureaucratic departments that only too often clogs the boldest Italian enterprise and raises an insurmountable barrier before creative and inventive genius compelling it to seek elsewhere its fortune.
From my heart I longed that Italy might before long be liberated from these toils which hinder the free expansion of its young and vigorous forces.
One thing had particularly struck me during my intercourse with Mr. Wise. The fact of my being an Italian was no obstacle to my request being favourably received. This surprised me, for under other governments I had seen that foreigners were considered anything but necessary to the colony and after having opposed, more or less openly, the intruder's initiative, the Authority seized the slightest pretext, that offered itself under a decent aspect, to send the new-comer back over the frontier for fear that their digestion might suffer from his presence.
England on the contrary does not search into, nor care for, the origin of those who bring energy or any other useful quality to her colonies. In her dominions she only aims at reaching the highest point of prosperity, she desires only the accumulation of riches, and whoever promises well to further her interests, becomes an appreciated collaborator, be he Italian, German, Portuguese or Turk.
England never repells talent or aptitude from an absurd prejudice of Chauvinism. Considering the length and breadth of her possessions she may well say that the world is her tributary, no wonder then that she avails herself of the hands and brains of every one who knows how to use them well, instead of confining herself exclusively to the merits of those born on British soil.
In this broad way of seeing and treating things—which proves the tranquil and perfect consciousness the English nation has of its own strength—I believe lies the secret of its colonial success.
The well-known satire according to which it is impossible to find in the world a rock or strip of land, however barren or sterile, without an owner, for the simple reason that an Englishman is always prompt to unfold and hoist the Union Jack there, is in reality the highest and most just homage that can be paid to the spirit of enterprise that characterizes this people. Where others only see sand and reefs, not worth the trouble of cultivation, the Englishman discovers some productive germ that with his indefatigable energy brings forth a thousand fold. Nor is Colonial work, industrial activity and commercial thrift disturbed by bureaucratic sophistry or immoderate fiscal pretentions, that so frequently suffocate the most promising and audacious undertakings in other places.
Colonial success very often depends upon the ability of its administrative body in directing all available force to this one end: the increase of its wealth. Bureaucracy is a cancer which paralyzes all life and motion that it finds within reach of its tentacles.
Old England has understood this for a long time, ever since, from the island once fruitless and barren, she spread her wings and flew to the conquest of the World's markets.
When will certain other nations comprehend that antiquity and past glory, instead of offering the precious fruit of experience, has brought upon them a palsied decrepitude?
When wilt thou understand this, my Italy, risen as thou art to the third maturity of thy civilization and glory?
* * * * *
I set myself at once, with a good will, to the extraction of gold, and engaged the services of a few Malays and Chinese coolies, who were expert enough, to assist me in my work.
The method we followed was a very primitive one. We filled some round wooden bowls with the water and sand, then by gently stirring the mass, particles of tin and gold were separated from the sand and went to the bottom. This deposit carefully gathered up was passed into other bowls full of water, into which we threw a well-pounded leaf of the sla piu.
The juice of these leaves possesses a chemical property which I cannot explain but it draws up to the surface the sand still sticking to the metals, leaving them quite pure.
But the yellow tempter was not at all profuse in his favours and the golden metal came in very small quantities. I did not lose courage, however, and persevered for a long time without any change of luck. I even tried to trace out the auriferous bed from whence the waters of the stream transported the metals. I made innumerable attempts to find it, but in vain, and the day came when I was constrained to confess to myself that alluvial mining for me was a failure.
After all my hopes and dreams it was a melancholy confession to make but it was evident that I must turn in another direction if I wished for fortune, so I settled my account with the workmen and dismissed them.
At their departure my Sam-Sam who had become in the meantime a robust young man, begged me to let him return to his own part, saying that there was a young Sakai willing to take his place in my service. Although very sorry to lose the faithful companion of that never to be forgotten journey through the forest, I could not refuse his request and let him do as he wished.
It was with real pleasure that I fell in with him again some years after when I was travelling through the interior of Kedah and he too evinced great joy at the meeting.
He told me that what he had earned from me had been the means of making his fortune, for with it he had bought a piece of ground and some oxen, and now kept himself, his wife and two children, by agricultural work.
* * * * *
As I have said, the gold was very scarce. After the coolies had left I tried to persuade the Sakais to take their post, which would have saved expense in gathering it, but every effort was useless for these people do not and will not understand what works means, or the pleasure it gives, beyond that of preparing poisons.
Poison is the principal topic of conversation with them and their only boast is the discovery of new or more deadly mixtures. The children listen to these discourses with lively interest and pay anxious attention to the experiments made by their elders in this primitive kind of chemistry, and in this way the passion is propagated from father to son and so it will continue until the breath of civilization reaches that far-off spot and those good, simple men learn that, in the struggle for life, civilized persons no longer use poisons that kill the body, but those which are much more terrible and without an antidote, such as envy, calumny, hatred and luxury, which destroy the mind and soul.
These are the venemous elements that my forest friends do not yet know, those poor savages who extract their poisons from the ipok and other, trees to defend themselves against wild beasts and to procure them food in their wild abode.
[Footnote 3: The ipok, known in science by the Javenese name of upas, is a tree that affords a very baneful poison as explained in the chapter upon poisons.]
Great Mother Earth—A dangerous meeting—A living statue—Here or there?—An unrelished supper—A dreaded immigration—A glance into the past—A rape which was not a rape—A noble task—Towards the mountain—Tiger-shooting—The Sakais in town—Alloyed sweets— Musical tastes—Hurrah for the free forest!
My gold mania was transient. My spirit was very soon liberated from its thrall and I turned with alacrity to the study of a more practical and satisfactory enterprise.
In that brief period of uncertainty I had somehow felt convinced that fortune (if indeed fortune was reserved for me) would have to come to me through the ground. But in what way?
I often accompanied the Sakais in their visits into the thick of the forest where they were in the habit of going in search of poisons, and sometimes I would even go by myself. During these excursions I tortured my brain with the everlasting question of how to initiate a new line of work and gain.
One day the forest itself answered my puzzling query!
There were extensive woods of rattan, and other magnificent reeds which are called in England Indian and Malacca cane; there was resin oozing copiously from the trunks of the trees. What more could be desired?
I began gently to make my Sakais comprehend how much I should like to gather these products and transport them to where I might exchange them for other articles that we were without. It was of no use to speak to them of money because they had not the smallest idea of what it meant.
At first they responded roughly that they did not care anything at all about the matter, for, as I before said, the Sakais from habit and an innate spirit of independence will never hear of submitting themselves to any regular, ordinate labour. Knowing, however, with whom I had to deal, and divining what a great amount of patience would be necessary to bring them round to my way of thinking, I began to distribute gifts, especially tobacco, freely and frequently amongst them, only mentioning my wish occasionally, as if by chance. And my prodigality had its reward.
One day I saw them returning from the forest abundantly laden with the products I wanted.
It was a good beginning and was followed up by a constant supply. I stored up the bamboo and gum and when I had accumulated enough I went to the coast to sell my merchandise coming back well provided with tobacco, iron, coloured beads, matches, salt, rice padi and maize. These things I dispensed amongst my friends and they, seeing the good result of their fatigue in the form of articles which excited their cupidity, ended by keeping me plentifully furnished with the goods in question.
* * * * *
The new branch of commerce, which I had started, required a good deal of energy, but I let no grass grow under my feet and went frequently to Tapah in order to open up a sale for my products.
It was on my return from one of these journeys that something happened to me worth relating.
Only a few hours of daylight remained when I set out from Tapah for my forest habitation. I was carrying with me six nice loaves and a piece of venison that I had bought in town and I thought with keen appreciation of the savoury supper I should have that night.
I hurried along as fast as possible in order to traverse the 2 miles of highroad and the other of woodland track, which lay before me, ere night fell. In spite of the 30 miles already done that day my legs continued to serve me well and I walked rapidly on with a bent head, full of thought.
At a sudden turning of the path I raised my eyes to scrutinize the way. About 50 yards in front of me I saw a dark and confused mass slowly moving. Thinking to meet with a party of coolies from a neighbouring mine, who were perhaps going for provisions, I advanced for another 40 paces, then stopped short and was fixed to the spot. The formless mass had taken the shape of nothing less than an enormous tiger!
There was no fear that step or gesture of mine would attract its attention for at the sight I had become petrified, like Lot's wife! In that atom of time, which seemed to me a century, I could not even think, but across the deadened faculty of my mind flashed a warning I had recently received from the Sakais: never make a movement in the presence of a tiger, and never look it straight in the face.
The first part of this injunction was instinctively obeyed for I remained there rooted to the ground, utterly unable to stir even if such an imprudent idea had suggested itself. My senses were so paralyzed by the unexpected encounter that I did not entirely realize my position and had only a vague perception that when those fierce eyes once rested upon me the end of the world would have come, as far as I was concerned.
Sideways I saw that the huge beast, which had been sniffing the ground, to find out what animal had lately passed by, now raised its head and looked slowly around with an indolent but suspicious air.
After a painful vibration, some of my muscles became rigid. The monster cautiously advanced; it was certainly preparing to pounce upon me! I could hardly resist the impulse of looking towards it. All my nerves were quivering with anguish as if in a supreme protest against the imminent slaughter. Already I felt the terrible creature's hot breath as it opened wide its greedy jaws; already my trembling flesh felt the fatal touch of its death-dealing claws—one instant—two....!
With a quick, irrepressible motion my eyes turned in its direction.
The tiger was leisurely crossing the path and disappeared into the forest without taking even the least notice of me! Why, it was almost a personal offence!
But although the blood began to flow once more through heart and brain, and Life—which had been momentarily suspended—again ran through all my being, filling the veins and relaxing muscles and nerves, I did not then think of the slight offered me by the animal's indifference, for with renewal of life had come an atrocious spasm of horror and of fear.
In those few seconds a drama, full of strange sensations, awful impressions, and maddening effect had been enacted within me!
After the first moment of relief, and whilst I was still stretching and rubbing my limbs, a serious problem presented itself for solution.
On entering the forest the tiger had gone the very way I had to go myself. What had I better do? It was impossible for me to retrace my steps, for my previous tiredness had increased to a singular degree after my fright. It was equally impossible for me to think of stopping where I was. And to penetrate into the forest following in the creature's wake, would it not be like going to seek the ghastly end from which I had just so narrowly escaped, thanks perhaps to the tiger's defective sense of smell?
And yet, after having carefully pondered which course to take I was obliged to make my decision in favour of the one that seemed the most insensate of the three.
My cabin was not very far off. I should only have to quicken my pace, by making a supreme effort, in order to arrive before it got dark.
And the tiger? But might I not have met a dozen of them on my road from Tapah? And besides, who could say that the one I had seen was really gone towards my home? It would indeed have proved a curious predilection, especially after the affront just received!
So armed with these subtle reasonings, with which I sought to persuade myself, I left the tragical spot where, according to the brief agony of my feelings and the likelihood of procedure, I had been torn to pieces and eaten by a wild beast, and I continued my homeward journey.
How the faintest sound startled me! A falling leaf; a blade of grass moved by an insect; a snake or a lizard gliding out of my path; the squeal of a monkey; the fluttering of a bird's wings as it flew up to its perch, all subjected me to spasmodic thrills.
I always had in my sight that dreadful beast with gaping mouth, and cruelly glittering eyes. The horrible vision gave new vigour to my body, extraordinary suppleness to my legs and—wings to my feet.
Kind reader, who knows how many times in your sitting-room or perhaps in somebody else's even dearer to you—honi soit qui mal y pense!—you have found yourself in front of a tiger, leopard or panther whose brindled and glossy skin you have admired; who knows how many times you have absently played with its head, still ferocious-looking, in spite of its glass eyes and red cloth tongue; who knows how often you have toyed with its fangs and claws whilst you were persuing a pleasant thought or inebriating your spirit with the soft tones of a certain voice!
Well, have you ever tried to imagine what emotions you would experience if quite unexpectedly those glassy eyes should become animated; if that ugly mouth should open wider; if those white fangs should gleam with life; if those splendid claws should be stretched out in the act of lacerating you: if that magnificent skin should once more be incorporated and rise up to face you?
I confess the truth when I say, that the dainty supper I had brought with me from Tapah, lost its flavour for me that evening.
* * * * *
A report of my flourishing trade and the news that gold was to be found at the bottom of the little river which flowed past my humble dwelling soon spread outside the Sakai region. The consequence was quite an invasion of our tranquil village.
This immigration greatly alarmed the poor Indigenes who cannot easily forget how they were once treated by those not of their own race.
They still remembered with terror how the strangers had plundered their villages, carrying off everything they could lay their hands upon, even their young men and women to serve as slaves and concubines.
The majority of these poor victims, torn from the unlimited freedom of the jungle, unused to any sort of work that was not voluntary, and faithful to their traditions and superstitions did not long survive their separation from kin and tribe. The others, who managed to adapt themselves to their new conditions, as a matter of course, had their primitive simplicity corrupted, and little by little learnt the vices and habits of their masters. For this they were considered by their brethren as inferior beings and were looked upon with grave suspicion, when, taking advantage of the first occasion that offered itself, they fled back to the forest. Although by their return to their own people they foreswore their past moral and material bondage they could not help bringing with them some of the depravity they had seen, or endured, in their exile which clashed with the customs and sensibilities of the pure type of May Darats, remarkable for their sincerity and integrity.
In this way, by degrees, the original Sakai race diminished whilst new clans sprang up around them, formed of those who had been, and continued to be, in contact with comparatively civilized people, who knew their languages and their craftiness, notwithstanding which they frequently became their dupes under the show of good-feeling and cordiality.
The British Protectorate came as a blessing to the Sakais because it officially abolished slavery and shortened their neighbours' talons, that had grown a little too long.
But in spite of the vigilance exercised by their white protectors the others still found the means of depredating and imposing upon these good but ignorant creatures. Instead of devastating their rude homes and arbitrarily taking possession of everyone and everything they pleased, they soon established another system for achieving their end.
They supplied them with goods of the very worst quality, charging them at the highest prices, and as these consisted principally of tobacco, salt, iron, sirih and pieces of calico they lasted no time, and had to be frequently replaced. As a matter of course this fraudulent manner of trading made the poor Sakais' debts amount to fabulous proportions and then their swindling creditor dictated the conditions he best liked: the man had to follow and serve him or if there was some woman in the family he preferred, he would carry her off either to keep for himself, or privately sell to another.
To better succeed in their roguery they depicted the white man as an incarnate devil, never tired of doing evil, who had come there for nothing else but to ravage their land and disperse its inhabitants. The orang putei was described to the credulent Sakais as the most terrible and cruel enemy that one could possibly imagine.
Thus the real persecutors of this primitive people were regarded by them as true friends, whilst the relation of imaginary and fantastic perils distracted their minds from the more practical dangers of this false friendship.
By instilling in them fear of the white man there was less chance that the wretched individuals, whose good faith and domestic affections had been abused and outraged, would appeal to a British magistrate for justice, believing him to be a worse enemy than the actual one, and if sometimes a complaint was brought before this functionary through a third party, a most distressing scene ensued.
The victim, under the influence of his injurer's glance and presence, would acknowledge whatever misdeed, debt, and even crime was attributed to him, responding to the demand if what his accuser said was true, with the invariable and laconic words: "What he says is true".
I may here cite a case in which I took an active part when I was the Superintendent of Sakais under the British Government.
One day a family of these Sakais who have dealings with other races, rushed wildly into my hut, crying desperately. The parents, sobbing, told me that a Chinese, to whom they owed a great deal, had seized and led away their daughter.
I set myself to find the blackguard and after some difficulty succeeded. I rescued the girl and restored her to her relations and then sent in a report of the incident to the Magistrate. A case for abduction was made out, and the English law does not jest on such matters. The Chinese declared that as his debtors could not pay him his due he had agreed, if the girl consented, to take her as his wife or servant, and so cancel their debt towards him.
Whilst he spoke he never took his eyes off his accusers. The father and mother of the young woman were interrogated and although they were in my presence they replied, after a momentary hesitation:
"What he says is true".
The girl was then asked if she had followed the Chinese of her own free will or if violence had been used in taking possession of her and she too repeated like an automaton:
"What he says is true".
Nothing availed to get other words than these out of the poor wretches' mouths, nor the magistrate's clever cross-questioning, nor my entreaties to tell the whole truth. I re-called to their memory the pitiful state they had been in when they ran into my house, crying and invoking justice. It was all in vain; but fortunately for them the legal officer himself was convinced that the Chinese—who stood by with a sarcastic smile upon his lips—was guilty, and closed the process by condemning him to six months' imprisonment.
I made up my mind to go to the bottom of the affair if only to discover why the Sakais, by nature so far removed from falsehood, had denied the truth.
My investigations proved that the Chinese had threatened to revenge himself by utterly destroying the whole family if they made any complaint about his way of proceeding, and had also terrified them by stories of the inhuman tortures to which they would be subjected by the British magistrate if they spoke against him.
The confession came too late because, if they had spoken in time the scoundrel would have had a much heavier sentence.
From this simple episode one can understand what an amount of energy, boldness, and resolution the English Authorities need in order to liberate the poor Sakais from the moral tyranny that still oppresses them. But the British Government is quite equal to the task it has undertaken, and there is no reason to doubt that before long it will have reduced to impotency these dregs of Society who creep in amongst the Sakai tribes, that are far removed from civilization and justice, there to work out their wicked schemes and practise their crafty wiles.
I have written the word "dregs" on purpose, as of course peoples in a collective sense cannot be held responsible for the bad-doings of a small number of their countrymen, and I wish it here to be distinctly understood that when I speak of the villainous acts and thievish propensities of these latter (who being too well-known and despised in their own place, to be able to succeed in their base tricks go elsewhere in search of victims) I do not mean to offend, or cast a slight upon Malays, Chinese, or Indians in general.
On the contrary, I have the highest esteem and respect for all three, especially those who faithfully follow the ways of Progress, and have certain virtues peculiarly theirs.
* * * * *
After this rapid glance into the past it is not difficult to understand with what inquietude and uneasiness the Sakais saw their little settlement invaded by those they feared.
The new-comers, though, no longer found such a credulous and frightened people as they had been accustomed to on other occasions. Their calumnious stories of the white man (whose vigilant and not very lenient control troubled them a great deal) made little or no impression. They knew the white man by now, he had been among them for some time and they had even come to look upon him as a good protector.
So by mutual agreement we let our unwelcome visitors choose their sites and erect their huts, allowing them to enjoy the ecstasy of a vigorous abuse of the humble Sakai village and everything they could find within reach; then one fine morning, to their infinite wonder, we left them to their own devices and betook ourselves to the heights from whence flowed down the little river Bidor. This sudden change of locality did not cause me any serious sacrifice as the spot where we had been living was not very healthy owing to the frequently stagnant condition of the stream and, apart from hygienic motives, I was not altogether sorry at being thus compelled to seek new quarters as I was anxious to get well acquainted with the whole district, studying its products and its fitness for colonization, hoping in the end to succeed in inducing the Sakais to abandon their nomadic life for one of honest work, in the field of agriculture. Besides so teaching my good friends the value and the nobleness of labour I should have a useful occasion myself for employing latent energy.
We selected a beautiful place in the forest for our new encampment, and the men set to with a good will to cutting down the splendid timber and luxuriant climbers within the circle drawn out for the clearing. The thick interlaced boughs and bushy underwood were alive with reptiles, and our advent, with the noisy and destructive blows with which we broke the drowsy stillness of the air, brought an indescribable panic in that little centre of animal life.
Our huts were quickly raised and we were soon able to resume our habitual occupations.
* * * * *
Some time passed without our camp being disturbed by any sort of incident when one day a tiger was seen to stealthily approach our clearing and snatching up a dog in its mouth, it fled back into the forest, the poor little beast yelping pitifully as it was being carried off.
The fact was a graver one than the mere loss of the dog would have made it seem because if the animal had been constrained to commit such an audacious act by the pangs of hunger, it would most probably return again, and who could say that there would always be a dog ready for its meal? It is however well known, that this dreadful feline creature does not devour its prey all at once but invariably leaves a part of the flesh sticking to the carcass, reserving the picking of its bones for the following night. Therefore there was a good chance of speedily liberating ourselves from our ferocious enemy, if the Sakais had not regarded the tiger with superstitious respect, for a reason which I will explain later on, a vague belief in metempsychosis that also has the effect of making them fond of their domestic animals.
I had the greatest difficulty in convincing my ignorant companions that the tiger must be killed if we wished to remain in peace and safety. It was a long time before I could overcome their reluctance and terror at my proposal.
At last they consented to let me rid them of their dangerous friend and built me a small house up one of the trees we considered to be in the best position. Armed with a first class Martini I took my place there with two or three Sakais.