Project Canterbury

Sketches of Our Life at Sarawak

By Harriette McDougall

London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 1882.
New York: E. & J. B. Young, 1882.

Chapter VIII. A Boat Journey

Throughout the year 1852 and part of '53 my husband was much tried with rheumatism in his knee, which made him quite lame, though he would hobble to church on crutches, and to hospital to look after his poor patients. Meanwhile he taught the young missionaries something of the art of healing, dressing wounds and broken bones, and physicking the ailments to which natives are most subject--fever, dysentery,etc. It was quite necessary they should know something of these subjects before they could be any use in the jungle. The first question the Dyaks asked, if told a new missionary was coming, would always be, "Is he clever at physic?" Medicines and simple remedies were always furnished to every mission-station, and the Rajah supplied all the stores that were needed for Kuching or elsewhere. We had taken a good stock with us at first, and all sorts of surgical instruments, but the Government kept it replenished.

[83] The hospital was set up when the great influx of Chinese brought numbers of sick people to the place. A long shed was built, and twenty beds immediately filled; but the next day, one of the patients having died, all the others who could move ran away. They have so great a horror of a dead body that they never suffered any one to die in their houses if they could help it, but built a little shed for the sick man, and visited him twice a day with food and opium while life lasted. A separate room was therefore added for the dead. This hospital furnished good instruction to the missionaries. It was also their duty to teach the sick every day, and the result was that several Chinese were baptized on their recovery. This shed was afterwards exchanged for a long room above the fort, which was both more airy and substantial. A dispensary was attached to it.

When Mr. Chambers came from England and wras able to undertake the duties at Kuching, my husband accompanied Captain Brooke and some of the Government officers in a tour up the Batang Lupar and Rejang Rivers. He was very lame at the time, but had no walking to do, only now and then to get out of his large boat and scramble up into a Dyak house. How he managed it under the circumstances I never could imagine, for the staircase from the water to a high Dyak house is only the trunk of a tree with a few notches in it, and, at low tide, a case of slippery mud; this, placed at a steep angle, without any rail, is not easy [83/84] climbing for any one, but a stiff knee made it still more difficult.

The object of the expedition was to make peace between certain Dyak tribes who had long been enemies, and to build a fort on the Rejang River, similar to Mr. Brereton's fort at Sakarran, and for the same purpose. An Englishman named Steele was to occupy the fort with some Malays. Captain Brooke took the Jolly Bachelor gunboat, and Frank moved into it to cross the sea from the mouth of the Sarawak to the Linga River, for the waves were high and wetted the smaller boats. When they reached the Linga River, he was sitting one Sunday night on the boom of the Jolly, enjoying the moonlight, and watching the swift rush of the tide, which is very rapid in that river. Suddenly, the piece of wood he was trusting to broke, and he was precipitated over the stern. Had he fallen into the water he must have been dragged under the vessel by the tide and drowned, but, through God's mercy, the ship's boat (Dingy), which only a few minutes before was the whole length of its painter away from the Jolly, swept up to it from the swing of the vessel, and, as he fell, he caught hold of the boat and pulled himself into it, escaping with only a bruise, when a watery bed, or the jaws of an alligator or shark, might have received him. A shark had been swimming round the gunboat during Divine service that day, and an alligator had taken a man only the day before from a boat close by. My dear husband's comment on [84/85] this narrow escape is, "Praise the Lord, O my soul, and forget not all His benefits; who redeemeth thy life from destruction, and crowneth thee with mercy and lovingkindness."

The fleet waited for some days in the Linga River, while the Balow Dyaks fetched the jars which they were to exchange with the Sakarrans as a pledge of peace. These jars, of which every Dyak tribe possessed some, are of unknown antiquity. There is nothing very particular in their appearance. They are brown in colour, have handles at the sides, and sometimes figures of dragons on them. They vary in value, but though the Chinese have tried to imitate them, hoping to sell them to the Dyaks, they have never deceived them: they detect a difference where no European or Chinese eye can, and at once pronounce the Chinese jars of no value. Yet they will not sell their own rusas or tajows for any money, and they fancy that some of them have the property of keeping water always sweet. If a Dyak tribe offends the law, Government fines them so many jars, which are brought to Kuching and kept, or returned on their good behaviour. This reminds me of the story of a little Dyak boy who was taken prisoner in 1849. His father was killed, and the boy, about eight years old, was brought to the Rajah. For some days the child seemed quite happy, then he begged to speak to "Tuan Rajah," and told him confidentially that he knew a place in the jungle where some valuable tajows were secreted, and if he would land him [85/86] with some Malays or the bank of the river, he would point out the place. The Rajah believed the child, and the jars were found, and taken on board the boat. Then the little boy went again to the Rajah, and bursting into tears, said, "I have given you the riches of my tribe; in return give me my liberty. Set me down in the jungle path, give me some food, and in two days I shall reach my home and my mother." So the child was laden with all he took a fancy to--a china cup, a glass tumbler, and a gay sarong (waist-cloth), and as much food as he could carry--and we heard afterwards that he rejoined his friends in safety.

I must now return to my husband's journal. He says: "While at breakfast this morning, one of the men told us he had seen the people with tails, of whom we have often heard. [This legend, though commonly reported, has never been proved.] They live fifteen days up a river, in the interior of the Bruni country. It is a large river, but in some places runs through caverns, where they can only pass on small rafts. He was sent there by Pangeran Mumeim to get goats, as these tailed gentry keep a great many of them. He says their tails are as long as the two joints of the middle finger, fleshy and stiff. They must be very inconvenient, for they are obliged to sit on logs of wood made on purpose, or to make a hole in the earth, to accommodate their tails before they can sit down. These people do not eat rice, but sago made into cakes and baked in a pot. In their country, he said, was a great stone fort, with [86/87] nine large iron guns, of which the people can give no account, not knowing when or by whom it was built.

"After dinner, when the men sit round me and smoke my cigars, they soon enter into conversation. We spoke a good deal to-day on the subject of religion, the difference between Christianity and Mahometanism, and, above all, the absurdity of their repeating the Koran, like so many parrots, without understanding one word of what they say; and the irreverence of addressing God in words they do not understand, so that their hearts can take no part in their prayers. They agreed that it would be better to learn God's law, instead of trusting merely to their hadjis, who are often as ignorant as themselves. A respectable old Bruni man, speaking of different races of men of various colours, said he had visited a tribe of white people, who lived on a high hill in the interior of the country; they were very white, and the women beautiful, with light hair. The men dress like Dyaks, but the women wear a long black robe, tight at the waist, and puffed out on the shoulders. The tradition of their origin, he said, was as follows: A long, long time ago, an old man who lived on this mountain lost himself in the jungle at its foot, and at night, being tired, and afraid of snakes and the evil spirits of the wood, he climbed into a tree and fell asleep. He was woke by a noise of ravishing music, the sweetest gongs and chanangs mingling with voices over his head. The music came [87/88] nearer and nearer to the place where he was, until he heard the sweet voices under the tree, and, looking down, beheld a large clear fountain opened, and seven beautiful females bathing. They were all of different sizes, like the fingers on a man's hand, and they sung as they sported in the water. The old man watched them for some time, and thought how much he should like one of them as a wife for his only son; but as he was afraid of descending among them, he made a noose with a long piece of rattan, lowered it gently, and slipping it over one of them, drew her up into the tree. She cried out, and they all disappeared with a whirring noise. The girl he caught was very young, and she cried sadly because she had no clothes on; so he rolled her in a chawat (long sash), and immediately heard the gongs at his own house, which he had thought was a long way off. He took the child home, and she was brought up by his wife, until she was old enough to marry their son. She was very good and sweet-tempered, and everybody loved her. In course of time she had a son, as white as herself. One day her husband was in a violent rage and beat her. She implored him not to make her cry, or she should be taken away from him and her child. But he did not heed, and at last pulled her jacket off to beat her. Immediately another jacket was dropped with a great noise from the sky, upon the house. She put it on, and vanished upwards, leaving her son, who was the ancestor of the present tribe."

Who would have thought of a Dyak Undine?

[89] While the Malay was telling this story, the boat was waiting in a sheltered nook of the Sakar-ran River for the bore to pass, before the crew dare venture up to the fort. The bore is a great wave, twelve feet high, which rushes up with the tide, and is succeeded by two smaller waves. It is very dangerous to boats; but happily the natives know where to hide while it sweeps past.

When they reached Sakarran Fort it took several days to hear all the claims the Lingas and Sakar-rans had against each other. Six years before, the Rajah had persuaded them to make peace, but they had broken it the same day, and laid the blame upon one another. At last matters were arranged, and a platform being made under a wide-spreading banyan-tree, the chiefs sat round; and Captain Brooke made them a speech, describing the evils of piracy and war, and the determination of the Rajah that his subjects should live at peace with one another.

"He then presented each chief with a jar, a spear, and a Sarawak flag, and desired them to use the flag in their boats for the purposes of trade. Nothing could be more picturesque than the scene. The surface of the water was dotted over with the long serpent-like bangkongs, gaily painted and adorned with flags and streamers of many colours, which looked all the brighter against the solemn jungle background. Then Gassim and Gila Brani (madly brave), on the part of the Sakarrans, and Tongkat Langit (Staff of Heaven), the Linga chief, [89/90] joined hands; and each tribe killed a pig with great ceremony, and inspected the entrails to see if the peace was good. Then they feasted and rejoiced together. This ended, they proceeded up the Rejang River in the boats, and paddled for four days, from twenty-five to thirty miles a day, until they came to the Kenowit, on the banks of which the fort was to be built."

The Rejang is a glorious river. It is not visited by a bore, and eighty miles from the sea it is half a mile broad, and deep to the banks. The flowers and fruits which grow there are a continual surprise and pleasure--but how shall I describe the flowers of those great woods?--not only up the Rejang, but everywhere in the old jungle. They seldom grow on the ground, though you may sometimes come upon a huge bed of ground orchids, but mostly climb up the trees, and hang in festoons from the branches. One plant, the Ixora, for instance, propagating itself undisturbed, will become a garden itself, trailing its red or orange blossoms from bough to bough till the forest glows with colour.

The Rhododendron, growing in the forks of the great branches, takes possession of the tall trees, making them blush all over with delicate pinks and lilacs, or deepest rose clusters. Then the orchideous plants fix themselves in the branches, and send out long sprays of blossom of many colours and sweetest perfume. Here the voice of the Burong boya (crocodile-bird) may be heard, singing like an English thrush. He shakes his wings as he sings, [90/91] and the Malays say that from time immemorial he has owed a large sum of money to the crocodile, who comes every year to ask payment; then the bird, perched on a high bough out of reach of the monster, sings, "How can I pay? I have nothing but my feathers, nothing but my feathers!" So the crocodile goes away till next year. There are not many singing birds in Borneo besides this thrush. The soft voices of many doves and pigeons may always be heard, and often the curious creaking noise made by the wings of rhinoceros hornbills as they fly past. More musical is the voice of the Wawa monkey, a bubbling like water running out of a narrow-necked bottle, always to be heard at early dawn, and the sweetest of alarums. A dead stillness reigns in the jungle by day, but at sunset every leaf almost becomes instinct with life. You might almost fancy yourself beset by Gideon's army, when all the lamps in the pitchers rattled and broke, and every man blew his trumpet into your ear. It is an astounding noise certainly, and difficult to believe that so many pipes and rattles, whirring machines and trumpets, belong to good-sized beetles or flies, singing their evening song to the setting sun. As the light dies away all becomes still again, unless any marshy ground shelters frogs. But to hear all this you must go to the old jungle, where the tall trees stand near together and shut out the light of day, and almost the air, for there is a painful sense of suffocation in the dense wood.

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