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 XVII. A Malay Wedding.

My darling Mab,

I am sitting in a darkened room, while Mildred is having her day sleep; and as I am thinking of you, I may as well begin a letter for next mail. Last week I went to a Malay wedding, the first I ever attended, although I have been here so many years. It amused me very much; so I shall try to describe it to you.

Early in the morning the bridegroom's friends came to beg flowers from our garden. Then papa told them I would go to the wedding, and they said, "Be sure not to be later than twelve o'clock." Accordingly, Mr. and Mrs. Ricketts, the British Consul and his wife, Mr. Zchnder, and I set off in two boats, after eleven o'clock breakfast; but we need not have got there before two o'clock.

Eastern people set little value on time. They would just as soon sit cross-legged on the floor smoking for three hours as for one. The bride is [215/2l6] the daughter of one of the first merchants in the place, Nakodah Sadum, and the bridegroom is the grandson of the old Datu Tumangong, whom you may remember. A handsome young man is Matussim, and enlightened, for a Malay. He made his betrothed a present of his photograph last year. Formerly Malays objected to having their portraits taken, fancying it a breach of the second commandment.

The bride's father's house was gay with flags and streamers, and in front of it lay, by the river's brink, four small cannon, which had been busy, for days before and all that morning, saluting the occasion. We walked up into the house, which was full of guests. A long verandah, lined with hadjis and elders, all smoking and talking, led to the principal room, which, unlike any Malay house before built in Sarawak, had large Venetian-shuttered doors all round, and was therefore cool and airy. There was a little round table, and some armchairs covered with white mats for the expected guests, in the middle of the room. Sadum and his wife came forward and greeted us very cordially, and then we were told to sit down on the chairs. I looked about for the bride, and saw a crowd of women in one corner, and a boy holding a gilt umbrella over the young lady, who was being shaved. A woman with a razor was shearing her eyebrows into a delicate line, and all round her forehead trimming disorderly hairs. Four women, seated on their heels in front of her, were fidgeting over her [216/217] face; she, impassive as a log in their hands. A vast deal of singing and drumming went on all the time, a row of musicians keeping it up all round the room. The girl was washed; then her hair, magnificent black hair down to her heels, knotted in two great bows on either side of her head. Over these, gold ornaments like wings were fixed, and a little tower of gold bells above them. Then the women painted a black band round her forehead, and added a silver edge to it, also painted. Her eyebrows were likewise touched up, and her skin rubbed all over with yellow powder. Poor child! she was a curious figure by the time it was all finished, and her skin must have felt painfully stiff. She was then attired in very handsome silk robes, ornamented with solid gold, and the attendants carried her to a raised dais or bed-place at one end of the room. There she sat, not daring to lift her eyes until the bridegroom's arrival.

The divan was gorgeous with silk curtains and cushions embroidered with gold thread and embossed with tinsel ornaments, the work of the bride herself. The seat for the bridegroom was somewhat higher and larger than the bride's. At last the bridegroom approached in a large barge, which held about two hundred people. A small boat preceded it with three guns, which kept up a deafening noise as he drew near. He was carried up the steps, and the house door was shut to in his face, according to the Malay custom. Then he begged admittance very humbly, and after paying a fee of [217/2l8] five dollars, was admitted. His followers rush in first--such a clatter! Greetings, welcomes, jokes, and laughter, make a Babel of noise; everybody speaking at once. Then a cloth was laid down for the bridegroom to pass over, and he was pulled with apparent reluctance into the room, panting and shutting his eyes as if exhausted. His head was wreathed with Indian jessamine. He was naked to the waist, except a gold scarf over one shoulder; otherwise he had plenty of gold and red silk about him. He was pulled up to the bride, turning his head away as if he was ashamed to look at her, and dropped a red silk handkerchief over her face for a moment. Then he sat down on the divan, and all the old women of both houses sprinkled the couple with yellow rice, and rubbed their foreheads with some charm, which looked like a bit of stone and a nutmeg-grater, and wished them all kinds of luck--but especially that they might be the parents of sons only. After the young people had endured this long enough, the curtains were let down round the dais, and only two or three old women kept going in and out. We found they were taking off all the finery, and dressing the bride and bridegroom in their usual clothes; for while we were drinking coffee and eating Malay cakes at the little table, they came out from the curtains, looking quite pleasant and natural. So we shook hands, made our congratulations, and bade them adieu. We got home at four o'clock, very hot and tired, and papa laughed [218/219] at us for going; but I was glad I did for once in a way.

A wedding is a very serious expense to Malays of any rank. The bridegroom has to make settlements on the bride, and the bride's father has to keep open house for weeks, besides fees to the hadjis, and gunpowder ad libitum. The religious part of the ceremony is enacted some days before the marriage. One day papa was calling at a Malay house, where a wedding was about to take place, and found the bridegroom learning a passage in the Koran, in Arabic, which he could not translate, but which it was necessary he should repeat. A hadji was standing by, driving the words into his head. The hadji could not translate it either; but the Koran may only be read in Arabic, lest it should be desecrated. Sometimes papa would read a chapter to any Malay who desired to understand the meaning of his sacred book; but they were generally content with learning it as a charm, or certain parts of it.

The Rajah often made a present of an ox for a great man's wedding. This was a great help, for many dishes of curry could be made out of so much meat. When we wished for some meat at Christmas and Easter, we sent for the Mahometan butcher to kill the animal. He turned its head towards Mecca, repeated prayers over him, and then cut his throat in such a way that no drop of blood was left in the flesh; for the Malays hold to the Jewish law in that as well as many other [219/220] particulars. Then the people would buy whatever beef we did not want ourselves; but not otherwise.

This is a long letter, but as I am on the subject of weddings, I may as well tell you about a Chinese wedding we had the other day at our house. The bridegroom was Akiat, a carpenter, about six feet two inches high. He was dressed in whity-brown silk, which made him look like a tall spectre; and the bride was Quey Ginn, a fat, dumpy little girl of sixteen, the Chinese deacon's daughter, and one of my scholars. She did not choose her old husband of fifty years, but her parents arranged it, and Akiat paid one hundred dollars for his wife. I went to see her the day before the wedding, and she showed me all her clothes and ornaments; but I thought she did not look as if she cared for them. So I whispered, "Are you happy, child?" "No, not at all," burst out Quey Ginn. "I don't want to be married and leave my parents." Whereupon I could not help taking her in my arms and comforting her, telling her to be a good wife, and she would soon learn to be content. She has been to visit me since her marriage, and I am amused to see that she is quite a little woman, instead of the shy girl she used to be; and, whereas as a girl she was never allowed to be seen in the streets, or even to go to church, she now does exactly as she likes, and, I am happy to say, comes regularly to church. These people were all sincere Christians. Akiat was the Chinese churchwarden, and, as papa [220/221] esteemed them very highly, he allowed the breakfast to take place at our house.

I had a cake made for the occasion, which Quey Ginn cut up with much pleasure. The ring in it fell to Mr. Zehnder's share, which amused him also. Good-bye.

It was this year, 1865, that Mr. Waterhouse, the chaplain of Singapore, came to visit us. The doctors often sent us a patient or friend to be under the Bishop's care, and for rest and change; the latter was the cause of Mr. Waterhouse's visit, and six weeks of jungle life did him good, while his society and sympathy were a great pleasure to us, the Bishop especially. The Bishop took him to visit the different mission stations, and he often spoke to me with satisfaction of the "real mission work" he witnessed at Banting, Lundu, and the Quop. At each of these stations he found a consecrated church and a community of Christian people; whilst the missionaries set over them, not only instructed and ministered to the tribe among whom they lived, but journeyed to outlying places, founding branch missions and setting catcchists to work under them. I find in one of my letters, when Mr. Waterhouse returned from Banting, he said, "I cannot but admire the patience with which Mr. Chambers talks all day, morning, noon, and night, to every party of Dyaks, who march into the house whenever they like, making it quite their home: it is what very few people could do day after [221/222] day." This is the trial of Dyak teaching. You cannot appoint specific hours for instruction. People come when they can, sometimes long distances. They can never be denied, except you are actually at meals, and then they sit down and wait till the eating is over. Here is a programme of a day at Banting:--

By seven in the morning Mr. Chambers goes to one or another Dyak house to teach. These houses contain many families under one roof. The people understand now that teaching is the sole object of Mr. Chambers' visit, so, when he enters, all who are at leisure gather round him. He returns home to eleven o'clock breakfast. After breakfast his school of boys occupies him for the afternoon; but every party of Dyaks who come in must be listened to, and, if they are willing, instructed, taught a prayer, a hymn, a parable, or some Scripture lesson. This goes on till five o'clock, when the bell calls them to daily prayers, and they all walk together down the beautiful jungle avenue to the pretty church. A short service, in which the Dyaks respond heartily, and a catechizing follows, during which they are allowed to ask questions of their teacher. Then an hour's rest before dinner. But immediately after dinner more Dyaks, sometimes a whole house, i.e. forty or fifty persons, come in, and have coffee, and pictures, and a lecture. All this does not happen every day, but most days during what we call the working season, from March till October, and no doubt so much talking and so [222/223] little leisure is very fatiguing. But then comes the harvest, and afterwards the wet monsoon, and the schools fall off, and the Dyaks no longer come from a distance to be taught. It is sufficiently dull and lonely then in the jungle stations. The sea runs too high for boats to bring mails, or books, or provisions; the rain falls heavily, and with little intermission, and food becomes scarce. Mrs. Chambers told me that the prayer for daily bread, which seems to us to relate to the daily needs of our souls for the bread and water of life, bore a literal meaning to them in the north-east monsoon, when the day's food was by no means certain. Rice they had, it is true; but English people get nearly starved upon rice alone, without fish, meat, or bread. It was therefore with sincere thankfulness that they welcomed a chicken, however skinny, in that season.

After the Banting expedition, the Bishop took Mr. Waterhouse to Lundu, and Mr. Hawkins, a missionary lately come out, went with them. They arrived on a Saturday. On Sunday there was a great gathering of Christian Dyaks: fifty-two people were confirmed, eighty received the Holy Communion, so that they were more than three hours in church, the Bishop preaching to them in Malay. On Monday Mr. Waterhouse and Mr. Hawkins paid a visit to a beautiful waterfall, about two miles from the town; and on Tuesday all the party, Mr. Gomez included, went in boats forty miles up the river Lundu, with three hundred Dyaks, [223/224] to tuba fish. The Bishop had paid the Dyaks to collect tuba the week before. It is a plant found in the jungle, the root of which washed in water makes a milky-looking poison. It does not make the fish unwholesome to eat, only intoxicates them for the time, so that they rise floundering about on the surface of the water, but it destroys human life, and is the poison chosen by Dyaks who commit suicide, though I do not believe that this crime is common among them.

When the party had ascended the river far enough, the Dyaks built a hut for the English to sleep in. They made a floor of logs of wood, spread over with the bark of trees, which, beaten down hard, made a capital mattress on which to lay their mats and pillows. The kajangs (leaf mats) off the boat made some shelter from the weather, although it takes a good deal to keep Borneo rain out! The Dyaks were much too busy to go to sleep at all: they drove stakes all across the river to secure their fish, then they beat out the tuba in the bottom of their boats. It took all night, by the light of torches, to do this; and a wild sight it was, in the midst of the solemn old jungle. Very early in the morning, when the tide was at its lowest ebb, they put the tuba into the river; the flood coming up, and bringing plenty of fish, encountered this intoxicating milk, and carried over the stakes a whole shoal of dead and tipsy fish. Then the Dyaks, darting about in little boats, speared the big fishes, and caught the small ones in landing-nets.

[225] Hundreds of fish were caught, and the Dyaks had a grand feast; also, they salted quantities, in their nasty way--pounding the fish up, letting it turn sour, and then packing it into bamboos with salt, as a relish to eat with their rice. Certainly it has a strong flavour! They all camped two nights in the jungle, then returned to Lundu, and reached Sarawak in the yacht Fanny, after an absence of ten days. We had a visit from H.M.S. Scout about this time, and one day sat down sixteen to dinner in the mission-house, some of the officers having come up to spend the day. It is difficult to improvise a dinner in a country where no joints of meat are to be had, unless you kill an ox for the purpose. Sheep there are none. A capon or goose, or a sucking pig, are the only big dishes, and not always to be had. However, we did very well, and our visitors were delighted with Sarawak, and with the schoolboys' singing; for I had them up to sing glees and rounds, and "Rule Britannia," after dinner. Captain Corbett was so pleased with the little fellows that he invited them all to see the ship the next morning. Accordingly our largest boat took the choir down very early to Morotabas, where the Scout lay, and Captain Corbett took them all over it himself, even down to the screw chamber. The boys had never seen so large a man-of-war before (1600 tons), so they were delighted. Some Dyaks who went with them were much terrified lest they should be carried off to sea, for the captain ordered "up anchor," that the boys [225/226] might see how it was done, and then sent them off the last minute. They came home in high glee. Only those who live at the ends of the earth can tell what a pleasure and refreshment is a little visit from her Majesty's ships from time to time. The whiff of English air they bring with them, and the hearty English enthusiasm which has not had time to evaporate, is most reviving.

Many Chinese Christians returned to China this summer. I hope they carried the good seed of the word of life with them. They are only birds of passage at Sarawak: when they grow rich they prefer to spend their money in their native country. Our Chinese deacon took his family for a visit to their Chinese relations. Even the married daughter went with them; and a few days afterwards, Akiat, her husband, came to tell me that he was so wretched without his wife, that he should go to Singapore for the few months of her absence, to while away the time, and he meant to have a nice new house ready for her on her return.

Voon Yen Knoon deserved a holiday, certainly, for he worked hard among his countrymen, besides teaching every day in the school. Three evenings every week were devoted to the instruction of the Chinese, at the mission-house. Two distinct languages were spoken by the different tribes of Chinese who had settled at Sarawak. They could not be taught together. The people of the Kay tribe came on one evening, the Hokien another, each having their own interpreter. On the third [226/227] evening the interpreters were instructed in the lessons for the following week. On these nights our long dining-room was full of Chinamen, and a large tray of tiny cups of tea was carried in, and consumed before the teaching began.

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