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NOVEMBER, 1861, TO JANUARY, 1862.
THE mail-steamer from Batavia to Singapore took me to Muntok (or, as on English maps, " Minto "), the chief town and port of Banca. Here I staid a day or two, till I could obtain a boat to take me across the straits and up the river to Palembang. A few walks into the country showed me that it was very hilly, and full of granitic and laterite rocks, with a dry and stunted forest vegetation, and I could find very few insects. A good-sized open sailing-boat took me across to the mouth of the Palembang River, where, at a fishing-village, a rowingboat was hired to take me up to Palembang, a distance of nearly a hundred miles by water. Except when the wind was strong and favorable we could only proceed with the tide, and the banks of the river were generally flooded Nipa-swamps, so that the hours we were obliged to lay at anchor passed very heavily. Reaching Palembang on the 8th of November, I was lodged by the doctor, to whom I had brought a letter of introduction, and endeavored to ascertain where I could find a good locality for collecting. Every one assured me that I should have to go a very long way further to find any dry forest, for at this season the whole country for many miles inland was flooded. I therefore had to stay a week at Palembang before I could determine on my future movements.
The city is a large one, extending for three or four miles. along a fine curve of the river, which is as wide as the Thames at Greenwich. The stream is, however, much narrowed by the houses which project into it upon piles, and within these again there is a row of houses built upon great bamboo rafts, which are moored by rattan cables to the shore or to piles, and rise and fall with the tide. The whole river-front on both sides is chiefly formed of such houses, and they are mostly shops open to the water, and only raised a foot above it, so
that by taking a small boat it is easy to go to market and purchase any thing that is to be had in Palembang. The natives are true Malays, never building a house on dry land if they can find water to set it in, and never going anywhere on foot if they can reach the place in a boat. A considerable portion of the population are Chinese and Arabs, who carry on all the trade; while the only Europeans are the civil and military officials of the Dutch Government. The town is situated at the head of the delta of the river, and between it and the sea there is very little ground elevated above high-water mark; while for many miles further inland, the banks of the main stream and its numerous tributaries are swampy, and in the wet season flooded for a considerable distance. Palembang is built on a patch of elevated ground, a few miles in extent, on the north bank of the river. At a spot about three miles from the town this rises into a little hill the top of which is held sacred by the natives, and is shaded by some fine trees, inhabited by a colony of squirrels, which have become half tame. On holding out a few crumbs of bread or any fruit, they come running down the trunk, take the morsel out of your fingers, and dart away instantly. Their tails are carried erect, and the hair, which is ringed with gray, yellow, and brown, radiates uniformly around them, and looks exceedingly pretty. They have somewhat of the motions of mice, coming on with little starts, and gazing intently with their large black eyes, before venturing to advance further. The manner in which Malays often obtain the confidence of wild animals is a very pleasing trait in their character, and is due in some degree to the quiet deliberation of their manners, and their love of repose rather than of action. The young are obedient to the wishes of their elders, and seem to feel none of that propensity to mischief which European boys exhibit. How long would tame squirrels continue to inhabit trees in the vicinity of an English village, even if close to the church? They would soon be pelted and driven away, or snared and confined in a whirling cage. I have never heard of these pretty animals being tamed in this way in England, but I should think it might be easily done in any gentleman's park, and they would certainly be as pleasing and attractive as they would be uncommon.
After many inquiries I found that a day's journey by water above Palembang there commenced a military road, which extended up to the mountains and even across to Bencoolen, and I determined to take this route and travel on till I found some tolerable collecting-ground. By this means I should secure dry land and a good road, and avoid the rivers, which at this season are very tedious to ascend, owing to the powerful currents, and very unproductive to the collector, owing to most of the lands in their vicinity being under water. Leaving early in the morning, we did not reach Lorok, the village where the road begins, till late at night. I staid there a few days, but found that almost all the ground in the vicinity not under water was cultivated, and that the only forest was in swamps which were now inaccessible. The only bird new to me which I obtained at Lorok was the fine long-tailed parroquet (Palæornis longicauda). The people here assured me that the country was just the same as this for a very long way -more than a week's journey, and they seemed hardly to have any conception of an elevated forest-clad country, so that I began to think it would be useless going on, as the time at my disposal was too short to make it worth my while to spend much more of it in moving about. At length, however, I found a man who knew the country, and was more intelligent; and he at once told me that if I wanted forest I must go to the district of Rembang, which I found on inquiry was about twenty-five or thirty miles off.
The road is divided into regular stages, of ten or twelve miles each, and, without sending on in advance to have coolies ready, only this distance can be travelled in a day. At each station there are houses for the accommodation of passengers, with cooking-house and stables, and six or eight men always on guard. There is an established system for coolies at fixed rates, the inhabitants of the surrounding villages all taking their turn to be subject to coolie service, as well as that of guards at the station for five days at a time. This arrangement makes travelling very easy, and was a great convenience for me. I had a pleasant walk of ten or twelve miles in the morning, and the rest of the day could stroll about and explore the village and neighborhood, having a house ready to occupy without any formalities whatever. In three days I reached
Moera-dua, the first village in Rembang, and finding the country dry and undulating, with a good sprinkling of forest, I determined to remain a short time and try the neighborhood. Just opposite the station was a small but deep river, and a good bathing-place, and beyond the village was a fine patch of forest, through which the road passed, overshadowed by magnificent trees, which partly tempted me to stay; but after a fortnight I could find no good place for insects, and very few birds different from the common species of Malacca. I therefore moved on another stage to Lobo Raman, where the guard-house is situated quite by itself in the forest, nearly a mile from each of three villages. This was very agreeable to me, as I could move about without having every motion watched by crowds of men, women, and children, and I had also a much greater variety of walks to each of the villages and the plantations around them.
The villages of the Sumatran Malays are somewhat pecul iar and very picturesque. A space of some acres is surrounded with a high fance, and over this area the houses are thickly strewn without the least attempt at regularity. Tall cocoanut trees grow abundantly between them, and the ground is bare and smooth with the trampling of many feet. The houses are raised about six feet on posts, the best being entirely built of planks, others of bamboo. The former are always more or less ornamented with carving, and have high-pitched roofs and overhanging eaves. The gable-ends and all the chief posts and beams are sometimes covered with exceedingly tasteful carved work, and this is still more the case in the district of Menangkabo, further west. The floor is made of split bamboo, and is rather shaky, and there is no sign of any thing we should call furniture. There are no benches or chairs or stools, but merely the level floor covered with mats, on which the inmates sit or lie. The aspect of the village itself is very neat, the ground being often swept before the chief houses; but very bad odors abound, owing to there being under every house a stinking mud-hole, formed by all waste liquids and refuse matter, poured down through the floor above. In most other things Malays are tolerably clean-in some scrupulously so; and this peculiar and nasty custom, which is almost universal, arises, I have little doubt, from their having been
originally a maritime and water-loving people, who built their houses on posts in the water, and only migrated gradually inland, first up the rivers and streams, and then into the dry interior. Habits which were at once so convenient and so cleanly, and which had been so long practiced as to become a portion of the domestic life of the nation, were of course continued when the first settlers built their houses inland; and without a regular system of drainage, the arrangement
of the villages is such that any other system would be very inconvenient.
In all these Sumatran villages I found considerable difficulty in getting any thing to eat. It was not the season for vegetables, and when, after much trouble, I managed to procure some yams of a curious variety, I found them hard and scarcely eatable. Fowls were very scarce, and fruit was reduced to one of the poorest kinds of banana. The natives (during the wet season at least) live exclusively on rice, as the poorer Irish do on potatoes. A pot of rice cooked very dry and eaten with salt and red peppers, twice a day, forms their entire food during a large part of the year. This is no sign of poverty, but is simply custom; for their wives and children are loaded with silver armlets from wrist to elbow, and carry