Hugh Charles Clifford.

In court & kampong; being tales & sketches of native life in the Malay peninsula online

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Prices do not rank high, for a hundredweight of fish
is sold on the East Coast for about six shillings and
sixpence of our money, but the profits of a season are
more than sufficient to keep a fisherman and his family
in decency during the months of his inactivity. The
shares which are apportioned to the working hands in


each crew, and to the owners of the crafts and nets,
are all determined by ancient custom. The unwritten
law is clearly recognised and understood by all con-
cerned, and thus the constant disputes which would
otherwise inevitably arise are avoided. Custom
Addat is the fetish of the Malay. Before it even the
Hukum Shara^ the Divine Law of the Prophet, is
powerless, in spite of the professed Muhammadanism
of the people. c Let our children die rather than our
customs,' says the vernacular proverb, and for once an
old saw echoes the sentiment of a race.

The average monthly earnings of a fisherman is
about sixteen shillings ($8), and though to our ideas
this sounds but a poor return for all the toil and hard-
ship he must endure, and the many risks and dangers
which surround his avocation, to a simple people it is

A fisherman can live in comfort on some three
shillings a month, and wife and little ones can,
therefore, be supported, and money saved against the
close season, if a man be prudent. The owners of
boats and nets receive far larger sums, but none the
less they generally take an active part in the fishing
operations. From one end of the coast to the other,
the capitalist who owns many crafts, and lives upon
the income derived from their hire, is almost unknown.

The fish crowd the shallow shoal waters, and move
up and down the coast, during the whole of the open
season, in great schools acres in extent. Occasionally
their passage may be marked from afar by the flight
of hungry sea-fowl hovering and flittering above them ;
the white plumage of the restless birds glints and


flashes in the sunlight as they wheel and dip and
plunge downwards, or soar upwards again with their
prey. I have seen a school of fish beating the surface
of the quiet sea into a thousand glistening splashes, as
in vain they attempted to escape their restless pursuers,
who, floating through the air above them, or plunging
madly down, belaboured the water with their wings,
and kept up a deafening chorus of gleeful screamings.

These seas carry almost everything that the salt
ocean waters can produce. Just as the forests of the
Peninsula teem with a life that is strangely prodigal in
its profusion, and in the infinite variety of its forms,
so do the waters of the China sea defy the naturalist
to classify the myriad wonders of their denizens. The
shores are strewn with shells of all shapes and sizes,
which display every delicate shade of prismatic colour,
every marvel of dainty tracery, every beauty of curve
and spiral that the mind of man can conceive. The
hard sand which the tide has left is pitted with tiny
holes, the lairs of a million crabs and sea insects. The
beaches are covered with a wondrous diversity of
animal and vegetable growths thrown up and discarded
by the tide. Seaweed of strange varieties, and of
every fantastic shape and texture, the round balls of
fibrous grass, like gigantic thistledowns, which scurry
before the light breeze, as though endued with life,
the white oval shells of the cuttle-fish, and the shape-
less hideous masses of dead medusa, all lie about in
extricable confusion on the sandy shores of the East

In the sea itself all manner of fish are found ; the
great sharks, with their shapeless gashes of mouth set


with the fine keen teeth ; the sword-fishes with their
barred weapons seven and eight feet long ; the stinging
ray, shaped like a child's kite, with its rasping hide
and its two sharp bony prickers set on its long tail ;
the handsome tenggiri, marked like a mackerel, the
first of which when taken are a royal perquisite on
the Coast ; the little smelts and red-fish ; the thousand
varieties that live among the sunken rocks, and are
brought to the surface by lines six fathoms long ; the
cray-fish, prawns, and shrimps ; and the myriad forms
of semi-vegetable life that find a home in the tepid
tropic sea, all these, and many more for which we have
no name, live and die and prey upon each other along
the eastern shores of the Peninsula.

Here may be seen the schools of porpoises which
the Malays name c the racers' plunging through the
waves, or leaping over one another with that ease of
motion, and that absence of all visible effort, which gives
so faint an idea of the pace at which they travel. Yet
when a ship is tearing through the waters at the rate
of four hundred miles a day, the porpoises play back-
wards and forwards across the ploughing forefoot of
the bow, and find no difficulty in holding their own.
Here, too, is that monster fish which so nearly resembles
the shark that the Malays call it by that name, with
the added title of ' the fool.' It lies almost motionless
about two fathoms below the surface, and when the
fisher folk spy it, one of their number drops noiselessly
over the side, and swims down to it. Before this is
done it behoves a man to look carefully, and to assure
himself that it is indeed the Fool, and not his brother
of the cruel teeth who lies down below through the


clear water. A mistake on this point means a sudden
violent commotion on the surface, a glimpse of an
agonised human face mutely imploring aid, the slow
blending of certain scarlet patches of fluid with the
surrounding water, and then a return to silence and
peace, and the calm of an unruffled sea. But if it is
indeed the Fool that floats so idly below them, the
boatmen know that much meat will presently be theirs.
The swimmer cautiously approaches the great lazy
fish, which makes no effort to avoid him. Then the
gently agitated fingers of a human hand are pressed
against the monster's side just below the fins, and fish
and man rise to the surface, the latter tickling gently,
the former placid and delighted by the novel sensation.
The swimmer then hitches one hand on to the boat
in order to support himself, and continues the gentle
motion of the fingers of his other hand, which still
rests under the fin of his prey. The great fish seems
too intoxicated with pleasure to move. It presses
softly against the swimmer, and the men in the boat
head slowly for the shore. When the shallow water
is reached every weapon on board is plunged into the
body of the Fool, and he is cut up at leisure.

Cray-fish also are caught by tickling all along the
coast. The instrument used in this case is not the
human hand, but a small rod, called a jai, to the end
of which a rattan noose is fixed. The work is chiefly
entrusted to little children, who paddle into the shallow
water at points where the cray-fish are feeding, and
gently tickle the itching prominent eyeballs of their
victims. The irritation in these organs must be con-
stant and excessive, for the cray-fish rub them gently


against any object that presents itself, and when they
feel the soothing friction of the rattan noose they lie
motionless, paralysed with pleasure. The noose is
gradually slipped over the protruding eyes, when it is
drawn taut, and thus the great prawns are landed.
Even when the strain has been taken too soon, and a
cray-fish has escaped with one eyeball wrenched from
its socket, it not uncommonly occurs that the in-
tolerable irritation in its other eye drives it back once
more to the rattan noose, there to have the itching
allayed by the gentle friction.

Jelly-fish, too, abound on the East Coast. They
come aboard in the nets, staring with black beady eyes
from out the shapeless masses of their bodies, looking
in the pale moonlight like the faces of lost souls, show-
ing on the surface of the bottomless pit, casting de-
spairing arms around their heads in impotent agony.
The water which has sluiced over their slimy bodies
is charged with irritating properties, such as drive a
man to tear the very flesh from his bones in a fruitless
attempt to allay the horrible itching. When the
water dries, the irritation ceases, but at sea, and at
night, when the dew falls like rain, and one is drenched
to the skin by water from the nets, it is not easy for
anything to become dry. Therefore one must suffer
patiently till the boat puts back again at dawn.

These are some of the creatures which share with
the Fisher Folk the seas of the East Coast, and
hundreds of devices are used to capture them. Nets
of all shapes and sizes, seine nets with their bobbing
floats, bag nets of a hundred kinds, drop nets, and
casting nets. Some are set all night, and are liberally


sprinkled with bait. Some are worked round schools
of fish by a single boat, which flies in its giant circle,
propelled by a score of paddles dripping flame from the
phosphorescence with which each drop of the Eastern
sea is charged. Some are cautiously spread by the
men in one boat, according to directions signalled to
them by a second, from the side of which a diver
hangs by one arm, listening intently to the motion of
the fish, and judging with marvellous accuracy the
direction which they are taking. Lines of all sorts,
hooks of every imaginable shape, all the tricks and
devices, which have been learned by hundreds of years
of experience on the fishing grounds, are employed
by the people of the East Coast to swell their daily
and nightly takes of fish.

In the sheltered water of the Straits of Malacca,
huge traps are constructed of stakes driven into the
sea-bottom, and in these the vast majority of the fish
are caught. But on the East Coast such a means
of taking fish is forbidden by nature. A single day
of monsoon wind would be sufficient to destroy and
scatter far and wide the work of months, and so the
Fisher Folk whose lot is cast by the waters of the
China Sea, display more skill in their netting and
lining than any other Peninsula Malays, for on these
alone can they depend for the fish by which they live.

Their boats are of every size, but the shape is
nearly the same in each case, from the tiny kolek which
can only hold three men, to the great pukat dalam or
seine - boat, which requires more than a score of
paddlers to work her. They are all made of chengal^
one of the hardest and toughest woods that is yielded


by the jungles of the Peninsula. They all rise slightly
at the stern and at the bows ; they all are decked in
with wide laths of bamboo ; they all carry a mast
which may be lowered or raised at will, and which
seems to be altogether too tall and heavy for safety ;
they all fly under a vast spread of yellow palm-mat
sail, the sight of which, as it fills above you, and you
lie clutching the bulwark on the canting boat, while
half the crew are hanging by ropes over the windward
side, fairly takes your breath away ; and all are so
rigged that if taken aback the mast must part or the
boat be inevitably capsized. But the Fisher Folk
know the signs of the heavens as no others may know
them, and when danger is apprehended the mast is
lowered, the sail furled, and the boat headed for shore.
The real danger is when men are too eagerly
engaged in fishing to note the signals which the skies
are making to them. A party of Kelantan fisher
folk nearly came by their death a year or two ago by
reason of such carelessness. One of them is a friend
of mine, and he told me the tale. Eight of them put
to sea in a jalak to troll for fish, and ran before a light
breeze, with two score of lines trailing glistening
spoon-baits in their wake. The fish were extra-
ordinarily active, itself a pretty sure sign that a storm
was not far off, but the men were too busy pulling in
the lines, knocking the fish from the hooks with their
wooden mallets, and trailing the lines astern again, to
spare a glance at the sky or the horizon. Suddenly
came the gust, striking, as do the squalls of the tropics,
like the flat of a giant's hand. The mast was new
and sound, the boat canted quickly, the water rose to



the line of the bulwarks, paused, shivered, and then in a
deluge plunged into the hold. A cry from the crew,
a loud but futile shriek of directions from the owner,
a splashing of released fish, a fighting flood of water,
and the eight fishermen found themselves struggling
in the arms of an angry sea.

The boat, keel uppermost, rocked uneasily on the
waves, and the men, casting ofF their scant garments,
made shift to swim to her, and climb up her slippery
dipping side. The storm passed over them, a line of
tropic rain, beating a lashing tattoo upon the white-
tipped troubled waters ; then a blinding downpour
stinging on the bare brown backs of the shivering
fishermen ; and lastly a black shadow, lowering above
a foam-flecked sea, driving quickly shorewards. Then
came the sun, anxious to show its power after its
temporary defeat. It beat pitilessly on the bare bodies
of the men huddled together on the rocking keel of
the boat. First it warmed them pleasantly, and then
it scorched and flayed them, aided as it was by the
fierce reflection thrown back from the salt waters.
For a day and a night they suffered all the agonies of
exposure in the tropics. Burning heat by day, chill
airs at night, stiffening the uncovered limbs of the
fishermen, who now half mad with hunger, thirst,
and exhaustion, watched with a horrid fascination the
great fins, which every now and then showed above
the surface of the waters, and told them only too
plainly that the sharks expected soon to get a meal
very much to their liking.

On the second day Che' Leh, the owner of the
boat, urged his fellows to attempt to right her by a


plan which he explained to them, but at first the fear
of the sharks held them motionless. At length hunger
and thirst aiding Che' Leh's persuasions, they dropped
off the boat, making a great splashing to scare the
sharks, and after hours of cruel toil, for which their
exhausted condition fitted them but ill, they succeeded
in loosening the mast, and releasing the palm-leaf sail.
Long pauses were necessary at frequent intervals, for the
men were very weak. At last the sail floated upwards
under the boat, and by a great effort the castaways
succeeded in spreading it taut, so that the boat was
half supported by it. Then, all pushing from one side,
gaining such a foothold as the sail afforded them, they
succeeded, after many straining efforts, in righting her.
Slowly and painfully they baled her out, and then lay
for many hours too inert to move.

Late on the third day they reached the shore, but
they had been carried many miles down the coast to
a part where they were unknown. The eight naked
men presented themselves at a village and asked for food
and shelter, but the people feared that they were fugi-
tives from some Raja's wrath, and many hours elapsed
before they received the aid of which they stood so
sorely in need.

The beliefs and superstitions of the Fisher Folk
would fill many volumes. They believe in all manner of
devils and local sprites. They fear greatly the demons
that preside over animals, and will not willingly men-
tion the names of birds or beasts while at sea. Instead,
they call them all cheweh which, to them, signifies an
animal, though to others it is meaningless, and is sup-
posed not to be understanded of the beasts. To this


word they tack on the sound which each beast makes
in order to indicate what animal is referred to ; thus
the pig is the grunting cheweh^ the buffalo the chewch
that says ^uakj and the snipe the cheweh that cries
1 kek-kek? Each boat that puts to sea has been medi-
cined with care, many incantations and other magic
observances having been had recourse to, in obedience
to the rules which the superstitious people have followed
for ages. After each take the boat is c swept ' by the
medicine man, with a tuft of leaves prepared with
mystic ceremonies, which is carried at the bow for the
purpose. The omens are watched with exact care,
and if they be adverse no fishing boat puts to sea that
day. Every act in their lives is regulated by some
regard for the demons of the sea and air, and yet these
folk are nominally Muhammadans, and, according to
that faith, magic and sorcery, incantations to the spirits,
and prayers to demons are all unclean things forbidden
to the people. But the Fisher Folk, like other inhabit-
ants of the Peninsula, are Makys first and Muham-
madans afterwards. Their religious creed goes no
more than skin deep, and affects but little the manner
of their daily life.

All up and down the coast, from Sedeli in Johor to
the islands near Senggora, the Fisher Folk are found
during the open season. Fleets of smacks leave the
villages for the spots along the shore where fish are
most plentiful, and for eight months in the year these
men live and sleep in their boats. The town of Kuala
Trengganu, however, is the headquarters of the fishing
trade, as indeed it is of all the commercial enterprise
on this side of the Peninsula. At the point where the


Trengganu river falls into the sea, a sandy headland
juts out, forming a little bay, to which three conical
rocky hills make a background, relieving the general
flatness of the coast. In this bay, and picturesquely
grouped about the foot of these hills, the thatched
houses of the capital, and the cool green fruit groves
cluster closely. Innumerable fishing crafts lie at anchor,
or are beached along the shore ; gaily-dressed natives
pass hither and thither, engrossed in their work or
play ; and the little brown bodies of the naked children
fleck the yellow sands. Seen across the dancing waves,
and with the appearance of motion which, in this
steaming land, the heat-haze gives to even inanimate
objects, this scene is indescribably pretty, shining and

But at dawn the prospect is different. The back-
ground is the same, but the colour of the scene is less
intense, though the dark waves have rosy lights in them
reflected from the ruddy sky of the dawn. A slowly
paling fire shines here and there upon the shore, and
the cool land breeze blows seaward. Borne upon the
wind come stealing out a hundred graceful, noiseless
fishing smacks. The men aboard them are cold and
sleepy. They sit huddled up in the stern, with their
sarongs drawn high about their shoulders, under the
shadow of the palm-leaf sail, which shows dark above
them in the faint light of early morning. The only
sound is the whisper of the wind in the rigging, and
the song of the forefoot as it drives the water before it
in little curving ripples. And so the fleet floats out
and out, and presently is lost on the glowing eastern
sky-line. At sundown the boats come racing back,


heading for the sinking sun, borne on the evening
wind, which sets steadily shorewards, and at about the
same hour the great seine-boats, with their crews of
labouring paddlers, beat out to sea.

So live they, so die they, year in and year out.
Toiling and enduring, with no hope or wish for change
of scene. Delighting in such simple pleasures as their
poor homes afford ; surrounded by beauties of nature,
which they lack the soul to appreciate ; and yet
experiencing that keen enjoyment which is born of
dancing waves, of pace, of action, and of danger, that
thrilling throb of the red blood through the veins,
which, when all is said and done, makes up more than
half of the joy of living.

It was not always so with them, for within the
memory of old men upon the Coast, the Fisher Folk
were once pirates to a man. The last survivor of those
who formed the old lawless bands was an intimate friend
of mine own. When I last saw him, a day or two
before his death in 1891, he begged that I would do
him one final act of friendship by supplying him with
a winding sheet, that he might go decently to his grave
under the sods and the spear-grass, bearing thither a
token of the love I bore him. It was a good shroud
of fine white calico bought in the bazaar, and it cost
more than a dollar. But I found it very willingly, for
I remembered that I was aiding to remove from the
face of the earth, and to lay in his quiet resting-place,
the last Pirate on the East Coast.


Said one among them, ' Surely not in vain
My substance from the common Earth was ta'en
And to this Figure moulded, to be broke,
Or trampled back to shapeless Earth again.'

Omar Khayytfm.

LIFE meaning the life which animates the bodies of
other people is not priced high by the natives of the
East Coast ; but eight or nine years ago, it was held
even more lightly than it is at present. Murder was
frequently done for the most trivial causes, and a Malay
often drew a knife, when an Englishman would have
been content to drop a damn. Young Chiefs were
wont to take a life or two from pure galete de cceur^
merely to show that they were beginning to feel their
feet, and were growing up brave and manly as befitted
their descent. Such doings were not regarded altogether
with disfavour by the boy's parents, for, in a rude state
of society, a Chief must be feared before he is loved, if
his days are to be long in the land, and some of the
older men encouraged their sons to make a kill, much
in the same spirit which animated parents in Europe
half a century ago, when they put a finishing touch to
the education of their children by sending them on the
Grand Tour. Some fathers went even further than


this, and Raja Haji Hamid once told me that he killed
his first man when he was a child of eleven or twelve, his
victim being a very thin, miserable-looking Chinaman,
upon whom his father bade him try his 'prentice hand.
The Chinaman had done no evil, but he was selected
because he was feeble and decrepit, and would show no
fight even if attacked by a small boy with a kris. Raja
Haji told me that he botched the killing a good deal,
but that he hacked the life out of the Chinaman at last,
though the poor wretch, like Charles II., took an un-
conscionable time adying. Death to this Chinaman
must have only been one degree less unpleasant than it
was to the man who

beyond the seas
Was scraped to death with oyster shells

Among the Carrabees.

The story of Bayan the Paroquet, which I am about
to tell, is another rather striking instance of the utter
impunity with which the son of a Chief may take life,
under the rule of a Native Prince in an Independent
Malay State.

I first met Bayan the Paroquet some six months
before his death, when I was making my way across
the Peninsula, via the Slim Mountains, in 1887. We
were camped for the night at a spot in the jungle on
the Perak side of the range, in a natural refuge, which
has probably sheltered wayfarers in these forests ever
since primitive man first set foot in the Peninsula.
The place is called Batu Sapor the Stone Lean-to Hut
in the vernacular, and the name is a descriptive one.
It is situated on the banks of the Breseh, a little babbling
stream which runs down to the Slim. The banks are


high and shelving, but, on the top, they are flat, and
it is here that the gigantic overhanging granite boulder
stands, which gives the place its name. It is of enormous
size, and is probably deeply embedded in the ground, for
large trees have taken root and grow upon its upper
surface. It projects some thirty feet over the flat bank,
and then, shelving suddenly away to the ground, forms
a stone roof, under which a score of men can camp with
ease. The Pahang Prince, with whom I was travelling,
unlike most of the men of that breed, was a very
nervous person, and it was not without much persuasion
that I had succeeded in inducing him to join me in my
camp under the shadow of the great rock. He feared
that it would topple over and crush us, nor was he
completely reassured until Saiyid Jasin the chief of his
followers a shrunken, wizened little man of many
wiles, had propped the stone up with a slender sapling,
over which he had duly recited certain magic incanta-

My attention was specially attracted to Bayan the
Paroquet, because he was the man who was told off" to
shampoo me after my march. He was a man of about
forty years of age, thickset and large-limbed for a

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Online LibraryHugh Charles CliffordIn court & kampong; being tales & sketches of native life in the Malay peninsula → online text (page 10 of 17)