Hugh Charles Clifford.

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

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course, he was beaten by the boatmen, who had had
their toil for nothing, and sore and bleeding he was
placed once more in his hated cage, with the added
pain of heavy irons to complete his sufferings. An
iron collar was riveted about his neck, and attached by
heavy links to chains passed about his waist, and to


rings around his ankles. The fetters galled him, pre-
vented him from lying at ease in any attitude, and
doubled the number of his bed-sores. The filthy
bloated flies buzzed around him now in larger numbers,
feasting horribly on his rottenness, and he himself was
sunk in stupid, wide-eyed despair.

A Chinese lunatic had been placed in the vacant
cage on his left, a poor mindless wretch, who cried out
to all who visited the prison, that he had become a
Muhammadan, vainly hoping thereby to meet with
some small pity from the worshippers of Allah, the
Merciful, the Compassionate. The bestial habits of
this wretched creature, whose madness was intensified
by his misery, and by his surroundings, made Talib's
life more keenly horrible than ever ; but he himself
was now fast sinking into the stolid, animal indifference
of his right-hand neighbour. I saw him, exactly as I
have described him, some two years ago, and, unless
kindly death has set him free, he has now, I do not
doubt, reached the happy condition of kaleh.

If the men suffer thus, what are the pains endured
by tender women and by little children ? It makes
one sick to think of it ! And yet, all these things
happened and are happening to-day, within shouting
distance of Singapore, with its churches, and its ball-
rooms, its societies for the prevention of cruelty, its
missionaries, its discontented exiled Europeans, its
high standards, its poor practice, its loud talk, and
its boasted civilisation.


The paths are rough, the trails are blind

The Jungle People tread 5
The yams are scarce and hard to find

With which our folk are fed.
We suffer yet a little space

Until we pass away,
The relics of an ancient race

That ne'er has had its day.

The Song of the Last Semangs.

THE night was closing in apace as I and my three
Malay companions pushed our way through the
underwood which overgrew the narrow wood path.
We were marching through the wide jungles of the
Upper Perak valley, which are nearer to the centre
of the Malay Peninsula than any point to which
most men are likely to penetrate. Already the noisy
crickets and tree beetles were humming in the boughs
above our heads, and the voices of the bird folk
had died down one by one until now the monoton-
ous note of the night-jar alone smote upon our ears.
The colour was dying out of the leaves and grasses
of the jungle, and all things were assuming a single
sombre shade of black, the trees and underwood
becoming merged into one monstrous shapeless mass,
bulking big in the gathering darkness.


We had been delayed all day, by constantly going
astray on the innumerable faint tracks, which, in
this part of the country, begin nowhere in particular,
and end nowhere at all. The jungle-dwelling tribes
of Semang, who alone inhabit these woods, guard
their camps jealously, for, until lately, they were
often raided by slave-hunting bands of Malays and
Sakai. To this end they do all that woodcraft can
suggest to confuse the trails which lead to their
camps, making a very maze of footpaths, which
serve but as a faint guide to strangers in these

The Semang are the survivors of a very ancient
race of negrits, remnants of which are still to be found
scattered over Eastern Asia, and may be supposed to
be the first family of our human stock that ever
possessed these glorious lands. In appearance they are
like African negroes seen through the reverse end of a
field -glass. They are sooty black in colour ; their
hair is short and woolly, clinging to the scalp in little
crisp curls j their noses are flat, their lips protrude, and
their features are those of the pure negroid type.
They are sturdily built, and well set upon their legs,
but they are in stature little better than dwarfs. They
live by hunting, and have no permanent dwellings,
camping in little family groups, wherever, for the
moment, game is most plentiful, or least difficult to
come by.

It was a fire from the camp of a band of these little
people, which presently showed red in the darkness
a few yards away from us, just when we were
despairing of finding either a shelter for the night or a


meal with which to satisfy the pangs of hunger, that
a twelve hours' march had caused to assail us. We
pushed on more rapidly when the gleam of welcome
light showed us that men were at hand, and presently
we emerged upon a tiny opening in the forest, in the
centre of which the Semang camp was pitched. The
shelters of these people were rough enough to deserve
no better name. They consisted of three or four lean-
to huts, formed of plaited palm leaves, propped crazily
on rudely trimmed uprights, and round the fire, in the
centre of the camp, a dozen squalid aborigines were
huddled together. We approached very cautiously,
and when I had been seen and recognised, for I was
well known in these parts, the sudden panic, which
our presence had occasioned, subsided quickly, and we
were made free of the encampment and all that it

Hunger is a good sauce, and I ate with a satisfaction
which has often been lacking at a dinner table at
home, of the rude meal set before me. A cool green
leaf of the wild banana was spread for me, and on it
were laid smoking yams and other mealy jungle roots,
which fill one, as young turkeys are filled during their
rearing j a few fish, fresh caught in the stream and
cooked over the fire in the cleft of a split stick, and
the meat of some nameless animal monkey I feared
which had been dried in the sun until it was as
hard as a board, eked out the curious meal. I did full
justice to the roots and fish, but prudently left the
doubtful meat alone, and when the cravings of my
hunger were appeased, I began to make advances to
my hosts.


First I produced a palm-leaf bag holding about four
pounds of coarse Chinese rock salt, and bade the
Semang gather round and partake. The whole con-
tents of the bag were emptied out on to a leaf with
minute care lest one precious grain should be lost, and
then the naked aborigines gathered round and feasted.
These jungle dwellers lack salt in their daily food, and
look upon it as a luxury, much as a child regards the
contents of a bon-bon box. With eager ringers they
clutched the salt, and conveyed it to their mouths in
handfuls. This coarse stuff would take the skin off
the tongues of most human beings who attempted to
eat it in this way, but I suppose that nature gives the
Semang the power to take in abnormally large
quantities of salt at one time, because his opportunities
of eating it in small daily instalments are few and far
between. In an incredibly short time the four pounds
of salt had disappeared, and when the leaf had been
divided up, and licked in solemn silence, the Chief of
the family, an aged, scarred, and deeply wrinkled
negrit, turned to me with a sigh and said

1 It is very sweet, this salt that thou hast given us.
Hast thou tobacco also, that we may smoke and
rest ? '

I produced some coarse Japanese tobacco which I
had brought with me for the purpose, and when
cigarettes had been rolled, with green leaves for
wrappers, we all squatted around the fire, for the
night was chilly up here in the foothills, and the
silence of sated appetite and rested limbs fell gently
upon us.

The eyes of one who dwells in the untrodden


places of the earth are apt to grow careless of the
picturesque aspect of his surroundings. He is often
too busy following the track beneath his feet, or
observing some other such thing, which is important
for his immediate well-being, to more than glance at
the beauties which surround him. Often, too, his
heart is so sick for a sight of the murky fogs, and
drizzle-damped pavements of London, or for the
ordered green fields and hedgerows of the pleasant
English country, that he does not readily spare more
than a grudging tribute of admiration to the scenes
which surround him in his exile. To-night, however,
as I sat and lay by the crackling logs, I longed, as I
had often done before, to possess that power which
transfers the sights we see to paper or to canvas.
Around us the forest rose black and impenetrable, the
shadows deepened by the firelight of the camp. In
the clear sky overhead the glorious Eastern stars were
shining steadfastly, and at our feet a tiny stream
pattered busily on the pebbles of its bed. Around the
fire, and reddened by its light, sat or lay my three
Malays, bare to the waist, but clothed in their bright
sarongs and loose short trousers. The Semang, of
both sexes and all ages, coal black, save where the
gleams of the fire painted them a dull red, and nude,
save for a narrow strip of coarse bark cloth twisted
round their loins, lay on their stomachs with their
chins propped upon their elbows, or squatted on their
hams, smoking placidly. A curious group to look
upon we must have been could any one have seen us :
I, the European, the white man, belonging to one of
the most civilised races in the Old World ; the Malays,


civilised too, but after the fashion of unchanging Asia,
which differs so widely from the restless progressive
civilisation of the West j and, lastly, the Semangs,
squalid savages, nursing no ambitions save those
prompted by their empty stomachs, with no hope of
change or improvement in their lot, and yet repre-
senting one of the oldest races in the world a race
which, though it first possessed the East, with all its
possibilities and riches, could utilise none of them, and
whose members carry in their eyes the melancholy
look of dumb animals, which, when seen on the
human countenance, denotes a people who are doomed
to speedy extinction, and who, never since time began,
have had their day or have played a part in human

Tobacco upon the mind of man has much the same
effect as that which hot water has upon tea-leaves, or,
indeed, as that which that beverage itself has on the
majority of women. It calls out much that, without
its aid, would remain latent and undeveloped. For
human beings this means words, and, while we dignify
our own speech over our tobacco by the name of
conversation, we are apt to dispose of that of the ladies
round a tea-table by labelling it gossip. Among a
primitive people conversation means either broken
remarks about the material things of life the food
which is sorely needed and is hard to come by, the
boat which is to be built, or the weapon which is to be
fashioned or else it takes the form of a monologue, in
which the speaker tells some tale of his own or another's
experiences to those who sit and listen. Thus it was
that upon this evening, as we clustered round the fire


in this camp of the Semangs, the aged patriarch, who
had praised the 'sweetness ' of my salt, lifted up his
voice and spoke in this wise.

'The jungles are growing empty now, Tuan, and
many things are changed since the days when I was a
boy roaming through the woods of the Plus valley with
my father and my two brothers. Now we live in these
poor jungles of the Upper Perak valley, where the yams
and roots are less sweet and less plentiful than in our
former home, and where the fish-traps are often empty,
and the game wild and scarce. Does the Tuan ask
why then we quitted the valley of the Plus, and the
hills of Legap, where once our camps were pitched ?
The Tuan knows many things, and he has visited the
forests of which I speak, why then does he ask our
reason ? It was not for love of these poor hunting
grounds that we quitted the Plus valley, but because
we loved our women-folk and our little ones. The
Tuan knows the tribe of Sakai who have their homes
in the Plus, but does he not know also that they entered
into a compact with the Malays of Lasak to aid in
hunting us through the woods and selling all of our
people whom they could catch into slavery ? We of
the forests had little fear of the Malays, for we could
make blind trails that they could never follow, and
could hide our camps in the shady places, where they
could never find them. The Malays were wont, when
they could trace us, to surround our camps at nightfall,
and attack when the dawn was about to break, but
many and many a time, when we were so surrounded,
we made shift by night to escape from the circle which
hemmed us in. How did we win out ? What then


are the trees made for ? Has the Tuan never heard of
the bridges of the forest people that the Malays call tali
tenau? When darkness was over the forest, the young
men would ascend the trees, and stretch lines of rattan
from bough to bough, over the places where the trees
were too far apart for a woman to leap, and when all
was ready, we would climb into the branches, carrying
our cooking-pots and all that we possessed, the women
bearing their babies at their breasts, and the little
children following at their mothers' heels. Thus,
treading shrewdly on the lines of rattan, we would pass
from tree to tree, and so escape from our enemies.
What does the Tuan say? That it is difficult and
hazardous to walk by night on slender lines stretched
among the tree -tops ? No, the matter was easy.
Where there is room to set a foot, why need a man
fear to fall ? And thus we baffled the Malays, and
won our freedom. But when the Sakai dogs aided the
Malays, matters were changed indeed. They would
sit in the tree-tops, the whole night through, calling
one to another when we tried to break away ; and, by
day, they would track our foot-prints through places
where no Malay might follow j and no trail was so
blind but that the Sakai could see the way it tended.
Men said that they served the Malays in this manner
that thereby they might preserve their own women-folk
from captivity. But I know not. The Sakai live in
houses, and plant growing things like the Malays.
They know much of the lore of the forest, but many
secrets of the jungle which are well known to us are
hidden from their eyes. Yea, even though the fair
valley of the Plus is now possessed by them, and the


mountain of Korbu is now their home as it was once
our own, the spirits of the hills and streams are still our
friends, and they teach not their secrets to the strangers.
How should it not be so ? Our tribe springs from the
mountain of Korbu, and the hills of Legap ; theirs from
the broad forests towards the rising sun, beyond the
Kinta valley. No tribe but ours knows of the forests
at the back of Gunong Korbu, nor of the doom, which,
in the fulness of time, will fall upon the Sakai. Beyond
that great peak, in the depths of the silent forest places,
there lives a tribe of women, fair of face and form,
taller than men, paler in colour, stronger, bolder. This
is the tribe that is to avenge us upon those who have
won our hunting grounds. These women know not
men ; but when the moon is at the full they dance
naked, in the grassy places near the salt-licks, where the
passing to-and-fro of much game has thinned the forest.
The Evening Wind is their only spouse, and through
Him they conceive and bear children. Yearly are born
to them offspring, mostly women -folk whom they
cherish even as we do our young ; but if, perchance,
they bear a manchild, the mother slays it ere it is well-
nigh born. Thus live they, and thrive they, ever
increasing and multiplying, and their bows and blow-
pipes are sometimes found by us in the deep hollows of
the woods. Larger are they than those we use, more
beautifully carved, and, moreover, they are of a truer
aim. But woe to the man who meets these women,
or who dares to penetrate into the woods in which they
dwell, for he will surely die unless the ghosts give speed
to his flight. Of all this tribe, I alone have seen these
women, and that when I was a young hunter, many


many moons agone. I and two others, my brothers,
when hunting through the forest, passed beyond the
limits of our own woods, following the halting tracks
of a wounded stag. After much walking, and eager
following of the trail, for the camp was hungry lacking
meat, we found the stag lying near a brook, killed by
a larger arrow than the bow we carry throws, and, at
the same moment, we heard a loud, threatening cry in a
strange tongue. Then I, looking up, beheld a gigantic
form, as of a pale-skinned woman, breaking through
the jungle, some two hundred elbow-lengths away, and,
at the same moment, my elder brother fell pierced by
an arrow. I stayed to see no more, but ran, with all
my young blood tingling with fear, leaving my brothers
and the slaughtered stag, tearing through the thickets of
thorn, but never feeling them rend my skin, nor ever
stopped to catch my breath or drink, until, all wounded
and breathless, covered with blood and sweat-like foam,
I half fell, half staggered to the camp of mine own
people. Thereafter, for long days, I lay 'twixt life and
death, screaming in fear of the dreadful form I ever
fancied was pursuing me. My brothers never again
returned to camp, and I alone am left to tell the tale.'
The old man ceased his weird story, the fear of what
he thought he had seen still apparently strong upon him.
He certainly believed what he said, as also did every
person present, with the exception of my own sceptical
self, and I have often tried to find some reasonable
explanation for the story. I have not succeeded, for,
even in the wildest parts of the Peninsula, the aborigines
do not shoot one another on sight, whatever they may
do to bands of marauding Malays, nor do serious


quarrels ever arise between them over the division of a
little fresh meat. Judging by the scared look in his
eyes, as he told the story, the old Semang had felt the
fear of imminent death very close at hand that day long
ago in the quiet forests at the back of Gunong Korbu.
His brethren, too, must undoubtedly have been killed by
some one or something, and perhaps the old-world
tradition of the Amazons, furnished to the mind of the
survivor the most natural explanation of the catastrophe.
A dozen years and more have slipped away since I
heard this tale, told in the fire-light of the Semang
camp, in the Upper Perak valley, and now there is a
trigonometrical survey station on the summit of Korbu.
It is true that the surveyors employed there have made
no mention in their reports of the Amazons of the
neighbourhood, and the Sakai are still living in pros-
perity, in spite of the impending doom, which the old
Semang foretold for them. None the less, however, I
hold to the belief that my informant actually did see
something weird and uncanny at the back of Gunong
Korbu ; and that the keen eyes of a jungle-dwelling
Semang should not be able to clearly recognise anything
their owner could encounter in the forests of the
Peninsula, is, in itself, a miracle.


They wrench my back on a red-hot rack,

They comb my nerves with wire,
They poison with pain the blood of my brain

Till the Devils of Devilry tire ;
They spit from Above on the name of my Love,

They call my Love a liar ;
But they can't undo the joy I knew

When I knew my Heart's Desire.

The Song of the Lost Soul. ANON.

WHERE and when these things happened does not
signify at all. The East Coast is a long one, and the
manners of the Malay Rajas who dwell thereon have
suffered but little change for centuries. Thus, both
in the matter of time and of space, there is a wide
choice, and plenty of exercise may be given to the
imagination. The facts anyway are true, and they
were related, in the watches of the night, to a White
Man whose name does not matter by two people,
with whose identity you also have no concern. One
of the latter was a man whom I will call Awang Itam,
and the other was a woman whose name was Bedah,
or something like it. The place in which the tale was
told was an empty sailing boat which lay beached upon
a sandbank in the centre of a Malay river, and, as soon


as the White Man had scrambled up the side, the dug-
out, which had brought him, sheered off and left him.

He had come to this place by appointment, but he
did not know precisely whom he was to meet, as the
assignation had been made in the secret native fashion,
which is as different from the invitation card of Europe
as most things in the East are different from white
men's gear. Twice that day his attention had been
very pointedly called to this deserted sailing boat ; once
by an old crone who was selling sweetstuff from door
to door, and once by a young chief who had stopped
to speak to him, while passing up the street of the
native town. By both of these some reference had
been made to the moon-rise and to ' a precious thing ' ;
and this was enough to show the White Man that
something was to be learned, seen, or experienced by
going to the deserted sailing boat at the rising of the

The Malays who were with him feared a trap,
and implored him not to go alone ; but the White
Man did not fancy that treachery was likely just then,
and, in any case, he was anxious for the adventure,
and could not afford to let his people think that he
was afraid. The man who, dwelling alone among
Malays in an unsettled country, shows the slightest
trace of fear, signs his own death-warrant. No people
are more susceptible to c bluff,' and, given a truculent
bearing, and a sufficiency of bravado, a coward may
pass for a brave man in many a Malay State.

The decks of the boat were wet with dew and
drizzle, and she smelt abominably of ancient fish
cargoes which she had carried before she was beached.


A light rain was falling, and the White Man crept
along the side until he reached the stern, which was
covered with a roofing of rotten palm -leaf mats.
Through the rents at the stern he could see the moon
rising like a great red ball, throwing a broad wave of
dancing light along the reaches of the river. Then
he squatted down, rolled a cigarette, and awaited

Presently the soft spllsh, whisp ! splash, whisp ! of
a single paddle came to his listening ear ; and, a moment
later, a girl's form, standing erect on the vessel's side,
showed distinctly in the growing moonlight. She
called softly to know if anybody was aboard, and the
White Man answered equally cautiously. She then
turned and whispered to some unseen person in a boat
moored alongside, and, after some seconds, she came
towards the White Man and said :

c There is one who would speak with thee, Tuan,
but he cannot climb up the ship's side. He is like a
dead man unless one lifts him, how can he move ?
Will the Tuan, therefore, aid him to ascend into the
ship ? '

The White Man loosened his pistol in its holster,
covertly, that she might not see, and stepped cautiously
to the place where the boat appeared to be moored,
for he, too, began to fear a trap. What he saw over
the side reassured him. The dug-out was of the
smallest, and it had only one occupant. He was a
man who, even in the dim moonlight, showed the
sharp angles of his bones. He had a peculiarly drawn
and shrunken look, and the skin was stretched across
his hollow cheeks like the goat-hide on a drum-face.


The White Man leaped down into the boat, and,
aided by the girl, he lifted the man on board. Then,
painfully and very slowly, the latter crept aft, going
on all fours like some unclean animal, until he had
reached the shelter in the stern. The girl and the
White Man followed, and they all three squatted
down on the creaking bamboo decking. The man
sat, all of a heap, moaning at short intervals, as Malays
moan when the fever holds them. The girl sat un-
concernedly preparing a quid of betel-nut from its four
ingredients, and the White Man inhaled his cigarette
and waited for them to speak. He was trying to get the
hang of the business, and to guess what had caused two
people, whom he did not know, to seek an interview
with him in this weird place, at such an untimely hour.

The girl, the moonlight told him, was pretty.
She had a small, perfectly shaped head, a wide smooth

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Online LibraryHugh Charles CliffordIn court & kampong; being tales & sketches of native life in the Malay peninsula → online text (page 12 of 17)