Hugh Charles Clifford.

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

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to and fro, in the agony of the opium smoker, when
the unsatisfied craving for the drug is strong upon him.
There was a rustle in the grass behind him, the sharp
fierce clang of a rifle rang out through the forest, and
a bullet through Wan Bong's back ended his pains for
ever. The Headman of the pursuing band was Che'
Burok of Pulau Tawar, but he was a prudent person
who kept well in the rear until the deed had been
done. Then he came forward rapidly, and unstringing
the purse-belt from around his waist, he gave it to the
man who had fired the shot, in exchange for a promise
that not he, but Che' Burok, should have the credit
which is due to one who has slain the enemies of the
King. Thus it was that Che' Burok was credited, for
a time, with the deed, and reaped fair rewards from
the Bendahara and his sons. But murder will out,
and Che' Burok died some years later, a discredited
liar, in disgrace with his former masters, and shorn of
all his honours and possessions.

Wan Bong's head was sawn off at the neck, and
was carried into camp, by that splendid shock of
luxuriant black hair, which had been his pride when


he was alive. It was clotted with blood now, and
matted with the dirt from the lairs where he had
slept in the jungle, but it served well enough as a
handle by which to hold his dissevered head, and
there was no need, therefore, to make a puncture
under his chin, whence to pass a rattan cord through
to his mouth, as is the custom when there is no
natural handle by which such trophies can be carried.

On Che' Burok's arrival in camp, the head was
salted, as Che' Jahya's had been, and, like his, it
was also smeared with turmeric. Then, when the
dawn had broken, it was fastened, still by its lux-
uriant hair, to the horizontal bar which supports the
forward portion of the punting platform on a Malay
boat, and the prdhu, with its ghastly burden, started
down river to Pekan, to the sound of beating drums,
and clanging gongs, and to the joyous shouts of the
men at the paddles. For two hundred odd miles
they bore this present to their King, down all the
glorious reaches of river, glistening in the sunlight,
that wind through the length of the Pahang valley.
The people of the villages came out upon the river
banks, and watched the procession file past them with
silent, unmoved countenances, and all the long way
the distorted head of him, whose eyes had looked
with longing on a throne, shook gently from side
to side, with the motion of the boat, as though he
still was musing sadly on the schemes which had
brought him to his bloody death.


For the gods very subtly fashion
Madness with sadness upon earth :

Not knowing in any wise compassion,
Nor holding pity of any worth.

Atalanta in CalyJon.

IN writing of the amok, which Dato' Kaya Biji
Derja ran in the streets of Kuala Trengganu, I
have spoken of suicide as being of very rare occur-
rence among Malays of either sex, and, indeed, I
know of no authenticated case in which a man of
these people has taken his life with his own hand.
A Chinaman, who has had a difference of opinion
with a friend, or who conceives that he has been ill-
treated by the Powers that be, betakes himself to
his dwelling, and there deliberately hangs himself
with his pig-tail, dying happy in the pleasing belief
that his spirit will haunt those who have done him
a wrong, and render the remainder of their lives
upon earth 'one demned horrid grind.' Not so the
Malay. He, being gifted with the merest rudiments
of an imagination, prefers to take practical vengeance
on his kind by means of a knife, to trusting to such
supernatural retaliation as may be effected after death
by his ghost.


This story deals with a suicide which occurred in
Pahang in July 1893, anc ^ I have selected it to tell,
because the circumstances were remarkable, and are
quite unprecedented in my experience.

If you go up the Pahang River for a hundred and
eighty miles, you come to a spot where the stream
divides into two main branches, and where the name
Pahang dies an ignominious death in a small ditch,
which debouches at their point of junction. The
right stream, using the term in its topographical
sense, is the Jelai, and the left is the Tembeling. If
you go up the latter, you come to rapids innumerable,
a few gambir plantations, and a great many of the best
ruffians in the Peninsula, who are also my very good
friends. If you follow the Jelai up past Kuala Lipis,
where the river of the latter name falls into it on
its right bank, and on, and on, and on, you come
to the Sakai country, where the Malay language
is still unknown, and where the horizon of the
people is formed by the impenetrable jungle that
shuts down on the other side of a slender stream,
and is further narrowed by the limitations of an
intellect which cannot conceive an arithmetical idea
higher than the numeral three. Before you run
your nose into these uncleanly places, however, you
pass through a district dotted with scattered Malay
habitations ; and, if you turn off up the Telang River,
you find a little open country, and some prosperous-
looking villages.

One day in July 1893, a feast in honour of a
wedding was being held in one of these places, and
the scene was a lively one. The head and skin of a


buffalo, and the pools of blood, which showed where
its carcase had been dismembered, were a prominent
feature in the foreground, lying displayed in a very
unappetising manner on a little piece of open ground.
In one part of the village two men were posturing in
one of the inane sword-dances which are so dear to all
Malays, each performance being a subject of keen
criticism or hearty admiration to the spectators. The
drums and gongs meanwhile beat a rhythmical time,
which makes the heaviest heels long to move more
quickly, and the onlookers whooped and yelled again
and again in shrill far-sounding chorus. The shout is the
same as that which is raised by Malays when in battle ;
and, partly from its tone, and partly from association, one
never hears it without a thrill, and some sympathetic
excitement. It has a similar effect upon the Malays,
who love to raise a sorak^ as these choric shouts are
termed, and the enthusiasm which it arouses is felt
to be infectious, and speedily becomes maddening and

All the men present were dressed in many-coloured
silks and tartans, and were armed with daggers as befits
warriors, but, if you had an eye for such things, you
would have noticed that all the garments and weapons
were worn in a manner which would have excited the
ridicule of a down-country Malay. It is not in Europe
only, that the country cousin furnishes food for kughter
to his relatives in the towns.

In a Balalj specially erected for the purposes of the
feast, a number of priests, and pilgrims, and lebai,
that class of fictitious religious mendicants, whose
members are usually some of the richest men in the


villages they inhabit, were seated gravely intoning
the Kuran^ but stopping to chew betel-nut, and to
gossip scandalously, at frequent intervals. The wag,
too, was present among them, for he is an inevitable
feature in all Malay gatherings, and he is generally one
of the local holy men. 'It ain't precisely what 'e
says, it's the funny way 'e says it ; ' for, like the
professionally comic man all the world over, these
individuals are popularly supposed to be invariably
amusing, and a loud guffaw goes up whenever they
open their mouths, no matter what the words that issue
from them. Most of his hearers had heard his thread-
bare old jokes any time these twenty years, but the
ready laughter greeted each of them in turn, as though
they were newly born into the world. A Malay does
not understand that a joke may pall from repetition,
and is otherwise liable to be driven into the ground.
He will ask for the same story, or the same jest time
after time ; prefers that it should be told in the same
manner, and in the same words ; and will laugh in the
same place, with equal zest, at each repetition, just as
do little children among ourselves. A similar failure
to appreciate the eternal fitness of things, causes a
Malay Raja, when civilised, to hang seven copies of
the same unlovely photograph around the walls of his

Meanwhile, the women-folk had come from far and
near, to help to prepare the feast, and the men, having
previously done the heavy work of carrying the water,
hewing the firewood, jointing the meat, and crushing
the curry stuff, they were all busily engaged -in the
back premises of the house, cooking as only Malay


women can cook, and keeping up a constant babble of
shrill trebles, varied by an occasional excited scream of
direction from one of the more senior women among
them. The younger and prettier girls had carried
their work to the door of the house, and thence were
engaging at long range in the game of c eye play,' as
the Malays call it, with the youths of the village,
little heeding the havoc they were making in sus-
ceptible male breasts, whose wounds, however, they
would be ready enough to heal, as occasion offered,
with a limitless generosity.

The bride, of course, having being dressed in her
best, and loaded with gold ornaments, borrowed from
many miles around, which had served to deck every
bride in the district ever since any one could remember,
was left seated on the geta, or raised sleeping platform,
in the dimly lighted inner apartments, there to await
the ordeal known to Malay cruelty as sanding. The
ceremony that bears this name, is the one at which the
bride and bridegroom are brought together for the first
time. They are officially supposed never to have seen
one another before, though no Malay who respects
himself ever allows his fiancee to be finally selected,
until he has crept under her house, in the night time,
and watched her through the bamboo flooring, or
through the chinks in the wattled walls. They are
led forth by their respective relations, and placed side
by side upon a dais, prepared for the purpose, where
they remain seated for hours, while the guests eat a
feast in their presence, and thereafter chant verses from
the Kurdn. During this ordeal they must sit motion-
less, no matter how their cramped legs may ache and



throb, and their eyes must remain downcast, and fixed
upon their hands, which, scarlet with henna, lie motion-
less one on each knee. Malays, who have experienced
this, tell me that it is very trying, and I can well
believe it, the more so, since it is a point of honour for
the man to try to catch an occasional glimpse of his
fiancee^ out of the corner of his eyes, without turning
his head a hair's breadth, and without appearing to move
an eyelash. The bridegroom is conducted to the house
of his bride, there to sit in state, by a band of his
relations and friends, some of whom sing shrill verses
from the Kuran^ while others rush madly ahead,
charging, retreating, capering, dancing, yelling, and
hooting, brandishing naked weapons, and engaging
in a most realistic sham fight, with the bride's relations
and friends, who rush out of her compound to meet
them, and do not suffer themselves to be routed
until they have made a fine show of resistance. This
custom, doubtless, has its origin in the fact that, in
primitive states of society, a man must seek a wife at
his risk and peril, for among the Sakai in some of the
wilder parts of the country, the girl is still placed upon
an anthill, and ringed about by her relations, who do
not suffer her fiance to win her until his head has been
broken in several places. The same feeling exists in
Europe, as is witnessed by the antagonism displayed by
the school-boy, and even the older and more sensible
males of a family, to their would-be brother-in-law.
It is the natural instinct of the man, to protect his
women-folk from all comers, breaking out, as natural
instincts are wont to do, in a hopelessly wrong place.
As I have said, the bride had been left in the inner


apartments, there to await her call to the dais ; and the
preparations for the feast were in full swing, and the
men were enjoying themselves in their own way while
the women cooked, when, suddenly, a dull thud, as of
some falling body, was heard within the house. The
women rushed in, and found the little bride lying on
the floor, with all the pretty garments, with which
she had been bedecked, drenched in her own blood.
A small clasp knife lay by her side, and there was a
ghastly gash in her throat. The women lifted her up,
and strove to staunch the bleeding, and as they fought
to stay the life that was ebbing from her, the drone of
the priests, and the beat of the drums, came to their
ears from the men who were making merry without.
Then suddenly the news of what had occurred spread
among the guests, and the music died away, and was
replaced by a babble of excited voices, all speaking at

The father of the girl rushed in, and, as she lay on
the sleeping platform, still conscious, he asked her who
had done this thing.

I It is my own handiwork,' she said.

4 But wherefore, child of mine,' cried her mother,
4 but wherefore dost thou desire to slay thyself ? '

I 1 gazed upon my likeness in the mirror,' said the
girl, speaking slowly and with difficulty, 'and I beheld
that I was very hideous to look upon, so that it was
not fitting that I should live. Therefore I did it.'

And until she died, about an hour later, this, and
this only, was the explanation which she would give.
The matter was related to me by the great up-country
Chief, the Dato' Mahraja Perba, who said that he had


never heard of any parallel case. I jestingly told him
that he should be careful not to allow this deed to
become a precedent, for there are many ugly women
in his district, and if they all followed this girl's
example, the population would soon have dwindled
sadly. Later, when I learned the real reasons which
led to this suicide, I was sorry that I had ever jested
about it, for the girl's was a sad little story.

Some months before, a Pekan born Malay had come
to the Jelai on a trading expedition, and had cast his
eyes upon the girl. To her, he was all that the people
of the surrounding villages were not. He walked
with a swagger, wore his weapons and his clothes
with an air that none but a Court-bred Malay knows
how to assume, and was full of brave tales, which the
elders of the village could only listen to with wonder
and respect. As the brilliant form of Lancelot burst
upon the startled sight of the Lady of Shalott, so did
this man an equally splendid vision in the eyes of
this poor little up-country maid come into her life,
bringing with him hopes and desires, that she had
never before dreamed of. Before so brave a wooer
what could her little arts avail ? As many better and
worse women than she have done before her, she gave
herself to him, thinking, thereby, to hold him in silken
bonds, through which he might not break ; but what
was all her life to her, was merely a passing incident
to him, and one day she learned that he had returned
down stream. The idea of following him probably
never even occurred to her, but, like others before her,
she thought that the sun had fallen from heaven, because
her night light had gone out. Her parents, who knew


nothing of this intrigue, calmly set about making the
arrangements for her marriage, a matter in which, of
course, she would be the last person to be consulted.
She must have watched these preparations with speech-
less agony, knowing that the day fixed for the
marriage must be that on which her life would end,
for she must long have resolved to die faithful to her
false lover, though it was not until the very last
moment that she summoned up sufficient courage to
take her own life. That she ever did so is very
marvellous. That act is one which is not only con-
trary to all natural instincts, but is, moreover, utterly
opposed to the ideas which prevail among people of
her race ; and her sufferings must, indeed, have been
intense, before this means of escape can have pre-
sented itself to her, even as a possibility. She must
have been at once a girl of extraordinary strength and
weakness : strength to have made the resolve, and,
having made it, to fearlessly carry it into execution,
dying with a lie on her lips, which should conceal her
real reasons, and the fact of her rapidly approaching
maternity ; and weakness in that the burden laid
upon her was greater than she could bear. Poor
child, ignorant, yet filled with a terrible knowledge,
false, yet faithful even unto death, strong in her
weakness, with a marvellous strength, yet weak in her
first fall.

She has lived her life, and that which she has done,
May God within Himself make whole.


A palm-leaf sail that stretches wide,

A sea that's running strong,
A boat that dips its laving side,

The forefoot's rippling song.
A flaming sky, a crimson flood,

Here's joy for body and mind,
As in our canting crafts we scud

With a spanking breeze behind.

The Song of the Fisher Folk.

THIS is a land of a thousand beauties. Nature, as we
see her in the material things which delight our eyes,
is straight from the hand of God, unmarred by man's
deforming, a marvellous creation of green growths and
brilliant shades of colour, fresh, sweet, pure, an endless
panorama of loveliness. But it is not only the material
things which form the chief beauties of the land in
which we dwell. The ever-varying lights of the
Peninsula, and the splendid Malayan sky that arches
over us are, in themselves, at once the crown of our
glory, and the imparters of a fresh and changeful
loveliness to the splendours of the earth. Our eyes
are ever glutted with the wonders of the sky, and
of the lights which are shed around us. From the
moment when the dawn begins to paint its orange


tints in the dim East, and later floods the vastness of
the low-lying clouds with glorious dyes of purple and
vermillion, and a hundred shades of colour, for which
we have no name, reaching to the very summit of the
heavens ; on through the early morning hours, when
the slanting rays of the sun throw long broad streaks
of dazzlingly white light upon the waters of sea and
river ; on through the burning noonday, when the
shadows fall black and sharp and circular, in dwarfed
patches about our feet j on through the cooler hours
of the afternoon, when the sun is a burning disc low
down in the western sky, or, hiding behind a bank of
clouds, throws wide-stretched arms of prismatic colour
high up into the heavens ; on through the hour of
sunset, when all the world is a flaming blaze of gold
and crimson ; and so into the cool still night, when
the moon floods us with a sea of light only one degree
less dazzling than that of day, or when the thousand
wonders of the southern stars gaze fixedly upon us
from their places in the deep clear vault above our
heads, and Venus casts a shadow on the grass j from
dawn to dewy eve, from dewy eve to dawn, the lights
of the Peninsula vary as we watch them steep us and
all the world in glory, and half intoxicate us with their

But the sea is the best point or vantage from which
to watch the glories of which I tell speaking as I do
in weak colourless words of sights and scenes which no
human brush could ever hope to render, nor mortal poet
dream of painting in immortal song and if you would
see them for yourself, and drink in their beauty to the
full, go dwell among the Fisher Folk of the East Coast.


They are a rough, hard-bit gang, ignorant and
superstitious beyond belief, tanned to the colour of
mahogany by exposure to the sun, with faces scarred
and lined by rough weather and hard winds. They
are plucky and reckless, as befits men who go down to
the sea in ships ; they are full of resource, the results
of long experience of danger, and constant practice in
sudden emergencies, where a loss of presence of mind
means a forfeiture of life. Their ways and all their
dealings are bound fast by a hundred immutable
customs, handed down through countless ages, which
no man among them dreams of violating ; and they
have, moreover, that measure of romance attaching to
them which clings to all men who run great risks, and
habitually carry their lives in their hands.

From the beginning of November to the end of
February the North-East monsoon whips down the long
expanse of the China Sea, fenced as it is by the
Philippines and Borneo on the one hand, and by Cochin
China and Cambodia on the other, until it breaks in
all its force and fury on the East Coast of the
Peninsula. It raises breakers mountain high upon the
bars at the river mouths, it dashes huge waves against
the shore, or banks up the flooded streams as they flow
seaward, until, on a calm day, a man may drink sweet
water a mile out at sea. During this season the people
of the coast are mostly idle, though they risk their
lives and their boats upon the fishing banks on days
when a treacherous calm lures them seaward, and they
can rarely be induced to own that the monsoon has in
truth broken, until the beaches have been strewn with
driftwood from a dozen wrecks. They long for the


open main when they are not upon it, and I have seen
a party of Kelantan fishermen half drunk with joy at
finding themselves dancing through a stormy sea in an
unseaworthy craft on a dirty night, after a long period
spent on the firm shore. 'It is indeed sweet,' they
kept exclaiming ' it is indeed sweet thus once more
to play with the waves ! ' For here as elsewhere the
sea has its own peculiar strange fascination for those
who are at once its masters, its slaves, and its prey.

When they have at last been fairly beaten by the
monsoon, the fisher folk betake themselves to the
scattered coast villages, which serve to break the
monotonous line of jungle and shivering casuarina
trees that fringe the sandy beach and the rocky head-
lands of the shore. Here under the cocoa-nut palms,
amid chips from boats that are being repaired, and
others that still lie upon the stocks, surrounded by
nets, and sails, and masts, and empty crafts lying high
and dry upon the beach out of reach of the tide, the
fishermen spend the months of their captivity. Their
women live here all the year round, labouring inces-
santly in drying and salting the fish which have been
taken by the men, or pounding prawns into blachan^
that evil - smelling condiment which has been so
ludicrously misnamed the Malayan Caviare. It needs
all the violence of the fresh, strong, monsoon winds to
even partially purge these villages of the rank odours
which cling to them at the end of the fishing season ;
and when all has been done, the saltness of the sea air,
the brackish water of the wells, and the faint stale
smells emitted by the nets and fishing tackle still tell
unmistakable tales of the one trade in which every


member of these communities is more or less

The winds blow strong, and the rain falls heavily.
The frogs in the marshes behind the village fill the
night air with the croakings of a thousand mouths,
and the little bull-frogs sound their deep see-saw note
during all the hours of darkness. The sun is often
hidden by the heavy cloud -banks, and a subdued
melancholy falls upon the moist and steaming land.
The people, whom the monsoon has robbed of their
occupation, lounge away the hours, building boats, and
mending nets casually and without haste or concen-
trated effort. Four months must elapse before they
can again put to sea, so there is no cause for hurry.
They are frankly bored by the life they have to lead
between fishing season and fishing season, but they are
a healthy-minded and withal a law-abiding people, who
do little evil even when their hands are idle.

Then the monsoon breaks, and they put out to sea
once more, stretching to their paddles, and shouting in
chorus as they dance across the waves to the fishing
grounds. During this season numerous ugly and
uncleanly steamboats tramp up the coast, calling at all
the principal ports for the cargoes of dried fish that
find a ready market in Singapore, and thus the fisher
folk have no difficulty in disposing of their takes.

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Online LibraryHugh Charles CliffordIn court & kampong; being tales & sketches of native life in the Malay peninsula → online text (page 9 of 17)