Alfred Russel Wallace : Alfred Wallace : A. R. Wallace :
Russel Wallace : Alfred Russell Wallace (sic)

 
 
Letter from Sarawak (S18: 1855)

 
Editor Charles H. Smith's Note: An anonymous (but nevertheless pretty clearly Wallace-written) letter printed on page 366 of the Literary Gazette (London) issue of 9 June 1855, under "Foreign Correspondence." To link directly to this page, connect with: http://people.wku.edu/charles.smith/wallace/S018.htm


    I have been staying some time at a cottage of Sir James Brooke's, about twenty miles inland, on the ridge of a mountain, at an elevation of about one thousand feet. The path up is peculiar, half is over broken rocks, the other half up ladders. These are made of trees about as thick as one's thigh, placed at angles varying from thirty to seventy degrees with the horizon, and having notches cut in them for steps; sometimes they go over chasms between the rocks, or slope over a mass of boulders, or stretch to the edge of a precipice, with a shaky piece of bamboo to hold by, but oftener nothing at all. Over ravines and larger chasms regular bridges are constructed of tall thin poles, crossing each other at the pathway, which consists of a single round and slippery bamboo, and bound together with rattan. There are three paths of a similar character up this mountain to as many Dyak villages, which are situated nearly on the same level a few hundred feet below the summit. These villages are placed in most romantic situations, and might be very pretty were there not such an accumulation of trees, weeds, and rubbish about them. Huge boulders, as big as the houses themselves, rise among them, and hang over them in the most extraordinary manner. Every one is a picturesque object stained with lichens, and on the shady side covered with mosses, while the tops are generally more are less clothed with curious ferns and orchids. All the spaces between are filled up with the cocoa-nut, the gouniti, and the areca palm, with the jack fruit, durian, and mangosteen in smaller quantities. The houses are all elevated on tall poles, on one side perhaps fifteen to twenty feet high, owing to the inequality of the ground, and these posts are generally green with moss and fringed with ferns. The ground between the houses is the general receptacle for all kinds of refuse, part of which is cleared away by the pigs which are constantly roaming about, but the greater part, consisting of the husks of cocoa-nuts and other fruits, remains, and forms a very tan-like mess, soaked as it is with the constant rains, and the dripping from the surrounding trees. Most of the houses are long, and are divided for the occupation of several families with a common verandah. In each village is one circular house, where the young unmarried men sleep, and where the heads are kept. In these tree villages there are perhaps one hundred skulls, but all very old, none having been procured since the English rajah has governed the country. In many the lower jaw is wanting, and has been supplied by a wooden one with carved teeth, and the eyes are supplied by small white shells. The dress of the men is a long narrow scarf worn round the loins, the end hanging down in front. It is generally bordered with a bright colour, and has a pretty appearance. Beads are occasionally worn round the neck, and rings of brass on the arms, sometimes quite covering them from the elbow to the wrist. The women wear a very scanty petticoat and most extraordinary stays, a cylinder of bamboo and brass wire, quite inflexible, and reaching from the breast to the hips. It is worn when quite young, and seems never to be taken off except to enlarge it as required by the growth of the wearer. The paddy-fields of these people are in the plains below, and they are therefore constantly going up and down the hill, and the women and children carry heavy loads 1000 feet up and down. The result is an enormous development of the leg. The women, especially, have most disproportionate calves, actually thicker than those of the men, and by no means improving their personal appearance. They live on rice and fruits, very little animal food, and sometimes towards the end of the season no rice, when they eat rudely prepared sage instead.

    While I was at the cottage a dozen or more of them would come up every day, squat down on the verandah, and watch my proceedings. Before leaving they generally begged for some tobacco, which they prefer to their own betel. Every one, down to boys of six years old, has his little bamboo case, to carry his pinang or areca nut, betel leaves, and a little lime and gambier if he can afford it, these four materials being essential to form a proper betel quid; the test is the bright red colour of the juice, which is freely expectorated, and to a stranger looks very sanguinary.

    The mountain itself is of unstratified trappean or porphyritic rock, rising abruptly from the plain. A few miles beyond it a brimstone district commences, and there the gold diggings are situated. They are worked by a company of Chinamen, and by numbers of private miners on a small scale. The gold is not abundant, just paying the miners, and enabling them to live well. At the foot of the hill is a Chinese village of small traders, who deal with and supply the miners. The Chinese villages here are far more pleasing than those of Malacca and Singapore, on account of the number of women and children, which gives them a more domestic and natural appearance. The women are mostly native half-breeds between the Dyak and Chinese, and the mixture has much improved the race. Some of them are really pretty, which can never be said of the Dyaks, except when very young girls. Of course there is also much improvement, morally and politically. These Chinese are a permanent and most valuable part of the population, not mere foreign adventurers; and it is to the increase of the native-born Chinese, and their gradual mixture with the Dyak tribes, under the present good government, that Sarawak may base its hopes of continued prosperity, and may look forward to extending its influence over a great part of Borneo. Men who have wives and families, a house and a country, are also far more easy to govern, because more happy and contented, than the poor bachelor outcasts of Singapore. Here too the Chinese feel they are a portion of the country; they are not merely governed by a set of strangers, but their feelings are consulted and their prejudices respected, as well as their permanent interests attended to, and the result is, that they give less trouble, and are more amenable to authority here, than in any other part of the East. The wet season is now at its height, and the country is deluged.

    Sarawak, Borneo, 1854


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