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

 
 
Borneo (S22: 1855)

 
Editor Charles H. Smith's Note: A journalistic piece printed in the 27 October 1855 number of the Literary Gazette, following an editorial introduction. Original pagination indicated within double brackets. To link directly to this page, connect with: http://people.wku.edu/charles.smith/wallace/S022.htm


    [[p. 683]] Attention having been called this week, in the City Article of 'The Times,' to the abundance of coal which is now being obtained in Borneo, we have pleasure in giving insertion to a letter from a correspondent in that locality, descriptive chiefly of the people and natural history of the district. The advices above referred to from Labuan are dated 11th of August, but our own letter, received by way of the Cape, is of earlier date.

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    --Si Munjon Coal Works, Borneo, May 25th, 1855.

    It is only about a year since coal was discovered in this part of Borneo. The works have been just commenced by a Singapore house, under the superintendence of an English engineer, and as the district around is an interesting one, I have made this my head quarters for some time.

    The Si Munjon river is not yet known to fame; I must therefore describe its whereabouts. It is an eastern branch of the Ladong River, whose mouth is about twenty miles east of Sarawak. The district is not in the territory of Sarawak, but is under Sir J. Brooke's government, having been lately made over to him by the Sultan of Bruni.

    As far inland as I have yet seen, this country may be briefly described as a dead level, a dense forest and a perfect swamp. It would therefore be very uninviting were it not for a few small hills which here and there rise abruptly--oases in the swampy wilderness. It is on one of these that we are located, a hill covering perhaps an area of three or four square miles, and about a thousand feet in height. Two or three coal seams exist in this hill; one, three and a half feet thick, of very good coal for steamers, crops out round three-fourths of the hill, the rest dipping below the surface of the swamp. It can therefore be very easily worked by levels at the foot of the hill. We have near a hundred men here, mostly Chinese; ground has been cleared, and houses built, and the principal preliminary work, a road across the swamp to the junction of the Si Munjon and Saday rivers, a distance of two miles, is in process of formation. One of the principal reasons which induced me to come here was, that it is the country of those most strange and interesting animals, the orang-utans, or "mias" of the Dyaks. In the Sarawak district, though scarcely twenty miles distant, they are quite unknown, there being some boundary line in this short space which, obeying the inexplicable laws of distribution, they never pass. The Dyaks distinguish three different kinds which are known in Europe by skulls or skeletons only, much confusion still existing in their synonymy, and the external characters of the adult animals being almost or quite unknown. I have already been fortunate enough to shoot two young animals of two of the species which were easily distinguishable from each other, and I hope by staying here some time to get adult specimens of all the species, and also to obtain much valuable information as to their habits.

    The jungle here is exceedingly gloomy and monotonous; palms are scarce and flowers almost wanting, except some species of dwarf Gingerwort. It is high on the trees that flowers are alone to be found. There may be seen occasionally bunches of the magnificent scarlet Aschynanthus and spikes of orchideous flowers, those of the genus Cælogyne being the most abundant and beautiful. Oak trees are rather plentiful, as I have already found three species with red, brown, and black acorns. This is confirmatory of Dr. Hooker's statement that, contrary to the generally received opinion, oaks are equally characteristic of a tropical as well as a temperate climate. I must make an exception to the scarcity of flowers, however, tall slender trees occurring not unfrequently, whose stems are flower-bearing. One is a magnificent object, ten or fifteen feet of the stem being almost hidden by rich orange-coloured flowers, which in the gloomy forest have, as I have before remarked of tropical insects under similar circumstances, an almost magical effect of brilliancy; not less beautiful is another tree similarly clothed with spikes of pink and white berries.

    The only striking features in the animal world are the hornbills, which are very abundant, and take the place of the toucans of Brazil, though I believe they have no real affinity with them, and the immense flights of fruit-eating bats, which frequently pass over us. They extend as far as the eye can reach, and continue passing for hours. By counting and estimation, I calculated that at least 30,000 passed one evening while we could see them, and they continued on, some time after dark. The species is, probably, the Pteropus edulis; its expanded wings are near five feet across, and it flies with great ease and rapidity. Fruit seems so scarce in these jungles that it is a mystery where they find enough to supply such vast multitudes.

    Our mode of life here is very simple, rather too much so, as we have a continual struggle to get enough to eat. The Sarawak market is, to a great extent, supplied with rice, fowls, and sweet potatoes from this river, yet I have been obliged to send to Sarawak to purchase these very articles. The reason is, that the Dyaks are almost all in debt to the Malay traders, and will therefore not sell anything, fearful of not having sufficient to satisfy their creditors. They have now just got in their rice harvest, and though it is not a very abundant one, there is no immediate pressure of hunger to induce them to earn anything by hunting or snaring birds, &c. This also prevents them from being very industrious in seeking for the "mias," though I have offered a high price for full-grown animals. The old men here relate with pride how many heads they have taken in their youth, and [[p. 684]] though they all acknowledge the goodness of the present Rajah's government, yet they think that if they could still take a few heads they would have better harvests. The more I see of uncivilized people, the better I think of human nature on the whole, and the essential differences between so-called civilized and savage man seem to disappear. Here are we two Europeans, surrounded by a population of Chinese, Malays, and Dyaks. The Chinese are generally considered, and with some truth, to be thieves, liars, and careless of human life, and these Chinese are coolies of the very lowest and least educated class. The Malays are invariably characterized as treacherous and bloodthirsty, and the Dyaks have only recently ceased to think head-taking an absolute necessity. We are two days' journey from Sarawak, where, though the government is European, yet it only exists by the consent and support of the native population. Now, I can safely say than in any part of Europe, if the same facilities for crime and disturbance existed, things would not go on so smoothly as they do here. We sleep with open doors, and go about constantly unarmed. One or two petty robberies and a little private fighting have taken place among the Chinese, but the greater portion of them are quiet, honest, decent sort of men. They did not at first like the strictness and punctuality with which the English manager kept them to their work, and two or three ringleaders tried to get up a strike for short hours and higher wages, but Mr. C.'s energy and decision soon stopped this, by sending off the ringleaders at once, and summoning all the Dyaks and the Malays in the neighbourhood to his assistance in case of any resistance being attempted. It was very gratifying to see how rapidly they came up at his summons, and this display of power did much good, for since then everything has gone on smoothly. Preparations are now making for building a "joss house," a sure sign that the Chinese have settled to the work, and giving every promise of success in an undertaking which must have a vast influence on the progress of commerce and civilization in Borneo and the surrounding countries. India, Australia, and every country with which they have communication, must also be incalculably benefited, by an abundant supply of good coal, within two days' steam of Singapore. Let us wish success, then, to the Si Munjon coal works.


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