Discoveries in Australia/Volume 2/Chapter 10

Discoveries in Australia, Volume 2 by John Lort Stokes
Chapter 10. Indian Archipelago

This chapter is based on material written by Owen Stanley.



We sailed from Port Essington on the 19th of June, and found a very heavy confused sea running outside, which made the topsides leak so much that we were obliged to have recourse to the pump every hour. On the second day we made the south end of the Arrou Islands, the lat. of which agrees with the position assigned to it in the Admiralty Chart. On attempting to close the land, which is very low, we shoaled the water suddenly from 15 to 6 fathoms, when at some distance from the shore, and from the heavy sea running, and the appearance of the land, I did not think it prudent to stand in closer, but steered to the northward towards Dobbo. At sunset we anchored off the village of Maykor, situated at the entrance of a small inlet, and had a visit from an old man who had been lately appointed Orangtua by the Captain of a Dutch frigate, that had touched on the coast. He was very dirty, talked a great deal, and imbibed a considerable quantity of brandy and arrack. We allowed him to remain on board till daylight, when he returned to his village, leaving one of his boat's crew behind to pilot us round to Dobbo.

After leaving Maykor, we had very deep water until we came abreast the island of Babi, off which a shoal extends to the eastward two miles. We crossed the end of it in 8 fathoms, and immediately afterwards deepened our water to 15; and did not again strike soundings until we were close off the old Dutch fort, at the entrance of Dobbo harbour. Here we anchored, as I wished to see the native village close to it.

The anchor was hardly let go, when the monotonous sound of a tom-tom gave notice of the approach of some chief; and shortly afterwards, a boat, carrying a huge Dutch flag, was seen pulling towards the brig, with a great many round-bladed paddles.

Seated in state, in the stern sheets, was an old man dressed in a long black serge coat and trousers, with a white shirt and handkerchief. His servant who sat behind him, attempted to protect him from a heavy shower by holding over his head, with very great care, an old Chinese umbrella that leaked like a sieve.

The old man, on coming on board, introduced himself as the schoolmaster of the village, and gave us a pressing invitation to land and inspect the church, of which he seemed to be very proud. A younger man, who accompanied him, he introduced as the Orang kaya of the village. As the rain still continued, I invited them into the cabin, where they were much delighted at all they saw; and, during the conference, they expressed much surprise at being told that all Englishmen were Christians. The chief of Wakan, an island which forms the other side of the entrance to Dobbo harbour, also favoured us with a visit. He came to request us to assist him in waging war against the chief of a neighbouring island, and did not at all understand our refusing his petition.

As soon as the rain cleared off, our visitors landed, and Mr. Earl and myself soon followed them to their village, where they were all drawn up to receive us, and saluted us with one musket. We were conducted to the village in state, and immediately taken to see the church, which had been a nice building, capable of holding all the inhabitants of the place; but it had latterly been allowed to get very much out of repair. In the font they had placed a saucer containing a small coin, as a hint that we should contribute something towards the restoration of the church, which was not thrown away, and most probably led to the largest donation the church had received for some time. After inspecting the church and village, we walked for some distance along the beach, and saw a great many parrots, parakeets, and large wood-pigeons, of varied and beautiful plumage, flying amongst the splendid kanari* trees, which, from all accounts, afford most valuable timber for ship-building.

* Cannarium commune.

June 23.—Mr. Earl and myself visited the village of Dobbo. We found it very little changed since our last visit. The trading vessels had all sailed, but the village was occupied by a few Dutch traders from Macassar, some dozen Chinese, and about 300 Bughis and Macassars; the greater portion of whom were preparing to visit the eastern side of the group to collect the produce for the vessels expected to arrive at the setting-in of the westerly monsoon.

The only sea-going vessels in the harbour were two large Macassar proas and a Ceramese junk; which were to sail in a few days.

Whilst I was employed, making astronomical observations to determine the position of the point, Mr. Earl obtained considerable information from the traders.

The commerce of these islands appears to have increased considerably of late years, four or five ships and brigs, with a number of Macassar and Bughis proas, whose united crews were said to have amounted to 5,000 persons, having sailed with cargoes about two months previous to our visit.

The produce of the Arrou Islands consists chiefly of pearls, mother-of-pearl shell, tortoise-shell, birds of paradise, and Trepang; but the trade of Dobbo is not dependent on the productions of the Arrou Islands alone. The Bughis proas import large quantities of British calico, iron, hardware, muskets, gunpowder, etc. from Singapore, to obtain which Dobbo is visited by the natives of Ceram, Buru, New Guinea, and of all the adjacent islands, it being the only spot in this part of the world where British manufactures can at present be procured. The articles brought for sale from New Guinea consist of nutmegs, tortoise and mother-of-pearl shell, ambergris, birds-of-paradise, ebony, clove, and Massay bark, rosamala (an odoriferous wood) and Kayu-buku, a wood much prized for cabinet-work. British calicoes and iron are the principal articles taken in exchange for these by the proas from New Guinea.

The closeness with which the native traders conceal their commercial transactions, even from each other, rendered it impossible for me to learn the amount of exports and imports. Each Bughis proa imports to the amount of from 10,000 to 30,000 dollars, and at least one half of her cargo consists of British goods. Taking the yearly average of thirty proas, and the amount of her import cargo at the lowest above stated, this will give 150,000 dollars, or £32,500 sterling, as the amount of British goods imported annually into Dobbo. This appears a large amount; but it will be found, upon examination, that it is rather under than above the actual value. In fact, the greater portion of our cotton manufactures sold at Singapore is consumed in the less civilized parts of the Indian Archipelago, where the natives prefer cheap goods and gaudy patterns; while the people of Java, Celebes, etc. prefer their own or Indian manufactures, which, although dearer, are far more durable than ours.

The value of a return cargo of a Bughis proa at Singapore is about 200 per cent on the outlay. Of the timber of the Arrou Islands there are several varieties, highly spoken of by the Bughis (who build and repair their proas there) for their durability, and the ease with which they are worked. Although of immense size, the trees are almost invariably sound; and as they can be felled within a few yards of the beach, it is not impossible that at some future period timber may form a valuable article of export.

The western islands of this group are very thinly inhabited. Wamma, though nearly forty miles in circumference, contains only between 200 and 300 inhabitants, who are scattered along the coast in little villages, each containing about half a dozen houses. The eastern islands are said to be more thickly inhabited. The natives appear to be a harmless race; and though their country is so rich in produce, the greater portion are in a state of poverty. This is to be attributed to the immoderate use of spirituous liquors, large quantities of which are brought by the traders from Java and Macassar. From their language and personal appearance, the natives appear to be a mixture between the Malayan race and the Polynesian negro.

We also learnt that the emu and a small species of the kangaroo are found in the islands. From the varieties of birds, insects, butterflies, and parasitical plants, etc. that we saw, these islands promise a rich field to the naturalist and botanist.

We were shown some of the pearls that had been collected, some of which were very large, and highly prized by the Chinese; though from their irregular form and golden hue, they would not suit the European market. The smaller pearls, about the size of Number 1 shot, were very perfect in figure but tinged with colour.

As soon as the observations were concluded we returned on board, and got underway to proceed to the Ki Islands. On the 25th we passed the north end of the Great Ki, and along its western side, which appeared to be as steep as the eastern, and to afford no anchorage whatever. At 2 p.m. we were off the Lesser Ki, and anchored nearly in our old berth, in 14 fathoms. As soon as the brig was secured, Mr. Hill and myself commenced a survey of the harbour, with which we were rather disappointed, as on further examination the water proved to be too deep for convenient anchorage.

June 27.—The natives came on board in great numbers, bringing abundance of yams, coconuts, bananas, pumpkins, and a few fowls. As our usual hour for divine service approached, Mr. Earl explained to them what we were going to do, and that they must go on shore till we had finished; but the chiefs requested so earnestly to be allowed to remain, that I permitted them to do so, upon the condition that they would be quite silent during the service. This they promised, and seating themselves on the hammock nettings all round the ship, remained the whole time most quiet and attentive spectators of the scene before them, which they seemed to understand and appreciate perfectly.

In the afternoon we landed, and accompanied by one of the chiefs, walked into the interior of the island for some distance. The country was very low, and covered with an impenetrable jungle, through which a path had been cut with considerable care; on each side, we noticed some patches of ground surrounded by stone walls, very neatly constructed. Our guide informed us that they had been farms, but the soil was exhausted. As only the underwood had been cleared away, the crop must have been produced beneath the shade of the large trees, through which the rays of the sun could scarcely penetrate. At Ki Doulan we saw nothing new. The inhabitants had sold nearly all their canoes to the Bughis, who had touched here on their return from Arrou to their own country.

June 29.—As soon as our survey was finished, we sailed for Banda, where I hoped to find some vessel in which our shipwrecked passengers* might find their way to a more civilized part of the world.

* Crew of the Montreal, lost in Torres Strait, who reached Port Essington in their boats.

June 30.—At 8 a.m. we saw Banda, and at 11 entered the harbour; which is formed between the two islands of Great Banda and Banda Neira; and were here advised by the Resident to take the seamen on to Amboyna; where the papers requisite for their embarkation, in a Dutch merchant vessel, could be procured with less difficulty.

The Banda group consists of three large islands and two smaller ones. The nutmegs, which form the only export of the place, are all grown upon Great Banda, the largest of the three islands. It averages 500 feet in height, and is luxuriantly wooded.

Banda Neira, the next in point of size, is the residence of the government officers, the troops, and the convicts. It is not so high as Great Banda, and does not produce a single nutmeg. The third island is called the Gounung Api, or Burning Mountain; and is, as its name implies, a volcano, from which more or less smoke, impregnated with sulphur, is constantly issuing; during the westerly monsoon, this smoke is blown over the town, which it renders very unhealthy. One of the small islands is inhabited entirely by lepers, who are sent there to prevent the disease from spreading among the inhabitants.

Banda is used as a penal settlement by the Dutch Government, and, at the period of our visit, there were from 3000 to 4000 convicts, guarded by about 300 soldiers, most of whom were natives of Celebes and Amboyna, being commanded by European officers. The town of Banda is clean, and contains, besides the houses of the Government officers, ample storehouses for the reception of the nutmegs grown upon Great Banda; together with very commodious barracks for the troops, and an airy and well appointed hospital. In addition to the Government officers and troops, a considerable number of Chinese have settled in Banda Neira. They reside in a part of the town by themselves; and some of them, judging from the appearance of their houses, seem to be prospering in the world.

The harbour is well sheltered in both monsoons, and is easy of access, but it is closed against foreign merchant vessels.* We found two merchant vessels under Dutch colours, at anchor; one was commanded by an Englishman, and the other, the property of a rich Chinaman living in Banda, by an old friend, who piloted us last year into Dobbo Harbour.

* A shoal extends from Great Banda towards the Gounung Api, leaving a deep passage of not more than a quarter of a mile wide. Upon this shoal, a considerable portion of which is dry at low-water, extensive bamboo fish-weirs are erected, which seem to be very productive. The natives also use fish-pots formed of bamboo, resembling in principle the common drum-net, which they leave down in shoal water during the night, and generally find a good supply in the morning. On another part of the shoal we observed a number of large stones, which are said to have been projected from the volcano, during a violent eruption some years ago.

His history was a strange one. He was a half-caste, born in Java, who, after various adventures in different parts of the world, had been pressed into our naval service, and served some time on board a man-of-war, where he learned the English language. On his discharge from her, he was for some time in distress in London, and eventually he found his way back to his native country, where his enterprise, knowledge of seamanship, and facility in acquiring languages, of which he spoke seven or eight, soon got him employment.

The commandant of the troops, Captain De Stuers, nephew to the Governor-General of the Moluccas, who had very civilly pointed out the best anchorage to us, and given us every information in his power, on our first arrival, finding that we were interested in the manners and customs of the natives, very kindly invited us to see a menado dance performed by some of the native soldiers of the garrison. We landed with him in his Oram-bay, a large native boat, pulled by twelve men, who kept time by striking their round-bladed paddles against the gunwale between every stroke.

On landing, the prettiest sight possible awaited us. The barrack-square, a green grass field of considerable extent, was covered with the native soldiers, all dressed in their gayest holiday costume, and decorated with scarves and handkerchiefs of the brightest colours, which streamed loosely from their elbows. Some of the men were armed with narrow bamboo shields, others with wooden swords, and the remainder with the light stems of the sago-palm, which were to be used as javelins. Each of these warriors came dancing up to us in turn, to make his obeisance, as we advanced to the spot where seats had been prepared for us. As soon as we were all seated the dance commenced. At first the spear-men advanced towards each other, holding the spear in the right hand, and the bamboo shields in the left, keeping time to the rude music of a couple of drums with very great accuracy, and dancing quite as much with their arms as their legs, in the most graceful manner possible. When they had approached sufficiently near to each other, one threw his spear with great force and dexterity, still keeping time to the music, and the other parried the weapon with his bamboo shield. I only saw one instance of failure, and then the unfortunate man received the blunt spear full on his breast with such force that it sent him rolling head-over-heels, much to the amusement of the spectators, and equally to his own discomfiture.

As one of the Port Essington natives, a very fine active man, had accompanied us on shore, we persuaded him, with some difficulty, to join in the dance, thinking that the quickness of eye, so common to all savages, would enable him to avoid the spear; but in this we were all disappointed, as he was struck nearly every time the spear was thrown.

After the dance was over sundry gymnastics followed, and the evening was wound up by an exhibition of the Ombres Chinoises, in which the soldiers seemed to take very great delight. The moving figures were very cleverly managed; and, to judge from the shouts of laughter which accompanied the storyteller in his tale, it must have been a very amusing one.

July 5.—The Resident having invited us to visit the nutmeg plantations on Great Banda, we accompanied him to the landing-place at Lontar, where we found chairs waiting for us, fitted with long poles, like those of a sedan, and were carried by eight men, who placed the poles on their shoulders, thus raising the chair, with its occupant, above their heads, a position which we found at first anything but pleasant.

In these conveyances we ascended to the summit of the island by a broad flight of stone steps, leading up from the landing-place, at the top of which we saw a ruined fort, and a church, that still retains traces of having been a fine building, though it had been much shaken by an earthquake. After passing the church, we entered the nutmeg plantations.

The scenery was most beautiful. Under the shade of large kanari trees, whose luxuriant foliage most effectually excluded the sun's rays, were thousands of nutmeg trees loaded with blossom and fruit in every stage of development. After passing through above a mile of these, we arrived at a house belonging to one of the planters, where we saw the process of curing the nutmeg.

In nine months from the opening of the blossom, the fruit, which resembles in appearance and shape an unripe peach, is gathered from the tree, by means of a long stick with an iron hook at the end. The outer covering, a tough fleshy skin which being opened divides in two halves, is then pulled off, and the mace, which is found partly enveloping the nut, is carefully separated and dried for two or three days in the sun. The nutmegs are then placed on long bamboo platforms, under sheds built for the purpose, where they are dried by means of wood fires. When sufficiently dry, they are handed over to the Government (who monopolize the whole produce of the island) and are then placed in the Government stores, where they are heated with quick-lime, which has the effect of preserving them from insects: they are then ready for exportation.

The annual produce of the island is said to average from 300,000 to 400,000 pounds of nutmegs; and about one-fourth that quantity of mace. Nutmegs are the only produce of Banda. Cloves are grown upon the island, but are considered to be so much inferior in quality to those produced at Amboyna, that they are not exported.

In returning to the ship, the bearers amused themselves by racing with each other, a proceeding far from agreeable to us who were carried, particularly when we came to the flight of steps, which they descended at full speed, shaking the chairs to such a degree that we had some trouble in keeping our seats. On arriving at the bottom we were most hospitably received by one of the nutmeg planters.

On the 6th July we sailed from Banda, passing out through the western entrance, between the shoal extending from Great Banda and the Gounung Api; though very narrow, it is quite safe, and by keeping over on the Gounung Api shore, which is very steep, we found plenty of water.

July 7.—We entered the bay of Amboyna; but light winds prevented our reaching the anchorage till noon on the 8th. We found a Dutch frigate, the Bellona, a 14-gun brig, and several merchant vessels under Dutch colours lying in the roads.

On landing, I was most kindly received by the Governor-General of the Moluccas, Colonel de Stuers, who gave me a most pressing invitation to take up my abode at his delightful residence a short distance out of the town, which was gladly accepted. During our stay at Amboyna the rain was almost incessant. This prevented our seeing the clove plantations, which were described as being very beautiful, and the cloves of Amboyna are as much prized as the nutmegs of Banda.

The only fine day was devoted to an excursion some miles inland to visit a curious natural grotto. We started in chairs, borne on men's shoulders, similar to those at Banda, and which seem to be the usual conveyance of the country. Our party consisted of more than 100 natives, preceded by drums, gongs, and two large Dutch flags. The men who were not employed in carrying the chairs, ran by our side, and amused us by their songs and war-cry, which was the most thrilling yell I ever heard. The grotto itself, prettily situated on the side of a well wooded hill, was of considerable length but not otherwise curious.

July 20.—Having at last succeeded in getting a rate for the chronometers, which the unsettled state of the weather had rendered a matter of some difficulty, we sailed from Amboyna, much delighted with the kindness and attention we had all received. During the night we passed a small insulated volcano that was emitting a faint smoke, and in the morning made the north side of Wetter, which ranges from 3000 to 4000 feet in height, is very barren, and apparently thinly inhabited.

We were beating to the eastward against a strong breeze and heavy swell from the south-east till the 25th, when we reached the small island of Kissa, off which we anchored, in 30 fathoms, a quarter of a mile from the shore, to the great delight of Mr. Earl's servant, who was a native of this place. His countrymen, on coming on board, received him with the most extravagant expressions of joy; and kept him up all night, relating the wonders he had seen since he left them; in doing which he talked to such a degree that when he came on board in the morning he could hardly speak from hoarseness. We found the natives had been suffering most severely from famine, occasioned by a long-continued drought that had dried up everything on the island, to such an extent, that the rice crops, upon which they chiefly depend for food, had entirely failed; but of livestock we found no difficulty in obtaining an abundant supply, and at a very moderate price. A couple of fowls were purchased for two feet of thin brass wire, highly prized by the natives for making fishhooks (which they prefer to our steel ones) and bracelets. A large pig was obtained for two fathoms of white calico, and everything else in proportion.

On landing, we were met by a chief who had seen Mr. Earl on a previous visit. He promised to procure chairs to carry us up to Wauriti, the principal village on the island; and, while waiting for them, came on board and dined with us, behaving with great decorum, and appearing much interested in all he saw. After dinner we found the chairs waiting for us on the beach, and proceeded to the village, ascending a deep ravine with a streamlet running down the centre, overshadowed by the most luxuriant foliage.

After emerging from this ravine we found ourselves near the highest point of the island, of which we had a good view. Every part exhibited abundant signs of industry and cultivation, although parched up from want of rain. The chief of Wauriti received us with great hospitality, and offered refreshments of tea, rice cake, and a sort of beer, made from the Sago palm.

He then escorted us round the village, which contains a very good church and schoolhouse, constructed under the direction of a Dutch Missionary, who had been for some years a resident on the island, with his family, and who appeared to have been very successful in converting the natives; but the distress occasioned by the want of rain was too great a trial of their faith; they declared that their old gods had sent the drought upon them as a punishment for deserting them, for they had never had such a visitation before Christianity had been introduced into the island. The poor Missionary's influence was over; he was obliged to quit the island, and went to Amboyna. A mile north of Wauriti we visited a smaller village inhabited by the descendants of some Dutch families, who had lived upon the island many years ago. They were quite different in appearance from the natives, and some of the women were very goodlooking. In returning to the ship, we examined an old Dutch fort built on the beach, but now in a very dilapidated state. It consisted simply of a square building, with bastions at the opposite angles. At sunset we made sail for Letti, off which we anchored the next day, in 13 fathoms; half a mile north of the Missionary establishment; where we found a resident minister and his family, and two others from another part of the island staying with them. A visit from Europeans was, to them, an event of rare occurrence, and must have been an interesting break in their monotonous lives; they had been very successful in their labours, and had converted many of the natives. They had several establishments on the island; the one we visited consisted of a church, schoolhouse, and house for the missionary; the church had been built more than 100 years, and was a very substantial edifice. The school appeared to be well attended by the native children.

The island of Letti, which is about 10 miles in extent, had also suffered much from the want of rain, but was fast recovering its green appearance. A high ridge of hills extends along the centre of the island from east to west; the sides of which, sloping gradually towards the sea, are covered with trees, and the whole island presents an appearance of great fertility. The anchorage off Letti, which we surveyed, is very good during the south-east monsoon, but affords no shelter when the wind blows in an opposite direction. There may be an anchorage on the south side of the island, which we did not visit, that would be available during the N.W. monsoon.

After completing our survey at Letti we worked to the eastward, against the monsoon, keeping as close as possible under the lee of the Serwatty group, which enabled us to make a rough survey of the islands composing it. These proved to be very incorrectly laid down in the only chart we had, and from what we saw they require a far more detailed examination than we had time to devote to them; this would, I have no doubt, lead to the discovery of many anchoring-places, where vessels might carry on trade with the natives, with much greater ease and safety than they can do when obliged to stand off and on with the vessel while the boats are sent in to trade; since, by these means, the crew are necessarily divided, are liable to fall an easy prey to the natives, should the latter be inclined to treachery.

The various traders we met with, during this, as well as on our former visit to the islands, all agreed in warning us against the inhabitants of Timor Laut and Baba, as people not at all to be trusted. It is much to be hoped that if Port Essington should ever become a place of much trade, that these people will be more civilized, as from the easy communication, in either monsoon, Timor Laut will be much frequented by the settlers at Port Essington, in order to procure the tropical productions abounding there, which they would not find on the Australian coasts. The Arrou islands, for the same reason, will hold out great inducements to traders, as the timber found there is infinitely superior, for most purposes, to any found on the Cobourg peninsula.

As our provisions were running short, and the time had arrived when we were expected to return to the settlement, I had not time to stop to examine several places I wished to see, particularly the southern part of the island of Timor Laut, where from information we received at Banda, a very large and secure harbour is said to exist, available in both monsoons. The island of Serra was another point, as it is stated to be a very good place for obtaining supplies.

In crossing over to Australia we saw Timor Laut, off which we experienced a very fresh S.E. breeze and a heavy sea, which continuing to prevail with a strong current setting to leeward, we were in consequence eight days reaching Port Essington, where we found that all had gone on well during our absence.