Popular Science Monthly/Volume 35/September 1889/A Corner of the Dutch East Indies


By Captain G. LANGEN.

THE Key or Ké Islands of the Dutch East Indies derive their name from a native word signifying "What do you say?" The native tradition runs that when Macassar traders first landed there and inquired in the Malay tongue after the name of the land they had set foot on, the natives answered, "Kay," and this expression was mistaken by the questioners for the name of the islands. The group consists of two larger islands, of which the westerly one bears the name of Nuhu-roa, or Little Key, and the easterly one Ju-ud, or Great Key, with a number of smaller islands around them. Great Key is undoubtedly geologically much older than Little Key and the other surrounding islands, and possesses elevations of from two thousand to three thousand feet, while Little Key and the other islands are very low. Great Key is principally of a rocky and volcanic formation; Little Key and the surrounding islands are formed of coral and interveined by flint and quartz. Little Key, according to the most reliable chiefs, was raised out of the sea about thirty-five years ago, during the shocks of a severe earthquake attended by a tidal wave; after which no earthquakes occurred till April, 1884.

Every island belonging to the group is covered, down to the water's edge, with dense tropical jungle, with gigantic creepers winding from one tree to another so as to form a close network. These forests contain choice kinds of timber, the inducements offered by which have provoked the establishment of the present German colony. The southwest monsoon, which blows during our winter months, brings abundant rains; and the occasional showers of April, with the heavy dews of June, July, and August, keep the ground moist and afford ample nourishment to vegetation. In October and November, the hottest months, vegetation suffers from drought. The rain percolates through the soil quickly to the coral. The traveler will, therefore, meet with only a few pieces of marshy soil on the islands; but he is astonished at the luxuriant, growth of vegetation, at the gigantic and stately trees spreading their roots to seek a firm hold around the coral, out of whose porous texture their fibers obtain nourishment; and no place on the group is entirely barren and destitute of vegetation.

The supply of fresh water is very unevenly distributed, and there are many villages where none is obtainable, and the inhabitants have to go a long distance for it. Generally, the freshwater wells are situated close by the sea. All the fresh drinking water contains lime in large quantities, the characteristic effects of which are neutralized by the liberal use of. acid fruits. It is evident that the sea, infiltrating gradually through the pores of the coral, becomes purified and separated from all its saline ingredients on its way to the wells; and those places where fresh water is not obtainable are of quartz formation.

The islands are divided into districts, each comprising a number of villages with their surrounding land. Each district has its principal chief, or rajah, and these have in the villages under-chiefs of various ranks. All these offices are hereditary, descending to the eldest sons of the respective families. If there is no successor, a new chief is elected by the natives of the district, A chief receives no payment, but after having been acknowledged and established in office by the Resident of Amboyna, he is presented with a silver mounting for his walking-stick, on which is engraved the Dutch coat of arms. After he has held his office for twenty-five years with faultless conduct and loyalty, the silver mounting on the walking-stick is replaced by a golden one. If a chief has rendered an extraordinarily praiseworthy service to his government, he is presented with a fanciful, richly ornamented umbrella, which his servant carries before him, when he walks abroad, to prevent the sun from tanning his face.

About one third of the population are Mohammedans, and these are increasing every year, through the influence of Arabs and of natives who have returned as hadjis from Mecca. These men are worshiped to a certain extent by their inferior-stationed fellow-believers, and exercise such an influence upon them as to be kept for the rest of their lives in food and clothes.

The indigenes of Key are tall, strongly built, having the forehead broad and slanting backward, dark eyes with heavy black lashes, a large but well-shaped nose, high cheek-bones, and broad mouth, with the under lip more or less projecting, black and brown colored beard, and long, wavy, but fine curled black hair, mixed with several lighter or darker shades of brown, reaching to the shoulder and projecting all round the head like a mop. Their skin is rather dark, but of a lighter hue than that of the Papuans of New Guinea. Formerly, their clothing was the same as that used by the Alfueros of Ceram and Borneo; but, since the establishment of the European colony, both their clothing and manner of living have become more elaborate. Mixtures have taken place between some of them and the Papuans of New Guinea, resulting in the formation of a stock which is found in all parts of the islands.

The natives live in huts built on poles of strong and hard timber or thick bamboo; and a very few houses of chiefs are constructed of timber. The huts are built several feet above the ground, for protection against the swarms of vermin that come up during the southwest monsoon, and to secure a free current of air and consequent coolness. The sides of these houses are covered in either by attap, which consists of the dried leaves of the sago palm doubled over a small bamboo about six feet long and laced tightly to it by means of split cane; or with the stems of the same palm-leaf, which, after being drilled and deprived of their thorns, are placed vertically between two boards in such a way that the hollow part of the stem fits tightly over the half-rounded part of the succeeding one. In this way a very light but watertight outside covering is formed, and gives to the house a not unpleasant appearance, for the dried stems exhibit a brown gloss, as if they were polished. The doorway, in the middle of the front of the house, leads into a spacious room, which represents the reception-room for visitors. On the floor of this room, which is covered with split-bamboo matting of rather wide meshes, are spread out other mats, made of fine grass or bark. Belonging to each mat is a bolster, with a cover of bright calico print, having its ends ornamented with embroidery. From each side of the reception-room are openings leading into the other rooms. These rooms are divided into sitting and bed rooms, and they are adorned with fancy colored boxes made out of palm-leaves, and having figures worked upon them with differently colored bark and beads of small shells. Placed one upon another, these boxes are good substitutes for cupboards and chests of drawers, while a strong, roughly made timber chest, provided with a clumsy lock of iron or brass, contains the family treasures, jewels, heirlooms, weapons, and emblems. An assemblage of huts or houses forms a village. The villages are surrounded by walls of coral, and are for the most part situated on the sea-shore.

Each village has an allotment of land, the boundaries of which are established by the chiefs. Here the native may fell his timber, cultivate a garden, or cut down the sago-palm, which furnishes his principal food. The cocoanut-trees, however, are regarded as general property, and are under the guardianship of chiefs, without whose orders not a nut may be plucked till harvest-time. Then, on a day appointed for this purpose, the whole village will set out to gather them, when each one will receive a number proportioned to his rank and station.

When a native child is strong enough to assist his parents in their daily occupation, he has to accompany them to the garden, the boat-building yard, or some other place of general work. Children of from three to five years of age may be seen occupied in trying their skill in carving ornamental figures such as are used for the figure-heads of boats, or in cutting out vessels and rigging them, or the boys will assist their fathers at the building of a boat or a house. Although they are without all proper drawing materials, the artistic and constructive talent is almost universally manifested among them. The children are seen trying their skill by drawing, on a smooth, flat surface of fine sand, houses, animals, steam and sailing boats, and I have been always struck by the symmetry of their work. The children are deemed marriageable at fifteen years of age, but arrangements for mating the female children are made as soon as may be after their birth.

When disputes relating to boundaries arise between different villages, each of the quarreling districts elects a person and commits him to the judgment of the god, who, it is believed, will let the party in the wrong die within three months. If no harm befalls either party after the lapse of that time, the land in dispute is divided equally.

The chief talent of the natives is for boat-building. The symmetrical construction of their vessels, large and small, would astonish a European ship-builder, and is the more remarkable as they have nothing but the most roughly shaped tools. All the tools are made by natives of Teor. In nearly every village we find a smith established, who is employed from morning till night melting rusty nails in a charcoal-fire, which is kept burning by means of a primitive pair of bellows moved by the operator's helpmate. This apparatus consists of two bamboo cylinders, about two feet long, at the bottom of each of which a small bamboo conveys the current of air into a still smaller one, leading into the charcoal-fire. Each of these bamboo cylinders contains a spear of the same material, at the lower end of which are tied bunches of feathers. Generally a native of Key will prefer the rough workmanship of the tools made by the village blacksmith to the finely finished and polished ones imported from Europe.

The natives are largely engaged in felling and selling timber. For felling the trees the woodman uses a wedge-shaped axe only, by which he is able to cut down the largest tree. After lopping off all the branches and bark, he squares the trunk in such a skillful though wasteful manner that, as a rule, the four sides represent exactly the same dimensions. The islands produce large quantities of various kinds of very hard and soft timber, suitable for different branches of building, but the most valued sort is the bayam, or New Guinea teak, called by the natives by a Malay word signifying iron-wood, because of its flexibility and durability, and its immunity from the attacks of white ants. Mother-ofpearl shell is found in the bays and inlets, and other valuable shells are plentiful. Tortoise-shell is exported in very small quantity.

On the perpendicular face of a cliff on the northwest coast of Nuhu-roa are to be seen rude native drawings of various shapes and meanings, chiseled in the rock, which appear to have been once filled in with red pigment. It is a marvel how the chiseler could have been suspended over these very steep rocks, so as to be able to engrave the figures. The eye may distinctly perceive such forms as a little sailing boat, a human head, hand, foot, starfish, tombstones, and many other objects; and it is strange that similar figures are still drawn and painted on various articles in use. Natives, on being questioned about these rock-engravings, answer that they can not account for them, nor were their fathers before them any wiser; but they think that the spirits of the dead suspend themselves over the cliffs at midnight and engrave them. All natives shun the spot, and by no means whatever can they be induced to climb the cliff in order to copy these strange drawings. No native can be persuaded to accompany a European to this spot, where, according to their belief, the spirits hold their meetings. Certain trees are also held sacred, and believed to be the abode of an invisible god, to whom the native offers sacrifice whenever any mishap occurs in his family, or when one of its members leaves home to go over the sea. The sacrifices are made in the following manner: Some cooked sago or rice is wrapped up in a palm-leaf, and, before tying the same with a piece of split cane in the shape of a parcel, the person sacrificing scrapes over the sago or rice, by means of a knife, file, or any other sharp-edged stone, a little gold-dust off his ornaments. After this has been done, he ties the parcel together and suspends it by means of a split cane from a branch of the sacred tree, under fervent prayers to his god. In some parts of the island the traveler will find these sacred trees, ornamented from top to bottom, like a German Christmas-tree, with these odd-looking palm-leaf parcels. In other parts of the Key group there are still found public places for sacrificing, consisting of a fanciful carved box, elevated on a pole about four or five feet high. The sacrifice is conveyed through a small opening in the box. Some places are shunned by the natives, who prefer walking a long distance out of their direct way, to being obliged to pass the haunted spot where some imaginary Satan and his followers are supposed to hold their meetings.—Abridged from the Proceedings of the Royal Geographical Society.