Sunday, December 22, 2013


Not a story of mine this time, but one by Alfred Russel Wallace, in his great work 'The Malay Archipielago'. The book is mostly a description of his travels around the area of Malaysia and Indonesia, the larger and some of the smaller islands. There is a lot of talk of birds and butterflies and orangutans and other creatures that he hunted, and of the land and the people and the conclusions he drew from it all. I was struck by this anecdote, because it is told in a different style from the rest of the book, as a story. It's not a bad story, and is well told:
The Rajah of Lombock was a very wise man and he showed his wisdom greatly in the way he took the census. For my readers must know that the chief revenues of the Rajah were derived from a head-tax of rice, a small measure being paid annually by every man, woman, and child in the island, There was no doubt that every one paid this tax, for it was a very light one, and the land was fertile and the people well off; but it had to pass through many hands before it reached the Government storehouses. When the harvest was over the villagers brought their rice to the Kapala kampong, or head of the village; and no doubt he sometimes had compassion for the poor or sick and passed over their short measure, and sometimes was obliged to grant a favour to those who had complaints against him; and then he must keep up his own dignity by having his granaries better filled than his neighbours, and so the rice that he took to the "Waidono" that was over his district was generally good deal less than it should have been. And all the "Waidonos" had of course to take care of themselves, for they were all in debt and it was so easy to take a little of the Government rice, and there would still be plenty for the Rajah. And the "Gustis" or princes who received the rice from the Waidonos helped themselves likewise, and so when the harvest was all over and the rice tribute was all brought in, the quantity was found to be less each year than the one before. Sickness in one district, and fevers in another, and failure of the crops in a third, were of course alleged as the cause of this falling off; but when the Rajah went to hunt at the foot of the great mountain, or went to visit a "Gusti" on the other side of the island, he always saw the villages full of people, all looking well-fed and happy. And he noticed that the krisses of his chiefs and officers were getting handsomer and handsomer; and the handles that were of yellow wood were changed for ivory, and those of ivory were changed for gold, and diamonds and emeralds sparkled on many of them; and he knew very well which way the tribute-rice went. But as he could not prove it he kept silence, and resolved in his own heart someday to have a census taken, so that he might know the number of his people, and not be cheated out of more rice than was just and reasonable.
But the difficulty was how to get this census. He could not go himself into every village and every house, and count all the people; and if he ordered it to be done by the regular officers they would quickly understand what it was for, and the census would be sure to agree exactly with the quantity of rice he got last year. It was evident therefore that to answer his purpose no one must suspect why the census was taken; and to make sure of this, no one must know that there was any census taken at all. This was a very hard problem; and the Rajah thought and thought, as hard as a Malay Rajah can be expected to think, but could not solve it; and so he was very unhappy, and did nothing but smoke and chew betel with his favourite wife, and eat scarcely anything; and even when he went to the cock-fight did not seem to care whether his best birds won or lost. For several days he remained in this sad state, and all the court were afraid some evil eye had bewitched the Rajah; and an unfortunate Irish captain who had come in for a cargo of rice and who squinted dreadfully, was very nearly being krissed, but being first brought to the royal presence was graciously ordered to go on board and remain there while his ship stayed in the port.
One morning however, after about a week's continuance of this unaccountable melancholy, a welcome change took place, for the Rajah sent to call together all the chiefs, priests, and princes who were then in Mataram, his capital city; and when they were all assembled in anxious expectation, he thus addressed them:
"For many days my heart has been very sick and I knew not why, but now the trouble is cleared away, for I have had a dream. Last night the spirit of the 'Gunong Agong'—the great fire mountain—appeared to me, and told me that I must go up to the top of the mountain. All of you may come with me to near the top, but then I must go up alone, and the great spirit will again appear to me and will tell me what is of great importance to me and to you and to all the people of the island. Now go all of you and make this known through the island, and let every village furnish men to make clear a road for us to go through the forest and up the great mountain."
So the news was spread over the whole island that the Rajah must go to meet the great spirit on the top of the mountain; and every village sent forth its men, and they cleared away the jungle and made bridges over the mountain streams and smoothed the rough places for the Rajah's passage. And when they came to the steep and craggy rocks of the mountain, they sought out the best paths, sometimes along the bed of a torrent, sometimes along narrow ledges of the black rocks; in one place cutting down a tall tree so as to bridge across a chasm, in another constructing ladders to mount the smooth face of a precipice. The chiefs who superintended the work fixed upon the length of each day's journey beforehand according to the nature of the road, and chose pleasant places by the banks of clear streams and in the neighbourhood of shady trees, where they built sheds and huts of bamboo well thatched with the leaves of palm-trees, in which the Rajah and his attendants might eat and sleep at the close of each day.
And when all was ready, the princes and priests and chief men came again to the Rajah, to tell him what had been done and to ask him when he would go up the mountain. And he fixed a day, and ordered every man of rank and authority to accompany him, to do honour to the great spirit who had bid him undertake the journey, and to show how willingly they obeyed his commands. And then there was much preparation throughout the whole island. The best cattle were killed and the meat salted and sun-dried; and abundance of red peppers and sweet potatoes were gathered; and the tall pinang-trees were climbed for the spicy betel nut, the sirih-leaf was tied up in bundles, and every man filled his tobacco pouch and lime box to the brim, so that he might not want any of the materials for chewing the refreshing betel during the journey. The stores of provisions were sent on a day in advance. And on the day before that appointed for starting, all the chiefs both great and small came to Mataram, the abode of the king, with their horses and their servants, and the bearers of their sirih boxes, and their sleeping-mats, and their provisions. And they encamped under the tall Waringin-trees that border all the roads about Mataram, and with blazing fires frighted away the ghouls and evil spirits that nightly haunt the gloomy avenues.
In the morning a great procession was formed to conduct the Rajah to the mountain. And the royal princes and relations of the Rajah mounted their black horses whose tails swept the ground; they used no saddle or stirrups, but sat upon a cloth of gay colours; the bits were of silver and the bridles of many-coloured cords. The less important people were on small strong horses of various colours, well suited to a mountain journey; and all (even the Rajah) were bare-legged to above the knee, wearing only the gay coloured cotton waist-cloth, a silk or cotton jacket, and a large handkerchief tastefully folded around the head. Everyone was attended by one or two servants bearing his sirih and betel boxes, who were also mounted on ponies; and great numbers more had gone on in advance or waited to bring up the rear. The men in authority were numbered by hundreds and their followers by thousands, and all the island wondered what great thing would come of it.
For the first two days they went along good roads and through many villages which were swept clean, and where bright cloths were hung out at the windows; and all the people, when the Rajah came, squatted down upon the ground in respect, and every man riding got off his horse and squatted down also, and many joined the procession at every village. At the place where they stopped for the night, the people had placed stakes along each side of the roads in front of the houses. These were split crosswise at the top, and in the cleft were fastened little clay lamps, and between them were stuck the green leaves of palm-trees, which, dripping with the evening dew, gleamed prettily with the many twinkling lights. And few went to sleep that night until the morning hours, for every house held a knot of eager talkers, and much betel-nut was consumed, and endless were the conjectures what would come of it.
On the second day they left the last village behind them and entered the wild country that surrounds the great mountain, and rested in the huts that had been prepared for them on the banks of a stream of cold and sparkling water. And the Rajah's hunters, armed with long and heavy guns, went in search of deer and wild bulls in the surrounding woods, and brought home the meat of both in the early morning, and sent it on in advance to prepare the mid-day meal. On the third day they advanced as far as horses could go, and encamped at the foot of high rocks, among which narrow pathways only could be found to reach the mountain-top. And on the fourth morning when the Rajah set out, he was accompanied only by a small party of priests and princes with their immediate attendants; and they toiled wearily up the rugged way, and sometimes were carried by their servants, until they passed up above the great trees, and then among the thorny bushes, and above them again on to the black and burned rock of the highest part of the mountain.
And when they were near the summit, the Rajah ordered them all to halt, while he alone went to meet the great spirit on the very peak of the mountain. So he went on with two boys only who carried his sirih and betel, and soon reached the top of the mountain among great rocks, on the edge of the great gulf whence issue forth continually smoke and vapour. And the Rajah asked for sirih, and told the boys to sit down under a rock and look down the mountain, and not to move until he returned to them. And as they were tired, and the sun was warm and pleasant, and the rock sheltered them from the cold wind, the boys fell asleep. And the Rajah went a little way on under another rock; and as he was tired, and the sun was warm and pleasant, and he too fell asleep.
And those who were waiting for the Rajah thought him a long time on the top of the mountain, and thought the great spirit must have much to say, or might perhaps want to keep him on the mountain always, or perhaps he had missed his way in coming down again. And they were debating whether they should go and search for him, when they saw him coming down with the two boys. And when he met them he looked very grave, but said nothing; and then all descended together, and the procession returned as it had come; and the Rajah went to his palace and the chiefs to their villages, and the people to their houses, to tell their wives and children all that had happened, and to wonder yet again what would come of it.
And three days afterwards the Rajah summoned the priests and the princes and the chief men of Mataram, to hear what the great spirit had told him on the top of the mountain. And when they were all assembled, and the betel and sirih had been handed round, he told them what had happened. On the top of the mountain he had fallen into a trance, and the great spirit had appeared to him with a face like burnished gold, and had said—"Oh Rajah! much plague and sickness and fevers are coming upon all the earth, upon men and upon horses and upon cattle; but as you and your people have obeyed me and have come up to my great mountain, I will teach you how you and all the people of Lombock may escape this plague." And all waited anxiously, to hear how they were to be saved from so fearful a calamity. And after a short silence the Rajah spoke again and told them, that the great spirit had commanded that twelve sacred krisses should be made, and that to make them every village and every district must send a bundle of needles—a needle for every head in the village. And when any grievous disease appeared in any village, one of the sacred krisses should be sent there; and if every house in that village had sent the right number of needles, the disease would immediately cease; but if the number of needles sent had not been exact, the kris would have no virtue.
So the princes and chiefs sent to all their villages and communicated the wonderful news; and all made haste to collect the needles with the greatest accuracy, for they feared that if but one were wanting, the whole village would suffer. So one by one the head men of the villages brought in their bundles of needles; those who were near Mataram came first, and those who were far off came last; and the Rajah received them with his own hands and put them away carefully in an inner chamber, in a camphor-wood chest whose hinges and clasps were of silver; and on every bundle was marked the name of the village and the district from whence it came, so that it might be known that all had heard and obeyed the commands of the great spirit.
And when it was quite certain that every village had sent in its bundle, the Rajah divided the needles into twelve equal parts, and ordered the best steelworker in Mataram to bring his forge and his bellows and his hammers to the palace, and to make the twelve krisses under the Rajah's eye, and in the sight of all men who chose to see it. And when they were finished, they were wrapped up in new silk and put away carefully until they might be wanted.
Now the journey to the mountain was in the time of the east wind when no rain falls in Lombock. And soon after the krisses were made it was the time of the rice harvest, and the chiefs of districts and of villages brought their tax to the Rajah according to the number of heads in their villages. And to those that wanted but little of the full amount, the Rajah said nothing; but when those came who brought only half or a fourth part of what was strictly due, he said to them mildly, "The needles which you sent from your village were many more than came from such-a-one's village, yet your tribute is less than his; go back and see who it is that has not paid the tax." And the next year the produce of the tax increased greatly, for they feared that the Rajah might justly kill those who a second time kept back the right tribute. And so the Rajah became very rich, and increased the number of his soldiers, and gave golden jewels to his wives, and bought fine black horses from the white-skinned Hollanders, and made great feasts when his children were born or were married; and none of the Rajahs or Sultans among the Malays were so great or powerful as the Rajah of Lombock.
And the twelve sacred krisses had great virtue. And, when any sickness appeared in a village one of them was sent for; and sometimes the sickness went away, and then the sacred kris was taken back again with great Honour, and the head men of the village came to tell the Rajah of its miraculous power, and to thank him. And sometimes the sickness would not go away; and then everybody was convinced that there had been a mistake in the number of needles sent from that village, and therefore the sacred kris had no effect, and had to be taken back again by the head men with heavy hearts, but still, with all honour—for was not the fault their own?

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