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The New York Times, November 13, 1883, p.2:




    PULO PENANG, Straits of Malacca, Aug. 31.—Since I wrote last Saturday from the coast of Ceylon we have run 1,270 miles further to the eastward, and have got fairly within the borders of the Malay Archipelago at last. But it is just as well for us that the rainy season is drawing to a close, for the freaks of the weather have more than once spoiled the finest points of our Oriental diorama.

    When we first sighted Ceylon, on the morning of the 25th, we had barely time to make out the loom of the coast line to the west of Point de Galle, when a thick haze swept over it and blotted out every vestige of the island. For nearly an hour the cloud remained impenetrable, but at length the sun broke through it, and the scattering mists revealed a low, dark ridge, at one point of which a narrow white line seemed to rear itself upright out of the sea, while behind it a number of white spots checkered the sombre green of the hillside. The upright line was the lighthouse of Point de Galle, the white spots were the houses of the town of Galle itself.
    But we had scarcely made them out when the whole sky blackened to windward, and down upon us came a real tropical squall, lashing the dark sea into foam and making the decks echo with the rattle of heavy bullets of rain. A great heap of black, ragged clouds, which seemed to tumble headlong from the sky like falling rocks, completely effaced for the second time all trace of the ill-used island, which, after all these bewildering appearances and disappearances, might well pass for one of the floating islets immortalized by Spenser:

Where who so lands may ne'er his foot recure,
But wand'reth evermore uncertain and unsure.

    But the wrath of the East Indian sky is like that of its people, "soon hot and soon cold," bursting into overwhelming fury for one moment and then vanishing as if it had never been. The squall passes away as suddenly as it came. The great veil of blackness rends asunder and rolls off in scattered streamers of cloud, the rain ceases, the sun breaks forth in all its splendor, casting a broad sheen of gold upon the dripping deck and the tossing sea, and the whole coast line starts into view at once, arrayed in the same gorgeous tropical colors which gladdened the weary eyes of Alphonse d'Albuquerque's wave-tossed seamen 400 years ago...

    Night was just setting on Tuesday when we sighted the bold promontory of Acheen Head, the north-western extremity of Sumatra. Three hours later we passed Pulo Brass (Rice Island,) and sunrise on Wednesday morning showed us the long procession of the Sumatran hills emerging from the fleecy clouds that covered the south-western sky. Foremost came the great purple pyramid of Ya Mura (Golden Mountain,) which must indeed have been worth its weight in gold as a landmark to the first navigators of this intricate passage.
    By this time the change which had begun to show itself as soon as we entered the Straits of Malacca was fully apparent. The sea, protected by Sumatra from the buffeting of that pertinacious south-west monsoon which had persecuted us ever since we issued from the Red Sea, was as smooth as glass. The wind had fallen to a light breeze, just sufficient to cool the air; and the bright sunshine, the sparkling ripples astern, the splendid transparent clearness of sea and sky, and the grand panorama of the distant mountains combined to form a picture worthy of Claude Lorraine himself.

    Little indeed is there in the grand repose of the Sumatran woods and mountains to suggest thoughts of war, bloodshed and murder. But it is always dangerous to judge either a country or a man at first sight. In all Zulu-land there is no prettier spot than the sea-fronting ridge where the grass now grows green and beautiful over the hillside that was once red with the life-blood of the English soldiers who died on that fatal field at Inyezané. A veteran English officer of my acquaintance, who used to play billiards with Nana Sahib at Cawnpore a little before the outbreak of 1857, always spoke of him in those days as rather a good fellow than otherwise, and "not at all a bad player for a nigger."
    In the depths of these stately forests, which clothe the Sumatran shore down to the very water's edge, the bones of many a gallant Dutchman lie moldering amid trailing creepers and giant ferns, and many more will doubtless be sacrificed ere the senseless and hopeless crusade of Holland against Acheen shall have run its course. Amid the graceful curves of these wood-crowned shores there lurks many a gloomy creek and many a narrow inlet, in which, within the memory of living men, the quiet, brown-faced, taciturn Malays whom one now sees hanging about the streets of Georgetown or Singapore practiced year after year the bloodiest piracies on record.

    Both by sea and by land, steam has all but destroyed the picturesque robber of former generations. But in the good old times it was apt to go hard with any luckless sailing vessel which, lying becalmed in this ill-omened spot, saw creeping out toward her frm the shore a mosquito swarm of proas (Malay boats,) long, low, swift-sailing, with bamboo masts and rattan cordage, each manned by 20 to 30 strong, sinewy, keen-eyed fellows, with a fierce, tiger-like elasticity in every line of their long, gaunt limbs, and hands well used to wield the cleaver like parang (sword) and the deadly kris (dagger,) with its zigzag blade poisoned with the prepared juice of the pineapple.
    On one occasion, however, these sea lawyers met their match. A shrewd New-England skipper, when beset by them during a calm, strewed his whole deck fore and aft with broken bottles, and the shouts of triumph with which the pirated leaped on board were speedily changed to howls of pain as the sharp glass mangled their bare feet. Meanwhile, the American sailors, secure in their thick sea-boots, felled their dismayed enemies right and left with handspikes and capstan bars, and but few escaped to tell of the rough welcome which they had received from the orang puti (white men.)

    Midnight brings us to Pulo Perak, (Silver Island,) and Thursday's sunrise shows us a huge gray shadow hanging upon the eastern sky, and gradually shaping itself into a succession of bold ridges, towering nearly 2,000 feet above the sea. So steeply do they plunge down into the smooth, light-green water below, that it seems wonderful how even a bush can cling to their precipitous sides, much less the stately trees which cover every foot of them from base to summit so thickly that the tiny light-house that looks down upon us from the nearest hilltop seems like a baby half buried in long grass.
    But every here and there a bare, hideous scar amid the luxuriant vegetation shows where the splendid palms have been cut down for fuel to smelt the tin with which the island of Penang abounds, a piece of vandalism happily checked by the British authorities.

    "Betel-nut Island" (Pulo Penang) is but a small territorial addition to England's Eastern empire, having an area of 14 miles by 8, and a population of 71,000, 13,000 of which are crammed into its capital, Georgetown. But mere size is as erroneous a criterion of value in a country as in a man, and this dainty little ear-drop that hangs upon the coast of Malacca in such a picturesque fashion may yet prove itself more profitable to its new masters than all the colossal uselessness of Cape Colony.

    As the morning mist rolls away the low, flat coast of the Malacca mainland begins to define itself behind Penang Island. The endless file of tall, straight palm trunks and feathery leaves, with the vast shadowy bulk of Stockade Mountain looking down upon them from the background, might have suggested to a reader of Swift the sturdy Gulliver bestriding the Liliputian parade-ground, and its pigmy warriors marching and countermarching around his toes.
    The whole sea is dotted with Malay boats, carrying one huge tobacco-colored sail, which, with its thick, short, bamboo mast and numerous ribs of cane, looks very much like a monstrous cotton umbrella. Nearer to the shore stand up out of the water a number of queer-looking objects, at first sight very much like some gigantic capital H's (possibly dropped by some passing English excursionist,) but assuming on closer inspection the form of stake-nets.

    And now, as we glide into Georgetown Bay, the rugged heights of the Penang coast fall back to the southward, leaving space for a wide belt of level beach, which, with its dark masses of tropical vegetation, its trim white houses half seen through clustering leaves, and the waving flags and gay-colored smoke-stacks of half a dozen steamers in the offing, would suffice to tell us that we are in the East Indies, even without the additional evidence of the Siamese man-of-war which is gliding away in the opposite direction with the famous national "White Elephant" boldly outlined upon her crimson flag.

    We land in a queer little two-horned boat, very much like a monster stag-beetle, with a huge staring eye painted on either side of her bow; for, as the boatmen explain with perfect gravity, "suppose boatee no have eyes no can see go straight." The little wooden jetty—roofed in like everything else in this climate against the vertical sun—is, as an Englishman guardedly said of an Irish faction fight, "a scene of considerable bustle."
    On one side a couple of lean, rat-faced, sharp-eyed Portuguese half-castes, in threadbare blue jackets, are shrieking and jabbering over a disputed fare. On the other an unlucky Chinaman, who has just had his straw hat knocked over his eyes by the rush of a scurrying sailor, is relieving himself with a screaming falsetto of Chinese adjectives worthy of a scalded parrot. In the foreground some Hindu coolies, who have just succeeded in overturning a truck-load of baggage, stand gravely contemplating the ruin, as if expecting the various packages to get up again and walk away of their own accord. A little further on a burly English sea Captain is acting Samson among a howling swarm of Malay Philistines, who seem bent upon tearing him into pieces and portioning him equally among them, after the time-honored fashion of hackmen in every country.
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    Beyond the jetty lies a wide, dusty, flat, bordered on one side by a light-house and a funny little toy battery named Fort Cornwallis, in honor of a certain unlucky countryman of mine who went out to conquer America about a hundred years ago, and returned somewhat less triumphantly than he intended, owing to an unforeseen detention by circumstances over which he had no control, at a place called Yorktown. Stepping into the first gharri (carriage) that comes to hand we rattle off up a long, straight, narrow, crowded street, inwardly wondering what kind of impression a chocolate-colored hackman attired in a blazing crimson turban and short blue drawers, leaving his limbs bare below the knee, would be likely to produce in Broadway or Fifth-avenue.
    It is quite a sensation to see in this land of cocoa palms and sugar-canes, of black faces and white Malay sarongs, (shirts,) an English table of fares and distances pasted up inside of our carriage. But it is noticeable that the fares themselves have been so skillfully obliterated, either by the prudent hackman in person or by some obliging friend, that Sir Henry Rawlinson himself could make nothing of them.

    At the first glance we might well imagine ourselves back in Bengal again, surrounded as we are by all the familiar objects which haunted us the whole way from the Ganges to Himalaya 18 months ago. Coolies with a heavy basket or water-jar at either end of the bamboo poised lightly on one bare brown shoulder, clumsy carts drawn by hump-backed Brahmin oxen with heavy wooden yokes, slim, dark, sharp-featured, white-turbaned men glistening with cocoanut-oil, dusky women with rings as big as a door-knocker in their noses, nude children with silver bangles on wrist and ankle, all are there.
    On the flat roofs overhead rustle magnificent exotics such as we remember in Bombay, and the white-robed policeman in yonder veranda, whose dark, stern face and warrior-like stateliness of bearing would gladden the eye of an artist, looks as thorough a Sikh as ever trod the uneven pavements of Amritsar or Lahore.

    Amid all these outlandish figures the apparition of the cold, white-washed primness of a British Post Office and the stately hewn-stone dignity of a British bank seems like a gigantic practical joke. But a sudden turn brings us all at once into a new world, among doll-faced men in loose white clothes, and tiled houses with overhanging eaves, and yellow-skinned women, wearing two crossed skewers in their clubbed up black hair, and cream-colored babies, with eyes as narrow as the edge of a dime, and whip-like pig-tails hanging from under peaked straw hats as big as an umbrella, and little trap-like shops, surmounted with strange, black, long-legged letters very much like crushed beetles. This is the Chinese quarter, and very Chinese it seems:

With its little pig-eyes and its large pig-tails,
And its diet of rats, dogs, slugs, and snails,
Which are all fair game in the frying-pan
Of that curious feeder, John Chinaman.

    Before, however, we can do more than take a bird's-eye view of "John at home," our carriage stops at the door of Qua-Sim-Ching, one of the leading men of the settlement and brother to the Rajah of Renong, in Western Siam. But the details of our visit to his Excellency, and the story of our further adventures in Penang, as well as our subsequent voyage thence down the Straits of Malacca, must be reserved for my next letter, which will probably be dated from Singapore.

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