Friday, December 30, 2005

Cannibalism in Sumatra

March, 1825.—From Sir Stamford Raffles, I have heard histories of the manners and customs of the Island of Sumatra, so very strange that from any person but one who, having been many years governor of the island, was an eye-witness of some of the scenes he described, and in all had opportunity to ascertain the truth, I could not have believed one word. The first undoubted fact which he told me is, that at this time there is in a part (the north-western part, I think) of that island a population of about a million who are cannibals, and cannibals of a more horrible description than any I ever heard or read of, for they literally eat their victims alive.

This, it seems, is the punishment for three or four great offences; one of which is adultery. An execution for this crime was witnessed by one of the white resident merchants, a person. Sir Stamford says, ‘in whom he had perfect confidence,' and was thus described to him:
The criminal being tied to a stake, the executioner, armed with a very large sharp knife, asked the injured husband, who on this occasion had precedence over every person, what piece he chose: he selected the right ear; which was immediately cut off. An assistant of the executioner placed it on a large silver salver, on which were previously arranged in heaps, salt, pepper of various degrees of heat, lemons, &c. The salver was presented to the husband, who, after having seasoned the disgusting morsel to his taste, proceeded to eat it.
The next in rank happened to select the nose: the ceremony was repeated; and the executioner (being a merciful man), after two or three more slices, ran his sword through the body of the wretched victim, and then divided the body among the surrounding multitude, who crowded with savage ferocity to the feast.

Sir Stamford told me that, finding that some few among the principal persons expressed disgust at this horrible custom, he exerted his influence to abolish it, but he was answered as if he intended to subvert the public morals. They made use of the same arguments to defend their practice, as were used in this country to defend one less barbarous, the interment of suicides in the highway.*

They said death might happen to any man, and was not a sufficient punishment to deter from crime: circumstances to excite horror must be added; and some of those who fed on human flesh seemed to consider themselves as performing a painful duty.

I asked about how many executions might occur in the course of the twelvemonth, and was answered forty or fifty. Among the different villages, besides this, they are in the habit of eating their parents when they become old and useless. These are willing victims. The ceremony begins with music, dancing, and complete intoxication; and the poor old wretches are killed and roasted before they are eaten by their dutiful children.

Latterly, however, some progress was made in civilisation : they began to feel some repugnance at eating their own parents; and neighbouring villages agreed to exchange their old for food. I naturally asked Sir Stamford whether he did not feel the utmost dread and abhorrence of this savage people. He said,' Decidedly not: in the other transactions of life, they are a mild, strictly honourable people.' He gave me a proof of his opinion of them, telling me he had travelled through their district accompanied by Lady Raffles, and with out any guards or means of defence.

They had lodged in their huts, which are very large, and on account of the great moisture of the climate raised on large wooden piles. On one occasion, in one of these huts, above one hundred of these people slept in the same room with the Raffles' party; but this seems to have been an extraordinary occurrence,
occasioned be a very stormy night which prevented many from seeking more distant habitations.

After all this, nothing is to me so wonderful as the plain historical fact, that Sumatra was discovered by the Portuguese in the year 1510, and since that period seems to have been continually the resort of eastward-bound European ships. I conclude that in this large island a remote part has been little visited by Europeans ; still, that little, one should think, must in the course of above 300 years have produced some progress towards civilisation. It seems strange, too, that a district large enough to contain a population of a million should be so cut off from all intercourse with the capital and that part of the island which has been so long inhabited by European merchants of different countries.

I was astonished to hear that so near the equator a climate so temperate should be found. Sir Stamford said there was hardly a day in the year in which the thermometer did not rise above 80°, and very few in which it was higher than 84°; then, in the night and early morning, it frequently falls to 70°, and this, partly from the extreme moisture and partly from the relaxation of frame which the previous heat has produced, is felt as severe cold.

Sir Stamford says the mermaid is frequently seen on the coasts of Sumatra; but his report of her appearance is far different from, and much less poetic than, the fabulous histories I have been in the habit of hearing.

He describes her appearance as very like that of a cow, and says he cannot conceive how any resemblance to a woman can have been fancied, excepting in the position of the breasts and in the manner of nursing her young. They have very strong affection for their young, and when these are removed, call them with a
loud continual moan, very discordant, and this is the far-famed mermaid's song. This moan is sometimes accompanied by tears, and a strange property is ascribed to those tears by a kind of poetic superstition. It is supposed that the tears which the mother sheds to recall her absent offspring, have the power of attracting towards the person possessing them the one most dear to that
person. The precious drops are, therefore, eagerly purchased by lovers, as a kind of talisman to preserve and retain the affections of the beloved object.

After writing the above, I looked over Marsden's 'Sumatra;' I there find the account given by Sir Stamford of the race of cannibals exactly confirmed**. The part of the island in which they are found is on the N.E. coast, and is called Batta, and cannot be more than 200 miles from Achin—the northern point where an English factory was established early in the reign of James I. Marsden calls the fish which he says has given rise to the idea of there being mermaids in the tropical seas, the Dayong. He describes the head as covered with shaggy hair, and says the tusks are applied to the same purposes as those of the elephant, and, being whiter, are more highly prized.

I was conversing on the subject of Sumatra with Mr Stanley, the Vicar of Alderley, who tells me that it is still more strange that, in this age of discovery, most of the islands in the Indian seas possess unexplored regions in the interior. He instanced Borneo, Ceylon, Madagascar (where there seems much reason to believe that there exists a diminutive race, a nation of dwarfs) and the Philippine Islands. As to the latter, he told me that he had the authority of a captain and of a lieutenant of a merchant vessel, who said that two young men with tails had come to the coast from the interior of the country; that they came on board their vessel, remained some time, and had even consented to come to England with them, but afterwards either repented and returned home or died (I forget which). Mr. Stanley told me he had taken a great deal of pains in examining these men, and never could find any wavering in their testimony, or discover any circumstance which led him to doubt their veracity.***
Editor's Notes
* In 1813 the bill for omitting the embowelling and quartering in the punishment of high treason was thrown out in the House of Commons by 75 against 60; 'so that (wrote Romilly) the ministers have the glory of having preserved the British law, by which it is ordained, that the bowels of a man convicted of treason shall be torn out of his body whilst yet alive.' The judgment against Captain Walcot (concerned in the Rye House plot) was reversed, because it did not direct that the bowels of the prisoner should be taken out and burned, in conspectu cjus et ipso vivente. Lord Russell was one of those who disputed the King's prerogative to remit the hanging and quartering in Lord Stafford's case; and when his own turn camp, the King (Charles II.) said: ' My Lord Russell shall find that I am possessed of that prerogative which., in the case of Lord Stafford, he thought fit to deny me.'

** These (offenders) are tried by the people of the tribe where the offence was committed, but cannot be executed until their own particular raja has been made acquainted with the sentence, who, when he acknowledges the justice of the intended punishment, sends a cloth to cover the head of the delinquent, along with a large dish of salt and lemons.' Amongst the many proofs addressed by Mr. Marsden to the incredulous, is the following :—'When Mr. Giles Holloway was leaving Tappanuli, and settling his accounts with the natives, he expostulated with a Batta man who had been. dilatory in his payments. "I would," said the man, " have been here sooner, but my pangula (superior officer) was detected in familiarity with my wife. He was condemned, and I stayed to eat my share of him : the ceremony took us three days, and it was only last night that we finished him." Mr. Miller was present at this conversation, and the man spoke with perfect seriousness.'—History of Sumatra, p. 394.

*** The Rev. Dr. "Wolff states positively, in the last of his publications, that a noble English family was distinguished by the same appendage as these two young men: and that one of them had the seat of his carriage adapted for the reception of his tail. His nether garments were probably made like Satan's—
His coat it was red, and his breeches were blue,
And there was a hole for his tail to come through.'


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