Littell's Living Age/Volume 166/Issue 2152/The Krakatoa Eruption - Part III

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Littell's Living Age by Philip Neale
Volume 166, Issue 2152 : The Krakatoa Eruption - Part III.
Originally from The Leisure Hour.


The Dutch residents in Java take things very quietly, and show little or no interest in what is going on around them. Not even a volcanic eruption in their neighborhood and the bursting of a volcanic wave on the adjacent shore were of sufficient importance to stir them from their apathy. They were quite content to receive the fatal tidings of death and destruction from the ruined districts without going to see the places for themselves. The Dutch are not much given to making excursions either by sea or land. Excursion trains or cheap trips by steamer are things quite unknown. Of course, the climate has a good deal to answer for in this respect. Exertion on land is far from tempting in the damp, tropical heat of Batavia, but one would have thought that a short sea voyage, with cool, refreshing breezes, would have offered attractions even to a phlegmatic Dutchman. But although the Netherlands-India Steamship Company has a large fleet of vessels employed in the Java Sea, they are used exclusively for ordinary traffic. The fares are high, but it is a want of energy more than the want of time or money which keeps the tropical Dutchman at home.

It will not be wondered at, therefore, that the visitors to the devastated districts on the western shores of Java were very few and far between. Six weeks after the catastrophe I found that I was the second European visitor who had been at Anjer. It would have been much more interesting, of course, to have gone earlier, but this was scarcely expedient until most of the dead bodies had been buried. When the great volcanic wave receded thousands of corpses were left behind exposed to the fierce rays of a tropical sun. Natives from the surrounding kampongs (as the Java villages are termed) were called in to perform the melancholy work of burying their less fortunate neighbors. And what a task it must have been as day after day, for several weeks, they thus toiled! The single European who had been there previously to inspect the repairs to the Singapore telegraph cable could not bear the sight of his terrible surroundings, and, we were told, had beat a hasty retreat. Fortunately the worst was over when we visited the district early in October. Lloyd’s agent at Batavia was my travelling companion. His errand was to find out the most suitable site for the new shipping station in the Straits of Soenda in place of ill-fated Anjer, and I gladly accepted the opportunity of going with him.

We made an early start from one of the suburbs of Batavia, and drove into the city at daybreak, there to commence our long journey by road to the western coast. Posting in Java is rather a novelty, and is worth being described a little in detail. The traveller has to provide his own carriage, and the government finds the post-horses. The latter term is a misnomer, and rather deceptive, as the four animals provided for each stage are the diminutive ponies so commonly used in every part of Java. They come chiefly from the islands of Timor and Sandalwood, and though small in size they are full of spirit and get through a great deal of work. On reaching the post-office at Molenvliet (the St. Martin’s-le-Grand of Java,) from which our start was to be made, we found four ponies already harnessed; but an unfortunate delay awaited us, as the travelling carriage we had ordered was found to be unfit for so long a journey. Some detention ensued while another one was sought, and even then the wheels had to be changed before we could be off.

At length, just before eight in the morning, we made a start. Our coming had been announced previously to each of the posting stations along the road, so that ponies might be ready for us on our arrival. As we were nearly two hours later than arranged in getting away from Batavia, we found the native officials at each place we stopped at had long been on the anxious look-out for us. There was consequently no delay en route, and we soon made rapid progress. With a great deal of needless cracking of whips and at full gallop, we quickly left Batavia behind. Our peculiar equipage would have been a great novelty to those who have only seen European coaching.

The travelling carriage was an ordinary one — covered in, and with a foot-place at the back on which two men could stand. This is provided as a standing-place for two natives, called “runners,” who are responsible for keeping the ponies up to their regulation pace. On ascending rising ground, or on any other occasion when the speed is slackened, at a shrill cry from the driver these runners jump down and run swiftly to the ponies’ heads. There, partly by an application of the short whips which they carry, but more especially by their noisy shouts, they urge on the ponies again, and at length, when the pace is increased, tired and breathless with their exertions, they scramble up behind as the carriage at full speed rolls past them. At one part of our journey a runner failed to regain his place, and the driver, in spite of his shouts, left him behind in disgrace, to complete the rest of the stage on foot. The dress of these men, like that of the drivers, is a peculiar one. Instead of a coat they wear a kind of smock-frock, a long garment reaching down to the knees and made of dark red print. Their feet are bare, and on their heads they have a bright-colored handkerchief, called a kaia kapalla, wound round several times and neatly tucked in. This tucking-in looks very simple, but is most difficult to do, and only native hands can make it a success.

The driver’s dress is much the same, except that above his head-cloth, he wears a peculiar red-glazed hat made of bamboo leaves, in shape like a large inverted saucer. The natives are all undersized men, quite in keeping with their diminutive ponies, and the whole equipage has a strange appearance. The reins and traces are of rope, and travelling at full gallop with a loose rein (as the custom is) has just a slight element of danger about it. There is plenty of cracking of whips, and when the driver grows tired of using his, the runners are expected to begin with theirs. Our driver went through to the end of our journey, but the runners were changed at each stage. The posting stations are very close together, there being only six Java paalen between each. A paal is rather less than an English mile, but even these short stages prove quite enough for the four ponies. They keep up the pace well, but the hot, damp heat is trying, and half an hour’s gallop brings them in quite distressed, especially in the wet season, when the roads are heavy. We had not gone more than a mile or two when an opportunity was given us of seeing the runners at their work. The ponies were not doing their best, and so the natives at the back of the carriage were called to the front, and very soon increased the pace. This was done, I was glad to notice, more by shouting and cracking the whip than by beating.

In less than half an hour we came to a stand at the first posting station, called Pesing. This, like those which followed, was a wooden building spanning the road, beneath the arched roof of which our carriage stopped, and in stalls at the side stood the ponies, ready harnessed, which were to take us on. The changing was done with considerable despatch, each stage, including the stoppage, seldom taking more than thirty minutes.

The roads in all parts of Java are of the very best — well constructed originally, and most carefully maintained since. They were brought into their present state of perfection by one of the old governor-generals sent out from Holland, Jan Pieterzoon Coen. He required a certain extent of road to be constructed within a given time, and if the task had not been completed to his satisfaction when he next visited the place, report says that the native chiefs of the district paid for their deficiencies by being hanged on the nearest tree. With such summary justice, it is not to be wondered at that the roads in Java are far superior to many an one under the jurisdiction of some English highway board. Whether Governor Coen has been belied or not it is difficult to say, but a monument to his memory on the Waterloo-Plein in Batavia shows that if he was a terror to the natives, he is still held in honor by the Dutch.

Tropical scenery is not at its best when travelling on a highroad, but still there was much to interest one as mile after mile of our journey was quickly traversed. Bright pink water-lilies could be seen growing at the roadside — Nymphea lotus and Nymphea rubra — the latter peculiar to the East Indies, where it was discovered at the beginning of the present century. Long avenues of fine tamarind-trees occasionally lined the road, forming a pleasant shelter from the burning sun as we passed beneath. Here and there grew the immense tree — so common in Java — called the waringin, whilst in every direction could be seen the beautiful cocoanut palms and the graceful banyans. Two hours and a half after leaving Batavia we reached a little town called Tangerang. As we had here passed from one residency (or county) to another, we were not allowed to travel on without entering our names in an official register provided for the purpose. This seemed very much like needless curiosity, which ought not to be encouraged, and I can only hope that in the illegible name of a traveller who described himself that day as “Anglicanus Sacerdos,” travelling from “London” to “Australia” by the somewhat circuitous route of Tangerang, the government resident gained all the information he required. Apropos of this espionage I may mention that no Englishman who lands in Java is allowed to remain more than forty-eight hours without obtaining the written permission of the Dutch authorities.

The longer we travelled on the more noticeable became the various traces of damage along the road caused by the Krakatoa outburst. The dust from the showers of ash could be plainly seen by the roadside not many miles from the capital, and each mile made it the more distinct, until at length the road seemed completely covered with it. As this was exactly six weeks after the occurrence, its existence so many miles from the volcano is the more remarkable, and proves how thickly it must have originally fallen. About twenty miles from Batavia we came to some damaged palm and banyan trees. Heavy branches had been broken off by the weight of the ashes, and other large trees had been completely blighted, probably by the strong sulphuric fumes. There were many miles of these injured trees, the damage done gradually increasing the farther we journeyed on.

Our rapid posting was at length brought to a sudden check at a small kampong named Onderandier, by an intervening river called the Pontang. Here our ponies were taken out, and a crowd of natives surrounded the carriage preparing to ferry it across. Native labor is both cheap and plentiful all over Java, and it was not surprising, therefore, to find that it took the united exertions of no less than fifteen coolies to lower the carriage down the sloping road to the ferry-boat. The mode of working it across is somewhat peculiar. A strong climbing plant known as the rattan palm, is joined together and stretched across the wide river, and forms a cheap substitute for rope or chain. It seldom breaks, and can be renewed as often as required from the trees on the adjacent banks. Half an hour’s delay here, and we were again off. At length, fifty-eight paalen from Batavia, we drew up early in the afternoon at Serang, and after luncheon prepared to visit some of the ruined districts. We were now in the residency of Bantam, a district which gives its name to the celebrated breed of fowls with which most of us are familiar. Bantam is the most ancient of the settled districts in the island, the Portuguese having formed a settlement there in 1524. It was not until seventy years later that the Dutch arrived upon the scene and founded their new home in Bantam and Batavia. The Portuguese had not been long in the island when they had their first experience of a volcanic eruption. Mount Ringgit, in eastern Java, broke out in 1586, and one of their settlements was completely destroyed.

Our route now lay off the main road, and the government post-horses could therefore no longer be used. We accordingly sought out a small two-wheeled vehicle, mostly used by the natives, and called by them a ka-har. This is a small, gaily painted cart, very high on the springs, capable of holding two persons sitting behind the driver. It is generally drawn by one pony, but we had bargained for a pair, and had one in the shafts and the other at the side. All along the road from the hotel at Serang to Bantam Bay we saw large, massive houses standing in their own extensive grounds, surrounded by lofty walls, the palatial residences of powerful native rajahs in days gone by. Some of these must have been three hundred years old, and were still in a good state of preservation. Most of the natives we passed were armed with the krîs (or native dagger), a formidable weapon carried in the belt, and often used on the slightest provocation. The Javanese in this part of the island, being shut off very much from the outer world, are very superstitious and not over partial to strangers, especially Europeans. We were therefore careful not to give offence in any way.

Karang-Antu is a small town on the north coast, and being the nearest port for Serang, was a thriving business centre. It is situate in the sheltered Bay of Bantam, and, owing to its position, did not suffer so much as Anjer and the other places on the western coast, which we visited on the following day. As we drew near to the outskirts of the kampong we began to see a little of the ravages caused by the volcanic wave. Even here, between thirty and forty miles from Krakatoa, the water had dashed inland for a couple of miles, but the damage done was very small compared with what we saw later on in less fortunate districts. The first thing we noticed on the road from Serang was a picturesque village once embosomed in trees, but now partly in ruins. This kampong consisted of the usual cottages made of bamboo, and the roof thatched with dry palm-leaves, which naturally offered very little resistance to a great rushing torrent of water. Many of the cocoanut palm-trees were snapped off, just as a stick might be. Farther on we came to a broken boat lying by the roadside, washed in two miles from the coast. From distinct marks on the trees the wave here must certainly have been some twenty feet high. It was only in a few places, however, that it had had fatal results. Some exposed parts of the district entirely escaped, while several of the more sheltered kampongs suffered severely.

Altogether, in the neighborhood of Karang-Antu the loss of life must have been between two and three hundred. This, of course, was serious enough, but on the following day, in other parts of the residency, we found the hundreds turned into thousands. Our driver soon came to an abrupt stop at the side of a river owing to the road having been washed away, and a bridge being too much damaged to bear even our light ka-har. We accordingly obtained a heavy boat, and sailed down the river and out to sea. Bantam Bay is exceedingly pretty, and has three or four small islands densely clad in tropical verdure down to the water’s edge. None of these had suffered in the least, nor were the banks of the river much injured. This portion of Bantam is a most unhealthy spot. In early times it was a flourishing settlement and a rapidly increasing town. But the climate proved too much for those first settlers, and the large numbers of deaths there and in Batavia soon gained for Java the unenviable distinction of Graf der Europeanen — the European’s grave. The survivors soon deserted the place for a healthier climate, and now all that remains of the once famous town is given up entirely to the native population. We had an opportunity of judging something of its unhealthiness as we returned up the river. Its banks are lined with dense mangrove swamps, infested by alligators and mosquitoes. One of the former jumped into the water close to our boat as we passed, and the activity of the latter was worthy of a better cause. I have had a good deal of experience of mosquitoes in Java and other places within the tropics, but never found them worse than in this neighborhood of Bantam Bay. The whole district had a most unsavory appearance, suggestive of cholera and fever, and it is very probable that the swamp contained some of the unburied bodies of the unfortunate victims, who had been swept away when their homes were destroyed. As night drew on the river became more uninviting than ever, and we were not sorry to see the last of it, and to find our ka har awaiting us on the road.

On the banks of this Bantam River we found some houses occupied, and I was curious to know what sort of people would live amid such surroundings. On going into one of them we found that they were all occupied by Chinese, that irrepressible race which makes itself at home anywhere. They seemed very contented, and if they were not impervious to fever and cholera, they certainly were in no fear of either. The outbreak of Krakatoa, and the damage caused in their very midst by the wave which followed, had given them a shock, but still one who knew a little broken English told us on leaving that the place was “much plenty good,” which probably meant that it was good enough for a Chinaman. Strangely enough, the Chinese, who care so little where they live or where they die, so long as they can make money quickly, have a strong desire to be buried at last in their native land, and dread nothing so much as for their remains to rest on a foreign shore.