( Originally Published 1904 )
WE have left Batavia, have passed through the Sunda Strait at the western end of Java, and are now steaming along the southern shores of the great island of Sumatra through the Indian Ocean.
How hot it is ! We are approaching the Equator, and the sun's rays fall almost perpendicularly upon the wave-less sea. Just now no air is stirring. The ocean seems a dead mass of molten glass which, reflecting the sun, burns our eyes as we look across it to the blue hills of the mainland. It is only where the ship cuts it that the sea is in motion. Our prow pushes it aside in great steel-blue waves which do not break as they roll out-ward, but go on and on, communicating their motion to the dead mass beyond until they are lost in this universe of water. At the stern we can see the track of the steamer, a wide pathway of wavelets extending behind us as far as our eyes can reach.
At last a wind springs up. It is rippling the glassy blue and painting millions of dimples upon its sapphire face. It cools our hot cheeks as we sit in our steamer chairs under the awnings on deck, and makes life more worth living. That wind comes from the mountains of Sumatra, the mighty chain which runs along through the western half of the island from one end of it to the other. Many of its peaks are more than two miles in height, and, although they are almost on the Equator, are crowned with perpetual snow.
The coast is low and covered with a dense vegetation.
Cocoanut trees line the beach. We see thatched huts built high upon piles along the shores, and now and then bigger houses with curiously shaped roofs farther back among the trees. We sail along from port to port, calling at the cities of Telok Betong, Benkulen (ben-koo len), and Padang (pa-clang') on the west coast, and then go clear around the island to visit the town of Medan in Deli (del'e) on the other side, from where we make our way down into the Strait of Malacca to Singapore to get a ship for Ceylon.
Our trip about Sumatra takes several weeks. The island is an enormous one. With the exception of Greenland, Borneo, New Guinea, and Madagascar, it is the largest island of the world. It is longer than the distance from New York to Chicago, and in one place its width is as great as the distance from Washington to Albany. It is more than three times as large as Java, and is of the same volcanic nature. Much of the western part is broken by lofty peaks, while opposite Singapore and farther east is a vast plain which is under water during part of the year. This is so of Lampong, the province nearest Java, the word " Lampong " meaning bobbing about in the water.
Other parts of Sumatra are made up of valleys and tablelands, some covered with forest, and others with tall, coarse grass. The vegetation is much the same as that of Java, save that the forests are denser and more bound together with rattans and other climbing plants. There are orchids everywhere, and many trees which bear beautiful flowers.
We shall see monkeys in all parts of the island, and we are told that there are wild dogs and wild sheep, tapirs and tigers, elephants and rhinoceroses. The rhinoceros lives on the vegetation of the marshy jungles along the coast. It is very fierce when brought to bay, and can easily impale a horse on one of the two great horns which it has just over its nose. Its skin is so thick that the ordinary bullet has no effect upon it, and especially prepared balls are used for hunting it. The best place to aim is just behind the shoulders, as by this means you may reach the animal's lungs which, if penetrated, cause it to bleed inwardly and die.
We see natives at the ports and on our trips through the interior. Sumatra is thinly populated. It has only about one eighth as many inhabitants as Java, or about three millions in all. The people are largely Malayans, but they are more fierce than the Javanese and more difficult to control. There are many tribes, each ruled by its native sultan, rajah, or prince, under the governor general of the Dutch officials sent out from Holland to act as elder brothers to the native rulers, and in some places there is so much rebellion that a large Dutch army is kept always on hand.
This is especially so in the province of Acheen (a-chen'), at the extreme northern part of the island. Acheen is as large as West Virginia. It was one of the first parts of Sumatra visited by white men ; Marco Polo called there in 1291, and Queen Elizabeth of England made a treaty with its sultan. The Acheenese have been fighting foreigners for hundreds of years. They are Malays, who believe in the Mohammedan religion which tells them they will go straight to heaven if they die killing Christians. Every man among them is a soldier, and every village has its company ready for service in time of war.
Acheen is rich in gold and silver, and in its production of tobacco, spices, coffee, and pepper. The Acheenese have cultivated farms. They are somewhat skilled in mining and manufacturing, weaving cotton and other stuffs, and they make beautiful articles out of gold and silver.
Just south of Acheen, and in central Sumatra, is the country of the Battaks, a nation of semisavages, many of whom live in the hills and on the plains about Lake Toba, a body of water similar to Lake Taal in Luzon. The Battaks are taller than the Javanese. Their skins are darker and more hairy. Some of them are Mohammedans; but in out-of-the-way places many are pagans who believe in three deities,— a creator, a preserver, and a destroyer. This same belief is held by the Hindus, and it may have come from India, for Hindus are sup-posed to have emigrated to Sumatra and mixed with the Battaks.
The Battaks are good people. They have little farms upon which they raise rice, corn, and vegetables. They rear stock, and have large pastures and feeding grounds. They make jewelry and arms which are beautifully carved. They weave and dye cotton, and all together have many civilized ways.
In all parts of Sumatra the people live in villages, and their houses are everywhere more picturesque than any we have seen since our stay in New Guinea. The houses have walls and timbers wonderfully carved. In some villages they are built high up on posts with ridge roofs ending in sharp horns, covered with tin or laced about with the fibers of palm trees. As the children are married new additions are built, each having its horn, so that you can often tell the number of families in the house by the number of horns on the roof. The roofs are thatched with palm leaves beautifully laid, and the houses all together are queer in the extreme.
In many of the villages there are club houses or balis where the people meet together to do business and enjoy themselves, and where travelers and visitors are entertained. There peddlers come to show their goods, there dances are held, and there weddings and funerals are celebrated. The club houses are larger than the ordinary houses. They are built high up from the ground, and one must climb a ladder or stairs to get in. The natives dress differently in different parts of Sumatra. It is so hot in some regions that the men wear little clothing except something about the loins, and the children nothing at all.
The women everywhere are fond of jewelry. They have gold and silver buckles to uphold their skirts or sarongs. They wear massive rings of gold and silver around their necks, and thick rings of a peculiar shape in their ears. They have rings not only in the lobe of the ear, but also in the rim, and these are sometimes so heavy that they have to be tied to the hair to keep them from breaking the ear. The richer girls have sarongs of silk interwoven with gold and silver thread, and deco-rated with small coins. Some have breastplates of silver dollars, and necklaces of gold and silver. Among the poorer women brass, glass, or shells often take the place of the precious metals.
Sumatra is a very rich island, but parts of it are so unhealthful and marshy that they can not be cultivated. In the Lampong region and elsewhere coffee is produced equal to the best raised on the island of Java. The larger plantations belong to the Dutch, and they are managed in the same way as those of the Javanese.
We see rice fields nearly everywhere, and learn that rice is the chief food of the people. Many of the houses have rich granaries beside them in which the crop is stored in the sheaves and hulled out as needed.
Sago is also made in Sumatra. It comes from the sago palm, whose pith contains a starch good for food. The tree is cut down and the pith taken out and beaten to a dust. It is then put into a trough through which water is flowing, and rubbed to and fro in the hands until the woody fiber comes off and the sago sinks to the bottom in small, white grains. After this the sago is dried, when it is ready for use. Much of our sago comes from 0: is part of the world. Most of us have eaten it in puddings and desserts.
Sumatra is noted for its tobacco and spices. Tobacco grows well almost everywhere on the island, but there is one region in the northwestern part, known as Delli, where the tobacco leaves are so fine and silky that they are in great demand all over the world as wrappers for cigars. A great business has grown up in raising these wrappers. The owners of the plantations are chiefly rich men from Holland, who have imported Javanese, Chinese, and East Indians to work their tobacco plantations.
We saw tobacco fields during our visit to the town of Medan, the chief port for Deli, and learned there how the crop is raised. The seed is sown in beds and later on the sprouts are transplanted in the fields. They grow rapidly, and at last reach the height of a man, when they are cut down. The leaves are then taken off and cured for export to all parts of the world.
There is one thing from Sumatra of which we all eat more or less every day. Can you guess what it is ? It is something we put in our food to season it ; something that can be found in every kitchen at home. It is pepper. It is produced in large quantities in Lampong and in north-western Sumatra, where there is a region known as the Pepper Coast. Sumatra has been growing pepper for centuries, and it now supplies about two thirds of all the pepper used by man, exporting hundreds of thousands of pounds every year.
Pepper as it comes on our tables is usually ground to a black or grayish white powder. It is sold in this shape in the grocery stores, or it can be had in little dried balls which look not unlike black pills. These balls are the dried berries of the pepper plant, a climbing bush which when full grown is from twenty to thirty feet high. The plants are set out in cuttings so near together that twenty-five hundred can be grown on one acre. They are carefully cared for, and in three years begin to bear fruit. At five years of age they are full grown, after which they will produce fruit for ten or fifteen years more. Each vine produces a pound and a half or two pounds of pepper annually. There are two crops each year, one of which is gathered in January and the other in July or August.
The berries are first green, then red, and then yellow. When yellow, they are ripe. They are picked as they begin to ripen and laid out upon mats in the sun to dry. As they dry they turn black and are then the black pepper of commerce. White pepper is made by washing off the pulp of the ripe berry, leaving only the stone. This is of a pale gray or drab color, and it is known as white pepper.