Saturday, 28 June 2014

Singapura dilanggar todak: The mythical swordfish attack on Singapore

'Todak' is the Malay word for a small swordfish, needlefish or garfish - a fish which skims along the surface of the water with its snout in the air. It is a fish that frequently features in Malay myth and legend.

Munshi Abdullah recorded that the Orang Laut (Sea People) regarded as keramat (sacred) the Batu Kepala Todak, the 'Swordfish Head Rock'. It was among several others at the mouth of the Singapore River. This one was the abode of an evil spirit to whom they made vows and offerings and raised banners in its honour. According to the Hikayat Abdullah: "In the Singapore River estuary there were many large rocks, with little rivulets running between the fissures, moving like a snake that has been struck. Among these many rocks there was a sharp-pointed one shaped like the snout ot a swordfish. The Sea Gypsies used to call it the Swordfish's Head and believed it to be the abode of spirits. To this rock they all made pro-pitiatory offerings in their fear of it, placing bunting on it and treating it with reverence. 'If we do not pay our respects to it' they said 'When we go in and out of the shallows it will send us to destruction'. Every day they brought offerings and placed them on the rock."

"All along the shore there were hundreds of human skulls rolling about on the sand; some old, some new, some with hair still sticking to them, some with the teeth filed and others without. News of these skulls was brought to Colonel Farquhar and when he had seen them he ordered them to be gathered up and cast into the sea. So the people collected them in sacks and threw them into the sea. The Sea Gypsies were asked 'Whose are all these skulls?' and they replied 'These are the skulls of men who were robbed at sea. They were slaughtered here. Wherever a fleet of boats or a ship is plundered it is brought to this place for a division of the spoils. Sometimes there is wholesale slaughter among the crews when the cargo is grabbed. Sometimes the pirates tie people up and try out their weapons here along the sea shore'. Here too was the place where they went in for cock-fighting and gambling."

The peculiarly shaped spirit rock was blasted away by the British as a hazard to navigation. 


In the Sejarah Melayu is found the well-known story of the swordfish attack on Singapore. "After a while Singapura was attacked by swordfish, which leapt upon any one who was on the sea shore. If they attacked the victim in the chest, he was pierced through the chest and died: if they attacked the victim's neck, his head rolled off his shoulders and he died: and if they attacked the victim in the waist, he was pierced through the waist and died. So great was the number of those killed by the swordfish that there was a panic and people ran hither and thither crying, 'The swordfish are come to attack us! They have killed thousands of our people!'' And Paduka Sri Maharaja went forth on his elephant escorted by his ministersf137a war-chiefs, courtiers and heralds. And when he reached the sea shore he was astounded to see the havoc the swordfish had wrought; how not a victim of their attack had escaped; how those who had been stabbed rolledf over and over and died; and how the number of victims was ever mounting."

"And he ordered all his men to (stand side by side so as to) form a barricade of their shins, but the swordfish leapt upon them and any one they stabbed met his death. Like rain came the swordfish and the men they killed were past numbering. Presently a boy was heard to say, "What are we making this barricade of our legs for? Why are we deceiving ourselves? If we made a barricade of banana stems, would not that be better?" And when Paduka Sri Maharaja heard this he said, "That boy is right!", and he commanded his men to build a barricade of banana stems. And the swordfish came on; but as soon as they leapt, their snouts stuck on the banana stems, where they were cut down and killed in numbers past counting, and that was the end of the swordfish attack. Paduka Sri Maharaja then returned to the palace and his chiefs said to him, "Your Highness, that boy will grow into a very clever man. It would be as well to be rid of him!" And the king agreed and ordered the boy to be put to death. But when this boy was executed the guilt of his blood was laid on Singapura."

According to Singapore Malay folklore, Tanjong Pagar ('Fenced Headland') in Singapore  was where the boy ordered that a stockade of banana trees be erected to embed the 'swordfish' snouts when they charged ashore. For reward, the king, prompted by jealous ministers, had him done away with. In one story, the lad was loaded with chains and told to swim to the Indonesian island of Batam. He got as far as a reef called Alang Berantai ('Barrier of Chains') in the Main Strait of Singapore. Several place names derive from this story. When arrested, the boy was wounded in the scuffle and his blood gave colour to Bukit Merah ('Red Hill'). The final resting place of this too clever youth is near the navigational hazard of Batu Berhenti ('Stopping Place'). Admiralty Sailing Directions advised 'violent eddies and overfalls are usually to be met with' and ships should 'keep on the northern side of the strait'. Small boats and even motor-powered launches have been lost here, so it is not surprising that when the water is clear fisherfolk have seen a 'dato' keramat with crossed legs in meditation.

In actual fact, garfish or needlefish, like all ray-finned beloniforms, are capable of making short jumps out of the water at up to 60 km/h (37 mph). Since they swim near the surface, they often leap over the decks of shallow boats rather than going around. This jumping activity is greatly excited by artificial light at night; night fisherman and divers in areas across the Pacific Ocean have been "attacked" by schools of suddenly excited fish diving across the water towards the light source at high speed. Their sharp beaks are capable of inflicting deep puncture wounds, often breaking off inside the victim in the process. For many traditional Pacific Islander communities, who primarily fish on reefs from low boats, these fish represent an even greater risk of injury than sharks.