Saturday, 13 June 2009

Treacherous to some, faithful to others

The Cosmorama was the name of an entertainment in 19th century London, at 207-209 Regent Street, at which the public could view scenes of distant lands and exotic subjects through careful illumination and optical devices that magnified the pictures and gave the images greater realism. "The Comsmorama" was also a school geography book published in 1834 that aimed to teach British children about the peoples of the world, rendered with attractive drawings of the people described and their unique costumes to give a clearer idea of their "peculiarities". The book was so successful that its text and images were used in other geography books decades later, and reprinted in America. The text below is the Cosmorama's entry on 'Malacca, or Malaya'.

"This country consists of a narrow peninsula running out from the south of Siam; it is supposed to have been the Golden Chersonese of the ancients. The political constitution is a kind of feudal system; the supreme power being vested in a sultan, who presides over the '
dattoes' (SZ note: 'datuks'), or nobles; and they have other vassals in subjection to them. The religion is Mohammedism. The Dutch are in possession of Malacca, the capital of the country."

"The Malay language is the softest and most harmonious of any dialect in the East; hence it has been called the Italian of Asia; and it is the most general medium of commercial intercourse in that part of the world. These people are so deficient in everything like science that even the division of time by years and months appears to be unknown to them."

"The Malays are rather below the middle size, well-proportioned, of a dark or rather black complexion, and very active. Their character has been variously represented, according to the interests and feelings of those who have undertaken to portray it. The early European settlers who, in their eagerness to acquire wealth, scrupled not to resort to resort to force and fraud, and thereby produced a re-action on the part of those who were their victims, represented the Malays as the most ferocious and treacherous race upon the earth. Other travellers, who have had opportunities of observing them under different circumstances, have represented them as the best informed, the most liberal, and the most exemplary of all the Mohameddans in the Indian archipelago; more faithful to their word, and possessing a more estimable character than the natives of India."

"Intrepid enterprise, and inflexible perseverance in piratical as well as commercial purposes, constitute the very essence of their character. What Europeans deem piracy, they consider as chivalrous adventure; and if they attack a foreign vessel by surprise, and massacre the crew, they call it an heroic achievement against an enemy. They always go armed and would think themselves disgraced to be without their poniard; a weapon, in the manufacture of which, as well as in the use, they excel. Their clothes are very light, exactly adapted to their shape, and loaded with a multitude of buttons, which fasten them close to their bodies."

"... the Malays ... inhabit the coast and are supposed to have first settled there from Sumatra.... The original Sumatran is mild, peaceable, and forbearing, until roused by great provocation, and then his resentment is implacable. He is abstemious both in eating and drinking; but his hospitality is only bounded by his ability. On the other hand, he is litigious, indolent, addicted to gaming (though all gaming is prohibited by law, except cock-fighting, at stated periods), dishonest in his dealings with strangers, regardless of truth, servile to his superiors, and dirty in his apparel, which is never washed. The women are remarkably affable, modest and so grave in their deportment, as to be rarely excited to laughter."

Malays in the 1810 edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica

The first significant mention of the Malays in the Encyclopaedia Britannica appears under the entry for 'Malacca' in Volume XII of its Fourth Edition that was published in 1810. This was about 25 after the British had established its first settlement on the Malay peninsula (in Penang).

"The Malays are governed by feudal laws. A chief, who has the title 'king' or 'Sultan', issues his commands to his great vassals, who have other vassals in subjection to them in similar manner. A small part of the nation live independent, under the title of
oranicai or 'noble', and sell their services to those who pay for them best; while the body of the nation is composed of slaves, and live in perpetual servitude."

"The generality of these people are restless, fond of navigation, war, plunder, emigration, colonies, desperate enterprises, adventures and gallantry. They talk incessantly of their honour and their bravery; while they are universally considered by those with whom they have intercourse, as the most treacherous, ferocious people on earth. This ferocity, which the Malays qualify under the name of 'courage', is so well-known to the European companies who have settlements in the East Indies, that they have universally agreed in prohibiting the captains of their ships who may out into the Malay islands, from taking on board any seamen from that nation, except in the greatest distress, and then on no account to exceed two or three."

"It is not in the least uncommon for an handful of these horrid savages suddenly to embark, attack a vessel by surprise, massacre the people, and make themselves master of her. Malay batteaux, with 24 or 30 men, have been known to board European ships of 30 or 40 guns, in order to take possession of them, and murder with their poinards a great part of the crew. Those who are not slaves go always armed: they would think themselves disgraced if they went abroad without their poinards, which they call '
crit' (SZ note: 'keris'). As their lives are a perpetual round of agitation and tumult, they cannot endure the long-flowing garments in use among other Asiatics. Their habits are exactly adapted to their shapes, and loaded with a multitude of buttons, which fasten them close to their bodies."