Dobo, 25 June 1893

During the night we passed around the Southern part of the Aru islands and then set course for the island of Wammar. In the morning heavy rain clouded the view. The rain was so heavy that the travel speed had to lowered. Finally the storm relented and some of the very flat islands of the Aru group came into view, first Trangan, then Maikoor and Kobroor, then Wokam as well as the small island of Wammar, on whose North-western coast lies the trading station of Dobo, our next destination.

The Aru or Western Papua archipelago which is part of the Dutch residency of Amboina comprises 22 larger and 73 smaller partly uninhabited and even unknown islands that group themselves around the main island of Aru, which the natives themselves call Tanah Besar. It consists of a row of small islands separated by narrow estuaries. The largest islands from North to South are Wokam, Kobroor, Maikoor and Trangan. The total area of the group is listed as 8613 km2; the islands are divided into front and rear wall islands depending on whether they are oriented towards the West or the East. During the era of the Dutch East India company, Voorwal was the name given to the islands facing the trade routes and Achterwal to the islands turned to the other side.

The total number of inhabitants of the Aru islands is estimated at around 25.000; the largest part of which are heathen, in part with a strongly developed fetish cult. The race of the Aruans is predominantly  a mix of Papuan and Malayan elements even if foreign elements are mixed in.

The ground of the islands mostly consists of coral forms. Now and then it is rocky, covered with layers of sand or swampy but mostly, especially close to the shore, composed of corals, the islands have a wave-like form only now and then interrupted by small hills. Jungle and humous parts alternate. Palm trees are plentiful everywhere besides coconut trees, sago and nipa palm trees there are representatives here from very rare species. Splendidly developed here are the tree ferns, numerous the canaries and on many river edges strange casuarines surround the hilly woods. Agriculture is not highly developed as planting is done only what is useful for a vegetarian cuisine besides the fruits of the forest: maize, pisang, batatas, yams roots and where the ground allows, sugar cane.  The outstanding industry is fishing and hunting which supplies the most important trade good to the Aruans. The former offers fish, trepang, pearls and mother of pearl, tortoise shell, the latter produce edible salangane’s nests, a species of common swifts, salanganes, casuarines, birds of paradise, parrots and numerous birds of other species, spotted cuscus (Cuscus maculatus), bandicoots (Perameles doreyana), wild boars, wallabies etc.

The entrance channel to the harbor of Dobo offers only a narrow passage for large ships and the depth of the shipping channel changes here so quickly that alternating soundings show 6 fathoms on starboard and 22 fathoms on port.

A small steam boat in the harbor we at first believed to be the government vehicle which the resident of Amboina was to send here according to the schedule but learned that it was a merchant ship and on the way to a round trip to the different harbors of the residency of Amboina. Apart from this merchant steam boat there were only two pearl fishing boats, one of which flying the English flag, in the harbor of Dobo as far as larger vehicles are concerned but it was full of praus which serve in these waters as coastal transportation.

The village of Dobo — multiple rows of densely packed buildings — lies on a narrow sand covered headland on whose Southern end already at the shore of the actual island where a luxurious high forest.

The buildings, huts constructed large in the manner of barns with steep roofs are used in the front for apartments while the rear rooms are used for storage and magazines.

Trade is strong during the months of January to August as during this time vehicles of all kind, from large praus to small boats from Macassar, from Ceram, Goram, the Banda islands etc. tend to come here. Then a vivid trade develops with the natives.

The character of Dobo is that of a trading place is expressed also by the type of about 500 heads of population — a mix of Papuan, Malayan, Javanese and even Chinese elements — and among the permanent inhabitants there does not seem to be a single Aruans with pure blood. As the true Aruans, the natives of this archipelago live hidden in the interior just as on the other islands of this group such as on Wammar, mostly, in small villages which they leave only to trade in Dobo.

The natives have totally surrendered to the appeal of alcoholic beverages, namely arrak with its 50 percent alcohol and more and thus especially popular. Without thought they exchange all their goods, often the result of hard labor of weeks, with traders for a few small barrels of this poison drink. In all latitudes guns have contributed less to the persistent subjugation of the native peoples than firewater!

As Dobo for itself does not offer anything special and only is settled by traders of the lowest category and with a notorious reputation — the genie of trade is a very unclean fellow — thus I abstained from taking consideration of this shops  and wanted to use the short time that was to be spent in these waters for expeditions to other parts of the island world of Aru.

Multiple gentlemen, however, as well as the ship cooks hunting fresh food had let themselves be transported to Dobo where they were shocked by the fantastic prices. They for instance asked 60 fl., for a pig and  1 fl. for 5 eggs! The gentlemen also did not make any ethnographic catches as the objects offered by the traders were mostly of European origin and overall extremely pricey.

Possibly the exorbitant prices had been asked only in our honor. As officially Dobo, as a part of the residency of Amboina and its position as a trading place had took notice of our arrival by hosting the flags everywhere and all huts even the many praus moored at the shore had been ornamented with the colors of the Dutch tricolore.

In a small dinghy arrived the postal master of Dobo, a dignitary whose position was comparable in the Dutch residencies of the Malayan archipelago to our district supervisors (Bezirkshauptmänner).

The chiefs of the individual tribes living in this archipelago are acknowledged by the government but are subordinated to their officials. Said postal master,  a comic fat Malay and the only one in the village who could speak a few words in a European language, namely English. He reported that the resident of Amboina had finally departed the day before after he had awaited the arrival of „Elisabeth“ from the 12th to the 25th June.

I vividly regretted that the resident had wasted so much time waiting for our arrival but he seemed to have been a victim of some miscommunication. Even if it was very difficult to predict the precise day of arrival of such a long sea voyage in advance, the circumstance that the resident had been expecting us already 14 days ago can only be explained by an error.

The faulty English used by the brave postal manager made it more difficult and time-consuming to develop a program for my time on the island, so that only after a full hour everything was arranged. He immediately afterwards went to the village to make the necessary preparations for our expedition. Toward noon he was back on board, this time wearing a coy hunter costume and armed with two overlong rifles of medieval vintage. He was to be my guide for the excursion to Wokam island.

The steam barge took us quickly to the West coast of the island where the flat coral rich shore proved difficult for us to disembark, even more so as a heavy rain was falling that forced us for some moments to seek shelter in the hut of a mixed-race Malay on the shore. Then everybody went as usual in different directions in the company of a guide.

The jungle that engulfed me after only a few steps reminded me vividly of the forests in the Solomon islands and New Guinea in its splendor and luxuriousness of its vegetation but with the difference that the ground was extremely swampy and in many places there were broad marshy streams criss-crossing the forest whose black deep moor filled the air around with miasma.  The color of the stagnant water was a dark black-blue. At every step that we made in the swamp we uprooted decomposing organic matter that produced an abominable smell.

In the beginning I tried to walk across the swamp on fallen trunks that were laying criss-cross but this method was later not practical so that I had to, if I wanted to advance, for good or bad to wade through the swamp and I only managed to drag my foot forward with great effort out of the viscous mass where I had placed it. Furthermore the terrain full of trees was overgrown with all kind of copious vegetation and about every half hour a new heavy rainfall poured down.

Immediately after each rainfall the sun peeked through the clouds and as soon as it became visible the voices of the birds were immediately heard too that had gone quiet during the rain. Among these sounds, those of the white cockatoo (Cacatua triton) and the black ara cockatoo, as well as the cries of the pigeons, some parrots, a brushturkey as well as kingfishers and  mainas of various species were especially notable. The enormous height of the trees made my efforts difficult to discover the birds just like in New Guinea.

I concentrated my efforts mostly on catching one the black cockatoos that are notable by their beautiful feathers dusted with white, light-red cheeks and a splendid tuft rising vertically. But the effort was in vain even though I waded through the swamp for hours. Though I saw a few specimens of this species I managed to shot and wound one but failed to bag it. Instead I killed two brushturkeys sitting in a tree (Talegallus fuscirostris), multiple kingfishers of a new species (Sauromarptis gaudichaudi) and three large pigeons.

On a dry ficus tree I found an uninhabited but apparently recently built airy of a large predator. Clam later assured me to have seen an osprey close to this airy that was hunting fish at the coast.

The information Wallace presents in his work „The Malayan Archipelago“ about the variety, splendor and richness of the butterflies of the Aru islands I found confirmed as despite the frequent rainstorms everywhere during my journey through the jungle the most splendid butterflies notable for their size and diversity of species were fluttering around. Thus I saw a butterfly flying from branch to branch like a bird, probably Ornithoptera aruana,  whose wingspan is incidentally 20 cm!

Another peculiarity of the Aru islands is the presence of marine animals especially shells and snails at a great distance from the shore. Part of the snails must have been carried into the interior by hermit crabs, the other beings and forms might have been pushed there by flooding. As the interior of the islands lies in many places deeply below sea level which also explains the swampy character of the forest.

Under the black humus layer only shells and corals of very recent formation can be found. Thanks to the protective layer many forms are completely intact and unweathered

My guide, a mixed-race Malay, proved to be a lazy rascal who had only one motto: Let’s go back! The brave one was also not very keen on wading in the swampy terrain so that I had to use all possible means to make him go on. This islander seemed to be an example for the belief that mixed-race people have no good qualities and think that the mixing of individuals of two or more different races only will result in the inheritance of all the bad physical and psychic characters of those races that are combined in that respective mixed-race person.

At sunset I met the other gentlemen again on the beach  some of which had been luckier than me — proven by their catches of a black cockatoo, numerous parrots and a beautiful light brown heron.

As the low tide had arrived in the mean time, we had to wade for a rather long way through mood and water to reach the barge.

Links

  • Location: Dobo, Aru Islands
  • ANNO – on 25.06.1893 in Austria’s newspapers.
  • The k.u.k. Hof-Burgtheater is playing „Das verlorene Paradies“. The k.u.k. Hof-Operntheater is closed from 1 June to 19 July.

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