Johor to Singapore, 7 April 1893

For today it was planned to visit Johor, the capital and residence of the sultanate Johor founded in 1859 by sultan Abu Bekr. In the sultan’s absence the heir apparent had invited me to enter the interesting kingdom of the sovereign Malay sultanate of Johor and after seeing the sights to hunt close to the city in the afternoon.

Accompanied by the Belgian consul general, my entourage and several gentlemen from the staff of „Elisabeth“ we set out of Singapore early in the morning in carriages. As the heat was not yet suffocating, the drive was very pleasant. On an excellent road we crossed the whole island of Singapore, first alongside the numerous parks of the city of villas and then through jungles and primal forests.

Astonished and captivated, our eyes were locked to the marvels which nature produced in its blooming children. While I might call the prevalence of palm and banian trees as characteristic for Ceylon, here there was a colorful changing variety of views. Bamboos, mango and durian trees line the road; behind them stand coffee and pepper trees. Then follows jungle out of whose impenetrable thickets sago and areka palm trees were rising as well as tree ferns. Numerous small Malay and Chinese settlements add lively colors to the rich green of the landscape.

The drive took around two hours to finally arrive at the end of the island and we could see the city of Johor in front of us, only separated by the small water road of Salat Tabras. The first sight of Johor is very charming. Out of a deep-blue sea rise green hills, on the left criss-crossed by the stream Sungei Tschat and ornamented like a park and crowned with bungalows. In the middle was Istana Laut, the sultan’s palace; on the right government buildings and the former seraglio of the sultan. On the left the small blooming city with its light red brick roofs. In between copses of trees an green meadows. Truly, if we didn’t know that a sea strait was in front of us, one might think of being at the friendly shore of an interior lake.

On the landing pier on the other shore we were received by two nephews of the sultan and I was escorted on a lovely barge to Johor’s shore where the first minister as well as all dignitaries and Europeans present were assembled. A pretty steam yacht of the sultan was anchored there. On foot we went to the palace where the heir apparent, a tall 18-year-old young man with a very sympathetic mien as well as a younger brother of the sultan received us. The palace is a long two story building whose exterior is without ornamentation while the interior has been decorated more tastefully and comfortably than the palace in Singapore. There is no shortage of guest rooms as the sultan is extremely hospitable  and every European who arrives in Singapore, especially if he is a naval officer, is highly welcome to visit him.

In a vestibule of the Istana, tea was served and the program of the day discussed. The key persons apparently were not completely in agreement about it. At the court of the sultan, multiple Europeans who had had a very lively past and must not have lived in peace with their neighbors but had explored their differences and pursued their own interests tried to gain a decisive influence upon the sultan. Among them lives a Swiss who has now a coffee plantation of the sultan’s and served as an organizer and interpreter during our stay. Besides other British persons, there was a Scot who had come to Johor as an engineer and now possessed a large steam saw.

The heir apparent seems to be under the influence of these strangers even though he otherwise exhibited a decisive character. He has been in that rank for only a short time as the sultan had earlier designated another of his relatives who was being educated in England as his heir but had declared this for void without much circumstance when the relative did not develop according to the sultan’s wishes and named him chief of police while the current heir was designated to be the successor to the kingdom of Johor.

After the conclusion of the discussion about the day’s activities a drive in a steam boat was undertaken and namely in the estuary which separates Singapore from the mainland. Firstly the ship drove alongside a small city, then past many plantations and finally we steered in between the jungle that reaches on both sides to the shore and forms a lovely frame for the sea strait.

Then followed a rich breakfast during which I had the opportunity to admire the golden table fittings and the golden tableware — opulently equipped luxuries of the goldsmith’s art which the sultan had had made in England. The household of Johor is generally equipped with the greatest luxury what, it is said, has led to an overburdening of the civil list of this ruler in combination with the other very expensive habits of sultan Abu Bekr. In a clever calculation of its own advantage, England knows, it is claimed, to keep its ward out of financial misery time and again.

The sultanate of Johor contains 24.850 km2 with around 300.000 inhabitants, among them 210.000 Chinese, and is thanks to the English participation very well administered.  The main sources of income of the government are from the importation of opium and alcoholic beverages as well as the export duties upon gambir, pepper and other agricultural products which by the way is the only tax the inhabitants of Joho have to contribute to.

The interior of Johor is covered with thick tropical jungle whether it is swampland or hilly terrain or mountain. Due to the influence of the nearly daily rain, the strong dew and the great humidity, one can find here a rich evergreen vegetation.

Palms such as the sugar rich Cabong palm, the coconut, the Sagound, the Areka palm trees and the gutta percha trees (Isonandra gutta), camphor trees (Camphora officinalis) and excellent wood for construction providing large tree trunks of the virgin forest are characteristic for the forest zone. Bushes that supply resin, oil and poison constitute the undergrowth of the jungles. The cultivated land is used especially for the production of rice, maize, namely however for pepper and catechin, the extract from the branches of the gambir bush (Uncaria Gambir), a Rubiacee, that contained a tanning agent.

The intense cultivation of pepper and catechin-gamber which is by preference done in the North-western province of Muar almost completely by Chinese is expressed in Johor’s exports as the two named products are the most important export goods. Imported is mainly rice, the main staple of the population.

Up to now only a few parcels have been converted to cultivation. The forests are in many places not and in the others only irrationally exploited, with the result that Johor’s jungles still contain many apes of the Gibbon family (Hylobates), then Semnopithecus obscurus etc., and also scattered elephants, rhinos, tapirs, bisons (Gaur), bears and even Malaysian tigers, as well as sambar deer and the small Kijangs (Cervus muntjac), then crocodiles, snakes and finally many birds.

The mineral wealth of Johor are still not explored with the exception of tin of which the whole Malaysian peninsula is especially rich as well as gold. The latter one is especially found around Ophir (Gunong Ledang), the tallest mountain in the territory of Johor, whose sharply rising peak we had already seen from the sea on April 5th.

All in all the sultanate of Johor which had entered into history as one of the tributary states of the once so mighty sultanate of Malacca but then had fought and achieved its independence and managed to keep its sovereignty to the present day, offered a very favorable terrain for the tasks of modern cultivation. Under Abu Bekr administration, culture and trade of Johor had made decisive progress on the way which alone can provide this small but richly furnished and favorably located country with enduring prosperity.

A deer and boar hunt was planned and thus we drove, having enjoyed the culinary fruits of Johor, on an excellent road inland across a very pretty landscape with numerous nice Malay settlements in whose small gardens the purging croton (Croton tiglium) formed the main ornament. We drove comfortably and rapidly. The carriages and the horse teams especially were excellent as the horse loving sultan had imported among others also a pair of outstanding horses from our country. We stopped at a police station, where the hunting party was expecting us led by the brother of the sultan, a very well nourished gentleman, as well as the deposed heir to the throne — two reportedly proficient hunters.

After a long discussion it was decided that we should take up position in an extended line while the drivers already in position would march through the jungle towards us with their dogs. Behind us they had formed some kind of net made out of bast slings which was intended to catch any escaping, wounded or missed game. Thus we stood in intervals of 50 paces each in the middle of tall grass and thick ferns with little open ground and were waiting for action. Hour upon hour passed and nothing appeared beyond a huge pouring rain that came down upon us with flash and thunder and restricted our view to a few paces and soaked our clothes within minutes.

The current and the former heirs as well as the sultan’s brother stood behind me soaking wet and finally declared that probably no game would come close to us now and thus it was better to return home. I quickly concurred and we were soon back at the police station where the organizers apologized for the failure and explained that they did not have sufficient time for the preparation for a more successful hunt. Despite our message that my arrival was imminent in Singapore and Johor five weeks ago, the Belgian consul general is said to have informed the court of Johor only recently about my visit, possibly because he had been constrained by having to represent four governments at the same time. The consul general also had not participated in the hunt but had asked me to use the time for a visit to the state prison, so that he failed to get his share of the downpour.

During the return drive I enjoyed the company of the heir apparent who told with delight about his time in Vienna which he had visited a short time ago as well about Frankfurt am Main where he had stayed for half a year. The sultan is very keen on Western culture and tends to send his relatives to Europe to obtain an education.

The gala dinner in the palace was attended by us, the prince, a large number of dignitaries and the prince of Pahang deposed by the English. This formerly independent prince of a kingdom of 25.900 km2 at the northern border of Johor had been simply dispossessed by the English because of alleged riots in his country and angry and sulking, he had retired to Johor where a marriage between his daughter and our host was to take place on the particular wish of the sultan of Johor; but the prince does not seem to agree to this plan and seemed for the present to be reluctant to agree. At the dinner I sat beside the prime minister, a friendly and knowledgeable old fellow with whom I had a good conversation thanks to the interpreter. He knew much about our country and about all our officers on the mission ships of our navy which had been guests here. In the absence of the ruler he is in charge of the government and is said to be a competent and active man.

The golden fittings which decorated the table were, if that was even possible, even more valuable and more splendid than those I had admired in the morning.. A rather good private orchestra of the sultan provided the musical entertainment and just after the dinner accompanied the Malaysian dances in which boys in girls‘ dresses were turning around in a circle as the female sex was excluded from public dances according to the ruling customs here. The spectacle was by the way rather without interest even though the poor boys gave their best.

After I had taken a heartfelt leave from the prince and the gentlemen in Johor, I visited also a Chinese gambling den which had been formerly established in Singapore and now was suffered here more than licensed to set up shop here. The Chinese enjoy gambling with a true passion, sacrificing the fruits of hard work and move on all holidays in whole caravans from Singapore to the gambling den in Johor. The gambling hall is rather cleanly equipped. At its side is a restaurant and an opium den. The game is a simple game of chance as one wagers upon four numbers and decides the game by a throw of a die.

As a dedicated enemy of games of chance who by the way neither finds entertainment nor interest in it, I received in this gambling den a truly vile impression. Nevertheless we tried our luck and returned in a splendid, mild tropical night on the same way we had come in the morning, minus the loss of a few dollars, on board of „Elisabeth“ where we arrived late in the evening.

Links

  • Location: Singapore
  • ANNO – on 07.04.1893 in Austria’s newspapers.
  • The k.u.k. Hof-Burgtheater is playing a comedy „Verbot und Befehl“, while the k.u.k. Hof-Operntheater is performing Richard Wagner’s opera „Die Walküre“.

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