Amboina, 28 June 1893

Officially, that is according to the Dutch government, the island whose capital we were now going to pay a visit is called Amboina as is the capital, but the natives and the resident Europeans as well as the German geographers of the New School always call the island Ambon or Amboin. This word is said to be derived from the language of the Alfures, the aboriginal inhabitants of the Maluku islands to which Amboina in fact belongs and has the same meaning as the word for „fog“ and only was pronounced differently by the Portuguese in the above manner. The name is explained by the aspect that the island is covered for a good part of the year in dense fog and in fact this was just the exact view offered when we arrived there: Grey impenetrable fog covered the island when we entered the bay of Amboina at 7 o’clock in the morning in the pouring rain.

The island of 998 km2 has around 30.000 inhabitants of which 11.566 were Christians. It is part of the Dutch residency of the same name that includes the whole Southern group of the Maluku islands, the Banda islands and other islands. Amboina, Southwest of Ceram, East of Boeroe, consists of two peninsulas, a larger long-winded, besteht  Northwestern one and a smaller Southeastern one. The first one is named Hitoe, the latter Leitimor. Both peninsulas are only connected by a sand strip no wider than 1.5 km with sea bays on both sides. The Western one called Amboina Bay enters in a Northeastern direction towards the mentioned isthmus and provides shelter on its Eastern shore for the excellent harbor on which the capital Amboina is located. The second bay turned toward the South-west called Bagoeala Bay is much smaller and cuts less deeply into the land.

Despite the heavy rain, the impression that the land on both sides of the long-winded bay made on us was a very good one and automatically reminded us about the hills and mountains of the Danube near Grein and near the eddy. Similar to there, here too green mountains with deeply cut valleys an gorges appear, and each hill constitutes something whole on its own, the slopes are interrupted by bare spots which here are not covered in emerald green meadows at home but covered with alang-alang. Instead we had imagined Amboina, both the harbor and the town as the most important trading place and base of the Dutch rule in the East of the Malaysian archipelago, to be quite different than what we saw at the entrance into the harbor. In the harbor lay with the exception of the small government steamer „Arrant“ that was performing police services in the islands of the Amboina group, not a single ship. The town itself presented itself on first sight as a small and unimportant trading place so that the hopes of those gentlemen sank who expected to spend a few comfortable days and an enjoyable life here after the bad times spent on the Solomon islands, New Guinea and on Aru.

The saying „The early bird catches the bird“ did not to be known among the Amboinese. When the harbor captain and the pilot did not make an appearance but were satisfied to send a small Malay on board of „Elisabeth“ who however did not feel comfortable in his position as assistant pilot. A peculiarity of the harbor is its great depth so that soundings the edge of the shore still read as 20 to 30 fathoms. For the time being no anchor was dropped but the ship was provisionally moored to a weak buoy and we were waiting for somebody to show up to inform us about anchorage, loading coal etc. By and by a number of tiny canoes were swarming around us, crewed by Amboinese an Chinese who curiously stared at the ship and, as practical merchants, held up a large number of certificates in various languages.

In reply to the territorial salute of „Elisabeth“, the guns of the fort thundered across the sea — siege guns of ancient vintage and giant size whose handling required much effort by the crew and much time so that he pieces were only able to greet us out of their iron mouths with ceremonial breaks in between.

Finally the harbor captain and an official of the resident made their appearance. The former to show us our anchorage at the coaling station and the latter to announce the visit of the resident, Baron van Hoevell, who shortly afterwards came on board.

We mostly discussed the program for the next days and I much appreciated the proposal to undertake an excursion on the island of Buru. During  the conversation we learned that Baron van Hoevell had been serving for 25 years in Dutch East India, the last two years as resident of Amboina and that he would return home after two more years to take up a professorship at a university. That a man who has served in an executive function in the colonial administration and in an important position desires to occupy a professorship and spend his retirement years to further science is without doubt a rare case. This intention of the resident I found strange at first but seemed to me to become understandable the more I spoke with him as Baron van Hoevell is an incredibly well read man with a wealth of experience who has an impeccable reputation as an ethnologist and is an expert in this field for many matters about the Malaysian islands. He has journeyed across them repeatedly and researched some of their parts, especially the Maluku and Aru islands closely and described them in remarkable monographs. To have met this dignified researcher and to have been told much strange facts and personal observations increased my interest.

During the visit of the resident, the wind had turned so that the ship was driven with the stern against the land and it was feared that the ground might be touched by the rudder. „Elisabeth“ therefore moved under steam in front of the town and was moored on a wooden mole of the coal depot to the South-west of the town in order to load coal. This maneuver proved difficult, especially as the cables of one anchor that was to be dropped in the stern had intermingled themselves among the propeller and could only be untangled by a diver. The ship also had only half a meter of water below its bottom due to the low tide and the ship’s important draft. The apparatus to load coal looked rather primitive. As other equipment was lacking the coal had to be loaded in baskets over a wooden bridge into the battery and then on deck. As the seven day journey to Sarawak required 500 tons of coal, it was feared that the loading of the coal would take many days to complete.

Accepting an invitation of the resident, I landed in the afternoon when the rain had a bit relented at Fort Victoria where  Baron van Hoevell was awaiting me with the military commander and some officials. This fort is an ancient building whose walls have suffered partly from earthquakes, especially that of 1705, partly from the decay resulting from the passing time. Its origin lays at the beginning of the Dutch East India company. Its coat of arms is still visible on all walls of the fort. As garrison serves a part of a garrison infantry battalion and part of a company of foot artillery of the Dutch colonial army. The uniform and arms are the same as that of the troops we had seen on Java.

We found ourselves agreeably disappointed when a visit of the town showed us that Amboina extended far larger than the view of the harbor might lead one to expect. From there we could only see the business district. The other parts of the town is divided by straight broad roads lined with trees and hedges. The roads cross at right angles and thus form square or rectangular blocks enclosed by gardens and under luxurious trees out of which rise villas and houses while in the background of this garden town there are hills.

The native Amboinese are often called so in ethnographic works and included among the East Malays and according to researchers are a mix of at least three races, namely Malay, Portuguese and Papuans or Ceramese with occasional inclusions of Chinese and Dutch. The Alfures who are said to be the original inhabitants of the Maluku islands were for a long time thought to be a special race similar to the Papuans but recently it was realized that part of the Alfures is accounted by the mix among Malays and Papuans and that a large part of Alfures are actually pure Malays. Whatever the truth may be, the Amboinese reminded me with their small delicate stature, their yellow skin and the slanted eyes vividly of Javanese.

The Amboinese are mostly Christian, in part they worship Islam. The Christians are called Oran Sirani (Nazarenes). The native Christian population which has strong Portuguese elements can be easily externally distinguished  as both men and women wear black clothes. This is probably in memory of their ancestors who wore the festive black in which the Portuguese would have arrived at the turn of the 17th century and made a huge impression. The Portuguese influence lasted from the discovery of Maluku (1512) to the start of the 17th century during which they occupied Amboina and has also influenced the language of the Amboinese as even today a good number of Portuguese words are used for things of everyday life.

Besides these parts of the population we saw a strong Chinese colony on Amboina that here too managed to turn all trade into their monopoly as well as a large number of Arabs which can be immediately recognized by their turban, their long clothes and their dignified walk. Finally there is naturally a Dutch colony.

The total number of inhabitants of the town is 8063 souls among them 788 Europeans and 4529 native „citizens“.

As far as buildings are concerned, the houses of the Europeans need to be mentioned which are similar to the Dutch houses on Java. They are also single storey, airy, have verandas and surrounded by gardens and painted white.  Right to the last corner, they are extremely clean. The huts of the natives resemble those of the Javanese Kampongs where bamboo, palm fibers and fletching serve as building material — all without using a single iron nail — and even the roof frame is kept together and fixed with strong fiber ropes.

The government building in Batoe Gadjah has been set out with large wasted spaces and in fact in a style which I would call „Dutch-Javanese“. It has a single floor with numerous open verandas and is surrounded by a well kept park with many streams and a deer herd that made it very agreeably vivid.

At the entrance they had built a triumphal arch in my honor where the received me in an original manner. Next to it stood the Chinese dignitaries of the town with large colorful banners with golden characters. Up to the door of the residence a strange corps stood at attention: an Amboinese dancing group in fantastic costumes that performed bizarre war and joy dances accompanied with pipes and drums as soon as we approached. These dances were so beautiful and wild that our horses immediately shied and absolutely could not be made to advance between the vividly moving noisy rows of the dancers.

Each artist was wearing pants with red flower motives, a white pleated shirt ornamented on the breast a sash with pearls and gold decorations and as a headdress an enormous paper helmet that formed point in the front on which rose a giant bush of feathers from birds of paradise, pigeons and roosters. Around the chin and the ears was bound a white cloth which gave the impression as if all the dancers suffered from toothache. In their hands they carried very narrow conical shields.

Thus equipped, the very earnest looking and thus all the more comical group jumped and whirled around like mad so that we could not refrain from smiling despite all efforts. While the Amboinans and Chinese were still parading past me,  Baron van Hoevell presented me to his wife and her sisters and then accompanied me immediately afterwards into the very interesting ethnographic museum. The content of which, all consisting of objects the resident had acquired during his stay in the Malayan archipelago, showed his expertise in the choice of objects and their arrangement. Here I found curiosities which even the museum in Batavia did not have. Especially richly represented were the Maluku islands in the van Hoevell collection and among it especially again Ceram; weapons, jewelry, fetishes, domestic tools — everything was represented here in rare and in part very valuable exemplars. What was namely remarkable to me were the numerous highly detailed models of Malayan praus, junks, boats and canoes that were exact copies of the original in the tiniest detail.

In large containers was a rich collection of the shells of the Maluku Strait and the Sea of Banda. To my great joy, Baron van Hoevell presented me the whole collection as a gift with the intent that he would be pleased if it could be exhibited in my country. The collection can justly be called a treasure, has been precisely cataloged and runs to more than 1000 numbers. The resident added to this present also a large number of specimens of birds of paradise from New Guinea and the Aru islands among them specimens from species of which I had only known their name.

Until the start of the dinner in the government building and while the ladies were refreshing themselves for it, I tried a stroll through Amboina but soon had to stop and flee as hundreds of boys crying and shouting were accompanying me and constantly singing in Dutch the well known song „Long may he live“ to the amusement of the onlookers. Soon the adults joined the procession and I considered it better, as the enthusiasm of the youth continued to increase, to go back to the park.

Before the dinner a few singers produced themselves presenting the anthem and then a number of concert pieces in a very successful manner whereas a music band of native artists did not likewise meet my approval as their presentation were too similar to those of the gypsies whose melodies I do not manage to find tasteful.

The dinner ended only at a late hour after which we and the resident embarked on the government steamer „Arrant“ to drive during the night to the island of  Buru where we intended to stay for the next two days. The small steamer „Arrant“ that had only been constructed a short time ago in Amsterdam did not look promising from the outside as its tiny tonnage did not stand in relation to the ship’s height. The interior design, however, was very practical, spacious and as always with the Dutch very clean. As the steamer is assigned to police duty in the islands it is on the move all year long and only stays a few days in the harbor of Amboina.

The rain that had started in the mean time ended even before we left the harbor and the glittering moon watched friendly through the clouds when Amboina disappeared out of our sight.


  • Location: Amboina
  • ANNO – on 28.06.1893 in Austria’s newspapers.
  • The k.u.k. Hof-Burgtheater is playing „Ein Volksfeind“. The k.u.k. Hof-Operntheater is closed from 1 June to 19 July.
  • On 28th June 1914, Franz Ferdinand and his wife were murdered during a visit to Sarajevo. Their death would trigger the First World War.

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