Beleaguered by Tigers; and Other True Incidents of Travel in Sumatra
Introductory Note: The Boy’s Own Paper was known for printing adventure stories with religious and imperialist influence. Accordingly, “Beleaguered by Tigers” is a series of adventure stories told by Swedish naturalist Claes Ericsson based on his own travels in Sumatra. He recounts several tiger attacks and the heroic means he takes to drive the animals away. Of special note is the imperialistic attitude of the narrator, who often speaks of the native laborers in derogatory ways. This story is an example of literature that aimed to inspire boys, in later years, to go “civilize” the world in name of queen and country.
Advisory: This story depicts racism and contains racial slurs.
THERE was tiger “talk” almost every day—many times daily in some parts—and I saw more than enough of the treacherous brutes when collecting orchids and other plants among the mountains which stretch from end to end of Sumatra, but I can recall very few instances of natives being killed by them, although the huts outside of the campongs (villages) are often a great distance apart. However, this comparative immunity is not owing to want of enterprise on the part of the tigers, or my experiences were exceptional ones, but to the prudence of the people, who seldom go out after dark without lamps or torches, and whose houses are mostly built on piles, often eight or ten feet from the ground. If those airy structures of bamboo and rattan were more within reach, I doubt not that “Mr. Stripes” would play havoc with the dwellers.
Certainly the tiger is no respecter of human habitations. A Chinaman at Singapore told me that on going out one morning to cut vegetables for the market he encountered a monster in his garden. Rushing back to his house in desperate haste, he had but just time to clamber up the notched pole to a sort of loft where he slept and kept his gun, before the tiger was after him through the open door, dashing about the kitchen below, smashing the crockery-ware, and upsetting pots and pans in his vain endeavours to climb the apology for a staircase. Had Wang-lo taken the trouble to make a ladder when building his house he would certainly have been food for tiger that day, but the makeshift bamboo saved him, for the brute could not negotiate it. His gun was empty, but he loaded it as quickly as his trembling fingers would permit, and peered down.
What a sight that must have been!
The tiger standing erect, his quivering body stretched out full length, while he clawed the pole and shook the house in his rage at being baulked. Wang-lo looked down the cavernous throat and marked the great white teeth and bared gums. I do not suppose that he enjoyed the spectacle. He must have been in a terrible fright lest the frail building should tumble about his ears and precipitate him into those gaping jaws. Pushing the muzzle of his old gun to within a couple of feet of the brute’s head, he sent a handful of slugs into his brain, killing his enemy at the first shot. Descending when quite sure that the tiger was dead, Wang-lo stepped over the carcass, and once more went out into his garden, only to rush back in even greater panic and bar the door. The tiger had brought two companions, which had remained outside the house, playing, so the Celestial said, with his pigs. These went away after a while, and Wang-lo seized the earliest opportunity to remove to a less lonely neighbourhood.
Towards the end of May, 1893, I set out from Bencoolen for Campong Palik, a village some twenty-five miles distant, intending to explore the Palik mountain. During a previous journey I had heard a great deal about tigers in this part of Sumatra, and soon after leaving Taba Penandjong, a village on the road, notorious for the frequent visits paid to it by those dangerous felines, my coolies and I had a rather bad scare. 1“Coolie” was a term usually used by Europeans in India and China to refer to hired local laborers.
We had taken possession of a small hut standing a couple of feet from the ground, on the slope of a mountain. As it would not hold all my men, about half of them were obliged to sleep outside. Shortly before daybreak I was aroused by shouts and a loud knocking at the door.
“Tuan—Tuan! Rimau! (Sir—Sir! Tiger!). Let us in!”
Springing out of my clambo (mosquito curtains), I reached and unbarred the door before the Malays who shared the hut were on their feet. I was only just in time. As the last of the terrified fellows rushed past me the tiger struck the door a violent blow. Had a Malay been holding it the brute would certainly have been in amongst us, but I pushed with all my might, shouting for my Winchester. Half a dozen of the coolies came to my assistance, and between us we got the bamboo which served as a bar into position.
Finding that he could not break in there, the tiger walked round the hut, sniffing at every crevice, and striking the bamboos until they shook again. Getting hold of my rifle I tried for a shot, but the hovel was packed with men. However, when they had recovered from their panic I persuaded them to follow, and we dashed out, yelling at the top of our voices. The tiger made off, but a Malay caught sight of the brute in the tall Alang-Alang grass below, and drew my attention. I fired, but the light was too bad. Anyway, I missed.
Mr. Pelzer. a Dutch official at Taba Penandjong, told me that scarcely a week passed without a tiger being seen or heard as it prowled round the village, but I only encountered one in that neighbourhood. However, before my collecting trip came to an end I had made the acquaintance of more than I cared for.
The day following that first adventure we arrived at a coffee plantation owned by two natives. These people usually dwell in the campongs, but as their gardens are generally on the hills at some little distance from the villages, they build huts to shelter them when planting or harvesting. The natives had a bamboo hovel about fifteen feet square, just high enough to permit them to stand upright in the middle. One of them told me that a few weeks before he had brought his child with him and left it playing about the hut while he went to cut the jungle a short distance away. During his absence the little one was killed by a tiger and partly eaten. And he had not heard a sound.
At Campong Palik I learned that there was a village, Gading, much nearer the Palik mountain, and that if I had gone there direct I should have saved about ten miles. But Nor, the Malay who filled the dual posts of guide and cook, and the coolies seemed to have entered into a conspiracy to lead me astray; indeed, my experience of the natives of Sumatra is that nothing pleases them better than befogging travellers. Nor was a dreadful humbug. To hear him talk one would suppose that he had explored every mountain in the country, but whenever I wished to benefit by his knowledge I found his information most untrustworthy. He had, in fact, scarcely been anywhere. Most ferocious he looked in his tattered head-handkerchief and sarong stuck full of krisses, but I believe the meanest coolie in my company had more pluck.
Ali, my other personal servant, was of a different stamp, but I fear no less deceitful. It was his pleasure to pose as a sort of Man Friday, the faithful slave. “Master go to eat, me go to eat. Master go to sleep, me go to sleep,” he used to say. Indeed, his devotion was something to marvel at—until I found him out.
I stayed at Campong Palik till the next day, sharing the hut of a kindly Malay. During the night a herd of wild pigs invaded the village and fought a pitched battle with the dogs that lasted till dawn. I could not sleep a wink for the awful squealing and howling, but my host and his family snored through the battle as if it were a nightly occurrence.
Leaving for Campong Gading in the morning, we passed through Tandjong Agong, with its splendid avenue of cocoa-nut palms, and several other villages. Getting tired of the slow pace of the buffaloes, I took Balan, a man I had engaged at Palik, to act as guide in place of the incompetent Nor, and set out to walk to Gading. It was then dusk, and we had a five-mile tramp before us.
On either side of the track were thickets of bamboo and tall Alang-Alang grass. We had not got far on our way before Balan began to glance over his shoulder in a frightened manner and dodge about from one side of the path to the other.
“Why do you do that?” I asked at length, for the fellow was making me nervous.
“Rimau, Tuan!” (Tiger, Sir), he answered fearfully. “He’s in the grass and he’s keeping level with us.”
I felt cold all down my back, and when, a moment afterwards, I heard a rush behind me, I could almost feel the tiger’s claws in my shoulder. However, I sprang aside, shouting as loud as I could. Great was my relief when a chorus of grunts answered. Balan’s tiger was a drove of wild pigs, possibly those which had kept me awake the night before.
I laughed, but all the same I was very glad to reach Gading, and more pleased still when safe in the village resthouse, stretched in a comfortable arm-chair lent me by the Passirah. A Passirah, I should explain, is the chief of a marga, which comprises a certain number of campongs, or villages. Gading is in the district of Lais. This particular Passirah was a shifty sort of fellow, who would not look me in the face, even when drinking my brandy, but he provided some extra coolies and accompanied us some distance on our way.
Our next halt was at a plantation owned by a Hadji—that is, a Moslem who has made the pilgrimage to Mecca. From here I sent some men ahead to make a camp, as there were no more villages. Following them, I found they had built a pondok (hut) in a thicket of trees, rattans, and creepers so dense that no sun-ray could possibly penetrate. However, as the rain fell in torrents all the rest of the day, I was glad of the shelter.
Leaving this camp we presently hit upon an elephant track, which spared us the labour of cutting a path. But it was very slippery, and several of the coolies had bad falls. My lamp bearer rolled down a ravine and smashed the lamp all to pieces. This was a serious loss, as I had no lamp to hang up beside my sleeping-place to scare the tigers and other animals. On arriving at the top of the ridge I found we could not reach the summit of Palik mountain from that position. Back we went, down a fearful precipice, at the bottom of which ran a small stream. I led the way up the channel, which was full of jagged rocks; but the barefoot coolies could not follow far. Their feet were badly cut before we had covered a mile, and I was obliged to halt.
We camped beside the mountain stream. Before the pondoks were built the rain fell in torrents. The Malays, in their short cotton trousers, shivered with cold and grumbled loudly. But there was no returning. As soon as my hut was ready I stripped and took thirteen leeches from my ankles. Making themselves almost as fine as needles, they penetrate garments of the closest texture. The victim feels a sting not unlike the bite of a flea, and in a few moments there is a big red spot on his trousers, and soon the leach is about ten times its ordinary size. The whole of that night the rain poured down. Awaking some hours before dawn, I could not at first hear anything except the ceaseless drip and splash.
“Hallo! ” I shouted.
The answer came from a distance.
“Baniak ayer, Tuan!” (Much water, Sir!)
There was, indeed, much water. I could see scarcely anything else. My hut was an island. The stream had risen to within a few inches of my rude bed. Jumping up, I waded to some rising ground close by, where I found the men crouching and chattering their teeth. There we stayed till daylight. Fortunately the stream went down as quickly as it had risen, and we lost no time in removing the camp to an open spot where the sun could penetrate to dry our soddened clothes and blankets.
Here I saw a great quantity of elephant dung, but the animals appeared to have left the neighbourhood. A few plants grew round the camp, Marantaceæ with spotted leaves, and Balsams with very conspicuous yellow, cup-shaped blossoms. At noon it commenced to rain again, and by three o’clock the clouds had gathered so thickly that we sat in semi-darkness. Then the thunder began to shake the earth and the lightning to rend the heavens. Had we remained in our first camp we must have been drowned, for in a very short time we were islanders once more. Crouched up like crows round a fire that persistently refused to burn, my men sat in silence—giving no sign of life, indeed. But this wretched experience came to an end.
Following the pioneers, I found that they had made the next camp on a big slope which could not possibly be flooded. They had also cut down a number of trees to let in the sunlight. I was very pleased with the situation, but not being a prophet, I could not foresee the future.
The immediate consequence of so many drenchings was a bad attack of fever, which a liberal use of quinine enabled me to conquer. As soon as I was able to get about I explored the slope and made a fine collection of plants. Determined to make a long stay, I sent the “faithful” Ali back to Gading for a supply of provisions, but that much-protesting youth never returned. He was tired of the mountains, so contrived to fall ill, like Nor, who had deserted some time before.
I had just got back to the camp one evening when without the least warning a number of large trees came crashing to the ground. The pondok rocked to and fro. My plates fell from the shelf which I had made for them and were smashed. In great alarm I rushed out to the panic-stricken coolies.
“The mountain is falling,” they cried, and flung themselves on their faces.
It really appeared so. The slope was on the move, slipping from beneath my feet. Only once before had I experienced a sensation so sickening, and that was at Labuan off the north-west coast of Borneo—when, during a tremendous thunderstorm, the island seemed to be lifted from its foundations and dropped back again.
I felt three distinct shocks. Many of the mightiest monarchs of the forest fell prone, but fortunately for us there was no serious landslip. As may be supposed, I was very ill at ease, and my men were similarly affected. They kept together, talking in low tones and quoting verses from the Koran, as was their custom when nervous and excited. When I went to bed I could not sleep, and it was well that I did not, for that night the tigers found us out.
As nearly as I could judge it was about ten o’clock that I heard a slight noise behind the pondok. A stick cracked, and the leaves were rustling suspiciously. Half rising from my bed of twigs and branches, I listened intently. All was very still. The Malays had evidently droned themselves to sleep. But a moment afterwards I heard the rustling again, and then a sniff. There was a tiger within a foot or so of my head. I could hear his wary breathing. With one blow of his paw he could level the frail hut with the ground, and I should be at his mercy. My rifle stood in a corner out of reach. Besides, I was enveloped in the mosquito curtains. Half paralysed, I lay still for a moment, then, overcoming the sickening dread, I tossed aside the curtains, sprang up and got hold of my Winchester. Next moment I was outside the pondok, shouting for the coolies, who were fast asleep.
The tiger made off down a ravine on the edge of which the hut had been built. Taking a make-shift lamp and a firebrand I went behind the pondok. The brute’s footprints, nearly as large as saucers, were only too visible. Nor had he gone far, for when I threw the firebrand down the ravine I could hear him rushing up the opposite bank. I discharged a couple of shots at random in the hope that he would be too scared to trouble us further.
Calling Balan, my Palik man, I told him to make up a big fire and keep a good watch, then went back to the pondok, but, feeling very uneasy, I did not lie down. When Balan had put all the dry wood we had—which was very little—on the fire, he came and stood close to the hut, leaning on his spear. I could see him between the leaves that formed the walls. Judging by the quick movements of his head as he turned it from side to side, he was in a terrible funk. As I watched him he set up a yell:
“Tuan ! Tuan! Rimau datang lagi!”(Sir! the tiger is coming back!)
Almost simultaneously the men round the dwindling fire sprang to their feet shouting that another was approaching their side of the camp. Things were getting lively, indeed! In no small alarm I rushed from the pondok once more and fired two shots down the ravine. Listening, I heard the tiger dashing about, but instead of making off he came straight for the camp. I at once joined the panic-stricken Malays, every man of whom was yelling at the top of his voice. Our united efforts must have frightened the tigers for the time being, as neither showed in the open.
Go back to the hut I dared not. We could hear the tigers stealing round the camp, now in one quarter, now in another. The fire was nearly out. We had no more dry fuel, and no man dared seek any. When the last flicker died away the hungry brutes watching us would attack. Clearly something must be done, and without delay.
Tearing up some old cloth into strips, I made wicks in desperate haste, while the Malays were cutting pieces of metal from provision tins to form cylinders, and pouring paraffin into bottles and empty tins. Even after half-a-dozen rude lamps had been set alight and placed round the camp the rustling continued for a time. The tigers seemed unwilling to leave; but when they did go it was with a rush. We heard a succession of crashes, then all was still.
At dawn the men showed me the tracks of a rhinoceros, which had come down the path they had cut, and passed within a few feet of them. The appearance on the scene of the rhinoceros perhaps accounted for the tigers’ hurried departure. That he had compassed the camp was clear, for his tracks were almost everywhere. Possibly he had winded the tigers and was seeking them to pay off some old score, perhaps to avenge the death of a calf snapped up in the temporary absence of its parents. In the ravine and all round the cleared space, tiger-pads were almost as thick as cat-tracks in a freshly dug suburban garden.
After breakfast I sent half the Malays collecting, and retained the rest to assist me in preparing for another siege. Some cut bamboos, others rattans. When we had enough, I built a fence round the clearing, planting the bamboos firmly in the ground, and stretching the rattans between them in place of rails. At intervals I tied a couple of Crosse and Blackwell’s tins (empty, of course), or a couple of bottles, so that in the event of any animal coming in contact with the fence the tins and bottles would rattle and give the alarm. This done, I had a great heap of firewood collected and some additional lamps prepared. My frying-pan I hung up as a tom-tom for the use of the sentry.
In the evening, after supper, all the lamps and two big fires were set alight. Never in all the ten years of my jungle wandering had I had a camp so splendidly illuminated. We were in fairyland. The foliage, vivid green where the light fell, black in the shadows, except when a swarm of fire-flies flashed past, had never looked so lovely. But our illuminations were designed for a strictly utilitarian purpose.
Having satisfied myself that the fence was in perfect condition, I arranged the order of the watch, instructing each man detailed for sentry duty to beat the tom-tom every fifteen minutes, then retired to the pondok, where I lay awake, with my rifle close at hand.
For some hours I listened to the musical, if rather nasal, voices of the Malays, also watchful, chanting some song which from time to time blended with the ting-ting of my frying pan. At length I fell asleep, to awake with the old cry ringing in my ears:
Rising hurriedly, I left the pondok. It was the darkest hour of the night, that before dawn. The lamps were all out, the fires burning very low. Hearing a slight noise behind me, I turned quickly, and saw two eyes that glowed like coals not six yards away. They were so near the ground that I felt sure the tiger was crouching to spring. With my heart in my mouth I fired from the hip and leapt aside. Next moment I heard the tins and bottles rattling as the brute struck against the fence, and then I heard him rolling over and over down the ravine. We made up the fires and sat round them until daybreak, when we examined the ground. There were fresh prints in numbers, but all outside the fence, except in one place, close to the hut. The cunning brute I had fired at had been in the act of creeping under the rattan when I pulled the trigger. In rising he had smashed the fence down. There was arterial blood on the bank and in the bottom of the ravine, but we did not follow the trail. I had had enough of tigers, and so had the Malays. It was with the greatest difficulty that I prevented them from setting out for Gading at once. We moved the camp to a hill at some distance, where I made another good collection. The tigers did not trouble us there; nevertheless I was very pleased to get back to Gading and the Passirah’s comfortable arm-chair.
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How To Cite (MLA Format)
Claes Ericsson. “Beleaguered by Tigers; and Other True Incidents of Travel in Sumatra.” The Boy’s Own Paper, vol. 19, no. 933, 1879, pp. 136-9. Edited by David Giles. Victorian Short Fiction Project, 11 December 2023, https://vsfp.byu.edu/index.php/title/beleaguered-by-tigers-and-other-true-incidents-of-travel-in-sumatra/.
6 June 2020
10 December 2023
|↑1||“Coolie” was a term usually used by Europeans in India and China to refer to hired local laborers.|