The fiord-like Bay of Ambon flows into the heart of the fragrant Clove Island, between the peninsulas of Heitor and Léitemor, which gradually ascend from the harbour's mouth until their heights of glowing green merge into wooded mountains, behind the white town of Amboyna. This old European settlement ranks as the tiny capital of the Molucca group. Praus and fishing smacks dot the blue inlet with tawny sails and curving masts, the local craft varied by a fantastic barque from the barbarous Ké isles, with pointed yellow beak and plume of crimson feathers at the prow, suggesting some tropical bird afloat upon the tide. The glossy darkness of the clove plantations enhances the paler tints of the prevailing foliage, and the virginal tints of the sylvan scenery indicate a climate of perpetual spring. Thatched roofs, and walls of plaited palm-leaf, stand among white-washed cottages of coral concrete, for low houses, or slight material, afford comparative security against collapse by earthquake. The brown population throngs the pier, and a little fleet of dug-outs escorts the steamer through the bay with gay songs and merry laughter, for the lively Ambonese value every link that binds them to the outside world, and this is their gala day. Bold, eager, craving for foreign intercourse, and possessing the quickened intelligence due to the mixture of Dutch and Portuguese blood with the native strain, a roving spirit of adventure counteracts the lazy independence of a life where daily needs are supplied without exertion. The sea swarms with fish, the woods teem with sago, and cultivation of the clove procures extra wages when any special purpose requires them. The Portuguese who colonised Ambon, in the zenith of their maritime power, were of vigorous stock, and the mental heritage of the island was permanently enriched by elements derived from a foreign source.
The Ambonese soldiers of the Netherlands India manifest a courageous and warlike character; their rate of payment equals that of their European brothers-in-arms, and in the raids or skirmishes frequent throughout the wild districts of Celebes and Sumatra they play a spirited part. The burghers of Ambon show more of the Dutch element in their composition. The island, Christianised in the dreary mode of Calvinistic Holland, accepts in half-hearted fashion the creed so incongruous with tropical Nature. Dutch missionaries, waging aimless war against brightness and colour, arrayed their brown converts in funereal gloom. The Sunday attire of the men consists of black calico coats down to the heels, and flopping black trousers. The women wear a shapeless gown of the same shabby and shiny material, with a white scarf dangling from the left arm. These blots on the brilliancy of the scene produce a curious impression when approaching the wharf, where the native bronze of children and coolies, the blue robes of Chinamen, and the gay turbans of Mohammedans, blend harmoniously with the scheme of colour in flower and foliage. The praus which follow in our wake make ready the rustic Malay anchor, a forked branch of stout timber, strengthened by twisted rattan, which also secures the stone cross-piece. This relic of a distant past can scarcely have changed since the days when the wandering tribe first launched upon the blue waters of the Pacific, in that mysterious voyage which moulded the destinies of the Malay race. A rudimental feeling for art co-exists with imperfect civilisation, and elaborate carving adorns rude skiffs, floats of fishing lines, and even wooden beaters of the clay used in native pottery. A dervish, in turban of flaming orange and garb of green and white, beats a huge drum in the pillared court of a large mosque, for the followers of the Prophet are numerous, and though the usual deadly conventicle occupies a conspicuous place, it produces no effect on the Arab element. The son of the Dutch pastor who, after his grim fashion, Christianised the former generation, proves better than his condemnatory creed, and acts as personal conductor to the sights of Amboyna. After a rest in the flower-wreathed verandah of his home, and a chat with his kindly half-caste wife, we visit the gilded and dragon-carved mansion of a leading Chinese merchant, friendly, hospitable, and delighted to exhibit his household gods, both in literal and figurative form. A visit to the Joss Temple follows, liberally supported by this smiling Celestial, whose zeal and charity may perchance plead for him in that purer sanctuary not made with hands, and as yet unrevealed to his spiritual sight. The appalling green and vermilion deities who guard the temple courts, indicate fear as the chosen handmaid of faith in this grotesque travesty of religion, but the costly tiling of violet and azure, the rich gilding of the curling eaves terminating in scarlet dragons, and the deeply-chiselled ebony, falling like a veil of thick black lace before the jade and porphyry shrines, prove that even the despised Chinaman offers of his best to the Divinity dimly apprehended by his darkened soul.
The large Malay School of Amboyna manifests an educational position in advance of the smaller islands, and knowledge of the wider world beyond the Archipelago stimulates the spirit of enterprise inherited in different degrees and varying conditions, both from Malay and Portuguese ancestry.
A dilapidated carriage is chartered with difficulty, as only three vehicles belong to the island, and the driver evidently expects his skeleton steed to collapse at any pace quicker than a walk. The green lanes, with their hedges of scarlet hybiscus overhung by the feathery foliage of tamarind and bamboo, wind along the shore, and penetrate into the depths of the hills. Rustling sago-palms sway their tall plumes on the mountain side, and shadow luxuriant clove gardens, their pungent aroma mingling with nutmeg and cinnamon to steep the soft sea-wind in a wealth of perfume. European houses of white stone nestle among palm and tamarind, the broad seats flanking the central door, and the bulging balconies of old Dutch style recalling the 16th century dwellings on the canal banks of distant Holland, but the crow-stepped gable here gives place to the flat roof. Every green garden contains a refuge of interwoven gaba-gaba stalks, as a retreat during earthquakes, when the overthrow of the flimsy arbour would entail no injury, though it serves as a shelter from the torrential rains which often accompany volcanic disturbances. A wayside stall of palm-thatched bamboo provides sageroe for thirsty pilgrims. This fermented beverage often excites the Ambonese nature to frenzy, though only made from the juice of the arên or sugar palm. The brown dame who presides over the bamboo buckets, in her eagerness to honour a white customer, wipes an incredibly dirty tumbler on her gruesome calico skirt before dipping the precious glass into the foaming pail, and tastes the draught by way of encouragement. With some difficulty she is induced to wash the tumbler, and to omit the last reassuring ceremony. The sageroe, sweet and refreshing, gains tonic properties from an infusion of quassia, which sharpens the flavour and strengthens the compound, packed in bamboo cases or plaited palm-leaf bags for transport to the neighbouring islands. A grey fort, and weather-worn Government offices, flank the green aloon-aloon of Amboyna, surrounded by tamarind avenues. The Dutch Resident finds ample employment, owing to the mania for litigation among the Ambonese. The honour of appearing before a Court of Justice is eagerly sought, and imaginary claims or grievances are constantly invented in order to satisfy the ambition for publicity. A modest and retiring temperament forms no part of native equipment, and the slight veneer of Christianity, in the crudest phase of Dutch Protestantism, increases the aggressive tendency. The missionary agencies of Calvinistic Holland seem incapable of practical sympathy with the island people; but half a loaf is better than no bread, and in any form of Christian faith the Heavenly Husbandman scatters grains of wheat among the tares, that all His wandering children may reap a share of harvest gold even from a stubborn and sterile soil.
Amboyna shows signs of commercial prosperity in the crowded passer and the busy Chinese campong, for the enterprising Celestial forms an important element of the mercantile community in the Clove Island. Three memorial tablets erected in front of the hoary fort, the bare Dutch church, and the crumbling guard-house, record the worthy name of Padrugge, a Dutch Governor who restored Amboyna after complete destruction by a violent earthquake, that ever-haunting terror within the great volcanic chain of the Malay Archipelago. The steep acclivity behind the palm-shaded park of the Residency contains a stalactite grotto, infested by a multitude of bats, which cling to the sparkling pendants of the fretted roof, unless disturbed by the Ambonese coolies, who regard them as culinary delicacies, and catch them in this ancient breeding-place, with a noise which brings down the terrified creatures into unwelcome proximity, cutting short any attempts at exploration, and causing rash intruders to beat a hasty retreat.
In the hush of dawn, when the intensity of calm steals colour as well as sound from the motionless waters, we embark on an expedition to the Zeetuinen, or Sea Gardens, the fairy world of the coral reefs, revealed through the magic mirror of the watery depths. As we gaze steadily through the silvery blue of the glassy sea, a misty vision of vague outline and shifting colour materialises into an enchanted forest, and appears rising towards the surface. Coral trees, pink and white, gold and green, orange and red, wave interlacing branches of lace-like texture and varying form, above the blue water-ways which divide the tremulous masses of rainbow-tinted foliage. The sinuous channels expand at intervals into quiet pools, bordered with azure and purple sea-stars, or studded with clumps of yellow lilies, spotted and striped with carmine. A circle of rock, enclosing a miniature lake, blazes with rose and scarlet anemones, and the boat, floating over the wilderness of marine vegetation, pauses above a coral growth, varied in form as any tropical woodland. Majestic trees, of amber and emerald hue, stand with roots muffled in fading fern, or sunk in perforated carpets of white sponge, and huge vegetable growths or giant weeds, lustrous with metallic tints of green and violet, fill clefts and ravines of coral rock. A grove of sea-palms mimics the features of the upper world, as though Nature obeyed some mysterious law of form, lying behind her operations, to regulate expression and bring order out of chaos. Giant bunches of black and mauve grapes, like the pictured spoils of the Promised Land, lie on soft beds of feathery moss, but the familiar greens of the velvety carpet shade into orange and pink. A weird marine plant shoves long black stems, crowned with a circle of azure blue eyes, which convey an uncanny sensation of being regarded with sleepless vigilance by mysterious sentinels, transformed and spellbound in ocean depths. Tree-fern and hart's-tongue show verdant fronds, flushed with autumnal red or gold, and a dense growth of starry flowers suggests a bed of many-coloured tulips. Dazzling fish dart through the crystal depths. A shoal of scarlet and green parrot-fish pursue a tribe striped with blue and orange. Gold-fish flash like meteors between uplifted spears of blood-red coral, and the glittering scales of myriads, splashed with ruby, or flecked with amethyst, reflect the colours of the gorgeously-frilled and rosetted anemones in parterres between red coral crags. Tresses of filmy green floating from the mouth of a cavern, suggest a mermaid's hair, and her visible presence would scarcely add to the wonders in this under-world of glamour and mystery. Shells, pink and pearly, brown and lilac, scarlet and cobalt, strew the flower-decked floor with infinite variety, concave and spiral, ribbed and fluted, fretted and jagged—the satin smoothness of convoluted forms lying amid rugged shapes bristling with spines and needles. We gaze almost with awe at the lovely vision of a dainty Nautilus, sailing his fairy boat down a blue channel fringed with purple and salmon-coloured anemones, beneath a hedge of rosy coral. The shimmering sail and carven hull of iridescent pearl skim the water with incredible swiftness, and tack skilfully at every bend of the devious course, not even slackening speed to avoid collision with a lumbering star-fish encountered on the way. These submarine Gardens contain the greatest natural collection of anemones, coral beds, shells, and fish, discovered in the ocean world. The richest treasures of Davy Jones's Locker lie open to view, as the boat glides through the ever-changing scenery mirrored in the transparent sea. Opalescent berries resemble heaps of pearls, and the lemon stalks of marine sedge gleam like wedges of gold in the crystalline depths. The long oars detach pinnacles of coral like tongues of flame, and a cargo of seaweed, shells, and anemones, fills the boat as each enchanted grotto contributes a quota of treasure trove, but the vivid colouring fades apace when the sea-born flora leaves the native element, and the deep blue eyes, gazing from their dark stems with weird human effect, lose their radiance in the upper world.
We land at the pretty valley of Halong, where a rippling brook traverses a wood of sago-palms, and falls in a white cascade over the rocks of a sheltered bathing-pool, screened by green curtains of banana and tall mangosteens, laden with purple fruit. Makassar-trees rain their yellow blossoms into the water, cloves fill the air with pungent fragrance, and lychees droop over the clear current. A melancholy Malay song floats up from the sea, but the sad sweet notes only accentuate the haunted silence of the fairy glen, with an echo from that distant past which breathes undying music round these enchanted isles. Woodland shadows and wayside palms disclose the sweeping horse-shoe curves of numerous Chinese tombs, the white stone elaborately carved and covered with hieroglyphics. Plumy cocoanut and tremulous tamarind wave over the last resting-places of these exiles from the Holy Land of the Celestial Empire, for the second generation established on an alien soil is forbidden to seek burial in China. The so-called Paranak of the Malay Archipelago frequently marries a native wife, and, as purity of race becomes destroyed, ancestral obligations lose their power even over the mind of the most conservative people in the world.
The woods of Ambon teem with the abundant bird-life peculiar to the Moluccas. An exquisite kingfisher, with golden plumage and emerald throat, darts across the stream, and the scarlet crests of green parrots resemble tropical flowers, glowing amidst the verdant foliage hardly distinguishable from the fluttering wings of the feathered tribe, which includes twenty-two species indigenous to the islands. The megapodius or mound-maker, an ash-coloured bird about the size of a small fowl, grasps sand or soil in the hollow of a powerful claw, and throws it backwards into mounds six feet high, wherein the eggs are deposited, to be hatched by this natural incubator, through the heat of the vegetable matter contained in the rubbish heap. The young birds work their way through the mound, and run off at once into the forest, where they start on an independent career. They emerge from their birthplace covered with thick down and provided with fully-developed wings. The maternal instinct of the megapodius ceases with the laying of eggs, and, having supplied a safe cradle for the rising generation, she takes no further thought for her precocious progeny, capable of securing a livelihood in the unknown world from the moment of their first appearance in public.
A merry group, half-hidden in the shadows of clustering sago-palms, gathers the harvest of precious grain, the pith of a large tree producing thirty bundles, each of thirty pounds weight. The baking of the sago-cakes made from this lavish store occupies two women for five days, and the housekeeping cares of the largest family only need quarterly consideration in this island of plenty, where the struggle for the necessaries of existence is unknown and unimaginable. Leisure and liberty, those priceless gifts which can only be attained where the pressure of poverty is unfelt, serve valuable purposes in Ambonese hands, for the European energies fused into the native race prevent mental stagnation, and spur tropical indolence to manifold activities. A variety of thriving industries belong to this far-off colony. Mother-of-pearl shells, and bêche-de-mer (the sea-slug of Chinese cuisine) supplement the important export of the cloves, the speciality of Ambon, chosen by the East India Company as the sole place of cultivation for this spice-bearing tree, when the system of monopoly extirpated the clove gardens of the other islands. Vases, mats, and miniature boats, of fringed and threaded cloves, are offered as fantastic souvenirs of Amboyna, and the spirit of the place seems imprisoned in these tiny curios which revive so many haunting memories of the romantic island.
Nominal adherence to Dutch Calvinism fails to repress the natural instincts of a gay and pleasure-loving race. The national dance known as Menari, and often performed on the shore in honour of the outgoing steamer, no longer satisfies Ambonese requirements, with the slow gyrations and studied postures of Oriental tradition. The eager and passionate temperament finds truer expression in the walzes and galops of European origin, known as dansi-dansi, enthusiastically practised on those festive occasions, when the full dress of funereal black and white seems specially inappropriate to the wild abandon of the merry-making populace. In sunny Amboyna the cowl does not make the friar, and the last recollection of the little Moluccan capital is a vision of whirling figures and twanging lutes at the water's edge, while the receding steamer furrows the milky azure of the land-locked bay. The vivid green of one palm-clad shore burns in the gold of sunset, but the eastern side lies veiled in shadow, and as the sheltered inlet gives place to the open sea, the luminous phosphorescence of the Southern ocean bathes the rocky bastions of enchanted Ambon in waves of liquid fire. A strange history belongs to the physical conformation of volcanic shores, alternately raised and depressed by the agitation of earth and sea. The coast-line has varied from time to time; straits have become lakes, islands have severed or united, occasionally rising suddenly from the waves, or vanishing in the bosom of the deep. Geologists assert that the Malay Archipelago was originally thrown off by volcanic action from Asia and Australia, and that an interchange of animal and vegetable life has frequently taken place. Hurricanes have uprooted forest trees, and floods have borne them out to sea, the tide eventually washing them up on the shores of distant islands. A fresh growth of foreign vegetation was thus inaugurated, as these sylvan colonists struck their saplings into an alien soil. Insects, preserved by the bark, propagated themselves in new surroundings, and seeds drifting on the waves, or clinging to roots and fibres, wreathed unfamiliar shores with exotic flowers. Animal migration has frequently been caused by natural catastrophes, and to birds directing their swift flight by faculties now attributed to keen observation rather than to unreasoning instinct, the change of locality was infinitely simplified. In the Moluccas we may read a compendium of the wide-spread history which applies to the vast regions comprised in the mighty Archipelago. The doctrine of earthly changes and chances, too often accepted as a mere figure of speech, is here recognised as a stern reality; the tragedies of destruction repeat themselves through the ages, the laboratories of Nature eternally forge fresh thunderbolts, and the fate of humanity trembles in the balance. Meanwhile a profusion of flowers wreathes the sacrificial altars, the fairest fruits ripen above the thin veil which hides the fountains of volcanic fire, and the sweetest spices of the world breathe incense on the air. The uncertain tenure of earthly joys gives them redoubled zest and poignancy, the passionate love of life becomes intensified by the looming shadows of Death, and the light glows with clearer radiance against the blackness of the menacing thunder-cloud.