Passing through the straits of Saleir, between a cliff-bound island and the south-eastern Cape of Celebes, the returning steamer in due time reaches her moorings in Sourabaya, and a rapid railway journey through Java connects with the outgoing boat from Batavia to Padang, a three days' voyage through a chain of green islands breaking the force of the monsoon on a desolate and harbourless shore. The forest-clad ranges of Sumatra draw nearer at Benkoelen, buried in cocoa-palms on the rim of a quiet bay, within a terrific reef which makes landing impossible in stormy weather. Fort and Residency, villas and gardens, manifest Benkoelen as an oasis of civilisation, the steeply-tiled roofs remaining as relics of the English occupation a century ago. Beyond the little military settlement, the Sumatran mountains tower in majestic gloom beyond a broken line of bristling crags, like granite outworks guarding the eleven hundred miles of coast-line facing the Indian Ocean. The rugged backbone of mysterious Sumatra, descending sharply to the western sea, overlooks a vast alluvial plain on the eastern side, where rice and sugar-cane, coffee and tobacco, flourish between the wide deltas of sluggish rivers, though rushing streams and wild cascades characterise the opposite shore. Ridges and bastions of rock, above profound valleys, culminate in cloud-capped Indrapura, at a height of 12,000 feet. Geologists affirm the vast age of Sumatra, indicated by the Silurian rock, the bastions of granite, the extraordinary vegetation fossilised in the huge coal-beds, and the sandstone formation, often a thousand feet thick, carved by time and weather into fantastic ravines. Inexhaustible mineral wealth lies hidden in these weird ranges, together with the costly chemical products of a volcanic soil, but the rich treasures of the virgin rocks are for the most part unknown and unexplored. Columns of smoke rise continually from numerous active volcanos, and the beautiful mountain lakes fill extinct craters. The great island, lying north-west and south-east, possesses a glorious climate, and the superb vegetation shows a distinctive character from that of Java. The Dutch, though supreme on the coast, have never yet subdued the interior, and unconquerable Acheen remains a perpetual centre of unrest. The flower of the Malay race belongs to Sumatra, and the wild Battek tribes of alien origin are fast merging themselves into the dominant stock, though the Redjanger clan, retaining curious customs of a remote past, and possessing a written character, cut with a kris on strips of bamboo, is slow to assimilate itself to the Malayan element. The Sumatran language shows traces of Indian and Arabic influence, and that the early civilisation of the huge island was of Hindu origin is evidenced by innumerable Sanskrit words, and by the fact that the consecrated pipal tree, the "Ficus Religiosa" of India, remains to this day the sacred tree of the Batteks. Native chronicles record the descent of Sumatran princes from Alexander the Great, but though the pages of Javanese history are comparatively legible, those of Sumatra, designated in early days as "the older Java," resemble a dim palimpsest, marred by erasure or hiatus, and barely decipherable beneath the lettering on the surface of the age-worn parchment.
Little campongs of palm-thatched huts stand on piles at the water's edge, and skirt the over-shadowing forest; fairy islands, encircled with red-stemmed arén-palms, lie like green garlands on the indigo sea, dotted with the yellow sails of native proas, and the little train which conveys us to Padang, the western capital, seems an incongruous feature in a scene suggestive of primeval peace and solitude. A sylvan charm belongs even to this Sumatran township, for the wooden houses, with pointed roofs of dried palm-leaves, and broad eaves forming shady verandahs, stand far apart in flowery gardens, aflame with orange or scarlet cannas, and fragrant with golden-hearted frangipanni. The sweeping boughs of giant cocoanut trees make a green twilight beneath their interwoven fronds, Bougainvillea drapes crumbling wall and forest tree with curtains of roseate purple, and thatched stalls of tropical fruits and glowing flowers brighten the dusky avenues with patches of vivid colour. The determined aspect of the Sumatran people denotes the superior calibre of the ancestral stock which colonised the Archipelago, for foreign intercourse, which elsewhere modified national character, scarcely affected the Sumatran Malays, independent of the servile yoke imposed by the mighty princes of Java. The forty Soekoes, or clans, of Sumatra, are sub-divided into branches consisting of numerous families, all descended from a common stock in the female line. This curiously constituted pedigree is known as the Matriarchate, an ancient social system only retained in Western Sumatra, and among certain South American tribes. The resolute mien and dignified carriage of the Sumatran woman denote clear consciousness of her supreme importance. The cringing submission so painfully characteristic of Oriental womanhood is wholly unknown, and though nominally of Mohammedan faith, the humble position prescribed by the Korán to the female sex is a forgotten article of Sumatra's hereditary creed. After marriage (forbidden between members of the same clan) both man and woman remain in their own family circle. The husband is only an occasional visitor, and the wife is regarded as the head of the house. Her children remain under her exclusive care, and inherit her property, together with the half of what their father and mother earn together. The other half goes to the brothers and sisters of the husband, whose titles descend to his own brothers and sisters. Sumatra is veritably El Dorado to the Eastern wife and mother, conversant with every detail respecting the management of land or money, and jealously guarding the time-honoured rights and privileges of her exalted position.
The hereditary chieftains of Sumatran clans exercise a patriarchal rule of uncompromising severity, and combine in every district to form the Laras or local Council, the distance separating forest and mountain campongs often necessitating sub-division into a village assembly. The Laras, and those rural chieftains nominated by popular consent, possess a seat on the Supreme Council of the Dutch Government, thus forming the transitional element between Asiatic and European rule. There is no Sumatran nobility, and although the hereditary chief of a clan is invested with official authority, the stringent regulations of the Matriarchate acknowledge no superiority of social status as an appanage of his power.
The hothouse atmosphere of Padang is gladly exchanged for the freshness of the mountain heights, approached by a cog-wheel railway, and affording truer pictures of Sumatran life than the hybrid port of the steaming Lowlands. The luxuriant verdure of the swampy plain basks in the sunshine of a blazing March day, and children in gaudy sarongs drive a brisk trade at palm-thatched wayside stations, with bamboo trays of sliced pineapple sprinkled with capsicum, the approved "pick-me-up" of Sumatra. The little train burrows through a forest-lined pass, and skirts the chafing waters of the Anei river, foaming over swarthy boulders. The turbulent stream, now deeply sunk between granite cliffs, rises with terrific violence when lashed by the wild mountain wind known as the bandjir, and rushes up the rocky walls, overthrowing bridges, and dragging along immense crags with resistless impetus. The shrill laughter of the black bush-apes echoes from sombre masses of matted foliage, as the train ascends the lofty range, and curves round the basin of a sparkling waterfall, dashing from a fern-draped height. Granite cliffs soar above tropical jungle and solemn forest; the narrow gap of the Anei widens into a luxuriant valley; sago-palms rustle in the breeze, and tree-ferns spread their green canopies over the brawling river. The splendid scenery is viewed to advantage from a platform of the foremost railway carriage, the train being pushed up the mountains by an engine in the rear. Beyond the climbing forests, a bare plateau affords a glimpse of ever-burning Merapi, with wooded flanks and lava-strewn summit, from whence a grey cloud of smoke mounts in a spiral curl to the azure sky. Beyond this point of view lies the green plain of beautiful Fort de Kock, the gem of the Sumatran Highlands, to be numbered henceforth among those ideal scenes which remain permanently photographed on mind and memory. The crystalline atmosphere seems the very breath of life after a long sojourn in the steaming tropics, and Fort de Kock, under the shadow of mysterious Merapi, an Elysium of health and repose. The little Hotel Jansen offers clean and comfortable accommodation, the kindly German hostess proving a model landlady. As a Residency and the headquarters of a Dutch garrison. Fort de Kock provides all the necessaries of life, and the broad military roads of the vicinity simplify exploration. The little white settlement beneath the wooded volcano possesses a bright and cheery character, in keeping with the exhilarating climate, and the beautiful Sturm Park, from palm-crowned hill and flowery terrace, commands an exquisite prospect of the blue peaks belonging to the borderland of those Native States extending to the Dutch possessions on the Eastern coast. The curious houses of the Sumatran Highlands, with their adjacent rice-barns, form distinctive features of this unique island. The ridge of the steep thatch rises in sharp horns, interlaced with black fibres of arén palm, or covered with glittering tin. These tapering points are considered talismans of good fortune, a fresh horn being added on every occasion of marriage, for the married daughters, under the provisions of the Matriarchate, remain in the home of their childhood, and portions of the central division belonging to the house are reserved for their use. Manifold horns frequently bristle above the lofty roof, and the front of the main building is the common living room for unmarried members of the large household. Houses and rice-barns stand on high poles, after the Malay fashion, which originated in the malarious districts of the Lowlands. The typical rice-barns are lavishly decorated with gilding, carving, and colour, inlaid with glass mosaic, and edged with balls of red and blue crystal, the upward sweep of the slender horns sharply silhouetted against the glowing cobalt of heaven. In every kota (the Sumatran word signifying a fortified place, or village), the beauty of the picturesque roofs culminates in Messighit and Balei, respectively the Mosque and Hall of Consultation for the Village Council. The roofs of the Mosque rise on thatched tiers, mounted on slender pine-stems, and the long Balei, with mossy thatch prolonged into an open verandah on either side, shows a multitude of curving horns pointing to Heaven, and symbolically invoking celestial aid for the solemn assembly gathered beneath them, when the full moon floods upland Sumatra with molten silver. Primitive hospitality provides a roemah negari, or "House of Strangers," in every village rich enough to erect this refuge for the toil-worn wanderer, but where no special resting-place for pilgrims can be offered, lodging can always be had in the open Balei, on application to any member of the Village Council. The primitive simplicity of Sumatran life remains practically unchanged in these remote hamlets of the Western Highlands, and though Fort de Kock poses as the nucleus of modern progress, European influences glance off the indurated surface of native character like water poured over a granite slab.
Across the rice-plain of Agam, dotted with brown kotas, crowned by myriads of interweaving horns, we reach the scattered village of Paja-Kombo, shadowed by dense woods of cocoanut palms, and famed for one of the most picturesque native markets in the East. The women of Paja-Kombo are noted for their beauty, enhanced by the splendour of many-coloured sarongs, gleaming with gold and silver thread. Gay turbans swathe the stately heads, and the golden filagree of barbaric breastplates, heavy earrings, and broad armlets, lights up the shadowy gloom of stone galleries and al fresco stalls, beneath the drooping boughs of ancient waringen-trees. The Sumatran Malays are energetic traders, and the dignified personality of the Sumatran woman is perpetually in evidence. Keen, thrifty, economical, and thoroughly versed in all the details of commerce, she shows herself the predominant partner in domestic life, and to her all decisions on financial matters are referred, in accordance with the laws of the Matriarchate, which protects her independence. The husbands and fathers in attendance on their womankind at the great Market, submissively defer to the gentler sex, which in Sumatra has ever held the reins of social and domestic management, exercising authority wisely and well within the wide area deputed to feminine sway. The Fair of Paja-Kombo is a treasury of native Art in most delicate filigree, silver-threaded cloth, baskets or fans of scented grass, and the heavy jewellery of burnished brass which copies the designs of the many golden heirlooms treasured by Sumatran womanhood. Streets of palm-thatched stalls, alleys of eating-houses, and the wide enclosure of a Mule-Fair, cover an open meadow, fringed by great sago-palms, the central grain and rice Market crowded with picturesque figures in striped sarong and gold-flecked turban. The feast of colour provided by Paja-Kombo is scarcely surpassed even by the famous Fair of Darjeeling, the remoteness of the little settlement in the Sumatran Highlands preserving the unfaded charm of an immemorial past. The wonderful Gap of Harau may be reached by cart from Paja-Kombo; the palm-shaded road narrows at the mighty gorge, where vermilion cliffs, grooved and ribbed as though by some convulsion of Nature, tower up in colossal majesty on either side. Splendid waterfalls flash down in foam and thunder, scoring deep channels in the perpendicular heights, and bathing thickets of tree-fern and maidenhair in pearly spray. A wild river swirls through the deep ravine, opening towards the ethereal blue of clustering peaks, which lie fold upon fold in the hazy distance of the Native States, and disclose a mystic pathway into dreamland.
Another deep gully of yellow tufa-rock behind Fort de Kock, forms the first stage of the romantic route to Lake Manindjoe. Crossing the twin rivers which have carved their winding gorge in the bosom of the hills, the rude track through the mountains ascends to smooth plateaux forming a flight of gigantic stairs, supported by rocky girders like natural cross-beams. In early days of Dutch colonisation these successive points of vantage, occupied by hostile tribes, were stormed in vain by the invading army, and eventually only captured by surprise. The beauty of upland Sumatra culminates at this mountain lake, lying within the foundered crater of the Danau. The volcanic walls rise fourteen hundred feet above the dark blue mere, a glitting sheet of lapis lazuli set within the black cleft of the profound chasm. Brown and purple rocks enamelled with orange lichen, and garlanded with waving verdure, open to display a mysterious vision of the glistening sea, with one white sail like a butterfly's wing, crossing the distant waves. The flushing rose-tints of a tropical sunset glorify the landscape into transcendent beauty; the rude sculpture of the river crags, the black shadows of primeval forest, and the far-off gleam of the Indian Ocean, composing an ideal picture, enhanced by vague impressions of Infinity and Eternity.
The great Lake of Sinkarah, flanked by volcanic ridges, and by the dense foliage of palm forests and coffee plantations, also presents a succession of entrancing landscapes. White and purple orchids wreathe the forest trees, troops of red monkeys chatter among the boughs, and woodland vistas reveal leagues of emerald rice and golden millet. Beyond Sinkarah lies the famous coal district of the island, where Chinamen, convicts, and Hindu coolies, in perpetual bustle and commotion, manifest an activity unique in the thinly-populated interior of Sumatra, dependent on the labour of alien races. Javanese act as woodmen, gardeners, and road-makers; the Klings serve as cowherds and drivers of ox-waggons; the Bengalese prove efficient policemen, and the Boyans skilful carpenters; the clearing of the forest pertaining to Malays and Batteks, also responsible for the building of the marvellous rice-barns, the apotheosis of Sumatran architecture. The ordinary tourist omits Sumatra from his itinerary. Occasional elephant-hunters penetrate the dense forests of the interior, and engineers or tobacco-planters flock to the monotonous levels of the eastern coast, but the glorious Western Highlands, the Sumatran Bovenland, is seldom visited. Warlike Acheen, for ever at feud with the Dutch Government, is forbidden ground to the European traveller. The unconquerable independence of the Achinese, fiercely resenting the sovereignty of Holland, proves an insoluble problem to the Dutch methods of subjugation. The bold and lawless character of this rebellious clan defies military discipline. The spirit of insurrection animates every man, woman, and child of the brave but treacherous race, and Acheen remains the dark centre of countless tragedies, due to the spurious patriotism which counts a stab in the dark, a poisoned arrow, or a cruel betrayal, as heroic and laudable modes of resistance to the hated invader of Sumatra's ancient liberties. The forest-clad interior of the vast island remains an unknown wilderness. Cannibals still lurk in the black depths of the pathless jungle; weird tribal customs linger unchanged in barbarous campongs, where strange gods are worshipped with the immemorial rites of an ageless past, rude carvings and weird symbols showing the personification of those natural phenomena deified by primeval tribes. Sumatra, with her wealth of mines and forests and her important geographical position, remains as yet an almost undiscovered country, and though her undeveloped resources excite the cupidity and arouse the envy of European nations, political greed and private enterprise have proved powerless to open up the hidden treasures of the vast island, apparently intended by Nature to become the key of the Southern Seas.