"By Aeroplane to Pygmyland" Accounts of the 1926 Smithsonian-Dutch Expedition to New Guinea

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Journal of Matthew Stirling
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July 21, 1926 : Junction of the Rouffaer and Van Daalen Rivers ; Rouffaer River ; Van der Willigen River

July 21st

Yesterday afternoon it was very hot. We have three men with fever and it was very uncomfortable for them. About 4 o'clock one of the soldiers fainted from sun-stroke. We were passing through a low swampy region with saw grass on both banks so could not land to make camp. Just before reaching the Van Daalen River the Van der Willigen becomes very wide, about a mile, and there is a very long stretch that is perfectly straight. It was not until we reached the junction of the Rouffar and Van Daalen rivers that we were able to make camp. It was a good spot excepting that there were many mosquitoes. We had scarcely landed when we heard the excited shouting of Papuans above us. Soon thereafter six men came from behind us in the woods. They were very nervous and excited. We had camped quite near their village which was just around the point and they had evidently decided that they would find out whether or not we meant to fight them. As soon as we had quieted their fears and induced them to come near us we held out some small trade articles. They became immensely excited and leaped around, {p. 167} eagerly tearing off all of their ornaments, net begs, etc. and handing over their bows and arrows, almost falling down in their eagerness to part with them. While so eager to trade that it was really pitiful to see them, they were at the same time keyed to the highest pitch of nervous tension. If one reached towards them to point out a belt or an article wanted, they would either jump away or stand trembling like a leaf. Earlier in the day the Papuans we met in the second canoe acted in the same manner. When Stan pointed at one of them indicating the article he wanted, the Papuan immediately jumped overboard. They are great pantominists [sic] and act out thoroughly the action they wish to explain. When we had about ten of their bows and most of their arrows, they would not part with the remaining two bows and dozen or so arrows, explaining that they might otherwise be killed by another people whose location they pointed out; one of them dying a most horrible and realistic death by way of explaining it graphically. He simulated being hit by an arrow, clutched dramatically at the wound, staggered; and relaxing completely, rolling his eyes upward so that only the white showed, clumped to the ground in a limp heap. We asked by signs if they had seen the plane fly over. This immediately brought forth an excited response and it was worth travelling many miles to see their imitation of a plane. Holding their arms extended horizontally, they ran up and down in front {p. 168} of camp with the most excruciating facial grimaces, imitating the sound of the motor. This accomplished, they threw themselves flat on their bellys [sic] and burrowed their faces in the mud, presumably by way of illustrating their own actions at the time. All of the time they were trading with us they were jumping around like "jacks in the box" and now and then would go into a sort of dance, the rhythm punctuated by stamping the feet. Finally we had practically all of their possessions and as it was beginning to get dark, they illustrated going to sleep and returned to their village saying they would be back in the morning. They are big strong men. Two of them must have been six feet tall or above and very well built. There seem to be two physical types among them - a small bearded sort and the tall beardless kind. This difference can be noted not only in stature and hairiness, but their countenances as well are different. I {*} do not know the significance of the "tails" of palm leaf they wear. But when the tail is taken off, the owner at once becomes much embarrassed and the others laugh heartily. Their canoe was just below camp and was nothing more than a hollowed out log with both ends cut squarely off. These ends are evidently not strong or else rot off quickly for in this or in other canoes we have seen most of the ends are knocked off till it is a wonder that the canoe will float.

As soon as they had gone, we ate our rice and deng-deng [sic] while battling vigorously with the mosquitoes and, with the exception of the guard, everyone immediately got into his bed and {p. 169} {*} under the mosquito netting to escape them. It was not dark and about the time I had cleared my bed of the usual assortment of ants, mosquitoes, crickets, etc. it began to rain. Oh! Didn't it rain! Never have I seen its equal. It blew in through our shelter as though nothing were there. It drove through our canvas cover and poured down from above us in streams. Our beds and klambus were soon soggy wet from above, below, and both sides. The water fell faster than it could drain off so that it was standing inches deep on the ground. This heavy downpour lasted about an hour, then settled into a light drizzle. There was nothing to do but spend the night in soaked discomfort. Just before daylight we heard the horn of the other motorboat out in the river and we knew this meant trouble, as it was not supposed to leave motor camp until after our arrival and also they would not have made a night trip downstream without urgent cause. When we heard the sound of the horn we got out of our wet beds into the rain where we at any rate could get no wetter and waited while in the semi-darkness the boat, with a canoe lashed alongside, pulled into shore. It proved to be the Malay motor boat operator, two soldiers and six Dyaks. It appeared that the Papuans, who are very numerous about Head Camp, had daily been growing bolder and acting in a more menacing and independent manner. Two or three times they boldly raided the camp, stealing a few knives. Wishing to avoid troubles the sergeant did not shoot. Finally two days ago this culminated in an attack. About 75 or 100 Papuans surrounded the little camp where there were only five soldiers and a few convicts. The Papuans closed in {p. 170} and began shooting arrows. One of the convicts was shot through the ear and the soldiers were narrowly missed a number of times. The sergeant gave the order to fire and two of the Papuans were killed; the others retreating to a distance away from camp where they gathered. The sergeant then dispatched a Dyak canoe to Motor camp with the news. At Motor camp, Jordans was on hand. The canoe arrived at midnight and Jordans immediately sent it together with the motor boat and the two soldiers down river for help. We held a conference while breaking camp and decided it was best that we continue up as we are, as we have five soldiers with us in addition to le Roux, Dick, Stan and myself. This will add seven rifles and four side arms to the defense. The other motor boat with the canoe and crew as it was continued downstream. They will arrive at Batavia camp some time tonight and the Dyak canoe can start through the rapids early tomorrow morning and should reach Albatross by noon. They can then start upstream at once with more soldiers. This fight took place at almost the same spot where Hans and I landed with the plane on May 15th. They are very numerous here and their numbers give them confidence. They have the "iron fever" now that they know what knives are and seem willing to go to any lengths to get possession of it. Now that some of them have been killed, their attitude will likely be openly hostile and will make the river and transport work more dangerous. It will also likely make anthropological work with them very difficult, if not impossible. {p. 171}

When the other motor boat had gone on downstream our Papuan friends of the night before returned with more goods for trading and we obtained a good many more articles. They will accept anything in trade - pieces of newspaper, old strips of tinfoil, etc. They also like our beads and rings but it is the knives that put them into a very frenzy of desire. One could scarcely believe without seeing it the effect that only the sight of a small iron knife costing about 4¢ has upon them. They almost go out of their heads so great is their anxiety to possess one. The broad woven rattan belts they wear are evidently woven on the body, as they are almost impossible to get off. When I indicated to one of them that for his bow and arrows, ornaments and belt I would give him a knife which I held before him, he hastily shoved over the bow and arrows, tore off his ornaments and trembling in his haste handed them to me and then began to try taking off his belt by sliding it over his hips. He worked feverishly until it would slide no further, then he enlisted the aid of three other men who all worked as though their very lives depended upon getting the belt off in the shortest time possible. The poor fellow was being almost cut in two; but he urged them on to greater efforts until after fully 5 minutes of the most strenuous work on the part of all four of them, they had it off. They wear here also the vertical and horizontal nose ornaments as well as numerous head and body ornaments of a long white hard-shelled seed[,] which they use in place of beads. They wear also the {p. 172} braided abdominal armor. They carry much larger net bags than the Papuans lower down and these are of an entirely different weave. They also wear small woven amulet bags around their necks. Some of them wear the small bark cloth apron and many of them were wearing a square apron of string net work which was worn in place of the bark apron. They have a tobacco of their own which they smoke in violent fashion. They draw in as much smoke as they can, inhale it into their lungs where they hold it for about ten seconds, while they whistle and make clucking sounds with their lips. The smoke is then expelled through the nostrils. They smoke their tobacco in a sort of cigar. When at dawn our boat pulled out into the stream, they all whistled loudly which they do by holding the corners of the lower lip with the fingers of one hand and sucking in the air. They then lined up, and singing a sort of chant, danced in unison as we moved away. We proceeded at once up the Rouffar river. The banks here seem to be generally lower than on the Van der Willigen and the jungle growth less dense and varied. During the morning we saw a good many Papuan houses along the banks and a few canoes and small rafts tied along the shore, but saw no more people. At one point on the north bank, hanging from the trees for a distance of about a half a mile were tens of thousands of flying foxes or "kalongs" as the Malays call them. About noon we passed a very large banana plantation on the north bank. I think near it is [sic, = it is near] the site of the large semi-circular village that Hans and I saw from the air. {p. 173}

"...saw a good many Papuan houses along the banks and a few canoes and small rafts tied along the shore..."

In the afternoon we stopped several times to meet with Papuans on the shore or in canoes. It was always interesting to meet them as they were both eager to trade and very anxious for their safety. We met three [V1: interlineated: "? 4"] men in a canoe at the mouth of a small creek. Three of them were very frightened and went ashore, the other was braver and after a great deal of coaxing came alongside us with his canoe. We gave him a knife and a few red beads for his ornaments and weapons, while the others stood on shore with arrows fitted to their bows, which now and then they would draw tentatively. One of them had on a fine headdress of fine black feathers but there was no chance to get it as he would not come near us. Later on we saw another bunch of Papuans on the bank by a large hump-backed canoe and we landed by them. Le Roux and I went ashore with some knives and rings and although they were very much afraid we finally coaxed three of them to come to us at some distance from the boats, to trade. The others hid in the brush and "covered" us with their arrows which they held to their bows drawn to the head pointed at us. They have an interesting type of forehead ornament which seems to be made of the shell of a fresh water mussel or clam. It consists of three rows of crescent shaped shells arranged vertically on the forehead. Usually the rows are 3 or 4 "high". [V1: interlineated in right-hand margin: pig tusks] We saw many more before evening and stopped and traded with some of them. About 4 o'clock the water pump on the motor boat went on a strike, a habit it has owing to the large amount of sediment in the water. While we {p. 174} waited for an hour fixing it we managed to coax over a canoe of Papuans. They came to the shore near us but only 3 of them would come out in their canoe and it was some time before they would come alongside. When they finally did so, and the Dyaks were holding the canoe, Becker, who was working on the motor, started it for a few turns and two of them immediately jumped overboard and swam for shore, holding their bows and arrows in one hand and swimming with the free arm.

After we were on our way again we could not go far as it had already started to rain and we had to make camp. We selected a low place with a new growth of trees and cane which turned out to be a better camp than it promised from the river. Although we had to make camp in the rain, we kept bedding, which had dried during the day in the sun, under cover and it promises to be a comfortable night.

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