"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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April 20, 1926 : Ambon

April 20th

We got up this morning before breakfast and in company with the Governor and about 30 naval officers from the Java and the destroyers in the harbor, we sailed from the bay and {p. 21} along the coast of the island for about 3 hours to the kampong of Hoekerilla. We left at 6:30, so that when we arrived at the beautiful little cove on which the kampong is situated, it was about 9:30. A more beautiful setting could scarcely be imagined. The kampong itself is completely concealed in a luxuriant grove of cocoanut palms which back the crescent shaped white sand beach. The cove is bordered at each point of the crescent by rocky promontories, which shelter the deep blue waters of the cove. The land rises rather steeply from the cove, to high mountains on all sides. On the beach were half a dozen or so outrigger canoes - having one outrigger only as distinguished from those here which have two. Against the dark green of the palms we could see the crowds of natives waiting to receive us. The people here are small of stature and darker skinned then those of Java and the islands to the west. The Albatross cast anchor and we came ashore in our whaleboats. As we grounded on the sand, a number of natives came down to hold the boats and help us to land. Even from the beach no house of the kampong was visible though the nearest was not 50 yards away. As we stepped out of the whaleboats a native orchestra struck up a [V1: interlineated: tune; crossed out: time] of its own. The orchestra consisted of about 40 players. Of the instruments, two were drums made of large segments of bamboo with pigskin heads, the rest were all flutes made of bamboo. These flutes have five holes at one end, which are fingered to change the notes and one hole near the other end where the flute is blown. In diameter they varied from 1/2 inch to about 3 inches; the {p. 22} small ones of very shrill tones, the large ones with much deeper notes. The music is very striking and really beautiful. The melodies are sweet and tuneful and the combination of different tones most harmonious. It sounds like nothing else on earth unless it might be compared to the music of a pipe organ. As soon as we were on the beach, a dozen boys in the costume of warriors, carrying shields inlaid with mother of pearl and spears with long handles, came out of the trees onto the path leading to the kampong. They wore on their heads a circular headdress ornamented with tufts of bird of paradise feathers. These headdresses were more than a foot high. They confronted us and began a war dance representing a sham fight. The dance itself was a very savage affair and seems quite Melanesian in origin. They crouched down, leaped up and down, brandishing their weapons and so, leaping and pirouetting, facing us, but always retreating they led us to the [V1: interlineated: tune; crossed out: time] of the flute orchestra between arches of palm leaf set up for the occasion[,] to a cleared space before the house of the chief. Here the dance ended and the Governor was greeted by the chief, who was all dressed up like a Christmas tree in an ancient "Prince Albert" which he wore with obvious discomfort; and which in fact he soon discarded. After greetings had been exchanged, another dance was performed before the house of the chief. This time it was sixteen young women. For costume they wore batik sarongs and very tall headdresses made elaborately from mounted birds of paradise. From most of the headdresses depended a tiger claw on a silver chain. The dance was basically Hindu in style and the music also sounded similar to the native {p. 23} music of Java. The dancing is done primarily with the arms and hands accompanied by a slight swaying of the body and a peculiar progressive motion of the feet. The faces of the dancers are in perfect expressionless repose during the dance. Excepting for the bizarre headdresses, the dance would not look out of place in Java or Sumatra, although it is not the same by any means. When this dance was completed a third was begun. A number of dancers (about a dozen) appeared standing inside of and carrying a ship (presumably the Albatross) fashioned from palm leaves, with the superstructure, smokestack and all. She came steaming up the path towards the chief's house amidst a dozen or so large fish, swimming about her. The fish were most ingeniously formed of woven palm leaves, so fashioned that the diagonal weave simulated scales with remarkable fidelity, while the loose ends formed the fins and tails. The color contrast in the scales was obtained by using alternately the dark green outside surface of the leaves and the light green inside surface. All the while the ship was coming up the path, the dancers were singing. When the ship arrived at the space before the chief's house the crew began fishing. After several futile attempts one of the fish was harpooned, the dancer holding the line in his hand beneath the fish which covered his body. The fisherman would haul his victim almost to the ship, then the fish would take more line and run back several yards. After playing the fish for a few minutes he was finally landed; the boy who wore the fish mask slipping unobtrusively under the ship as the fish was hauled {p. 24} aboard. Three or four other fish were then caught and landed in the same manner. This being done, these fish were brought to market and sold at auction (to the visitors), the bid starting at a guilder and going in each case to five or six guilders. The comedian of the dance was an ink-fish, a useless sort of fish - no good for food, who was discarded by the fishermen in high disdain. At the conclusion of this act, a group of about twenty women gathered in front of us and began singing and dancing a free-for-all dance with no particular unison, each woman improvising her own motions. The music was furnished by a second orchestra, this one consisting of all stringed instruments - guitars and violins carved out of wood by themselves. This music in quite a different way was all weirdly beautiful and sounded quite similar to Hawaiian music. Like the "bamboo orchestra" this one had from 30 to 40 players. All of the men must be musicians, as practically all excepting a few old men, who were running affairs, were playing in the two orchestras.

The women sang as they danced, one would improvise a verse sung in solo and then the rest would join in the chorus. The air of this was most lively and "catchy" and would certainly "go over big" in America and Europe. Then the Dutch officers began one by one to join the dance, improvising in the same manner as the women and so the women, facing us, led, dancing and singing, all the way to the dance house - a palm leaf structure rather too small for the number of dancers. Here each Dutchman and myself as well took a couple of women on either arm {p. 25} and continued the dance in relays for half an hour. It was an interesting sight to see the white clad naval officer, some young ensigns, some bearded commanders, pirouetting like school children with these dusky maidens down the path to the dance place. This becoming too warm a pastime, after a while we all returned to the house of the chief and had refreshments consisting of Mangasteens [sic, = Mangosteens] and other fruits and a kind of sweet starchy cake made from sago. Also there was plenty of kloster beer and pait brought for the occasion from the "Albatross". Finally it was time to go. Again the procession of dancers started slowly down the path towards the beach, the bamboo orchestra leading the parade, the stringed orchestra following from the rear. The women would pick a man and surround him, composing a song about him and singing it as they did so. The older women (unfortunately) were the most aggressive at this pastime, many of them working themselves into a high state of excitement. The younger and prettier girls with coy reserve stood on the sidelines. Now and then an officer would dash out and capture one such and bring her struggling, blushing and protesting, but delighted nevertheless, into the procession. Once entered she would soon fall into the spirit of the dance.

On reaching the beach the dancers separated into groups, singing and dancing harder then ever as one by one a boatload of us left for the Albatross. I waited until the last trip of the whaleboat. As we pulled away from the beach, the strains of music from the orchestras, playing now together, {p. 26} grew fainter and fainter, until when we reached the Albatross we could no longer hear it, but when the ship hauled anchor and sailed away we could see them as far as the eye could follow still grouped on the beach at the foot of the palms, waving their farewells and the music still ringing in our ears from hearing it all day.

In the evening after we had returned, Stanley and I went to a dance aboard the Java where we had a particularly good time and cemented farther our friendship with the many Dutch Naval officers we have met here.

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