"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 28, 1926 : Soeroei (Soeroe), Japen

April 28th

During the night we sailed across Geelvink Bay, and this morning skirted the coast of Japen, until about 10 A.M. We pulled into the sheltered cove of Soeroe and cast anchor. Japen has a population purely Papuan and is quite unknown territory for the ethnologist. The island like all we have seen since Ambon, is rugged and mountainous with a broken sea coast indented with numerous little bays and inlets, often sheltered with outlying islets. Before we reached Soeroe, we could see two good sized native villages on the shore, the houses built on piles over the water. Soeroe is the site of a mission and the residence of a Dutch magistrate. Half a dozen small houses of mixed corrugated iron and nipa palm structures constitute the metropolis. These are mainly occupied by Ambonese, although the inevitable Chinese shop keeper has his little stock in one. It is the saying in the East, that wherever there are two Europeans there is a Chinese shop. Thus far we have found it to be true. We left the ship in our row boat and landed on a gently shelving gray gravel beach which gives way to a fertile looking little valley in which the houses of Soeroe are situated. About a mile to the north is the native settlement - all houses {p. 38} built on piles over the water. Le Roux, Dick, Prince, Stan and I walked down the beach a half mile or so where we found a Papuan settlement with natives wild enough, naked enough and dirty enough to suit anyone. All of the women and children and most of the men fled at our approach, but a few hardier men remained behind and after the gift of a little tobacco we took several photographs of them. Their houses were very tiny affairs of very simple construction, rectangular in shape with roof sloping in one direction like a lean-to and built on piles about six feet off the ground. A ladder made from a pole with notches cut into it served as a means of entrance to the house. They are quite without window openings. The houses of this settlement must have been some sort of more or less temporary camp as the regular village houses to the north of Soeroe were much larger and generally more elaborate. Their canoes are both single and double outrigger with elevated prow and stern.

"Their canoes are both single and double outrigger with elevated prow and stern."

The prows are carved with conventional human figures and painted with a yellow and brown paint in rather elaborate geometric patterns. From the elevated portion of the stern four or five large cowrie shells were usually hanging. We saw one canoe complete, paddle and all, for a very small child. It was a most tiny affair being no more then six or seven feet long, narrow in proportion and with a single outrigger. Some of the natives have mop heads, others have their hair short. They wear an ornament consisting of a wooden comb, the long "handle" end of which is decorated with feathers. They also wear plaited bracelets on their arms, of yellow and red straw, and ear ornaments {p. 39} of shells and beads. Many of them have their faces and bodies tattooed. They smoke large cigarettes made with a bark wrapping. Later le Roux and I visited the missionary and made arrangements with him to collect for us until we return from the Mamberamo. We sailed at about 2 P.M. and continued to skirt the south coast of Japen. Just below Soeroe is a large irregular bay with what appears to be a very large native village at the head of it. This bay is sheltered by a chain of islands which stretch across a good part of its mouth. During the rest of the afternoon, as we proceeded, the mountains back of the Waropen Coast of New Guinea could be seen off our starboard beam in the far distance. Partially obscured by mists and hanging clouds they hold a fascination for us, as it is in the regions back of them that we are to explore if our luck holds good. At sunset we cast anchor in the lee of a small island in the straits separating Japen from New Guinea. Perfectly smooth seas, air just cool enough to be refreshing and a brilliant full moon combined to make a perfect tropic night, the kind that are popularly supposed to be the normal thing, but which in reality are quite rare. At midnight we hoisted our anchor and were again on our way, the Captain having done this so as to reach the approach to the river at daylight.

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