"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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May 27, 1926 : Mamberamo River ; Papuans of Bisano

May 27th

We started this morning at daylight and continued up the river. At about 9 o'clock we reached a clearing and {p. 86} Kampong on the south side of the stream. There were five or six houses. They belonged to the tribe we were with and were built about six months ago as a temporary village between their permanent village and the Mamberamo. There were bark baskets, wooden boxes and other articles of furniture in the houses which seemed to have been abandoned only recently. There were also evidences of sago making with a trough of sago bark rigged up like a washer for alluvial gold. About half an hour farther up the stream just before reaching a small cataract, our guides left the stream bed and we began a stiff climb up the ridge on the north bank. We followed this ridge for about 3 hours to an altitude of about two thousand feet. Finally we reached the divide between the Mamberamo and the Apawer river and a little later on the top of a ridge, with semi-swampy depressions on either side we reached the kampong. It is called Bisano. There are two large conical houses, quite well built and a number of palm shelters. I will describe the village more in detail later. We established our tents (le Roux, Sally and I) on the edge of the village, our seven soldiers at the Papuans['s] request (who fear for their women) are encamped on the other side of a gully about 200 yards distant from us. After getting our camp started, our big gang of convicts took the back trail and will try to reach the Mamberamo tonight whence they will return to Albatross Camp. While le Roux and I were setting up our tents we had a highly interested audience of Papuans who showed much interest in {p. 87} all proceedings. They are very lazy though and could not be persuaded to help us with camp making or clearing. When le Roux, as is the Dutch custom, changed to his loud blue and white striped pajamas, the Papuans rightly exhibited intense astonishment, and, incidentally, appreciation of this gorgeous raiment. We brought the phonograph with us for making records and the natives who had not visited us at Albatross camp were a picture to see when we started it going. Le Roux added to the festivity of the occasion by indulging in a war dance of his own improvising, clad in his glorious pajamas, to the tune of a Xylophone duet on the graphaphone [sic]. We have brought only two records with us; the other a negro minstrel medley with plenty of talking and laughing and a voice modulation in it. This record as determined at Albatross camp, is their prime favorite and they can listen to it over and over again with no abatement of interest. Le Roux also has a magnet with him, and the marvels he performed with a few steel pens and tacks and their knives produced terror, amazement, amusement or astonishment depending on the individual temperament of the watcher. While the crowd was still gathered I caught a most striking looking beetle of a brilliant Alice-blue shade which we put in the cyanide bottle. His sudden demise therein, likewise caused a buzz of comment. During the afternoon the women came over to pay us a short visit, and I gave each of them a string of red glass beads. Two young good looking ones ? [sic] hung in the rear and exhibited as much coyness and coquettishness as could be {p. 88} found in any homeside flapper who has just discovered the hidden power of her charms. As I handed them their presents I am sure I detected a blush beneath their dusky epidermis. During the afternoon I turned in for a short siesta and as it was hot, I was lying on my cot in my little pup tent with nothing on but a pair of pajama trousers. One of the young mothers exploring around put her head in my tent and immediately announced her discovery to the rest. In no time my little tent crowded with dusky belles boldly commenting and pointing out such intimate details as my white skin, the hair on my chest, my muscular development, etc. When the crowd became so thick that they had uprooted a couple of tent pegs and my shelter was in dire danger of complete collapse I got up and began to dress before my highly appreciative audience, who greeted each garment and movement with excited comment. In spite of the overcrowded condition of the tent, I finally managed to complete my toilette and escape to the open air, from whence my magnetic charms sufficed to clear the tent, whereupon I heaved a sigh of relief, closed the tent flap and set to work repairing the damage. When they had all gone, Masuka remained, much angered because we had given presents to the women and he had received none. About 5 o'clock in the afternoon all of the natives were gone from our tent and shortly a terrific uproar sounding like a cross between a bellowing bull and a pipe organ came from the kampong. A little later a couple of the men came to le Roux and [V1: interlineated: me; crossed out: "I"] and asked us to come with them. We went over {p. 89} to the big house towards the north end of the kampong. This house is built upon pilings, the floor being about five feet above the level of the ground. The floor is oval in shape, about fifty feet long by twenty five feet wide. The walls are made of poles and the ribs of nipa palm leaves set closely together on a diagonal about four or five feet higher than the floor.

"This is the men's house and women are not permitted to enter it."

From this a high conical roof of atap rises, capped by a forked piece of bamboo. The entrance is a small door reached by climbing up a notched stick. The floor is rather well made of closely fitted poles. On either side is a broad platform[,] the height of the eves [sic, = eaves] extending to a narrow alley way through the center from the entrances at each end of the house. Set under these high platforms are individual sleeping platforms of poles. On the floor at each end but on opposite sides is a hearth. This is the men's house and women are not permitted to enter it. The place on the ground beneath is utilized as a general loafing place for the men. We climbed up the notched stick into the dark interior. When our eyes had become a little accustomed to the light we saw that most of the men were in there with their bull roarers. These consist of a hollow cane about an inch and a half in diameter and four feet long, cut after the fashion of an organ pipe. When we had taken our places they began to play on them. They began lightly at first and the sound was soft and rather melodious. Then they began blowing with all the effort at their command. Rising up straight to inhale a deep breath {p. 90} and leaning forward violently with the pipe to mouth to give it more force in expelling it. The players were divided into two groups, one group playing pipes with a high pitched note, the other playing pipes with a deeper tone. As one group straightened up to inhale, the other leaned forward to exhale, thus giving alternately the high pitched and deep tones, producing the curious bellowing effect. This loud bellowing would be relieved occasionally with the soft melodious notes like those with which the concert started. After rendering a couple of selections after this fashion, le Roux and I asked if we might bring the phonograph to record them. They were a little uneasy at this and a general consultation followed; finally the head man gave his consent. Then they explained to us very earnestly that the bull roarers must not be mentioned to the women nor must they be seen by them otherwise they (the men) would die. So le Roux and I with "Sally" returned with the phonograph and spent a couple of weird hours in the dark smoke laden air recording the bull roarers and some songs. After one record of the bull roarers they would make no more. When darkness fell they lit a couple of pieces of dammar gum which produced a smoky light. [V2: crossed out: The name of the kampong is "Bisano"]

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