William T. Hornaday: The Experiences of a Hunter
and Naturalist in the Malay Peninsula and Borneo. with an
introduction by J M. Gullick. Oxford University Press, 1993. 199 pages.
(abridged from Two Years in the Jungle, New York, 1885.)
review by Otto Steinmayer.
Oxford is really too obliging! It seems I only have to wish for a book—no matter how rare—and out they come with it a few months later. A footnote in an obscure study alerted me to Hornaday’s travels. I was surprised and pleased to find a copy of the first edition in our library. Now that the public can enjoy what was once my secret treasure, I almost feel that I brought this reprint about.
The naturalist William Hornaday was born in 1854
in Iowa, which was
then the real western frontier of the US. He grew up roughing it. The
term “naturalist,” as used in the last century, denoted, as much as it
did a scholar, a practical collector of animals, plants, and natural
productions. Then, at what seems now a primitive stage of study,
academic biologists did most of their work with preserved specimens.
There was a market for animals from far away. The skin of a gibbon
Hornaday tells us was worth at least $20—that’s in silver money; in
modern terms RM1000.
Hornaday apprenticed with Prof. Ward of the University of Rochester (NY). By 23 years of age he was a seasoned naturalist, and, funded by Ward, set out on a collecting trip through India, Ceylon, Malaya, and Sarawak.
He came to Southeast Asia through Singapore, and did much hunting in Selangor. Ah, people of the Peninsula, I can sense your glee at these names. Finally you get to read an old account of places you actually know!
Entering Singapore by way of the New Harbor was
“like getting into a
house through the scullery window”—stagnant water and coal-dust.
Singapore proper presented herself even then as a up-to-date and
convenient city of business. From there Hornaday took steamer to Klang,
where the first promising forest appeared. The Klang River was as
bilious as now, and Hornaday spent a jolly time wallowing in its mud
after fish, turtles, and crocodiles.
Then up to Kuala Lumpur. How things have changed! In 1878 you travelled to K.L. first by boat hauled from the shore of the river. You got out at Damansara and entered dense, high forest. The road through it gave out nine miles from town, so you walked the rest of the way through jungle on a rough and narrow trail.
K. L. clustered on one bank of the Klang creek, a ramshackle, earth-walled, atap-roofed mining village. For all its insophistication, K.L. could offer surprises:
The next morning, while in the largest Chinese store in the place, buying provisions for our stay in the jungle, we struck a bonanza. We found Mumm’s champagne for sale at sixty cents a quart, and India pale ale at fifteen cents per pint!... Engaging the strongest coolie we could find we loaded him with champagne (at 60¢ per quart!), and marched him ahead of us into the jungle. It was the proudest moment of my life... My only regret is that I did not fill a tub and take a bath in it, for champagne is the only artificial drink I really like.
The sights of K.L. were exhausted in an hour. Next day Hornaday and his friend were off farther east to Kampong Batu, consisting of exactly six houses. Here elephants were as thick as bugs. With the help of a number of the Jakun people living nearby, Hornaday tracked and shot his quota, and collected squirrels, mouse-deer, and hornbills for lagniappe. Meantime he visited Batu Caves, and made a prediction of their value as a tourist attraction 30 years thence. In 1878 Batu Caves were empty of statues, stairs, shrines, and hawkers. Only the local Orang Asli sheltered in them when the pachyderms became too boisterous.
No dawdling for Hornaday. He was on a business trip and when he feels he gets enough bones and skins, he moves on. After a quick dinner in K.L. with Yap Ah Loy, Hornaday scoured back to Singapore and boarded ship for Sarawak. Here, I’m afraid the portions of interest to Peninsulars end. The contrast between his descriptions of K.L. and thoroughly maju Kuching is amusing, and will delight all Sarawak chauvinists.
Hornaday visited two rivers in Sarawak, the
Simujan and the Sebuyau,
neither of them far from Kuching. Animals of all kinds were plentiful,
Brooke rule kept the peace, and Hornaday collected to his heart’s
content, concentrating on orang-utan.
Since the reader has heard so much talk of Borneo
from me, I’ll omit a
detailed account of what Hornaday saw and did there. He brings in all
the usual Borneo topics: jungle adventures, Dayaks, headhunting,
&c. He visited during the season of making farms, so there are no gawai,
tuak, or dancing.
None of his account needs to be recommended to the Borneo enthusiast. Much of his ethnography is at second hand, and adds little to what's already published. Hornaday is at his best writing about his personal experiences: the details of his hunting, his observations of animals, conditions on the Sebuyau and Simujan (one of the few accounts we have of these humble places), and how he watched a young Sebuyau man climb a dizzying tapang tree after honey.
Hornaday touches everything with a not vulgar, wise-cracking humour, probably learned from his contemporary Mark Twain. Englishmen out East adventured as robustly as he did, few of them seemed to be quite as cheerful, or as honest (unless it was Alfred Wallace). The American flavour appeals to me, and I think Hornaday, because he was American, found the Dayaks a comfortable lot to live and work with.
Like many another hunter, Hornaday loved nature, but he was less sure about human beings. He saw no virtue in hiding his feelings, and delivers a few opinions that may miff some readers. This does not mean Hornaday was a racist, indeed, he was the opposite. He shared the assumptions of his time, and thought that Civilization and Progress were Good Things, and in this respect was no different than hundreds of Malaysians now living, some of whom enjoy great prestige and high office.
What we are more willing to condemn him for today is the nonchalance with which he shot everything that moved. In Sarawak he killed a total of 43 orang-utan, including mothers with babies at their breasts. Many people might say that Hornaday exhibits that spirit of scientific sacrifice practiced by Dr. Mengele. But I am not so sure Hornaday really did much damage to the wildlife as a whole. As recently as 1950 a biologist estimated there were ten times as many wild pigs as people in Sarawak, and this despite that no Dayak hunter will, if possible, lose a chance to kill a delicious babi with spear, shotgun, or—I’ve no doubt—bare hands if he can manage it. It was a different time. People of my father-in-law’s generation know it was development, not hunting, that emptied the forests.
You need not feel guilty about reading Hornaday.
With time he learned,
founded New York’s Bronx Zoo, and became a champion of conservation.
Read him gladly, and expect more to come from Oxford.