The Hydra Tree of Death

Before the British invasion of Java the East Indies were almost entirely unknown in the English-speaking world.  In British popular imagination Java would have had no profile whatsoever, were it not for one tall traveller’s tale – a piece of lurid tropical fantasy full of the kind of exotic threat that still typifies western media images of Indonesia today.  Java, the armchair travellers of Georgian England knew, was the home of ‘The Celebrated Poison Tree’.

The Ends of the Earth

The stories of the upas, ‘the Hydra Tree of Death’, that titillated and terrified the readers of popular magazines at the turn of the 19th century, by rights belonged to the long-past era of Sir John Mandeville, when the nether regions of the earth were populated with unicorns, giants, men without heads and women with horns for feet.  In fact, what is probably the earliest European reference to the Poison Tree myth actually comes from one of Mandeville’s 14th century contemporaries, the French Catholic traveller Friar Jordanus.  In his Mirabilia Descrpita he wrote of Java (which he had never visited) that there were ‘trees producing cloves, which when they are in flower emit an odour so pungent that they kill every man who cometh among them, unless he shut his mouth and nostrils.’  The good friar also noted that Java was home to a race of pygmies, and that ‘In a certain part of that island they delight to eat white and fat men when they can get them…’

Such stories had, for the most part, vanished by the 19th century.  But so mysteriously remote and unknown was Java that the tale of the Poison Tree was able to put down deep roots in the European imagination.

That poisonous plants existed in the fetid forests of the Torrid Zone was beyond dispute; the native huntsmen of Borneo, Java and the Spice Islands were known to dip their arrows in some kind of powerful toxin – as were their counterparts in Africa and the Amazon.  But the myth of the Poison Tree of Java towered tall over the general jungle of tropical ephemera.

Shameless Doctor

The story was popularised in an article by an entirely shameless German doctor named J.N. Foersch, whose account first appeared in the December 1783 edition of The London Magazine, also known as the Gentlemen’s Monthly Intelligencer.  Foersch’s intelligent and gentlemanly readers were treated to what he claimed was an eye-witness account, ‘accompanied by all those minute and circumstantial details,’ which, one of his cynical critics noted, ‘are generally the seal of truth, and which prevent a man being accused of falsehood, unless he is held in the most profound contempt.’  The doctor was indeed the object of just such contempt amongst botanists and explorers, but the general public lapped up his poison with relish.

Foersch – who was loitering on the fringes of the London scientific scene when he published his story – had several years earlier been employed as a surgeon in the Dutch East Indies.  It was there, he claimed, that he first ‘received several different accounts of the bohon-upas, and the violent effects of its poison’.

Upas was a Javanese word used for the species in question; it simply implied ‘poison’.  ‘Bohon’, meanwhile, was presumably an 18th century mishearing of the Malay word pohon, which means tree.  It is only one nasalised consonant away from the word bohong, of course.  Bohong means ‘lie’.  It is probably rather farfetched – and rather too charitable to the fantasist himself – but it’s nice to think that perhaps Foersch was offering a wry hint to any Malay-speaking readers that his ‘poison tree’ was in fact a ‘poisonous lie’…

According to the story that he later concocted Foersch decided to investigate the rumours of the upas for himself, girded his loins and headed for the misty green mountains of Java.  He told his readers that the Poison Tree – there was only one of them – was situated ‘about twenty seven leagues from Batavia [modern Jakarta], fourteen from Soura-charta [Surakarta], the seat of the emperor, and between eighteen and twenty leagues from Tinkoe [Yogyakarta]’.  This set of directions alone ought to have been enough to set alarm bells ringing: Batavia was fully 80 leagues from Yogyakarta; Foersch’s trio of distances came nowhere close to an intersection anywhere on the island of Java, and even the patchy maps available at the time ought to have made that clear.  But thanks to the gripping details that he provided next, no one seemed to care.

The dread tree, Foersch claimed, was so terrifically toxic that it had poisoned a vast swathe of ground, ‘and the country round it, to the distance of ten or twelve miles from the tree, is entirely barren.  Not a tree nor a shrub, nor even the least plant or grass is to be seen’.  No man or beast could enter the desert without succumbing at once to the choking effluvium that issued from the branches ‘like the putrid steam of a marshy cavern’.  Birds that strayed into the tainted airspace dropped from the sky like feathered meteorites.

Foersch wrote that he had circumnavigated this noxious wasteland, which was ‘surrounded, on all sides, by a circle of high hills and mountains’, and had met with an ‘old ecclesiastic’ who dwelt on the fringes, a Cerberus-like gatekeeper to this grim underworld.  The task of this aged imam, who Foersch claimed to have spent several days with, was to issue equipment and instructions and to administer pre-emptive last rites to the convicted criminals who were despatched into the realm of the Poison Tree to collect its toxic resin in lieu of accepting a more direct death sentence.

When the breeze was blowing away from the old ecclesiastic’s hut, carrying the fumes in the opposite direction, he dressed the convicts in ‘a long leather cap, with two glasses before their eyes, which comes down as far as their breast’.  He also gave them a pair of thick gloves, said a prayer, patted them on the back and shoved them off into almost certain oblivion.  Only one in ten returned alive.

Foersch also claimed to have seen the effects of the poison in action: he gave a graphic account of the execution, by means of upas resin, of 13 concubines of the court of Surakarta who had been caught in beds other than the king’s.  The mention of harems and titillating sexual shenanigans made Foersch’s tale the ultimate Orientalist artefact, and sealed the deal for many of his credulous readers, not least when the ‘fair criminals’ expired ‘in the greatest agonies, crying out to God and Mahomet for mercy’.

Foersch, keen to add a scientific undertone to his fabulous mythmaking, stated that he had carried out his own experiments with the poison, slipping it to a pair of unfortunate puppies.  Howling piteously, the puppies went exactly the same way as the concubines.  He even theorised that the presence of the Poison Tree, breathing its terrible effluent in the highlands of Java, ‘greatly contributes to the unhealthiness of that island’.

The Tree of Knowledge

In all of Foersch’s fabulous fantasies, it is just possible to detect the outlines of the overheard truths from which he must have cobbled together the tale.  The upas tree, or antiaris toxicaria to give it its scientific name, did in fact exist in the forests of Java, and was indeed used as a source of poison for assassination, warfare and hunting – and its finely layered wood was also used in lacquer-work.  There were other poisonous roots and trees too, many of which would indeed have a dramatically deleterious effect if injected into a playful puppy or a fragrant concubine.

And as for the strange story of a dreary land of lifeless rock and dust where nothing would grow, ringed by a wall of sheer hills and ridges, it sounds suspiciously like a garbled report of one of the post-apocalyptic volcanic craters, some of them very large indeed, which lie in the hollow bellies of many of Java’s mountains, and in which it is true that not ‘even the least plant or grass is to be seen’.  Even the story of the condemned men sent forth on the perilous task of harvesting some valuable issue of this hostile environment has a possible inspiration in reality.  Many of Java’s volcanoes produce a bountiful supply of sulphur, and for centuries the business of harvesting it from the mouths of steaming vents and carrying it back up sheer cliffs has been the preserve of some of Indonesia’s toughest men.  So gruelling is the work that it is quite possible that criminals were sometimes condemned to carry it out, and in a world of toxic smoke, changes of wind direction could prove fatal, and many did indeed succumb.

Even Foersch’s set of doubtful directions make some sense in this respect: 27 leagues from Batavia would have taken you deep amongst the sulphurous peaks around Bandung, and bearings of 20 leagues from Yogyakarta and 14 leagues from Solo intersect within striking distance of the top of the Lawu volcano.

But the fact remained that Foersch had made most of it up.  He had joined a long list of fibbing fantasists about the Far East.  His motivations remain unclear, but by choosing Java as his backdrop and England for his audience, he was able to get away with it.

 A Dog’s Life

The upas tree was actually being thoroughly investigated by serious botanists in the same period that Foersch was writing.  They had approached it in person and found that ‘The fiction which has gone abroad of the very atmosphere of the tree being mortal, is unfounded’; they had collected its resins, sketched its blossoms, and sacrificed dozens of dogs, cats and chickens – and at least one rabbit – during thorough scientific investigations of its lethal properties. A report by a Mr B.C. Brodie of just what upas toxin would do to its victims was read to the fascinated Fellows of the Royal Society in February 1811:

About two grains of this poison were made into a thin paste of water, and inserted into a wound in the thigh of a dog.  Twelve minutes afterwards he became languid; at the end of fifteen minutes, the heart was found to beat very irregularly and with frequent intermissions; after this he had a slight rigor.  At the end of twenty minutes, the heart beat very feebly and irregularly; he was languid; was sick, and vomited; but the respirations were as frequent and as full as under natural circumstances, and he was perfectly sensible.  At the end of twenty minutes he suddenly fell on one side, and was apparently dead.

And such, it seems, is a dog’s life…

Brodie and other serious scientists had long sneered at Foersch as a man who had ‘endeavoured to mislead Europe with a degree of impudence scarcely to be believed or forgiven’.

But whatever the scholars thought, Foersch had the populist touch; his tale was reprinted again and again – sometimes under other names which only added to the confusion – and when Napoleon invaded Holland and made Java fair game for British intervention the myth of the Poison Tree was still current and widely believed.  The Government of Britain was faced with the prospect of conquering a little-known land where the trees were toxic, the concubines were faithless, and the dogs suffered terribly in the name of science.

© Tim Hannigan 2012


4 responses to “The Hydra Tree of Death

  1. A most enjoyable read Tim. Thanks for sharing the fruits of your research

    • Hi Steve, glad you liked it – they’ll be another chunk of the poison tree story along next week, specifically all about what the poison does to dogs, chickens, mice, buffalo, flying lemurs…

      The plan is to post one of these extended “footnotes” every week for the next couple of months – not all of them about the poison tree, though…

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