Of the tiny pinch of spice that Malay has added to the bubbling semantic stew of the English language, one word above all has a particularly pungent tang. Four more loaded letters (or five, depending how you choose to spell it) are hard to think of; between its two syllables it carries all the dark and incomprehensible threat of the foreign, and all the weight of half-a-millennium of dehumanising, denigrating European ideas about ‘the natives’. The word is ‘amok’.
The Malay Character
In the 19th century and beyond much was made by foreigners in the tropics about a curious concept called ‘the Malay character’. Depending on the ignorance levels of the white man in question (and it generally was a white man, pontificating with gin and tonic in hand as the punkahs swished on the ceiling of the Club and the warm rain lashed down over the rubber plantations), the ‘Malay race’ could refer merely to the Malay-speakers of the Peninsula and southern Sumatra, or it could be expanded in great conquering sweeps of generalisation to encompass all of maritime Southeast Asia, taking in everyone from the Bugis of southwest Sulawesi, to the Balinese, Javanese and Madurese; from the Dayak spearmen of the Borneo forests to the white-robed Achenese totting their prayer beads on Mecca’s Veranda in northern Sumatra. Sometimes, sweeping aside the final feeble palisades of language, culture and geography with a rattle of the gin glass, it was cast further still to blanket even the Philippines, Thailand and the Buddhist lands of Indochina.
But what mattered, wherever you drew their territorial limits, was that these ‘Malays’ were amongst the most indolent people on the planet. They were very feeble, and they were shockingly lazy. They would not work; they did nothing; they behaved in fact (though nobody mentioned this) very much like late-18th century Dutchmen during the dying days of VOC Batavia. That, at least, was the theory.
Coupled to this alleged lethargy were various other adjectives of differing degrees of negativity. The mythical Malay was often described as proud and even gentlemanly; they were soft – whether you viewed that as good or bad – and refined. But they were also, like virtually every ‘native’ everywhere, ‘deceitful’ and ‘treacherous’. And worse yet, there was a literally fatal flaw in all this slow-moving indolence: the most notable aspect of the Malay character, our gin-swiller would have had it as the sweat dribbled down his rosy cheeks, was their capacity to go on an unprovoked, motiveless rampage at a moment’s notice, to slash and stab with darkened eyes.
‘These acts of indiscriminate murder are called mucks,’ it was explained, ‘because the perpetrators of them, during their frenzy, continually cry out amok, amok, which signifies kill, kill’:
When the cry ‘amok! amok!’ is raised, people fly to the right and left for shelter, and after the blinded madman’s kris has once ‘drunk blood,’ his fury becomes ungovernable, his sole desire is to kill; he strikes here and there, he stabs fugitives in the back, his kris drips blood, he rushes on yet more wildly, blood and murder in his course; there are shrieks and groans, his bloodshot eyes start from their sockets, his frenzy gives him unnatural strength, then all of a sudden he drops, shot through the heart, or from sudden exhaustion, clutching his bloody kris.
This idea of Malays spontaneously combusting in the street without warning seemed almost designed to encourage contemptuous unease amongst Europeans. In colonial Southeast Asia the very word amok was enough to set an Englishman trembling in his boots.
National Method of Suicide
Amok does not, in fact, ‘signify kill, kill’. It is the root of a proper Malay verb which could best be translated as quite simply ‘to run amok’. Accounts and explanations of the practice abound. It was, one Englishman declared, ‘the Malay national method of committing suicide’, for they were never known to kill themselves in more conventional fashion. Special – and especially brutal – methods of dealing with it were put in place.In VOC Batavia, ‘In order, if possible to take them [the amok-runners] alive, the officers of justice are provided with a pole ten or twelve feet in length, at the end of which is a kind of fork, made of two pieces of wood, three feet long, stuck on the inside with sharp iron spikes; this is held before the wretched object of pursuit, who runs into it, and is thus taken.’ If the madman somehow survived being impaled in this way, he was ‘immediately broken alive upon the wheel’. If an officer managed to catch an amok-runner alive his reward was ‘very considerable’; if he killed them in the attempt, however, he got nothing more than a pat on the back.
In the face of such evidence, and such accounts, it seems hard to dispute that amok existed. The idea must have left the more imaginative Englishmen in the Indies in a state of permanent paranoid panic; the sight of a gaggle of listless locals reclining at the roadside would have been full of ominous threat. ‘What if one of them goes, right now?’ they must have wondered, hurrying nervously onwards under the hot tropical sun. But peer a little closer, and cracks begin to appear in the idea of amok. For a start, there was a certain disagreement over just who out of all the ‘Malays’ was most likely to leap up shrieking, kris in hand. William Marsden, one of the greatest British orientalists of the early colonial era, a man based in Sumatra, declared that ‘It is not to be controverted that these desperate acts of indiscriminate murder, called by us mucks, and by the natives mongamo [mengamuk, the full verb], do actually take place, and frequently too, in some parts of the east (in Java in particular)’. But Raffles disagreed, stating that ‘It is a mistake, however, to attribute these acts of desperation to the Javans… That such have occurred on Java, even during the British administration is true, but not among the Javans: they have happened exclusively in the large towns… and have been confined almost entirely to the class of slaves’. Anywhere but here, it seems (though Raffles’ assertion on this point is rather contradicted by an account of a Javanese retainer of the toppled Sultan ‘running amok’ in Yogyakarta the night after the British sacked and looted the kraton).
And then there was the question of the process itself. Though amok was always presented as an utterly unpredictable moment of madness, many of the accounts mentioned preparatory imbibing of opium or arak, which instantly turns terrifyingly spontaneity into something else entirely, something much less exotic. If amok represented some unidentifiable breaking point in ‘the Malay character’, then how could people plan to do it in advance, and how on earth could people plan to do it en masse? Yet all too often accounts speak of ‘bodies of Malays’ having ‘resolved to run amok’ together. Very often these ‘bodies’ were simply soldiers opposing a party of European invaders – fighting with suicidal bravery and determination.
Finally, there’s the idea that amok is unique to that much maligned Malay character. There is considerable evidence that the word itself, and perhaps the idea of a mass military amok too, comes not from Southeast Asia, but from southern India. In its four pages dedicated to the subject, Hobson Jobson, the great dictionary-encyclopaedia of the British Empire in Asia comes up with more examples of the practice from non-Malays than Malays: everyone was running amok from Sikh soldiers to Turks on the Black Sea, from the son of an Indian raja to a Spanish sailor in Liverpool…
Drunks, madmen and opium addicts have gone on the rampage on streets the world over since time immemorial, and they still do today (all too often with an automatic assault rifle in hand, it seems). The idea of suicidally brave soldiers repeats in the Japanese kamikaze, and amok has both an absolute equivalent and a perfect synonym in berserk, drawn not from treacherous Asian natives, but from bearskin-clad Norsemen who fought in a furious trance.
In the 19th century Southeast Asia could be a violent place – and it still can be today. Local cultures certainly did encompass the idea of possibly dangerous trances (the performers of the darker dance-dramas in Bali and Java, for example, are supposed to go into a trance), the concept of ‘being entered by a demon’, and the notion of supernatural invulnerability in battle (easily confused, perhaps, with the near-superhuman strength of someone going berserk). What was more, the very real local notions of decorum and good conduct meant that the universal point at which tempers are lost was rarely preceded in the Indies by the kind of demonstrative preliminary bluster familiar in uncouth English bar rooms. But for all its exotic potency, take a magnifying glass to the idea of amok, and the dark eyes and spontaneous rampages all too often resolve themselves as little more than a drunken rage, a cold-headed assassination attempt or a conventional riot, born of the frustrations of indigenous oppression or the heavy yoke of European colonialism. Amok, in part at least, is perhaps not unlike the infamous myth of the Indian Rope Trick: repeat an exotic story often enough, especially if it is full of magic or barbarism, and eyewitnesses will begin to rise miraculously from the basket, like a lot of old rope…
© Tim Hannigan 2013