Amok! Amok!

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’.

Negative Epithets: ‘The Malay Character’

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

Exotic: Southeast Asia through European eyes

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.

Berserk: The chilly Norse version of ‘amok’

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…

Old Rope

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.

The Indian Rope Trick: complete with eyewitnesses

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


Jan Pieterszoon Coen and the Birth of Batavia

Dutch Courage


Horsfield’s Holocaust

The Dread Poison Tree

The Dread Poison Tree

Dr Thomas Horsfield was perhaps the most unlikely of all the foreigners in Java during the British Interregnum.  An American medical doctor from a strict Moravian upbringing in Pennsylvania, he had come to Java in 1800 and quickly discovered botany to be more rewarding than either medicine or Christianity.  He had been based in Surakarta ever since, pressing flowers, climbing trees, and setting up what could probably be regarded as the first zoo in Java.  The Dutch had paid him a small stipend, and Raffles followed suit.

During the British Interregnum Horsfield became a fixture of the Batavian Society, a group of colonial gentlemen who would gather in the capital to hear readings on a wide range of subjects, some not entirely suitable for serious scholarship.  The most dramatic of the papers that Horsfield read to the society dealt decisively with a topic that must have cropped up in the conversations of many of the recent arrivals in Batavia.  After all, who hadn’t heard of the fabled upas, the Poison Tree of Java?

Demolishing the Legend

Though the fabulous account of the infamous fantasist J.N. Foersch had already been widely discredited, outside of scientific circles his tale of poisoned uplands, certain death, and dramatically dying damsels was still common currency.  Like all serious scientific people, Horsfield looked on the fabricating Foersch with a mixture of contempt and rage.  ‘The literary and scientific world has in few instances been more grossly and impudently imposed upon than by the account of the Pohon Oopas’ he wrote.  Horsfield himself had first come across the upas (which he often called by its more common Javanese title, ancar, from which its scientific name – antiaris – was later taken) in the dense, tiger-haunted jungles of Banyuwangi, beneath the great cone of the Ijen Volcano where Java is cut short before Bali and where they possess the strongest black magic in the whole island.

Thomas Horsfield - Missionary, turned doctor, turned mad scientist

Thomas Horsfield – Missionary, turned doctor, turned mad scientist

He made it very clear that the stories of a barren wasteland surrounding the tree were utter nonsense: he had had to hack through the tangle of surrounding creepers and undergrowth just to get near the thing.  He made a sober botanical assessment – the upas had both male and female flowers, was one of the tallest trees in Java, and was covered in ‘a whitish bark, slightly bursting in longitudinal furrows’.  Then he collected some of the poisonous sap and called down carnage on the animal kingdom…

Squatting on the packed earth behind a bamboo hut on the edge of the forest, the botanist was shown how to cook up the upas by and old Javanese man ‘celebrated for his superior skill in preparing the poison’.  This rustic toxicologist added all manner of spices to the milky sap, grated in garlic and onion, and then dropped a single chilli seed into the bowl: ‘The seed immediately began to reel round rapidly, now forming a regular circle, then darting towards the margin of the cup, with a perceptible commotion on the surface of the liquor, which continued about one minute’.  Another two seeds were added, and when there was no more fizzing and foaming, the mix was declared ready.  Horsfield went looking for the nearest dog.

Fur and Feathers

The enthralled listeners of the Batavian Society were treated to detailed descriptions of the effect of upas on 26 different birds and beasts.  First up was a ‘dog of middling size’.  The unfortunate animal was stabbed in the leg with a poisoned blade, and the fireworks soon began:

In three minutes he seemed uneasy, he trembled and had occasional twitchings, his hair stood erect, he discharged the contents of his bowels.  An attempt was made to oblige him to walk but he could with difficulty support himself.
In eight minutes he began to tremble violently, the twitching continued, and his breathing was hasty.
In twelve minutes he extended his tongue and licked his jaws; he soon made an attempt to vomit.
In thirteen minutes he had violent contractions of the abdominal and pectoral muscles, followed by vomiting of a yellowish fluid.
In fifteen minutes the vomiting recurred.
In sixteen minutes, almost unable to support himself, with violent contraction of the abdominal muscles.
In seventeen minutes he threw himself on the ground, his respiration was laborious, and he vomited a frothy matter.
In nineteen minutes violent retching, with interrupted discharge of a frothy substance from his stomach.
In twenty-one minutes he had spasms of the pectoral and abdominal muscles, his breathing was very laborious, and the frothy vomiting continued.
In twenty-four minutes in apparent agony, turning and twisting himself, rising up and lying down, throwing up froth.
In twenty-five minutes he fell down suddenly, screamed, extended his extremities convulsed, discharged his excrement, the froth falling from his mouth.
On the twenty-sixth minute he died.

When Horsfield conducted an autopsy on the poor animal he found evidence of massive haemorrhaging throughout its organs.  This ought to have been enough to convince anyone that, yes: upas was very poisonous indeed.  But Horsfield was apparently enjoying himself.  He decided to try the toxin on a smaller dog.  It produced a similarly pleasing performance before the inevitable demise on the thirteenth minute.  Next he sacrificed a flying lemur to the gods of science.  It was restless; it drooped, and then, of course, it dropped.  This was particularly remarkable, Horsfield noted, given that ‘this animal is uncommonly tenacious of life. In attempting to kill it for the purpose of preparing and stuffing, it has more than once resisted a violent strangulation full fifteen minutes.’

Next he tried the poison on an otter, on another dog, and on a pair of small herons.  All ended up dribbling and quivering while Horsfield looked on with a notepad and a stopwatch.

The entire experiment had now clearly passed the point of usefulness and was approaching sadistic absurdity, but Horsfield’s own reaction to the upas seems to have been that of an adolescent discovering a wicked new game – ‘Try it on this! Try it on this!’

He tried it on a mouse.

The rodent ‘immediately showed symptoms of uneasiness, running round rapidly and soon began to breathe hastily’.  A small monkey, a chicken, more dogs, a cat – none of them lasted more than 20 minutes.

Perhaps the mad scientist was beginning to tire of these common tortures; he needed to think bigger.  And so the next victim was an ‘animal of the ox tribe in common domestic use on Java, called Korbow [kerbau] by the Javanese, and Buffalo by the Europeans’.

There was a good deal of enraged bellowing and a ‘copious discharge from his intestines’, but the beast took a full 130 minutes to die.  This was too much even for Horsfield; he went back to small dogs and middle-sized chickens.

The audience at the Batavian Society thoroughly enjoyed all this, but even they must have been a little taken aback when Horsfield revealed that for the purpose of his paper he had merely ‘selected from a large number of experiments, those only which are particularly demonstrative of the effects’.  A little light upas poisoning had, in fact, become his party piece, and any Europeans visiting him in Surakarta were likely to be treated to the spectacle of at least one dog and one chicken suffering its excruciating effects.  It had been a veritable holocaust of fur and feathers, and all to reach the conclusions that ‘The Oopas appears to affect different quadrupeds with nearly equal force, proportionate in some degree to their size and disposition’, that chickens were a little more resistant (the forty-fourth foul fluttered for a full 24 hours; some actually recovered), and that a piece of sharpened bamboo was the best tool for stabbing a buffalo.

Still, at least J.N. Foersch’s tall story had been roundly discredited.

© Tim Hannigan 2012

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