M U Z I U M A L A M
An encounter with a talking leaf ︎︎︎
The text is missing, the reference is gone. A trace memory of something like -
A woman? The colonial administration exclaimed, incredulous
This coastline is full of pirates, jungle malevolent spirits
the waters riddled with rocks, shipwrecks, rough monsoon waves,
bad luck, uninhabitable
A woman? The colonial administration exclaimed
A curator said:
…the thing became really acute after the arrival of the first Europeans. Unlike nearly all their predecessors in Borneo, they did not at first wish to control the land, only the sea. Nor did they wish to control the sea in a positive way. For example, they did not wish to fish in it. What they mainly wanted to do was ensure that no one else should go freely and independently to or fro across it. All other sorts of boat, carrying trade or persons, must either pay tribute or - and preferably - be eliminated.
The colonial newspaper says:
An island woman named Nakoda Itam is endeavoring to hold the whole coastline between Sungai Bedaun and Sungai Limau, but she has only two families with her though she has now been 3 years there and her husband was therefore given to understand that though a reasonable amount of land would be allowed him and her followers, they would not be allowed to hold the whole of the coast between Bedaun and Limau if other should require land.
Three, four, five generations ago, Nakoda Hitam - the black nakoda - landed at the beach at Tanjung Datu.
A strong and skillful captain, she could sail any kind of vessel,
A nakoda, not a pirate
The national park headquarters sit on top of her landing spot now.
A park descends on top of an old growth coastal forest.
a malay entrepreneur sailing in from the Natuna islands,
circulating Java, Riau, Singapore, settling here
to open villages and clear forest for her kebun kelapa, coconut gardens.
She was (someone said) the last of the female nakodas,
at the tail end of the Malay nakoda trade
before the British monopolised sea lanes between the radiating coasts.
Someone told me:
She has powers, she knows everything.. self defence - everything,
She could control the wind, control the spirits
Nakoda Hitam (they said) could speak the language of the antu, the spirits.
Pacify them enough to clear the land for her coconut gardens.
coconut for copra
Where others encountered sickness and misfortune opening the forest, Nakoda Hitam thrived.
Her ilmu was so strong that her followers were happy to work for no wage, just for the protection she offered them.
she could change her appearance as she liked.
One moment a man, the next a beautiful woman.
She could change and become a man, someone says,
borrow other peoples’ appearances for a day, said another.
One day she looked fifteen, and next day she had the look of a seventy year old.
One day she looked evil, the next, innocent
She married 7 husbands and divorced 6 times
They all became her crew.
The crew were all men. When Nakoda Hitam spoke, all of them shut their mouths. No one dared to speak against her, for all were afraid of her
ambil dan buang laki -
Taking in husbands, and then dispensing with them 6
Her first plantations were uprooted by bearded pigs
ravaged by beetles
In that respect, someone said, she was as human as anyone else
The colonial administration handed the land to her husband
When she died, her husband and followers fled from this place: no one else could calm the antu
I’d tell you a story but it’s not mine to tell
3 coconuts were found floating in the sea; they were taken to Talang Talang island and planted successfully
A curator said -
Tide all the time, 8
A border that coincides with a mountain range
The routes, iridescent and transitory as a rainbow 9
At night the sea glows blue with bioluminescent dinoflagellates
The sea glows blue with ino
he told me - the big and bright blue lights mean the water is dirty,
the surface-feeding fish don’t like it
but small blue lights mean good fishing
a pukat hanyut drift net glows blue full of ino The fish recognise their pemangsa and move away 10
Offshore the waves indent, recalling the shape of the Royalist’s hull 11
Someone says: But the facts, where are the facts? 11
If you sailed around the cape you could sometimes hear the sounds of a village in the forest: children playing, people talking, the azan.
But there was no village there, only trees for miles.
and then, he said, the village and its spirits withdrew deeper into the forest 15 years ago
“But why did they retreat?” I asked
he replies, “because of batteries”
“but what about batteries? What kind of batteries? machines? radios? tourists?”
he says nothing
The stories bend and fold
like the rocks
the plantation, a telescope 13
And so it came to pass that in the convolute system of estuaries and coves between Tj Datu and Tj Po, the latent restive forces of toughness, expressed to Western eyes in the words *piracy* were able to find particularly adequate expression 14
The British Crown pays head money,
a bounty for every pirate killed or injured
Royal Navy - kapal api, - a monopoly of sea lanes
The colonial administration demands head tax
From communities who practice shifting cultivation across the border
Twists some bodies like this,
Some bodies like that
£20,500 of pirate bounty keeps the colonial government afloat
For Malay nakodas, a tax on each boat built. Export duty. The legal obligations of new citizens. Gentle coercions to settle on this side of the border. Salako and Jagoi fallow land reorganised and redistributed into the machinic rhythm of colonial planting.
The rhythm of corporations
of colonial planting
of shifting cultivation
of crab-move and worm-suck 15
A story about a female lanun batin, pirate chief -
She swung her bare, sagging breast over her shoulder and went straight to fight the British 16
A string of shells
Lokan from the mangroves
In indonesia we call it kepur sungai
The white one is from the sea
she sells seashells
on the side of the new highway
that they opened through the forest
that’s a good thing about the road
but sometimes i look at all these day trippers and think,
this is not my village anymore
Batu karang di dalam laut
Baru nampak biru lautnya
Tujuh lah gunung, sembilan lautan
Barulah nampak kasih sayang nya
Nakoda Hitam’s keturunan sings pantuns into the night:
A glimpse of the coral
beneath a clear blue sea.
Seven mountains and nine oceans
cannot hide your love for me 17
Intentions clear as corals in a clear blue sea
1. A small booklet, a colonial officer’s lighthearted memoirs of his service in Sarawak. A light paperback, comic illustrations. I remember sitting at the end of the table facing away from the entrance, several visits before the librarian gave me a rhizomic plant useful for reducing the impacts of certain illnesses - a plant in exchange for a token 1 ringgit, a plant his mother grew, planted in the bright terracotta red soil of Sarawak. The light seems to come from the left hand side, the building layout eludes me. Light to the left, blue carpet. I don't remember the book.
2. We were driving through the fragmented wildlife reserve when he asked if I knew about Nakoda Hitam. A female pirate, he said. Pointing out of the window at the tops of coconut trees along the coastline, visible over the mangrove forests: her gardens are still there.
3. Tom Harrisson,
The Malays of Southwest Sarawak Before Malaysia
, 1970, pp.135-136
4. Sarawak Gazette, July 1, 1898: 142
5. I ask for photographs of Nakoda Hitam’s coconut plantations from the sea. Pak Uning Laut whatsapps low-res photos of the plantations one evening while I’m looking at old geological maps of the coastline, and while he is on the way to check the rumah ikan.
Here are the coconut trees you asked for
6. The routes, iridescent and transitory as a rainbow, cross at all points the network of binary dynamics extended by the West. The result is a text that speaks of a critical coexistence of rhythms, a polyrhythmic ensemble whose central binary rhythm is decentered when the performer (writer/reader) and the text try to escape "in a certain kind of way."
- Antonio Benitez Rojo,
The Repeating Island
7. quoted from "The Story of Nakoda Hitam: Her Life and Ventures at Maritime Crossroads at the Turn of the 20th Century" by Mayumi Ishikawa, pp.247-262, in The Sarawak Museum Journal, Vol. LXI, No.82 (New Series), December 2005
8.The confusion of a view of the milky way with a morning of thick haze, dead pixels, stars. On Pak Uning Laut's map, a turtle hatchery / Nakoda Hitam's landing spot, her burial spot / a national park headquarters / an offshore coral reef restoration projects / dolphin migration patterns
9. The Royalist was the private warship of James Brooke, the first White Rajah of Sarawak. A schooner equipped with six small canons (
- fire ship), it played a crucial role in the formation of colonial Sarawak. The Royalist's firepower was used to quell rebellions against the Sultan of Brunei; Brooke in return received governorship of Sarawak in 1939.
But the facts, where are the facts?
was a comment from an internet user about an artist's speculative film about Ali, the noted assistant of Alfred Russell Wallace, who may or may not have been Sarawakian.
10. Harrisson, p.136 -
“Tanjong Datu, in particular, offered special attractions as a hide-out, wind-shelter and place for tip and run around the corner, on to the richer south coast of Sambas and Sukadana.”
12. keturunan = descendants, from sisters of Nakoda Hitam.
13. Pantuns performed by Nek Jah, Nek Som and their audience, recorded at a wedding in 2019.
14. All videos of the sea, all hand-drawn maps by Pak Uning Laut.
Handdrawn geological maps from Allen, A. W. (1951)
The geology of the Lundu-Sematan-Tj Datu area of the first division of Sarawak