Of birds and buffaloes, alligators and white ants, 1816


The Asiatic Journal and Monthly Register for British India and its Dependencies carried in Vol. II (from June to December 1816) the following appealing text about animal life on Penang Island. The author was with a group who had hiked up Penang Hill and was staying at the Convalescence Bungalow. He took the occasion to note his impressions of animal life, which today provide us amusing reminders about the dangers of swimming along the coast and the beauty of Penang’s birds.
In 1816, the island’s population was estimated at 11,000 “Europeans settlers and their dependents, Malays, Sumatrans, Chinese &c.” and 1,000 “itinerants”.
(The Journal was published by the East India Company and printed in London.)

As soon as it gets dark on this mountain [Penang Hill], there arises on every side, a singular concert of birds and insects, which deprived us of sleep for the first night or two. Far above the rest, the trumpeter (a very curious animal about an inch in length), saluted our ears regularly for a few hours after sunset, with a sound so strong, that the first time I heard it, I actually thought a party of dragoons were approaching the bungalows, nor could I be persuaded for some time, that such a diminutive creature could possibly possess organs capable of emitting such a tremendous loud note.

Deer of a very curious species, are sometimes, though rarely, found in the woods of this island; but lions, tigers, and other ferocious animals, are unknown. A tiger did once swim across from the Queda shore, and made for the mountains here, but was shot soon after his landing; he was supposed to be the only one that ever was on the island. Birds of the most beautiful plumage, are seen on almost every branch of a tree, through this island; but nature has been so very bountiful in clothing them with her most gaudy liveries, that she has thought proper to make a drawback, by depriving them of the melodious tones which so often charm us in birds of a more homely exterior.

There is, however, one small bird on this island (whose name I forget), which perches among the leaves of the tall areca tree, and sings mornings and evenings, in a style far superior to that of any bird I have seen between the tropics.

The Argus pheasant is found in this island, but they are generally brought over dried, from the Malay coast, where they abound, and are here sold for a dollar each.

With respect to the domestic animals, they are but few; and those brought from the neighbouring parts: horse from Pedir, on the coast of Sumatra; buffaloes from Queda; and sheep, &c. from Bengal.

The buffaloes are brought over from the opposite coast, in a very curious manner; six or eight of them being collected together on the beach, thongs of leather, or pieces of rattan, are passed in at one nostril and out at the other, then made fast to the sides and stern of the boat, which is pushed off from the shore, and the buffaloes driven into the water along with it; these thongs, or rattans, keeping their noses above water, and assisting them in swimming, until they gain the opposite shore, unless seized on their passage by the alligator.

The buffalo often becomes a most dangerous animal when enraged by the heat of the sun, or any other cause. At these periods the animal rushes furiously upon any thing in its way, and dashes into the houses, upsetting and breaking through all obstructions, as it is possessed of great muscular strength, and runs about with impetuous velocity, there is no mode of subduing it, but killing the animal with spears or shot.

A large one lately made a desperate sally through George-town, while the gentlemen of the settlement fired on him in all directions, from their verandahs; at length he rushed through the governor’s kitchen, upsetting the cook and all his utensils; but what was still worse, a ball from a rifle, aimed at the furious buffalo, unfortunately struck the poor harmless cook, and between the fright occasioned by the animal, and the idea of being shot to boot, he very nearly died.

As these creatures have very little hair on their bodies, they are utterly unable to bear the scorching rays of the sun towards mid-day; at these times, therefore, they betake themselves to every pool and puddle in the neighbourhood, rolling themselves in the mud, and then lying with their nostrils just above water, until the fervency of the atmosphere has somewhat abated. On coming out from the cool retreats, they are the most uncouth and disgusting objects imaginable, having a coat of clay an inch or two in thickness, which, in a few minutes, is hardened by the sun into a crust that defends their hides from the powerful rays during the remainder of the day

They are the only animals used in labour; their flesh is tolerably good, and an excrescence that grows on the top of their shoulders called a hump, when salted and well preserved (especially in Bengal), is esteemed excellent eating; in short, it is the most useful animal in India.

Alligators are very common round the shores of this island, rendering it very unsafe to bathe on any part of the coast. Snakes of an immense size have likewise been found here by the early settlers, but are now very rare. Bandicotes (a species of large rat) are extremely numerous on the island, and do a great deal of mischief, as does likewise the white [ant]. It is astonishing what effects these very small insects are capable of producing; they will destroy the interior parts of the beams and rafters in houses, leaving a thin external shell of solid wood, that completely deceives the eye, and lulls into a false security the unsuspecting lodger, who frequently sees with astonishment the whole fabric come tumbling to the ground without any apparent cause, or perhaps is himself involved in its ruins!

When these dangerous insects find their way on board ships it becomes a very serious concern; as no one can tell where they may be making their destructive burrows, perhaps through the thin plank that separates the whole crew from eternity!

In these cases, there is no method of destroying them, but by sinking the vessel in shallow water for some days, until they are drowned.

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