De' Conti's account is preserved in book IV of Poggio Bracciolini's De Varietate Fortunae, written in Latin in the early 1440s. It's particularly interesting because it says things none of the earlier accounts say and which better accord with the truth than others do. It's also clearly an individual's account of things seen and felt as we can see in the following, totally politically incorrect, section:
Has homines inhumanissimi omnium crudelissimique inhabitant, mures, canes, gatos, et spurciora quaeliet animalia edentes. Crudelitate exuperant omnes mortales, hominem occidere pro ludo est, nullique supplicio datur. Debitories pro seruis adiciuntur creditoribus, quidam cum mori malint quam seruire, arrepto gladio, obuios imbeciliores transfigunt, donec et a ualentiore obuio et ipsi occiduntur, quem postea creditores in ius uocantes cogunt pro mortuo satisfacere. Si quis nouum ensem emerit aut gladium, in corpus obuii experitur aciem ferri, neque ulli mors eius hominis noxae est. Transeuntes uulnus inspicient, laudantque percussoris peritiam in feriendo, si recte gladium alegit.
|His work was an influence on fifteenth-century European cartography, as the 1457 Genoese map shows. Unfortunately de' Conti confused the names of several places; 'Taprobane' tended to refer to Sri Lanka in the classical sources, but de' Conti uses it to refer to the island we now call Sumatra, and Sciamutera was used to refer specifically to Samudera-Pasai on the northern end of the island.|
In the French parallel text edition I bought this passage is translated like this:
Leurs habitants sont les hommes les plus inhumains et les plus cruels qui soient; ils mangent des souris, des chiens, des chats, et tout animal plus immonde encore, quel qu'il soit. Ils surpassent en cruauté tous les mortels: ils tuent un homme par jeu et n'en reçoivent aucun châtiment. Les créanciers ajoutent leus débiteurs au nombre de leurs esclaves, et comme certains d'entre aux préfèrent la mort à l'esclavage, ils saisissent un glaive et en transpercent les personnes plus faibles qu'ils rencontrent sur leir chemin jusqu'à ce qu'ils soient aux-mêmes tués par un homme plus robuste qui se trouve sur leur passage; le meutrier est ensuite convoqué en justice par les créanciers, qui l'obligent à leur donner satisfaction à la place du mort. Si quelqu'un achète une nouvelle épée ou un nouveau glaive, il teste la pointe du fer dans le corps du premier venu qu'il reconcontre sur son passage, sans que la mort de cet homme lui cause aucun préjudice. Les passants examinent la blessure et louent l'habileté de celui qui a porté le coup, dans le cas où il enfoncé le glaive en droite ligne.If Latin and French are foreign to you, and to be honest that's neither unexpected nor shameful in an English-speaking audience (I don't know Latin well, hence the French), here's Alfred Russel Wallace to paraphrase it for you in the final chapter of The Malay Archipelago:
The old traveller, Nicolo Conti [sic], writing in 1430 [sic], says: "The inhabitants of Java and Sumatra exceed every other people in cruelty. They regard killing a man as a mere jest; nor is any punishment allotted for such a deed. If any one purchases a new sword, and wish to try it, he will thrust it into the breast of the first person he meets. The passers-by examine the wound, and praise the skill of the person who inflicted it, if he thrust in the weapon direct."This is in the context of Wallace's assessment of the personality of the 'Malay race'. Wallace believed Malays to be naturally very polite and quiet but to hide within themselves a dark streak of brutality and violence, and de Conti's appraisal is used as evidence in the argument. It's a pity that he leaves out the part about eating rats, dogs, cats, and other 'unclean' animals, which presumably wasn't the case in the nineteenth century when Wallace was writing and was less relevant to his case.
Of course de' Conti brought his own prejudices to writing about Malay life, but he spent a year in Sumatra and presumably observed cruel cases of that sort. Based on other information about the Malay world overall, I can't say testing a new blade on a slave is out of the question; it actually sounds quite plausible. Running amok is a tradition known to have existed in several parts of the Malay world, and it's possible de' Conti observed it but never had it fully explained to him, and so was at a loss to explain how someone could kill other people without suffering any penalty. Obviously he wasn't writing for an audience concerned with neutral ethnographic observation, but this notion of arbitrary cruelty and violence wasn't a traditional view of coastal Malays or anything like that, so it probably comes from something he witnessed.
Contra Wallace, I'm not sure if it says anything at all about the innate characteristics of Malay men, given that both Indonesia and Malaysia have very low homicide rates (Indonesia, a developing country, has a murder rate more in line with Britain, at 1 murder per 100,000 citizens, than the USA, where there are 5 murders per 100,000 citizens).
De' Conti was probably living in Samudra-Pasai; in Bracciolini's Latin it's written as Sciamutera. This was, as de' Conti noted, the most famous trading centre ('nobilissimum... emporium') on the island, and it served as an important precursor to the slightly later power of Melaka on the Malay Peninsula, although obviously de' Conti wasn't to know that.
|The opening page of the Hikayat Raja-Raja Pasai, the oldest historical work in Malay dealing with the kings of Samudra-Pasai. It's in the Jawi script, naturally, and this manuscript is in the British Library. The entire book has been digitised by the library, alongside a large number of other Malay manuscripts.|
More from de' Conti next time.