Tuesday, 3 November 2015

Niccolò de' Conti on Malays

      Niccolò de' Conti was a fifteenth-century Italian traveller who visited parts of what is now Indonesia, including, apparently, Badan, probably meaning 'Banda', the small archipelago in eastern Indonesia where nutmeg and cloves grow. He would have visited the area in the 1420s, and I suppose that would make him the first European to visit that part of the archipelago if the account is true. De' Conti travelled in the guise of a Muslim trader in order to avoid trouble, which was a technique used by some later travellers (including Richard Burton).

     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.
       Pasai also acted as a conduit for the transmission of Islamic philosophy into the Malay world, and it is notable that Aceh - which bordered Pasai and which succeeded Melaka as the chief Muslim power in northwestern Indo-Malaysia after the latter's capture by the Portuguese in 1511 - is a much more conservative Muslim region than any other part of Indonesia or Malaysia today, perhaps due to the tradition of attempting to follow Muslim orthodoxy in the Arab world more closely than elsewhere in the archipelago.

More from de' Conti next time.


  1. I find this description reminiscent of some European accounts of payback-based systems of justice -- do you think it might reflect an encounter with such a group? I'm reminded of early Australian accounts of Aboriginal justice, which couldn't comprehend violence not meted out by the state as anything other than disorder; the focus on "well-performed violence" ("they praise the skill of the person who inflicted it...") is also reminiscent to me of payback systems, or for that matter the self-perception of executioners in Western justice systems ("it was a good clean drop" etc). I think the Batak may have been a payback culture at this point -- is it possible the account reflects that?

  2. In fact de' Conti mentions Batak people explicitly, although it isn't in this context. Bracciolini writes:
    In eius insulae quam dicunt Batech [Batak] parte, antropofagi habitant, continuum cum uicinis bellum gerentes. Capita humana in thesauris habent, quae ex hostibus captis abscisa, esis carnibus, recondunt, iisque utuntur pro nummis, si quid emunt, uno aut pluribus, prout res extimatur: cui plura capita domi sunt, ditior habetus.

    In other words, Batak people continually fight their neighbours and when they capture them they chop off their heads and eat their flesh. Whoever has the most heads is considered the richest, because they hold human heads to be a kind of treasure.

    That's totally consistent with tit-for-tat warfare, which as far as I know is quite well-attested anyway for upland Sumatera even into fairly recent times. I would say that you're probably right about Batak tit-for-tat violence, although we should bear in mind that 'Batak' is a broad term encompassing a number of different groups of people (and it was probably the same in de' Conti's day).

    However, I get the impression that de' Conti is describing city life in Pasai (assuming he's even talking about Sumatra - see below). Casual violence of very similar sorts is attested well into the nineteenth century in even large settlements in Indonesia, and while Samudra-Pasai was a state with laws and Islamic traditions, it was also a Malay place with beliefs about belian hantu and possession, etc. I expect we're dealing with something more along those lines - some kind of amok or similar. It's also quite clear in the Latin (not Wallace's paraphrase) that this violence was often arranged and practiced deliberately in what sounds like a state setting - by creditors against the slaves of debtors, for example.

    It is ambiguous, though, and it isn't helped by de' Conti's peculiar grasp of classical and Arabic geography. In parts, he's clearly referring to Sumatra but calls it 'Taprobane', the classical name for Sri Lanka (cf. Pliny); this is where he says the Batech people live, who eat human flesh and take heads (lines 123 to 147 of book IV of Bracciolini), all of which leads us to identify de' Conti's Taprobane with Sumatra.

    Later on, starting on line 276, we read that there are in 'interior' India two islands known as Java ('ambae Jaua nomine'), one small, one large. In the historical geography of Indonesia 'little Java' almost always refers to Sumatra and 'big Java' almost always refers to Java, and in the context that makes sense. It's the inhabitants of these two islands to which de' Conti is referring when he says that they're cruel and merciless.

    But that's a little confusing because de' Conti never explicitly identifies little Java with Taprobane/Sumatra, and it has been suggested that he mixed up some Arabic terms for the archipelago with Latin ones and created a big jumble of poorly-understood geography that Bracciolini couldn't disentangle. It's possible that de' Conti is actually referring to Borneo, not Sumatra, when talking about cruelty. He's certainly talking about Java - that's partially confirmed by his assessment of the size of the island, concording with what Marco Polo says about it. But he might not actually be talking about Sumatra, in which case we can't clearly identify the cruel folk with Bataks.

  3. Thanks for the very comprehensive reply! I'm finding these translations fascinating.

    1. Glad you're enjoying them! I'm trying to intersperse them with other interesting things, but they're my main interest at the moment, I have to say.


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