National Geographic : 1945 Jan
The National Geographic Magazine The Karaeng had a copious knowledge of local customs and history, and was renowned as the best storyteller in the district. We had a talk nearly every day. On the way to his house along Bira's "Main Street" were many reminders that his people's livelihood came from the sea, for there is hardly a house in Bira that some old ship has not helped to build. Arches are formed of curved ships' timbers, of stems and sternposts, and planks bored through by marine worms still make good walls. Though some of the houses were strongly constructed, others looked very frail; yet when there was a series of earthquakes for several weeks, the wooden houses of Bira swayed and survived, whereas in Bonthain and Boe loekoemba, where the quakes were no more severe, several brick and stone houses col lapsed or were damaged beyond repair. World Mapped on a Coconut The Karaeng was keenly interested in geog raphy. As he had only a hazy knowledge of the world, but for the Malay Archipelago and the pilgrimage route to Mecca, I made a globe for him by scratching the outlines of con tinents, countries, and islands on the smooth green skin of a coconut. I ordered a collap sible rubber globe, and when, after many months, it came, he laughingly compared it with the coconut to check up on my geography. When the Karaeng was a boy, toward the end of the nineteenth century, education in Bira consisted mainly of religious instruc tion and the learning of local history, of long epic tales that are still chanted by the older men. But the men and women who have grown up in more recent years have had the chance to get more modern and more useful education. Some of the younger generation have gone to high school in Makassar. One man, whose father was formerly Kara eng of Bira, was keen on writing and used to talk. with me about Shakespeare and Ber nard Shaw. Abbreviated versions of their works he had read in Malay translations. In return for what I told the Karaeng about the different lands and peoples of the world, he gave me much information about his own people and country, with scores of local tales. One of these stories explained the origin of the-name "Celebes." There are several explanations of the name. Some make "Celebes" plural and put the ac cent on the first "e." But locally it is con sidered singular and is pronounced "Celebes." The origin of the name as told to me by the Karaeng accords with this local pro nunciation. "When the Portuguese first came to Makas sar," he said, "they went ashore and were met by some of the Raja's men. The Portu guese asked them the name of the country. But though the white men spoke Malay, which they had learned in Malacca, the Ma kassar people couldn't understand them very well. "They had seen the white men's eyes fixed intently on their krises-they were probably on their guard against a sudden attack-and, thinking they had asked the name of the weapons, answered 'Sele besi' (iron kris). The Portuguese dropped the 'i' and called the island 'Celebes.' " The Ships Come Home When the rainy season of the west mon soon was approaching, scores of women and children, with a few old men, climbed the hills every day to watch for the ships that had set out at the beginning of their sailing season eight months before. Some used to wait in front of the guesthouse, and one morn ing they called to me: "The ships, the ships, Tuan! The ships are coming home!" Rounding the sheer cliffs of Cape Lassa (Tandjoeng Lassa) came two white ships, their rigging gaily dressed with flags. As they sailed to the anchorage, we heard a boom of gongs and drums the crews were beating to celebrate their home-coming. Some of the women recognized their men's ships and hur ried down to the beach to welcome them. During the next month 118 ships returned, some of them sailing alone, others in groups. One of the praus was wrecked near Boetoeng. It is a fortunate year for the people of Bira when all their ships return safely. Though few of the high-sterned Celebes praus are lost in the open sea, each year some of them are driven on the coral reefs that abound in the Malay Archipelago. In their eight or nine months' voyaging each year the Bira praus sail east as far as the Moluccas and New Guinea, and west to Java, Sumatra, and Borneo. The immense sail area of the palaris is designed to make full use of the monsoon winds. The sailing season, therefore, begins shortly before the end of the west monsoon, usually in March, when the ships sail from Bira with a following wind that takes them to the Moluccas and New Guinea. Here, dur ing the change of the monsoon, the sailors cut bark for use in tanning. With their holds loaded with bark the ships then sail for Java, about 1,500 miles to the west, taking advantage of a favorable wind.