Today we set our sails for adventure, danger, and exotic climes with Captain Sherard Osborn of the Royal Navy. He had been sent out to blockade Quedah/Kedah, Malaysia in 1838-39, taking command, astonishingly, when he was only sixteen years old—barely a midshipman. Perhaps with the arrogance of youth and speaking as a representative of the Empire, Osborn has some harsh, Imperialistic things to say about the Chinese, but he also is fascinated by local culture and characters and paints vivid pictures of the capture of an alligator, sea-battles with pirates, and the “Jerhore charm” for “killing the wind.” Captain Osborn seems to take some of the supernatural anecdotes he tells with a grain of sea-salt, but he was nonplussed by the following incident:
Towards sunset, the sampan returned down the river with only half a load of shellfish, Jamboo [Osborn’s translator] and his crew having been frightened off the fishing-ground by what Sutoo, the quartermaster, assured me was an Untoo, or evil spirit. [hantu] He explained to me, that while busy up to their knees in water, an odd noise had been heard under the overhanging trees on the opposite bank: looking in that direction, they saw a man’s head come up out of the water; the face was covered with hair, and it eyed them in a fierce, threatening manner; they shouted, jumped into the sampan, and fired at the creature; it dived for a minute, and then appeared again, grinning horribly. Jamboo and his men decided that it was a demon, and thought it better to decamp whilst their skins were whole. I laughed heartily at their fears, and tried to explain to them that it might be a seal. Jamboo, however, stoutly insisted that no seals were ever seen in Malayia; and as I found myself in the minority, I quietly acquiesced in the supposition that it was an unclean spirit. Jadee said, if not the Old Gentleman, that it must be one of the wild men who could imitate the appearance of monkeys or apes, the cry of birds, or the howlings of wild beasts, so as even to deceive animals.
These wild men are the sad remnants of an aboriginal race of diminutive negroes, who, at one time, were more numerous, but are now only found in small isolated parties, in the most inaccessible fastnesses of Malayia, living amongst the branches of trees, to avoid the snakes and beasts of prey… When found or caught by the Malays, they are tied up or caged just as we should treat chimpanzees.
I argued that it was very unlikely such creatures should be down so close to the sea, and, least of all, would they voluntarily show themselves to our men. Jadee, however, suggested that the movements of large bodies of armed men had disturbed them in their haunts; besides, that at one season of the year they were known to wander towards the sea-shore, either for the sake of procuring salt, or because shellfish were easily obtainable. Under these circumstances, I was not sorry Jamboo had returned; for these wild men use the sumpit, or blow-pipe, with fearful skill, and blow small poisoned arrows, a few inches long, with sufficient force to destroy even birds upon the wing.
Sailors of every part of the world have a strong spice of the romantic and superstitious in their composition, and the Malays are decidedly no exception to the rule. Indeed, the wild and enterprising life the majority of them lead, and the many curious phenomena peculiar to the seas and islands of their beautiful archipelago, could never be accounted for by an uneducated but observant and highly imaginative race, by any other than supernatural agency. Often, during the evenings of the blockade, had Jamboo recounted to me strange tales of Malayian history: in all of them fiction and myth were deliciously blended with truth, and facts could be easily appealed to in corroboration of all he recounted. The natural and supernatural, the miracles of the Romish Church, Hindoo mythology, and Mahometan fables, were rolled one into the other, making tales of thrilling interest, which I cared not to unravel even had I been able to do so.
There were proofs by the thousand amongst these poor fellows of that connection with the world of spirits which it seems to be the desire of man in every stage of civilisation to assure himself of; and I must say, I half began to believe in their assertions upon that head; their faith was so earnest and childlike, that it worked strongly upon even my own tutored convictions to the contrary. Children never clustered round a winter fire at home with more intense credulity and anxious sympathy, than did my poor Malays to listen to some woeful legend, derived from the blood-stained annals of the Portuguese or Dutch rule in Malayia and its islands. As an instance of their childlike belief in spirits, and of the strange way in which such an idea is supported by optical delusions common to these latitudes, I may here recount an event which no more than amused me at the time, although the strange way in which Jamboo and his men swore to having this day seen an “Untoo” brought it back forcibly to my mind.
Just after the blockade commenced, in December of the previous year, my gunboat was lying one night close to the southern point of Quedah [Kedah] river. The mist fell for a while like small rain upon us, but afterwards, at about ten o’clock, changed into fine weather, with heavy murky clouds overhead, through the intervals of which we had momentary gleams of light from a young moon. The air was cold and damp, and I naturally sought shelter under my tent-shaped mat, although until midnight I considered myself responsible for a vigilant lookout being kept. About eleven o’clock my attention was called to the lookout-man, who, seated upon the bow-gun, was spitting violently, and uttering some expressions as if in reproof or defiance, and continued to do so very frequently. Ignorant at that time of the character of my crew, such a peculiar proceeding made me restless. Presently I saw another man go up to him; he pointed in the direction of the jungle, and both repeated the conduct which had attracted my attention: the second man then walked below, as if glad to get off deck. Fairly puzzled, I walked forward. The lookout-man had got his back turned to the jungle, but was every now and then casting glances over his shoulder in a very furtive manner, and muttering sentences in which Allah was invoked very earnestly. He seemed glad to see me, and jumped up to salute me.
“Anything new?” I asked. “Prahus?”
“Teda, Touhan; No, sir!” was the answer; and then seeing me looking towards the jungle, he made signs with his head that it was better to look elsewhere.
I immediately called Jamboo, the interpreter, and desired him to ask what the Malay saw in the jungle.
Jamboo, as usual, sat down, black-fellow fashion, on his hams, and, half asleep, drawled out my question, and then coolly said—
“He says he saw a spirit, sir.”
“Nonsense!” I replied. “Ask him how? or where? It may be some Malay scouts.”
Again Jamboo made an effort, and the oracle informed me, that the man had distinctly seen an Untoo, or spirit, moving about among the trees close to the water’s edge: he assured me he had seen it ever since the mist cleared off, and that he had been praying and expectorating, to prevent it approaching the gunboat, as it was a very bad sort of spirit, very dangerous, and robed in a long dress.
I expostulated with Jamboo for repeating such a nonsensical tale, and said, “Explain to the man it is impossible; and that, if anything, it must be an animal, or a man.”
Jamboo, however, assured me, very earnestly, that Malays often saw “Untoos;” that some of them were dangerous, some harmless; and that if I looked, the Malay said, I could see it as well as himself.
I accordingly sat down by the man, and looked intently in the same direction. We were about one hundred and fifty yards off the jungle; the water was just up to its edge; among the roots of trees, and for a few yards in, there were small ridges of white shingle and broken shells, which receded into darkness, or shone out in distinct relief as the moonlight struck upon them.
When these patches of white shone out, I pointed immediately, and asked if that was what he saw.
“No, no!” said the Malay; and Jamboo added, “He says he will tell you when he sees it.”
Suddenly he touched me, and, pointing earnestly, exclaimed, “Look! look!”
I did so, and an odd tremor, I am not ashamed to say, ran through my frame, as I caught sight of what looked like the figure of a female with drapery thrown around her, as worn by Hindoo women: it moved out from the shade of the forest, and halted at one of the hillocks of white sand, not more than 300 yards distant. I rubbed my eyes; whilst the interpreter called on a Romish saint, and the Malay spat vigorously, as if an unclean animal had crossed his path. Again I looked, and again I saw the same form: it had passed a dark patch, and was slowly crossing another opening in the forest.
Feeling the folly of yielding to the impression of reality which the illusion was certainly creating on my mind, I walked away, and kept the Malay employed in different ways until midnight: he, however, every now and then spat vehemently, and cursed all evil spirits with true Mahometan fervour.
In the middle watch the Untoo was again seen, but as it did not board us—as Jadee assured me Untoos of a wicked description had been known to do—I conjectured it was some good fairy, and at any rate we were not again troubled with an Untoo until it appeared to the fishing-party in the Setouè [Setiu] river.
These spectral illusions are not peculiar to the jungles of Malayia; there is no part of the world where they do not exist in some form or other; and I, for my part, am not desirous of robbing them of their mystery: there is a poetry, a romance, about them which invests with awe or interest some wild spot or lonely scene that otherwise would be unheeded.
The phantom-ship which will not furl her royals to the storms of the Cape of Good Hope, [The Flying Dutchman] and astonishes the tempest-tossed seaman as she glimmers amidst the clouds, sea, and mist of the great Southern Ocean, is too charming a spirit for us to be easily robbed of; nay, where is the sailor who has long sailed in those seas, and not seen her? The spirit of the old pirate is still observed, in stormy nights when the sea-bird cannot even keep the sea, to row his tiny skiff through the combing waves, visiting his hidden treasures in Nantucket Bay. Among the sun-burnt reefs and on the lonely mangrove-covered isles of the West Indies and Gulf of Mexico, the restless bodies of the buccaneers of old are still seen to haunt the scenes of their former crimes. The broken-spirited Peruvian and the degenerate Spaniard attest that on the lofty table-lands of the Bolivian Andes, east of Lake Titicaca, the phantom forms of her departed kings still march by night, and watch over the vast treasures that they there concealed from the avarice of their conquerors. These are a few of the many examples which might be adduced of a general belief in the supernatural, of a belief in the connection between this gross earth and the world of spirits, whether bad or blessed. I care not to explain them away; for there is far more pleasure than fear in the very possibility that such things may be.
Quedah: A Cruise in Japanese Waters, Sherard Osborn, 1865: pp 188-195
I have to say that that is a rather astounding statement from an officer in the Royal Navy. Osborn was an intrepid sort: he took part in the Opium Wars and the Crimean War, and went on an extraordinary Arctic expedition, telling of his adventures in Stray Leaves from an Arctic Journal. Still, I find it remarkable that a Victorian military man would voice such a open-minded position on ghosts in print.
The ghostlore of Malaysia is full of dangerous female spirits. It is possible that the “Untoo” the Captain saw is a variant of the pocong or hantu bungkus: a ghost wrapped in a white burial shroud. The top of the shroud needs to be untied just before burial. If not, the spirit will wander restlessly, hopping, since they are tied at the feet. This is based on an assumption that the standard local ghosts have not changed that much since the 1830s.
Yet, I have to wonder why the witnesses automatically assumed it was a spirit? Again, this is based on assumptions that the traditional Malay costume remained relatively constant in the 19th century. Some Malay women wore veils; I can’t say what other ethnic groups in the area might have worn. And would they have been flitting around the jungle at night? My fanciful mind conjures up an outcast or elderly witch coming out to forage in the darkness.
Perhaps the watchmen thought that the creature in the long dress was a spirit because no one was supposed to be living there. I’m not familiar with the area (and the 19th-century English transliteration doesn’t help) so naturally I turned to Wikipedia for more details. Osborn is speaking of Kedah which consists of “the mainland and Langkawi…an archipelago of islands, most of which are uninhabited.” Were they actually believed to be uninhabited in the 1830s?
Even more striking than Osborn’s statement about ghost sightings is the fact that, while he admits he saw something he obviously doesn’t know what to do with that information, talking of “folly” and “illusion.” No doubt wishing to avoid panic he doesn’t mind providing somewhat lame rationalizations, steering the fearful Malays to the notion of “good fairies” and “seals.” How much he convinced himself, we can only conjecture.
Chris Woodyard is the author of The Victorian Book of the Dead, The Ghost Wore Black, The Headless Horror, The Face in the Window, and the 7-volume Haunted Ohio series. She is also the chronicler of the adventures of that amiable murderess Mrs Daffodil in A Spot of Bother: Four Macabre Tales. The books are available in paperback and for Kindle. Indexes and fact sheets for all of these books may be found by searching hauntedohiobooks.com. Join her on FB at Haunted Ohio by Chris Woodyard or The Victorian Book of the Dead.