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Journal of a Seaplane Cruise Around The World
Part Three: Asia

Friday, November 23

Bangkok - Panang Visit with the Mergui Sea Gypsies. We breathed much easier when the Mergui Archipelago came beneath, and decided to fly out into it to spot if possible any of the Solones or Mawkens of which we had thought so often since being told of them by Lieut. Streatfeild-James in Bombay. They are the most typical of the groups of sea-gypsies, because they live entirely in their boats and maintain no permanent shore dwellings. James said that once, when on a surveying trip in H.M.I.S. Investigator near Hastings Harbor, he had gone ashore to their resting place and after they recovered from their fright and returned from the woods, had along visit with the group. He used a victrola and some clothing as bait. They appreciated the music of a symphony, but broke out in roars of laughter during an American jazz piece. One man watched the turning of the disc until he had mastered the complexities of the spiral, then explained it to the others in sand drawings. A woman tried to use a pair of drawers as a shirt. The biscuits were devoured from a box, and the box (tin) became the object of a bitter contest. James said also that they go ashore once or twice a year to recondition the boats, which are built from dugout logs; into their sides are pinned upright poles, and to these are lashed horizontal bamboo strips; -- so that the whole is practically watertight. Bamboo decking is provided, and a house is built atop all. The sump contains the provisions, fish, and, he said, excreta, since they are afraid to death of shark. The matting and sides need replacing, but the log survives many seasons. They anchor close in at night, and when a child is expected, may throw up a rude shelter for a week or so. They are extremely timid and not warlike, as are the Nicobarians and Andamanians. In fact, the district officer at Victoria Point, who had done favors to one of the tribes, was presented by the chief with his 13 year old daughter, the greatest gift of all and it was only with great tact that he was able to refuse the gift.

The islands are abrupt ridges rising steeply out of the ocean; we could see only a few relatively, for they extend for 300 miles from Mergui to Victoria Point. They are not closely bunched, but are often separated by 20-40 miles of blue water. Some are 30 miles long, others so small that they look like umbrellas perched on a wave. Nearly all have good beaches on some exposure, and once or twice we saw a beach without an island! The island behind Hastings Harbor (St. Matthew) rises to nearly 4000 feet. The entire group is covered in heavy jungle, and the dark green of the trees, the white beaches, and the blue water make a paradise for seaplane fliers to cruise about in. We dropped lower, keeping only enough altitude to clear the island ridges, and crossed two or three. "Pulo Lampi" (unhappily called by its English name, "Sullivan Island") appeared as a beautiful sickle-shaped island of some size. We crossed to the western or inner side and dropped below a thousand feet, in order to scan the shores. Suddenly I saw some boats hidden in a small Inlet -- there seemed to be six of them, and they were covered over as James had described the Mawken boats. Bob pushed through a short msg. to VTV (Victoria Point, 80 m. south of us) that we were landing for an hour, and as he pulled up the antenna, we dropped down to the water's surface. I taxied back toward the inlet -- the island was very high and distances much greater than appeared -- and we anchored off shore. A few people appeared, and we waved for them to come out. To our joy, a boat was brought through the breakers, propelled by a man in the stern who stood up and rowed forward. It was shallow, and shipped a good deal of water coming across the small bar at the entrance to the creek. There were three men aboard, one of then wearing belted trousers and a gym shirt! We were dismayed at finding such civilization, but in fact were more fortunate than we knew. The gentleman with the shirt spoke a language not unlike French (Malaya) and understood our signs to go ashore, so we locked up Asulinak to prevent anyone from gathering a harvest while we were away, and sat down gingerly in the rocking boat, cameras held high out of the wet. The boats we had seen were not visible until we stood on the sandy beach; then we knew they were none other than the Mawken craft we were hunting. Our guide was a friendly person, and was intent on taking us to his home farther upstream, but we asked who were these people, and he said: "Salones" -- "me, Malaya". So we were in a double camp!

The boats were dugouts and were made larger by a split bamboo superstructure which did seem virtually waterproof; and needed to be, for the log gunwale was practically at the water line. A decking extended across nearly the entire length of the boat, and was littered with dishes, poles, matting sails, oars, clothing (not much) and fish. Each boat had a baked mud fireplace; simply a base in which a wood fire smoldered. The deck was not quite solid, for now and then a small dog would bounce out to bark at us, and dive again from sight and the danger of his master's foot. I heard a chicken crowing, this bird was produced by the simple maneuver of reaching through a hole in the floor and groping for the string which was tied to its foot, and dragging her forth. The people were timid, but did not run away; -- largely because of the reassuring presence of "Mustapha", our guide. There were men, women and children in the same boat, about 30 people in all in 7 or a craft. They seemed to be doing nothing much, and the boats were definitely out of commission until the tide returned, and were propped up to prevent tipping. There were no shore houses, and their existence was certainly centered in the boats, which were easily changed about. Using woven mats, they could erect a shelter over poles, or hang them from masts as sails. Each boat had oars and an anchor or two, the latter formed of a stone wrapped about with a line, and tied to a hooked stick. The lines were of rattan. Water was carried in large jugs, two to each boat, holding about 20 gallons each . . . Most interesting of all were the people, who were of our own size and quite black; easily amused, and moderately agreeable; foreheads slightly sloping, black hair coarse and matted, worn long by most of the men. Dress for both sexes consisted of a skirt gathered between the knees; except that the women's sometimes hung free. James reported them all to be naked, but these were not. Among some we saw later the men wore no clothes, but perhaps because they had just been fishing and diving. There was a young girl of perhaps 15, who appeared to be married to a man who occupied the boat with her; all the other boats had children.

We soon decided that Mustapha looked upon us as members of a big tin mining corporation, and he took us into his house and brought out the contract between himself and the Burma Tin Company which showed that he was the worker of the mine which lay a mile or two back from the sea, and that he would receive 75% of the proceeds from the tin which he secured. He gave us a large nugget of almost pure tin but refused to take us up to the mine, which he probably guards with jealousy. We have learned since that the Mawken people also engage sporadically in mining, going into the hills to scratch out enough tin to effect trade with Chinese junks which bring rice and cloth. The islands are apparently loaded with the ore . . . Mustaphs, rowed us out to the ship and we took off, circling the little inlet several times for pictures. At the southern end of Pulo Lampi we came upon a large group of sea gypsies, with 50 or 75 boats drawn up on shore. No stop was made here but a few miles farther we found another group of perhaps a half-dozen boats on the western side of James Island, the occupants being engaged in fishing and diving. Of course, as soon as the plane appeared, they rushed for the shore and disappeared into the woods so that by the time we had landed and taxied up, there was no one to be seen. The shore was so rocky as to make it unsafe to come close and we waited an hour in vain for the reappearance of the natives, who were watching secretly from their jungle hiding place.

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