Tuesday, May 30, 2006

"Even small children were adequate to the task. . ."

A widespread Malay custom that persisted well into the late nineteenth century was the tradition of tribute to a macan bumi, the “village tiger.” People took turns leaving meals of goats or chickens at a sort of shrine on the village outskirts, and the offerings were regarded as a kind of tax the tiger levied. European colonial administrators were at once baffled and disturbed by the macan bumi custom. They regarded it as a dangerously foolish superstition that also inhibited the march of progress and the clearing of ferocious and noxious beasts from the jungles. But Sir George Maxwell, writing around 1900, reported that in some Malay villages, even small children were adequate to the task of driving off a tiger that strayed suspiciously close to a herd of cattle.

In the book that resulted from his expansive, ten-year investigation of the place tigers occupied in the Malay consciousness, Frontiers of Fear: Tigers and People in the Malay World, 1600–1950, Peter Boomgaard suggests that there was a lot more to the macan bumi tribute than mere backwoods mumbo-jumbo. A tiger habituated into the role of a macan bumi was far less likely to carry off villagers or cattle. A village tiger was also understood to drive out other, unfamiliar tigers, especially saucy young males looking to establish their own home territories. That was the village tiger’s part of the bargain, and should a tiger fail in its duties, and a new tiger showed up at a village, the local dignitaries would beseech the new animal to go away. A commentary on just such an event, observed on Sumatra, comes from no less a personage than Sophia Raffles, Sir Stamford Raffles’s second wife: “When a tiger enters a village, the foolish people frequently prepare rice and fruits, and placing them at the entrance as an offering to the animal, conceive that, by giving him this hospitable reception, he will be pleased with their attention, and pass on without doing them harm.” She does not report whether the villagers’ entreaties had any effect.

That's from here.

2 Comments:

Blogger SnoopyTheGoon said...

I don't know, one can guess that during the times described the hunting was much easier for a tiger, so what has driven them to the villages was mostly curiosity. Of a benign kind, that is.

No matter what, the fate of this magnificent beast is for some reason especially disturbing for me.

2:13 PM  
Blogger tglavin said...

Hi there Snoop!

". . .the fate of this magnificent beast is for some reason especially disturbing for me."

Me too. And the fate of those magnificent people as well.

The odd thing is that tigers were relatively rare in the pre-colonial period, and it was only when the jungles and forests were opened up to pastureland, with all those daft and easy-to-kill cattle and goats and so on, and more room for boar and deer, that tiger abundances took off. And people started to get eaten a lot: In Lampung district, Sumatra, in 1820, 675 people were reported to have been killed by tigers. Bloody unreal.

So the people started slaughtering tigers. Of necessity, sadly.

Atill, the thing is the people didn't wantonly and callously extirpate the Malay tiger. That's just not the sort of thing that ordinary people do, as a rule. Even with carnivorous predators.

It's one of the reasons I like ordinary people every bit as much as I like tigers.

9:50 PM  

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