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100 Years Ago: February 1919

This is the forty-ninth installment of my series of reviews of one-hundred-year-old National Geographic Magazines.

The first article of this issue is entitled “The North Sea Mine Barrage” and was written by Capt. Reginald R. Belknap, U. S. N., the officer in direct command of the American Navy’s mine-laying operation. The article contains “25 Illustrations” of which twenty-two are black-and-white photographs of which four are full-page. The other three illustrations are two sketch maps and a sketch diagram. This article is an address Capt. Belknap delivered before the National Geographic Society in Washington D. C., on February 7, 1919.

The problem Britain faced during the war in trapping German submarines was formidable. Any mines laid off the Germany coast were easily dealt with by German mine-sweepers. Any barrier the British Navy could lay could be breached at will by Germany. To reign in the German submarine threat a new approach was needed.

As soon as America entered the war a flood of inventions poured into Washington. One of those inventions, although not suited for its original purpose, was adapted for use in a submarine mine. The Naval Bureau of Ordinance felt confident that here was what they were looking for. It was not long before the British naval authorities came to think so too. A joint operation was planned and undertaken by the mining squadrons of the two navies.

The plan was to plant a mine field across the North Sea, from Scotland to Norway, a distance of 230 miles. It was a bold scheme, but it was the only way to make an effective barrier that could be maintained against the Germans breaking through,

Map courtesy of Philip Riviere

With the need for quick implementation, the endeavor proved to be expensive. If mines of previous types were used their number would have been prohibitive to manufacture and provide with explosives within two years, not to mention the task of planting. The American mine would do more than twice what the others could, and by joining forces with the British would more than double the means available.

Built by over 500 contractors and subcontractors the parts, large and small, were built in various locations and assembled in others before being shipped to Norfolk, Va., for shipment to Scotland. In Scotland the mines were completed and adjusted, ready to plant. Each mine case contains 300 pounds of TNT. When assembled, the mine case is mounted on an anchor. The combination stands about five feet high and weighs 1,400 pounds. The anchor has four small wheels, like car wheels, to run on steel tracks, thus the mines can be easily moved along the decks to the launching point.

When the mine goes overboard, the mine case floats while the box-like anchor slowly sinks. Inside the anchor the mooring wire is wound on a reel, which unwinds as the anchor goes down. The reel is unlatched by the downward pull of a plummet at the end of a cord, which is made the same length as the desired depth of the mine below the surface. Thus, if the mine is to be 15 feet beneath the surface, the plummet cord is 15 feet long. The plummet is solid and heavy, about 90 pounds, therefore it tends to sink faster than the more bulky anchor, thus keeping the cord taut. As soon as the plummet strikes bottom, its cord is at once slackened, releasing the latch, locking the reel, and preventing any more mooring wire from playing out. The anchor continues to sink, pulling the mine case under water until the anchor strikes bottom. The mine case is thus finally moored always at the desired depth beneath the surface, no matter how irregular the ocean be may be.

To receive the mines and supplies that began to collect, a large steamship pier was taken over at Norfolk, to serve as storage as well as a loading point. Nearby a plant was constructed for charging the mine spheres with explosive. Great steam kettles were used to melt the TNT, which was poured into the spheres. Then these would move along a conveyor, slowly, so by the time the sphere reached the end it was cool enough either to load into a waiting ship or to put away in store.

Workers were in constant danger of poisonous fumes from the molten explosive. Several were overcome by fumes and one man died. Transportation also had its problems and dangers. This endeavor required 60,000 tons of shipping involving 24 steamers, with two or three departures every eight days. Only one of these ships, the Lake Moor, with 41 of her crew, was sunk by submarine. It was the greatest, and almost only, loss of life.

Meantime the British were preparing depots for us in Scotland. The mines were unloaded on the west side of Scotland and then shipped by canal or by rail to Inverness and to Invergordon, harbors about eight miles apart on the east side of Scotland. A single depot would be preferable but the limited canal and rail transportation capacity dictated there being two. When finished, these bases could together prepare 1,000 mines a day.

There were two ships in the American mine squadron to begin with – the San Francisco under Capt. Henry V. Butler, and the Baltimore under Capt. Albert W. Marshall. They and the gunboat Dubuque, a vessel much too small for North Sea operations, constituted the original mine squadron. The Baltimore arrived in Scotland in March 1918 and was immediately put to work helping the British to lay mines in the North Irish Channel. She was able to lay the whole field of British mines without any assistance.

To enlarge the squadron to its needed size, eight merchant ships were taken over and modified to make them suitable for laying mines. Deck rails were installed and elevators built to allow additional mines to be carried below deck. The Otis Elevator Company built the elevators which had only one failure during the entire operation. With this squadron of ten mine layers 5,700 mine could be laid on one trip.

Capt. Belknap then describes the missions in detail, highlighting the dangers of submarines and fire, but reporting that everything went smoothly. From June through October 1918 the American mine squadron sailed on thirteen excursions and laid 56,571 mines. In support of this effort, the British mine squadron sailed on eleven excursions and laid 13,546 British mines. Thus, the whole barrier was comprised of 70,117 mines stretching from Scotland to Norway.

With ocean traffic now free from the threat of German submarines, the war was now tilted heavily in favor of the allies. At least 23 submarines were lost by the Germans trying to get through the mine field. With America in the war, the prospects were grim for Germany, but with submarine warfare they could have prolonged the war for another year or two. As soon as the Germans realized their situation was hopeless, they sued for peace. The North Sea mine barrage was the final nail in the coffin.

The second article is entitled “Sarawak: The Land of the White Rajahs” and was written by Harrison W. Smith. Of the articles fifty-nine illustrations, fifty-eight are black-and-white photographs taken by the author. Nine of these photographs are full-page in size, and twelve photos contain nudity. The final illustration is a sketch map of Sarawak on the northwestern coast of Borneo.

Mr. Smith documents his journey through this British Protectorate and the many tribes he encountered. While Sarawak has much natural beauty and is protected better than any of our forests, the author was more eager to become acquainted with primitive and interesting people, still living the simple life of their ancestors in the primeval jungle, unspoiled by contact with the white man. The author was an honor guest in many homes along his journey.

The first tribe he encountered were the Sea Dayaks, or Ibans, to use the native name, who are the largest and most progressive tribe. The author visited two of their houses during the harvest festival. On the morning of the feast chickens are killed, rice is scattered about the house, and other ceremonies are performed to ward off evil spirits. The sacrifice of fowl plays an important part in many ceremonies. At one of the houses Mr. Smith witnessed a rather startling performance of the sacrifice of a fowl. The feast was served at noon, and in the evening the different members of the house invited their friend to supper in their own rooms.

Pigs are ritualistically slaughtered so their livers can be read for omens. During the morning the pigs are decorated with beads and charms, charged with messages to the gods, and urged to show, by the markings on the underside of the liver, what the future has in store. After the pigs are killed, their livers are examined by learned men. There are always enough pigs so that at least some of them have livers that give good omens. After this ritual, the feast is held. The meal comprised of slightly roasted pig and partly boiled chicken. These were eaten together with various jungle vegetables and the harvested rice, which is brown and nutty in flavor.

Cock fighting is the chief pastime of the afternoon, and on special occasions the birds are armed with knives, so the fights are usually soon over. After the cock fighting, rice wine begins to flow more freely, and boisterous merriment continues long into the night. In years gone by, the evenings entertainment might have ended with a “head dance”, inspiring some of the warriors to set forth in quest of new heads to decorate their homes. Under British rule, the head dance is now prohibited.

The author spent several days in a vain endeavor to obtain a photograph of the great ape, the orangutan, which is the Malay name meaning the “Man of the forest”. After several attempts to find one failed, the chief assured the author that he could do so. That attempt failed as well. The chief was so embarrassed that he insisted that Mr. Smith stay with him at his house. The Dayak live in long communal houses having a common gallery, or passageway along one side, with living rooms along the other. Each family occupies one room.

After the evening meal, supplemented by several delicious fruit, and after all other resources of hospitality had been exhausted, the chief decided to demonstrate the head dance as it used to be done. Two old women took one of the heads from a cluster hanging in the smoke over the fire. They place some boiled rice between the jaws, with a lighted cigarette in one corner and a quid of betel-nut in the other. By giving the spirit of the head food, a cigarette, and betel-nut to chew, it is propriated.

The head is then carried by the two women down the long veranda of the house, swinging it to and fro in a stiff awkward dance while singing a monotonous song, calling upon the spirit of the head to bring blessings on the house.

The next tribe Mr. Smith visited were the Land Dayaks. As their name implies, they live inland and more frequently build their houses away from the streams than is the habit with other tribes. In addition to the Malays, they are the natives of Sarawak proper – that is, the territory first ruled by Sir James Brooke – constituting the southerly division of the Raj of Sarawak.

In common with other tribes, their houses are long communal dwellings built on poles 8 or 9 feet from the ground. Unlike other tribes, the Land Dayak also build a square house on very high posts, considerably above the level of the “long house”. It is called the “head house” for this is where are kept the heads which they have taken from their enemies. The head house is a general meeting place and it is where unmarried men and boys as well as visitors sleep.

Many of the Land Dayak are finely developed physically, but the women deform their arms and legs with great coils of heavy brass wire. One evening in the head house, Mr. Smith asked a girl sitting next to him if the wire hurt. She had a bad sore on her arm from chaffing. She said it hurt very much, whereupon an old woman observed that the wire was nevertheless very beautiful and very much in fashion, thus telling the author to mind his own business.

Traveling was done by rivers and jungle paths. Fortunately, the author was accompanied by two of the Residents on the occasion of their official visit, thus enjoying the opportunity of seeing the people at their best. Mr. Smith carried a phonograph for the purpose of recording native songs. It was the source of great amusement. Many natives who had traveled to the government stations had heard the ordinary records, but none had ever heard their own language.

It was at times difficult to persuade anyone to sing into the rather formidable-looking trumpet, but when a song was played from a recording in another village there was usually no further difficulties in bringing forward the “artists” of the house. When finally they heard their own voices issuing from the little box, their wonder and amusement knew no bounds.

The Land Dayak are a gentle, kindly people, easy to get on with, grateful and loyal to their friends. This was the author’s experience with Juni, a Land Dayak boy. Juni was his cook and personal servant on the authors trip up the Limbang River. He supplied Mr. Smith’s table with such delicacies as fried fish, pheasant stew, and salads of fern sprouts and the hearts of palms. He served them on a pretty blue China plate he had bought in order that the products of his culinary art might be served in a worthy manner.

When planning to visit one of the coast stations where malaria happened to be unusually serious, Mr. Smith cautioned his seven boys that they must all provide themselves with mosquito curtains to sleep under. He explained to them that if they were not bitten by a mosquito, they would not get the fever.

The natives are also very willing to be vaccinated. Smallpox epidemics occur frequently enough for the native to remember the high mortality of the unvaccinated and the practically complete immunity of the vaccinated. Anyone may obtain a vaccination free at the government dispensary or on payment of 6 cents at the outstations. After several years of freedom from the disease, there is some opposition to vaccination, but as soon as the deaths from smallpox begins to occur, the natives are very eager for treatment.

Perhaps the most interesting tribe in Sarawak and one of the least affected by contact with foreigners is the Kayans. A tribe of unknown origin, they occupy the headwaters of the Baram and Rejang rivers, in the northerly part of Sarawak, extending also into Dutch Borneo. It appears that the Kayans came to Borneo by way of Tenasserim, the Malay Peninsula, and Sumatra.

There are several reasons to believe the Kayan are of Caucasian origin. One notices the features on some Kayans that very strongly suggest Caucasian origin. This is particularly true of the upper, or ruling classes, who would be most likely to preserve their racial stock. Many Kayans have very light skin, particularly those of the interior and those who have been little exposed to the sun. The tribe believes in a large number of deities, with one supreme being at the head, thus resembling Greek mythology. The Kayan taking omens from the flight of birds and the examination of entrails of animals is remarkably similar to the methods used by the Romans.

While the Brunei Sultans held control of the mouths of the Baram and Rejang Rivers they were able to extract tribute from the Kayans, who, in turn, terrorized the Dayaks living below them on the Rejang. These raids against the Rejang Dayaks, who had accepted the Rajah’s sovereignty became so serious by 1863 that the late Rajah conducted a large expedition against the Kayans of the Rejang, and subdued them. In 1882 the Baram River was ceded to Sarawak, thus the remaining Kayans came under the control of the government.

The author journeyed up the Baram. Along the lower reaches, as far as sea water is carried by flood tide, the nipa palm, interspersed with mangrove swamps, forms a monotonous and almost continuous wall on each muddy bank. For miles, scarcely a tree rises above the high tops of the palms. Before Claudetown is reached the nipa palm gives way to great jungle trees, the banks of the river are higher, and houses of Malays and Dayaks begin to appear. Occasionally, the ruins of an abandoned house, covered in a blanket of vines, can be seen. When the river is in flood, great trees come sweeping down, washed away as the waters continually change their course, so the beaches and estuaries are piled with huge logs.

Mr. Smith’s first encounter with Kayans was on the occasion of a visit of the Resident of the Baram district to the village of Long Palei, about 130 miles from the mouth of the river and about 70 miles upstream from the government station at Claudetown. The journey from Claudetown took two days, calling at villages on the way. They arrived at Long Palei in early afternoon, where they had no sooner anchored than many of the leading people of the house, including the young chief, came onboard to welcome the Resident. After the hearty exchange of greetings on board the launch, they went on shore and climbed the steps leading to the long gallery of the house.

Upon reaching the house, an elderly man took the Resident by the arm, conducting him to a seat prepared for him at the center of the gallery. There the old chieftainess, Ulau, came forward to greet them. The dignity and stateliness of the old lady was impressive. She maintained rigid discipline, which is characteristic of the Kayan household. The good manners and recognition of authority astonishes the visitor who is not prepared to find such culture among Bornean “savages”.

There are three fairly well-defined social classes, comprising the chief and his relatives, occupying the middle of the long house. The middle class occupies the rooms on both sides adjoining, while the rooms at each end of the house are occupied by slaves – the descendants of those captured in war. “Slave” is a misleading term, for in all that concerns the welfare and comfort of this third class they differ so little from the other inhabitants of the house that one without experience has difficulty distinguishing them. Their daily occupations do not differ from those of the upper classes, for almost all participate in the hard labor of planting and harvesting the rice crops.

While the formal welcome to visitors in a Kayan house is rather long, on this occasion a number of deaths had placed the house in mourning, so the welcome was concluded with the drinking song. After the guest is seated on the fresh rattan mats spread upon the floor, the people of the house assemble, squatting in a circle around the guest. Young girls bring jars of rice wine and cups. Then one of the prominent men of the house sits in front of the guest, pours a cup of wine, and starts to sing in monotone. He sings of good wishes for health and prosperity.

On the return trip from Long Palei Mr. Smith was joined by a 17-year-old Kayan named Kebing. He was not well and hoped the medicine and change would benefit him. He spoke Malay and English as well as his own language. To teach him some geography, the author told Kebing that you could travel to America by going either the direction where the sun rises of where it sets. He drew a map on a green orange and explained that the sun stayed still and the earth spun. The question he got back was “Well, why does it turn?”

When turning to astronomy Kebing told the author the names of the constellations; the Pleiades is “the bamboo clump” and Orion is “the pig trap”. Since the seasons so near the equator vary so little it is necessary to make use of some astronomical means of determining the proper time for planting rice, for it must be growing during the rainy season. Some tribes make the determination by noting the day when the Pleiades is first visible just before sunrise. Other tribes make what amounts to as altitude measurement of the sun at noon. Still other tribes fix the day by the altitude of a particular star or constellation when it can first be seen after sunset.

Once back in Claudetown, Mr. Smith set out on an excursion to Mt. Mulu, about 35 miles to the east. Lying between the basins of the Limbang and Baram rivers, it stands 9,000 feet high. On a clear day it can be seen from Claudetown. On the sides of the mountain rise the sources of the Milanau River, which empties into the Tutau River, and thence into the Baram. These rivers furnished the author a means of approach to the mountain. The sides of the mountain are formed of precipitous limestone cliffs. In 1858 Sir Spencer St. John attempted an ascent, but was prevented by impassible barriers from reaching an altitude of more than 3,500.

For the first day the Resident placed a launch at the author’s disposal, which made it possible to tow his native boat, or prau, to make rapid progress up the Baram and Tutau rivers. They spent the night at the home of a Malay trader. As they approached his makeshift dock a current caught them and it appeared for a moment that they would hit the dock with some force. A Malay on the bank cried out, “Don’t run into the iceberg”. Thus, had the story of the Titanic, incredible to the tropical people, spread far into Borneo.

The next morning the author bid farewell to his Kayan friends and set off in his prau, accompanied by his Chinese cook, Ah Jun, two Malays, and three Dayaks to act as his boat crew. Progress was slow and they failed to reach a Kayan house before nightfall. It rained all night and they were all miserable. Less than a hour of paddling the following morning brought them to large Kayan house of Tama Ding – a quiet, pleasant old man, who died a few months after this visit.

They found several people ill of fever, doubtlessly following the end of the rainy season. The author dispensed quantities of quinine pills from his large supply, which he carried mainly for the natives. He also treated some skin infections caused by tattooing with Vaseline. One girl had a badly swollen arm caused by a cut on her finger. Mr. Smith treated the cut with Vaseline and told the girl her arm would be better in about ten days or so. It was a safe guess, for it is surprising from what wounds and infections these people can recover with no treatment whatever. When visiting again on his return trip, seven days later, the author found the girl’s arm almost healed.

They paddled by day and spent nights at various Kayan houses. At the house of Tama Saging, the author delivered a letter from the Resident, asking for assistance and, if possible, his own company for the trip further up river. The letter also requested that he appear at the government office twenty days from the date the letter was written. After waiting two days for the river to stop rising, they got underway on the third morning. Tama Saging and eight of his men accompanied Mr. Smith’s crew.

It was slow work paddling up river, even though they left behind the large, heavy boat and now were using one of Tama Saging’s lighter ones. It was better adapted to polling up rapids. For three days they continued up stream passing from the Tutau into the Milanau River, reaching on the second day the first of the rapids. The last camp on the river was a beautiful spot, where a small stream joined the river, forming a delightful bathing pool of cool, transparent water.

The journey up river took so long that the author could only stay two days. One of the days was employed in a walk through the jungle to a point on the Milanua River where the stream comes rushing down through a gorge between the mountains Mulu and Lobong Rimau. On the return leg of the walk it rained heavily. On reaching the camp, the little stream had swollen. They placed a heavy tarp over the leaf roof the natives had made.

On the author’s return to Claudetown, he learned that Tama Aping Bulieng, a Kayan chief from the Tinjar River, had arrived. His mission was to report a massacre. Eight Dayaks had come across a Punan house while the men were away. They killed 24 women and children, and one old man, taking away 16 heads. The Resident assured the chief that everything would be done to apprehend the culprits and also to have the families of the guilty parties pay reparation to the families of the victims.

The Punans belong to one of the most primitive tribes of Borneo. They are timid, harmless people, living in the jungle, usually away from rivers. They cultivate no fields, but get their food from the wild sago and other jungle plants and from shot by blowgun, or sumpitan. The blowguns are made by Kayans and purchased by the Punans. It consists of a hardwood pole about six and a half feet long, the hole being about one-quarter of an inch in diameter. The darts are made from the hard, straight fiber of the nibong palm. The poison is made from the sap of the upas-tree. The Punans are very skilled in the use of this hunting weapon.

After the justice was meted out to the Dayaks who were guilty of the massacre, and their friend and families fined for there support in the endeavor, a ceremony was held and a pig was slaughtered. Its liver was examined for omens of a lasting peace between the Dayaks and the Punans. The signs were so good that two lines on the liver joined indicating that the tribes might even intermarry in the future.

The history of the White Rajahs in Sarawak began in 1839. At that time the Dutch occupied the southern portion of Borneo, while the northern part of the island was nominally under the rule of the Sultan of Brunei. After Rajah Muda Hasim, the Sultans vassal in Sarawak aided some stranded British sailors, the Governor of Singapore resolved to recognize this action by sending presents and a letter of thanks. James Brooke, the son of Thomas Brooke, of the East India Company, was chosen to carry out this mission.

He surveyed part of the coast of his destination, finding the charts grossly in error. Upon arriving, he was granted permission to visit much of the interior of the country. Since the tribes there were in revolt, Mr. Brooke was unable to explore at that time. After six weeks he departed. He returned in 1840 intending to pay only a short visit. The rebellion was still in full swing, and Mr. Brooke reluctantly consented to give assistance to restore order.

In return for this service Hasim agreed to give Mr. Brooke the government and trade of Sarawak, with the title of Rajah. After the country was pacified, Hasim tried and failed to renege on the deal. Brooke was proclaimed Rajah and Governor of Sarawak in 1841. The Sultan of Brunei confirmed the deed granting Brooke’s complete independence. The Rajah was recognized by the United States in 1850, and by Great Britain in 1863. Sir James Brooke died in 1868, naming his nephew, Charles Brooke as his successor. Sarawak was made a British Protectorate in 1888.

On May 17, 1917, Charles Vyner Brooke (born 1874) succeeded his father as the third Rajah of Sarawak. Since the first Rajah, the principle of government has been “to rule for the people and with the people, and to teach them the rights of freemen under the restraint of government”.

The third and final item listed on the cover is not and article, but another one of the ongoing series of “field guides” that the Society publishes from time to time. This one is entitled “American Berries of Hill, Dale, and Wayside”. It contains one full-page black-and-white photograph and eight pages containing ten drawings of “29 Species Illustrated in Full Color”.

Unlike most field guides that have graced the pages of the National Geographic this one does not contain a short, introductory article. There is only an italicized paragraph crediting Miss Mary E. Eaton as the artist who created this beautiful series of paintings. The paragraph also states that this is the fourth in a series of matchless color pictures of American Wild Flowers. The first in the series was published in May 1915, followed by those of June 1916, and June 1917 (Our State Flowers). The series contains 64 pages in full color, depicting 105 species.

Aside from the photo and drawings, the field guide consists of 29 concise descriptions of the plant’s habitat and its habits. They are listed in the order they appear in the drawings, with the Plate number listed with each species. Each description starts with the common American name for the plant followed by its genus and species, in Latin, and the Plate Number. These are followed by a four or so paragraph description of the plant’s range, climate, and interesting facts. Because each description contains a Plate number for locating the drawing, there is no need for an index at the end of the field guide. Again, this is unlike most field guides which do contain indexes.

At the bottom of the last page (page number 184) there is a one-line promotion stating that: “The March Number of the Geographic will have 32 Pages in Color”.

Tom Wilson

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