Voyages and Adventures of Magellan - George Towle

Adventures at Borneo

The ships had not sailed southwestward more than thirty miles, when Espinosa, standing on the deck of the Trinidad, which was ahead of the Victoria, espied an island longer, and yet wilder and more luxuriant in its foliage and vegetation than any he had before seen. It was a bright, glowing morning in summer, and the tropical air was heavy with the perfume of fruit and flower, as a gentle breeze blew off the land towards the ships.

As the island was neared, however, Espinosa, who resolved to land if circumstance favored it, saw no harbor where to enter. The shores rose in high and abrupt bluffs; and in places where there were bays or inlets, the water near the shore proved so full of rocks that to approach any of them would have been dangerous. So he skirted the coast of the island all that day, and a part of the next; and was surprised at its extent and at all he saw on the shore. Now and then groups of natives appeared on the bluffs, of a more dusky hue and wilder appearance than those at Palawan; but they did not seem afraid of the ships, gazing at them rather with curiosity than with terror, or hostility.

About noon on the second day, Espinosa at last caught sight of a good harbor, beyond which the cliffs jutted far into the sea. The harbor was evidently at the mouth of a river; and on the banks of this was to be seen a large and prosperous-looking town. The island indeed, was Borneo, and the town its capital, Bruni. Bruni was situated on the northwest coast.

Espinosa, who had grown bold and confident by the good treatment he had received since leaving Sebu, did not hesitate to enter the port, and to anchor his ships in a favorable place, quite near the shore. The natives crowded along the beach, but their demonstrations were not at all unfriendly. They acted as if European ships were not a wholly unwonted sight to them, but as if they were not so new as to have ceased to be an attractive sight.

That night the Spaniards remained quietly in their ships, mounting guard, of course, lest by any chance the islanders should prove hostile. No incident, however, disturbed the quiet of the dark hours; and officers and crews slept soundly.

The morning was not far advanced, when Espinosa saw a very handsome barge, its prow and stern glittering with gilt, and a white and blue flag fluttering from the bow, push out from the beach and approach the Trinidad." The barge was full of gaily-dressed natives, with very dark skins and shaggy hair, who were playing upon pipes and drums. After the barge came several smaller boats, which appeared to be fishing smacks. The barge presently came along side; and, without more ado, eight of its occupants, old men with bushy white heads, clambered upon the deck of the flagship. They were chiefs of the island; and were followed by their attendants, who brought on board a variety of gifts for the strangers.

Espinosa received them with great-politeness, and offered them seats on a carpet that was spread upon the deck, which they accepted with grave and stately courtesy. Then they caused their attendants to spread before the Spaniards the good things they had brought. There were large wooden vessels, gorgeously painted, and filled with betel, the fruit they constantly chewed in that part of the world; there were jars of arrack, a curious beverage, which the Spaniards found very palatable, but quite strong, and which, they learned, was made from rice; there were, besides, fowl and goats, sugar-cane and bananas.

After paying a visit to the flagship, the chiefs went on board the Victoria, whither they carried similar gifts, and met with an equally hearty welcome. It was not long before their good treatment had its effect on the king of Borneo. He sent three barges, yet more splendid than that which had first appeared, full of chiefs and musicians, who were rowed around the ships, the musicians playing with all their might. Espinosa ordered salutes to be fired, and the flags to be hoisted at the mastheads. Among other articles that the natives brought, as gifts from their monarch, were cakes made of rice, honey and eggs; all of which were extremely welcome to the Spaniards, who eagerly consumed them.

The king of Borneo, a day or two after, sent a message that the Spaniards might not only procure such provisions as they wished on shore, but that they might trade freely with his subjects.

Espinosa ordered seven of his principal men, one of whom was Pigafetta, to get into one of the barges, go to the town, and visit the king. These carried with them, as friendly offerings, a Turkish coat of green velvet, a chair of violet-colored velvet, some red cloth, a cap, a gilt goblet, a glass vase, and, oddly enough, a gilt pen and ink case; and, to be given to the queen, a pair of slippers, and a silver case full of pins. Presents were also carried for the king's chief courtiers; for Espinosa rightly judged that it was of no small importance to gain the friendship of a potentate evidently so rich and powerful.

When the party reached the quay and disembarked, they were forced to wait some time; for the king had not understood that they were coming, and had not made his preparations to receive them.

At last, however, a sight greeted their eyes which gave them a still higher idea of the royal splendor of Borneo. Two immense elephant, caparisoned in rich and vari-colored silk, came slowly tramping down to the quay. With them were twelve natives, all richly dressed, and bearing large porcelain vases covered with silk napkins. These vases, it appeared, were intended to receive the presents which the Spaniards had brought with them. The elephants were supplied with palanquins on which could be seated quite a number of men; and the Spaniards clambered up to them on the shoulders of the natives.

The elephants were then slowly led through the streets of the town, which was a far handsomer and more spacious place than any the Spaniards had hitherto seen in the islands. As they went along, the people, who were of a higher type of men and women than those before visited, gathered in curious crowds, and lined the sides of the streets. They were quiet, though Pigafetta saw many fierce and savage-looking faces among them.

Pigafetta and his comrades were conducted to the house of one of the most important men, where, it being now nearly dark, they were invited to enter, and stay over-night. They found everything in the house much more elegant and comfortable than in the houses at Sebu. Instead of coarse mats, they had soft cotton rugs to sleep on; and the viands set before them were very pleasant and palatable.



The next morning the elephants were again awaiting them at the door; and they mounted the palanquins, and set out for the royal palace, the men who bore the presents going before them. The palace they found to be a large and rather imposing edifice, the hall of which was reached by a broad flight of steps. On entering the hall, Pigafetta was amazed at its aspect of show and ceremony. It was hung with brilliant silks, and was full of the dusky courtiers in fine clothes. Beyond this apartment was another, not quite so spacious, but raised a few feet higher, and reached by a short flight of steps; it was very richly hung with long curtains of silk and brocade, and two large windows admitted the light. Here were stationed three hundred of the king's guard, with daggers drawn. Yet beyond this room was a third, much smaller, but more splendidly adorned; and here sat the king, a rather fat man, forty years old, on a great Cushion, with one of his little boys. The king was busily chewing the eternal betel.

Surrounding the king was a bevy of women of various complexions, some almost as light as Europeans, others dark enough to have come from Africa.

The visitors were not allowed to approach nearer the monarch than the first hall. There they were supplied with cushions, so placed that they could see the king in the distance. When they were seated they were given to understand that they could not themselves speak to his majesty; but that, whatever they had to say to him, they must say to a certain chief; this chief would tell it to another, who would repeat it to a yet higher official; who, in his turn, would deliver the message through a speaking-trumpet to the prime minister, who stood at the king's side, and by whom it would at last reach the royal ears.

At the same time, the chief who gave them these instructions, told them they must rise, join their hands above their heads, raise first one and then the other foot, make three low bows to the king, and then kiss their hands to him.

This Pigafetta and his comrades did with great care and punctiliousness; being not a little amused to find, in this semi-barbarous and pagan court, quite as much ceremony as in the palaces of refined Europe.

They then, in the indirect manner that has been described, made known to the royal host the message which Espinosa had sent. It was that they were subjects of the king of Spain, who wished to establish peace and friendship with the king of Borneo, and for permission to trade with the island. The next thing was to offer the king the presents they had brought; which were accordingly laid at his feet by some of his attendants. He acknowledged them by a slight and solemn inclination of the head; and immediately after sent to the Spaniards some pieces of rick silk and brocade.

They were next treated to cloves and cinnamon; and while they were eating, the curtains in front of the king were drawn together, and he disappeared from view. Pigaffetta observed, on this occasion, that the soldiers and courtiers wore cloth of gold and silk, that their daggers had gold hilts studded with gems, and that their fingers were fairly covered with large rings.

Deeply impressed with all that they had seen, the party returned to the house of the chief where they had lodged, mounted, as when they came, upon elephants. There they were once more entertained in the most lavish manner. The hospitable chief feasted them upon rice, chickens, and peacocks, veal, many kinds of fish, and the not unpleasant arrack; these things, too, were served to them on handsome china dishes. The Spaniards were obliged to eat with their fingers; but the rice they ate with gold spoons, to find which, in Borneo, much surprised them.

They remained two days in the chief's abode; and on the second night were provided not only with wax candles, but even with oil lamps. Everything they saw, indeed, astonished them at the evident riches and even civilization of the island.

When Pigafetta reported the adventures of his party to the Admiral, he was more than ever convinced that it was important to secure the king's good will for the Spaniards. Espinosa was impatient to reach the Moluccas; but was so attracted by all that he had seen and heard in Borneo that he made up his mind to prolong his stay. Instead of a sojourn of two or three days, therefore, the ships remained anchored in the harbor nearly a month.

Espinosa himself, as well as his officers and men, now went freely to and fro, every day, between the ships and the town. The king's barges were always ready to conduct them, and the houses of the chiefs were always at their disposal. Espinosa desired the monarch to visit the ships; but was told that he never stirred away from his palace, except when he went hunting, which he occasionally did with a few chosen princes and nobles.

The Spaniards availed themselves of the kindly disposition of the people to open trade with them. They secured a warehouse near the quay; and here, as at Sebu, a brisk business soon sprang up. The people of Borneo, it turned out, knew much better the value of the articles offered for sale by the Spaniards, than those of Sebu; and Espinosa's men found it necessary to display the best articles the ships afforded.

Something new about Borneo and its people was learned every day. Espinosa estimated the population of the town at nearly one hundred thousand. A large part of it was built on piles driven in the water; the houses were all of wood, and were reached by flights of steps. In front of the royal palace was a thick and high brick wall, with port-holes. This was intended as a kind of fort to protect the king.

Espinosa soon learned that the people of Borneo were not idolaters, but were faithful followers of Mahomet; and that they scrupulously obeyed the precepts of the Koran. They never ate pig's flesh nor the flesh of any animal they did not themselves kill. The mass of the people went almost naked, as, indeed, the hot climate in which they lived made it almost necessary to do; but the nobles and soldiers, as we have seen, dressed very gaily.

Their money was not unlike the European. It consisted of bronze coins, pierced in the center for stringing together; and, as Espinosa and his companions were able to see for themselves, the natives were very skillful in making fine porcelain and china. Among the productions of the island were camphor, cinnamon, ginger, oranges, lemons, melons, cucumbers, cabbage, onions, and sugar-canes; their animals were elephants, horses, pigs, goats, fowl, and geese. The medicine they thought the most effective was quick-silver, which they were bold enough to swallow when ill.

The king, it appeared, was very rich. Many of his household utensils were of solid gold; some of his plates and covers were artistically enameled and chased. Some of the Spaniards, on going one day to the palace, were shown two enormous and beautiful pearls, nearly as large as hen's eggs. They were told that the king had bought these pearls from the Arabs, for a vast sum, and that he esteemed them his most precious treasure.

Early one morning, shortly before the day set for the departure of the ships from Borneo, Espinosa was awakened to hear some startling news. The king and people had treated him so kindly and generously, that he had long ceased to have the slightest suspicion of their good faith. What was his surprise and alarm, then, when one of his officers, entering his cabin, exclaimed:

"Rise quickly, Admiral. There is a large fleet of junks coming towards us, full of armed men. Their design is without doubt a hostile one. Unless we prepare at once to resist them, we shall surely be overwhelmed!"

Espinosa arose, dressed himself with all speed, and ran up on deck. The sight which greeted his eyes only confirmed the officer's report. There, in the broad bay, which sparkled with the reflection of the first rays of the sun, was a fleet of native junks, with their bamboo masts and bark sails, of which there could not be less than a hundred. They were divided into three squadrons, and sailed together in close phalanx. Their decks were, indeed, fairly crowded with Borneo warriors, who presented a very formidable aspect. Espinosa at once made up his mind that it had been the intention of the king to take him by surprise; and in this, if it was his purpose, he had quite succeeded. To resist so large and powerful a fleet would have been folly. With his handful of men, and his few cannon, Espinosa could not hope to make a serious impression upon it. He resolved to lose no time in weighing anchor and setting sail, so as to escape if possible, before it was too late. Meanwhile, he was beside himself with anger at what he supposed to be the unparalleled perfidy of the king of Borneo.

The order to weigh anchor was given, and the Trinidad  and Victoria  began to move. At this moment several junks, which had been lying just by the ships for several days, showed signs, as Espinosa thought, of following them. He ordered them to be fired upon with the cannon. The balls did deadly work. Two of the junks foundered, and two more went aground on a shoal, in trying to escape the attack; while a number of their occupants were killed.

Espinosa soon had reason to bitterly regret his haste in firing upon these junks. A smaller boat was seen rapidly approaching the flagship, showing a flag of truce. When it came up, Espinosa permitted a chief, who was standing up in the boat and eagerly waving his arms, to come on board.

All was then explained. It seemed that it was not at all the object of the large fleet of junks to attack the Spaniards. This armament was just returning from a warlike expedition to the island of Luzon, some leagues away, where the soldiers had been engaged in a fierce conflict with a powerful enemy of their sovereign. The chief city of the island had been sacked, and many prisoners and much booty taken.

The Admiral made all haste to return to his old anchorage in the harbor, and to make all the reparation he could for having attacked the junks and killed those who were in them. The king was easily persuaded of the error Espinosa had committed, and accepted his apologies and presents with cordial good will; and from that time until the ships sailed their relations continued to be of the most friendly nature. The ships received new supplies of provisions, wood, and water; and Espinosa found, on balancing his accounts, that the active trade with the towns-people had been quite profitable.

It was autumn when the Victoria  and the Trinidad, with flags flying and cannon bellowing forth their noisy farewells, at last sailed out of the hospitable harbor of Borneo, and proceeded on their way in search of the Moluccas.