Daily Archives: 23 October 2009

“If Dobbo has too little law, England has too much”

From The Spice Islands Voyage: The Quest for Alfred Wallace, the Man Who Shared Darwin’s Discovery of Evolution, by Tim Severin (Carroll & Graf, 1997), p. 74:

During the five months he spent on the islands, Wallace witnessed an extraordinary transformation overtake Dobbo. Throughout January there was a steady arrival of boats and traders, 15 big prahus from Macassar and up to 100 smaller boats from Kei, the New Guinea coast and outer Aru. They clustered into the anchorage or were pulled up on the beach to be scrubbed and have new coats of anti-fouling, while their crews moved into the bamboo houses. The settlement buzzed with activity, and Wallace marvelled – as he had already done at the well-mannered behaviour of his prahu crew that this ill-assorted mass of people managed to get on so well without any formal rule of law, courts or police to keep order. Dobbo was full to bursting with a ‘motley, ignorant, thievish population’ of Chinese, Bugis, half-caste Javanese, men from Seram, with a sprinkling of half-wild Papuans from Timor and the islands to the south. Yet ‘they do not cut each other’s throats, do not plunder each other day and night, do not fall into the anarchy such a state of things might be supposed to lead to. It is very extraordinary.’ It made him wonder that perhaps European countries were over-governed, and that ‘the thousands of lawyers and barristers whose whole lives are spent in telling us what the hundred acts of Parliament mean’ indicated that ‘if Dobbo has too little law, England has too much’.

The reason for the orderliness and good behaviour in Dobbo, he decided, was that every person there had come to trade, and that a peaceful environment for the marketplace was in everyone’s interest. So the little sandspit was an amicable parade of regional types and costumes. Chinamen soberly walked down the single street, with their long pigtails hanging down to their heels. Half-naked Aru islanders wearing nothing but a loin-cloth and with enormous bushes of frizzy hair held in place by gigantic wooden combs – called at every door to offer tradable items and see who would pay the best price. Young sailors from Macassar played a kind of aerial football with a hollow ball made of rattan which they kept in the air with a succession of kicks and knocks from feet, elbow and shoulder.

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