The Ûnka

The Ûnka


Frank Athelstane Swettenham

, C.M.G.

THE other day I had to move from the house where I have
lived for the last seven years, and in the consequent upheaval
of accumulated rubbish—specially letters, papers, and books—I
found a note, or, to speak accurately, two notes written on one
sheet of paper, which brought vividly to my recollection an incident
that occurred while I was living with one of the writers, Captain
Innes of the Corps of Royal Engineers.

Innes and I had taken a house in Penang and had just moved
into it. The house stood at the junction of two roads, it was
surrounded by a large but neglected garden, and the place altogether
resembled an Eastern Castle Rack-rent, an appearance partly due
to the fact that it had not been occupied for some time. The
garden was a veritable jungle ; but the house was large and roomy,
approached by a rather imposing flight of steps which led into a
great marble-paved hall, lighted by long narrow windows, glazed
with small panes of glass. It was principally on this account that
we named our new habitation the Baronial Hall.

I remember that the stables contained but three stalls, to
accommodate Innes's one horse and my three ponies. I thought I
might claim two of the stalls, but Innes's horsekeeper, a Sinhalese,
in whom his master had more confidence than I had, insisted that

The Yellow Book—Vol. XII. M


192 The Ûnka

his horse was of a very superior breed, and must have one stall to
stand in and another to sleep in, so I accepted the position and
sent two of my ponies to live elsewhere. I cannot say that I felt
all the compassion called for by the circumstances when, one night,
some weeks later, as I was dressing for dinner, I heard a peculiar
noise in the direction of the stable, and, looking out, I saw in the
bright moonlight the Sinhalese, face-downwards, on the sand of
the open space before the stable, while my pony, a not too good-
tempered beast at any time, was apparently eating him and enjoying
the process.

When we had rescued the horsekeeper and sent him to the
hospital (where he remained a considerable time, and from which
he returned happily drunk), I pointed out to his master that, if the
wise old man understood the horse in his care, he was less well
informed about the habits of my pony.

This incident, and the fact that Innes planted what should have
been the lawn with guinea-grass, the favourite food of his too-
pampered charger, are the only facts of any importance that I can
remember, till the coming of the ûnka.

Ûnka is the Malay name for the tail-less monkey called by
Europeans a Wah-Wah. I do not know where that name
originated, but the creature makes a noise like the soft and plaintive
repetition of a sound, that can be fairly put into letters thus—
Wu', Wu'. When several ûnka get together in the jungle, in the
early morning, they will sit in a high tree, in a circle, round one of
their number, who pipes and sings and finally screams a solo of
many variations, through which runs the simple motif, and, at a
certain point, the others all join in, calling in loud and rapid tones
—WU' WU' WU' WU' Wu' Wu' ; the first two or three cries
delivered shrilly and slowly, the others tumbling on each others'
heels. And then da capo, until the sun gets too hot, or they


By Frank Athelstane Swettenham 193

quarrel, or become too hungry or thirsty to go on ; I cannot
say for certain, for though I have watched and listened to the
concert for a long time, I had not patience to wait till the

The ûnka is either black or fawn-coloured, he has extraordinarily
long and strong arms and legs, a face of never-changing sadness,
which may on occasion turn to an evil expression of vice and fury ;
but, in the main, the ûnka is a gentle and docile creature, easily
tamed, and his only amusements seem to be, to swing himself with
great leaps along a bar, to sing the Wu' Wu' song, or to sit in
deep meditation, with his toes turned in, his head between his
knees, and both hands clasped on the nape of his neck.

I was much shocked, one day, when I saw two small ûnka living
in a tree in front of the house of a Malay headman. There was
nothing very strange in the fact that these creatures should have
been where they were, but, what was unusual to me, was to find
that each was wearing a dress of cotton print, one blue and the
other pink, with their heads appearing from the neck, their hands
from the sleeves, and their legs—well, that was the worst of it,
they were hanging by their feet, and I went away. As a rule,
as I have already mentioned, they hang by their arms, but, then,
with the exception of these orphans, I had never seen any ûnka in
print gowns. It only shows how unwise it is to try and clothe all
nationalities in the garments of Western civilisation.

Again, I remember an ûnka I used to know very well. He
was a dissipated creature, and lived in a box on the top of a pole.
There was a hole in a corner of the box, and into this used to
be fixed a corked bottle of whisky and water, which gave the
ûnka a good deal of trouble to pull out, but, once fairly in his
hands, he made short work of the extraction of the cork and
the consumption of the contents.


194 The Ûnka

Then he used to be told to come down, and, when be reached
the ground, he would turn a succession of somersaults with a
grace and agility that would have made a London street-arab
green with envy. But I confess it was the last act of the
performance that I most enjoyed ; it was called "the bath."
An old kerosene tin, one side of which had been cut away, was
filled with water and the bath was placed on the ground in a
suitable spot. As soon as it was ready, the ûnka, who had
watched the preparations with careful interest, walked slowly up to
the bath (by the way, they walk on their hind legs usually, and
drink from their hands), and, standing at one end of the tin,
gripped the sides of the bath, at a convenient distance, with
both hands and then slowly, very, very slowly, went head fore-
most into the water, turning, as he did so, a complete somersault,
his dripping woebegone face appearing gradually from out the
water, as he arranged himself to sit comfortably, with his back
against the end of the tin and his arms hanging over the sides,
exactly as a human being might sit in a bath. The ûnka
would recline thus, for about half a minute, looking the picture
of extreme suffering and silent protest against the unfeeling
laughter of the spectators. Then he suddenly jumped up, and
springing with both feet on to the edge of the tin, gave a
violent backward kick, that sent the water streaming down the
hill and the bath rolling after it.

According to Perak tradition, the ûnka and another species of
Simian, called siâmang, rather blacker and more diabolical looking
than the ûnka, but otherwise not easily to be distinguished from
the latter, lived originally in mutual enjoyment of the Perak
jungles. Individuals of the two species quarrelled about pre-
cedence at a Court Ball, or a State Concert, probably the latter ;
the quarrel was espoused with great bitterness by all the ûnka and


By Frank Athelstane Swettenham 195

all the siâmang, and, when the other denizens of the forest were
worried beyond endurance, by the constant bickerings, murders,
and retaliations of these creatures, an edict was issued by which
all the ûnka were compelled, for all time, to live on the right of
the Perak River and the siâmang on the left—neither being
allowed to cross the river.

A friend of mine who lived on the right bank of the river and
wished to test the truth of this legend, made pets of a very small
siâmang and a rather large ûnka for whom places were laid and
chairs put at every meal. They were not confined in any way
and their manners were indifferent, for, though they were served
with every course at each meal, they seemed to take an impish
delight in pulling the dishes out of the hands of the servants who
passed within their reach.

As my friend was writing one day at a large round table, on
which a number of official letters were lying awaiting his signature,
I saw the siâmang climb, slowly and without attracting attention,
on to the table, where, for a time, he sat without stirring,
regarding my friend with earnest and sorrowful eyes. Then, by
degrees, he gradually edged himself towards the inkstand, and,
when quite close to it, dipped his hand into the pot and carefully
wiped his inky fingers in a sort of monkey-signature on each of
the beautifully prepared official despatches. When, at last, my
friend discovered what the siâmang had done, and made as though
to catch and punish his tormentor, the small imp disappeared over
the side of the table, making piteous little cries, and the ûnka, who
had been watching the proceedings through the window, came in
and hurried his companion on to the roof, where they always
retired to concoct some new outrage.

In spite of these signs of original sin, the ûnka, concerning
which I have made these casual references, were, on the whole,


196 The Ûnka

of amiable dispositions. My own experience was, alas ! to be with
one of a different type.

A Governor whose term of office was up, had arranged with a
Malay Sultan to send him two ûnka, to take to England, but,
at the moment of his departure, as they had not then arrived,
he asked me to take charge of them and forward them to

I consented, and, one morning a Malay appeared with a letter,
and told me that the ûnka had been landed from the vessel in
which he had brought them from a northern State, and were at
my disposal. I was busy, and told the messenger to take them to
the Baronial Hall. As he was leaving, the man said I should find
that the smaller of the two had lost his arm at the elbow, an
accident which had occurred on the voyage, for the cages had
been placed within reach of each other, and the larger monkey
who, as the man remarked, was rather wicked, had induced his
small companion to shake hands with him, and then abused his
confidence by twisting his arm off at the elbow.

When I got home in the evening I found the small ûnka
looking very sick, and he died the next day ; but his murderer
was a very fine specimen of the fawn-coloured ûnka, about two
feet high as he sat on the ground, with an expression of counten-
ance that I did not altogether like. However, he was allowed a
certain length of cord, and lived in the coach-house, where I
often went to see and feed him, and he received my advances,
apparently, in good part. One day, however, he escaped, and I
had to call in the services of two time-expired Indian convicts to
catch him. The servants declined to have anything to do with
him, and said he was very wicked and tried to bite them, even
when they gave him food, so I determined to put him back in his
cage. I anticipated no difficulty, but, as he hesitated to go in,


By Frank Athelstane Swettenham 197

though everything had been done to make his cage look attractive,
I put my hand on his back and applied a very gentle pressure. In
an instant he turned round and bit me badly, in return for which
I gave him a good beating and determined I would not trouble
about him any more. I gave up my visits to him, but, whenever
he saw me at any distance, even if it were through the Venetians
of a window, he would turn his back on me, seize one leg with
both hands and, looking through his legs, make horrible faces in a
way that I thought very rude and ungrateful.

After a fortnight he got away again. I felt it was more than
likely that the servants had connived at his escape, and I was
inclined to say with Mr. Briggs, "Thank God, he's gone at

I said that the Baronial Hall stood in the angle of two wide
and much frequented roads. The front road boarded a picturesque
bay of the sea, but, behind the house, was a large cocoanut planta-
tion, and here the ûnka took up his quarters and lived for six
months or more. Once, when I returned to the house after a
week's absence, I found a crowd of half-caste boys throwing
stones at the ûnka, who sat at the top of a cocoanut-tree and
regarded them with far from friendly eyes. I sent the boys away,
but I realised that the owner of the plantation might object to the
ûnka as he was probably doing, making free with the fruit of this

I saw no more of my charge, and left Penang on a political
mission to Perak, where I remained some time.

Landing, on my return, I went to the quarters of a friend who
was the head of the Police Force, and he told me, amongst other
news, that, only an hour before my arrival, some Eurasian boys
had brought to him the ûnka, dead, and tied on a stick, saying
that he had attacked them, and bitten one of their number very


198 The Ûnka

badly in the hand, and they had been compelled in self-defence to
kill him. Henry Plunket (the Superintendent of Police) said
that this was evidently not the whole truth of what had occurred,
but the injured boy talked of claiming compensation from me,
though, no doubt, the ûnka had been made the victim of a combined
attack. Bearing in mind what I had seen myself, some months
before, I thought that was extremely probable, and, having
inspected the body, a piteous object tied to a long stick by the
ankles, while the arms had been pulled as far as possible above the
head, and there fastened round the stick by the wrists, I went
home, Plunket undertaking to get the ûnka stuffed in an attitude
of deep humility, with his formidable teeth carefully concealed.

Early the next morning a servant told me that two Eurasians
wanted to see me. I told him to ask them in, and a boy and a
man made their appearance. The boy's hand was in a sling, but
otherwise he seemed well enough.

I said, "What can I do for you ?"

The boy replied, "Your monkey has bitten me."

I remarked, "And you have killed the monkey."

There was a brief silence and I said, "Tell me how it hap-

"I was going home from school," said the boy, "walking along
the high road in front of this house, when the monkey, who was
sitting up in a cocoanut tree, caught sight of me and came down
and bit me."

"What were you doing ?" I asked.


"How did the monkey get into the road ?"

"He climbed through the hedge."

"Were you the only person on the road ?"

"Oh, no ; there were many others."


By Frank Athelstane Swettenham 199

"Then why did he attack you ?"

No answer.

"Is that all you have to say about it ?"


"Then I wish you good-morning."

Here the man broke in with, "What are you going to give
the boy ?"

To which I replied, "Nothing, in the face of such a story as
that. But what have you to do with it ?"

"I have come as the boy's friend," he said, "and if you don't
pay him compensation, he will sue you for damages."

"He must do what he thinks best," I said, "but I would advise
him to prepare a more probable story than that he has just told
me. Monkeys do not come down from the tops of cocoanut trees
to bite inoffensive little boys who are walking on the high

Seeing there was nothing more to be got out of me my visitors
departed, and I, forgetting the unspoken dislike of the ûnka for
myself, mourned his loss, and felt satisfied he had been done to
death by the boys of the neighbourhood.

At that time the judge of the Small Cause Court was a
magistrate who had had a great deal of Indian experience before
coming to Penang, and, a few days after my interview with the
boy, this official called at my office, and said : "I want to have a
few minutes conversation with you about a matter that concerns
you personally."

I said, "Pray, sit down. I suppose the boy who was bitten by
the monkey has been to you ?"

"He has," said the magistrate, "and he wishes to summons you
for damages."

"He is quite at liberty to do so," I said, "but I can't imagine


200 The Ûnka

any one placing any credence in the cock-and-bull story about the
monkey coming down out of the tree, and attacking him as he
passed on the high road."

"Oh, but I assure you," said the man learned in the law, "that
is not at all an improbable story. I knew a road in the Province
so infested by monkeys that they used to come out of the jungle
and snatch the baskets of fruit out of the hands of people going to
market. No woman could pass there alone, and the men used to
go in parties for mutual protection."

"Of course, if you know that," I said, without betraying the
thoughts that were in me, "I have nothing more to say, but I
have heard the details of what really occurred from an unbiassed
spectator, whom I can produce as a witness, and the boy's story is
very far from the truth."

"Then what is the true account ?" said the magistrate, "for I
shall not issue a summons without good cause shown."

"I am told," I said, "that this boy and another were playing
in the cocoanut plantation, behind my house (not their plantation,
by the way, they were trespassers), and the monkey was sitting in
a high cocoanut tree hard by, watching the boys and thinking
about nothing at all. The boys, as boys will, began to quarrel,
and from abuse they soon came to blows. Now," I said, "when
the monkey saw that he came down the tree."

"Ah ! he came down the tree," broke in my friend.

"Yes," I said, "the man who saw it all says he came down the
tree, but the boys continued to fight and took no notice of him.
Then the monkey, who was a particularly intelligent beast and
had lived with respectable people, felt he ought to interfere, because
he knew it was wrong of boys to fight, and had seen them beaten
for doing it. He, poor thing, could not speak to them, but he
walked up, waving his hands like this"—here I suited the action


By Frank Athelstane Swettenham 201

to the word—"as though he would say, 'Stop ! you must not
fight any more.'"

"What !" interrupted the magistrate, "he went like this!" as
he repeated my action.

"Yes," I said, "so I am told by the man who saw it all. The
monkey went close up to them in his anxiety, and then either the
boys misunderstood him or, what seems more likely, they were
really bad boys, and disliked the monkey's interference, tor one of
them, the boy who has been injured, slapped the monkey in the

"Slapped him in the face ?"

"Yes," I said, "so the man says who told me the story. And
then what could you expect ? The monkey, finding his good
intentions misinterpreted and himself made the subject of a cowardly
assault, bit his assailant—bit him badly in the hand."

"Ah ! he bit him in the hand?"

"Yes. And one must make some excuses for him," I said,
"because, after all, one ought not to expect too much from a

"That," said my friend, as he got up and took his hat, "is an
entirely different account to the one I heard, and I wish you good-

"Of course, of course," I said, as I shook hands with him, "I
thought you would like to know the facts." And, as I closed the
door and resumed my seat, I fell a-musing on the curious ways of
the ûnka, and the advantages to be gained by a long experience of

For months I heard nothing more about the boy and his com-
plaint, but some one told me that, when he went again to my
experienced friend, he had been driven from the presence with
what is called "a flea in his ear."


202 The Ûnka

Without my realising that the change meant anything to me, a
new judge of the Small Cause Court arrived from England about
this time, and replaced the Indian officer. The new comer, of
course, knew nothing about monkeys, and when, just as I was
starting on another expedition to the Malay States, I was served
with a summons claiming damages for the injury done to Master
Fernandez by a dangerous beast described as my property, I could
only ask Innes to put the case in the hands of Counsel, and trust
to my advocate's skill and the harmless, even pitiful appearance of
the stuffed ûnka, whose counterfeit presentment I suggested should
be produced in Court, as a last resort.

My journeyings took me finally to Singapore, where I told this
veracious story, and consulted both the Chief Justice and Attorney-
General, who assured me that I had no legal responsibility in the
matter ; indeed, I did not quite understand how the complainant
was going to prove that he had been bitten by my ûnka at all, or
that I could be said to own, or keep, a creature that for six months
had lived by his wits, in a neighbouring plantation. However, it
is the unexpected which happens, and I tried to bear the news
with fortitude when I received from Innes the following letter and
its enclosure. I never quite made out what became of the stuffed
ûnka, but I suppose he is preserved with the records of the case in
the archives of the Penang Court.


            "23rd September, 18—.


    "You will gather from the enclosure that the monkey case
has gone against us ; I'm awfully sorry, and did my best in the matter,
I assure you. The Judge counselled a compromise after hearing
Plaintiff's case and Bond's reply, and I thought it safest to take the
hint. Bond, as you see, handsomely declines any fee. I have thanked


By Frank Athelstane Swettenham 203

him on your behalf for his exertions and settled the bill, the amount
whereof we can adjust with other matters. I confess I couldn't
follow the Judge's train of thought, for the story didn't seem to me to
tell well in the witness box.

        "Yours truly,

            "W. INNES."

            "18th September, 18—.


"As Swettenham's case was compromised at the suggestion
of the Judge, I don't intend to make any charge against him for the
little I did, so all he will have to pay will be $22.95 costs and

        "Yours sincerely,

            "I. S. BOND."

There must have been something peculiarly malignant about
this ûnka ; the slightest connection with him proved fatal to so
many people. The Sultan who gave him is dead, and the Gover-
nor who never received him ; the Chief Justice and the Attorney-
General who took a friendly interest in him ; the magistrate who
had such an experience of all his kind ; the Counsel who defended
him ; my friend who supported him ; and—I had almost for-
gotten—the man who really saw what happened to him. It is
almost like the tale of the House that Jack built—a glorified
Eastern version.

MLA citation: Swettenham, Frank Athelstane. "The Ûnka" The Yellow Book 12 (January 1897): 191-203. The Yellow Nineties Online. Ed. Dennis Denisoff and Lorraine Janzen Kooistra. Ryerson University, 2013. Web. [Date of access].