Thursday 4 June 2020

Half Snake, Half Crocodile, Fully Forgotten

     Java: the most densely populated island in Indonesia, hills terraced right to the summit, miles and miles of incredibly beautiful scenes of paddy fields surrounded by green trees. (I know; I've been there.) The native tiger drifted into extinction in the 1970s. The native rhinoceros is holding on by its toenails to a single small peninsula. This is one place where you'd never expect an unusual and unknown animal to reside, isn't it? Well, here is a story originally told in 1899, although the event itself took place thirty years before.
     The man who reported it was Lieut-Col. Andrew Haggard, D.S.O. who, I noticed, later wrote a book about his experiences soldiering in North Africa. However, the original teller of the tale was his friend, Baron Alfons Pereira, the Consul-General of Austria-Hungary in Tunis. This sounds a strange posting for someone with a Portuguese name, but I note a Baron Johann Ludwig Alfons Pereira-Arnstein who lived in Vienna and may, or may not, be the person in question. The entry is a bit late, but it appears the particular baronage is of joint Portuguese-Germanic origin.
     Anyway, the Baron was anxious that the story be put on record because, whenever he recounted it, it was treated as a "traveller's tale". Also, in the years since the event, he had never come across an picture of the animal, except drawings of an "ichthyosaurus". (I presume he meant "plesiosaur".) 
    The story began in February 1869, when he and Assistant Resident Metman were travelling in a large Javanese canoe. Dawn had just broken when they found themselves close to the mouth of the Batavia River. This name is no longer in use, but Batavia, the capital of the Dutch East Indies, is now known as Jakarta, the capital of Indonesia. I therefore conclude that the Batavia River is now the river of Jakarta, the Ci Liwung. (Ci, pronounced "chee" is the Javanese word for river.) I conclude, too, that they had been rowing downstream, because they now found the water to be salt, and there was a considerable swell caused by the waves of the sea clashing with the tide. In any case, we are dealing with an area close to dense human populations.
     Suddenly, the Malay crew became excited, and started to call out the word, "Linguin!" and pointing out what looked like a crocodile in the mud about 150 metres away. "Linguin!" they cried, "Shoot! Shoot!"  He shot, although the light was poor.
Instantly, there was a most tremendous commotion in the mud. I saw a huge creature whirling round and round in the liquid ooze, first on its head and then on its tail - much like the firework called a Catherine wheel - while liquid mud was being scattered around in all directions.
     That strikes me are a rather unusual behaviour for a wounded animal. Anyhow, the steersman of the canoe seized a Malay scimitar and, diving into the water, swam to shore to do battle with the monster. As they got closer, the baron could see that the linguin had the body of a crocodile attached to the head and neck of a snake. At the approach of the Malay, the linguin ceased its whirling, and strove the bite its opponent, but the Malay dodged all its attacks, while inflicting wounds with his scimitar until a final cut to the neck killed it. 
    With great difficulty, the victor dragged it by the tail to the canoe, where they managed to get it aboard, although the weight almost brought the gunwale on that side to the water line. Since the body alone rested on two thwarts of the boat, it length must have been between nine and ten feet [2.7 to 3 metres]. Although the Malay sword had inflected many gashes, there was no bleeding, and they could see that the flesh was white.  They carried the carcass until the middle of the day, by which time decomposition forced them to discard it.
    The baron stated that never again saw another linguin. Nevertheless, he had recently (c 1899) sighted a letter from Java confirming that the animal did exist.
    What are we to make of this? The anatomy of the animal makes no sense, nor does it relate to anything known, extant or extinct. It was killed near a densely populated area of a densely populated island, and has never been seen since. Pardon me if I am not impressed. However, you now have the details, and can make up your own mind if any further information turns up.
    (As they say: What is the difference between a fairy tale and a traveller's tale? A fairy tale starts: "Once upon a time ..." A traveller's tale starts: "Now, you won't believe this, but ...")
Reference: Lieut.-Col.  Andrew Haggard (March 1899), 'The Linguin', The Wide World Magazine vol. 2 (11), pp 570 - 572.  You can download it for free here.

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