Tiger stories

SOME YEARS ago I was travelling on duty in a State on the east coast of Malaya. The State is a long narrow strip of land crossed by a number of rivers that run parallel to each other from their source in the main range of hills to the China Sea. It was on one of these rivers that I was travelling.

My only companion, apart from a few Malay boat-men, was To’Kaya, an important chief of one of the districts of the State. He was a fine specimen of a Malay of the last generation, some fifty years old but very active. He was a short man, with square shoulders, and small hands and feet, and although he was rather thin, his arms and chest were well developed and muscular. The whole of his head was clean-shaven, and his chin and cheeks were kept free of hair by the use of tweezers, but he had a small, fierce, closely-cropped moustache of coarse, bristly hairs whose almost snowy whiteness made a brilliant contrast to the rest of his smooth dark face. His eyes were somewhat sunken, with an expression of suffering and patience, but the wrinkles at their corners often showed a sense of humour. In every way the old man showed the quiet dignity and self-respect of the true Malay.

We took a boat at the mouth of one of the rivers. At first the Malays used their paddles while the tide, flowing in, carried us swiftly past thickly timbered banks. When at last a sandy bottom was reached, they exchanged their paddles for poles. We poled slowly against the strong current until the river became so narrow and so shallow that further progress was difficult.

Then we left the river, and struck inland at right-angles to it. We made our way along a narrow track through heavy forest, where the great trees gave shade and coolness even at midday. At night an armful of leaves was thrown down to make a bed and a screen of wild palm-leaves was placed over the beds to keep off the dew.

In the morning we continued our journey, which lay through the thick forest the whole day, and at night reached the little village on the bank of a river where lived the man I had come to see. When my business was finished, I hired a dug-out, and the next day To’Kaya and I started down-stream.

Travelling was now very pleasant; the swift current carried the boat along and only gentle paddling was required to steer it. To’Kaya and I sat under a little covering made of palm-leaves sewn together and talked the whole day long, while the river opened a gleaming way before us, and the forest-clad banks closed in behind us. The forest was around and above us, and our conversation naturally turned to its inhabitants, both animal and supernatural. In this way we came to discuss were-tigers. Many people believe that these creatures, men who can change themselves into tigers when they wish, really exist.

We began to exchange stories about them, and I told To’Kaya a tale that I had heard when visiting the upper part of the Slim river. There, in a lonely hill-padi clearing, lived a Malay, his wife, and their two children, young boys of the age when they learn to read the Koran.

One night came a rap at the door of the house which was built on posts some ten feet above the ground. When the father asked who was there, a voice replied, “We ask for a light. Our torches have gone out, and we have some distance to go.” Now it is well known that evil spirits often use this trick to get into a house, and therefore one should beware of opening the door. While the father was questioning the stranger, the two boys slipped out of the house by the ladder behind the kitchen and moved silently under the bamboo floor to peep upwards at the stranger. They saw a man standing on the ladder talking to their father, but even while he spoke a tail striped in black and yellow dropped down behind his legs, which themselves then began to change colour. The toes became claws, the feet turned to paws, and the knee-joints, already striped with the awful black and yellow, were turning from front to back.

All this time the face remained human and continued to talk to the master of the house. In desperation the two boys seized the tail that dangled before them, and shouted to their father to kill the thing. Before he could reach for his spear the animal, now nearly all tiger, tore itself from the grasp of the youngsters and fled into the darkness of the forest.

Although I did not tell the story as a true one, To’Kaya shook his head and said, “That was a narrow escape. But it is right that we should talk of were-tigers, for here in the village of Bentong, which we are approaching, there was a were-tiger not many years ago.” This is To’Kaya’s story:

A few years ago Bentong, an important village containing fifty houses, had suffered much from the raids of a tiger. Scarcely a month passed without a buffalo or two being taken, and the Malays were in despair. They had tried every kind of trap without success, and were beginning to talk of leaving the village, for soon their whole herd of buffaloes might be taken, and they would not be able to plough the padi-fields.

One afternoon in drenching rain and growing darkness, an old pedlar named Haji Brahim was hurrying towards the village, where he intended to spend the night. Now he came from the district of Korinchi in Sumatra, and many Malays believed that men from that district possessed the power to take the shape of a tiger. However Haji Brahim was well-known in the area, for he had been selling his cloth and silk to the women of the villages for years. On this occasion he was late and was feeling nervous, for he had heard of the Bentong tiger.

Suddenly he heard the tiger roar close by. Shaking with fear, he ran for his life towards the village. He had not gone far before he came upon a tiger-trap built at the side of the path with its door wide open. The trap was a cage made of heavy wood with a dog inside it as bait for a tiger, and as he saw it Haji Brahim was struck with an idea. If the trap would keep a tiger in, surely it would also keep one out. He crawled in and let the heavy door fall behind him. All that night he heard the tiger roaring close by, but he knew he was safe.

The next morning he was stiff and shivering but alive, and he added a special thanksgiving to his morning prayer. He could not raise the heavy door of the trap, but he was content to stay where he was, for he knew that before long some one would certainly pass along the track. Soon he heard a man approaching, and shouted to him for help. The man looked around, but could not find where the voice was coming from.

“Where are you ?” he called.

“Here! In the tiger-trap!”

The Malay came up and, peering into the darkness of the trap, cried, “Who are you? What is it?”

“It is I, Haji Brahim,” was the answer. “I am in the tiger-trap.”

The man peered closer, puzzled, and then suddenly recognised the face of the prisoner. At that moment a terrible idea struck him.

“It is Haji Brahim, the Korinchi,” he yelled in terror and ran off down the track with one idea only in his mind: the tiger which had troubled them so long was now in their trap, and it was a were-tiger!

The boom of the mosque-drum soon echoed throughout the village, and all the villagers crowded round the house of the chief. The man who had given the alarm told his story, and all the men went to the tiger-trap, the Raja leading the way with the other Malays following him, each armed with a spear, and a belt full of krises and daggers. When they reached the trap, Raja Alang demanded of the prisoner, “What is the meaning of this ?”

The old man’s heart sank at the tone of the Raja’s voice. During the long night it had not occurred to him that, being a Korinchi, his presence in the tiger-trap would seem very suspicious. Now he saw that he was on trial.

“Let me out,” he pleaded. “Let me out, and I will explain everything.”

“That cannot be,” replied the Raja. “First you must explain how you came to be in this trap.”

“Yes,” agreed the voices in the background, “for who would release a tiger when once it is caught?”

“How came you here? Was it not you whom we heard roaring last night?” demanded the Raja.

“No, Raja, no,” answered the old pedlar; “the tiger, which is always here, roared close to me last night, and it was to save my life that I ran into this trap.”

“How can anyone believe such a story?” murmured the crowd.

“The sole of your foot on the crown of my head, Raja; have not you and all these men known me for years ? Am I not an old man and weak, and could I do such a thing as this that you think of me?”

“But whoever heard of an honest man in a tiger-trap?” the voices behind the Raja repeated

“The tracks will prove the truth of what I say ,” cried the pedlar .

They thought that this was a good idea, but when they examined the ground they found that the crowd had trampled all round the trap. All that could be seen were the tiger’s tracks which led up to the trap and then disappeared in the trampled ground around it. This they regarded as further proof that the tiger was now inside the cage.

“But I can prove that I left the village of Siputeh yesterday morning to come to Bentong. Everyone saw me there,” wept the old man.

“That may be true,” said some one in the crowd, “but it is of last night that we speak. The tiger was here last night, and you are in the tiger-trap this morning.”

The pedlar, who was on his hands and knees in the small cage, saw that argument was of no use. He turned his face up to his judges and tried through his tears to recognise them. He called to the village imaum and offered to swear on oath on the Koran that his story was true. Usually such an offer would be accepted, but the villagers felt that if the man were a were-tiger then he would not hesitate to tell a lie in order to gain his freedom.

When the poor old man saw that he had failed, he cried to those who had known him the longest, and begged them to have pity on him and to spare his life. He promised to do anything that was asked of him, and, if necessary, to leave the country for ever. But the Malays did not dare show pity, for their one concern was to protect their herds, their crops, and their very lives.

“If we open the trap-door,” said the Raja, turning to the men who leant on their spears behind him, “and let this that we have here now go loose, what is our position?”

What was their position? The little village stood by itself in the middle of a vast forest, completely unprotected. It is easy to imagine how sick with helpless misery they must have felt at being at the mercy of something that was partly tiger, partly devil. It is easy to imagine their fierce joy at the thought of having trapped it.

A Malay who had lost many buffaloes stepped forward.

“Who of us has not lost one or more of his buffaloes? Who does not know that the Korinchi can turn themselves into tigers? Did we not all hear the tiger roar last night? Have we not seen his tracks here? And here, where the tracks lead up to the trap, have we not, by the grace of Allah, got the Korinchi trapped? What more?”

“What more?” said old To’Kaya, turning to me. At the sign from the Raja, one of the men stepped up to the trap, and, thrusting through the open bars of the woodwork, drove his spear through the old man’s side.

For a moment I was silent with horror, and then said, “Pity on an old man to die in such a manner!”

“What pity does a tiger show?” retorted To’Kaya, “and what pity can it expect? Was it not clearly proved that this man was a were-tiger? It was not that he was unfairly tried. The men of Bentong had known Haji Brahim for many years, and they had no ill-feeling against him as a man. The Raja – Raja Alang, whom we shall see in the village if we stop the boat and call in – is both merciful and fair. Could he have decided otherwise?”

I pointed out that the evidence was circumstantial, that is to say that although the circumstances were suspicious, there was no actual proof that Haji Brahim was a were-tiger; there might be some other explanation.

To’Kaya listened politely, then said, “That may be, but have not men been hanged on less evidence?”

I could not think of a suitable reply.

In Malay Forests by Sir George Maxwell (1910).


Book cover: In Malay Forests by George Maxwell
Book illustration: One man stepped up to kill the old man
Would you kill a man if you think
he’s a were-tiger?

Sir George Maxwell (1870-1959) was Chief Secretary of Malaya from 1920-1926. His anthology was first published in 1910. My copy (right), from a secondhand book store, was a 1962 reprint by George G Harrap & Co. There are 11 stories, based on the author’s frequent hunting trips in the forest.

“A traveller on one of the local steamers along the west coast of Malaya sees an unbroken line, level as that of the sea, of dark-green forest. The peninsula of Malaya is almost completely covered with forest,” says Sir George.