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The Kris, And How The Malays Use It
by [?]

In an old dog-eared copy of Monteith’s Geography, I remember a picture of a half-dozen pirate prahus attacking a merchantman off a jungle-bordered shore. A blazing sun hung high in the heavens above the fated ship, and, to my youthful imagination, seemed to beat down on the tropical scene with a fierce, remorseless intensity. The wedge-shaped tops of some palm-thatched and palm-shaded huts could just be seen, set well back from the shore.

I used to think that if I were a boy on that ship, I would slip quietly overboard, swim ashore, and while the pirates were busy fighting, I would set fire to their homes and so deliver the ship from their clutches. Little did I know then of the acres of bewildering mangrove swamps filled with the treacherous crocodiles that lie between the low-water line and the firm ground of the coast.

But always the most striking thing in the little woodcut to me were the curious, snake-like knives that the naked natives held in their hands. I had never seen anything like them before. I went to the encyclopaedia and found that the name of the knife was spelled kris and pronounced creese.

The day-dreams which seemed impossible in the days of Monteith’s Geography have since been realized. I am living, perhaps, within sight of the very place where the scene of the picture was laid; for it was supposed to be illustrative of the Malay Peninsula; and, as I write, one of those snake-like krises lies on the table before me. It is a handsomer kris than those used by the actors in that much-studied picture of my youth. The sheath and handle are of solid gold–a rich yellow gold, mined at the foot of Mount Ophir, the very same mountain so famous in Bible history, from which King Solomon brought “gold, peacocks’ feathers, and monkeys.” The wavy, flame-like blade is veined with gold, and its dull silvery surface is damascened with as much care as was ever taken with the old swords of Damascus. It is only an inch in width and a foot in length and does not look half as dangerous as a Turkish cimeter; yet it has a history that would put that of the tomahawk or the scalping-knife to shame. Many a fat Chinaman, trading between the Java islands and Amoy, has felt its keen edge at his throat and seen his rich cargo of spices and bird’s-nests rifled, his beloved Joss thrown overboard, and his queer old junk burnt before his eyes. Many a Dutch and English merchantman sailed from Batavia and Bombay in the days of the old East India Company and has never more been heard of until some mutilated survivor returned with a harrowing tale of Malay piracy and of the lightning-like work of the dreaded kris.

I do not know whether my kris has ever taken life or not. Had it done so, I do not think the Sultan would have given it to me, for a kris becomes almost priceless after its baptism of blood. It is handed down from generation to generation, and its sanguine history becomes a part of the education of the young. Next to his Koran the kris is the most sacred thing the Malay possesses. He regards it with an almost superstitious reverence. My kris is dear to me, not from any superstitious reasons, but because it was given me by his Highness, the Sultan of Johore, the only independent sovereign on the peninsula, and because the gold of its sheath came from the jungle-covered slopes of Mount Ophir.

The maker of the kris is a person of importance among the Malays, and ofttimes he is made by his grateful Rajah a Dato, or Lord, for his skill. Like the blades of the sturdy armorers of the Crusades, his blades are considered, as he fashions them from well-hammered and well-tempered Celebes iron, works of art and models for futurity. He is exceedingly punctilious in regard to their shape, size, and general formation, and the process of giving them their beautiful water lines is quite a ceremony. First the razor-like edges are covered with a thin coating of wax to protect them from the action of the acids; then a mixture of boiled rice, sulphur, and salt is put on the blade and left for seven days until a film of rust rises to the surface. The blade is then immersed in the water of a young cocoanut or the juice of a pineapple and left seven days longer. It is next brushed with the juice of a lemon until all the rust is cleared away, and then rubbed with arsenic dissolved in lime-juice and washed with cold spring water. Finally it is anointed with cocoanut oil, and as a concluding test of its fineness and temper, it is said that in the old days its owner would rush out into the kampong, or village, and stab the first person he met.

The sheath of the kris is generally made of kamooning wood, but often of ivory, gold, or silver. The handle, while more frequently of wood or buffalo horn, is sometimes of gold studded with precious stones and worth more than all the other possessions of its owner put together.

The kris, too, has its etiquette. It is always worn on the left side stuck into the folds of the sarong, or skirt, the national dress of the Malay. During an interview it is considered respectful to conceal it; and its handle is turned with its point close to the body of the wearer, if the wearer be friendly. If, however, there is ill blood existing, and the wearer is angry, the kris is exposed, and the point of the handle turned the reverse way.

The kris as a weapon of offence and defence is now almost a thing of the past. It is rapidly going the way of the tomahawk and the boomerang–into the collector’s cabinet. There is a law in Singapore that forbids its being worn, and outside of Johore and the native states it is seldom seen. It is still used as an executioner’s knife by the protected Sultan of Selangor, its keen point being driven into the heart of the victim; but in a few years that practice, too, will be abolished by the humane intervention of the English government.

It is to be hoped that the record of the kris is not as bad as it has been painted by some, and that at times in its bloody career it has been on the side of justice and right. The part it took in the piracy that once made the East Indian seas so famous was not always done for the sake of gain, but often for revenge and for independence.