14 March 2005

Dutch Bathing Practices in Kupang, Timor, 1792

In 1792, American Lieutenant Amasa Delano spent some time in Dutch West Timor with the British McCluer Expedition.
A river of clean, clear water flowed through Copang [= Kupang, West Timor] to the sea; and a short distance from the mouth of the river was the bathing resort of the well-to-do residents of Copang. The families of the government officials of account and of the merchants in profitable business composed pretty much all the well-to-do people of the port. On fine days, and most days in tropic Timor were fine, they went in for bathing en masse. The bathing scene was a delight to Amasa:

"The bank of the river where they bathed was shaded with rows of fragrant trees, and under the trees were small dressing cabins. The Dutch, men and women both, donned a Malay garment for the bath, a sort of petticoat, which was tied high up on the breast, but so tied as to leave the arms free. Some of these bathing garments were of extremely fine texture, and with beautiful designs woven into them."

Amasa and his brother officers were furnished with the same sort of bathing robes of extremely fine texture and beautiful design. "Men and women bathed together, picking out a spot with their backs to the current, and allowed the swift running water to rush over their heads, or flow around them." Amasa was always among those present at the bathing hour. His choice of place was between two rocks; and there, with a stone against which to brace his feet, he sat in secure enjoyment of the current, without incurring danger in an absent-minded moment of being swept down-river and put to the labor of swimming back against the current. He liked to swim, and these days in Timor were for relaxation after the wearying passage from New Guinea.

While the favored people bathed, Malay slaves were setting the tables and laying the lunch in the shade of the wide-spreading, handsome trees on the bank of the river. It was the life for a sailor ashore--that is, when the sailor was an officer.

"There was the river foaming over the rocks below gently in some places, sublimely in others; and the river was on the opposite shore spreading itself out like a transparent lake with lovely scenery reflected in its calm surface."

Amasa and his bathing brother officers would work up grand appetites while observing the tables being loaded deep with the wide variety of savory dishes. There were also oceans of fine wines. Amasa had not yet had the experience of sitting in at a party when English officials took on the job of entertaining Dutch rivals in trade; but certainly the Dutch in Amboyna and here in Timor were setting a warm pace against the day when it came the turn of the English to do the entertaining. For the prestige of that Royal Navy to which his officer shipmates belonged, he hoped said officers would rise to the occasion when it came their turn to play host. They would have to log the good knots to do so. The Dutch in Amboyna had done them well; the Dutch governor's widow in Timor and her official aides were doing them even better:

"The Dutch in Timor gave us altogether too good a time. It may have been the too frequent bathing, and staying too long at it that brought on intermittent fevers, from which several of our officers died. These deaths from the bathing in Timor were not the first of their kind, which I have known from personal observation."

... Not long before the McCluer visit to Timor, Lieutenant Bligh of the Bounty mutiny episode had arrived there [in 1789]. Timor was still lauding the seamanship and fortitude of Bligh and the men who had survived that long passage in that open boat, and Amasa thought the laudations well deserved. But shortly after Bligh's departure from Timor another boat's crew arrived there from a more perilous and far longer voyage than Bligh's; and they made the passage with only a chart and a compass for their navigation. While McCluer's officers were still at Timor that boat's crew of the more perilous passage were being held in ignominy in Copang.

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