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Strange articles of trade

The letters of 19th century naturalist and botanist, James Motley, in Kew's Directors' Correspondence archive tell the story of his journey through the Singapore Straits to reach Sumatra. Read about his fascinating encounters and observations of island culture.
Virginia Mills

Many of the most interesting letters in the Directors' Correspondence collection come from intrepid botanists and collectors who ventured into little-explored areas in the pursuit of plants and artefacts unknown in the West.

One such man was James Motley.  A civil engineer by profession, he worked for mining companies, first in Labuan and later at Banjarmasin, in Borneo, where he died on 1 May 1859 during the massacre of Europeans at Kalangan at the start of the Banjarmasin war.

The sections of Motley's correspendence with Sir William Jackson Hooker that I found most interesting were those regarding the diverse items of trade he encountered on his journey through the Singapore straits to reach Sumatra.  For example, at a fishing settlement called Kasoo, Motley observed:

"Among the strange articles of trade here I saw a basket full of fat white Annelidae [that's worms!] as thick as the thumb and about a foot long, they are formed in the decayed wood of a Rhizophora sp…after it has laid long in the salt water and fetch a good price among the rich Chinese at Singapore, who consider them a rare delicacy".


Extract from Motley's account of his journey to Sumatra, from a letter dated 28th November 1854

Though Motley finds most of the islanders to be engaged in legitimate trade, he expresses concern at stories of their "piratical propensities".  Arriving after dark at a settlement called Sungei Sipagu on the island of Suggi, Motley felt obliged to have his rifle and hunting knife by his side whilst resting on his rattan sleeping mat, as the Suggi people were said to be 'occasional pirates'.  In the morning however he found them engaged not in piracy but in drying agar-agar and pounding dammar resin in preparation for trade.

Agar-agar is a Sargasssum which Motley observed being collected by the women and children of Suggi from a reef  exposed at low tide. Once gathered it is laid out on mats to dry in the sun.  Motley describes it to Hooker but is unable to identify it beyond calling it "an algae".  It is turned into a jelly used to make sweet and savoury dishes.  Already used extensively in China, Motley suggested that it could be successfully exported to Europe in its dried form at an advantage to "the home trade".

Dammar resin is obtained from Dipterocarpaceae, and Motley describes the process by which the powdered resin is made into torches. When very fine it is melted in boiling wood oil and mixed with crumbled rotten wood until it is of a consistency to be formed into batons, these are covered with the leaflets of a stemless palm, Zalacca [Salacca] conferta to form torches with the appearance of gigantic cigars.

On reaching the coast of Sumatra, Motley encountered the 'Orang Laut' or 'Men-of-the-Sea' who spend their entire lives on their boat-homes.  He was impressed to observe their very effective method of fishing which employs a 'balat' - a fishing weir made of bamboo fastened with twisted stems of a Cissus species. Motley was able to obtain a bundle of the fish from the catch by trading with the chief or 'Orang Kaya' who desired, in return, Motley's old pair of trousers, to which he took a great fancy!


A water bottle, made of a gourd, in a woven carrier. Donated to Kew by James Motley, it would once have been carried by the Dyak tribe from Borneo, where Motley resided.

Many of the items Motley collected, and perhaps traded for, are in Kew's Herbarium and Economic Botany Collection.  They include plants used as medicines, dyes, poisons, perfumes and preservatives, as well as items of clothing and domestic utensils made from plant materials. 

- Ginny -


More Information

  • We don't yet have an online catalogue for the archive but details of many of Kew's catalogued collections are available through the National Archives Catalogue.
  • All of Kew's Latin American Directors' Correspondence is available to view online for those with access to JSTOR plant science and more Asian content is being added all the time.
  • Search Kew's Herbarium Catalogue for plant specimens collected and donated by James Motley.