Monkey Stories

‘Those natives are monkeys!’ – this equation was often heard in the European colonies. In their hearts the speakers knew better than that; they just felt like saying something unfriendly. But the idea that the ‘natives’ were nearly animals, a lesser species, was generally accepted.1 Often enough, they were said to have no soul— which for instance made slavery and slave trade much easier. In 1843, a Belgian sea captain was presented in West Africa with a ten year old boy. Not knowing what to do with him at home, he gave him to the Antwerp zoo, where the boy took care of the tropical birds, but also was an exhibit himself.2 In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries European used to display exotic peoples also in circuses, in so called human zoos, and in colonial exhibitions. They would not have done that to ‘real’ human beings.

The Arabs of thousand years ago did not see it more clearly. To them, Africans and inhabitants of Central Asia had no soul either. Since about 800 CE, say since Hārūn al-Rashīd, ships sailed regularly from the Abbasid Empire out East: to India, Indonesia and China. Everybody knows one such seafarer: Sindbad, from Thousand and One Nights. Although he is a fictional person, the stories about him give an impression of the yarn which the sailors brought back home. And stories and reports that were not meant as fiction are hardly more true to life.
The seafarers claimed to have met or at least seen strange creatures in the East. Were they men or monkeys? Sometimes there may have been a genuine confusion, as in the case of what must have been orang utans:

  • There [i.e. on the island of Rami, that is Sumatra] live naked people in the forests whose language is unintelligible, because it is only a whistling. They are small and shy; their height is four span, men and women have small genitals. Their hair is a red down. They climb trees only with their hands, without putting down their feet on them.3

The existence of monkeys as work slaves or house slaves, however, should have struck the serious-minded as most unlikely. Or did the storytellers need eyeglasses? Unfortunately these had not yet been invented.

  • In Ẓafār, a town in Yemen, there was a blacksmith who had a monkey who blew the bellows all day. That monkey stayed with him for about five years. I have been to that city several times and each time I saw [that animal] with him.4
  • Someone told me, that in one of the villages in…. he saw a monkey in the house of a merchant that was his servant. He swept the house, opened and closed the door for visitors, lit the fire under the cooking pot, blew it until it burned well, fed it with firewood, chased the flies away from the table and fanned his master with cool air.5

The highwaymen in the following story seem too big, too clever and too carnivorous to be monkeys:

  • Muḥammad ibn Bābishad told me that giant monkeys live near Ṣanfīn, in the Lāmirī and Qāqula valleys. Each group has a leader that is even bigger than the others. Sometimes they come down from the woods to the paths and roads, hit the travellers and bar their way, unless they give them an animal, a sheep or a cow, or something else edible. He says it had happened more than once that the monkeys prevented them to walk on, tore their clothes, raided them from all sides and cut their water bags, even though they were in a wasteland far from any water. When they gave the monkeys something they were left alone, but then they were without water. The majority of them died of thirst and only a few managed to reach the next watering place.6

Humans cannot have children with monkeys. Had it been possible, we would have known it since thousands of years. The story here below claims it is possible, but does so in a jocular vein. It is indeed a bit of a joke, but with a sad undertone, from our present point of view.

  • A man told me on authority of a sailor on one of his ships that in the year 309 [= 912 CE] he had sailed on a ship of one of his captains to Qāqula. They arrived safely, landed their goods and transported a part to a city on seven day trip from the sea. They pulled the ship ashore in a small bay, three or four parasangs from Qāqula, flung a dam between her and the sea, covered her and put poles around her to prop it up. Then that sailor said: ‘They left me with the necessary food and all went on their way to that city, where they would stay to trade. When they had left, a couple of monkeys appeared walking around the ship and trying to climb on board, but I threw stones at them. One fairly large female monkey could not be chased away and managed to get on board from one side of the ship. I was just eating and threw her a piece of bread that she ate. She stayed with me for a while and then disappeared. She stayed away until the evening, when she appeared again with a bunch of about twenty bananas in her mouth. She screamed, I went to look and she climbed aboard. She put the bananas in front of me and I ate a few. After that she stayed with me, and she came and went with bananas and fruit from that green valley. She spent the night on board, right next to me. That’s how she aroused my desire and I slept with her. Barely three months had passed before she became heavier and started walking like a pregnant woman. She pointed to her belly and I understood that she was pregnant by me. I got very angry and was afraid of the shame if the men came back and saw what had happened. Out of shame, I took the boat from the ship and attached a mast, sails and an anchor to it. I took care of water bags and provisions, grabbed my clothes and whatever else I had and brought them on board. I waited for a moment that the monkey was not there, boarded the boat and sailed, taking a great risk. The ship I left unmanned. After more than twenty hours I landed on one of the Andaman Islands, after I was almost killed by misery, and I stayed on that island for a few days to get to myself. I drank from the sweet water I found there, ate fruits and bananas, and recovered. On that island I have not seen anyone except a few fishermen in boats that landed between the trees. Then I went back to the sea without knowing where I would end up, and sailed about 70 zām until I landed on an island called Badfār(?) Kalah. I stayed there until I could get away to Kalah.
    After a while I met the owner and the people on board of my ship and asked what happened to them. They said they had returned to that place and found on board the ship a monkey that had given birth to a couple of young ones, with faces that resembled human faces, hairless breasts, and tails much shorter than monkey tails. They had already assumed that the female had become pregnant by me and that I had fled in the boat, for they missed nothing except the boat and my luggage. Some thought the monkey had killed me and that the boat had been stolen by a passer-by or a fisherman; they left it in the middle. They had chased away the monkey and her offspring with stones.
    My spokesman also said that the sailor had a very poor eyesight and that, when asked about it, he had answered, ‘My eyesight was so bad that I did not notice that I was sleeping with a monkey; it had become worse during my time on sea.’7

Had the sailor’s eyesight been better, he would have noticed—or would not he?

1. For general reading: Remke Kruk, ‘Traditional Islamic Views of Apes and Monkeys,’ in, Ape, Man, Apeman. Changing Views since 1600, ed. R. Corbey & B. Theunissen, Department of Prehistory, Leiden University 1995, 29–38. Download here.
2. Rudie Kagie, De eerste neger: herinneringen aan de komst van een nieuwe bevolkingsgroep, Houten 1989, 13–15. (In Dutch.)
3. Ibn Khurdhādhbeh, Kitāb al-masālik wal-mamālik, ed. M.J. de Goeje, Leiden 1889, 65:

وبها ناس عراة في غياض لا يفهم كلامهم لأنه صفير وهم صغار يستوحشون من الناس طول الإنسان منهم أربعة أشبار للرجل ذَكر صغير وللمرأة فرج صغير شعر رؤوسهم زَغَب أحمر يتسلقّون على الأشجار بأيديهم من غير أن يضعوا أرجلهم عليها.

4. Bozorg ibn Shahriyār al-Rāmhurmuzī († 1009), ‘Ajā’ib al-Hind, ed. P. A. van der Lith, Leiden 1883–86 (with French translation), 77:

وحدثت أنه كان بالظَفار من مدائن اليمن حدّاد عنده قرد ينفخ على الكور طول نهاره أقام عنده كذاك نحو خمس سنين وترددت الى البلد سفرات وأنا أبصره عنده.

5. ibidem, 77–8:

وحدثني من رأى قردا بقرية من قرى … في منرل بعض التجار يخدمه يكنس منرله  ويفتح الباب لمن دخل ويغلقه خلفه ويقد النار تحت القدر وينفخ فيه حتي يقد ويطاعمه الحطب وينش الذبّان على المائدة ويروّح على مولاه بالمروجة.

6. ibidem, 66-67:

وذاكرت محمد بن بابشاد في حديث القردة وما يحكي عنها فحدثني بصفات كثيرة من أحاديثهم. فمما حدثني به أن بنواحي صنفين وبوادي لامري وبوادي قاقلة قردة في نهاية الكبر وأنّ لكل فرقة منها أمير خلقته أعظم من خلق باقيها وأنّهم ربّما خرجوا من الغياض الى الطرق والمسالك فتضرب السفّارة فتمنعهم السبيل دون أن يعطوهم شيئًا من الحيوان مثل الغنم والبقر وغير ذلك من المأكولات. وذكر محمد بن بابشاد أنه حدثه غير واحد أنه اجتاز على قطعة منهم مع جماعة معه فمنعوهم من المشي فحاربوهم فمزّقوا ثيابهم وتواثبوا عليهم من كل مكان وقطعوا قربهم وهو في مفازات بعيدة عن الماء فأعطوهم شيئًا فتركوهم ولا ماء لهم. فمات أكثر القوم عطشًا ولم يصل منهم الى الماء الثاني الاّ القليل.

7. ibidem, 67-70.

وحدثني أن رجلاً من بانانيّة مركب كان له حدثه أنه خرج في سنة تسع وثلثمائة في مركب لبعض النواخذة إلى قاقلة فانهم وصلوا بالسلامة ونجلوا أمتعتهم إلى البرّ وحملوا بعض الأمتعة إلى بلد بينه وبين البحر مسيرة سبعة أيّام ونحوها. فلما حملوا تلك الأمتعة إلى ذلك البلد رفعوا المركب في خَور صغير على ثلثة فراسخ من قاقلة أو أربعة وسدّوا بينه وبين البحر وجلّلوه وأقاموا الخشب حولها وسنّدوه. قال هذا البناني وتركوا معي من الزاد حاحتي ومضوا بأسرهم إلى تلك المدينة فأقاموا في بيعهم وشرايهم فلمّا بعدوا عني جاءني عدة من القِرَدة فطافوا حول المركب وراموا الصعود اليّ فرميتهم بالحجارة ولاحقتْ المركب قردة لها خلق وجثة فطردتها فلم تبرح فسارقتني من بعض جوانب المركب فصعدتْ اليّ فلما حصلت معي في المركب وكنت آكل فطرحت لها كسرة من خبز فأكلته وأقامت عندي ساعةً ثم نزلت فغابت عن عيني إلى العَشيّ ثم وافت وفي فمها قنو صغير فيه نحو من عشرين موزة فصاحت فتطلّعت اليها فصعدت الى المركب فوضعت الموز بين يديّ فأكلت وأقامت عندي بعد ذلك قكانت تغيب وتجيء بالموز والفاكهة التي في تلك الغَوطة وصارت تبيت معي في المركب والى جانبي فشاقت نفسي اليها فوطيتها فما مضت ثلثة أشهر في مقامي في الموضع حتى ثقلت وجعلت تمشي متحاملة وأومت الى بطنها فعلمت أنها قد حملت منّي. فورد عليّ من ذلك أمر عظيم فخفت الفضيحة متا جاء القوم وشاهدوا الأمر. فحملني الحياء الى أن أخذت دونيج المركب وحملت لها دقلا وشراعا وأنجرا وجعلت فيه قرب ماء وزادا وأخذت ثيابي وما كان معي وحملته فيه. وتعمدت وقتا تغيب فيه القردة فنزلت الى الدونيج ودخلت البحر على غرر عظيم وخطر شديد. وتركت المركب ليس معه أحد فسرت نيفا وعشرين زاما ووقعت الى جزيرة من جزائر أندمان بعد أن كدت الى أن أتلف لعظيم ما مرّ بي من الشدّة. فأقمت في تلك الجزيرة أياما حتى استرحت وأخذت من ماء عذب كان فيها ملؤ قربة ومن ثمار فيها وموز وأصلحت أمري. ولم أكن رأيت بالجزيرة أحدا الاّ الصيادين في قوارب ينزلون بين الشجر. فسرت في البحر لا أدري أين آخذ ولا أهتدي نحو سبعين زاما، فوقعت في جزيرة يقال لها بدفاركله فأقمت بها الى أن خرجت منها الى كله فخرجت منها فلقيت بعد ذلك بزمان صاحب ذلك المركب وقوم راكبون فيها، فقلت: ما شأنكم؟ فقالوا إنهم وردوا الموضع فوجدوا في المركب قردة قد وضعت قردا أو قردين وجوههم تشبه وجوه بني آدم سواء وصدورهم لا شعر عليها وأذنابهم فيها قصر عن أذناب القرود، وظنّوا أن القردة حملت من ذاك الباناني وأنه هرب في الدونيج، لأنهم ما فقدوا شيئا غير الدونيج وآلته وأنّ بعضهم ظنّ أنّ القردة قتلته وأنّ الدونيج سرقه مجتاز أو صيّاد ورجموا الظنون ورموا بالقردة وأولادها. قال لي محمد بن بابشاد: وكان هذا الباناني الذي حدّثني ضعيف البصر جدّا، فسألته عن ذلك، فقال: ضعف بصري لمّا كنت أجامع القردة، وزاد في ضعفه طول مكثي في البحر.

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