The Mois

IN THE EARLY PART of the last century the Mois seem to have been regarded as articulate animals rather than human beings. European traders did their best, but without success, to acquire specimens for zoological collections in Europe. In 1819, Captain Rey of Bordeaux, who carried a cargo of firearms to the Emperor of Annam, was assured by no less a dignitary than the Mandarin of the Strangers, of the existence of ‘Moys, or wild men’. The Mandarin had seen many of them when commanding a corps of elephants in the interior. They had tails, he said, and he had managed to capture one and bring it back with him to the capital as a present for the Emperor. Rey was interested enough to take this up with the French mandarins at the court, when he visited them, and they confirmed all he had been told, beyond possibility of doubt. ‘My respectable friends … had never seen these extraordinary creatures; but they had so often heard their existence affirmed by men of character and probity, that they knew not how to disbelieve the report. The tail was said to be in length about eight inches and a half. Although endowed with speech as well as with the human figure, the mandarins seemed, I thought, to conceive them to be only irrational animals.’ With the foregoing exception, Rey said, concluding his report of the fauna of Cochin-China, all its abundant variety of animals could be found in the adjoining countries.
Before the end of the century, these opinions had to be modified. The explorer Mouhot – discoverer of Angkor Vat – had published an account of his visit to the Stieng tribe. The Mois were officially conceded souls and some theorists even began to raise the matter of the lost tribes of Israel. However, until the Colonial era with its census-taking, and head-taxes, these newly promoted human beings remained inaccessible, and still fairly mysterious, in their forests.
The Moi’s, it seems, are well aware of the unsatisfactory state of the technical side of their civilisation and usually seek to excuse themselves to strangers who allude to it by citing one of their self-deprecatory legends. A favourite one describes the tactical disadvantages suffered at the creation, when the Mols were last to crawl out of the holes in the ground and found everything worth having already appropriated. Then again, the matter of illiteracy, they say. What could you expect? When the Great Spirit told all the nations to bring writing materials, on which their alphabets would be inscribed, the Moi’s with typical improvidence, instead of providing tablets of stone or even wood, turned up with a piece of deerskin, which later, complete with alphabet, was eaten by the dogs.
There are supposed to be about a million Mols distributed over the mountainous areas of Indo-China. The exact number is unknown, as a few remote valleys have not even made their official submission. But whatever it is, it is dwindling rapidly, as in the districts most affected by Western penetration some villages have lost half their number in a single generation. They are a handsome, bronze-skinned people, of Malayo- Polynesian stock, related to the Dyaks of Borneo, the Igoroths and Aetas of the Philippines and to the various tribes inhabiting the hinterlands of such widely separated parts as Madagascar and Hainan Island, off the coast of China. They hunt with the crossbow, being particularly noted for their skill in the capture and taming of elephants, which they sell as far afield as Burma. A clue to the extent of their culture’s diffusion is given by their use of the sap of the Ipoh tree for poisoning their arrow-tips. The utilisation of this poison, although the Ipoh tree grows in many other areas, is limited to Malaysia, Indo-China, a small easterly strip of Thailand and Burma, Borneo and Timor. The poison’s effect is intensified, as necessary, according to the size of the game, by adding to it a strychnine-containing decoction from broial root and extracts of the fangs of snakes and scorpions’ stings. A scratch from a weapon dipped in this appalling concoction – the use of which is hedged about with many semi-religious prohibitions – produces death in the case of human beings in a few minutes.
The Moi’s cultivate rice by the ‘dry’ method, which is to say that they burn down parts of the forest just before the beginning of the rainy season, drop their rice seed into the holes in the ground and leave the rains to do the rest. The name Moi is Vietnamese for ‘savage’. The Moi’s have been enslaved by all the technically superior races, Siamese, Laotians and Cambodians, among others, who have come into contact with them. Far from having derived any benefit from this association with their superiors, the greater the degree of external influence the more deplorable the condition of the Moi’s who have suffered it.
The free survivors seem to the casual observer to lead gay and sociable existences, much occupied with gluttonous feasting and the consump¬tion of rice-spirit. This hearty manner of living is said to depend upon and be proportionate to the tribe’s inaccessibility. Unless compelled to, Moi’s do not work for wages and their civilised neighbours are shocked by what they consider their incurable sloth. Village labours, however, such as the erection of houses or the clearing of the forest, are undertaken communally and with great zest. The Moi’s are art-collectors, and wealth consists in the possession of gongs, drums and jars, some of which are of ancient Chinese or Cham origin and therefore of great value, even in the West. Occasionally such museum pieces are wheedled out of them by Europeans who tend to remain in ignorance of the treasure they have stumbled upon, under the impression that they have acquired nothing more than an interesting example of Moi artisanship.

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