“MISTER WILLIAMS, WHERE are we?”
“In the heart of Malaysia, my dear Kammamuri.”
“How much longer before we reach our destination?”
“Bored, are you?”
“No, just in a great hurry; the Young India’s barely moving.”
Mister Williams, a forty-year-old American seafarer, just over five feet tall, looked at his companion in dismay. The man in question was a tall, dark Indian about twenty-four or twenty-five years of age, with noble, almost refined features, naked to the waist, save for his earrings and several gold neck-rings that rested gracefully above his broad chest.
“What!?!” the American cried out indignantly. “Barely moving? That’s an insult, my good Maratha.”
“For those in a hurry, Mister Williams, a cruiser flying at fifteen knots would be advancing at a crawl.”
“By the devil, why such haste?” asked the quartermaster, scratching his head. “Off to collect an inheritance?”
“Hardly! If you knew...”
“Well then, don’t keep me in the dark, young man—”
“Pardon? The wind makes it hard for me to hear...”
“Ah, playing deaf now, are we? You’re hiding something; that much is obvious! That young woman travelling with you, is she—”
“Returning to my original question, Mister Williams. When are we going to reach port!?”
“Which port, my friend?”
“Now that’s in the hands of Fate. You never know what can happen at sea. A typhoon could come bearing down upon us at any moment; or a gang of pirates could board our ship and send us to the devil with a kris between our ribs or two lengths of rope round our necks.”
“There are pirates in these waters?” asked the Indian.
“As ferocious as they come. They’re every bit as dangerous as those stranglers you’ve got in India.”
“Look over there, towards the bowsprit. What do you see?”
“It’s crawling with pirates. That’s Mompracem, my friend. Makes me shiver just saying the name.”
“That little patch of land is home to a man who has reddened these waters with blood. Have you ever heard speak of Sandokan?”
“Sandokan, known as the Tiger of Malaysia, and the name isn’t given lightly. He’s ferocious, merciless! If we fell into his hands, he’d slay us all without a second thought.”
“And the British haven’t moved to crush him?” asked the Indian, surprised.
“Destroying the Tigers of Mompracem is no easy feat,” replied the quartermaster. “Back in 1850, the British assembled a powerful fleet and stormed the island. They captured the Tiger after a tremendous battle, but before they could reach Labuan, the pirate mysteriously escaped.”
“And returned to Mompracem?”
“No. For two years there wasn’t so much as a peep out of him, he’d vanished from these waters, but then a few months ago he reappeared at the head of a new band of pirates, Malays and Dyaks, fearless to a man. After slaughtering the handful of British colonists fool enough to settle in his former lair, he retook his island and began to rove the sea once more.”
A whistle sounded from the bridge, as a gust of wind rattled the masts.
“Darn!” said Mister Williams, quickly raising his head. “Looks like things are about to take a turn for the worse.”
“What do you mean?” the Indian asked nervously.
“Do you see those dark clouds? They sure don’t mean clear sailing.”
“Are we in danger?”
“The Young India is a sturdy ship; she’s weathered many a storm. Now, to work, the sea’s getting restless.”
Mister Williams had not been mistaken. The water had turned leaden and the sea, until then as smooth as glass, had begun to toss and roll.
In the east, towards the large island of Borneo, an enormous cloud as black as tar slowly shrouded the setting sun. Albatross squawked nervously as they flitted about the climbing waves.
A dead calm followed that first gust of wind; claps of thunder rumbled in the east, filling the passengers and crew with apprehension.
“Clear the deck!” bellowed Captain MacClintock, gesturing for the passengers to be taken below.
Everyone reluctantly obeyed, descending through the hatches along the bow and stern. One man, however, had remained behind, the Indian Kammamuri.
“I said clear the deck!” thundered the captain.
“Captain,” said the Maratha, advancing determinedly, “Are we in danger?”
“You’ll know once the storm has passed.”
“I have to get to Sarawak, Captain.”
“And you will, provided we don’t sink.”
“I have to get to Sarawak! It’s important! I must—”
“Mister Williams, remove this man! I have no time for this!”
The Indian was dragged away and forced down the nearest hatch. A strong wind blew from the east, roaring through the ship’s rigging. Thunder rumbled incessantly as the black cloud stretched across the sky.
The Young India was a magnificent three-masted schooner that bore her fifteen years well. Her light but sturdy construction, her enormous sails, her strong keel, reminded one of those daring blockade runners that were to play an almost legendary role in the American Civil War. She had set sail from Calcutta on the 26th of August 1852, bearing a cargo of iron rails for Sarawak.
She carried fourteen crewmen, two officers and six passengers; aided by favourable winds she had arrived in Malay waters in less than thirteen days, or more precisely, she had arrived within sight of the dreaded island of Mompracem, home to the fiercest pirates in the South China Sea. By eight, they were in almost total darkness. The sun had disappeared behind the clouds, and the wind roared with ever-increasing intensity. The sea raged about them; mammoth swells collided and disappeared in a spray of foam as enormous waves broke against the shores of Mompracem, its sinister mass looming menacingly before them.
The Young India raced forward, pitching over the waves, hurtling into troughs and climbing mountains of water, her masts tearing at the clouds.
Barefoot, faces drawn, their hair whipped by the wind, the crew grumbled as they went about their tasks. The scuppers could not keep pace, and the decks streamed with water, making each manoeuvre more difficult. Commands and curses mixed with the cries of the storm.
By nine, the three-master, tossed about like a toy, had arrived in the waters off Mompracem.
Mister Williams pulled at the wheel with all his might, but despite his efforts, the Young India was dragged so close to the reefs and shoals ringing the island, the crew feared she would be dashed to pieces.
Much to his horror, Captain MacClintock spied several bonfires burning along the shore. A flash of lightning illuminated a tall man standing at the edge of an immense cliff that towered over the sea. Arms crossed, he stood motionless as the elements swirled violently about him. The man’s eyes flared like burning coals and were fixed upon him strangely. For a moment it appeared to the captain that the man had waved in friendship, but he could not tell for certain, for darkness returned within seconds, and a gust of wind quickly tore the Young India away.
“May the Good Lord save us!” exclaimed Mister Williams, who had also sighted the man. “That was the Tiger of Malaysia.”
His voice was stifled by a powerful clap of thunder, the start of a deafening symphony. The heavens erupted in flames, bathing the storm-tossed sea in a sinister light. Lightning streaked the sky, jagged bolts danced about the ship, striking the water mere cable lengths from her sides.
The sea, as if not to be outdone, swelled to enormous heights. Waves grew ever more mountainous, sparkling like gold with each flash of light as they climbed towards the heavens. The wind, too, added its voice, roaring furiously as it lashed the ship and drove squalls of rain across the sky.
Pitching wildly, the Young India bravely battled the elements. She groaned beneath the onslaught of waves; she climbed, she dove, thrashing the waters with her bowsprit as she was dragged north, then south, against her helmsman’s will. At times the crew thought the ship had began to sink, so large were the waves charging over her shattered bulwarks. Then, at midnight, the harsh north wind shifted and began to blow her towards the east.
The ship could resist no longer. To sail against the typhoon was certain death. Though the crew had not spied so much as a trace of land in the west, save for the dreaded shores of Mompracem, Captain MacClintock had to acknowledge defeat and attempt to escape with all the speed the Young India could muster from her few remaining sails.
Two hours had passed since the ship had tacked about; however, the waves had not relented, as if determined to sink her.
The lightning storm had almost passed, only the odd flash lit the heavens from time to time; the darkness had grown so thick the crew could see no more than two hundred paces before them. Suddenly, a menacing roar reached the captain’s ear.
“Eyes to leeward!” he thundered, his voice booming over the wind and waves.
“Breakers!” shouted a voice.
“Reef ahead!” replied another.
Captain MacClintock rushed towards the bow, grabbed onto the forestay and climbed up onto what remained of the bulwarks.
Though all was dark and the wind howled about him, the roar of the backwash was unmistakable. As he had suspected, a chain of rocks jutted out from the water a few cable lengths from his ship, perhaps an extension of the reefs that defended Mompracem.
“Prepare to tack!” he cried.
Mister Williams pulled mightily on the wheel with all the strength that remained in him. Almost simultaneously, the ship struck something hard.
That blow, however, had not done much damage. Only a small section of the false keel had been torn away by the sharp coral that covered the top of the reef.
Waves and wind pushed the vessel forward, but the crew, undaunted, calmly executed the manoeuvre. The Young India came about, tacked two hundred meters and escaped the perilous waters. For a moment it appeared all would end well. The sounding line had been cast off the bow and measured a depth of fourteen fathoms.
Thoughts of salvation had begun to spread among the men, when, suddenly, the sound of backwash thundered before the boom and the sea swelled violently, heralding new danger.
“Helm hard up, Bill!” thundered Captain MacClintock.
“We’re going to crash!” shouted a crewman who had gone down to the bowsprit.
His warning did not reach the stern. A mountain of water thundered down upon the starboard side of the three-masted vessel, knocking her violently to port, dragging down the crewmen who had been clinging to the braces and smashing the lifeboats against the capstan.
There was a formidable roar followed by the sound of splintering wood as a sudden collision shook the masts from bow to stern.
Dashed against the reef, the Young India had been gutted with one blow; six crewmen, torn from the ship by the waves, had been hurled against the rocks.