ON THE NIGHT of December 20th, 1849, a violent hurricane raged over Mompracem, a small island a few hundred miles off the west coast of Borneo and home to the most feared pirates in the South China Sea. Whipped by the wind, the raging seas roared relentlessly among the crashes of thunder, while above, clouds swirled wildly across the sky unleashing torrents of rain upon the island’s dark forests.
A cluster of ships rocked and tugged at anchor in the bay, sheltered somewhat by a reef. Not a soul stirred upon their decks nor among the longhouses and palisades lining the shore. Darkness blanketed the forest and tempestuous waters. If anyone sailing from the east had chanced to look carefully, however, they would have spotted two flickering dots, a pair of brightly lit windows illuminated atop a cliff that jutted over the sea.
There, beyond a labyrinth of battered trenches, embankments, and ramparts, past terrain strewn with broken blades and posts adorned with the skulls of slain enemies, stood a large hut. A red flag, emblazoned with the head of a ferocious tiger, braved the wild wind from a pole on the roof.
A large room within that great dwelling was alight; its walls hung with red silk tapestries, long worn and tattered, the floor disappearing beneath layers of Persian carpets blazing with gold despite tear and age.
An ebony table, inlaid with mother-of-pearl and trimmed with silver, stood in the center of the room, crowded with bottles and glasses of the purest crystal. Enormous shelves occupied three corners, packed with the booty of past boarding raids. Vases of myriad size and shape proudly displayed their contents, each brimming over with rings, bracelets, earrings, lockets, medallions, sacred relics and exquisite pearls from the fisheries of Ceylon. Emeralds, rubies and diamonds sparkled under the glow of the gilded lamp hanging from the ceiling.
An old Turkish divan occupied the fourth corner, and next to it, against the wall, stood an ebony harmonium. Carpets, clothes, paintings, lamps, empty bottles, glassware, Indian carbines, Spanish rifles, cutlasses, axes, scimitars, daggers, and pistols filled much of the space, set where chance had placed them.
A man sat alone in that oddly furnished room. He was tall and well built, with strong, proud features. Shoulder length hair and a black beard framed his lightly bronzed face. He had a high forehead, dark piercing eyes, and a small mouth.
He had been sitting for several minutes, eyes fixed on the lamp, hands nervously clasping the hilt of his scimitar which protruded from the gold-embroidered red sash he wore about his blue silk jacket.
A wild blast of wind suddenly shook the large hut to its foundations and tore him from his thoughts. He threw back his long wavy hair, took up a turban adorned with a walnut-sized diamond, fixed it upon his head, then stood up and looked about.
“It’s midnight,” he murmured. “Midnight and he still hasn’t returned!”
He drained a glass of whiskey and went out. He walked past the trenches defending the hut, stopped at the edge of the large cliff, and listened to the sea raging below.
Arms crossed, he stood there for several minutes, revelling in the storm’s violent gales. He gazed impatiently at the churning waters, then slowly turned and went back into the hut. He stopped before the harmonium and ran his fingers along the keyboard, filling the air with a series of rapid, almost savage sounds then listened as one by one they faded into the wind and thunder.
A sudden noise made him turn his head toward the door. He leaned forward and listened, straining his ears, and then yes! He bolted out of the hut and ran to the cliff once again. A flash of lightning helped him make out a small ship, her sails reefed, entering the bay. Eyes trained upon her, he followed her every move until she disappeared among the vessels moored along the shore. He put a gold whistle to his lips and blew three sharp notes; a high-pitched whistle promptly came in reply.
“It’s him!” he whispered excitedly. “Finally!”
Five minutes later, a man wrapped in a large wet cloak appeared before him.
“Yanez!” the man with the turban exclaimed, spreading his arms in welcome.
“Sandokan!” replied the newcomer, the hint of an accent discernible in his voice. “Brr! What a night from hell, little brother!”
They walked quickly to the hut and closed the door behind them. The newcomer unslung the carbine from his shoulder and took off his cape.
Sandokan filled two glasses with whiskey and offered one to his friend.
“Drink, my good Yanez.”
“To your health, Sandokan.”
They quickly drained their glasses and sat down at the table. The newcomer was European, a man in his early thirties, a little older than his friend. He was tall and well built with pale skin and fine aristocratic features. He had thin lips, a black moustache, sharp blue eyes, and was renowned for having a strong will and quick wit.
“Well, Yanez,” Sandokan asked excitedly, “Did you see the young woman with the hair of gold?”
“No, but I haven’t come back empty handed. I’ve learned all you wanted to know and more.”
“You didn’t go to Labuan?”
“I did, but, as you know, it’s never wise for people like us to linger on an island defended by British cruisers.”
“Tell me about the young woman. What did you learn?”
“They say she’s incredibly beautiful, so beautiful that she can bewitch even the most daring pirates.”
“Ah!” Sandokan exclaimed.
“Her hair is like gold, her eyes are bluer than the ocean, and her skin is as white as alabaster. Alamba himself told me that he saw her strolling in the forests of Labuan one evening, and was so taken by her beauty that he stopped his ship to get a better look at her. Imagine that! One of our fiercest men! He put himself and his entire crew at risk! Had he met with a British cruiser…”
“Who is she?”
“Some say the daughter of a colonel or a lord, others that she’s related to the Governor of Labuan.”
“A woman cloaked in mystery,” murmured Sandokan, rubbing his forehead.
“Yes…so?” asked Yanez.
The pirate remained silent for a moment, then, without warning, sprang to his feet, walked excitedly to the harmonium and ran his fingers over the keys. Yanez smiled, reached for an old mandolin hanging on the wall, and began to pluck at a few chords.
“All right then! Let’s make some music!”
Yanez had just begun to play an old Portuguese tune, when Sandokan rushed back to the table and brought his fist down with a crash. He was no longer the welcoming friend of moments ago: a frown lined his brow, his eyes flashed darkly, and his teeth were clenched in anger. Standing there now was the legendary captain of the pirates of Mompracem, a man who had bloodied the shores of Malaysia for the last ten years, a fearless warrior whose extraordinary daring and courage had earned him the name “Tiger of Malaysia.”
“Yanez!” he thundered, “What are the British doing in Labuan?”
“Bolstering their defences,” the European replied calmly.
“Are they plotting against me?”
“More than likely.”
“Ah! Well let them try to raise a finger against my Mompracem! Let them come and challenge the pirates in their lair! I’ll darken the waters with their blood. What do they say of me?”
“That it’s time to end the career of their most intrepid foe.”
“They hate me then?”
“They’d sacrifice their entire fleet just to see you hang.”
“Do you doubt me? Little brother, you’ve been causing all sorts of havoc for several years. Every coast bears traces of your raids. You’ve pillaged and ransacked every village, every town. Every Dutch, Spanish, and British fort bears the scars of your cannon fire. The bottom of the sea is strewn with the wreckage of ships you’ve sunk.”
“True, but whose fault is that? Haven’t the Europeans been merciless with me? Did they not conspire to steal my throne, on the pretext that I’d become too powerful? Did they not murder my mother, brothers, sisters, and all those whom I loved? What evil had I done them? I’d never threatened them! Never! And yet they moved to crush me. How can I not hate them all? Be they Spanish, Dutch, British or even Portuguese, your countrymen, I will have my vengeance, a fierce, crushing vengeance, I swore it upon the souls of my beloved ones and it’s a vow I’ll never break!… And yet, although I’ve been merciless with my enemies, I hope one or two voices may claim that, at times, I was indeed generous.”
“Not one, but a hundred, maybe even a thousand voices can attest to how generous you’ve been with the weak… perhaps even too generous,” said Yanez. “How many times have you defended some poor tribe from an enemy raid? And all those women who fell captive into your hands - you delivered them to enemy ports, even though you ran the risk of being sunk by British cruisers. And then there were those poor castaways you found clinging to the remnants of their ship in the midst of a terrible storm - you not only rescued them, you showered them with riches. Hundreds, thousands of others will always remember your gifts, Sandokan! Now tell me, little brother, why are we talking of this? I doubt you merely wish to reminisce…”
The Tiger of Malaysia did not reply. He began to pace about the room, arms crossed, head lowered in contemplation. Despite having known him for years, Yanez could not begin to read his thoughts.
“Sandokan,” he said, after several minutes, “What troubles you?”
The Tiger stopped, fixed his eyes upon him, but remained silent.
“Something’s bothering you,” said Yanez. “If I didn’t know better, I’d swear you were upset the British hate you so.”
The pirate remained silent.
The Portuguese stood up, lit a cigarette and began to walk towards a door hidden behind a tapestry.
“Good night, little brother.”
At those words, Sandokan awoke as if from a trance and quickly put up a restraining hand.
“A word, Yanez.”
“I want to go to Labuan.”
“Why so surprised?”
“Because you’re reckless. Too reckless! Once you were in the den of your bitterest enemies, you’d probably commit who knows what acts of madness.”
“Little brother,” continued Yanez, “do not tempt Fate too much. Be careful! England has set her sights on our Mompracem; she could attack at any moment. We must keep our guard up at all times. On my way back here, I spotted a cruiser bristling with cannons, loaded with arms and men, buzzing about our waters like a lion stalking its prey.”
“She’ll meet the Tiger!” exclaimed Sandokan, clenching his fists.
“Yes, she’ll make your acquaintance and perhaps in the course of battle, her crew will die by your hand, but their death cry will be heard all the way to the shores of Labuan and others will move against you. True, many British Lions will die, but even though our men are quite formidable, in the end, the Tiger will die as well!”
Sandokan had sprung to his feet, eyes blazing, fists clenched in rage, arms ready to strike. It was just a momentary flash of anger, and when it passed he sat back down at the table, drained another glass of whiskey and fixed his eyes upon his friend.
“You’re right, Yanez,” he said calmly, “but, nevertheless, tomorrow I’m setting sail for Labuan. A voice keeps telling me that I must see the young woman with the hair of gold. I cannot ignore it any longer; I must... I must–”
“Enough talk for tonight, brother, let’s go to sleep.”