THE GREEK SAILOR, “CONSTANTINE GERAKIS”
He lay in the sand, face down, and a voice came from far away.
“Wake up,” it called. ‘Wake up.” Slowly he awoke like one does when coming out of a trance. It was a pleasant dream and he didn’t want to wake up. He was a boy again, back in Greece, long before he ran away and went to sea. It was all peace and quiet. But, as he slowly recovered his senses, the dream became a frightening nightmare with terrible screaming in the night and the terrifying sounds of rigging crashing down and timbers splintering. The ship was going down. There was the hatch, with the line tied to his wrist. It all came back to him, except it was not a nightmare, nor a bad dream. It was real. He was shipwrecked, cast up on a forbidden shore. A shore but which shore? The voice he heard was Malay. The ship went down in Malay waters, pirate waters. He heard the voice again, and now he felt a nudge on his shoulder. “Wake up,” it demanded, and a hand forcibly rolled him over on his back. The sun had yet to rise and against the soft glow of the gray sky he brought into focus not one but two faces staring down at him. He gave a faint smile and a hand reached down to pull him up to a sitting position. The men were not Malay. They were Portuguese, two deck passengers he had seen from time to time aboard Putra Siamang.
He had fleeting glimpses of them in the storm, not together but singly, each at his own endeavor to save the doomed ship. The taller of the two, the older one, labored frantically to lash down the main boom to keep it from swinging dangerously out of control. The other man, with the wind tearing the shirt from his body, struggled at the wheel along with the helmsmen to keep the ship on course. His too, like his mate’s, was a losing battle. The Greek saw them, and then he didn’t, until now. The men must have thought he was Malay, or Javanese. The Greek was often mistaken for an islander. He was dark, not from birth but from his years under a tortuous tropical sun which had turned him the color of mahogany. He answered them not in Malay but in Portuguese, a tongue he had learned while working with the East India Company out of Goa. He introduced himself “Constantine Gerakis,” he said. They shook hands. The older of the two men called himself Diego, and the other, Christoph. They too were en route to Ayutthaya, to cast their luck with the British there, rather than remain with their Dutch masters in Batavia from where they came.
The three men took stock of their situation. They were happy to have survived the storm and, like lost old friends, slapped one another on their backs. But their merriment was short-lived. They heard shouting coming from down the way. They stopped and turned in that direction.
All along the shoreline was the shattered wreckage of the ill-fated ship: bodies had washed up on the sand, along with the debris, bits of rigging and splintered masts, tangled with torn sails and lines. They then saw the soldiers, a patrol of about a dozen men, brandishing long lances. By their dress they knew instantly they were Siamese, for they wore wrap-around baggy breeches and leather hats, like skullcaps, except these hats extended down to their shoulders and covered their ears. As they worked their way up the beach, they prodded the bodies with the butt-ends of their lances, checking if any were still alive; they rummaged through the debris, lifting pieces of planks and boards with their lances, turning some of them over. They were delighted at their discovery of the wreck, as though it was their doing, shouting and frolicking like victors after winning a sporting event. They suddenly turned solemn when they saw the three castaways up the beach, standing there, very much alive. It was too late for the three men to run and attempt to make good an escape. The soldiers bore down on them, swinging their lances like war clubs. They charged as wild animals charge, circling the three helpless men, knocking them down to their knees.
Gerakis attempted to calm them down by speaking to them first in Malay, next in Portuguese, and finally in English; but his endeavor only tended to fire their anger more and make the situation far worse. The soldiers turned upon him and mercilessly pounded him across his back with their lances, knocking him flat into the sand. Gradually the soldiers, finding their prey helpless, eased off and, after conferring with one another, blindfolded the captives and bound them with their arms secured behind their backs. They then herded the prisoners up the beach a few hundred meters to where an inlet of water flowed to the sea. When the men found it was fresh, they fell to their knees and began lapping up the water, like craved animals, as the soldiers kept prodding them to move along. They kept stumbling through the shallow water until they bumped against the bulwark of a vessel.
Still blindfolded, Gerakis and the two Portuguese were forced aboard and made to sit three abreast in the bilge amidships. Gerakis reasoned the vessel was a longboat of sorts, large enough to be sea going. He had heard seamen talk about these boats, men who had sailed the River of Kings, or the Menam as some called it, to Ayutthaya. They spoke of them as remarkable vessels, some more than a hundred feet long, with finely carved bows and sterns that rose high into the air. Gerakis surmised this was the same type of vessel, propelled not by sail power but by oars, or in this case, paddles.
As they sat in the bottom of the boat, water sloshed against their buttocks each time one of the crew came aboard or disembarked, causing the boat to heel to one side. Helpless, all they could do was listen to the sounds and wonder about their fate. They heard the crew take positions along the port and starboard sides and then the thumping of their paddles against the hull. The boat backed down the waterway, and once free from the channel, turned and faced the onslaught of an incoming sea. The crew took up a chant to a cadence set by a drummer stationed somewhere aft, and in unison, they dipped their paddles and the longboat moved forward, slowly at first. But with each thrust of their paddles, and with an increase in tempo of the beat of the drummer, it gained momentum and was soon gliding over the surface of the water at what seemed to be above the waves. When the sun rose above the horizon, the sun’s rays fell on their starboard and Gerakis determined they were heading northward toward the River of Kings, the waterway that would hopefully carry them upriver to the Siamese capital. At last, he was going to Ayutthaya, not exactly by a method he had in mind, but, nevertheless, to Ayutthaya.
For three days and three nights the crew labored at their paddles.
Every few hours they changed relief with the boat constantly kept in motion. On the morning of the second day, a crewman freed their hands and removed their blindfolds. He handed them wooden bowls, and from a bucket he ladled out watery rice mixed with seaweed. When they finished that, he refilled their bowls with hot water floating with a few tea leaves. Once done, he blindfolded them again and bound their hands, and the voyage continued.