MASTER OF THE SEAS
It was the fair southeast monsoon winds that brought the East India Company merchant ship HMS Hopewell from Calicut across the Bay of Bengal toward Melaka. In the fading light of day a lone figure sat with his back against the shrouds on the foremast far above deck, staring out at the great arch of empty sea that stretched before them. It was too early for the stars to appear, even Venus, and only a sliver of moon appeared above the horizon. The man sitting there was Gerakis, the ship’s gunner. He had been a year aboard Hopewell in the service of the East India Company. “What does he do up there every night?” Richard Burnaby asked Captain Farnsworth, master of Hopewell. The two men were standing at the binnacle behind the helmsman.
“That I don’t know,” the captain replied, “and it ain’t nary me business to pry. He’s a good seaman and that’s what’s important.” Burnaby had already reached that conclusion, that the gunner was a good seaman, for he had been following him ever since they left Calicut. The gunner was a hard man not to notice. He was everywhere at once. A call from the mate for the larboard watch on deck, and he would be the first there. When a call came to ease the starboard braces, he was there. He knew how to trim sails to get the best from them, and when the seas were calm and the men sat on deck stitching canvas and splicing line, he was there to join in the tedious work. He could set a dead eye with a marlinspike faster than anyone. And in a storm he handled himself remarkably well. In a force eight wind while rounding the cape he was up the ratlines to the topgallant and reefing canvas before some men were out of the hatch and on deck.
But it was more than his seamanship that captured the attention of Burnaby. In Calicut before they sailed, he watched the young gunner conducting ship’s business on the waterfront, acting on behalf of the mate and supercargo, speaking Portuguese to officials, Malay to the workers, and Tai to some Siamese merchants. He seemed to know everyone, and they knew him. He accompanied the supercargo ashore on every occasion, and he wheeled and dealed, always securing a good bargain, adding to the ship’s profit.
But there was something even more than the gunner’s command of languages and his ability to set the main course in a gale that fascinated Burnaby. It was his awareness of the world in which he lived. He never volunteered information, but when asked he had answers. Often the captain invited Gerakis to dine at the captain’s mess for the officers enjoyed his company. On these occasions Burnaby queried him about many things, about trade in the remote Spice Islands, the ports they were to visit, about Mergui and Melaka, Hopewell was putting into Melaka to discharge cargo before sailing around the southern tip of the Malay Peninsula and then through the South China Sea to Ayutthaya far up the River Menam. Captain Farnsworth was under orders to carry Burnaby to his new post in Ayutthaya, but first they had to stop at Melaka. Gerakis would leave the ship there and continue up the coast aboard another East India Company vessel to Mergui. In Mergui he would wait out the monsoon.
Those aboard Hopewell who hadn’t been to Melaka wanted to learn more about the port, and thus Melaka was a subject they kept pestering Gerakis about. What was Melaka like? Who in his opinion were the best rulers, the Portuguese or the Dutch? It never ended. One night at the captain’s table, after they lit their cigars and rum was poured, Burnaby again asked the question, was Melaka better off before colonial rule?
“Before the Portuguese and the Dutch it was the Chinese who were a threat to Melaka, and they still are,” Gerakis answered. “And before that, there was nothing, nothing at all up and down the coast of the peninsula, only jungles, pestilence and wild beasts ready to pounce on anyone who stepped ashore. Only fishermen stopped by, and of course pirates who hid out in the coves and mangrove swamps. The Malays you find there today are not native to the country. They came from Sumatra across the strait. They were not invited; they just came. I never could understand the complaint about the Portuguese and the Dutch, they were never invited, true, but neither were the Malays. Maybe only the little black people who dwell deep in the jungle are the rightful owners. As for the Dutch, they are the tough masters.”
From the tone in his voice it was clear that he didn’t like the Dutch. He continued: “Until twenty years ago Melaka was Portuguese. They held it for one hundred and fifty years. When they captured the port the Sultan thought they would plunder the place and move on. Nothing of the kind. The Portuguese had other ideas; they were determined to make it one of the mightiest strongholds in the East. They demolished mosques and used the bricks to build themselves a walled fortress. They were here to stay. Within a couple years Melaka became the trading center of the East. Their commander, Admiral d’Albuquerque, gave each of his soldiers a horse, a piece of land and a brown-skin wife.”
“What did the local men have to say about that?” Burnaby questioned
“Not much they could say,” Gerakis replied. “The Portuguese had bigger guns, and Portuguese seamen had no complaint about taking dark-skin ladies for mates-” he said it with a smile-“but then all that ended when the Dutch came with their swords and guns. Real bloody assassins they were. They destroyed everything Portuguese, everything the Portuguese had done for the people. Left only the gate standing as a reminder. They re-built the city in the likes of Amsterdam. The walls of the fortress were repaired and the bastions renamed. A moat was dug around the fortress and a drawbridge built. And that’s where we are headed now-Melaka.”
Gerakis spoke of the East with feeling and compassion. He had sincere admiration for the Portuguese and told how they sailed up the River Menam and so impressed the King of Siam that the king made a treaty with them, granted them trading rights, and he agreed his kingdom would not stand in their way if the Portuguese wanted to take Melaka. He was a wise king, as wise as the present king, Gerakis emphasized. “He was no fool like some Westerners thought,” Gerakis said. “Let the Portuguese fight the Chinese. The Chinese also had designs on Melaka. And so the Portuguese took Melaka, and they established trading agreements with the Siamese.” Gerakis talked at length about these and many other things, and everyone listened with interest. The young Greek was certainly well informed. But what Gerakis liked most to talk about was the incredible voyages of a forgotten Chinese admiral named Zheng He. He revealed how this little known Chinese admiral sailed his fleet of junks, some with many hundreds of crew, from the Chinese mainland to Siam, up the River Menam to Ayutthaya, and then to Melaka and as far as the Africa coast. Admiral Zheng He made seven voyages in all. On one voyage he commanded sixty-two ships and twenty-six thousand men, and carried the daughter of the Emperor of China for her hand in marriage to the Sultan of Melaka. To accompany his daughter, the emperor sent aboard the same vessel five hundred handmaidens. “And they were all virgins,” Gerakis added with a grin.
“The Emperor trusted him with five hundred virgins on board?” Captain Farnsworth asked.
“Why not!” Gerakis said and laughed aloud. “Admiral Zheng He, he was a eunuch. What do you expect? The emperor had nothing to fear from him.”
“You mean-” Burnaby started to ask, but Gerakis cut him short. “I mean everything. They cut everything off in one sweeping hack of the knife. And like all eunuchs he carried his jewels in a small leather sack around his neck. Couldn’t be buried without them. Chinese custom.”
”I’d rather have them where they belong,” Captain Farnsworth said in earnest. The others agreed.
“That must be loyalty in the Asian way of things,” Burnaby said. “Not that I believe loyalty has to go that far.”
“Loyalty to the emperor,” Gerakis interjected, “but not to fellow man. That’s the Asian way.”
One evening after dinner when Burnaby and Gerakis were alone on deck smoking their pipes, Burnaby asked Gerakis if he would like to accompany him to Ayutthaya.
“I would like nothing better, Sir,” he replied, “but I’m afraid that would be impossible.” He then explained to Burnaby why he was unable to return to Ayutthaya. “If caught it would mean my death for sure. But you can do one thing for me when you arrive in Ayutthaya. You can look up a free trader for me, an interloper he is, and the best in his field. His name is George White and he lives there in the capital. We met aboard a company ship sailing from London bound for Madras. We became good friends. At the time White worked for the East India Company but since then he has become an interloper. Nevertheless, being an Englishman with good standing in the East, he remains under friendly terms with the East India Company, and I hear they respect him. Give him my regards.”
“You’re in luck,” Burnaby replied. “He’s the man I am to meet when I arrive in Ayutthaya.”
HMS Hopewell made its routine stop in Melaka, concluded its trading business there and prepared to sail to Ayutthaya. Gerakis bid Captain Farnsworth and Burnaby farewell. He wished he could go with them, a thing more than anything else in the world he wanted to do. But he couldn’t go, not then. That didn’t exclude, however, his ever returning to the Siamese capital. He wasn’t giving up. Somehow he would find a way to get back to Ayutthaya.
Two days later, after Hopewell had departed, Gerakis sailed northward through the narrow Melaka Strait, past Junkceylon Island to Mergui. It was here in Mergui that he had to wait for the monsoon winds to change. Half the year the monsoon blows from the northeast, and sailing vessels took advantage of the wind and sailed westward to the Coromandel Coast and around the cape on to Europe. The other half of the year the wind blows from the southwest, and these winds brought vessels from Africa and India to Melaka, and then on to the rest of Southeast Asia, as far as the Spice Islands of the East Indies. Gerakis would have to wait months for the winds to change, but he would not be idle. The East India Company was certain to make use of his services while he was in port, and there was a long-hair, coffee-eyed lady that helped him pass the time.