CROSSING THE KRA
Samuel White stood straight and tall in his Harbor Master’s office in Mergui. When the river is high, he began, as it is now, our caravans cross the Kra leaving from here in Mergui.” He stopped for a moment and ran his finger across the parchment map spread out on his desk. “When the river is low,” he began again, “we make our crossings farther south where the isthmus is much narrower. In any event they are equally risky. I assume you are prepared to make the crossing.” It was a statement rather than a question.
The Greek sailor, Constantine Gerakis, was too awed to reply. He wasn’t even certain why he was there in the Harbor Master’s office. He had signed aboard Hopewell, the East India Company trader as chief gunner, and was preparing to sail for Melaka and then on to Calicut when the Harbor Master summoned him to the office. He was concerned, of course. He thought when he stepped through the door that he might be slapped in irons once again. He had even considered making a run for it but his curiosity reigned deeper. He knew well that he had been warned by the governor in Ayutthaya never to set foot in Siam again, and perhaps the governor had gotten word that he was in Mergui, a Siamese port. The Harbor Master, after all, was in the service of the King of Siam.
For this reason, ever since the Harbor Master had been assigned to the post by the king several months earlier, Gerakis had been avoiding him. He thought it best to stay clear of authorities. Gerakis was in Mergui when Samuel White first arrived from Madras, and, to keep a low profile, he even bypassed a party given in Samuel White’s honor. The entire community had been eagerly awaiting the new Harbor Master’s arrival. He came with his young bride, Mary Povey, bringing with them some juicy gossip that was quickly picked up by the news-starved Mergui foreign community. It seems Mary Povey had boarded HMS Loyal Subject in London, bound for Madras, where she was to marry an English gentleman, an officer in the colonial service. Samuel White was likewise a passenger aboard HMS Loyal Subject. His older brother George had sent for him, and had arranged for the position he now held as Harbor Master. It was a long monotonous two-month voyage, where anything and everything among the passengers could happen, and did happen. Often tempers ran thin. Arguments arose with the slightest provocation. Friendships were lost. Even marriages broke up. Or the opposite could happen. Secret affairs were hatched. Romances developed. Mary Povey and Samuel White fitted into the latter category. They fell in love. When Loyal Subject arrived in Madras, not all aboard were loyal. Mary married Samuel White rather than the government official, and, soon after, they sailed to Mergui. That’s the story that went around.
Gradually, as Gerakis stood before Samuel White, the pieces began to fall into place. Still, he couldn’t quite believe what he had been hearing. George White and Richard Burnaby wanted him in Ayutthaya. “They have made up a new identity for you,” Samuel explained. “We are to smuggle you across the isthmus and you will board one of my brother’s schooners in Songkau.” He pointed to a sea bag. “You have a complete new wardrobe. Your name now is Constantine Phaulkon.”
“When do I start?” Gerakis asked trying to maintain his composure.
“I have a shipment of goods to send across the isthmus leaving in two days. You travel by boat to the headwaters of the Tambling and then cut through the jungles. It’s a difficult trip. I have to remind you, the river is fast and hazardous. The climate is hot and damp. The jungles are thick and fever infested. There are savages lurking in its depth who want nothing more than to collect heads, particularly foreign heads, like yours and mine. You get off the trail and you are likely to be eaten by a tiger or stomped by wild elephants. But worst of all are the rebels.” He hesitated. “You want to hear the rest?”
“I can manage it,” Gerakis replied.
“Good, you look like you can handle yourself. That must be why they picked you. You are aware that the Dutch have claimed most of the islands of the Malay Archipelago and formed what they call the Dutch United East Indies Company. In Dutch it’s “de Vereenigde Oostindische Compagnie.” For short, the VOC. They have subdued the natives, except for one group of diehards from the Celebes-the Makassars. The Makassars fled before the Dutch came with their guns and ships. They fled and found shelter on the Malay Peninsula. They are slowly moving upward into Siam. It is worrying the king.”
“What’s the solution?” Gerakis asked.
“The Makassars are seeking asylum in Siam,” Samuel continued. “Whether or not King Narai grants it is a question no one can answer. Perhaps he feels it’s better to contain them. The Makassars are a threat. They are a tough lot. They do not use firearms which they regard as inconsistent with personal valor and which detract from the value of physical strength and from their skill with the sword. They do not fear death. Their leader is a man named Mosafat. He’s young, in his 30s, and he is as tough as they come. The rumor is he is operating in the Kra area. You have to be careful. No confrontation, by order of the king. Any rebel that holds up a caravan, we must pay him tribute. Agreed?”
”As you like it,” Gerakis replied. “I am only going along for the ride.”
“Let me emphasize again,” Samuel said in closing, “this Kra Isthmus is the most unhealthy region in the tropics.”
After three days on the river, the Greek began to think Samuel White was right. After a week he was convinced he was right. The route was treacherous. Samuel outfitted the expedition with three sturdy dugouts, cut from single teak logs, each thirty meters long and each with cannon mounted on the bow. How they could ever fire the cannons in the dense jungle was a mystery to Gerakis, but then there was no need to worry. The cannons merely acted as a deterrent. The jungle itself was protection enough. The thick mass of vegetation that grew along the banks was impenetrable, or appeared to be, for it grew in one continuous unbroken wall. In places the growth formed a canopy that was like a tunnel through which they had to pass. Monkeys howled at their presence and strange birds called out from the foliage in a cacophony of weird and sometimes frightening sounds. Slowly they worked their way up the surging jungle river. Where the water was shallow, the crews poled their way upstream, and when they came to open stretches, always welcome, the crew took up oars and rowed the vessels. Lookouts stood at the bows, straddling the cannons, with long poles in hand. They used the poles to avoid rocks that might suddenly appear, and to fend off debris, sometimes whole trees, floating downstream with the current. When they came to rapids, which was often, the real task began. Everyone, to the tune of grumbles and groans, disembarked and worked the boats by sheer muscle power over the rocks. They slipped and fell, sometimes finding themselves completely submerged in swirling water and at the mercy of the river.
The sun beat down mercilessly and, with the boats loaded down to the gunwales, utmost care had to be taken that they didn’t swamp. At best they could cover six kilometers a day. By the fifth day the water became too shallow for the boats to continue and they returned down river. The cargo had to be unloaded and distributed into packs for porters to carry. In a single file they continued on foot, upriver until the river water became a dribble, and they then took to the jungle.
The ageless jungle closed in around them, and so dense did it become that the sun’s rays could not reach the forest floor. They forged ahead, with scouts cutting a path for others to follow, and slowly they moved through the strange wreckage of jungle, a tangle of lianas and vines that hung from towering heights.
At the end of each exhausting day they set up camp. They cut thorny creepers which they stacked around the periphery of each camp to keep wild beasts at bay. Gerakis wondered how a few twigs and creepers could stop marauding elephants on the rampage, or tigers stalking in the night. As another precaution, the men lighted huge campfires. They stacked the firewood as high as they could reach. The glow from the raging fire created a kind of cage that sealed them in, and kept the evil world out.
The mornings were pleasant when the forest at that hour was still. Nocturnal creatures had retired to their dens, the tigers to their lairs and the elephants to their thickets of bamboo. But the morning mist quickly vanished and the downpour of heat began. Another day of torture faced them. Along the banks of the river they saw where elephants and tigers came down to the river to drink, side by side. For centuries merchants had been transporting goods across the isthmus rather than face marauding pirates and the treacherous passage with its menacing rocks and hidden reefs at the southern end of the peninsula. Yet after years of man’s relentless intrusion, there was not the semblance of a road nor even a trail through the jungle. Gerakis thought about this as he trudged along. There was not the slightest sign that man had been there before. The jungle claimed its right before man’s footprints could dry. Yet, he had heard that the king of Siam had considered digging a canal across the isthmus. He had to be a man of insight, Gerakis thought. He too now thought about that canal. He studied the valleys and waterways through which they passed, and he gave thought to the possibility of such a canal.
The jungle gave way in places to swamps where swarms of mosquitoes were so dense they appeared as clouds darkening the sky. The swamps were the worst. The inky stagnant water reached to their armpits. Gnarled, twisted trees blocked their way and strange reptiles slithered away as they approached. When a menace became more threatening, the men clutched their lances and held them at ready. They feared attack by crocodiles. Samuel White had mentioned that when crossing the peninsula more men were lost to crocodiles than to tigers.
Undaunted but cautious they pushed on. Gerakis’ admiration for the porters grew with each kilometer they forged ahead. They were men of the forest, Siamese by blood who were born to the ways of the jungle. They could with great skill swing a knife to cut a trail and make the undergrowth fall where they wished. They scaled the mud banks with little effort, rushed ahead to scout out the trail, and returned without as much as a shortness of breath. The weight they carried was staggering and, aside from the cumbersome loads they had to bear, they also carried sabers at their sides and lances in one hand and long cutting knives in the other.
Days slipped into a week and soon time was left behind. The sun revolved around them, and not they around the sun. Eventually the thick foliage of deep-rooted jungle gave way and they entered a flat plateau with less vegetation. It was a welcome sight but with it came a feeling of uneasiness. The protection of the jungle was gone. They were at the mercy of any man or beast that might hinder their way.
They had traveled but a short distance through a narrow pass when their worst fears were realized. A band of renegades blocked their way. Gerakis recognized them immediately-Makassars. They stood in the open in plain view, their sabers and knives prominently displayed. Their leader stood at their head, and neither he nor his men sought cover, nor did they cower or hide behind rock or bush. Gerakis wondered if the leader might not be Mosafat, the clan leader Samuel White had mentioned. He stood with legs apart, his hand on his hips, and from his dress there was no mistaking him to be Muslim. He wore a turban of sorts, a kind of loose fitting wrap around with one end that fell to his shoulder. About his waist was a sash from which the hilt of two jeweled knives protruded. From his side hung a long saber.
Gerakis stepped forward and addressed him in Malay, stating he and his men were not looking for a fight but they would not back away either. Gerakis remembered what Samuel had told him. There was to be no confrontation. Give the rebels what they wanted. This was not the way Gerakis liked to do things, to surrender before a fight. He studied the men before him, looking them over from head to foot. They were obviously brave fighters, about a dozen men, all well-armed. Gerakis had an equal amount of men but he was uncertain of their fighting ability. He was ready to take the chance, and he knew he had the advantage if he struck first and fast. But Samuel White’s message ran hard in his thoughts. Even if he succeeded and they won the fight, he would have lost the battle. This was not what the king wanted. Gerakis did what he had to do. He made the first approach and handed the leader his sword. The man hesitated, then took hold of the hilt, and in a gesture of fortitude, threw it down upon the ground as though the couch of it had burned his hand.
“Why do you not fight?” he asked.
“Do not take me for a coward,” Gerakis replied, his voice stern and unfaltering. “I do not fight because the king wants peace and not war with your people.”
The words stunned the Makassar chief and he was unable to speak. All he could do was stare at the white man standing before him. He felt cheated. He would like to have killed this man. One could see in his eyes his dislike for white men, all white men. Was it not white men who came in their ships with their guns and took his island from his people, and was it not white men who slaughtered others in the islands? Perhaps this man before him wasn’t Dutch but did it matter? All white men were the same, seeking the same ends, caking with greed what they wanted.
As Gerakis picked up his sword, dusted it off and put it back in to his scabbard, he announced he would like to give the leader and his men some presents. Anticipating that there might be trouble, Samuel had prepared a bulk of Indian silks for such an occasion. Gerakis had one of the Siamese bring the bulk forward and place it on the ground. The Makassars immediately began opening the packet. While they fumbled with the rawhide ties, Gerakis and his men quietly left them. No words were passed. Gerakis and his party then moved on toward the coast. Deep down Gerakis knew the fight was not over. He wondered who this leader was as he watched him conceal a knife behind his turban. Would they meet again?
They were a haggard but happy lot that reached Songkau late one afternoon. They immediately scattered, each to his own task at hand. Gerakis was interested in Songkau, his intended port-of-call when he was aboard Putra Siamang before the fatal shipwreck. Songkau was an ancient stronghold and had flourished during Sultan Sulaiman’s reign that ended in 1668, at which time the Muslims had abandoned the port. King Narai had given the French the right to settle at Songkau, which angered the Muslims, even though they abandoned the place. For the French this could not have been a more opportune moment to take control. They constructed a rectangular 18-gun fortress on Hua Khao Daeng hill that gave protection against invaders coming from the gulf. With trade and commerce, the port grew and prospered in a very short time.
But Gerakis, who now took on the name Phaulkon, had no time to linger. He shaved his beard, cut his hair and put on the officer’s uniform provided by Samuel White. He then boarded George White’s schooner bound for Ayutthaya. His passage this time up the Menam, the River of Kings, was much different than it had been two years before.