Friday, November 13, 2009


I lay on the Sultan’s deck gazing up at the stars, lulled by the gentle rocking motion, fantasizing about Betsy Eden, pressing her handkerchief to my face, my eyes watering from an explosion of lights. The lingering smell of rose water set my mind reeling, reawakening memory of the times we’d traipsed over the fields near our homesteads collecting dew-damp nuts and berries, our shoes soaked to the soles.

On the night before I sailed for England, five years ago, I had set off across the dark fields for Betsy’s house, balancing my sea chest on my shoulder. She had lit a candle in her second floor bedroom window as a will o' the wisp to lure me out of the moonless night into her arms. I deposited the chest under a gnarled hickory, a former chastiser and now an abettor, that grew close by to the house, shinnied up the tree, and clambered through her bedroom window into her waiting arms.

 “So, in a few hours you'll have discarded me like an old dishrag or a faded flower, then?” she said, snuffing out the candle. We fell onto the bed fully clothed, locked in each other’s arms.

“How can you say such a thing,” I mumbled into her ear, smothering her face, her neck, her breasts with kisses as Betsy giggled madly. "My greatest regret is that I have to leave you here alone." “I shall miss you coming here to keep me warm nights.”

“Just make sure that no one else usurps my place,” I said, laughing.

As I grew older I had probably spent more time at her house than my own, joining her family for supper by the hearth in the kitchen, relishing her mother’s homemade butter and fresh-baked bread, and at night sharing her chaste bed in a custom known as bundling. The next morning I’d be on board the Seraph, bound for England, and as one chapter of my life came to an end, another would unfold. I felt a rising sadness; it would be years before I saw Betsy again.

“I wish you weren’t going, Roger,” Betsy said. “Or rather, I wish I was going with you.”

“It can be a wild and dangerous place for a woman, the East Indies.” “The East Indies! Sounds dreamy.”

“Dreamy, yes, as a place to make money.”

“India, Fort St. George, Madras, will I ever see them?” I could feel her excitement as she snuggled up against me. “They seem so far away. Francis has been gone for years and we hardly know what’s become of him.”

 “Oh, my brother can take care of himself. I’ll bet he’s made his pile already, just waiting to come home and spend it. Anyway, in two or three years, with enough saved, I’ll send for you to join me.”

 “You’d better do it sooner, or you won’t find me waiting for you.” It was too dark to see her face, but I knew she would have that peevish look she adopted whenever she was being thwarted. “Tell me again about Madras. Does everyone have dozens of servants and hold parties and balls every night?”

 “Once we’re wealthy, we’ll return to Boston and settle down. Then, Mrs. Davenport, you can have parties and balls to your heart’s delight.” I dreamed of making my fortune and returning home to set myself up. Betsy only dreamed of a life of luxury and pleasure. I should have realized what a hedonist she was.

After a while I dozed off and dreamt of being in an exotic city and meeting strange people, only to wake up to find Betsy propped up on her elbow, staring into my face by the relit candle. She leaned over to kiss me on my eyelids. “Go back to sleep,” she whispered. But I fought to keep my eyes open, to fix in my mind the vision of us lying together in her bed, in the mist of her perfume, the perfume I could detect still, and bask in the heat of her presence, as real to me now as if she’d been by my side.

Chapter 1: Bay of Bengal, July 1684

The Sultan was a dolphin skimming over pristine seas towards the Eldorado of my dreams, myself clinging to its back. But in reality I was sprawled out on my bunk below decks, in a foul, claustrophobic cabin, my mind a leviathan thrashing in the ocean of imagination, constantly zapped by the stifling heat, my drowsy eyes gazing through a delirious fog at my rapier dangling from a rafter, pointed directly at my heart. Betsy Eden, lovely as a wild rose, prickly and perfidious as thorns, making me drunk with the sour wine of jealousy, why have you done this to me?

Loud booms jolted me out of my reverie and I sat bolt upright in my bunk, almost scalped by the low ceiling. “God’s blood! What was that?” It had sounded like thunder, but through the tiny porthole the skies were as blue as cornflowers. I just had time to swivel my legs over the side of the bunk and pull on my boots when I heard another drum roll of thunder. The ship shuddered, as cannonballs apparently found their mark, leaving me in no doubt as to the cause of the booms. Who the blazes is trying to blow us out of the water? I hastily buckled on my rapier, lurched out of the tiny cabin, and was immediately caught up in a stream of panicky, half-naked lascars rudely awakened from their siesta, hell-bent like I was to get on top. I swept past the jabbering blacks, pushing them roughly out of my way, and heaved myself up the companionway.

The deck looked as if a whirlwind had passed through. Several cannon shots had crashed onto the deck, breaking off the mizzen mast and damaging the rigging. Tangled ropes and torn sails lay all about; sacks and barrels had broken loose. Some lascars had been killed, their bodies lying in pools of blood, the wounded moaning in agony. Glancing over the side, I saw that the attacking ship was about two cable lengths away, careening down on us like a goshawk on its prey. Captain Leslie was on the opposite side of the deck and I rushed over to him.

“Are we being attacked by pirates, Captain?” He turned to look at me, squinting to adjust his eyes to the glare, and opened them again. They were a pale blue in his sunburned face, the color of rain-washed sky. I saw them flick from me to the attacking ship, then settle on me. The captain nodded, a slight movement of his head.

“Mr. Roger Davenport, you shouldn’t be on deck just now.” His face was grim, and he made no attempt at cordiality. “Careful with the powder,” he bellowed to the men loading the deck cannons. “Feed them as if you were feeding your dogs. Not too much to make them think there's plenty more where that came from, but enough to give them bite. Tom, go break out the cutlasses and matchlocks, quickly now.”

“Aye sir,” Tom, the bo'sun, replied. “I want six men to come with me.”

“We’re being attacked by a privateer, Mr. Davenport,” the captain said, returning his gaze to me. “You’d best go down below. I don’t need your help, you'll just be in the way.”

“I’d rather be helping you and your men,” I said, “than sweating it out down below.” I wasn’t going to sit twiddling my thumbs while our ship was being bombarded and gutted to the waterline.

“As you please, Mr. Davenport,” he said, with some irritation in his voice. The bo'sun and his men soon returned with muskets, pikes and cutlasses. The beautiful three-master in full sail, reminding me of a grand lady wearing a billowing hoopskirt, was rapidly closing the gap between our two ships, dense clouds of gunpowder billowing over its bow gun ports.

“Is she a Dutchman?” I asked, grabbing one of the swords and shooting a glance at the privateer veering straight for us.

 “No, a Siamese frigate,” Captain Leslie said, handing me his telescope. “See the red flag? No doubt it’s one of Samuel White’s. Take a look and see if you can make out its name.”

“Who is Samuel White?” I asked, steadying myself against a railing. The captain ordered the Sultan to turn several points to port to present the ship’s broadside to the attacker. “It’s the Prosperous,” I said, just making out its name on the bow with the aid of the eyeglass. What do you think they’re planning to do, Captain?” I asked, returning the telescope to him.

“They’ll try to board us,” he said, “and take us as prize to Mergen. Or sink us in the process.”

“Can’t we fight them off, Captain?” I was livid with anger at the injustice of it.

“With what, may I ask? Perhaps I can negotiate with them.” I had never been in a life and death situation like this, and I wasn’t about to give in. The captain had other ideas though. “We’re a merchant vessel, lightly armed with only a few brass culverins. No match for the Siamese frigate with twenty-four heavy guns.”

“So what do you plan to do, Captain?” I asked. “Call it what you will, they’re pirates.”

“Aye, they are,” the captain agreed, “but this ship belongs to the King of Golconda, and the Siamese King has declared war on Golconda. Or Samuel White has.”

Samuel White’s name had come up again. Who was he? In Madras I'd heard that some English privateers had joined the service of the king of Siam. Was White one of them?

“Now, excuse me, Mr. Davenport. I have a privateer to fight and my vessel to fend.” He spun round and scrambled up the ladder onto the quarterdeck.

“Can’t we try to make a run for it, Captain?” I said, nipping at his heels like a puppy.

“Our mizzen mast is down. Even if it wasn’t, we could never outrun the frigate.”

Chapter 2: Captured by Privateers

From the quarterdeck we watched the Sultan’s gunners lighting the fuses of the culverins, followed by explosions loud enough to rattle our teeth, the culverins transformed into fire-spewing dragons. The smoke and the smell of gunpowder filling my nostrils were like fumes of the devil.

“Here’s some of your own medicine!” Captain Leslie shouted, as his men cheered loudly.

The cannon balls whizzed towards the Prosperous, skimming over the waves like ducks and drakes, but—despite my silent incantation—fell short of their target and plunged harmlessly into the sea.

"The Devil!" I shouted, slamming my fist down on the gunwale in pique.

Now it was the turn of the Properous to unleash a broadside from the mighty cannons mounted on her deck. The red flames and bright flashes of the big guns in the sunlight were like exploding firecrackers. Muskets exploded in muffled volleys on her deck, a bouquet of deadly bright flowers aimed at us. One of the cannon balls found its mark and crashed into the Sultan, gouging a hole in the gunwale and showering splinters onto the deck. Some lascars were hit by the deadly projectiles, screaming in agony as they fell.

Captain Leslie paced the quarterdeck in long, excited strides, bellowing orders to his men to reload the cannons. The frigate was quickly closing the gap between our two ships, and I saw her men, nets and grappling hooks at the ready, preparing to board our vessel.

Nobody on the Sultan had any idea of how to repel the boarding party, and I realized we were doomed. I felt helpless and frustrated. This was the first time I was witnessing the principle of might is right being driven home on such a large scale.

Then, as the two vessels came within hailing distance of each other, a total silence fell. No gun fired, no voice called out, no horn sounded. I watched mesmerized as the two vessels headed toward each other on a collision course, then felt someone’s hand grip me by the shoulder. I turned to look. It was Captain Leslie, no longer grim and defiant, but an unnerved, beaten dog.

‘It’s all over,” he said. “We don't have a chance in hell.”

The Prosperous swung around to avoid a direct hit but tacked parallel to us, permitting her men to throw their nets and grapples onto the Sultan. There was a loud screech as the two ships scraped against each other; the boarding party unleashed a volley of musket fire onto the Sultan, sending our men scurrying for cover, and then scrambled aboard.

Captain Leslie ordered his men on the quarterdeck to reload their muskets and pick off the attackers. I had never used a musket, always thought them a clumsy and unreliable weapon at close quarters. But the men were apparently well-trained, loading the matchlocks, priming the fuse, and firing in unison. Thunder exploded in our faces, the air thickened with black smoke, and the dry bitter odor of gunpowder hit our nostrils. A few of the enemy crumpled and fell into the sea, to loud jeers. While our men fumbled to reload, the boarding party charged onto the main deck below us, took cover, and began to pick us off like turkeys. We were forced to take shelter in the captain’s cabin on the quarterdeck.

“Order the men to charge, Captain,” I said, gripping my sword.

“It’s no use resisting any further,” Captain Leslie said. He seemed a beaten man. “They’ve got control of my ship now. If we don’t surrender they might set us on fire.”

“But Captain, don’t give up now.”

“It’s easy for you to talk, you don’t have everything you own riding on this ship.” Turning to Tom, he said. “Hang out a white cloth. All right, men, you’ve done your best. Down your weapons.” The men quickly obeyed.

He was wrong; I did have everything riding with the ship. Five of the enemy rushed in, brandishing their weapons, shrieking like banshees. I grabbed a pike from one of the men and plunged it into the stomach of the nearest assailant.

The poor lascar was stopped in his tracks by the pike which I held fast in his body, but he kept making scrabbling motions to come at me and run me through with his sword; but try as he might, the hilt of my blade kept him at bay. The fellow wriggled like a spiked fish, his eyes bulging, face horribly contorted, and fell dead on the deck in his own pool of blood.

"Davenport," the Captain shouted, "you're going to get us all killed!"

The dead man’s companions surrounded me and began hitting me with the stock of their muskets. I raised my hands to ward off the blows, my back smarting at the pummeling and my heart pounding like a pestle as they caught hold of me and tied my arms behind by back. The dead man was the first I’d ever killed, and thought he deserved what he got. I didn’t feel a bit of remorse.

Soon the boarding party had secured the Sultan and herded our men out of the captain’s cabin onto the deck and began disarming us. The captain of the Prosperous appeared, heaving his porcine body onto the quarterdeck and swaggering towards us in his purple coat, lace cuffs and silver buttons glinting in the sun. He was a short, heavily-built man, with a face like the dying sun, perspiring like a pig, continually dabbing his face with a linen handkerchief.

“Right lads,” he said. “Stay calm, do as you’re told, and no one will get hurt.” He walked up to Captain Leslie, his face shaded by his tri-corner hat, and addressed the taller man.

“Good day to you, sir,” he said in is gravelly voice. “I’m Captain Coates, of the Prosperous, of His Siamese Majesty’s navy, at your service.” He kept tugging the lapels of his coat with both hands, rocking on the heels of his boots to steady himself.

“I’m Captain James Leslie,” the captain said, towering over his opponent, “of the Sultan, a merchant ship of the King of Golconda. What is the meaning of this outrage, Sir?”

“I have letters of marque and reprisal,” Captain Coates said, taking out a sheet of black paper and waving it in the air, “issued to me by the Barcalon of Siam, authorizing me to seize the King of Golconda’s ships; the countries of our two masters are a state of war.”

“State of war! Nonsense! This is plain piracy,” Captain Leslie spluttered.

“What is the nature of your cargo,” Captain Coats demanded.

“We’re carrying Madras cotton cloth and piece goods,” Captain Leslie replied in a calmer voice. “Calicoes, muslins, dungarees, that sort of thing, heading for Syriam in the kingdom of Pegu. I’m warning you, Captain Coates, seize this ship and it’s piracy, and I shall report it to the President of Madras Council, Sir.”

“Excellent,” Coates replied, ignoring his countryman’s bluster. “I shall relieve you of your command and goods, which now belong to the King of Siam.” His red face beaming with satisfaction, and dabbing his forehead with his handkerchief, he turned to me and asked: “And who, Sir, may you be?” His men had fingered me as being responsible for skewering one of his lascars.

“Roger Davenport, late of the Honorable Company, Sir.”

“Be so kind as to order your men to cease all resistance,” he said to Captain Leslie, jerking his head in my direction. “The native merchants and passengers are to remain below deck; they will be released as soon as we reach Mergen. Your crew will continue to man the ship, under my officers’ orders. You and your officers will remain in this cabin.”

Captain Leslie saw it was useless to argue and tried another tack. “But Captain Coates,” he said, wringing his hand. “Be reasonable now. We’re Englishmen. Can we not come to some sort of agreement? Let us pay an indemnity and be on our way. I’m sure the Moorish merchants will contribute towards any fine you care to impose. What say you, good fellow?”

“My orders are to impound merchant ships of the King of Golconda and send them to Mergen. This is precisely what I intend to do. Good day, Sir.”

He looked at us good-naturedly, as if he’d done something innocuous like inviting us to dinner.

“The captain and his officers are to remain in this cabin,” he ordered his men. “Disarm everyone else and escort them below. Untie Mr. Davenport and let him return to his cabin.” He spun around on his heels and strode off, leaving Captain Leslie red-faced and spluttering with rage.

"Arrogant, pompous fool," Captain Leslie shouted after the retreating figure.

“Well, Captain,” I said, rubbing my wrists, “It looks like we’re going to Mergen, willy-nilly.”

Captain Leslie and his officers were confined to the captain’s cabin on the quarterdeck. A prize crew from the Prosperous came on board to take command of the Sultan. They repaired the sails and rigging, consigned the dead laskars to the deep, and set course for Mergen, a port in the Siamese province of Tenassery. Captain Coates and the Prosperous then broke away to take more prizes.

The Moorish passengers and I were ordered to remain in our cabins but were allowed up on deck for fresh air. Once a day the quartermaster called the men to a hot meal, which he doled out equally to all, though I preferred to keep to myself. I spent most of the daytime lying in my bunk, emerging at night to lie on the deck staring at the codices of the night sky, those specks of light known to be guided by angels. But what were they, I wondered; suns to other worlds, or portals to the heavens? Would that I knew.

Chapter 3 Samuel White

My spirits rose as we approached the Siamese coast. I went aloft into the crow’s-nest to keep a lookout for land and watch the skies, which I imagined as a great blue pasture filled with enormous celestial flocks grazing slowly by. The Sultan, a billowing farthingale in the brisk southwester, skirted Tanawsri Island, headed east passed numerous islets, and emerged from Iron Passage where we at last espied the mainland, an embroidered hemline of bays and coves, fringed with mangrove, set against a painted backdrop of distant, greenish-blue mountains.

The Sultan then bore southeast, avoiding a wide belt of shoal-water stretching from the shores of King Island, with its deep bays fringed with rich fruit gardens. Multicolored fish darted among the corals in a watery, translucent womb. A few hours later Kala Kyun Island was sighted and some miles farther we came to Pataw Island, crowned with rounded hills dotted with bungalows, the lower slopes thick with durian, mangosteen, and mango trees. The islands were nameless strangers to me then, but later became my good friends.

I went to the quarterdeck cabin where Captain Leslie and his men were incarcerated and told them that their ordeal would soon be over. We were nearing Mergen. Some of them were in a bad state because of the poor food and cramped quarters. Even Captain Leslie didn’t look well, but in his case it was mental anguish rather than physical malady.

The deep channel between Pataw Island and the mainland formed a fine harbor. Five sloops were anchored in mid-channel and scores of native proas lined the wharfs, their swaying masts a forest of dead leafless trees. The town of Mergen lay on the mainland, an old tabby basking in the mild morning sun, purring contentedly. By the water’s edge huts raised on piles jostled for a glimpse of the harbor; behind them brick houses lined narrow streets winding up the side of a small hill.

To the north, high on the ridge, was a white pagoda, and farther down was a battery of cannons standing sentinel over the ships in the road. The sunlit, whitewashed buildings, the azure sea, and the warm balmy breezes laden with the aroma of nutmeg and cloves, made this the loveliest of harbors. But for some reason I was apprehensive.

The Sultan entered the road and anchored in mid-channel opposite Samuel White’s house, which stood on the lower ridge. Four small boats laden with half-naked coolies immediately surrounded the Sultan like suckling piglets around a sow. The coolies clambered aboard and started unloading the cargo and the air crackled with a cacophony of voices, blended with the stench of unwashed bodies, and rank rotting fish.

Now that we had arrived in Mergen the former officers and passengers of the Sultan began to stir. We were then taken under guard along a steep cobblestone path to the custom house. Here the Moors were locked up, but the Europeans were allowed to wander around the compound, amusing ourselves as best we could, until the mysterious White, the man who had disrupted our lives, appeared. A tall man with exquisite manners and piercing blue eyes, he immediately ordered all Englishmen released.

"Captain Leslie," White said, "please accept my apologies. My men and I are merely acting under Lord Phaulkon's orders."

"All my savings were invested with the Sultan and her cargo," Captain Leslie said.

"Perhaps we can discuss that later, at supper."

He turned to me and offered his hand in greeting.

“Roger Davenport,” I said, “late of the Honorable Company.”

“You must be Francis Davenport’s brother then,” he said. “My brother, George White and Francis were friends.”

I was surprised that he was acquainted with Francis. Perhaps he would help me find him.

“You and Captain Leslie shall dine with me this evening,” he said.

But first he dealt with the longsuffering Moorish merchants, whom he bullied each into paying a ₤100 indemnity and told them to make their own way back to the Coromandel Coast.

“The Moors are always good pickings,” he said, when we were seated in his dining room with a fine view of the harbor. Captain Leslie, still morose and dejected, sat nursing his thoughts.

“Beware you don’t push them too far,” he said.

“Of course not,” White said. “You’re right. They are a large and wealthy community here at Mergen; the commerce of the town is in their hands. In fact, the previous shahbandar was a Persian Moor.”

White took out a replica of a sailing vessel and placed it in front of us. “This is the Hopewell,” he said, “My good brother George was her captain, one of the ships the Honorable Company sent out to India in 1675. Constance Phaulkon and your brother Francis Davenport were passengers on the ship; they became good friends and vowed to look out for each other. Did Francis ever tell you?”

“No, sir. I haven’t seen Francis since he left Boston these ten years.”

“I’m going to refit the Sultan as a frigate and send her out privateering.”

A stream of lascars brought in steamed fish, roasted mutton, and braised fowl. One of them piled boiled rice onto our dinner plates, then stood stiffly behind White’s chair, his black face and eyes fixed impassively ahead of him.

“That is my ship,” Captain Leslie said, his face grim.

White began to eat, apparently unaware of Captain Leslie’s eyes glaring at him, scooping spoonfuls of the tender fish and other choice morsels from the main dishes and heaping them onto his plate.

“George had a great nose for business and made his fortune in record time. He returned to England a rich man. Phaulkon, meanwhile, has risen to become Chief Mandarin—or Barcalon—to the King of Siam. True to his word, he appointed me, his friend’s brother, to the post of shahbandar of this port. I’m sure he will help you, Roger.”

“Have you any news of Francis?” I asked. “He was on a commission to Syriam for the Company; there's been no word of him for many months.”

“There was rumor of an English ship wrecked in a storm off Syriam,” White said. “If it was Francis’ ship, and if he did make landfall, the Peguans would have enslaved him. By their law a foreigner cast ashore forfeits his life and becomes the king’s property.”

“That’s terrible. How will he be treated?” I asked.

“Oh, lock him up, put him to labor. They hope someone will come and pay his ransom.”

“How can I locate Francis?”

“There’s not much you can do, except wait for news.”

“Is there anything for me to do here?” I asked.

I’m obliged to give Captain Leslie first choice of the Sultan, once it’s been refitted. You must wait until another ship becomes available.”

"I must get back to Madras first," Captain Leslie said. "My wife and child are there."

"Very well," White said. "Bring them here. Work with me, and you'll soon be on your feet again."

A lascar brought us wine in a decanter, filled our long-stemmed Venetian glasses, and came and stood behind my chair.

“What about you, Roger?”

“Rather than waiting here,” I said, “I’d like to go and see Phaulkon.”

“Splendid,” White said, taking a sip of wine. ‘There’ll be plenty of opportunities for a young man with brains and bluster. We’ll take Moorish ships as prizes and soon we’ll all return home rich as rajas.”

““How do I get to Ayuttaya,” I asked.

“In a few days I am sending a shipment of the royal revenues to the capital by the overland route. Luang Petch, a Siamese nobleman, will escort the king’s treasure to the capital. Accompany him to Ayuttaya and I will provide you with a letter of introduction. Seek an audience with Phaulkon; once he finds out you’re Francis’s brother, he’ll help you all he can, I’m certain of it.”

White signaled to the wine lascar to refill our glasses.

“A toast to Lord Phaulkon, to prosperity, and the Prosperous.” At the mention of the hated adversary, Captain Leslie almost choked on his wine.

Chapter 4 Crossing the Kra

One dawn soon after I was aroused by the shouts of Petch’s men come to take me to the boat landing where the first leg of my journey was to begin. After many days of inactivity I was eager to be off, my clothes and few books stored in a wooden chest and White’s letter sewed in the lining of my blue serge coat. At the wharf I found six barges loaded to the gunwales, each with a cabin at mid-section for the passengers. Petch’s two barges were already overcrowded, so he put me on another barge with half a dozen European women. The rest of the barges were occupied by the Moorish traders and their slaves.

The flotilla set off up the river, each barge propelled by four punters with bamboo poles, while a fifth manned the tiller. We began by traversing a stretch of tidal marches and mangrove swamps which were, had I but known, replete with traps for the unwary: drifting sandbanks, the submerged hulks of overturned barges, rocks lurking beneath the river’s turbid waters, and uprooted trees looming as many- armed devas dashing madly to conflate with the sea.

We soon entered the main channel of the Tenassery River, which, fed by the monsoon rains, was now in flood, glided past flimsy huts built on piles, and encountered scores of silent boats and canoes crisscrossing the watery world. As we progressed, the thatched huts of the farmer folk petered out, to reveal the entangled banks overgrown with vegetation. Exotic birds shattered the silence of the jungle with their calls and trills, and I caught sight of blue-billed gapers, white-breasted waterhens, kingfishers and doves. Herons wading in the shallows flapped gracefully away to rest on the dark treetops. Monkeys and gibbons swung from the branches, emitting loud, raucous shrieks. We often heard the bark of deer and sometimes the roar of a big cat.

“I would love to see a tiger or an elephant or some wonderful creature in these jungles,” Ann Taylor, one of the young women, said.

“I’m sure you will,” Mrs. Tuttie said. She was an older woman who was their chaperone. “In fact, you may wish never to see another before too long.”

“Talking about wonderful creatures,” Hanna, a Dutch woman, said, “did you see a white woman on one of the Moors’ barges?”

“Yes,” Ann Taylor said, “she’s very pretty.”

“I wonder what she’s doing with the Moors?” Mrs. Tuttie asked.

“What do you think, Mr. Davenport?” Ann Taylor said, turning her cornflower blue eyes on me.

“She’s probably one of their wives, or slaves,” I said. The two young Portuguese women looked up in amazement.

“Can she be their slave?” Maria Osaki said.

“It’s not impossible,” I said. I looked at Ann Taylor, who was pretty in her blue dress, and reminded me of Betsy Eden.

We glided on for hours, propelled by the indefatigable punters, until time became a silent stillness as in a dream. At a bend in the river some idolaters had erected a white pagoda atop a huge boulder, in front of which a stone idol stood surveying the passing river scene with incomprehension. A flock of ravens crossed overhead, intersecting the line of barges, setting the punters to shouting and gesturing, for they considered it a fatidic sign.

As twilight approached the bargemen found a safe place to set up camp, chaining the barges to some trees. They hacked away a wide clearing in the undergrowth and we alighted to break journey for the night. Each group lit its own cooking fire, and the ladies bustled about preparing the supper.

I sat on the bow of our barge and became aware of the stirring of the insects’ gleeful chirring, which isn’t heard in the daytime, everything blending into a ceaseless song of the night, a backdrop for remembrance and introspection. It still amazed me to be where I was, in the jungle in the middle of nowhere, traveling to some heathen kingdom.

A group of bargemen were startled by the cry of an owl, and then another bird emitted its plaintive call, which spooked them further, for they believed the jungle to be full of malevolent spirits. But when the moon rose, the night became pale and luminous. It was as if the twilight had never been. I alighted from the barge and walked about the jungle clearing and encountered the young mandarin, Petch, who was about to take a swim in the river. He beckoned to me to join him, but right away pulled off his clothes, ran down the steep bank, and plopped into the water. He came up for air and lay on his back and laughed with pleasure.

It had been a long day, and I was uncomfortable from the travel. The splashing of water and Petch’s was inviting. I was always surprised by the affinity the people of the Indies had for water. I looked at Petch, decided that it would be pleasant to feel the water on my body, quickly shucked off my clothes and plunged into the water. And the quiet, modest river resounded with snorting, splashing, and shouting. I coughed, laughed, and shouted as if someone was trying to drown me. I treaded water and splashed about until I was entirely refreshed.

When I got back to the women’s camp they were still preparing the supper. Ann Taylor stood amidst the smoke and stirred a pot with a long wooden spoon. A little to one side, their eyes red from smoke, Mrs. Tuttie and Hanna were chopping off the heads of live fish and gutting them. Before them lay a weed-covered net, in which were more fish and crayfish taken from the fecund river.

Petch, having gone to his barge to change, came to sup with us. This was my first opportunity to converse with him, and found the Siamese youth, a few years my junior, pleasant fellow.
After the meal we built up our campfires to ward off wild beasts and the women retired to the safety of the barges, where oil lamps and wax candles provided a weak but comforting light. Everyone slept on the barges because for fear of wild tigers, the women in the cabins under the protection of mosquito nets, the men on the deck, lulled by the murmuring waters and rocked gently to sleep.

I went to find Petch on his boat. He was dismantling his musket, spreading the pieces out on a cloth.

“The Moors’ woman was spying on us,” he said, taking out a small jar and smearing parts of the musket with grease.

“Yes, I noticed her,” I said.

“What do you make of her?” he asked, wiping off the excess grease with a rag. Then he began to reassemble the musket.

“I think she’s a slave.”

“Did you notice her hair? It was yellow.”

“Yes. She wears a scarf to cover it in the daytime.”

“I wonder what she wanted?”

“She was spying on us; we were stark naked.”

“So what’s her story? How would she have become the Moors’ slave, then?”

He began loading the musket with powder from a powder horn, took aim at a tree on the other side of the river and pulled the trigger. There was a loud clap, which awoke some of the men, who snorted and then went back to sleep.

“That should keep the tigers at bay,” he said.

“I don’t know,” I said, “but Moorish pirates in the Mediterranean prey on ships carrying white people and sell them as slaves. Anyway, she’s no concern of ours.”

Chapter 5 Mishap on the River

A few days later we entered a high gorge bracketed by towering walls of rock on both sides, the river frothing white and swift. The punters had to strain hard against the current to keep the barges moving against the current, with Petch’s barge about fifty yards in the lead. The punters, besides submerged rocks, also had to beware of branches and tree trunks that were swirling hell-bent to reach the great mother of waters.

For the passengers it was like hurtling along in a runaway carriage, or being tossed like a cork in the ocean. The women sat huddled together in the cabin, white-faced in terror, while I stood on the bow keeping lookout.

Suddenly a large tree trunk with scraggly branches loomed ahead on a collision course with our flotilla. The punters on the leading barge shouted a warning to the steersman, who leaned on the tiller with all his might to avoid a collision, veering the barge away from the log just in time to scrape through without mishap.
The second barge, in which we were traveling, was not so lucky. There was a loud thud as the whirling trunk slammed into the barge, the great log continuing to swirl past us, raking us with its branches. The barge shuddered and started taking in water through a hole ripped in the bow. The women screamed as one, scrambling out of the cabin onto to the deck and jumping into the water, though none of them could swim. They began floundering about in the churning bath, the air filled with their cries, trying to save themselves by clinging onto anything afloat.

I hesitated for a second, determined that the barge had had it, shucked off my coat, and dived into the water. I saw Anne Taylor floundering around, swam to her and grabbed hold of her by the waist.

“Be still, or we’ll both drown!” I shouted. She was terrified and kept flailing around. I shook her hard, bringing her to her senses, and dragged her to one of the Moors’ barges which had come level to us. The punters pulled us up onto the barge.

Petch had also dived into the water and swam back to rescue Maria Osaki. She had swallowed several mouthfuls of water and was failing about. He dragged her towards another barge and the punters hauled them up to safety. The bargemen had also succeeded in fishing out the other women and pulling them on board.

When everyone had been accounted for, we decided to set up camp and attempt to recover the baggage from the hold of the sunken barge, which took several hours and much effort, and then set up camp for the night.

The next day Petch made room for the women and me on his barge. As we set off the women were still nervous because of dunking in the river.

“I thought I was going to die,” Ann Taylor said. “When we panicked and jumped into the river, I felt rushing cold water envelop me, swallowing me, sucking me under, and twisting me in circles, then propelling me up to the surface. I could only gulp a single breath of air. A gasp and I was under again.”

“I apologize for having slapped you,” I said.

“You did? I don’t even remember. Anyway, if you hadn’t come to my aid, I would have drowned.” She didn’t remember the slap, but I remembered it vividly.

“I could feel the undertow dragging me down,” Hanna said. “My arms and feet felt leaden against the pressure of the whirlpool. I was afraid, yet strangely felt resigned to a watery grave.”

“I owe my life to Luang Petch,” Maria Osaki said. “When I jumped into the water, panic gripped me. I felt my body chilled to the bone, as if my legs and chest were filled with ice. All I could think was that I was going to drown.”

“It was lucky that I was able to catch onto one of the punter’s poles,” Mrs. Tuttie said. “I was praying so hard...”

“Where did you learn to speak French and Portuguese?” Mrs. Tuttie asked Petch.

“My parents sent me to serve Pra Narai as a royal page. When I was thirteen the King chose me as one of the boys to attend the Catholic seminary at Louvo to learn the religion of the foreigners. Here I studied Latin and Portuguese.”

“A few years later, Pra Narai again selected me and five other boys to attend the College of Louis the Great in Paris, to be educated as Frenchmen. We were boarded at the homes of affluent French families, and all our expenses were paid for by the French missionaries. When I returned to Siam after completing my studies, Pra Narai appointed me a third class mandarin with the title Luang. My duties were to train Siamese troops in the French model and in the use of their latest weaponry.”

“My French father, Monsieur Bailly, was a successful Paris merchant. I lived with him and his family for several years. They christened me Jean Baptiste, and showered on me nothing but kindness. They had a sixteen year old daughter, Catherine, very beautiful and very devout. She was tall, slender, fair and blue-eyed. I fell in love with her at first sight, but she didn’t even know I was alive. One day, after I had been living in her house for two years and spoke French quite well, I caught her alone in the upstairs corridor.

“I love you madly.” I blurted, in my schoolboy way, blocking her passage with outstretched arms. “Won’t you even say good day to me?”

“Good day,” Catherine said. “Now, please let me proceed, or I shall report your abominable behavior to Monsieur Bailly.”

“I demand a kiss from you before I’ll let you proceed,” I said, bringing my face close to hers. I could smell the rosewater she wore.

“If you insist on behaving childishly and forcing your kiss on me as the price of letting me go, I should have to comply, under protest,” she said softly.

I pressed my burning lips to hers and felt ecstasy I’d never known before, or since. At that instant I heard soft footfalls and supposed it was the upstairs maid approaching, so let her go. Catherine quickly crossed herself and ran downstairs. But she didn’t snitch on me to her father, though I never caught her alone again. Several months later she got her wish and went to a convent.” Petch laughed heartily at the recollection.

“All I got from her was one kiss, which shall have to last for a lifetime,” Petch said, laughing. “And a crucifix, which she gave me as a memento before she left for the convent, as much as to say I had been forgiven.” He pulled out the crucifix from under his tunic and showed it to the ladies.

On the tenth day of the journey we finally reached Jalinga, where the river became too shallow for us to continue on the barges. The bargemen were dismissed and sedan chairs and bullock carts were hired to take us the remainder of the journey across the mountains down to the Gulf of Siam. Petch asked the governor of the town for a couple of elephants to transport the royal revenues. After a night’s rest, the governor providing accommodations for the European ladies while the rest of us slept in a temple, or wat, we set off along the jungle trail. Petch and Maria Osaki led the way seated in a howdah perched on the back of an elephant, the second elephant carrying the royal treasury chests, guarded by the Siamese soldiers. The ladies followed in sedan chairs, and last came the creaking, heavy-laden bullock carts of the Moorish merchants. Soon the usually quiet trail was filled with the groaning of the carts, the lowing of the bullocks, and mingled every now and then with the shouts of the Indian palanquin-bearers, who had the worst of it, urging each other on with: “Go on, brothers, we shall soon get there.”

We headed east through the mountains towards the Gulf of Siam. While Petch and Osaki led the way on an elephant, Anne Taylor and I shared the back of a cart where we made room to lie down among our baggage. And so the overland leg of the journey, which lasted several days, passed pleasantly enough.

At last the low mountains of the isthmus gave way to a fertile coastal plain and we soon reached Peranne, where we found a junk to take us the rest of the way to the capital. With a favorable blind blowing, we soon arrived at the mouth of the river Chao Praya, and, after waiting for high tide to cross the mud bar, proceeded to the royal custom house at Ban Chao Praya where the Moorish merchants were made to pay duties on their goods. We then proceeded up the river to Ayuttaya.

This river, twice as wide as the Thames, called the Menam by the Siamese, the Mother of Waters, rolled down from the far north of the country like the torrent of broken souls—bearing teak logs and mud and drowned bodies. The river was a wide and winding channel of clear, fresh water, both banks covered with thick vegetation. There were whole stretches of virgin forest, the haunt of tigers and deer, with no sign of human habitation. It took us the best part of a day to reach Bangkok, a settlement of houseboats and huts clustered around a white fortress where we stopped to buy fresh fruits and meat, and break our journey for the night. The capital was still another 20 leagues and half a day’s journey up river.

The next day, as we neared the capital, little communities clustered around brightly roofed temples and golden spires became increasingly more frequent. We often saw little boats rowed by talapoins in bright saffron robes collecting alms, and swift canoes carrying half naked men and women dipping their oars in unison. Both the men and women wore their hair short, making it difficult to differentiate between the two from a distance.

As we neared the city, the river banks were lined with rows of thatched bamboo huts built on piles. Boats of all types became more numerous; sometimes we passed a junk heading out to sea, or a heavily-laden Dutch carrack heading for Batavia. When we arrived at the Portuguese settlement Petch and I bade a fond farewell to the Portuguese ladies and promised to visit them at the first opportunity. The ladies and their baggage were then transferred to country boats which rowed them to their houses.

At the Dutch warehouse, within sight of the walls of the city, Hannah hired a boat to take her to her husband, a trader with the Dutch East Indies Company. It was here that I bade a fond adieu Anne Taylor, promising to look her up sometime.
I now had my first glimpse of the storied city of Ayuttaya, situated on an island in the Chao Praya River. Ocean-going three-masters and junks were berthed in the spacious pool formed by the commingling of the waters of two rivers at the southern side of the city. A forest of ships’ masts lined the wharfs; long rows of warehouses jostled cheek by jowl for every available space. To the left of the warehouses was a large white bastion, Petchra Fort, the parapets lined with cannons. And stretching all around the island we saw the pristine white walls of the city and the soaring golden spires and temple roofs glinting in the afternoon the sun.

Our junk had just berthed when the cannons of the fort began firing steadily, one loud roll of thunder following another in quick succession, sending black clouds of smoke billowing over the fort.

“What are they firing at?” I asked Petch. “Surely they can’t be firing at us. It’s hardly believable that I started and ended my journey to Ayuttaya accompanied by the thunderous roar of cannons!”

I had at last, I felt, arrived at my heart’s destination, a land of sunlit temples and palaces.

Chapter 6 Ayuttaya, August 1684

"The cannons,” Petch told me, “were more than likely being fired in honor of the French ambassadors.”

“French ambassadors in Siam?” I asked. I couldn’t imagine the French would to send envoys to what must seem to them the ends of the earth.

“They are envoys of Louis XIV, here to negotiate a treaty of friendship and commerce, but everyone knows their real objective is to convert Phra Narai, and thereby the whole country, to Christianity.”

“What poppycock,” I said, “exchanging on set of superstitions for another.”

Petch insisted that I stay at his house and so, after delivering the royal revenues to the treasury and dismissing his troops, we set off in a canoe for his father’s house.

Ayuttaya is a city situated on a riverine island and is itself crisscrossed with scores of canals. There are few roads, and practically all journeys are by boat. We rowed down the long network of canals hemmed in on all sides by shrubs and trees, loud with birdsong, and passed between rows of irregular houses perched on posts, some very shabby-looking from the outside, but clean within, as we were to find when we stopped at one of them. Inside the hut I expected to see the people living in poverty, but they appeared not to be badly off, the floor covered with mats, coffers and screens everywhere. Hardly inside the door, a woman offered us tea in porcelain cups. After a few minutes of animated conversation, Petch and I continued our journey in the little canoe.

The canals formed a world of which I could hardly conceive; a shady green labyrinth that beckoned me enter its mysterious mazes where time slowed to the tempo of temple chants. As we paddled down watery lanes I was enchanted by all that I saw and heard, then suddenly emerging onto a main artery into a sunlit concourse filled with boats of all kinds, and time speeded up to an incessant beat of a drum.

Half an hour later Petch said, “This is my father’s house,” pointing to a large timber building some distance from the canal’s edge.”

We hardly had time to tie our canoe to the landing pavilion when servants, noticing our arrival, came down to meet us, bowing and scraping to their young master. A comely young woman came running after them and greeted Petch with a welcoming smile, falling down on her knees with her hands clasp as in prayer, which the Siamese call wai. She wore a colorful sarong and had long tresses, in contrast to the other women whose hair was short and wore plain clothes. A slight bulge in her belly revealed her to be with child.

I became conscious of the young women around me, their odors came to me strongly, talcum and jasmine, the bite of basil, the earthiness of mushrooms, the emanation of kitchens and cooking pots, musk and perspiration, that bright purity of sweat.

“One of my concubines,” he said, beaming at me, “Her name is Duen. Isn’t she lovely?” Petch had told me that it was common for nobles to have many concubines, even before they married the chief wife, who was usually chosen for family and political reasons.

“Come, let you show me around the garden,” he said, leading the way, with Duen and I, and a bevy of giggling girls, in tow.

“Are they all your wives?” I asked.

“Of course not,” he said, pointing to the prettiest. “Only these three.”

Petch showed me around his garden, of which he was immensely proud, pointing out the roses, gilliflowers and jasmines which he had obtained from the Dutch traders, who bring it from Batavia.

The mansion was an imposing timber building raised on a forest of columns about a man’s height above the ground. We ascended a narrow flight of steps and entered a passageway, passing several rooms filled with cabinets with fine porcelain ware, silverware and gold buddhas, a library of old palm leaf manuscripts in the prayer room, cupboards with stocks of cotton and silk cloth.

Then we emerged onto a roofed courtyard filled with people seated facing the front. At our appearance all heads turned towards us, a palpable hush descended, and all activity ceased, mouths gaping at me in wonder, red-stained with the juice of the betel nut and lime mixture they were chewing. This was probably the first time they had seen a white man. Petch walked up to his father, Okya Thongdee, who was the central figure in the diorama, and prostrated himself.

He introduced me to his father, informing him that I had accompanied him to Ayuttaya to seek an audience with Phaulkon, which launched Okya Thongdee on a long tirade.

“Ah, Okya Wichayen, the Greek favorite of the king you foreigners call Phaulkon,” he said. “Anyone he smiles on will become a rich man, if he doesn’t lose his head first.”

I didn’t understand a word of Siamese, so Petch translated for me. “Why is that?” I asked.

“He is a cunning man,” the father said. “But the mandarins are opposed to him and resent his influence at Court. They also believe he is conspiring with the French to convert us all to the white man’s religion. But he will learn that we won’t abandon the faith of our forefathers as easily has he himself abandons a religion when it suits him. The talapoins have vowed to oppose him until they are rid of him.”

The talapoins, or Buddhist monks, obviously would not welcome in their midst anyone bent on dismantling the tree of their religion. They were a powerful faction in Siamese society with the power to sway the hearts and minds of the common people. Thus even though they held no temporal power, they were a powerful sacerdotal force.

“Aren’t you forgetting, father,” Petch said, “that without the foreigners, be he Moor, Chinese, or farang, we would not enjoy the benefits of commerce which have provided the King and the mandarins, including yourself, father, much wealth?”

Petch explained that the kings of Ayutthaya were the principal traders in their own realm, using international commerce and a system of royal monopolies to increase the material magnificence of their court and to enlarge their treasuries. The kings of Ayutthaya were able to participate in the maritime trading networks of the Gulf of Siam, the Malay and Indonesian archipelagos, the Bay of Bengal,(and even farther afield than in the Indian Ocean, the South China Sea, and Japan.

“Granted, trade and commerce we must have. But to have the farangs come and usurp our titles and purloin our livelihoods, brand us as idolaters and presume to convert us to their faith, that is unforgivable.”

“How is my sister,” Petch asked, changing the subject.

“Well. She has gone to stay at Okya Wichayen’s house.”

“But I thought you hated him?” Petch said.

“Lady Marie Guimar has taken a liking to Wan,” the father said. “They are the same age and have the same tastes, and get on very well together. Besides, it will keep her out of harm’s way until she is presented to the King.”

“Presented to the King?” I asked. “What does that mean?”

“Noble young ladies of beauty are presented to the King as concubines,” Petch said. “It is the custom in our country.”

“Your kings are indeed fortunate,” I said, “if they have the pick of the crop of the most beautiful women in the country.”

After we had taken leave of the old man, Petch said, “Do not take my father’s words at face value. He is of the old school and distrusts foreigners, but his heart is really gold.”