Friday, November 13, 2009

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.

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