an extract from the novel
by Garry Kilworth
Part One: The White Rajah
The old rajah knew he was dying: he had seen a strange bird flying across the mouth of the Sarawak River. Witnessing the sight through one of the lattice-work windows of his white palace, he needed no bomoh to tell him the meaning of this omen, which could have been interpreted by a four-year-old child. Surprising to some, the rajah was not depressed about this state of affairs for he had been ill over a long period. Death, while not perhaps a blessing, was at least welcome.
The bird had been green and red in colour, flying as straight as a blow-pipe dart. These refinements told the rajah that something else was happening out there in the vibrant world. Something else was occurring which would be of benefit to his region of the sultanate ostensibly ruled from Brunei, but in practice virtually autonomous. He sent for one of the Malay princes, Ahmed Rimah, and asked him to describe what was going on in the world outside the palace grounds.
'My lord,' said the prince, in a quiet voice, 'it is market day in the city. The people have come from far and wide - Sea Dyaks, Land Dyaks, Chinese and Malays - they are bartering for goods, selling their wares, cheating each other.'
'And on the rivers?'
There were dozens of rivers like brown snakes writhing through the jade forests of Sarawak. Their banks were shared by red orang-utans and reticulated pythons, their waters by crocodiles and mosquito larvae. The surfaces of these meandering waterways, ruffled by frequent rapids, were human playgrounds for trade, travel and occasional war.
'The rivers are quiet, my lord.'
Breezes lightly lifted the prince's cream silken pantaloons and yellow brocaded tunic as he stood there wondering what was in the rajah's mind. The prince had a tightly-wound turban of green silk on his head with an enormous ruby brooch pinning it fast to his black hair. Below this turban a small frown marred his smooth, pale-skinned countenance. Harsh sunlight rarely touched the delicate complexion of Prince Ahmed's face.
'The sea? What of the sea?'
Again the prince's eyes were troubled. He did not know how to answer. In the end he decided upon the truth.
'There is a yacht cruising through our coastal waters. I am told it flies the flag of the British Navy.'
'Ahhhh,' murmured the rajah, sinking back onto his soft cushions. 'Please send for its captain, Prince Ahmed. I must speak with him.'
'Might I be permitted to know why you wish to see this British captain?'
'No, Prince Ahmed, you may not.'
Allen Starke stood on the deck of the Monarch, watching the coast of Sarawak slip by to starboard. Starke's face was lightly scarred down one side and he held his right arm tucked into his waist. These were the only indications of the hideous wounds he had received in India several years earlier, in 1840. Lieutenant Starke, as he was then, was riding with a message when he was caught in withering crossfire.
For many months Starke trod water between life and death. Eventually the ferryman decided death did not want him and left him to wash up on the bank of the living. Once he had recovered enough he returned to England, to his younger cousin Harriet's house, where she nursed him back to complete health. It was to Harry that Starke had announced his intention of travelling the world to try to find himself. Harry had instantly demanded to accompany Starke on his search for his destiny, saying that England was dull.
'You could leave me here, Allen. In which case I would die of boredom amongst flower gardens and old aunts, while you go off with a guilty conscience. On the other hand, you could earn my eternal gratitude by taking me with you,' Harry had said to him.
'But Harry, you know how shocked everyone would be. Ladies just don't go traipsing around far-flung countries. Apart from the danger how will you find a husband when you've been halfway around the world with your cousin?'
Both cousins knew there were no romantic feelings on either side, nor would there ever be. Starke was a confirmed bachelor and though Harry was very fond of him she had no wish to share a life with him as his wife, only as a companion. Harry was not a beautiful woman. In fact, many unkind mothers of pretty girls called her 'dark and plain'. She also had a fiery personality, too full of enthusiasm for the wrong pursuits. She loved riding fast unmanagable horses and tramping in the Cumberland hills. Most men of her class liked their ladies to be ormaments who sang prettily at the piano and painted water colour pictures on the lawn.
At twenty-eight Harry was past making a 'splendid match' and the best she could wish for was a husband who loved her. Hopefully the right man would see her fire and enthusiasm as assets, but he was not the sort of man she would meet in the drawing-rooms of Surrey. Finding a husband was not her reason for wanting to accompany her cousin however - she was not that eager to place her future in a stranger's hands - but Harry craved excitement in her life. Travel helped satisfy that craving, especially travel outside Europe, in the more exotic regions of the earth, where more or less anything could happen.
'I don't want to be Fanny Price, of Mansfield Park,' she told her cousin, 'I want to be Harriet Glendenning of No Fixed Address.'
'You saved my life,' he replied, exaggerating things just a trifle for the benefit of the shocked aunts, 'so how can I refuse you, Harry?'
During the time that he convelesced in Surrey the death of his father provided him with enough funds to purchase a yacht. It was a sleek racehorse of a craft which cut an elegant figure on the water. Because this vessel had belonged to the Royal Navy it had the same privileges as a man-o'-war and was authorized to fly the white ensign. Starke had decided that although he had been permitted to live, his military years were over, and he determined to set out and search the world to find a new purpose for his life. He set sail for Ceylon by way of Aden, cruised around the Maldives for a month or two, then went on to Singapore. He found the 'lion city' full of merchants and tradesmen, most of them expatriate Chinese. In search of more exotic company he moved on and so circumnavigated the Malay peninusula and cruised to Borneo.
Now he was sailing along the coast of Sarawak. Here he knew lived three races - Dyaks, Chinese and Malays. He knew a little about the latter two, but he had needed to look up the word 'Dyak' in his books. It seemed the Land Dyaks were split into several tribes - Kayan, Kenyah, Kejaman, Skapon, Berawan, Sebop, Punan, and many more - and they lived inland, in longhouses controlled by chiefs and paramount chiefs. Only the Iban were known as Sea Dyaks. They lived on the coast and were different in appearance to the Land Dyaks who lived along the rivers. The Iban were raiders, a fierce people, often hostile.
'There's a boat coming out, cap'n,' said the helmsman, John Keller, a red-headed seaman. 'A royal canoe by the look.'
Starke looked up to see that Keller was right. There was a canoe with a thatched roof. Starke could make out a figure sitting on a carved chair in the centre. The canoe was rowed by what appeared to be Dyak Indians. Starke had already encountered some Sea Dyaks sailing prahus - pirates - who tried to board him. He blew them out of the water with his six-pounder cannons and two swivel guns mounted fore and aft.
'I see them now, Keller, thank you.'
'Aye, aye, cap'n.'
Though his eyes were sharp and keen Keller was the only real troublemaker on board. Allen Starke intended to leave Keller in some foreign port when the time came. He was the cause of much unrest within the crew. Most of the others would have been happy to knock Keller on the head and tip his body overboard in the middle of the night, but Keller was handy with his fists. It would have taken more than one of them and they were not yet sufficiently cohesive enough unit nor confident of one another's willingness to remain silent afterwards.
Starke knew that if Keller remained on board the seaman would eventually disappear one dark night - or someone else would be killed by his hand.
Starke ordered Rediman, the First Mate, to take in sail.
Soon the canoe was alongside and a Malay dignitary came on board. After declining refreshments the man said he was Prince Usop. He was armed with a kris, a wavey-bladed dagger, and was wearing a colourful sarong and a red velvet jacket trimmed with silver which had large buttons made of hornbill beak. Usop was Prince Ahmed's older brother and the crown prince, but unlike his younger sibling Usop was extremely ugly, and had a humped back. The prince pointed to the beautiful Santubong Mountain on the mainland and said in good English, 'The Rajah of Sarawak requests your presence at a feast this evening. Will you come, sir?'
Starke thought about declining. There were treacherous people amongst the local rulers. However, at the last moment an impulse urged him to accept.
'Yes, thank you, I'll be there. I shall come in one of my boats, so you have no need to wait.'
The prince bowed and left. He did not sit down again but stood in the stern of his prahu, looking back at Starke's yacht the whole while until he reached the shore.
Starke waited for the flow tide and then went upriver in one of the ship's four boats. He took with him six of his crew, armed with muskets and cutlasses. Keller had given Starke a problem. If he took him along, he might cause some incident and ignite a riot. If he left him behind, there would without doubt be some kind of fight. He decided to take him, but made the sailor steer the boat to keep him occupied. Starke had made sure Keller was also without a weapon of any kind.
Harry remained on board. She had gained considerable respect amongst the crew for her doughty character. During the pirate episode she had remained on deck the whole time, not getting in the way, but determined to watch the battle. In her slim white hand had been a rather large pistol. It had been given to her to use on herself, if the battle had gone the wrong way, but she had no intention of committing suicide for such a silly thing as protecting her honour. She had used it to shoot a Dyak pirate between the eyes as he clambered over the gunwales.
She had now been left in charge of the Monarch. If Starke did not return she was supposed to order the rest of the crew to sail the yacht to Singapore. She was just as likely to take the craft up the Sarawak River and lay waste to the city. In her way she was as much a rebel as was Keller, only her intentions were good, whereas Keller's were at best dubious.
When Starke reached the royal jetty he found a large gathering of Malay princes waiting for him.
'Keller, you will accompany me,' said Starke, 'the others remain on the jetty. I want no trouble. You will wait for my direct orders before doing anything at all, is that clear?'
The boatswain nodded briskly. 'Aye, aye, captain.'
'Keller,' went on Starke, 'keep your mouth shut and your fists in your pockets. I'm taking you with me only because I don't trust you back here. If you give me any problem whatsoever, I'll shoot you dead. Do you understand?'
Keller growled, 'Murder, cap'n?'
'Out here there are different laws and no one cares about the rights of villains, Keller.'
The seaman shrugged and nodded sullenly.
The Malay princes, Ahmed and Usop among them, clustered around the two Europeans and bustled them towards the palace. Starke was taken through marble halls to a cool room in a high tower. Here he was ushered into the presence of an old man swathed in cotton, lying on a bed of silk. The old man was as shrivelled and wrinkled as a brown lizard. Starke could see that the spark of life within the man was all but gone. His breathing was quick and shallow, his throat pulsing like that of a reptile suffering from too much sun. There was not much time.
A gnarled, crooked hand, devoid of any flesh, beckoned the captain closer to the bedside.
'You are Allen Starke, the Englishman?'
Starke raised his eyebrows. 'You are well informed, sir.'
'You are captain of the Monarch?'
'I am indeed.'
'I have heard of your exploits against the Sea Dyak pirates in my waters,' said the rajah, his voice like dry leaves rustling in the breeze. 'You have done well. Those pirates are a plague on my country. Do you think you could rid these waters of them for good and all?'
'I don't know,' said Starke, sensing an important announcement. 'I could - but why would I wish to risk my men and my yacht to do that?'
The crowd of princes were standing in the doorway, watching and listening intently to every word that was spoken. Keller too, was standing a little way off from the bed, his eyes flicking from one face to another, gauging the mood of those participating in this drama. Keller was a liar, a thief and an all-round scoundrel, but he was a survivor and no coward. No matter what his captain's orders might have been, if trouble started he was going to fight his way out of that room. Where was the sense in doing anything else?
The old man continued. 'The leader of those pirates is called Lingore, a vicious cutthroat who thinks nothing of using a live baby as a flag hanging from his mast. He is an evil man, who lays waste to villages and destroys my prahus. The datus,' the old man waved a boney hand at the Malay princes, 'can do nothing about him. They are helpless and only fit for court intrigue and plotting against each other.'
'I understand,' said Starke, 'but shouldn't you be resting, instead of telling me these stories? You seem very ill to me, sir, and I advise you to get some sleep.'
The old man, his head like a fleshless skull, gave out a husky laugh. 'I am not only ill, I am dying. I shall be dead before the morning. This is what I have to say to you, captain. If you rid the waters of these pirates, then I wish you to be the next rajah in my place. Promise you will be the scourge of this blight and you shall rule Sarawak for Sultan Omar Ali of Brunei. I have sent word to him and already have his approval. I offer you a kingdom, Captain Starke, in exchange for your promise.'
There was a gasp from the doorway. The princes began chattering amongst themselves like starlings. Keller, unarmed at the orders of Starke, looked around him for a handy weapon and decided upon an ornamental Dyak sword which hung on the wall behind the bed. Keller calculated he could have that weapon in his hands within three bounds. He remained poised on his toes, ready to make the leap forward if the princes came on.
'Quiet,' cried one of the datus. There was immediate silence, for the voice was that of Prince Usop, the crown prince. 'Let my uncle the rajah finish his words.'
'Thank you, Usop,' said the rajah. 'But now I am simply waiting for an answer to my question.'
Allen Starke sat for a moment or two contemplating the old man's offer. He had little doubt he could get rid of the pirates, given time. If he could not do it with the Monarch he could send for a larger ship to do the job. The question was, did he want to rule a foreign land? If he undertook this task it would be lifelong. There would obviously be much opposition from the princes in the doorway - and others, no doubt. Furthermore he had no idea of the enormity of the task, what it might entail, and whether or not he was being tricked into something much more complex than appeared on the outside.
'I'm sorry,' he said to the rajah, 'I need more information - and you are very weak.'
The skeletal hand waved away the concern for his health.
'A man who is dying is beyond rest,' said the rajah. 'What do you wish to know?'
'Why me - an outsider?'
'It is precisely because you are an outsider that I wish you to take my place. There are three races here - the Chinese, the Malays and the Dyaks. During my lifetime the Chinese merchants have become rich and powerful in their own right. The head-hunting Dyaks also need a ruler who will look after their interests as well as those of the Malays and the Chinese. If I appoint anyone else - Malay, Chinese, Dyak - there will be jealousy, rivalry and riots. In short, there will be a blood bath. You, as an outsider, can look to the interests of all groups, without having any particular bias or prejudice.'
'I understand that part of it now, but how do you know you can trust me to act as you wish? Englishmen are as fallible as any other race. We have our share of greedy, brutal despots who would milk a country dry. What makes you so sure I am not one of those men?'
The rajah came off his silken sheets and grabbed Starke's collar, pulling the captain's ear close to his mouth.
'This is not a rich country. There are some individuals who have money, jewels, fine clothes, big houses, but the kind of wealth that warps men into lesser creatures cannot be found in Sarawak. Even so, I would not hand over my kingdom to just anyone. There are sorcerers here, people who can see into a man's soul. I have consulted those who can foretell the future,' he whispered hoarsely. 'You are spoken of as a man with integrity and justice in his heart.'
Starke lowered the rajah back onto his bed of silk. Behind the bed was a huge Persian carpet: a wall-hanging. In corners of the room were ivory ornaments, vases of solid gold, ebony chairs and jade carvings. Yet, it was as the rajah had said, the country itself was relatively poor. It had gold and antimony mines, but these did not produce the kind of wealth that made men rich overnight. If Sarawak was to become great it would be a slow process, through hard-gathered trade, and perhaps would never happen at all.
'I accept your offer,' he said, solemnly. 'I'll do my best to rid the South China Sea of pirates. I hope I shall prove as wise a ruler as my predecessor.'
There were several intakes of breath from the princes in the doorway at these words. The rajah smiled, faintly.
'Good,' he said. 'I announce you as my heir. My Grand Vizier, Muda Hassim will take care of you.'
Starke looked up to see that a powerful-looking man had forced his way through the knot of princes into the room. He was accompanied by guards, who immediately took up positions around the room and pushed the princes back, clearing the doorway.
Allen Starke nodded towards Keller and the pair of them joined the princes, who had now moved outside the room, as more of the rajah's personal bodyguards began to press them towards the stairs of the tower.
On the way back to the boat the two Englishmen were jostled by the Malay princes.
Prince Ahmed said to Starke, 'You will not last very long if you come back here.'
'Why are you making threats, brother?' asked Prince Usop. 'I am the next in line - it is me who has been robbed.'
'No one is safe,' cried another prince. 'Your uncle had no children. We all have a claim.'
Starke turned to them and said, 'That's precisely why the rajah wishes the next ruler to come from the outside, so all this petty squabbling will cease. I'll tell you now that when I return it'll be for good. Once I'm ruler I shall suppress any insurrection with utmost firmness. You all heard what the rajah had to say about all the races having an equal interest in this fine country of yours. Let the silly quarrelling amongst you come to an end and let us have peace here.'
With that Starke jumped into the boat and ordered his men to cast off. The mariners rowed downriver to the sea with great energy, mistaking their captain's intense silence, and Keller's high excitement, for signs that all had not gone well at the palace. The seamen thought they were about to be chased back to the yacht by prahus full of armed men from the city.
When they reached the yacht and Harry came to greet her cousin, Keller could hold back no longer.
'They've made him a king,' he cried in a wild excited voice. 'We'll all be rich!'
'A king? What's this?' said the boatswain. 'Is that the truth, cap'n? Have you been crowned a king?'
'I've been offered the sultanate of Sarawak by the present rajah, who is unfortunately dying. This doesn't mean you'll all become suddenly very wealthy, despite Keller's outburst. If you remain with me, you will no doubt find a comfortable life here, but I don't intend to enrich my own people at the expense of others.'
Despite these words, Keller was irrepressible. He believed that Starke was merely playing the English gentleman, saying what he thought people wanted to hear. Keller could not conceive of anyone who would not take advantage of this windfall. Who would it hurt? Only a bunch of natives. Why, you took what you could in this world, and left the leavings to the poor. Of course they were all going to be made rich. It was his good fortune to be on Starke's yacht when the gods were smiling.
Harry spoke to her cousin in his cabin, privately.
'Is this true? You're going to be the next rajah?'
'Yes, Harry. I have accepted the old rajah's offer. I have promised to rid the area of the pirates, but I think that was just a sop for the Malay datus. They believe it should be one of them, you see, which I suppose it should. Nevertheless, we'll set about hunting for the pirates tomorrow.'
'I'm very happy for you, cousin. I'm a bit sad too. I thought we were going to have more adventures.'
'There's adventures to be had in this land by the fistful, Harry. The interior is full of Dyak head-hunters. The mouths of the rivers are inhabited by Chinese merchants who are all trying to outdo each other with regard to trade. And the city is teeming with Malay princes who will no doubt try to assassinate me at the first opportunity. Oh, there'll be plenty of excitement for you here, Harry. This is a colourful exotic land, full of eastern mysticism and magic.'
'Oh, good - just what I've always wanted - and not a disapproving aunt in sight!'
is published in the UK by Little, Brown.
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