Ferdinand Magellan and me (13) : Malacca

Portuguese cannon in Malacca

In the 15th and 16th centuries, Malacca was the Big Apple in these parts. Affonso de Albuquerque led a fleet that included Magellan which took revenge for a previous failed Portuguese invasion under Dom Lopes de Sequiera. Malacca at that time was the richest city in south-east Asia, commanding traffic through the Strait of Malacca as Singapore does nowadays. Today, it is a backwater attracting some tourists, but not many, because little remains of historic ruins apart from the portal of the Famosa fortress, built by the Portuguese and allowed to fall into ruin by the subsequent conquerors, the Dutch.

We made the acquaintance of a Portuguese priest, Father Pintado, who was passionate about the history of Malacca and had written a book on it. He belonged to the Society of St Peter but was fascinated with St Francis Xavier, who was buried in Malacca for nine months before his body was shipped to Goa, where it still lay, placed on public display once every ten years. He introduced us to some of the locals, who still spoke a Portuguese patois, and entertained us to a feast of fish and crab on the beach. Magellan was one of his heroes, as it turned out.

“Such a great man. Incorruptible. He had faith, and he lived and died by his faith.”

Being a man of little faith myself, I was not convinced faith was a suitable motive for anything. I prefer hard evidence and, I suspect, Magellan did too, which is one of the reasons he got a hard time in mystical, medieval, Roman Catholic Spain. We sailors tend to be fairly pragmatic chaps. No one would ever call Magellan a dreamer, although, towards the end of his life, he might be called eccentric or even fanatic.

The only way you can get to know a man who lived and died half a millennium ago is through what other people have said about him. Magellan arouses such passion in the Spanish and Portuguese that the commentary can hardly be regarded as impartial. Both sides hate him. The Portuguese think he is a traitor and the Spanish think him an interloper. These jealousies mean nothing to me. As far as I am concerned he was just a great sailor, on which the Spanish and Portuguese must agree.

The Portuguese pillaged Malacca to such an extent that the treasure stolen from the locals was probably the greatest haul in history. Much of it was loaded into Albuquerque’s flagship, Flor de la Mar, heading back to India. Unfortunately, a storm came up before she cleared Malacca Strait and the ship was lost. To this day, somewhere off the coast of Sumatra, there is a fabulous treasure of gold, silver, rubies and porcelain, buried in the mud. In Singapore, we met an adventurer, sailing a yacht called Nan Yang, which had once belonged to American President Roosevelt, who was setting out to find Albuquerque’s treasure. I have not heard anything of his success or failure, but I’m sure I would have heard had he been successful.

There seems little realisation among these early explorers, or even among modern historians recounting their deeds, that what they were doing was nothing more than burglary. If they did realise it and feel any guilt, their sins were forgiven by a compliant Catholic Church, which had its own agenda. Heathen souls were the object of the church’s cupidity, not gold, although later, in South America, the Spanish priesthood and nobility joined forces to enslave, rob and massacre the natives.


Ferdinand Magellan and me (12) :Bucko

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Bucko-our defence against pirates.

Our defence against pirates was more creative than James’s. We bought a dog. He should probably be called a doglet. He was a silky terrier, one week old, just about big enough to fill the palm of my hand. Why should I get a dog to save us from pirates? you may ask. And why not get a real dog, like a Dobermann, instead of a toy like a silky terrier? My thinking was this. These pirates nearly all came from Indonesia, which is the most populous Muslim country in the world. I had been told that Muslims regard dogs as unclean. All I had to do was wave the dog in the air and they would be repelled in disgust. At last, an ethical approach to piracy. I eschewed the path of terror and besides, we fell in love with him. I rigged netting on the guard rails all around the boat to save him from falling overboard.

We called him Bucko, as in bucko mate, and set about training him to do his ablutions in a tray of kitty litter in the cockpit. Poor little bugger probably thought he was a cat, never able to cock his leg on a lamp post, but he had the heart of a lion. Eventually, I did build him a lamp post out of an old broom stick in his kitty litter tray and witnessed what has to be one of the great marvels of evolution. No one had ever taught him to cock his leg, he just did it. What’s more, by the time he was a couple of months old he could climb the ladder from down in the cabin up to the cockpit so we didn’t have to lift him up there any more. We just had to be careful not to step in anything nasty.

We left Singapore after a farewell barbecue at Ong’s and headed up the Malacca Strait on the lookout for pirates. Before long the weather was up to its old tricks, with a heavy rainstorm and brief but violent squalls. I dropped the anchor to sit it out. Bucko spent most of the time asleep, not worried by the storm, but sudden noises like the engine starting frightened him.

Some time in the early hours of the morning when the weather had calmed Bucko started barking up on deck: ‘Yap, yap, yap,’ waking us up.

“Shut up, you stupid dog,” I said, but he paid no attention and, eventually, I had to get out of bed to investigate. He was barking at what looked like one of the local fishing boats returning to port. I went and got the spotlight and trained it on the triangular shape gliding through the anchorage. It wasn’t the sail of a fishing boat; it was the dorsal fin of the biggest shark I have ever seen in my life.

“Holy shit,” I said. “Shut up, Bucko. You wouldn’t even be a snack for that thing.”

But then I realised I had to give him a pat for doing a good job.


Ferdinand Magellan and me (11) :Pirates

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Pirates in the Malacca Strait

Cruising yachts are like a travelling village and you often find familiar faces in ports all over the world. It’s nice to sail into a foreign port and encounter old friends who can fill you in on where to do the shopping, how to find a good mechanic, which bureaucrats need bribing and other vital matters. At Ong’s marina in Singapore expat sailors swapped yarns over barbecues. Here we met James, who had sailed with us in the Ambon race. He also had a female crew, although of a different moral persuasion than Robin. James had celebrated his birthday in Ambon and his gift from his crew was a short time with one of the whores at the Halong brothel. Apparently, she was trying to divert attention away from herself.

It’s true that piracy is a problem in the Malacca Strait. They even attack big ships and the previous year a cruising yacht had been boarded, the wife raped and the husband badly wounded. Whether cruising yachts should arm themselves was a frequent debate. Some; especially the Americans among us, claimed they could scare off pirates with a sufficient show of force. Others, including myself, believed the complication of a firearm on board outweighed the fairly low probability of meeting pirates on the high seas.

James was obsessed with pirates and he scoured Singapore in search of the equipment needed for his ultimate weapon. The marina had a dedicated barbecue space on the waterfront and on the occasion of someone’s birthday we gathered to celebrate. James proudly displayed his creation. Through piping and tubing and a specially manufactured venturi tube, he had rigged up his scuba-diving tanks to the fuel tank of his outboard motor. He created a flame thrower; a weapon that sidestepped the problems associated with carrying firearms aboard a yacht.

“Those bastards come anywhere near me and they’ll end up grilled chops,” he said.

To demonstrate his point, he opened the valve on the scuba tank, struck a match to fire up the flame thrower and turned it on the chops quietly grilling away on the barbecue plate. They were blasted off into the dirt.

“Oh shit, sorry,” James said.

The chops tasted not only of dirt but also of petrol and James’s demonstration strengthened the anti-firearm lobby.

As for me, I had my own anti-pirate measure in mind.

Next: the Ultimate defence against piracy.


Ferdinand Magellan and me(10): Singapore

Ferdinand Magellan and me(10)

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oil rig in the South China Sea
Oil has long since replaced spices as the world’s most sought commodity likely to send nations to war. In Magellan’s time Singapore was a deserted, swampy island infested with mosquitoes and bugs. The economic powerhouse then was Malacca, about 100 miles up the strait.

A few centuries later, Singapore had become the hub of business and maritime activity. This was an opportunity to top up the coffers because a company I had worked for in Australia was hiring. Smit Lloyd was a Dutch company specialising in oil rig tenders servicing rigs in the region. They needed a mate so within a few days I was heading back the way we had come from while Robin minded Jabiru in Ong’s marina in the Johore Strait.

The Norwegian skipper, Lars, had ways of dealing with Oriental bureaucracy that topped my paltry graft in Bali. Our first rig was working in Indonesian waters and had a resident immigration official on board. Lars explained that this individual could waste a couple of days on paperwork, checking stores and searching for contraband, but Lars had found the answer. He sat the official down in the mess room in front of the television and while we got on with our work the official watched pornographic movies.

Singapore’s only natural resource is its location at the crossroads of maritime traffic between Europe and the Orient. Singapore harbour is always crowded with all manner of ships but canny businessmen and politicians have developed service industries making it one of the most prosperous little countries in the region. It has a large expat population, a fair proportion of it based in Ong’s Marina, and we soon found ourselves drawn into a multinational social circle. Somehow the weeks turned into months and the months into nearly a year. Magellan was put on the back burner for a while.

Next: Pirates.


Ferdinand Magellan and me (9) :Headwinds

Ferdinand Magellan and me(3)

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We had tarried so long among the Thousand Islands that we had missed the favourable monsoon. As we sailed out into the Java sea again it was very different from last time. Now the sky was a purplish black with sheets of lightning and rolling thunder. Sudden gale force winds came from nowhere, blew for 20 minutes and then disappeared, leaving a confused, choppy sea in which Wathara attempted to throw her mast out.Then the fierce Sun would reappear and try to roast us as we prayed to the wind god. Day after day we logged runs of 30 miles, 15 miles, 20 miles. One day we went backwards. The lesson was clear – never, never sail these waters at the turn of the monsoon.

In the age of sail, monsoons governed the movement of ships throughout the region. When the Portuguese arrived they found a thriving seaborne trade dominated by the Chinese junk, which had some advanced features unknown to Europeans. The Chinese invented the magnetic compass, the transom hung rudder, watertight compartments and the battened lozenge-shape sail that enabled them to point higher into the wind and outsail square rigged carracks. The sail plan was easier to manage because the battens, controlled from the deck by lines, enabled sails to be quickly reefed.

Before the time of Columbus and Vasco da Gama a eunuch slave in the court of Emperor Cheng Zu was given command of a huge fleet of about 100 ships. Over the next year and a half various elements of the fleet cruised through the Indian Ocean as far as Africa seeking trade. The 15th century more than any other can be called the century of exploration although the Chinese failed to exploit their sea power. They had also invented gunpowder but later fell under the thrall of the invading Europeans.

Since our cruising permit had now expired we were not allowed to land at an Indonesian port again and we hadn’t enough fuel to motor all the way to Singapore. Inch by inch, it seemed, we crept up the Karimata Strait by the coast of Borneo, staying clear of the Sumatra shore, where pirates had recently been reported. Piracy is an ancient profession in these waters. One day I found Robin in the cockpit in tears.

“Oh God, how long is this going to last?” she wailed.

“Until it ends,” I said in my oracle voice.

Actually, I wouldn’t have minded a bit of a cry myself but we men have to keep the flag flying. The entrance to Singapore Strait was still 200 miles away across the South China Sea into the teeth of the new monsoon.

When we did eventually get to Singapore I reported to the harbour master, who asked, filling in a form, “What is purpose of visit? Business, education or pleasure?”

I had to think about that for a while. It wasn’t business, it wasn’t education so it must have been pleasure. “Pleasure,” I finally said. “Yes, we do this for pleasure.”

Distinctive Chinese craft.Next: Singapore.