click for Ferdinand Magellan
Darwin sailors are a casual lot and the racing division had been cancelled due to lack of competitive spirit, leaving 11 cruising yachts to make their way to Ambon. Darwin Yacht Club’s hospitality for interstate contestants included free crocodile insurance. The start was delayed while we waited for the 18 gallon keg of beer, donated by the local brewery sponsoring the race, to be delivered aboard one of the yachts.
It was a dream run across the Arafura Sea, with fair winds and blue skies except towards the end, when the breeze petered out. Some competitors were so relaxed they stopped for a spot of fishing and others ran their engines but Wathara complied with the rules and, approaching the end of the 600 mile cruise, we were in contention to win because nearly everyone else had been disqualified. Ambon harbour is a deep, narrow gorge like a fjord and, once inside, the fluky breeze disappeared and we started going backwards on the tide. A few hours later we drifted back in. A few hours later we drifted back out. A few hours later we drifted back in. It was too deep to anchor.
“Oh God, this is ridiculous,” Robin said. “Why don’t you start the engine?”
“Magellan didn’t have an engine.”
“If there’s one thing I hate it’s a pig-headed man.”
“You wouldn’t have liked Magellan, then.”
Eventually I decided the prize, which was only an engraved brass plaque, wasn’t worth it. The party was well under way when we finally crossed the finish line under motor but the organisers seemed to have forgotten us and looked surprised to see another boat arriving.
The festivities went on for about a week, with the locals laying on traditional dances and tours of the district. It became known the Halong Inn, the centre for these activities, was actually a brothel owned by the admiral in command of the local naval squadron. Our extended stay was affecting business and he wanted us gone but the kids in dugout canoes who hung around the anchored
yachts remained hospitable and full of mischief
The Portuguese were only the first European invaders. At one time the Portuguese empire was bigger than that of Alexander the Great but empires fade away and present-day obscure principalities wallow in past glories. In the Moluccas we saw fortresses built by the Portuguese and overrun by the Dutch; massive stone structures still with cannons aimed out into the harbour where the next threat was most likely to come from, namely other Europeans. The Dutch were not expelled until after World War II and left behind a legacy of bitterness from their centuries of exploitation and cruelty. One of the worst Dutch massacres was committed in Ambon. The British were not expelled from Malaya and Singapore until the 1960s after about 150 years of colonial rule, but the death knell of the British Empire was the sinking of HMS Prince of Wales by the Japanese.