hey were trying times. England had been at war with France for eighteen years ever since 1793. It was now 1811 and a very ill King George III had just relinquished the throne to George IV who acted as Prince Regent. The general public didn’t care very much. They were heartily sick of the war.
Meanwhile, on the other side of the world, the Dutch had consolidated themselves in the Malay archipelago for two hundred years. Their main base was in Batavia on the island of Java. This had come about from the year 1602 when Amsterdam traders, eager to become involved with trade in Asia, combined their capital with merchants from various Netherland ports to found the Dutch East India Company, the Verenigde Oostindische Compagnie (the VOC).
Initially, the main object was to take part in the highly profitable spice trade. During this time the Spanish were trading regularly with the island of South Celebes from the Philippine capital of Manila. There were also some Portuguese strongholds in the area, but by 1605 the Dutch had expelled the Portuguese except from the eastern half of the island of Timor. A more potent threat to the Dutch was the English East India Company, which for much of the seventeenth century had a base in Macassar and regularly shipped spices from Maluku to their headquarters in Banten. This infuriated the Dutch who finally managed to expel all other European nations from trading in the spice islands, including the English. However, the English were to get the last laugh.
An unusual item of cargo in the area in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries was the brisk trade in slaves, particularly between Macassar and Batavia. Apart from spices, slaves were a particularly important item of commerce in internal VOC trade. For some reason female slaves fetched a notably higher price than did male slaves, quite a lot more. Reports of the time gave no reason for the difference in price. Modern scholars have come up with a likely theory which will be canvassed later.
Little attention was paid to the coast of New Holland, which lay close to the south of the disputed spice islands. The Aboriginal people, blissfully unaware of wars in Europe, trading in spices and slaves or the existence of Kings George III and IV for that matter, went about their daily business. From time to time they saw strange vessels appear over the horizon and disappear again. Sometimes the crews landed on projects of their own.
This was the way of the world when an English admiral and two naval officers met at the admiral’s residence at Plymouth.
dmiral Sir Humphrey Allardice settled back comfortably in his chair before the fire in his study and looked quizzically at the two men who sat on the other side of the hearth.
‘I hope the port is to your taste, gentlemen. I had the very devil of a job getting it. It’s my favourite wine. It’s Portuguese, you see. In the end Captain Taylor of Tiger managed to get me several cases, goodness knows where from. You know Taylor, don’t you? Made post last year, on my recommendation of course.’
The two men, Captain James Hardy and Lieutenant William Beatty, captain and first officer of the frigate Challenger, both acknowledged that they did indeed know Captain Taylor. They appreciated the fine meal and wines the admiral had treated them to but they were eager to know why their host had summoned them to his home. It wasn’t as though he had a frumpy daughter that he wanted to dispose of to some unsuspecting naval officer. It had to be something else.
‘Excuse me for a moment, gentlemen, will you?’ said the admiral. ‘I have a little matter to attend to before I acquaint you with the reason for attending me this evening.’
The admiral left the room.
‘So that’s how Taylor got his promotion, made post and him much too young for such an honour. Was set to ferreting out wine for an admiral,’ said William Beatty, the younger of the two men.
‘Just shows you,’ said his companion. ‘One can go through hellfire, put one’s life on the line, time after time, capture prize ships, just trying to get promotion or even noticed at all, when all it really takes is to find some fine wine for an admiral. An admiral with pull of course. An admiral with friends at court, so to speak. Anyway, I wonder what the devil the old boy wants us for. We’ll soon find out. I can hear him on his way back.’
‘No doubt you have been wondering why I asked you to my home,’ said the admiral jovially, as he re-entered. Then his role as gracious host changed and he put on his serious admiral’s face and demeanour. His two guests did the same and strove to put away the effects of copious servings of wine before, during and after dinner. It was now down to business. With an effort they managed to look as serious as the admiral.
‘Gentlemen, I will have a task for you to carry out shortly about which at this stage I cannot tell you very much, but we hope that it will give those bloody Frenchmen a black eye and any that are misguided enough to help them. Anyway, all I can tell you is it involves the Malay archipelago and a passenger who will join your ship shortly. All I ask is to be ready to sail at any time. Here are your sealed orders only to be opened on my personal command. Is that clear?’
‘Very much, Admiral. We will await your orders with great interest,’ said Captain Hardy. ‘And thank you for the fine meal. Most appreciated.’
The admiral’s man Winslow, who had served the wine, saw them to the door.
The port of Plymouth and the ships anchored there slumbered quietly under a summer starlit sky. The two officers who had dined so well with Admiral Allardice walked quickly along the dockside towards Challenger, a 38-gun, 18-pounder naval frigate.
‘The dinner was fine. The old boy spared no expense. That saddle of beef was as fine as I have had for many a long day. But he didn’t tell us much. Quite mysterious really,’ said Captain Hardy. ‘Anyway, it looks as though we are off to the tropics. Bit of a pity really as the summer here has been as good as it gets. One of the best and warmest summers I can remember for many a long day. Of course, if it was winter we’d be out of here as quick as we could. Damn cold place in winter, and usually most summers too, I must say. Well then, first thing tomorrow summon all officers. We must get the ship ready for sailing on what promises to be an extended voyage.’
‘Won’t take much, sir, she’s pretty ship-shape as she is,’ replied the lieutenant.
‘Victuals though will have to be looked at and we are two hands short among the seamen. Might have to press two more hands to make up the shortfall. Everything else is up to the mark. Even have all midshipmen aboard. Mostly young larks and busting their backsides to get into action.’
‘That will be soon enough and then they will wish they were home with their mothers or sweethearts and will curse the day they thought of the Navy as a career, eh Beatty? What do you say?’
‘Probably right, sir, probably right, but for me I’m glad that I am in the service and I must say I’m quite looking forward to what the admiral has in store for us. For my part I thought the Frogs had little to do with the Far East. Had their hands full in Europe. But one can never tell. War makes strange bedfellows. Look at Spain for instance. One minute that country is on our side and the next throws in the towel, out of the war and becomes neutral, or supposed to be.’
‘You know, Beatty, you’re right. You might be onto something with that line of reasoning. This might have a lot to do with the Dutch out there in the East Indies. Those Frogs might have moved troops there for some reason. Perhaps they have a mind to strike at our involvement in Malaya. On the other hand they might think that we’re going to move in on the Dutch possessions ourselves. I don’t suppose the Dutch burghers have any say about the French taking over really, the Netherlands being under the heel of Napoleon these last few years. You follow my reasoning?’
‘Yes, sir, it looks very much as though that may be the case, and if so we might be part of an invasion, or perhaps for all we know a force might be on its way already assembled secretly so as not to warn the French. Anyway, here’s the jollyboat ready to take us aboard. I feel, sir, that a great adventure lies ahead for all who sail in Challenger.’
‘I am sure you are right, Beatty. Yes indeed,’ replied the captain.
he Comte de Leone strode rapidly up and down the commandant’s office in Batavia’s Fort Yakarta. His face was florid with indignation and possibly because of an excess of lunchtime wine.
‘Now see here, Commandant Van Heflin, it would be much better if you were to co-operate fully with the French forces now in command of the city and Java. It is no use carrying on like a spoilt child. The Netherlands military detachment here, the government officials and civilians of the VOC are now completely under French control. This at the express orders of our glorious Emperor Napoleon.’
Van Heflin knew what de Leone was saying was all too true. Napoleon had defeated the Netherlands, the former Bavarian republic, and installed his third brother Louis Bonaparte as king and now was extending his control to the far-flung East Indies. It was a tragedy. The commandant was beside himself with anger, hatred and even despair. How dare France do this. Taking over and gaining all the advantages of more than two centuries of hard Dutch work. How dare they seize control of the lucrative spice trade and all the other avenues of commerce. It was unthinkable. With an effort he pulled himself together. He had no recourse but to co-operate but he would do so with bad grace.
‘I hear what you say, Monsieur le Comte. That is true. It appears we have no recourse but to hand over all control of the administration here in Java and beyond. But I have to warn you, it will not be popular with the native peoples. They, over the last two hundred years, have become used to working for and answering to the VOC and latterly the Dutch government. Even so, you will find the citizens of many of the former small kingdoms will not be easy to deal with or subjugate for that matter. I refer to the area of South Celebes and within that island, Macassar, Bone and the Bugis people who once controlled much of Celebes. The Bugis have been a thorn in the side of the Dutch for many years and you too will find them so.’
Van Heflin couldn’t repress a smile as he recounted the difficulties his new rulers would be sure to encounter. He watched de Leone’s face for his reaction.
‘Ha, don’t worry about that. We know how to deal with recalcitrant native peoples. The guillotine works wonders in that regard. Once they see that blade rise and fall and what happens we have no more trouble I assure you.’
Van Heflin was shocked. ‘The guillotine? You would use it here? I am amazed, Monsieur le Comte. I had no idea.’
‘Oh yes indeed. We always include Madame la Guillotine as a passenger on our ships of war, particularly when we invade. You have no idea what a peacemaker she is. Haha, I see you do not like the idea. Well, be careful yourself, monsieur, or you might be introduced to her embrace.’
De Leone shared the quarterdeck on the French frigate Solaire with the captain as they sailed for Macassar and Fort Rotterdam, for the fort would be their headquarters in that city. He was telling Monsieur le Capitaine of his conversation with Van Heflin the previous day.
‘You should have seen his face when I introduced the subject of the guillotine. Didn’t like that one bit,’ laughed the count. ‘Quite took the wind out of his sails, I can tell you. Up to that time he had been quite difficult. I think he will give us no trouble. He did tell me though that Macassar could be a problem. Well, we’ll see. Now it is time for lunch. I have brought a good Bordeaux on board. Would you like to share a bottle with me?’
The captain said he would be delighted. Joining them at lunch was a Dutch VOC officer who had been delegated to assist the count with his operation at Macassar. He had to do this whether he wanted to or not. He explained that Macassar was a thriving trade and administration centre prior to the Dutch conquest and had remained so during the next two centuries.
Islam had come to the archipelago in the late thirteenth century. It was propagated by merchants initially from south India and Gujurat. The religion spread slowly from Sumatra eastwards to Celebes. The Dutch brought Christianity, which made some headway, but the majority of the area remained steadfastly Muslim.
Also prior to the Dutch, Celebes had a fortified centre which enclosed palaces, royal warehouses, a mosque and residential compounds. Then apart from this there were foreign merchants’ quarters and two blocks of Portuguese and one of Gujurati people. There were Malay kampongs and a Chinese quarter. A thriving and vital trading community existed. This was pretty much as it was when the Dutch arrived. There was an old northern fort of Ujung Pandang, which was eventually replaced by Fort Rotterdam. The pallisaded quarter of Vlaardingen was constructed by the Dutch just north of Fort Rotterdam.
‘And that, Monsieur le Comte, is how you will find Celebes. You will note that the people of Malay stock are law abiding enough, although I have to tell you they have been traders in a very wide area for many centuries. This activity has been restricted very much by the VOC and Dutch military forces, which has put a very great strain on relationships with the government as far as people of Malay background are concerned.
‘Now, half an hour’s walk north of Fort Rotterdam is Kampong Bugis. The Bugis people, whose kings ruled much of Celebes, take little heed of Dutch laws and the authorities tended to see the kampong as lawless. Even so, Bugis nobles have houses and great influence in the community. So you see, what you will find is a melting pot of people, customs, languages, religion and restless activity across the region. It will not be easy for you French coming into a place that has known Dutch control for some two hundred years.’
‘We’ll see about that,’ said the count, taking another deep draught of his Bordeaux and then refilling his glass. ‘Now about trade, Macassar as I understand it is a centre of trade in many commodities including spices such as cloves, nutmeg, mace and others. Oh, and slaves too, I have been told.’
‘Well, slave trading is not as vigorous as it was, due to the many restrictions and controls placed on the activity by the Dutch. This was because there were many abuses of the slaves. In the seventeenth century the government had already forbidden the import of Celebes’ slaves older than twelve into Batavia. Adults were deemed to be rebellious as most had been born free then kidnapped and sold as slaves. However, this age embargo was later changed and a ceiling age of twenty-five was imposed. Many of the slaves sold in Macassar were either stolen from somebody else or were free people captured and sold at slave markets. As a matter of fact, the stealing of slaves became so widespread that the VOC demanded that anybody who owned a slave had to produce written proof that the slave had been legally purchased, and be of the correct age.’
‘And does it still go on, this dealing in slaves?’ asked the Frenchman. ‘Would I be able to buy a slave, say a twenty-five-year-old female, for instance?’ This of course with a salacious laugh.
‘Yes, it does to a certain extent, but it’s not as vigorous as it once was. The opportunity of seizing people and placing them in that situation has become much more difficult. Another thing is the cost, particularly the shipping cost of transporting them to whatever market they are bound for, even if that is within the archipelago. Most slaves go to Batavia. Many are sold to the VOC for the Batavia workforce. Slaves can be on order or for general trade. On top of that you have to pay the government tax for the privilege of owning a slave. If you are buying a female slave you will have to pay three times the cost of a male slave and therefore a higher tax rate.’
‘Yes, I see, quite an expensive business. In that case I don’t think I shall try to buy a slave for myself after all,’ chuckled the Frenchman as his face became more and more red and mottled the more wine he consumed. ‘What about tobacco, could I get good cigars in Macassar?’
‘Indeed yes, tobacco and opium too if you have a mind for that. Some of the Chinese junks that put into Macassar are involved in a brisk trade in that drug. It is not to my taste,’ said the Dutchman.
‘Opium indeed, now that is interesting, but like you I have no mind to try it. I will stay with the wine and tobacco. That will be enough pleasuring for me and of course there are women too. One must not rule out women. Where would we be without women, eh? Far better than opium to take one’s mind off the cares of statehood, cares of the day. Captain, we seem to have been sailing for a devilishly long time. How much longer to Macassar?’
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