ON THE MORNING of April 20th, 1857, the lighthouse keeper at Diamond Harbour signalled the presence of a small unknown vessel that had come up the Hugli during the night without escort from a pilot.
Judging by the extraordinary size of her sails, she appeared at first glance to be a Malay ship, however, a second look revealed she was no ordinary prahu.
She had no outrigger to help her counter the wind and waves, and though she must have journeyed far, not a single atap had been erected over her deck to shelter her crew. High sterned and made of steel, she could carry three times the weight of any wooden vessel.
Whatever her origin, she was a beautiful ship and with the wind astern could have outrun any steamer in the Anglo-Indian fleet. She was a true racer and, save for her sails, recalled the blockade runners of the American Civil War.
But the lighthouse keeper, had he been watching, would perhaps have been most astonished by her crew, for it was far too large for a vessel of that size.
It seemed as if every bellicose tribe in Malaysia had one or more representatives aboard that ship: dark sullen Malays, Bugis, Makassans, Bataks, Negritos from Mindanao, Dyak headhunters from the Bornean jungles, even a few Papuan warriors, their woolly hair adorned with white cockatoo feathers.
Though of different origin, each man was clad in a white knee-length sarong and a kabay, a large jacket well suited for life at sea.
Only two men, the commanders of the vessel, wore clothes of unmatched affluence.
One sat on a large red silk cushion, close to the tiller, his eyes on the water as the ship sailed past Diamond Harbour. He was tall, handsome and well built, with bronze skin and thick black wavy hair that fell freely about his strong shoulders. He had a high forehead, thin lips, piercing eyes and a magnificent beard that was as dark as a crow’s wing.
An observer could have mistaken him for a Malay prince dressed as he was in a large blue silk jacket embroidered with gold, white trousers and yellow leather long boots. His white silk turban was adorned with a small feather, fixed in place by a diamond the size of a walnut.
His companion, leaning against the bulwark, nervously folding and unfolding a letter, was a tall European with fine aristocratic features and cool blue eyes. Though he was only two years older than his friend, his black moustache had already begun to show signs of grey.
He was elegantly dressed, clad in a brown velvet jacket with gold buttons, a thick red silk sash, brocatelle trousers and brown leather boots with gold buckles. A large hat of Manila hemp adorned with small red silk tassels shielded him from the sun.
The ship was about to sail past the lighthouse and the signal tower, when the European, who until then had appeared unconcerned with his surroundings, suddenly turned towards his companion.
“Sandokan,” he asked, “That’s the pilots’ station. Are we going to hire one?”
“I don’t want any strangers aboard my ship, Yanez,” replied his friend, rising from the cushion as he cast a glance at the building. “We’ll find our own way to Calcutta.”
“You’re right,” said Yanez, after a moment’s reflection, “We don’t want to draw attention to ourselves and arouse Suyodhana’s suspicions.”
“You’ve been here before, how long until we reach Calcutta?”
“We’ll be there before sundown,” replied Yanez. “The tide’s rising and the wind is still with us.”
“I’m impatient to see Tremal-Naik again. Our poor friend! First his wife, now his daughter!”
“We’ll get her back from Suyodhana; the Tiger of India is no match for the Tiger of Malaysia.”
“Yes,” said Sandokan, his eyes flashing fiercely as a frown formed upon his brow. “We’ll rescue her, no matter the cost. We’ll set India ablaze if need be. Do you think Tremal-Naik received our message?”
“There’s no need to worry, Sandokan, telegrams always reach their destination.”
“Then he’ll be waiting for us?”
“I think it would be best to let him know we’re making our way up the Hugli and that we’ll be in Calcutta by nightfall. He’ll send Kammamuri to meet us and spare us the trouble of finding his house.”
“Is there a telegraph office somewhere along the river?”
“There’s one in Diamond Harbour.”
“At the pilots’ station we’ve just passed?”
“Very well then, drop anchor and send a launch to relay a message. Adding an extra half-hour to our journey won’t make much of a difference. Who knows, the Thugs may be spying on Tremal-Naik’s house.”
“I admire your caution, Sandokan.”
“Write him a message, my friend.”
Yanez tore a sheet of paper from a notebook, drew a small pencil from his pocket and wrote:
From aboard the Marianna
Durumtolah St, Calcutta
Sailing up the Hugli. Will arrive tonight. Send Kammamuri to meet us. Have him look for our flag.
Yanez de Gomera
“This should do,” he said, showing Sandokan the slip of paper.
“Excellent,” his friend replied, “better your signature than mine. If someone were to recognize my name, they could report it to the authorities. I doubt the British would welcome an old enemy even if there is no war between us.”
The ship had come to a stop a half mile from Diamond Harbour. A launch, manned by five men, was quickly put into the water. Yanez summoned her helmsman and handed him the message and a pound sterling.
“Not a word about who we are,” he said in Portuguese. “And if anyone asks after your captain, tell them I’m in command.”
The helmsman, a tall, well-built, handsome Dyak, nodded then quickly climbed down into the launch and signalled the oarsmen to set off for the pilots’ station. He returned a half-hour later and announced that the telegram had been sent.
“Did they ask any questions?” asked Yanez.
“Yes, Captain, but I didn’t say a word.”
The launch was quickly hoisted aboard, and the Marianna resumed her course, keeping to the centre of the river.
Sandokan sat down once again and fell into thought while Yanez leaned against the aft bulwark, lit a cigarette and began to study the passing shores.
Vast bamboo jungles towered over the river’s majestic banks, covering the swamp-filled Sundarbans, the favourite refuge of tigers, panthers, snakes and crocodiles. Clouds of birds circled above them but not a soul appeared among those enormous reeds.
Giant herons, large black storks, brown ibises, and arghilah sat perched upon the mangrove branches like rows of soldiers as they carefully groomed their feathers. Flocks of Brahmin ducks, cormorants and coots frolicked about cheerfully, plunging into the water whenever a school of rohi drew near.
“A beautiful place for a hunt, but a terrible place to live,” murmured Yanez as he took in his surroundings. “They’re no match for the majestic jungles of Borneo. If this is what Suyodhana’s Thugs call home, I do not envy them. Reeds, thorns, swamps, swamps, thorns, reeds. Nothing’s changed along the banks of India’s sacred river since my last visit. The British don’t appear to be in any hurry to improve the lot of their poorest subjects.”
The Marianna continued to advance rapidly and soon small groups of mud huts began to appear along the riverbanks, their thatched roofs shaded by large neem and coconut trees. Each village was enclosed by a tall wooden palisade, probably to protect the inhabitants from crocodile attacks.
Yanez was studying one of those picturesque little places, when Sandokan walked to his side and asked:
“Is this where the Thugs live?”
“Yes, little brother,” replied Yanez.
“I wonder if that village is one of their lairs. Do you see that wooden tower over there? What do you think it is? An observation post?”
“It’s a refuge tower,” replied Yanez. “A shelter for castaways.”
“Yes, built by the Anglo-Indian government. This river is a lot more dangerous than meets the eye, little brother. Enormous sandbanks abound throughout these waters and the current reshapes them constantly; there are more shipwrecks here than there are at sea. Those towers have saved many a poor wretch. Most castaways wouldn’t stand a chance against the ferocious beasts that inhabit these shores. But up there, with a little caution and patience, they can survive until the next steamboat comes to replenish supplies.”
“These shores are that dangerous?” asked Sandokan.
“They abound with wild beasts of every kind; I wouldn’t be surprised if there were a few tigers spying on us from behind those mangroves as we speak. They’re more daring than the ones in our jungles; it’s not uncommon for them to dive into the water, attack a small vessel, and drag off some unfortunate member of the crew.”
“And the authorities just leave them be?”
“British officers organize hunting expeditions from time to time, but they haven’t made much of a dent in the population. There are just too many of them.”
“I have an idea, Yanez,” said Sandokan.
“What kind of idea?”
“I’ll tell you tonight, when we’re with Tremal-Naik.”
The prahu was just sailing past the tower they had been discussing; it stood on the shore of a small swampy island that was separated from the jungle by a narrow canal.
Though built of planks and bamboo, it was a solid construction almost six metres high. A rope ladder led to an enclosure at the top. Signs written in French, German, English and Sanskrit advised castaways to ration the provisions in the tower, warning that the supply boat only called once a month.
It appeared empty. Several pairs of marabou dozed upon the rooftop; their heads resting between their shoulders, their enormous beaks tucked among their feathers, probably digesting the remains of a corpse that had washed ashore.
The jungle continued to stretch out on either side of them, a sea of pale yellow reeds and dreary plains dotted at times by pools of muddy water and the odd lotus flower.
It was not until later that afternoon that they caught sight of the river’s inhabitants. From time to time a few Molanghis would appear along those cholera-infested banks to gather salt from the swampy soil and the tiny salt ponds they had dug close to shore. Most were naked, little more than skin and bones, no taller than children, their limbs trembling with fever as they went about their work.
Every mile the prahu advanced brought changes to the life upon the water. Birds grew rarer and soon only kingfishers could be seen perched upon the reeds, filling the air with their monotonous cries. Boats had begun to appear, a sure indication they were drawing nearer to the opulent capital of Bengal. Cargo dinghies, moor punkees, sloops and ghrabs plied the river, heavy with goods, as steamships advanced cautiously, coasting along the shore.
Towards six, Sandokan and Yanez, now at the bow, spotted Fort William’s imposing ramparts and the tall spires of ancient pagodas looming through the evening mist.
Bungalows and elegant villas, the architecture a mix of British and Indian styles, began to appear in great number along the right bank, their small graceful gardens shaded by groves of coconut and banana trees.
Sandokan ordered his flag - a red banner emblazoned with the head of a tiger - hoisted up the mainmast, had the four large swivel guns on the bow and the stern stowed out of sight then sent most of the crew below deck.
“Shouldn’t Kammamuri have been here by now?” he asked Yanez.
The Portuguese was standing by his side, calmly smoking a cigarette, watching the ships crisscross the river, when suddenly he stretched an arm towards the right bank and exclaimed:
“That’s him now. See that small launch flying our flag on its stern?”
Sandokan’s eyes had followed Yanez’ arm and came to rest upon a small but elegant feal charra. She was a sleek little vessel with an elephant bust carved into her bow. She was manned by six oarsmen and one helmsman; a red flag emblazoned with the head of a tiger flew from her stern.
She advanced rapidly, deftly making her way among the ghrabs and sloops that crowded the river, heading towards the prahu, which had immediately come to a halt.
“Can you see him?” Yanez asked excitedly.
“I may be getting older,” smiled Sandokan, “but my eyes are still sharp. Our friend is at the tiller. Have the ladder lowered. We’ll finally learn how Suyodhana kidnapped Tremal-Naik’s daughter.”
Within minutes the feal charra had covered the distance between them and drawn up beside the ladder that hung over the prahu’s port side. While the oarsmen pulled in their oars and tethered the launch, the helmsman scrambled up the ladder with the agility of a monkey and jumped onto the deck.
“Captain Sandokan! Señor Yanez! How happy I am to see you again!” he exclaimed excitedly.
The man who had uttered those words was a tall handsome Indian around thirty or thirty-two years of age with dark bronze skin and fine energetic features. He was dressed in white and wore no jewellery save for a pair of earrings.
Sandokan pushed away the hand the Indian had proffered and drew the newcomer towards him saying:
“Embrace me, my brave Maratha.”
“Sir! I...” exclaimed the Indian, a slight tremble in his voice, his face pale with emotion.
Yanez, calmer than his companion, welcomed him with a warm handshake and said, “It’s good to see you again, my friend.”
“How’s Tremal-Naik?” Sandokan asked anxiously.
“Ah! Sir!” said the Maratha, stifling a sob. “I fear my master may be going mad! The wretches have taken their revenge!”
“We want to hear everything that’s happened,” said Yanez. “But first, where can we drop anchor?”
“Not here, Señor Yanez,” said the Maratha. “The Thugs are watching our every move, they must not learn of your arrival. Best to sail past Fort William and drop anchor in front of the Strand. My crew will guide us in.”
“When can we see Tremal-Naik?” asked Sandokan.
“Tonight, after midnight, once the city’s asleep. We have to be careful.”
“Can I entrust your men with our ship?”
“They’re all able seamen.”
“Have them come aboard, give them command of the prahu, then come below. I want to know all that’s happened.”
The Maratha summoned his men with a whistle, issued his orders then followed Sandokan and Yanez into the main cabin.