Physician and novelist Paul Froomes lives in Melbourne Australia with his wife and two children where he is currently working as a physician in both public and private practice. He has travelled throughout Indonesia and has a deep interest in Balinese culture.
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Wu Chung Lee was head of the largest merchant company
of the South China Coast. He sat in his ornate office in Fangcheng Port, gazing
at the oil paintings of his forefathers—the founders and past chairmen of Wu
House. His bulbous head shimmered in a perpetual lather of sweat, generated by
the strain of carrying his formidable bulk against the constant pull of gravity.
A chubby right hand dipped ceaselessly into a bowl of steaming pork-filled dim
sums as he admired the immaculate interior of his office.
His latest antique silk screen, purchased at auction
for an absurd fee, was a lyrical depiction of a swan taking flight. He gazed at
it fondly. Around it, his office was decorated with finest quality red and green
silk paneling, the most expensive artwork and a superb assortment of antiques.
All had been painstakingly collected from the furthermost reaches of his
burgeoning merchant empire, some his, others the property of previous chairmen.
Over the last few months his entire office building had been renovated and
professionally decorated by a renowned French interior designer at enormous
Some said it was a masterful blend of Baroque and
Rococo periods. Others were appalled. It was simply too much, a gross example of
a clash of cultures that didn’t work and lacked taste. However, Wu cared
nothing for the opinions of those he considered beneath him. Almost everyone
fell into this category. Wu was a law unto himself.
Located in the Guangxi province, Wu’s offices
occupied a prime position in the docklands region of China’s Fangcheng
seaport. As head of the largest Chinese trading company in China’s southwest,
Wu House, he was a powerful man and a dangerous adversary. He chaired the board
of the Fangcheng Harbor Administration and almost none of the commodities that
transited the port did so without his seal of approval.
He pored over a pile of ships’ manifests that lay
spread haphazardly across his desk. He shifted his massive weight on the chair
to relieve the numbness that had begun creeping down his left leg. Placing a
chubby arm on the desk for stability, he transferred his bulk onto the right
buttock before sitting back once more. The oversized wooden chair creaked loudly
with the strain.
His spacious offices had uninterrupted views across
Qinzhou Bay. He smiled to himself as he flicked over the manifest of his
favorite Chinese freighter, the Hung Sing. It was his newest cargo ship and had
been specially refitted with extra space in the hold both fore and aft, to allow
for smaller precious items. These compartments could also be used to hide
contraband from the probing eyes of those customs officials who could not be
bribed or threatened into acquiescence.
To protect this particular ship, Wu had placed a former
English frigate captain at its helm. A worthwhile precaution, he thought, given
the size and net worth of the cargo it carried. But he was in the export and
import business for only one reason, and that was money.
Wu gloated as he scanned the pages, taking mental note
of the estimated takings from the ship’s current cargo. He was growing
increasingly rich on the profits of these shipments. Cheap rice and porcelain
from Bali and Borneo were becoming an increasingly profitable part of his trade.
Each item could be sold in China for between three and seven times its purchase
price, depending on whether or not there were floods or droughts in China.
The fact remained, there were simply far too many
people in China. The Government could pay Wu his price or starve its people. The
profits were filling the coffers of his company and gaining Wu significant
influence. His trading was also enriching the Chinese and Dutch wholesalers in
Indonesia who sourced the cheap commodities for his ships. One such associate, a
particularly acquisitive man called Jang, had moved his entire family from China
to Bali the better to monopolize the rice market that supplied Wu’s ships. A
very profitable move this had proven to be, for Jang had just ordered Wu to ship
four Ming Dynasty Dragon vases on his next boat to Bali. Wu had been only too
happy to dispatch the four porcelain relics that had graced the entrance hall of
Wu Corp’s office for over one hundred years. He had never cared much for
antique porcelain and was relieved when his interior decorator had been unable
to find a place for them. Far better for Wu to cash them in and realize some
Wu had of course gone to great pains to embellish an
elaborate tale to Jang of how he had scoured the world to find the vases,
purchased them on behalf of Jang from a struggling museum in central Asia,
outbidding the Chinese Government representative with the help of a bribe to the
official and a death threat to the vendor. He was satisfied his story was
plausible: these were tactics that Wu employed ordinarily. In this case the bold
lies served to justify an exorbitant asking price.
That the vases were priceless antiques justified the
further extortion from Jang of exorbitant shipping costs for the privilege of
having Wu Corp transport them to his new home. Knowing Wu personally as he did,
at least Jang was confident that the most reliable merchant in China had been
enlisted to do the job. Certainly, the risk of theft or sabotage would be at a
minimum. Wu would make certain of that.
It was the Hung Sing that had been trusted with the
precious cargo. The vases were to adorn Jang’s newly built mansion nestled in
the hills of Sayan and be the centerpiece of his now legendary art collection.
Wu wasn’t jealous. Jang could have his art
collection. Wu preferred money. That he was profiteering from Jang’s purchase
through a web of hidden levies was satisfying. With Jang’s money Wu could
procure one of the coin-minting factories in his province. Only then could he be
rid of those wretched coin wholesalers whose cut he had always resented paying
and whose bribes were becoming steeper by the month. Coin minters as a rule were
much too lenient on their workers. By exploiting them more efficiently, Wu would
make his mint prosper.
Wu stuffed another pork bun into his mouth, smiling as
chili plum sauce dribbled down his jowls. His hand reached for the next one. His
new personal chef really was quite exceptional. Wu was content. As long as his
Chinese and Dutch counterparts continued to exploit the Balinese, Wu would
‘They are peasants and will be treated
accordingly.’ As he swallowed another pork bun Wu belched violently, sending a
fine spray of chili oil smattering over the papers on his desk. He laughed and
rang his bell. Servants came running into his office.
‘Hurry up now! Clean this mess up and fetch me a new
How they annoyed him, bowing and scraping about with
their frail bodies so thin and so unclean. They wore their poverty like a brand.
He loved the distinction his corpulence gave him.
touch me with your filthy hands, you beggars, or I’ll have you beaten until
the skin is gone from your backs!’ Wu liked that they loathed and feared him.
A few months later in that same year, 1846, a monsoon
storm struck in the Badong Strait off the coast of Bali, Indonesia. Captain
Ralph Grace desperately hugged the wheel of his sinking ship, the Chinese
freighter, Hung Sing. Rain fell in thick sheets. Wind shredded the sails and
endless waves crashed over the bow.
Grace stood lashed to the wheel by his broken left arm.
A shard of bone had pierced the cloth of his shirt at the wrist. His hand was
useless. The stern of the Hung Sing disappeared under a monstrous flow of green
sea. Through the dark haze of the storm he could see the faint outline of the
coast. It was close, too close. Soon he would hear the shrill screeching of the
hull being torn apart on the coral reef.
Grace cared little for the bulk of his cargo. There
were plenty more loads of rice, silk and steel utensils just waiting on the
docks in China for export in ships the same as his. It was his precious cargo of
priceless antique porcelain vases that would be the real loss. Grace was one of
only a handful of trusted employees who were aware of the false bottoms that had
been created in the vases. It was the bounty of solid gold ingots that each vase
concealed in its base that he would regret losing the most. He was charged with
breaking the false bottoms and removing the gold once they had reached port. His
prize for doing so was four of the gold ingots. And Grace loved gold. He had
offered to remove the gold before they left Fangcheng, but Wu had insisted on
them being opened in Bali. Why? Grace had no idea but he wasn’t about to
His mind wandered and he thought back over the events
of the last few days, attempting to understand how he and his crew had come to
find themselves in such perilous circumstances…
A few days earlier there had been a stiff breeze and
Captain Grace felt happy at last to be free of the torpid grip of the Doldrums.
This permanent band of low pressure, created by the warm air rising off the
ocean at the equator, had been depriving them of any really worthwhile wind. The
last few weeks had been full of boredom for his crew. The stifling heat of the
tropics as they sat becalmed had been enervating in the extreme.
Grace rued the lack of experience of the Chinese crew.
In years gone by, he would have flogged several of them at least once by now.
Having had no chance to drill them in rough seas or strong winds had made him
nervous. He knew how unprepared they would be for the monsoon. Inexperienced
freighter crews were notoriously bad in rough weather. Still, they came
That was the overriding concern of the agent from Wu
House who had selected the crew. If that sniveling bean counter had joined the
voyage he would soon be changing his mind about how to choose a ship’s crew.
Wu’s agent had proved to be no judge of seamen. But for the gold offered him,
Grace would have walked away from the deal right there on the dock.
Once a proud Captain in Her Majesty’s Navy, Grace had
been as sharp and tough as any man at sea. However, in later years, he had been
weakened by the excesses of drink and had fallen victim to his own greed. A
conviction for smuggling brought a naval court martial which had caused him to
be dishonorably discharged from the service. It had been the ultimate shame for
a man from a proud naval heritage. The disgrace brought down upon his family had
seen him ostracized from his village at home in England. He was shunned by
family and friends alike, stripped of a modest inheritance and effectively
exiled without a naval pension. He had almost lost his wife. In the end she
stayed with him. Harriet was loyal, but a relentless nag. She was the one person
he had not minded the thought of losing. She was just hanging around waiting for
his untimely death at sea, merely to claim her share of the spoils from his
smuggling excursions. Good luck to her, if she could locate his treasure chest.
Grace needed only a few more jobs like this one and he
could retire. He would pension Harriet off in modest lodgings near her mother in
Devon and disappear with his fortune to the Spice Islands, where tropical
nights, women and rum were waiting. It was just as well this kind of job paid
well, as it was all that was left open to him.
It was the cusp of the
The hold was packed to overflowing with
Chinese-manufactured coin, opium and steel utensils—all to be traded for
Balinese rice bound for China. Grace surveyed his ship. ‘There’s a monsoon
coming!’ he yelled at his crew. ‘You hear that wind in the sails?’
The crew as usual looked up at him. He was used to
their blank faces.
‘You had all better be ready to move when it really
blows! Right on schedule!’ he thought out loud as the sails billowed under the
freshening trade winds.
The trade winds brought heavy tropical rains to the
islands of the Dutch East Indies. Bali’s lush tropical forests and sacred
mountain peaks stood sheathed in low white cloud. Grace hoped the ship could
reach port before the more vicious cyclonic storms hit. Cyclones were more
common farther south off the northwest coast of Australia than Bali and it was
still early in the wet season. He lit his pipe and steered the ship through the
oncoming swell. While there was still good wind, he shouted a barrage of orders
to his first mate, who in turn babbled at the crew in Cantonese. Grace had them
trimming and adjusting the sails. Soon it would really count.
The crew cheered as one when the lookout called from
the crow’s nest, ‘Land ho!’ The following evening at dusk, with the
Balinese coast now in plain sight, most of the ship’s crew was below, taking a
leisurely evening meal of rice and dried fish with just a few measures of rice
wine. They were now only a day’s sailing from port and longing to touch dry
land. Songs and stories of the joys and delights to be had were spreading around
the ship. Nobody was keen to stay on board a minute longer than he had to.
Chin, the thirteen-year-old boy, whose sharp eyes had
landed him in the crow’s nest of the Hung Sing, called to alert the Captain of
gathering storm clouds. Captain Grace was already on deck.
‘All hands on deck! Get those lubbers out of the mess
cabin right now, bosun!’
Sailors appeared, clutching at their shirt tails.
‘You men, there! Reef the mainsail for storm!’
They pulled on the sheets that began shortening the
mainsail. Two men climbed into the rigging to place ties on the flapping canvas
as it bunched up out of the wind. Another small group of men struggled
frantically to gain control of the jib sail. It swung wildly in the wind,
knocking men over and gouging the wooden deck.
‘Men astern, furl the jib before it shreds itself!
Use the gaffer hook for Christ’s sake! Get up, you good for nothing lubbers!
Batten down all the hatches so the hold doesn’t fill with water!’
Riding out a fierce storm in an English frigate was a
frightening task, but doing the same in a small, Chinese freighter with a crew
of coolies was akin to suicide.
The ship listed sharply to port and the remaining sails
filled with a loud crack in the face of the gale that was now blowing in from
the sea. Grace spun the heavy wheel forty degrees to bring the ship on a
starboard tack. He headed further out to sea and away from the jagged teeth of
the coral reef.
The rain turned the deck into a slippery throng of
frightened Chinese who clung onto shrouds, rails, anything, to avoid the waves
crashing over the ship’s bows. Grace leaned hard on the wheel struggling to
keep the ship bearing offshore.
The sky was black and the storm in its full fury was
thrashing the boat about like a cork in a barrel. Next came a sickening crack.
The main mast snapped in two. A tangled mess of ropes and canvas came crashing
to the deck, followed by the enormous weight of the upper portion of the mast.
It cut a deadly swathe through the men, sending severed and bleeding bodies
everywhere and killing all those directly in its path. Captain Grace swore at
the remaining crew.
‘Come on you useless blaggards! Heave to it, you men,
and cut away that rigging!’
Terrified men scrambled all over the damaged mast,
bracing against the wind. Fighting to the last, Grace urged his men on.
‘Cut away the mast and rigging and heave it over the
Men half-heartedly wielded the axes, clearly not up to
the task. But Grace continued giving orders. The action came instinctively to
him and would have saved his ship ordinarily had he been issuing orders to
properly trained men.
‘Put some sail back on the jib mast now men, a’
fore we founder on the reef! Come on, move!’
The wind lashed the small wooden cargo ship as the rain
fell in sheets, obscuring the view amidships from the wheel. Waves crashed over
the stern, knocking the barely seaworthy crew off their feet, scattering them
about like ninepins. Grace had already lost his main mast and more than half the
crew. The Hung Sing was out of control. The towering green waves were hungry for
more of the half-drowned deckhands.
Despite the grim determination with which Grace stuck
fast to the wheel, the ship moved closer to the coral reef and treacherous
sandbars that dotted the coastline. Another massive wave lurched the ship
heavily to portside. He lashed himself to the wheel by one arm.
Grace was losing the ship. His boat and his crew were
no match for the storm. Exhausted, he no longer shouted orders at his crew. He
just hung onto the wheel, pitting his will against the full force of nature. The
remaining few sailors had now all been lost overboard. He knew that what they
had encountered was no ordinary monsoon storm. They had sailed into the kind of
storm that all sailors feared, a typhoon. Fighting against a typhoon was useless
in this ship.
Another wave swamped the ship throwing Grace hard
against the bulkheads and snapping his arm at the wrist. Grace groaned with
pain. Offering a prayer to St Christopher just in case, he raised the neck of
his rum flask to his salty lips for the last time. Its familiar warmth comforted
him as it seared down his parched throat.
Grace could just make out the hazy shadow of Lombok on
the port side and to the starboard lay the fast-approaching breakers of Bali’s
south central coast. The Badung Strait had been transformed into a seething,
violent cauldron of death. No matter how he tried, Grace and his ship were
powerless against it. He knew that he was to be its next victim.
Grace took another gulp of rum. He would never have to
listen to another word from his belligerent wife. No more nagging about his
drinking and cussing. But she would miss those intimate moments they shared with
delight when he returned home each summer. Slumped over the wheel, he waited for
the inevitable to come.
The jolt as the ship crashed into the coral threw Grace
hard against the ship’s rails splitting his skull.
Two Balinese rice farmers witnessed the cargo ship’s
dying throes, in silent awe. Quite accustomed to the monsoon storms that the
Wind God brought to the island each year, they had been planting the farthest
paddies of their fields that fringed the coastline nearest the foundering ship.
While the ship tore itself to pieces on the jagged teeth of the coral, they
waited out the storm under the cover of the jungle canopy.
In the morning the farmers walked down to the beach.
They stared at what remained of the shattered hulk of the ship and then they
searched the coastline, but there were no bodies. The sharks that patrolled the
waters around Bali in great numbers had seen to that.
They lit a small fire and began drying out thin logs that they had cut from the forest to build a rudimentary raft. Soon they had lashed together enough palm trunks to float them out to the ship and, as they paddled in the calm waters, they wondered what treasures the Wind God might have delivered to them this time.
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