Chapter 1: White Man’s Grave
He would give away his son today.
He would take his seven-year old boy under the arms and lift him up and hold him to his chest like a toddler. He would look into his deep, beautiful eyes, and tell him he would never see him again.
Then he would hug him. Feel for the last time the bird like shoulder blades and ribs, the finely sculpted knobs of vertebrae. The way the boy’s clothes moved across his silk-like skin. But he wouldn’t kiss him.
He would put him down again gently. He would tousle his dark mass of curls. Run his fingertips gently under the boy’s jaw, around the nape of his neck where the young life hummed. Feel the fluff of future whiskers. And he would walk away.
5am on Penang Island. Georgetown. This fuggish September monsoonal day — the day which he had thought about, that had made his gut lurch for months — had arrived.
There was a murmur from the village. A baby mewled for the morning breast. Birds woke and tweeted experimentally. The sea lapped, lapped again; moving back and forth against the phosphorescence of the low moon.
The dawn was good for Francis Light. The breathing was easier. The pure mass of the humid air had made him rise from his fever-dampened, foetid sheets an hour ago. Here, where rubber tree leaves tossed in the breeze, here on the balcony he could tame the visible night. Seek peace.
But not for long. Day was evolving. Wafts of charcoal smoke. Turmeric and lemon grass, coriander and chilli thrilled his nose (adding piquance to the background aromatic curtain of fish sauce, dried shrimp and raw effluent). Red crested parrots swooped and grazed the darkness. Hornbills plopped and plodded at the water’s edge. A metal wok gnashed a stone fireplace.
“Selamat pagi,” a voice called.
“Apa khabar,” another called back
Through the trees came the approaching clatter of windless rain, like a swarm of locusts or a flock of bats on the move. Then it arrived. A smatter of spots, multiplying into millions, each one growing into great tepid globules falling from ten thousand feet, whispering down like silent bombs. Joining on impact and joining again. Sky puddles, landing on the reed-thatched bungalow roof in great silver splashes and cascading off the gutterless edges as a whooshing waterfall.
Steam misting up from the gravel pathways, which were already awash, and frothy rivulets gathering into sheets of water that scampered to creeks and inlets heading home to the sea. And now an explosion of thunderous lightning, so close that the brightness and the boom came together as one. Trees shuddered and started in the light. Another peal, a restless rumble and still the water came. Another flash. A nearly drowned rat pranced across the front yard of the bungalow and then another, heading for rubber trees. Rubbish swept past in a torrent — cooking waste, bottles, paper, cow pats, dead goats and riding it all, dark human turds the shape of fat mice.
Light coughed, exercised a well-practiced hoik, drawing yellow from deep within and ejecting a solid line of sputum into the wet night. It hit a rubber tree leaf and lagged to the ground like gossamer, until it too was washed away by the rain. Once tall and elegantly muscular, the Protector of Penang was now wasted and stooped — his high cheeks hollowed, his long forehead still proud but furrowed. A cap of receding grey and greasy hair. He was facing the white man’s grave. That’s what the villagers called it here.
The inevitability of the malaria fever came as no surprise. Not after nearly three decades in the East Indies anyway.
Daily doses of quinine flavoured with Plymouth gin, hadn’t prevented it. Cheroots hadn’t smoked the pestilence out. Plying islands and peninsulas for a living had eventually caught up with him. He had to face the fact of Asia.
But, what if life had been different. What if he had stayed in England? Would he have lived this long? Fifty-four years made for an old man in London. He grinned ruefully. England had been no place for this illegitimate lust child that had sprung from the grunting efforts of a Suffolk country squire, rolling once too often in the hayloft with his maidservant Mary Light, to make a career.
But he inclined his head. He had been public school educated, certainly thanks to his father. There was that.
The right decision at 19 was to first tread the gangplank of a man of war. Join the Royal Navy and see the world. A brutal beginning of beatings and initiation. But he was alive to the possibilities of the salt and the sea and he was just rising as a mariner when his Navy career — and the aspirations of thousands of other English sailors — had been cut short by the Treaty of Paris in 1763. That was when he found a berth to the East Indies and so his first trip around the blustering, heaving, howling swell of the Cape of Good Hope, had been his last.
The smell of cinnamon and nutmeg had drugged him. Tobacco, the odd pipe of opium and stirrup cups of rum had seduced him. The brown eyed, coffee skinned gentle beauties had submerged him in a yellow fever. He had become an Eastern trader and master of his own country ship, and in frock coat and a full sleeved shirt, leggings and the sea boots of an adventurer, he was feared and respected.
Buccaneer. Privateer. Merchant. Protector. It’s how it had gone.
Light fingered the teak balcony balustrade that he had hewn himself. He liked to feel the indentations of adze and spoke-shave, chisel and cross-cut saw under the soft pads of his fingertips.
The white-washed colonial statement of this stone and timber home — this castle — symbolised his enduring life achievement, the port of Georgetown which rose up around him, awakening to a new day. The creation of an island outpost. His legacy.
He peered into the greyish dawn, across the bay, where in his palace, Sultan Abdullah of Kedah, the rotund monarch of this eastern province, would still be snoring with his chubby legs wrapped around the waist of one of his eight wives, the traces of last night’s red fish curry, still a reminder that he would taste on his moustache when he awoke.
But Light had never taken him as a buffoon. A shrewd and tough negotiator, it was Abdullah who had made the first advance to Light after he landed there in 1786.
Just six years ago — so much had happened in such a short time. Like his life ebbing away.
Men from Penang or Putney have similar needs. Abdullah needed protection from the marauders who would take his prize. Light needed to fulfil a destiny.
Abdullah factored that after generations of defending his tiny kingdom against the war canoes and clubbing there had to be a better way.
The Siamese wouldn’t stop. Nor would the humourless Portuguese who had colonised so much of the East. But they could be stopped with English cannons.
Light was the East India Company man. He had promised Abdullah the earth but the East India Company had reneged on the arrangement. Then there had been a brief war, which the English had predictably won.
It was another outstanding example of the West educating the East about manners, propriety, honour or more precisely the sour taste of dishonour.
The Sultan was now paid rental by the English marauder who had seized his island. Prince of Wales Island. England’s first eastern colony.
An unassailable position of control and power over the Dutch and the French on the most important trade route in the world, the Malacca Strait, the highway to China. Diplomacy, here in the frontiers of the east, played out as a brief practical war game — and then it was over. Not like the court posturing and inter-marriage and protracted internecine conflicts in far away, old teeming, pox ridden Europe. England simply owned Penang like another jewel in the Tower of London, and Francis Light was the jewel polisher.
He shuffled across the stone veranda, his sea-boots tip-tapping, hob-nailed heel to metal-tipped toe, waking the slumberers.
He looked up to his left and the stark white righteousness of Fort Cornwallis glowered back at him in the lifting light. A turreted peace-keeper pointed sternly out into that important Malacca Strait, the tongue of water the Dutch and Spanish lusted after. The fort was named after the fearsome Governor General of India, who might have failed as Britain’s former American War of Independence General but was now overseeing a much more exciting new world in the east.
Abdullah should thank Light for this fortification if nothing else. Security in twenty-foot walls of stone and bristling cast iron Armstrong four pounders. The fort would be here long after they were both gone.
The logic was that if Abdullah was to slip under the sheets with a white devil — to stop his fellow Pacific islanders taking off his vitals with the swish of a hook-bladed knife — then Light was as good as any. So they were on better speaking terms and even indulged in military conversations and shared a spicy pindang bendang at New Year and the green frog soup swikee in between. But his most valuable peace gift — he had to nod to Abdullah for this introduction — was the Portuguese-Asian envoy Martinha Rozells. He had sent her to greet Light and parley twenty years ago.
When she first swayed through the doorway of the rough thatched trading house at Achin, and stood imperiously flicking back a dark shining wave, he thought she was a princess and Light knew at that precise moment of meeting her dark, downcast eyes and grasping her impossibly smooth hands in greeting, that she would be the mother of his children, princess or no princess.
He drew back the curtain to their musty bedroom where she still slept. His eyes devoured the dark tousled hair, the naked full breasts, the shiny rounded bowl of her stomach, the bronze Y of her legs, splayed open on the white sheets of their marital bed, the dark shadow between.
She drove the desire in his loins again. In their twenty years together Light had not been able to prove or disprove that she was Abdullah’s illegitimate daughter. The wily monarch never welcomed her as such. He was too cunning for that. Francis and Martinha had met, and met again. Then she had shyly come aboard his ship one golden night, well before Georgetown. After she had disrobed and stood before him, after he had breathed in her scent — of cloves and frangipani and palm oil — and placed his lips on her belly, she had lain on him. After that she had never left.
That had been in 1771, a tumultuous year in the Pacific. Light’s contemporary, Captain James Cook was concluding his discovery of the east coast of Australia and setting sail for England with exciting news of a great southern land and in a decade and a half the gate to the southern Pacific had opened and through it had poured toothless convict wretches and their whores along with their ill-disciplined redcoats.
Drawing a cheroot from a leather holder he paused: how grand those first days in the bays around Kedah were in August 1786. When he had proclaimed the island of Puala Pinang for the Crown and named the city Georgetown after his sovereign. He had become Superintendent.
A satisfactory climactic point, for an illegitimate son of a maidservant. Standing here under the thatch of his Superintendent’s bungalow he could still hear the echo of the ten-gun salute from the cannon of his ships. The musket blasts from his small party of ragged marines. Still smell the gunpowder. Feel the swell in his chest. His achievement had been noteworthy and news had even reached the United Kingdom where his aged father, dying from the pox of one of his dalliances, was believed to have raised an eyebrow. By jove the lad’s done well! His mother was already deep under Sussex mud. But he had an uneasy feeling that it would be the bureaucrats who would eventually kill him.
So many masters. Not just the Abdullah, who believed receiving rental for his Island entitled him to meddle in every mortal affair from roadway design to taking the head off the shoulders of a drunk.
There was the Colonial Office. A layer of in-bred public school toffs with flat heads and protruding ears. Mainly book-keepers, clerks, administrators, creating nothing, developing nothing. Waking in the morning with a singular vision for the day to simply slow down progress. Born to rule by paper cuts and inkblots and cups of China tea and endless, artless procrastination.
Francis Light was of the other class, the nabobs.
The tyranny of being born low in the English class system was that for any progress at all you had to smilingly take the unpalatable work as a down payment on promotion, and in the late 1700s this meant the sweat and mosquitoes of India and beyond. The Empire out East thrived on this steady stream of low-born ambitious dreamers enthusiastic to be hacked to death in foolish wars or to wither with disease or bake under an inhospitable sun. They kept stepping up because they could make their fortune in Bengal or Calcutta or Bombay, jump a generation or two and return home as a retired major or colonel to join the elite: the private club, the public school for the children, the townhouse in Kensington, the country estate in Devon; the past forgotten… or at least overlooked by the gentry.
Light had stayed in the East, addicted to it. He gripped his balcony, on his house, on his island. His island that would never be his. He watched as the faint glow of morning revealed the blur of his ships in Penang harbour. And even after all these years it was impossible not to live vicariously through their creaks and groans at anchor, the magnetic drag of the black water on their hulls, urging them out to sea. He too wanted to be out there again, singing through the waves under the bursting power of a cloud of flaxen sail, not weighed down by this muggy, murky fog of responsibility.
Macaws in the Superintendent’s compound were starting to wake and squawk a greeting to him. Islander families mumbled sleepily as they prepared fishing boats. A waft of dried shrimp paste tickled his taste-buds. Stir-fried breakfast.
A noise behind him made him turn. It was William framed in the doorway.
The boy stood in a long nightshirt rubbing his eyes with his balled right fist and clutching his groin with his left. The familiarity of the morning scene filled Light with sadness.
He moved to the boy, squatting and gathering him up in his arms.
“What a big boy,” he crooned gruffly, as the child leant his tired and tousled head on his father’s shoulder. “Up so soon, my son? Are you excited about your journey?”
The boy shook his head and remained with his face snuggled into the curve of his father’s neck. Francis imagined how he must be feeling: if he remained quietly like this he would not have to leave, if perhaps he could not see the world then it would go away, perhaps he would be allowed to stay.
He hugged tighter lifting his knees up on his father’s hip, like a small native animal burying into its parent’s protective pouch. And the first wet tears started squeezing from tightly closed eyelids.
“What’s this then?” his father queried holding him at arm’s length. “Why this sadness my son?”
“I am leaving today. Leaving you pai. I am leaving mae, my family, my casa.” His mother had taught him the Portuguese tongue. His father the Anglo-Saxon. A mongrel linguist.
The young boy was handsome, Light thought proudly. He had the dark curly hair, black enquiring eyes and soft, olive skin of his mother. Yet Francis could still claim the fine, aquiline nose and firm chin. He would be tall — already five foot in stockinged feet, pencilled against the teak frame of the dining room door — and there was a structure there already in place for broad shoulders and narrow hips and powerful thighs.
The boy is as sharp as a rooster, Abdullah had said once. He was a reader. Adventure books mainly. He was a numericist. But there was a mild disposition about him. He liked to draw and had already scribbled and shaded and cross-hatched likenesses of both of his parents which were framed on the wall of the nursery.
Light knew that of all of his children, William would do best in the world. Which is why he had written to an old friend and man of the cloth, Reverend George Doughty who lived in Suffolk. He had asked him to take the boy into his home, like an orphaned pet, and help educate him in the ways of the English.
Marthina had protested, wailing in her room for days.
But Francis had remained firm.
“This is no place for a boy such as William,” he had explained. “This is where we live, but it is not my home. My eldest son should know that he is an Englishman not an islander. We have other children who can make your life full.”
Sarah, William’s elder sister was a companion for Martinha and young Francis Lanoon, who had been named after one of Light’s victories, was only three years old.
But Martinha wept for her elegant and beautiful son.
Clutching him, knowing that she would never see him again, she did not let him leave her side for a week. Each shriek, each cry had been a hot stab, a body blow. But he had to remain stubborn.
Now the weeping and wailing and gnashing and arguing were over. William would leave today.
He climbed down from his father like the small animal he was, brushed the tears, and padded over softly in his straight backed, elegant manner, to the balcony rail. He was a sombre boy and the harbour scene filled him with terrified anticipation. He had been brought up with the thought of destiny and while adventure had been planted in him like a seed and he had known for several years now that this heavily wooded, heavily-atmosphered peninsula of Penang and Kedah would not be his final resting place this day filled him with dread.
“England is far away — I saw it on the globe,” William said. Such a journey, across two thirds of the polished sphere in his father’s office. He’d tried to measure it — 10,000 miles he estimated. And he knew where Sussex was. He had found it in Cary’s New and Correct English Atlas. The book smelt like sick.
“Will it take long, father?”
“You will be at sea for several months, William.”
“Six months they said. One hundred and sixty days at least.
“If you’re lucky. If there are no pirates. Or dragons.”
They both smiled at each other. Francis joined him at the balcony. The hairs of his arm just touched his son’s arm. A final frisson of connection.
“Ah, what an adventure. You will go from here to Aceh. Dutch Indonesia. Humourless bastards they are. Then China, to unload and load supplies. Such a city Canton is. The smells and the strange people scurrying like cockroaches.”
“Yes. The Chinese like to work, they like money. Then you’ll probably go to India. Calcutta or Bombay.”
“Oh yes, many cockroaches. Don’t eat the food. Stay on ship. You hear me?”
“Yes father. And after that?”
“The Cape of Good Hope where the waves will fling themselves at you like great lions and when you lift your head you will see a giant mountain like a table-top.”
“And then England?”
“First the doldrums. No wind. The equator is so hot it will fry the brains of the sailors and they will do unusual things — dress up like Neptune. You will wish you were here then.
“I wish I was here now…I mean…”
Francis noticed his son looking up at him, no longer in terror but bemused acceptance.
“But by the time you reach England you will never want to leave the ship. You are a born seaman and an adventurer, William, just like me. You will never be tamed behind a solicitor’s desk or an Anglican pulpit. You will have a hunger to see the world.”
He was revisiting the world through his son. His last trip.
“You might return to the East one day. To India and the Army. Or we might work together.”
He knew this to be a fabrication. He would probably be dead before William donned a midshipman’s uniform. The bitter phlegm was in his throat now but he swallowed it down.
“Mmm,” the boy mused sleepily.
“There is much to be gained in an East India Company career — money, position, title and influence.” And none of this is available to the illegitimate son of an island trader and a Eurasian princess, Francis thought.
“Or you might build your life in the new world — the Americas, Africa or even this new southern land that Cook has discovered.” Light was warming to the justification stage of pre-grieving, explaining the loss of his son to himself if not to Martinha.
Then he was aware she was in the doorway behind them now. Silently listening, her folded arms barely closing her silk gown. Francis looked across the boy’s head at the beauty of her.
“You must see the world and learn of its rough and hungry ways, William Light,” she said. “Vem aqui.”
The boy turned and rushed to his mother. She brushed his forehead with a kiss and held his face to her belly, as she had done seven years ago when the midwife had presented him like a bloody and mewling pup to her.
“I don’t want to go.”
“You must. But always remember to be a good and just man. Honrado homen. An honourable man,” Francis intoned. “Be true to yourself. Fight first and hardest and longest for your own dignity, for your name. For at the end that is all you will have — a name which people will hopefully remember. A name they will say gladly and respectfully for generations. Do you understand?
“Be true to my name?
“Your name is your soul. All this nonsense about a soul which flees to heaven — (he glared at the Jesuit Martinha) — your soul is the spirit which comes after you. It survives you. You have a chance to create a great name for our family which will persist long after I die and after you as well.”
Light harrumphed. He was sermonizing now. It was time.
He moved through the French doors to the bedroom, peeling off his moist nightgown that had hung over his breeches and sea boots, and pulling on a fresh white linen shirt, stabbing the long tail down to his rump. He shrugged on a waistcoat and tugged on his yellowing wig. William heard him slurp tea, then cross to the bathroom where there was a loud urination. A fart.
He was back on the balcony again. He dropped to his knees next to William and presented him with a timber box. About six inches square and two inches deep it was not polished teak or even meranti but simple pine, painted with red lead for protection. The nicks and cuts told travel stories.
“This is yours, William. To remember me by.”
William accepted it quietly, looking his father in the eye.
He cautiously unclicked the two brass hooks and opened the lid to reveal a brass ringed glazed disc about five inches across. It was held in place snugly on each corner by small one-inch brass flat-topped screws. The round glass face sat atop a circular pattern of perfectly calligraphed numbers — 40, 50, 60, 70, 80, 90 then counting down again, 80, 70, 60 — and capital letters — NNE, NE, ENE, EAST. Tiny grey gradations like seconds on a clock marked the circumference. In the middle was a wonky needle that, unlike the clock faces he had seen, seemed uncertain about its direction. It wavered back and forth then settled on the 90 — EAST.
William looked enquiringly at his father again.
“It is not a clock?”
“No it is a compass.” He turned it in William’s hand until the red painted needle pointed over his shoulder and up the Malacca Strait.
“So that is due north. And once you know where north is, you can go anywhere — north, south, east or west.”
William moved his hand and the needle settled into its new home. Then he moved again and smiled.
“Thank you, Father. I will treasure this.”
Francis stood up with a creaking of knees and brushed something out of his eye.
“It will give you a path to follow, William. The direction I would want to give you always. When you open it think of me.”
Then he was extending his long, pale right hand, the fingers together, the thumb pointed upward.
“Shake firmly. Always shake firmly,” he said. “And look me in the eye. A handshake is your word.”
William slotted the web of his thumb and forefinger into the similar web of his father’s hand and closed tight. They shook. Twice. They made eye contact…for the last time in this world.
Then wordlessly Francis Light moved from the balcony as though across a divide, back into his world of trade which swelled up around this port; his port.
The boy and his mother watched him languidly floating down the hill in the morning steaminess that rose from the heated soil after the monsoon. A ghostly figure. Yellow skinned. Coughing. Intent.
Selamat pagi. Apa khabar.
He called out to his Malay assistants as he strolled down the hill and they appeared from huts and shelters, smiling white grins and chattering back to him. There was a story that Francis had fired a cannon full of silver coins into the bush to motivate the locals to clear the jungled undergrowth. He was like that.
He slapped his sea boots with a thin rubber tree stem that he had grasped. But that something in his eye continued to irritate him.
William and Francis Light would never see each other again.