Quedah; or, Stray Leaves from a Journal in Malayan Waters (by Sherard Osborn, 1857).
There is only one class of persons whom we can conscientiously dissuade from reading Captain Osborn's books— namely, youths with a hankering after the navy, which their parents wish to discourage. Since the publications of Captain Basil Hall and Captain Marryat, we have seen no works so likely to be on that account matribus detestata. The account of Sir R. M'Clure's Discovery of the North-west Passage was in every respect worthy of the surpassing moral grandeur of the subject. With the Stray Leaves from an Arctic Journal we are not acquainted; but Quedah is a sort of naval pastoral, setting the possibilities of a midshipman's career in a light at once so natural, so graceful, and so interesting, that it would be enough to make a spirited lad run away from school or from home to the nearest seaport town, if it did not convey a general impression of honour and truth which would teach him that a dutiful and a courageous disposition go together.
In the spring of 1838, Captain Osborn was a midshipman in her Majesty's corvette Hyacinth, then stationed at Singapore. There was at that time an alliance between the East India Company and the King of Siam. That potentate was at war with a certain Malay chief, called Prince Abdullah, who claimed to be Rajah of the town and province of Quedah, a place on the western coast of the peninsula of Malaya, and at no great distance to the north of Pulo Penang. The Siamese looked upon Abdullah as a pirate, and the East India Company took the same view—in Captain Osborn's opinion, a harsh one—of the matter; and the Hyacinth, aided by a squadron of three gunboats, was accordingly sent to blockade the coast, pending the advance of an army of 30,000 Siamese from Bangkok. The consequence of this arrangement was that, in the eighteenth year of his age, Captain Osborn found himself of with the command of a lugger-rigged boat 48 feet long, mounting an 18-pounder carronade in her bows, and a 6-pounder pivot-gun on her quarter-deck, and manned by twenty-six of those Malays to whom the whole arm of melodramatic novelists has appropriated the epithet of “bloodthirsty.” One of them was serang, or boatswain. There was, besides, an interpreter, who passed for a Portuguese, because his mother was a Burmese woman, and his father was supposed to be an English officer. Being a Protestant on one side, and a Buddhist on the other, he became a Roman Catholic—continuing, however, to believe in Buddhism, and strongly inclining to the peculiar superstitions of the Malays. The first communication which this trustworthy follower made to his superior was that most of the crew were pirates, well accustomed to the gaol at Singapore, and that the boatswain was the most notorious of the party. The boatswain's name was Jadee. Tried by most conventional rules, he certainly was a doubtful character, for he was by birth a cannibal—at least such was the common opinion about the tribe to which he belonged. He was afterwards sold as a slave, but rose by his courage to the rank of a pirate, fighting for several years the Chinese, Spaniards, and Dutch, “of whom he never spoke without execrating their mothers;” but he got a check in his profession from a Ring's ship, which drove him from wholesale to retail practice. After robbing market-boats for some time with varying success, a party of Chinamen captured him one day whilst he was asleep; and, knowing his character, they invented a story which they thought would be enough to get him hanged, and to which they all swore “by all they could swear by.” The judge who tried the case doubted the evidence, and Jadee was sent to gaol, from which he obtained his release by volunteering to act as executioner in the absence of the proper authority—conquering what little reluctance he might otherwise have felt to undertake the office by the reflection that the man to be hung was a Chinese. Having duly discharged this function, Jadee was promoted to the office of pirate-hunter; and thenceforth, with the exception of provoking the jealousy of a gentleman who speared him in fourteen different places, he maintained an irreproachable character.
With a crew composed of such materials as these, and of whose language he did not know a single word, Captain Osborn was sent to blockade a long line of coast, at an age when an Eton boy is just beginning to aspire after the glories of the sixth form, and to think that in a year or two he may perhaps know something about elegiacs and Greek Iambics. In this occupation, and in the society of this crew and of those of the other gunboats and the ship's-boats, Captain Osborn passed three of the happiest months of his life, making acquaintance with strange men, seeing strange sights, and living on fish, rice, and curried fowl, which had to be eaten on the principle that fingers were made before forks. The services of the gunboats were not very active or dangerous. Every now and then a war-canoe would come out, which the gunboats chased with various success. For some time the blockading force was assisted by a lubberly Siamese brig, which got the nickname of the “Teda Bagoose," or “no-good,” from the answer which one of the captains—for she had two—invariably returned to all suggestions of fighting; and at last, the blockaders witnessed the siege and capture of Quedah by the Siamese, and had the satisfaction of protecting a number of women, children, and old men from the fiendish cruelties which, but for their connivance and assistance in their escape, the victorious army, would have practised upon the families of the rebels. These events form the story which connects together the descriptions and incidents to which the interest of the work is due. Its most prominent feature is the good opinion which, notwithstanding their bad name, Captain Osborn's experience led him to form of the Malays. They are, he says, a much injured race, who have been driven into piracy by the oppressions of the Dutch and the Portuguese, but retain a vast deal of courage and generosity. They are, moreover, Mahometans, and the power and energy of that faith elevates them far above the Buddhist populations amongst whom they live. They make far better sailors than any other Asiatics, displaying not only courage and a capacity for receiving discipline, but a degree of handiness and general ingenuity which, if equalled, is certainly not surpassed, in our own service. Three of Captain Osborn's crew built a boat, twenty-two feet long, capable of containing ten, persons, and pulling four oars, in the space of three weeks—their materials being two planks of wood, each two inches thick and thirty, feet long, and their tools a couple of native axes and a red-hot ramrod, which was used as an auger. On another occasion, the crew of the gunboat dug out a tidal dock, and there docked their vessel—mended her rudder, which had been injured near the bottom—launched her, and repaired an accident by which one of her timbers was stove in during the process. By judicious management the Malays were quite capable of being brought under discipline. One of Captain Osborn's crew thought fit to abuse the interpreter in a very foul manner. His commanding officer determined to protect his subordinate, and, notwithstanding all notions about Malay vengeance, the offender was in due form of law tied up to the bow gun and solemnly flogged, after which he became one of the best men in the crew. Though Captain Osborn makes rather light of the raw-head and bloody-bones ferocity which popular opinion attributes to the Malays, many of the stories which he tells, especially of his boatswain, Jadee, bring out the points of the national character upon which such notions are founded, with the most picturesque distinctness. For example, when Captain Osborn first went on board to assume his new command, he asked his boatswain's opinion as to whether he thought that the defenders of Quedah would come out and fight. On the suggestion that such an event was possible, Jadee sent the armourer for his fighting dress, which consisted of a quilted red waistcoat without arms, clothed in which he drew a sword with one hand and a knife with the other, and “enacted a savage pantomime of a mortal fight between himself and the rebel chief. in which he evidently, conquered." After this, he further relieved his feelings by calling his enemy every sort of unseemly name, ending with pouring out his whole stock of English at once in the phrase, “Ah, you damned poul, come alongside" "Poul,” or “fool,” is supposed to be a phrase with which the white men emphatically curse their enemies. Nor was this mere bravado, for Jadee proved his courage on many occasions.
Captain Osborn gives a wonderfully graphic description of the appearance of his crew whilst waiting to attack a fleet of piratical canoes which had had five minutes allowed them to capitulate. The Malays were half-mad with excitement, looking just like so many game-cocks, whilst the sturdy men-of-war's men and marines were grimly examining the caps and nipples of their firearms, and joking about the question whether “her” (the muskets) would “shoot straight to-day, and pitch sixty rounds into them precious Malays.” The Malays are very superstitious. One of them not only saw and spat at a ghost himself, but showed it to Captain Osborn, who, with a true sailor's relish for such things, says that he certainly perceived something like the shadow of a woman gliding about in a jungle. Again, when they were going into action, Jadee begged his officer to put a little pork into the gun—he said the flesh of the unclean animal had a wonderful effect in action. Perhaps, however, the most remarkable of Jadee's accomplishments in this line was his receipt for killing the wind. The gunboat being struck by a squall—
‘The little Emerald lay down to it for a moment, the helm was put up, and away she flew before the storm like a snow-flake. Jadee stood by my side, “A bad wind, Touhan; we must kill it!” “Kill away Jadee,” I replied, laughing at the idea of so fickle a personage as the Clerk of the Weather getting into a scrape with a Malay pirate. “Kill away, by all means!” “Campar!” shouted Jadee—poor Campar! he had to be everywhere—“oh! Campar, thou son of a burnt mother, hand here the rice-spoon" shouted Jadee, looking as solemn as a quaker or a haggi. This rice-spoon, by the way, was the only one in the vessel; it was made of wood, and used for stirring the rice whilst cooking over the fire; its value to us may-be invested it with a certain degree of sanctity. The spoon was brought, and I tried to look as solemn as Jadee, who, calling to his aid the sanctimonious Alee, placed the spoon upon the deck between him and the wind, and the pair of true believers repeated some verses over it—bound themselves, by a vow, to sacrifice several game-cocks upon a favourable occasion, and then the precious spoon was stuck through the lanyards of the main rigging, with the handle to leeward. I think I should have died from the effects of suppressed mirth, had not the fury of the squall and the quantity of water thrown on board of us given me enough to do to look after the safety of the craft. Jadee, however, sat quietly watching and waiting for the effect of his incantation: at last, down came the rain—not in drops, but in bucketsful, and, as usual, the wind fell entirely. Hastening to get under the rain-awnings and mats until the weather cleared up. I remarked to Jadee that “the wind was fairly killed.” “Yes!”, be replied, with a sly expression of countenance, “I never saw that charm fail; I never saw the wind that could long stand its effect. The Rajah of Jehore was the first man who taught it to me, and I have found it infallible.”’This is followed by a story far too good to abridge, and too long to extract, of the way in which Jadee learned this useful recipe.
The main object of the book is the vindication of the Malay character from the common opinions respecting it; but it contains, apart from this, a great number of charming descriptions of scenery, and of very interesting anecdotes. Captain Osborn is one of the few Europeans who have seen the process of finding the famous edible bird's-nests of which the Chinese are so fond, and the search for which is so dangerous that two-fifths of the persons employed in it lose their lives. He also records several strange incidents which were brought under his notice, one of which we must specially refer to, on account of its extraordinary character. It is the history of a man who ran away as a boy to go to sea, and of the miseries which he underwent in a ship sent home from Africa with hardly any provisions or water, with a captain who was a furious and wicked madman, a surgeon who was an unnerved and idiotic sot, and a crew which was in all respects worthy of the officers. A more ghastly story we never read; and yet there is nothing in it which may not well be true.
We hope this book may meet with sufficient success to induce the author to give us more of his experiences. A man who began his career amongst the Malays, who has served with great distinction in the Arctic Ocean, and who improvised the famous raft which did the Russians so much harm in the Siwash and at Kerteh, has something to tell, and we can answer for his finding plenty of people willing to hear.
Saturday Review, March 28, 1857.