Authors: Jan Jacob Slauerhoff
JAN JACOB SLAUERHOFF
Translated from the Dutch by
For Albino Forjaz de Sampaio
1540, when the settlement of Lian Po had been in existence for almost eighteen years, an imperial delegation arrived at the North Gate, bearing the celestial name on its banner, but bringing no goodwill gifts and dressed in light-blue mourning robes. The head of the delegation requested an audience with the governor, Antonio Farria. As it was night-time, they were conducted through the city to an inn by the light of torches and lanterns and despite their impatient grumbling were not taken to see Farria until the following morning; instructed of their arrival and apparel, he awaited them seated on a throne, in armour.
The oldest member of the group stepped forward, without removing his skull cap, and said in measured tones: “Lian Po will be laid waste, the Portuguese and their slaves will be tortured till they curse the day they were born, if their brethren in the south continue their conquest of Malacca.”
Farria, without raising either his voice or his body, took a roll of parchment from the table next to him, unfolded a map of Malacca, indicated a red line that cut off the neck of the peninsula and pointed through the window to the river where the ships were raising ensigns and unfurling their standards. Then he gave a signal, a shot was fired and was answered by many blazing barrels, and rejoicing erupted across the city and the river. The envoys returned home through a celebrating city in closed litters.
At the end of the year an imperial fleet of well over a thousand sails appeared in the harbour mouth. That was one ship for every Portuguese in Lian Po. Spies reported the advance of a great army, three days’ march away. Farria left Lian Po under the command of Perez Alvadra and with the thirty ships at anchor in the harbour hurled himself at the junks. He had ordered a fortress cannon and a long-barrelled gun to be mounted on six of his vessels, and these now fired among the junks, as his fleet drifted slowly towards the enemy. Before contact was made, hundreds had sunk. Then an offshore wind
got up, the heavy artillery was dumped overboard and with swift manoeuvres the Portuguese
cut through the enemy, firing in all directions. But
scores of junks had attached themselves to each
ship and hundreds of warriors with their blood-curdling cries had leapt on deck, cutlasses slashing. Grenades from the crow’s nests, musket fire from poop deck and stern, knives and lances on the decks exterminated the Manchus like swarms of locusts.
At night the battle continued by torchlight, armed sloops joined in the fray, and swarms of sharks, the hyenas of sea battles, fought over the bloody casualties as they drowned.
The torches were burning low when there was a great glow from the land. A broad red wall of slow-burning flames rose from horizon to horizon. Seeing this, Farria was beside himself with fury and signalled to his ships to assemble for a final assault. Nine clustered alongside his vessel; the others could not disengage themselves from the tangle or had been overrun.
Three times in quick succession, continuously firing and ramming whatever crossed their bows, they carved a path through the Chinese fleet. The dawn, breaking through on the horizon, lit up the fleeing junks and four tall ships turned away from them and headed back to the bay. But Lian Po had already disappeared, and a thick pall hung over silent piles of rubble from collapsed walls and charred beams.
Farria went to where his city had stood. The streets were almost buried under the fallen masonry, but he
found a way through, spearing bodies and tossing them aside with his sword if they obstructed him, and finally stood in front of the ruins of his own house. He did not dare step over the threshold. Beyond, his wife and
lay burnt or… He rested on his sword and waited until a couple of soldiers approached. “Search,” he
hoarsely, “clear the beams away, open the cellar.”
He was now sitting on a stone bench that had once been set among flowers and shrubs facing a small pool. He scooped some water from the pool and cooled his head. His hair was covered in charcoal and soot, but he did not notice. A few blackened swords and an iron pitcher were laid at his feet: all that was still recognizable. Farria himself went into his gutted house, and took away a few handfuls of ash in his handkerchief.
That evening four ships, all that was left of the first settlement in Cathay, sailed south in close formation.
The little fleet was ringed by the stars, with the moon above them in the black sky. On the poop deck of the
Mãe de Deus
stood Farria and Mendez de Pinto. They gazed at the sails, at the wake, occasionally walked the deck from side to side, and stopped in silence again.
A lamp was burning over the hatchway, and the
of the hatch and the bronze of the cannon gleamed, while everything else was shrouded in darkness; darkness
surrounded both the two lonely men and the sails. But gradually the dark hull began to glow in a green twilight, which first revealed the topsails, then dredged the bow up from the night, where a faint mumbling rose, like that of men waking.
Finally Farria’s large figure and the small, frail Mendez were also lit up. “Green is the colour of hope,” said Farria without conviction, but Mendez disagreed. “It’s St Elmo’s Fire—it heralds doom and death. What else can it mean?” And suddenly a flood of words poured from the lips of the taciturn officer, who for days had not uttered a syllable and had done nothing except run from side to side, testing cannon, drinking—drinking heavily—and cursing silently at the railing.
At last he found a channel for his resentment.
“All for nothing. Twenty years of struggle, loneliness, negotiations with yellow villains, patience, pleas for
“The supercilious letters from the usurers in Malacca, the haughty administrators in Goa, who ask why we’re venturing so far when the spices that yield most profit await loading in Malacca. The aggrieved letters of the prelates asking when Cathay will finally be converted. Those of the King wanting to know why his embassy was not better received in Beijing, and why it did not bring back more gifts.
“All they want is to hold on to what they have, buy off their enemies and laze about on their country estates.
“On the brink of the most fabulous riches, constant skirmishes with the most cunning and cruellest devils in an indefensible post on which we have wasted our lives. We’re now reaping the reward of fools, our wives have been tortured to death, our children burnt alive or abducted.
“We’re as penniless as we were thirty years ago, when we sailed out of the Tagus as poor noblemen, happy with the blessing of a cardinal and a knighthood from the King.
“What awaits us when we return? Anathema for having become heretics, the displeasure of the King, prison perhaps. Think of Columbus, think of Da Gama, of so many.
“Where are we to turn? What we built up lasted for twenty years and burned down in a single night. Let’s go to some island no one wants, and wait for death. Or let’s lie in wait for everything flying the Portuguese flag and destroy it. No, we’d do better to undertake the journey back. Let’s bombard Malacca and Goa and Lisbon for all we’re worth. Why were we born and why did we set forth in the first place?”
His features were ashen in the green light, his hands broke off pieces of wood and his body leant twitching
against the railing. Until Farria, in the slow, measured tones he always used, tried to persuade his second-
to adopt his point of view.
“It’s all true. In Malacca they’d jeer and lord it over us. In Goa we’d be interrogated about why the post was not held. Surely five hundred soldiers and thirteen ships, half of them warships, are an invincible force confronted with even the mightiest empire? In Lisbon we’d be thrown in jail. I’m not afraid; I think as you do. My vengeance extends further. I shall land again, fight, negotiate and build a second Lian Po, richer and stronger than the first. It will put Malacca in the shade and awaken the envy of Goa. Then, when I’m relieved of my post to make way for one of the King’s bastards, I shall hoist my own flag and with my fleet and my army I shall hold on to my creation, or if it proves indefensible destroy it with my own hands.”
Mendez shook his head sadly.
“We’re too old. It will take too long. I want to devote the years that are left to me to my vengeance. Give me the copies of the letters, the pleas and orders we wrote for reinforcements, give me the arrogant,
answers. They will be my daily breviary. I will derive strength from them, lest I succumb to bleak loneliness.”
Farria saw he was determined.
“You can be sure you will always find my harbour open, even if the whole Portuguese fleet is arrayed outside.”
“Don’t use that kind of talk. Never do that, or you’ll never be able to execute your plan of revenge. I may be the one who helps
The green light faded and the two slept fitfully on the bunks in the saloon.
In the morning Farria gave Mendez, who was resolved to go his own way, a bundle of papers, a box and his commander’s ceremonial sword. The ships were hauled up into the wind. Sloops sailed to and fro. All those wishing to throw in their lot with Mendez were to board the
, the smallest ship, on which the black flag was now hoisted. When Farria rowed out in the afternoon, he found Mendez standing gloomily by the gangplank and the ship very sparsely manned.
The farewell gifts were put on board; they clasped hands for a long time. Then there was a shot and Mendez set sail on the
He was never heard of again.
ARRIA SAILED SOUTHWARD
with three ships. In the waters between the coast of Fujian and the island of Formosa, where the wind from across Asia and the ocean converge, a typhoon approached, the great wind born of the union of many, which whips up the sea, and casts it into the sky, compresses, wrings and then tears apart sea and sky, and between tissues of air and water destroys everything that comes too close to this supernatural alchemy. The
Mãe de Deus
was just able to signal to the others that Nanwei would be the assembly point. Then the ships were separated by banks of cloud and fog, assaulted by tornadoes and tidal waves, which battered them from all sides beneath howling rain. Lashed to a mast, Farria stood shouting orders, but no one could hear him. He saw no one, heard nothing but the occasional desperate cry, the snap of a ripped sail with the accompanying creaking sound and the splash of a loose cannon plunging into the sea. Beneath him in the pitch-black and stifling saloon lay Dona Miles, the only woman to survive Lian Po, kneeling before
Nossa Senhora da Penha. Sometimes she was hurled against the statue. Did this not make her prayers even more fervent? She prayed for a night and a day. Life had receded, and prayer had taken its place. Until the gusts died down, a light shone in through a crack in the door and Farria lifted her up. They were united in a short prayer and a long embrace, as there could now be no end to the love of those who had been saved. Death had retreated before ecstasy, or before a gentle sun, shining over the foaming but bending waves into a round open porthole.
HE MÃE DE DEUS
had lain at anchor off the bay of Nanwei for a week waiting in the lee of a narrow peninsula. Finally the
rounded the headland, with one mast still standing. The
never appeared. Some believe that this ship joined Mendez.
The occupants of the wreck—the
was no more than that—requested transfer to the big
Mãe de Deus,
but Farria did not want to lose any more ships, and the
with its shallow draught was indispensable for coastal reconnaissance.
The bare beach was alive with brisk shipbuilding activity.
Farria himself, having climbed aloft to see if he could catch sight of the
, spotted a bamboo grove on the far side. This provided yardarms and ropes.
Nanwei would have to furnish water and provisions. But it lay inaccessible in the interior, beyond a bend in the river, half town, half fleet, huts and houses on the bank, junks in the river so close together that only a thin strip of open water lay between them. Between
the land and the waterborne district stood a grey palace with gold statues and curlicued spires glittering in the sun, and many-coloured banners curling down from the beams of the gate.
A delegation with some scanty gifts must go there and request help and supplies.
Farria, knowing what a prized hostage he would be, did not dare go. Alvarez went with three men from Lian Po, baptized Chinese, and a gift of cloth and wine. Farria had nothing else. In a letter he pointed to the friendship that existed between the two monarchs, far apart only because the power of each extended so far; he alluded to services rendered in the destruction of the pirates, passing in silence over the battle and fall of Lian Po. Then he asked for help.
Alvarez returned after four days, alone and without an answer. The mandarin had received the gifts coolly, had burst into a rage when he saw a stain on one of the carpets, read the letter and erupted in even greater fury, praising his Emperor as Son of Heaven, belittling Portugal’s
as an insignificant vassal, a tributary of the celestial one, who anyway controlled the whole world, however far westward Portugal might lie. He ordered them to leave the city and remove their ships from the coast.
The admiral listened in silence and gave orders to prepare to set sail. But not to leave the coast. That
Mãe de Deus
lay a mile downstream from Nanwei and bombarded the floating half of the city by moonlight. Soon large holes
and suddenly the dark mass moved upstream. The two
calmly took the place of thousands of junks and set fire to the city with rockets. In various places the fire flared up and then spread at lightning speed with bangs and hisses, the blossoming of
joyous colours, interwoven with green, red, purple, shot through with fiery serpents, revolving suns, fading stars, fire-spewing dragons and quickly fading monstrous flowers.
The Portuguese, at first alarmed, ceased the
, which had become unnecessary, and became spectators of the awesome firework display.
The officers remembered Farria’s encouragement in response to their objections:
“This is not a finely balanced battle. This is a festive firework display. The people of Nanwei will give us a glorious reception, because it’s the 1st of February.”
The fact was that Farria, thinking of everything, had used the eve of the Chinese New Year for the attack, which, once begun, continued of its own accord.
By morning Nanwei had disappeared.
The grey palace on the outer wall, scorched black, stood amid a wilderness of black ash. Lian Po had still
been recognizable, Nanwei had been wiped clean like a black slate. The mandarin’s palace rose graceful and alone.
They landed: a hundred soldiers and two artillery pieces which kept the roofs and windows under rapid fire, while the crew of the
Mãe de Deus
opened fire on the gate. To one side Farria waited with a column ready to charge. But after one salvo the gates flew open.
A horde of armed men, howling, and limbs convulsed, charged out of the gateway at the troops who had landed. Few reached their goal; in a few minutes the river bank was strewn with bloody corpses and pig-tailed heads. Then there was silence. A mighty gong sounded within the palace. Farria knew what was coming and withdrew a little.
The gate now spewed out more and more warriors and finally, amid a host of cavalry, the mandarin
in a chariot, wearing many-coloured war robes and wielding a huge broadsword.
Farria gave orders for the mandarin to be spared in the charge. And in the space of a prayer it was over. Again bodies covered the ground, in the distance scattered horsemen fled and the mandarin sat in his chariot, the horses of which had been shot.
Farria approached and placed the point of his sword on his breast, but met the resistance of metal. A
sombre suspicion arose in him. He ripped the robes away with his blade and encountered an obsolete breastplate.
Farria recognized it. He himself had not seen the departure of Perez, the first ambassador to Beijing. All that was known was that he had been murdered en route.
Farria ordered the Chinese to take off the sullied armour. The mandarin pointed to the circle that had formed around them and Farria, deliberately
, motioned to four soldiers who to the sound of loud cheers made the other man crawl from his stolen carapace. Shivering, the high lieutenant stood with his naked flabby upper body exposed to the scorn of the foreign devils. Farria drove him to the river and ordered him to clean the armour from his touch, washing and scrubbing it. Then he summoned his executioner, a huge Manchu, who, his eyes bulging with delight, tortured and dispatched his distinguished victim in exemplary fashion. In addition, a new
Farria raised the now gleaming breastplate aloft, and the rays of the sun gave it new lustre. He swore, “I shall build a cathedral in my new city. This
shall be the only relic. It shall not be ousted by any saint’s bones. The cathedral will also defend the fort and city from attack and siege. The breastplate
shall hang from the groined vault in the nave of the church.”
For the executioner had done his work and the body of Nanwei’s lord hung from the gate beam of his palace.