The Lost Diaries - Book Two

 

Sarawak Sojourn - service in the Brooke Raj, being volume 2 of Captain Arjun Khan's diaries.

CHAPTER THREE: THE GREAT IRON SHARK

In June that year the town of Kuching was haunted by a strange mystery. For several weeks now a number of ships leaving the port had disappeared without a trace: there were no survivors and no sign of wreckage. Rumours of gargantuan sea monsters that swallowed the ships whole circulated amongst the native populace, but of course no European believed in that sort of thing.

Captain Cavor was tasked by the Rajah to look into the matter, for maritime trade was the life-blood of Sarawak, and we could scarce endure such fear amongst the merchant ships. On his part he was certain that this was the work of a gang of pirates.

After studying the harbour records, Captain Cavor soon discerned a pattern in the strange disappearances. The vanished ships were all outbound ships, and had cargoes of coal or antimony, and all traveled without a ship due after them for many hours. He soon surmised that there must be a spy amongst the populace of Kuching who was supplying the pirates with the schedule, and contrived to set a trap for them.

He was confident of his theory and our success in this enterprise, yet we could not explain why the pirates chose to attack ships with cargoes of coal and bauxite, and what they would do with them, these materials not being popular booty for them.

We set off in the Abang after a merchantman carrying antimony to Singapore, staying just close enough to keep it on our horizon to avoid revealing our presence to the pirates.

Around noon on the second day the merchantman came to a channel between several small islets. The lookout called out that she seemed to have come to a sudden stop in the waters, and soon afterward that another ship had appeared from behind one of the islets and was moving towards her. Thinking this to be our quarry, Captain Cavor ordered the Abang to steam forward. The pirate prahu meanwhile had opened fire on the merchantman and struck down two of her masts, and was about to board her when they saw our arrival. The pirates must have realised that they would be no match for the Abang, for they forthwith turned west and tried to flee. Captain Cavor ordered the Abang round the islet to the south to cut them off.

Then suddenly the lookout called out again, for behind us a strange shape resembling a giant shark had appeared. I could not make out whether the strange thing was a creature or a vessel, but I soon realized it was the latter as a wake streaking towards us declared that it had loosed a torpedo at us!

The torpedo sped towards us at an enormous speed, and narrowly missed our stern. Despite the appearance of this unexpected vessel, Captain Cavor resolved to try to save the merchantman, and we carried on around the islet. But the vessel came at us from the other side of the islet, intent on ramming us. We could now see that it was an ironclad ship of some sort, and fully a hundred yards long. Our brave gunners managed to score a hit against it, but the shell bounced off its steel hull without doing any damage. The ironclad rammed our ship in the bow, causing both vessels to stop dead in the water. Captain Cavor ordered the marines to board the ironclad, which the brave men promptly did. But alas! Before they could find the hatch to the interior of the ironclad it submerged itself in the water, casting our men into the sea!

We could now see that the pirate prahu had drawn abreast the merchantman and was boarding her. We cast off the boats to let the poor marines survive as best as they could, and made off after the pirate. And we could have bested the prahu, but the ironclad, which by now we realise was a submersible vessel, surfaced to our starboard side and loosed another torpedo at us. This time the torpedo found its mark, and our paddlewheel was blown into so many splinters.

By now the situation looked hopeless, and Captain Cavor ordered the crew to abandon the ship, while he and Mr. Korzeniowski would go down with the ship. I bade my last farewell to them as they set about shutting off the steam release valves of the engine, intent on causing the boilers to explode and denying the enemy the ship.

The ship exploded scarcely a minute after we disembarked, taking my friends to their watery graves, and the pride of the Sarawak navy to the bottom of the sea.

On the lifeboats we sought to flee the pirates, but the cruel villains soon caught up with us and put the crew to the sword. I thought myself a doomed man. But the captain of the submersible had ordered me to be kept alive, and I was taken into the belly of the steel beast to meet her strange master."

The stark exterior of the submersible belied its interior, which was well-furnished. The corridors were lit by incandescent lamps, and through the portholes I could see that we were truly descending into the depths. The crew, however, were not of Malay or Chinese race, but resembled more the negroes of Africa – I was later to realise that they were from the Portuguese island of Timor .

 

I was conducted to meet the master of this strange vessel, whom I instantly recognized to be the strange personage we have met at Dr Doomeira’s station several months ago!

 

“Dr Doomeira.” I chanced.

 

“Welcome aboard, Captain Arjun.” he replied. “I suppose you are wondering why I have brought you here.”

 

I was first and foremost surprised that he knew who I was, but I let him speak on.

 

“I am a man of many talents, Captain,” he continued. “This vessel you see here – which I have named the ‘Orca’ – was designed and built all by myself. The submersible vessel is of course not a novel idea; many nations have tried to produce one. But this, Captain Arjun; this vessel is far in advance of what they have!”

 

He went on at length, and in great detail, of the marvelous technology which went into the construction of his formidable vessel, so that much of what he said was beyond me. But I understood that the vessel burned coal while upon the surface, but while underwater she was driven by electricity, which was drawn from batteries which are charged by the steam-engine. He seemed particularly proud of his torpedoes, which he had ‘perfected’ from an Austrian design.

 

On my part I grew weary, from the shock of the battle just past and also his lengthy discourse. When he noticed this he paused, and then said,

 

“But my many talents do not include that of the art of healing, doctor. Will you join our band?”

 

“And what is it that your band seek to do? I will not be a ship’s surgeon to a band of petty pirates!”

 

He was silent for several moments, and then he spoke,

 

“Nothing so petty, I assure you, my dear doctor. We seek the overthrow of the Dutch. Too long have these lands, rightfully of my people by Papal decree, laboured under the tyranny of the Dutch. We work to rid these lands of them, by fire and by water, and restore the glory of my people.”

 

(Dr Doomeira was referring probably to the Papal Donation of 1493, which granted much of the East Indies to the Portuguese.)

 

He paused again, and I thought I saw a glint of madness in his eye.

 

“Will you aid me, or thwart me?”

 

Seeing no prospect of rescue or escape, I could but give in.

 

“I shall look to your sick and your wounded, Dr Doomeira, but I shall have no part in your plans.”

 

“That is good enough for me,” he smiled, “for now.”

 

We were soon at our destination – a deserted island upon which Dr Doomeira had made his base. The harbour for the submersible was equally strange to its inhabitant, for the vessel docked in an underwater cavern, and to leave her confines we had to employ the aid of diving suits of rubber, which were equipped with a breathing apparatus connected to the brass helmets of the suits by pipes. Through these pipes compressed air was delivered to the occupant, and exhaled air expelled through a valved outlet in the same helmet.

 

(Captain Arjun’s description matches that of the Rouquayrol-Denayrouse apparatus patented in 1865; the more ‘modern’ Fleuss's apparatus, which achieved fame in 1880, utilised a closed breathing circuit.)

 

I was led from the hold of the vessel to a tunnel on the sea cave, which climbed steadily upwards. We emerged in a sea cave, where waiting guards helped us out of the diving suits, and I was led through the cave and a jungle trail to arrive at the camp where, worn by the day’s adventure, I fell asleep without my supper.

 

.  .  .  .  .