Lim Beng Hap and The Sea Tiger
Lim Beng Hap, the seventh boy in a family of nine boys and four girls, ‘Seventh Uncle’ as we all called him, was a consummate storyteller.
Lamentably, only four of his tales have survived, stories that won him first prize in the Borneo Literature Bureau competitions for original writing in English.
The Borneo Literature Bureau, now defunct, was sponsored by the State Governments of Sarawak and Sabah. It was conceived in the sixties and survived into the early seventies.
This story, The Sea Tiger, won First Prize in 1972, and was published by the Borneo Literature Bureau in 1976.
Seventh Uncle knew the tricks of the trade without ever having taken a course in creative writing. His was a natural talent. He wrote the way a cameraman filmed. He captured visual images with words. He was a craftsman through and through and understood instinctively the art of storytelling.
My original intention was to re-publish The Sea Tiger and his three other short stories - The Village That Vanished (1960), Poonek (1964), Tricked Again (1964) – as a volume.
I was so spellbound by The Sea Tiger while I was editing it that I decided to re-write it. There was more to The Sea Tiger than just a mere swashbuckling adventure story with a local colour.
All the rudiments of high drama were there: suspense and melodrama; the essence of a Greek tragedy: hubris and catharsis; a touch of ‘Homeric’ dignity and nobility in the warriors; an atavistic fatalism; a hint of Shakespearean pathos; and an element of comic relief essentially ‘Shakespearean’ in nature.
I simply went overboard!
I have retained the story line, but re-structured the plot and dialogues. I took the liberty of developing the characters further, giving them more depth and allowing them more scope to act. Seventh Uncle, were he alive today, would hardly recognize them.
I am certain he would not mind, for I have faithfully kept to the spirit of his work with the exception that I have interpreted his story not merely as a feud between two warring parties, but as the twilight of piracy and the dawn of a new age.
Illanun Pirate Vessel
My Seventh Uncle had a vast store of knowledge of Sarawak, its people and their customs. Every story of his is carefully researched.
But when it came to the pirate vessel which he called kumpit that carried the Sea Tiger and his fighting men, there was much discrepancy in his description and the type of sailing craft.
He described the Sea Tiger’s vessel as a sailing ship with slave-rowers chained to their oars in the hold. I thought it rather evoked images of ancient Greek and Roman galleys.
That there were slave rowers is accurate enough.
In The Pirate Wind: Tales of Sea Robbers of Malaya, Owen Sutter described the vessels of the Illanun pirates:
Their cruising boats were built sharp in the prow and wide in the beam; some of them would exceed ninety feet in length and sixty tons burden. They were furnished with a double tier of oars, the largest carrying a hundred rowers, who sat cross-legged, about a foot from the water line, on strong galleries built outside the bends. These rowers were slaves who were not expected to fight unless the fleet was hard pressed. In place of masts, these boats were fitted with sheers, which could be raised or let down swiftly, and upon these was hoisted a huge mat sail.
Owen Sutter went on to describe a cabin aft, occupied by the captain, another in the bow, and a main cabin that took up three-fifths of the boat’s length and two-thirds of its beam, where women, children and captives lived.
The sides might be of bamboo or palm leaf, but in the bow, the cabin was solidly built out to the whole beam with baulks of timber sufficiently strong to withstand a six-pound shot. Here a narrow embrasure admitted the muzzle of a long gun, usually of brass, which might be anything from a six to a twenty-four pounder, with another in the stern. Numerous swivels of varying calibre were mounted in solid uprights along the sides and the upper works.
Above the (main) cabin was a wooden platform occupied by the fighting men who might number from anything from thirty to one hundred. Here they would stand when going into action, regardless of danger, ready to board the vessel they were attacking.
This left practically no room for a grand assault on the Sea Tiger’s vessel by Iban warriors swarming up ropes tied to grappling hooks. Nor was there space enough for an epic encounter between The Sea Tiger and Penghulu Manggoi.
So I set about casting for a vessel worthy of the Sea Tiger and more befitting his rank as Laksamana, and came up with a Chinese junk (“djong” in Javanese) which I felt was more appropriate as an Illanun pirate craft than the brigantines, sloops, or schooners used in the 18th Century by the nations of the west.
The junks were sturdy, sea-worthy vessels with flat bottoms that could negotiate the shoals and shallows of the South-east Asian shores much more effectively than the beautiful, sleek, tall-masted, deep-keeled ships with their complicated riggings and many sails. The junk’s batten sails were simple to handle. Built high in the stern was a poop deck that allowed the helmsman, as he steered, to see where he was going. Here the captain also stood and observed his crew at work. Below this deck were cabins for the admiral and his captain, and their families.
There was a main deck which would allow plenty of room for a grandiose duel; cabins in the hold, enough to house the pirates, their families and their captives; and most important of all, plenty of freight-room to delight a freebooter who spent the better part of the year (and his life) looting one coastal village after another.
Agam’s Pocket Watch
In the original story, Penghulu Manggoi demanded the loan of Tuai Rumah Agam’s pocket watch to gauge the time the tidal bore would strike.
As the possessor myself of a couple of vintage time-pieces, I thought that Agam should on no account lend Penghulu Manggoi his beloved watch. I could not imagine it capable of surviving the final fast and furious encounter between Manggoi and the Sea Tiger. And I did not think that so wise a man like Manggoi needed a watch to tell the time.
The Sea Tiger’s Lady
I felt that there was enough vengeance done, and departed from the line taken by my Seventh Uncle.
Note: This is a work of fiction and must be read as such. The characters are all figments of the imagination and must be treated as such. They bear no resemblance to any person living or dead. Being fictional, they are larger than life.
The historical background
The events of the story took place more than a hundred and fifty years ago when fleets of pirate boats, numbering up to two hundred vessels of various sizes, roamed the waters of Southeast Asia, plundering, pillaging and looting merchant ships and villages on the coasts of the many islands that made up the Malay Archipelago.
These marauders, Illanuns and Balaninis of, respectively, the Minadanao and Sulu Islands in the southern Philippines, were also termed “Vikings of the Eastern Seas.” Their ferocity knew no bounds, surpassing even that of the much-feared pirates of the Spanish Main.1
They ventured forth from secret strongholds situated in the maze of islands and sailed down the coasts of Sarawak and Sabah as far as the Straits of Malacca, terrorizing the coastal villages. They usually returned to their strongholds by way of the Java Sea, passing the Celebes Islands, or by whichever route they considered lucrative.
The north-east monsoon wind was once called the “Pirate Wind”, for it normally brought fleets of pirate vessels to the many islands of Southeast Asia. These fleets never failed to return home with the south-west wind laden with booty and captured slaves. Along the way, they would stop at the many pirate marts to sell or barter their loot.
This story opens with one such fleet returning home through the South China Sea, sailing close to the Sarawak shores.
1 Owen Sutter, FRCS. The Pirate Wind: Tales of Sea Robbers in Malaya, Oxford University Press Singapore. First published 1930