This book is a highly regarded classic of naval history. Its author was the captain of the ship, HMS Dido, which is central to the events recounted within its pages. The subject matter of his tale of adventure could hardly be more romantic or evocative. This is an account of the Royal Navy on duty and in action in the early part of Queen Victoria's long reign, sailing the tropical waters of the furthest corner of her burgeoning empire. Here the reader will enter the nineteenth century world of the East Indies—a place of unpredictable exotic seas bordered by fetid, steaming jungles perilously populated by head-hunting Dyaks and merciless Malay pirates who scourged the seaways only to disappear into hidden creeks to their defended stockades. Here the reader will be introduced to the legendary 'White Rajah' of Sarawak, James Brooke, who under the Union Flag all but forged a kingdom for himself in Borneo and who spread his influence over the entire region. All readers who are fascinated by the doings of the Royal Navy in the last days of sail, here on a mission to make the tropical seas safe for trade, will find much to satisfy them within the pages of Keppel's account. Available in softcover or hardcover with dust jacket for collectors.
Having also placed sentries and lookout men, and appointed an officer of the watch, they one and all (sentries included, I suppose), owing to the fatigues of the day, fell asleep! At about three o’clock the following morning, the moon being just about to rise, Lieutenant Hunt happening to be awake, observed a savage brandishing a kris, and performing his war-dance on the bit of deck, in an ecstasy of delight, thinking, in all probability, of the ease with which he had got possession of a fine trading-boat, and calculating the cargo of slaves he had to sell, but little dreaming of the hornets’ nest into which he had fallen. Lieutenant Hunt’s round face meeting the light of the rising moon, without a turban surmounting it, was the first notice the pirate had of his mistake.<br>
He immediately plunged overboard; and before Lieutenant Hunt had sufficiently recovered his astonishment to know whether he was dreaming or not, or to rouse his crew up, a discharge from three or four cannon within a few yards, and the cutting through the rigging by the various missiles with which the guns were loaded, soon convinced him there was no mistake. It was as well the men were still lying down when this discharge took place, as not one of them was hurt; but on jumping to their legs, they found themselves closely pressed by two large war-prahus, one on each bow. To return the fire, cut the cable, man the oars, and back astern to gain room, was the work of a minute; but now came the tug of war; it was a case of life and death.<br>
Our men fought as British sailors ought to do; quarter was not expected on either side; and the quick and deadly aim of the marines prevented the pirates from reloading their guns. The Illanun prahus are built with strong bulwarks or barricades, grape-shot proof, across the fore part of the boat, through which ports are formed for working the guns; these bulwarks had to be cut away by round shot from the Jolly Bachelor before the musketry could bear effectually. This done, the grape and canister told with fearful execution.<br>
In the meantime, the prahus had been pressing forward to board, while the Jolly Bachelor backed astern; but, as soon as this service was achieved, our men dropped their oars, and, seizing their muskets, dashed on: the work was sharp, but short, and the slaughter great. While one pirate boat was sinking, and an effort made to secure her, the other effected her escape by rounding the point of rocks, where a third and larger prahu, hitherto unseen, came to her assistance, and putting fresh hands on board, and taking her in tow, succeeded in getting off, although chased by the Jolly Bachelor, after setting fire to the crippled prize, which blew up and sunk before the conquerors got back to the scene of action.<br>
While there, a man swam off to them from the shore, who proved to be one of the captured slaves, and had made his escape by leaping overboard during the fight. The three prahus were the same Illanun pirates we had so suddenly come upon off Cape Datu in the Dido, and they belonged to the same fleet that Lieutenant Horton had chased off the Island of Marundum. The slave prisoner had been seized, with a companion, in a small fishing canoe, off Borneo Proper; his companion suffered in the general slaughter. The sight that presented itself on our people boarding the captured boat must indeed have been a frightful one.<br>
None of the pirates waited on board for even the chance of receiving either quarter or mercy, but all those capable of moving had thrown themselves into the water. In addition to the killed, some lying across the thwarts, with their oars in their hands, at the bottom of the prahu, in which there was about three feet of blood and water, were seen protruding the mangled remains of eighteen or twenty bodies.<br>
During my last expedition I fell in with a slave belonging to a Malay chief, one of our allies, who informed us that he likewise had been a prisoner, and pulled an oar in one of the two prahus that attacked the Jolly Bachelor; that none of the crew of the captured prahu reached the shore alive, with the exception of the lad that swam off to our people; and that there were so few who survived in the second prahu, that, having separated from their consort during the night, the slaves, fifteen in number, rose and put to death the remaining pirates, and then ran the vessel into the first river they reached, which proved to be the Kaleka, where they were seized, and became the property of the governing datu; and my informant was again sold to my companion, while on a visit to his friend the datu. Each of the attacking prahus had between fifty and sixty men, including slaves, and the larger one between ninety and a hundred. The result might have been very different to our gallant but dozy Jolly Bachelors.<br>
I have already mentioned the slaughter committed by the fire of the pinnace, under Lieutenant Horton, into the largest Malay prahu; and the account given of the scene which presented itself on the deck of the defeated pirate, when taken possession of, affords a striking proof of the character of these fierce rovers; resembling greatly what we read of the Norsemen and Scandinavians of early ages. Among the mortally wounded lay the young commander of the prahu, one of the most noble forms of the human race; his countenance handsome as the hero of Oriental romance, and his whole bearing wonderfully impressive and touching. He was shot in front and through the lungs, and his last moments were rapidly approaching. He endeavoured to speak, but the blood gushed from his mouth with the voice he vainly essayed to utter in words.<br>
Again and again he tried, but again and again the vital fluid drowned the dying effort. He looked as if he had something of importance which he desired to communicate, and a shade of disappointment and regret passed over his brow when he felt that every essay was unavailing, and that his manly strength and daring spirit were dissolving into the dark night of death. The pitying conquerors raised him gently up, and he was seated in comparative ease, for the welling out of the blood was less distressing; but the end speedily came: he folded his arms heroically across his wounded breast, fixed his eyes upon the British seamen around, and, casting one last glance at the ocean—the theatre of his daring exploits, on which he had so often fought and triumphed—expired without a sigh.<br>
The spectators, though not unused to tragical and sanguinary sights, were unanimous in speaking of the death of the pirate chief as the most affecting spectacle they had ever witnessed. A sculptor might have carved him as an Antinous in the mortal agonies of a Dying Gladiator.<br>
The leaders of the piratical prahus are sometimes poetically addressed by their followers as matari, i. e., the sun; or bulan, the moon; and from his superiority in every respect, physical and intellectual, the chief whose course was here so fatally closed seemed to be worthy of either celestial name.