My Greatest Adventure
As the unknown roots and tendrils grow
between the waves that crash and slump against the crags,
the weather turns.
Books are burnt and the world expelled
whilst those that once flourished now languish
to the dismay of the eagle,
and the lions out at sea.
When you are a business man, whose profession includes the fortuitous opportunity to travel the globe, you never really acquire a sense of self accord. Thoughts and beliefs are not allowed to settle when wandering hither and thither across the continents, knowing you’ll be whisked away upon the tides whenever the next duty calls. I’ve always thought that when a man traverses to as many places as I have he is looking for something. Sadly, I don’t suppose I ever found what I was looking for. But then again, what is it men look for? Does one seek marriage and fidelity? My wife died of dysentery in India shortly after we wed, and my thoughts for her washed away quickly and unobtrusively like the Cauvery1 into the Bay of Bengal. Does one seek riches? Well, yes, I believe that they do. But the days of the common man heading to a far off land obtaining hordes of gold to himself were over long before I left Europe. Does a man seek the public eye, and a sense of accomplishment? That I can certainly agree on, and the beauty of all the peace wars2 is that it is never too late for a man to prove himself on the fields of battle. A Victoria cross, oh what an honour! But time too has taken that from me, though gently, not with a snatch.
I never saw myself as a traveller, when I was twenty one I left England at my father’s request to stay with my Uncle in Bombay, India. My family had fallen on hard times, and my Uncle was eager to adopt me, being childless himself. He was a privileged man, and I’m still not sure where his fortune came from, but frequently it had him operating in areas that didn’t exist under the jurisdiction of the Company3. It was here and under his influence I learnt French, Marathi and became a practising Journalist, a career which blossomed after I witnessed and recorded several conflicts concluding the Opium war. Eventually, my Uncle’s fortune dried up and he died of Cholera south of Jaipur. With no family for thousands of miles, and no desire to return to England (I had grown accustomed to the Anglo-Indian journalese) I was encouraged out to numerous archipelagos in the ocean. This was to be the infantile exploration my occupation would grant me, but alas; after a sting of unfortunate events and bad luck, I soon found myself along with my career, washed up at Mauritius.
For months almost nothing worth writing about came to fruition. I was pondering more and more of return to India, or back to Europe when a most exciting and deplorable story from overseas reached me, one that chilled my bones just to think about it. My career revived almost overnight, when my news editor suddenly called in on me.
“Haven’t you been a stranger?” I said. “What can I do for you Mr. Creighton”.
Never being one for persiflage, he got straight to the point. “Laurence, tell me you are aware of the goings on in Madagascar? It is your job to know”.
“I’ve heard many things, some contradictory. I imagine it’s nothing but rumours on the minds of fishermen and merchants here”.
“Well it’s all true. By god, she’s been at it for years this Queen Ranavalona5! Laurence, she’s gone too far this time”.
“Oh? I assume you are referring to her Tanguena4 onto the white man?”
“Exactly Laurence! It’s barbaric, and London and Paris won’t stand for it!”.
I was most interested at this point. “London and Paris are going to attack Madagascar?”
“Yes, at Tamatave6. It gets even more interesting Laurence, Richard Heaney is upon that island.”
This news I found was overwhelming; Richard Heaney was a most incredible man, one of the younger men who had inherited a fortune from the glory days. He was the merchant, with his hands in every corner of the globe. I began to internally count his achievements when I was stirred by the news editor.
"Richard Heaney was shipwrecked upon it three weeks back, no one’s heard from him since.”
“And you want me to be there when they find him?”
“Yes, if they find them. Who knows what those savage Hovas6 are capable of! His brother George has organised a venture to retrieve him, and he will be arriving in the next few days. I want you to be there with him. Laurence, this is the story of a life time.”
In what was probably the most influential conversation I had ever engaged in, the news editor slipped me more information regarding the campaign and bid me farewell. I suddenly found myself, after months of inactivity, on a dangerous rescue mission to a mysterious island at a time of war. Feeling both excitement and dread, I scarcely slept a wink until I reached George Heaney in person.
Mr. Crichton was right about the arrival of the men-of-war ships; in the following days the HMS Ethos and Conway had docked, and the promenade was filled with excited townsfolk drawn up from the bazaars. With all the appropriate belongings, I met with George in the marketplace and breakfasted with him before boarding the Ethos.
“I keep telling them to postpone the assault” he protested, though only I was in earshot. “Lord only knows they’ll use Richard as a hostage or leverage if they know who he is”.
“These people are the undeveloped types” I sighed
Several redcoats appeared on the deck, engaged in conversation. George mused for a moment, and then approached me, and lowered his voice.
“I will find my brother, he is quick and resourceful and intelligent. He will not be a slave to these savages!” And we talked until the anchor lifted.
Westward HO! To Tamatave, and beyond the outer rim
Drifting behind the wake of Empire to Sainte-Marie8.
Here mind, emotion and colour begin to clash
And the faults and cracks of the Earth are exposed to light.
Red, white and blue systematise allies and culture,
But mindset and tongue brings mistrust and unease.
Forward and with vengeance the Anglo-Franco show
To Antananarivo9, with valour they must go!
“Curse her and her wicked ways” a Frenchman said, and a few Englishmen nodded agreeably, exchanging tentative glances. As the sun shone brightly Sainte-Marie grew distant, and the shore of Madagascar grew ever near, fuelling the anxiety and excitement amongst the men. At around midday, one of the crew noticed fragmented wood adrift, and the wreckage of Richard Heaney’s ship was found.
I took the Longboat out with George and four regulars, and I ran my fingers through the warm ocean water. It was unpleasant as always, feeling like hot soup. Once we grounded and began searching already hopes were low. Most of the ship had been salvaged, with evident signs of the Queen’s Hovas having pillaged the cargo. Richard Heaney was nowhere in sight much to the dismay of his brother. Another Longboat reached us with some supplies to aid us, and one crewmember told us that whilst we searched the assault on Tamatave was to proceed. My stomach never churned as much as it had at that moment.
Once the Ethos sailed we continued searching, and I advised George to stop calling his brother’s name insisting it would do us no good. We began to walk through the most inhospitable of lands. The terrain was that of a bayou, with clouds of mosquitoes swarming unpleasantly around us six whites. Once the first day was over, I waited for fever to grip me.
“We’ve made a mistake. Richard will have travelled to Tamatave, there are Europeans there”. George said.
“That depends on Richard’s knowledge of Ranavalona” said I.
“Oh it is hopeless” George cried “He is lost and so are we!”
Alien trees towered over us, and the moist undergrowth complained as I adjusted my footing. This was a very proud moment for me, as I managed to console George as well as one of the regulars with a bitter temperament. We found the place we hated least to settle and eat, talking about queer stories we’d heard from Tamatave and then we soldiered on.
We decided not to head too far into the island, as Richard would most likely stay by the sea. So we arched back on ourselves heading north to Tamatave, hoping to take a different route and not recover ground. As we moved I took into account the wide range of flora I’d never seen before, all of different sizes and shapes; documenting them mentally when I heard a voice from the trees.
It was a French voice, and adopting the tongue I shouted toward them, and after a confusing debate (in which I must have looked a mad man shouting at the trees) two French soldiers emerged. They had been part of a search party that had lost their unit. Being the only Englishman who could speak French I arranged for us to head up to Tamatave together, it was another moment I felt more than useful.
My greatest adventure lasted scarcely three days; on the third the sun attacked us hotter than ever, and the mosquitoes grew restless. As we footed more north we began to see structures, some Native and European, and we knew then we had reached the outskirts of Tamatave. Disturbingly, there was a trail of smoke uprising from a small plaza, and several corpses lay charred and broken there. Not a soul was in sight, and we advanced more cautiously than ever, searching the houses as we went.
Finally we reached the main inhabited area, and we could hear the sea. At this stage native peoples began showing up everywhere. The Christians ran to us in fear, but our soldiers signalled them away. The Frenchmen lead on, and some Christians informed us not to venture too far north. They spoke broken French, and I, once more the saviour, translated to the men.
We found Richard when a French speaking man warned that white men must stay away, or we will be taken ‘like the other’. He spoke of a garrison of Hova soldiers just north of the port, and then he quickly vanished amongst the crowd. We followed his directions expecting a trap when we found the fort crawling with the Queen’s soldiers. In its shadow was a small wooden outpost. Here Richard was tied up against a wall, covered in cuts and bruises. After quietly planning amongst ourselves, and counting only two of Ranavalona’s guards present we sprung our assault. As the muskets began to fire, a colossal explosion was heard; suddenly one side of the fort had been decimated! Malgassy grapeshots began to vault into the air towards the sea, and unmistakably English and French howitzers answered back.
The whole show surprised everyone, and in a brief struggle one of the Hovas struck one of the Frenchmen in the thigh causing him to tumble over. Then, the bayonet came into effect and George ran to his brother.
“Richard you son of a gun, are you alright?”
The poor man seemed too far gone, shouting only “The terror! The terror!”
Not hesitating a moment, we roughly cut him loose and dragged him to cover. I’ll never forget that moment, when I realised I shouldn’t be here; that I was not a soldier. Visible over by the garrison, French and English soldiers began to storm the Hova batteries, effectively dismembering the enemy canoneers. The men who accompanied me escorted Richard to safety, but we watched as the uninjured Frenchman ran to join in the fray.
Observing war with your own eyes is like staring at the sun, it is most interesting, but it is also detrimental to your health. What I witnessed in China had been a tired conclusion10. This attack was different; it brimmed with all the energy of a ferocious new campaign. I was all too happy to escape, and I leapt onto the Ethos in a heartbeat.
I find now that as the world has grown smaller, so too has my ambition to go on. I have not mind you dismissed myself as an unlucky man; I am an Englishman of sixty three, who has escaped an early grave. I lived to see the world, and after years of wanderlust I’ve found myself back at Mauritius. It corresponds beautifully I think with the full circle of my life. It was here that my first real undertaking arose, along with my opportunity for personal achievement and honour. It is here that I find myself old and alone, but disappointed, not sad. A few days ago I waved bye the last chance to sail for England. I belong between the palms and the waves now, and with my small pension, will acquiesce with the buzzing and fretting of the tropical beasts that have yet to kill me.
1 The Cauvery River is a major river in India that is considered sacred to Hindus
2 Rudyard Kipling’s description of the colonial campaigns in his poem ‘White man’s burden’
3 The British East India Company
4 Tanguena is a method of torture, also one of the acts that appalled the European powers. It includes poison, the imposition of forced labour under Queen Ranavalona’s whim; and a penalty of life-long slavery. This order was announced in May 1845 by Malagassy law that it would apply to the British and the French
5 Queen Ranavalona became ruler of Madagascar in 1828. She directly and indirectly led to the deaths of almost half of the population of Madagascar mostly via torture. She hated Europeans and Christianity, and attempted to rid the island of European influence
6 Tamatave is a major port on the east side of Madagascar, before the reign of Queen Ranavalona it was used heavily to trade with the European powers
7 Queen Ranavalona’s soldiers on Madagascar
8 A French occupied island that was so close to Madagascar that it was often used to stage and prepare invasion forces
9 The capital of Madagascar, well into the interior of the Island
10 The Opium War
6/22/2010 2:57:59 PM
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