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Roshow Bezone Jr.
[pseudonym of W. H. Macy]

Ballou's Monthly Magazine
Vol. 74, No. 2 (Aug 1891)
pp. 155-160


. . . .


by roshow bezone, jr.

      When I was a midshipman, sixteen years of age, I was on board the American frigate Dasher, which ship was lying in "Whampoa Reach, in the Bocca-Tigris, at the mouth of which is situated the colony of Hongkong. The captain one day asked me if I would like to accompany him to Canton, whither he proposed going shortly in a "sampan," as the native boats are called in that part of the world. This sampan is a boat with canoe-shaped bows, and on the after part is a small house, or often simply a round-shaped roof, each side resting on the gunwale of the boat, and made of bamboo or stout cane, usually open at both ends, so as to render communication to or from che forepart and the stern easy. In this house the children and women live, and here all the cooking is done. Here, also, the puppy dogs are dressed for the noontide meal. I shall not soon forget one morning, when a few of us middies were pulling about in a ship's boat, seeing a pretty young woman come out of the cabin, and go to the fore part of the sampan with something that appeared alive in her hand. We soon heard a pitiful yelp, which drew our attention to her, and were horrified to see the fair creature passing a knife with one hand into the throat of the miserable young cur (especially fatted for the purpose, as they always are) with the utmost nonchalance, at the same time holding it over the side of the boat to let the blood drain. On seeing that we stopped pulling, she looked at us laughing, and disappeared into the cabin, carrying the dead and bleeding puppy.

      The oars are worked from a little deck, or, if the boat is of small dimensions, from "thwarts," or benches fitted into the side, in a similar manner to our American boats. The wife of the owner generally steers with an oar, and stands abaft the house, where there is just sufficient space to do so. At Whampoa and other inland parts of China, there are large floating towns consisting of these sampans, all moored together.

      I gladly accepted the captain's invitation, as I had not yet seen Canton – the great city of which I had heard so much as a boy, and I was always desirous of purchasing a crape shawl and some ivory and filagree card-cases, which they manufacture so beautifully, and used to sell (for I am writing of the days when our trade with China was very small) at very moderate prices, and not as now, when, the demand for these articles being great, the price asked is proportionately exorbitant. The captain also asked Mr. Henry, another midshipman, the senior in the berth, to accompany us, and a petty officer, of the name of Thomas.


      At that time piracy was rampant in Chinese waters, and the government was most supine in its efforts to check the evil, which bad assumed gigantic proportions, and in its audacity, I suppose, could be paralleled in no other quarter of the globe. A large fleet of war junks lay distributed at Canton, Whampoa, and other places on the river, but it was marvelous to see how they made literally no attempt to put it down. Every day, cases of wholesale robbery accompanied with murder and torture, were reported to the mandarin commanding the naval forces, who listened, but did nothing. Under these circumstances, all foreigners took the precaution of never leaving their ships unless in pretty good force, and well armed; for the high hand was the only thing these pirates respected. Only a few days before our trip, an unfortunate skipper, who had gone up on business to Canton, on his way back was supposed to have been murdered, with the whole of the native crew, for he was never heard of more, and the sampan was picked up floating down the river without a soul in it. Europeans, in fact, took the law into their own hands, and whenever these pirates were encountered they were shot down without mercy; and they were not behindhand in retaliating, for woe be to any one caught by them alive; death was the mildest punishment inflicted on such unfortunates. We were therefore rather surprised at the captain going up with only three men besides himself, but on his being spoken to about it, he only laughed and said, "It was all right – we could take care of ourselves."

      Captain R––– was a tall, stout man, who had been all over the world, and experienced strange adventures, and, like some men inured to danger, had grown careless. When a youth, he was picked up half drowned by the savages, and was with them for two or three years, until he managed to effect his escape by swimming off to a Dutchman anchored in the offing. His face had been by them tattooed, but the tattoo could not conceal the kindly expression of his features, for a kinder-hearted commander I never sailed with. Mr. Henry was asked to accompany us for a purpose. He was a powerful young man, and although not more than twenty, the most unerring shot with a rifle I have ever seen. Anything within 600 yards was a dead certainty, and he possessed a splendid rifle, that he always cleaned and kept in order himself. About this weapon he was very particular, and never lent it or allowed any one even to fire it. Generous to a fault about other things, he never would have his firearm touched. The petty officer was an old "sea dog," who had been in more than one pirate fight, and had lost two fingers of the right hand on one occasion in a desperate encounter with them in the Straits of Sunda. He often used to recount to me this and other of his adventures. We looked forward eagerly for the morrow. Henry was half the night cleaning bis gun and making ammuuition, and one of the officers lent me his rifle, which engrossed a good deal of my attention.

      At length the wished-for morning broke bright and clear, and we promised ourselves a good day's amusement. There was plenty to see on our way; everything was new. I know no place so full of interest and novelty as China. The inhabitants are like no other race, and their manners and customs are different from those of other people. Their country, their buildings, their ships, everything is peculiar, and calculated to engross the attention of all observant visitors.

      We loaded the sampan with plenty of good things, and carefully stowed away a regular armory of rifles, and a magazine of ball cartridge. There were twelve rifles taken all loaded, and I don't know how many rounds of ammunition. We pushed off at eight o'clock, in as brilliant a morning as I have ever seen. The air was soft and balmy, and a gentle wind was blowing,thereby tempering the heat of the sun, which was, however, not at all overpowering. The crew consisted of four rowers, and a man who had taken the place of the female at the stern. We had procured a good sampan, which had a reputation for great swiftness.

      Our journey up to Canton was without any event of moment, except to us the interesting one of opening the basket of provender and making a second breakfast, for our morning meal had been a hurried one. One of us kept watch all the way on the banks, among the reeds, and up the small creeks which abound here, for these latter are the places where the pirates "most do congregate." The natives raised one or two false alarms, for in their fear hardly a breeze could blow the long rushes or agitate the tall stalks in the "paddy" fields, but their imagination immediately fancied they discerned hidden enemies. We reached our


destination in safety, and commenced our sightseeing and shopping. I purchased several articles of native manufacture, and when we had all got what we wanted, we turned our steps to a refreshment house and had a good dinner, consisting of numberless dishes, each of which you are supposed to partake of. After another stroll, we wended our way back to our sampan, and the crew having regaled themselves during our absence, we set off on our return voyage.

      The distance, if I remember correctly, from Canton to Whampoa is fourteen miles, or thereabouts, and we took care to start some hours before the day closed in. When we had got about half way, we began to joke and laugh about Chinese pirates, and the captain expressed his opinion that there was a great deal of exaggeration respecting their ubiquity in these rivers; for here we had been half a day afloat, and yet had not seen even a sign of their presence. Some one advised our discharging the rifles as we were getting so near home, and we were talking of doing so, when an event happened that changed the opinions of all as to the truthfulness of the stories current of the numbers and boldness of these miscreants. The steersman, of a sudden, in a low, agitated voice, called to the captain and asked him to look ahead, a little way ahead only, at the reeds on our starboard bow, as he was sure he saw them in motion. This time, he said, it could not be the wind, as there was none blowing.

      Up we all jumped quickly, and strained our eyes eagerly to the spot which he indicated by his outstretched hand. There was no mistaking it, for sure enough, there was a violent waving to and fro of the long rushes, which here grow in some places considerably above the height of a man's head. The native rowers turned their faces, and at once saw our danger; but like most Easterns, it seemed to paralyze their energies, and instead of using every endeavor to escape, they directly dropped their oars and commenced to lament their fate, beating their breasts. The helmsman began to turn the boat round, but Captain R––– promptly put a stop to all this. He took up his revolver, and in a manner that carried the conviction that he would act up to his word, threatened them all with instant death unless they resumed their oars and gave way to their utmost ability.

      The miserable creatures, perceiving it was a choice of deaths, preferred the less certain contingency, and hastily took hold of their oars, which were secured to the "tholes" by lanyards, and therefore had not fallen into the water. They pulled furiously, keeping their eyes now fixed upon the muzzle of the revolver. Thomas had, in the meantime, seized the steering oar, and the boat, which had not yet fortunately lost its way, sprang ahead. We were almost abeam of the dreaded place, which, on nearing, we discovered to be a narrow creek, and we now saw that our worst conjectures were realized. They were pirates concealed, for three large boats, somewhat resembling canoes, now appeared, one of them filled with men, who were in the act of pushing off, and the others were being hastily prepared. Our object was to pass their haunt ere they got out in the middle of the stream; for did they succeed in doing so first, of course they would intercept us. We might have turned back, but that the captain would not hear of. It seemed like running into the lion's mouth; however, our ship lay ahead, and we must reach her, or perish in the attempt.

      It was a case of "neck or nothing." We three officers stood before the deck-house with the rifles all at our feet, and with one cocked ready in each of our hands. Captain R––– ordered us to reserve our fire. It was a trying moment. I grasped my piece firmly in my hand, determining to do my utmost, however small it might be, and my messmate Henry said, "Let us, at all events, sell our lives as dearly as possible." He looked the picture of cool determination, and was quite self-possessed, although pale. We knew well what would be our fate did we fall into their hands; at the best, a violent end on the spot – but what was much more likely, should we take any of their lives in the conflict, a lingering course of the most refined torture, at last relieved by a cruel death. Bodies daily floated past the ships as they lay at anchor at Whampoa, with limbs and fingers cut off, and with eyes, and noses, and other features maimed, the work of these monsters. It was a moment of intense anxiety, for every hope of safety rested on the exertions of a few moments. Could we pass the head of the creek before our pursuers were well clear of the shore? That was the momentous question.

      The native boatmen had now, in a measure, recovered from their panic, and went to their work, for they saw certain death


before them were they captured; whereas, should we effect our escape, they knew that not only would dear life reward their efforts, but they might also expect "bucksheesh" from the Feringhees. For Captain R–––, when he got them to their duty, promised each man five dollars on reaching the Dasher – to their minds a dazzling reward. One boat was now afloat and shoved off; but something appeared to delay the other two. This delay of a few moments was our salvation. The vessel that was ready to chase did not seem so large as the others, and as she would not therefore draw so much water, this accounted for her taking the river sooner. There could not have been less than thirty men in her, and we could make out that she carried wall-pieces (or large muskets mounted on swivels and fitted to the gunwale), which throw grape-shot, and are very destructive at short ranges. We were now about fifty yards from her, and in a few moments succeeded in doubling the creek's mouth. This was the most important point gained, but the chase was only now to commence.

      To strike terror into us, they filled the air with shouts and yells of triumph, and soon opened a hot fire on us. The bullets at first came flying and ricochetting round the sampan, but at length they got our range, as we became unpleasantly aware by the accuracy of their aim. Several balls struck the planking, and the oars were twice hit, but near the "loom," or handle, and fortunately were not broken. We were about eighty yards in advance of them. In consequence of the distance and the motion of the gunwale, they discontinued discharges of grape from the wall-pieces, which they had at first used. We were, meanwhile, not idle. The top of the bamboo roof made an admirable rest for our rifles, an advantage which our pursuers did not possess, and we were not slow in making use of it.

      We could hardly have wished for a better mark than two boats full of men pulling abreast (the third was astern), and, to tell the truth, our fire was rapid and very effective. This we knew by the screams of the wounded that every now and then rose high above the shouts of exultation, and we also saw several bodies thrown overboard from out the living mass. It was intensely exciting work, and being the first time I had ever deliberately sought to take human life, a wild feeling of ferocity (described by the poet as the "rapture of the strife ") seemed to take possession of me, to the exclusion of all "compunctious visitings." It was music to our ears to hear the death yells of the pirates, and usually some exclamation, such as "Potted another," "That's cooked his goose," succeeded a hit, or else, "A little more elevatiou," or, "Steady! starboard a little," greeted an unmistakable miss on our part. We soon made the painful discovery that they were gaining on us, though but slightly, and this was no doubt caused by their boats' crews being constantly relieved by fresh relays of hands. Just then, two bullets struck poor Thomas, who was much exposed in his position; one hit him in the leg, and the other struck him on the back, in the region of the heart. He jumped up in the air, gave a scream and fell forward, but a little sideways, and rolled over into the water, when he immediately sank.

      The pirates saw their success, and shrieked out their fiendish joy, supposing probably that we were certain of falling into their hands; but their hopes of success were destined to be shortlived. They could easily count our numbers, for our three heads were visible above the top of the sloping roof, though they were not aware that there was another person in the boat besides ourselves and the oarsmen. Of course we could not stop to pick the poor fellow up, for by doing so we should have sacrificed all our lives; besides, he was doubtless killed, as we did not see him rise. The captain now ordered the old helmsman, who had kept himself carefully under cover all the time, to resume his place at the steering oar; but the miserable wretch, on his knees, implored the commander not to send him there, as, he said, he was sure of being killed. It was no time for parley, and so he was briefly told to do as he was desired, or abide the consequences; and there was no mistaking what they would be, for Captain R–––, having recourse to his old unanswerable argument, clapped his revolver to the ear of the suppliant in a manner that made him regain an upright position double quick. In spite of the pattering bullets, he clambered over the house and took his place with a look of despair, and we had no further trouble with him afterward.

      It is strange what cowards most Orientals are in the face of danger which may be warded off; but when certain death stares them in the face, they are calm and com-


posed in a remarkable degree. I have seen the same Chinese, when going to be beheaded, walk as quietly and seemingly unconcernedly to their fate as if it were an every-day occurrence, and, like the eels in the proverb, they were accustomed to it. They are all fatalists, and say with composure – it is their "nusseeb," or fate. It was necessary we should have a man abaft, as besides steering us through the reaches, he materially assisted the boat by "skulking." As I was saying, our enemies sensibly gained on us. This only stimulated the boatmen to increased exertion. Mr. Henry's trusty rifle dealt death and havoc in their still crowded midst, and we also did our best. A bullet struck the helmet-shaped solar "topee" or hat of the captain, and knocking off part of the brim, whizzed away harmlessly. He jerked it straight on his head with a smile, but said nothing. It was no time for joking. Matters looked very black, and it seemed very problematical whether we should escape with our lives, or meet a dreadful fate at the hands of these incensed savages.

      Suddenly the foremost boat stopped, and we, seizing our advantage, gave way with redoubled energy, and a hearty cheer, the first we had yet given. "We had hit them and caused a leak, between wind and water. This damage appeared to be soon repaired, and the chase was renewed; but the enemy's craft had lost some way, and we quite recovered out lost ground. Our crew were sweating profusely, and looked very exhausted; but still rowed pluckily and well. We strained our eyes in the hope of some aid turning up – as an imperial war junk or two, or some English man-of-war boat; but nothing in the shape of assistance appeared, and we continued the unequal fight. Our position was most critical, for had any of our oars been smashed or carried away, the delay in replacing it might have proved fatal; and again, were any more of our number killed or wounded, more especially a boatman, our escape must have been hopeless. The sampan swayed to and fro as it cut through the still water. We had early in the chase lightened it by throwing overboard the little ballast, and everything of weight it contained. At this time a curious incident occurred. Two large herons in their flight crossed the line of fire, and one of them received a bullet from our opponent, which knocked the bird over.

      The situation had now become most critical, as our men showed symptoms of fatigue; when, to our great joy, it began to be evident that the pirates had nearly enough of it, for there was no doubt that their strokes were less hasty, and their cheers were waxing more and more feeble, and had not that same confident tone as of yore. Presently, our hopes were verified by some of their oars being laid inboard, and then a parting yell of disappointed rage succeeded, and all efforts to capture us ceased. At this intimation of defeat the fainting energies of the crew revived, a hearty round of cheering burst from us in response to our foiled enemies, and we all shook hands with feelings of thankfulness, congratulating each other on our escape. We were rather premature in our congratulations, for a farewell volley rattled over the waters from astern, and well it was the pirates knew not the effect of their last despairing discharge. Strange to say, a bullet struck Henry on the right wrist, lodging there, and of course rendering his arm powerless. That arm had done terrible execution, and had the successful shot been fired early in the chase, there is small probability that I should be here to chronicle this narrative; for we had little doubt that the loss of life sustained by them was very great, and that this chiefly, and not fatigue, induced them to give up the pursuit. Fortunately, they had no idea of their success; for the knowledge of the fact that the man who had wrought most havoc in their ranks was disabled, would have inspired them with fresh courage.

      Poor Thomas's death was a source of much regret. He was a brave man, and as good a seaman as ever stepped on a ship's deck. I was the midshipman in charge of his top, and many a time had I seen him hauliug the weather reef-earing out when blowing great guns at sea, and when it was almost as much as an ordinary man could do to hold himself on by clinging to the jackstay. We never recovered his body, and whether it fell into the cruel clutches of the pirates to be mangled by them, or washed up and down in the river with the tides, we never discovered.

      Our first care was to bind up Mr. Henry's arm and stay the hemorrhage. The pain he suffered was very great, but he endured it stoically, and did not complain. Nothing further took place to disturb our safe return, and right glad we were when we got among


the shipping. On coming alongside, every assistance was given to the wounded officer, and we all drank his health when I recounted the day's adventure in the midshipman's birth. His wound, after the ball was extracted, became very troublesome, and caused him much suffering. At one time the doctor proposed to amputate his arm, but poor Henry's love for rifle-shooting would not induce him to hear of it, and ultimately the limb was saved, and he quite recovered its use. We never discovered the extent of the loss sustained by our opponents in that eventful chase, but it must have been very considerable.

      If this "Yarn about Pirates" that I have been "spinning" – to use the nautical phrase – has wiled away a pleasant half hour for my readers, I shall feel that that day's danger and excitement were not endured for nothing.


Author: Roshow Bezone Jr. (pseud.)
Title: A Yarn About Pirates.
Publication: Ballou's Monthly Magazine.
Vol/No/Date: Vol 74, No. 2 (Aug 1891)
Pages: 155-160.