Introduction: Set in 18th century India and in Spain’s most eastern colony, the Philippines and tells the story of a young English lad, Christopher Courtney, who stows away on an East India Merchant ship bound for Madras. It is at the time when huge fortunes are being won and lost by the British and the French in India as they battle over the vast riches of the emerging continent. The autonomous East India Company, based in Madras, is headed by the influential Governor, George Pigot, who is immediately impressed by the young stowaway and takes him under his wing. With Pigot’s patronage, Courtney makes a swift rise through the ranks of the East India Company and, encouraged by the Governor, becomes engaged to the his favourite niece, Henrietta.
Pigot sends Courtney to the Philippines to make trade agreements with the local Sultan Azim-ud-din of Sulu for diamonds and pearls, to set up a factory in the Islands and to wrest control of the lucrative spice trade in the East Indies then dominated by the Dutch. Whilst there, Courtney orchestrates the battle for Manila between the Spanish colonists and the combined forces of the British and East Company fleets. It is won by the British, due solely to Courtney’s invaluable knowledge of the Islands, his intelligence about the weaknesses of the Spanish Army and the alliances he has forged with Azim-ud-din and his brother Muizz-ud-din.
But if Courtney is to achieve his mission in the Philippines and bring wealth and power to both the East India Company and himself, he must keep to his end of the agreement with Azim-ud-din by marrying the Sultan’s beautiful daughter, Princess Diwata. Courtney is, thus, torn between his love for Henrietta and his passion for Diwata, between the gratitude he feels for his mentor, Governor Pigot, and the respect he feels for his new ally, the Sultan. And he must choose between his celebrated life in Madras and his perilous life in Sulu.
DIAMONDS ON THE SOLES OF THEIR SHOES
CHAPTER 2 – Return to Sulu
Jolo, Sulu Archipelago, Philippine Islands, November 8th 1759
As I gazed out over the massive bows of the “London”, it seemed to me that in all my Eastern wanderings, I had rarely seen anything to compare with this enchanting spot. The surrounding islands – and there were many – appeared fertile, lush and well-cultivated. Gentle, undulating slopes rose up in places to over 4000 feet, presenting an ever-varying contrast of dense forest and wide open savannah, of harsh sunlight and textured shadow, of cool waterfalls tumbling into fast-flowing rivers, of gently smoldering volcanoes and bubbling hot springs – a profusion of all the creative and destructive powers Nature could offer.
I turned my eyes towards the shoreline where the coral coves, capes and headlands seemed to rise up almost perpendicularly from the surrounding lagoons. And, dotted here and there, on the flanks of the rich, sun-drenched foothills, among the stately coconut palms whose luxuriant fronds rustled in the breeze like a thousand ladies fans, were small nipa-thatched bamboo huts stretching down beyond the silvery shoreline and out into the sea. Once in the water the huts became more clustered, nestling together, rising up on myriads of frail bamboo stilts connected to each other by a suspended maze of narrow, interlacing rattan bridges.
Surrounding the base of this stilted village lay a bewildering variety of native craft, each hollowed out from immense narra, ipil-ipil or molave logs. Sturdy, high-prowed prahus capable of sailing to the more distant islands of Borneo, Sumatra or Palawan, nudged up against the sides of sleek gaudily-sailed vintas used for diving for shells, pearls and ambergris and swift double-outriggered canoes designed for piracy and local inter-island barter trade in gold, tortoise shell, porcelain, damasks, silks and human slaves. From the sides of these native boats naked and sunsoaked children of the Bajau sea-gypsies cavorted, tumbled and dived, waving an exuberant welcome to the slowly passing English vessel.
The “London” herself drifted sluggishly along the glassy surface of the lagoon, almost without a ripple at her side, towards her evening anchorage. Carried by the very gently flowing tide the ship floated noiselessly towards the shore, running between a confused mass of coral and volcanic islands – islands that once formed part of the natural land-bridges of Asia over which, some two million years before, natives of Batavia, the Celebes and Borneo from the south, had trekked relentlessly northward to escape the encroaching Ice Age, there to settle and bear children whose descendants would become the first indigenous Kalinga, Igorot, Moro and negrito peoples of this archipelago.
I looked up at the mast. The sails fell limply on their ropes, not a breath of air to inflate them. The East India flag too, only that morning proudly flapping its colours in the tropical offshore breeze, now hung lifelessly on its pole beside our smaller British flag.
All was quiet save for the occasional splash of the lead in the water as our Captain, John Brereton, sought to plumb the depth to avoid hitting a coral reef. The effect of all this tranquil beauty was marred for me only by the knowledge that this enchanting archipelago, blessed as it was by an over-abundance of gold, pearls and exotic spices, was the abode of a cruel and thieving race of pirates. I had been here before and I knew what to expect.
On my previous voyage I had learned that centuries-old dynastic rivalries, feuds and vendettas persisted among the various Islamic Moro Sultans. I had witnessed, at first-hand, their combined and bitter hatred for the tyrannical Spanish Catholic colonizers in Manila. And I had personally experienced their deeply-rooted suspicion of the Dutch, Portugese, French or British merchants, buccaneers and traders that constantly threatened their shores.
All these hatreds and fears combined to make the already warlike natives of Sulu and Mindanao passionately and inherently possessive of their territorial lands, their wealth and their religion. I knew they were willing to fight to the death anyone who dared threaten their way of life. I was humbled to think that Governor Pigot and the Madras Council had charged me to live amongst these tribes, befriend them, gain their trust and to make successful trade deals where all other foreign merchants before me had failed.
And, as I stared out over the water, my eyes squinting against the fierce but waning rays of the sun, my thoughts turned to Henrietta thousands of miles away in Madras. I reached into my breast pocket and withdrew her parting gift to me – a delicate lace handkerchief dipped in her favourite oil of crushed ylang-ylang blossoms and I held it for a moment to my sunburnt cheek. Almost immediately I conjured up the image of her dimpled face, at once intriguingly shy and yet unguardedly open, her deep smiling eyes the colour of English cornflowers and the burnished crown of copper ringlets hanging haphazardly down over her graceful shoulders.
Would I ever see her again, I wondered. The thought filled me with an immense wave of sadness. And, if I was fortunate enough to do so, how many years would it take? And would she wait for me forever, as she had promised to do? Would I survive this expedition at all and return to marry her in the little church of St Mary’s within the vast granite walls of Fort St George where we had prayed together on the morning of my departure. Or would we be married, as her Uncle and guardian, Governor Pigot, so dearly wished, further down the coast in the large impressive European cathedral of San Thome, in a grand wedding as befitting the Governor General’s beloved niece and his favourite protégé, the Deputy Secretary of the Madras Council?
The sudden appearance of the Sultan’s younger brother, Datu Bandahara, at my elbow abruptly broke off my thoughts of Henrietta. The Datu and I had met on my last visit some three years ago. He smiled effusively, welcoming my return with a deep throated chuckle and a hearty pat on my back. And then, suddenly remembering the British greeting I had taught him, he quickly placed his bare feet together, stood to attentionand saluted me, grinning fiendishly. His brightly-turbaned head, his severely plucked eyebrows and his filed and blackened teeth gave him an almost comical look, like an over-painted player in an Oriental pantomime.
“Welcome brother Courtney!” he grinned, pumping my hand effusively.
“Good to see you again, my brother.” I replied, only realizing at that moment I was truly happy to be back in this place among these people.
“How is my blood brother, Sultan Alim-ud-din. I trust he is faring well?”
The Datu’s eyes narrowed slightly, a frown forming below his jewelled turban.
“Alas, our brother, Honorer of the Faith, His Most Excellent Alim-ud-din was captured by the infidel Spanish.”
My heart froze. Suddenly all my plans, plans I had been forging these past three years, seemed doomed to failure. I tried to respond without showing my misgivings.
“I am most sorry to hear this. I hope he is strong in health?”
The Datu nodded vigorously.
“The loathsome infidels will force him to convert to their Roman faith. Our brother, Sultan Muizz-ud-din has vowed to save him. You, Datu Courtney, will help him.”
“It would be my honour,” I lied for, at that moment, I had little idea how I would do this.
Tiring of the conversation, the Datu pointed to the stilted huts in the bay, chattering excitedly in an exotic mixture of pigeon English, mixed with a few words of Spanish, Dutch and French, hopping about on his short, spindly legs and nudging my arms enthusiastically. In a high-pitched voice he told me how he had grown up in that very village before being sent to Batavia for his education. He recounted how his people were suspicious of the Spanish who had consistently tried to subjugate them and afraid of the Dutch who were constantly trying to plunder and make war amongst them. He elaborated on rich tales of the King of Borneo who wore two pearls in his crown the size of hornbill’s eggs and he spoke in awe of the strange islanders he had seen there with ears so long and wide they could wrap them over their heads to ward off the sun.
As I listened, the Datu went on to detail the vast quantities of cloves, nutmegs and cinnamon to be found and traded in the islands of the Moluccas and the fierce sea battles beween the Dutch, Portugese and Spanish buccaneers to wrest control of this lucrative trade. As we paced the deck, he asked me a great many intelligent questions about England, about the new war raging through Europe, about the East Indian merchants in Madras and Bombay and whether I truly intended to build a factory in Sulu. Amused by the banter but unwilling to divulge my plans to anyone but the Sultan himself, I politely informed the Datu that the “London” had merely come to store up on provisions for our onward journey to the Indies. The Sultan’s brother appeared disappointed. He stopped in his tracks, the crimson smile momentarily vanished from his lips and his precocious chatter ebbing away to a petulant silence.
We stood for a while in awkward silence watching the swift glory of the apricot sunset as it briefly turned the sea to a liquid amber before it evaporated into the tropical night. And, as the moon climbed in the sky, a soft rain started falling, the fluorescent droplets clinging to the warm teak planks of the deck before trickling their slippery pathway into the sea. Gradual at first, the rain suddenly gathered a momentum of its own, unleashing its full fury over the sea, churning up a torrent of white spray and shattering the evening calm. For a brief moment the sails billowed, the flags flapped and the “London” gathered speed. As the cloudburst approached the ship, it scattered rapidly and, as quickly, dissipated, leaving the oppressive humidity of the night air cool and refreshed.
His spirits revived, the Datu pointed a manicured finger towards the night sky. I looked up and, for the first time, witnessed the rare Eastern phenomenon of the lunar-rainbow, its pale colours tracing pastel shadows over the surface of the rising moon. Was it my imagination or did I see Henrietta’s profile etched on the moon’s face? Surely my few months at sea had not made me delirious and I decided this was a sign, a sign that all would be well for me in my meeting with the Sultan and, triumphant, I would soon be reunited with my beloved Henrietta.
Datu Bandahara broke my reverie.
“Tomorrow you shall meet the Sultan Muizz-ud-din. I, Datu Bandahara, will make the introduction with the British.”
I nodded, placing my hands on the sleek wooden gunwale, shiny and wet now from the recent downpour, to steady my reserve. I could not admit to the Datu I was not yet ready to meet the Sultan, that I needed more time to prepare myself. I had yet to lay out the ornate gifts I had managed to solicit from eager merchants in England, India and China who were prepared to spend almost their entire fortunes for a chance to trade with the famed Sultan of Sulu. I needed time to rehearse my speech of greeting, peace and friendship on behalf of King George III and the Directors of the East India Company. And, above all, I needed more time to redraft, if necessary, the offers of trade and military support I had drawn up on behalf of Governor Pigot and the Council at Fort St George.
I was fully aware that this meeting with Sultan Muizz-ud-din would be an historic and potentially profitable one. I was determined nothing should go wrong. I well knew the price of failure in a mission as important as this could cost me my life here or, at the very least, the loss of my Company job under Governor Pigot’s patronage and, worst of all, the termination of my marriage plans to Henrietta. The stakes were high and I needed time to prepare.
I bade the Datu a good night and retired to my cabin.
The Following Day – November 9th 1759
I rose early and, after a hasty breakfast of dried biscuit and salted fish, prepared by Corporal Comshaw, I joined Captain Brereton on deck to await the return of the Datu.
As the sun rose, we saw a large group of outriggers approach us. In the centre of the group was an ornately carved prahu carrying the Datu, his wives, his slaves and a retinue of fierce looking Moro retainers holding their daggers, ready to strike. The prahu, propelled by a motley bunch of abject, semi-naked slaves, drew up alongside the “London”. On Brereton’s command, our sailors let down the rope ladder and, with admirable agility, Datu Bandahara scrambled up the side of the ship and onto the deck, followed by several of his more trusted courtiers.
To our amusement, the proud Datu was obviously determined to be properly dressed for the meeting between his older brother and the English merchants. He had ordered new silken trousers, a magnificent brocade jacket covered in the finest capiz-shell buttons the size of large sequins, an elegant pair of soft leather slippers and a long silken sash into which he lovingly slid his favourite jewel-encrusted gold kris. Around his head he wound the traditional royal gold turban that was methodically fixed in place with an impressive ruby pin.
As I said, I had been here before, in a much lowlier capacity than I was now, so I had some knowledge of the ceremony that such a formal meeting between a Sulu Sultan and a representative of His Britannic Majesty entailed. I knew there were strict rules of etiquette expected by the Sultan of all visitors. Failure to adhere to these rules, or to treat them in any way with scorn, derision or disrespect, was tantamount to treachery and likely to be severely punished by torture – even death. And although Muizz-ud-din, Honourer of the Faith, was known, on occasion, to be a man of certain intelligence, compassion and even sophistication, I knew he was also, in the manner of all Moro Sultans, spoilt, despotic and vain when it suited him and did not countenance any infringement of the formalities, no matter how trivial.
Muizz-ud-din, now the most influential of all the Moro Sultans, had already proved himself to be devious and I had no intention of upsetting or slighting him by any lack of tact or appropriate display of respect on my part. Nor could I risk jeopardizing my carefully hatched plans by any foolhardy or impetuous demonstration of discourtesy. I had already decided I would bide my time, flatter the Sultan and his family, present them with my gifts, offer them my friendship and military support against his enemies and then, when I felt the Sultan was greedy for more and ready to yield to all my demands, I would make my move, voice my requirements and set out my terms and conditions.
Later, in the house of Datu Bandahara, I watched intrigued as, dressed in all his finery, the Sultan’s brother strutted pompously among his admiring wives, concubines and slaves and found it hard not to smile. The spectacle of so much splendour – the Datu himself in his ostentatious costume, the bejeweled fingers and hair ornaments of his simple native women, the pearls the size of quails eggs being used as marbles by the small children, the richly-embroidered wall hangings, the solid gold drinking vessels, the splendid blue and white porcelain Ming jars – all proud relics, he informed me, of the visit by his ancestor, to the Chinese Emperor Yung Lo in 1417. He pointed out the exquisitely decorated swords – gifts from the Bornean Rajahs, the delicately traced silver betel nut boxes and the intricately carved daggers, all cramped inside his hut that was not much bigger or grander than those I had seen belonging to the local Bajao sea-gypsies.
Despite all this opulence, there was little furniture to speak of, save for two carved molave chairs and one low table accommodating the betel-nut boxes, the lime containers, the spittoon, the gold drinking vessels, the Ming jars containing a potent wine distilled from the sago palm and a few rudimentary cooking utensils. Dusty rattan mats, their once vivid colours faded by years of exposure to the harsh sunlight falling, unfiltered, through the open windows, covered the bare narra floorplanks that had been eaten away, almost entirely, by the remorseless jaws of generations of famished termites.
Eventually Datu Bandahara signaled to me he was ready to leave. Taking me possessively by the hand, the Sultan’s younger brother led the way out of his house. We were closely followed by Captain Brereton, then came my trusted Sepoy, Captain Comshaw, walking alongside an English slave whom the Datu informed me he had caught some years before in a raid against an overladen Dutch East Indiaman. The ship had been floundering in heavy seas with its cargo of spices and ambergris and the Datu picked out the strongest of the survivors as his slaves. This particular English slave, Quarter-Master Charles Monson, was treated better than the rest because his swift mastery of the local Suluan dialect was sufficient enough to earn him the title and duties of the official interpreter to any passing representative of His Britannic Majesty’s government. Bringing up the rear were six more trusted slaves and ten armed bodyguards carrying my gifts for the Sultan and his extended family.
It had not occurred to me that Captain Brereton and I would be shadowed by this full retinue of ferocious-looking warriors and I watched them guardedly, as their eyes darted from side to side, alert to any movement from behind the thickly-clustered palms that lined the narrow dirt track between the two houses. I noted their fingers menacingly stroking their daggers at the first hint of danger. I was initially dismayed at the prospect that, far from being a private audience between myself and the Sultan as I had requested, the Suluans were evidently planning to treat the occasion as a public holiday.
In a clearing among the palm trees, set back from the dirt track, stood the Sultan’s residence. His house, like that of his brother, was constructed on stilts, but was rather higher, more capacious and boasted more ornately-carved flared beams supporting the domed nipa roof. Great wide mahogany steps led up to the main door. Four guards stood on the veranda beside a pair of rusting iron cannons, stolen some years before, the Datu proudly informed me, from a hapless Portugese merchant ship that had strayed just too long in Sulu waters. I noticed the guards stood with their legs planted wide apart and their fingers idly playing with the handles of the swords hanging at their sides, ever ready to protect their Sultan. They nodded a greeting to the Datu and stepped aside as he entered the house, pulling me firmly behind him.
Caroline Kennedy has worn many hats in her life – radio producer, journalist, author, theatre director, actor, humanitarian aid worker, mother, grandmother and intrepid traveller. Her number one best-selling book, How the English Establishment Framed Stephen Ward, was turned into a musical by Andrew Lloyd-Weber. She currently lives in Los Angeles and is divorced from Filipino National Artist, Ben Cabrera (BenCab) with whom she has three children, Elisar, Mayumi and Jasmine. Their son, Elisar, died of cancer in July 2020.
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