A Bear’s Diary – Part 23

November 15th, 1810.

We have just crossed the Equator. Only one sailor on board, Misha, has been in the southern hemisphere before. He told us that it is customary for those who ‘cross the line’ for the first time to be subjected to a ceremony of humiliation in which members of the crew dress up as Neptune and his acolytes and perform various degrading acts upon them.

From the expressions of the watching sailors and bears he inferred that this was not a welcome suggestion, and he did not press the matter. Instead, Master Ulyanov held a short service on deck in which he asked for God’s blessing on our voyage south.

Boris and Beaivi, our two polar bears, have been increasingly feeling the heat of the tropics and need to cool themselves in the ocean, though even that is lukewarm in these climes. We have rigged a stout rope ladder at the stern of the ship, so that they can dive off the bow and swim for a few moments before climbing back up to the deck. They are such strong swimmers, and our ship is so leisurely in her progress, that there is no danger of them being left behind.

November 19th, 1810.

We are now at anchor in the harbour of Batavia, and have come ashore to explore the city. It is a tidy place with public buildings in the Dutch style, tempered with a few oriental domes. Much work is in progress, as the old town built by the natives has been levelled and is being reconstructed in a manner more congenial to the European taste.

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The island of Java on which the city stands, and adjacent islands of the Malay archipelago, were administered by the Dutch East India Company until twelve years ago, when the government of the Netherlands assumed power. However, since 1806 that government has been no more than a puppet of the French invaders under the Corsican tyrant’s brother Louis Napoleon. In the summer of this year the almighty Emperor, finding that his brother was supporting Dutch interests rather than French ones, deposed him and assumed direct rule of the Netherlands. There is now a danger that these islands will become no more than a French colony.

It was no surprise, therefore, to hear that an English visitor was in the same place as ourselves. Misha, our Malay speaker, relayed this rumour to the Count, and we set off to discover its truth. And indeed we found English sailors, who told us that the visitor was named Stamford Raffles, and that he was a secretary of Lord Minto, the Governor General of India, and had been posted to Penang on the Malay peninsula to the north. Our experience of the British administration of their possessions told us that the apparently humble title of ‘secretary’ is awarded only to senior officials, and we resolved to seek him out.

November 20th, 1810.

How different this city is from Canton! There, life was conducted at a headlong pace, and all was bustle and noise. Here the inhabitants are of grave and gentle demeanour. Even the children are quiet and obedient. We found their character a little melancholy, and wondered whether it was due to a sad submission to rule by Europeans, or simply part of their nature.

However, my musings on the subject were soon interrupted by a distant commotion. The shouting grew, and it was apparent that some disturbance was heading our way. So it proved when a man burst into view in the broad street, screaming and slashing with a large curved knife resembling a cutlass. Bystanders cowered in the shadows as he advanced.

All ten of us bears were present, with the Count, Fred, Jem, Dolores and Misha, and we confronted him in a formidable phalanx. But the man, clearly carried away with madness, was in no way deterred and rushed at us roaring and waving his knife.

We fell back as we had to, but an unspoken plan was taking shape. Bruin, Peter and William seized large pieces of bamboo lying at the roadside and advanced on the man, using their clubs to parry his thrusts. While he was thus distracted little Henry, the most nimble and stealthy of the bears, slunk around the edge of the fight and crept up on him from behind.

It was over in a moment. Henry hooked a foot round the man’s ankle and gave him a heavy blow between the shoulder blades, throwing him forward to grovel on his face in the dust, while his weapon went clattering away for us to retrieve it. Then Henry sat on him. He is only half grown but already twice as heavy as a man, so that concluded the fight.

The man was unconscious, either because he had hit his head in falling or because the shock of defeat had caused him to faint. After a few minutes he came to his senses. We were holding him firmly to rein in any further madness, but there was no need. He awoke blinking mildly at being surrounded by bears and foreigners, but there was no more fight in him. When questioned by Misha, he seemed to have no memory of what he had done.

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The behaviour of the bystanders was also baffling. You might have expected them to be full of indignation and anger against a man who had run violently among them threatening to maim or kill all in his path. But they seemed to harbour no resentment, and even perhaps to be pleased that he had recovered from his frenzy.

Misha spoke to them and relayed their remarks to us. They explained that the man’s madness was not an uncommon event among them, and called it amok or gelap mata, the latter term meaning ‘the dark eye’. It was, they said, caused by demonic possession by a tiger spirit called Hantu Belian. Usually the possessed person – almost always a man – is killed or kills himself during his madness, but if he recovers he is not blamed for his acts, caused as they are by an external agency.

In the words attributed by Rabelais to Avicenna, Maniae infinitae sunt species, There are innumerable kinds of madness. I do not believe in tiger demons, and am inclined to attribute these outbreaks to the strain caused by the otherwise admirable control of self exhibited by the local population. When a man has, for any reason, a bitter grievance which he dare not show for fear of censure by his fellows, it may gnaw on his reason until it breaks and he runs amok.

November 22nd, 1810.

We did not need to seek out Stamford Raffles. Word travels swiftly in a small city, and the tale of a man running amok and saved by a party of bears was instantly the talk of the bazaar. He sent a servant to find our ship, with an invitation to visit him at his residence in the administrative quarter.

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There we repaired, and were sumptuously entertained. Mr Raffles had sagely provided not merely a collation of local delicacies for his human guests, but an ample sufficiency of raw meat of various kinds for the visiting bears, which we consumed with gusto and washed down with copious drafts of palm toddy, a refreshing beverage though no match for good English ale.

It was therefore in a benevolent mood that we bears sat in a half circle around Mr Raffles as he spoke with Count Bagarov, Fred, Jem and Dolores – and little Aeolus, in Dolores’ arms. It is a tribute to his skill as a diplomatist that when the impeccably attired Count Bagarov greeted him with a shout of ‘Wotcher, ole cock, ’ow’s it ’angin’?’ his eyebrows only rose for a fraction of a second.

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Our host was suitably impressed by our feat in navigating the hitherto impassable North-East Passage, but his main concern was for the Dutch possessions in the archipelago, and what would become of them now that the puppet emperor Joseph Bonaparte had been cast aside. He was most interested in our experiences of the French occupation of Spain and Portugal, which Fred and Jem related to him with the full weight of those who had been in the heart of the action. Fred’s most important assertion was that it is impossible for an occupying army to gain full control of a country against the wishes of its people, which will prevail in the end against any foreign force.

However, Fred gracefully admitted that he might have been too close to the battle to take the long view, and deferred to my view as one who had absorbed the wisdom of the ancient historians. Mr Raffles, diplomatically concealing his surprise at being advised by a bear, therefore asked me for my opinion.

Taking up my slate and pencil, I wrote: History has shown us that when power lapses in any region, another power will at once rush in and seize control of it. Never was this shown more clearly than in the fall of the western Roman Empire, whose final weakness led to its becoming a series of Gothic kingdoms. Here in the Indies, the collapse of the Dutch East India Company has led to the territory being administered by the Dutch government – as will surely happen in time to the lands administered by the English East India Company.

As I wrote the last sentence, Mr Raffles could not restrain a grimace. I wiped the slate clean with a damp sponge and continued: Power has now failed again in this region. With the fall of the petty emperor Joseph, there is now a vacuum that will certainly be filled by one of the nations of Europe. There can be no doubt that the French will be eager to rush in as soon as they can assemble a naval expedition, but this is impeded both by their distance from the scene and by British control of the seas. On the other hand, British forces (or rather, those of the Company) are available at a few days’ notice. I would advise you to urge them to seize control and exclude our enemies the French.

Pausing to wipe the slate again, I wrote: However, it would be a mistake to oust the Dutch in their hour of weakness, as we have a common enemy in the French. The territories should be taken with the publicly declared aim of restoring them to the Netherlands as soon as we have driven the French out of their homeland, an event which will inevitably ensue in a few years’ time. Thus the English will continue to dominate their part of this region and the Dutch theirs, in reasonable rivalry. We do not wish to seize an over-extended empire that we cannot hold, as befell Alexander the Great and many other conquerors.

I could see that Mr Raffles was impressed by my words, emerging somewhat Delphically from a squeaky slate – but I have always endeavoured to give advice in plain language, unlike that intoxicated and ambiguous oracle. There is some risk in such boldness: as Boethius is said to have remarked, Si tacuisses, philosophus manisses, If you had kept quiet, you would still be regarded as a philosopher. But I am a bear, and an an honest one, and I shall leave philosophy to others.

He replied. ‘Thank you, Daisy, for your considered opinion. I am visiting Batavia for only a few days on my way to confer with my masters in India, and you have done much to make up my mind as to the advice I shall offer them. Whether they will take it remains to be seen; but I have found that the Company is always quick to seize an advantage, far quicker indeed than the cumbersome apparatus of governments. Whatever transpires, let us hope that we can keep the French out of this region.’

Mr Raffles also offered us some private advice: ‘The trade in spices from the East Indies continues to be jealously guarded by the European powers that dominate the region. Here, however, power is in abeyance for the moment. What better time to load your ship with the riches of Nature, which may be sold for a thumping profit on your return?’

Count Bagarov, blessed as he is with the easy wealth of a landowner, is not averse to increasing it, and I could see him mentally calculating how much money he could borrow from the Jews of Batavia to purchase a lucrative cargo.

We bade Mr Raffles a cordial farewell as he made his preparations to depart. We too shall be gone soon, but there is still time for consultation. Later in the day and back at the port, Master Ulyanov and the captain of the naval vessel transporting Mr Raffles conferred, with the Count as interpreter, to determine our future course. The quickest way home for us is to follow the trade winds south-west into the open Indian Ocean, which will take us easily around the Cape of Good Hope and into the Atlantic. But it is a very long navigation of a desolate and unfrequented tract full of unknown dangers. On the other hand, to take a northward course closer to the land exposes us to other dangers, not least the negotiation of the east coast of Africa, where steady east winds drive ships on to a lee shore to join the throng of wrecks that litter the strand.

In the end it was the Count who decided the matter for us. He had, he said, read the tale of the Three Princes of Serendip as a boy, and had always longed to visit the happy island of Ceylon where these events are said to have occurred. Well, we have ventured east on his whim, and who will gainsay him wherever he wishes to go? I would like to see the place myself.

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