1636 The China Venture – Snippet 27
The Rode Draak and, behind it, the Groen Feniks, shared the quiet water of their cove with a native fishing boat. However, it departed after a few hours, leaving them at peace.
That peace was shattered a few hours before dawn. Three large proas invaded the cove, each with two banks of oars and a cannon in the bow. One of the proas, the presumed command ship, was larger than the other two. When they were first spotted, at the entrance to the cove, by a marine in the maintop, they were perhaps two hundred yards off. All told, they appeared to be carrying perhaps two hundred warriors. With most of these rowing, the proas looked like giant waterborne centipedes, with legs in constant motion.
The sentries blew their whistles, and the deck officer bellowed, “All hands, prepare to repel boarders!” To make sure those below were aware that battle was imminent, the trumpeter standing by his side played a call to arms.
There was little gap between the blowing of whistles by the sentries and the first bark of the swivel guns. These had a bore a bit wider than two inches and could fire one pound balls. However, they were presently loaded with hail shot, essentially a bag filled with a dozen musket balls, weighing about a pound in toto and thus taking the same charge. The bag would tear open as it left the muzzle, causing the musket balls to disperse.
While the swivel guns didn’t stop the attack, they did slow it down, the musket balls bringing down oarsmen and disrupting the rhythm. It took perhaps a minute to bring the first carronade into action.
The minute felt much longer to its crew, as the proas, being heavily oared and manned, were able to cover half the distance between the entrance to the cove and the Rode Draak in the time taken by the gun drill. The time seemed all the more at a premium, given that there were limits to how far the gun barrel on the carronade’s special carriage could be depressed. In other words, if the enemy boats came alongside, the upper deck carronades couldn’t be brought to bear on them.
With the range now one hundred yards, the two carronade crews on duty fired. One 32 pound ball, six inches in diameter, struck the leftmost attacker, breaking the back of the boat, and spilling its crew into the water. The other fell just short of the command ship, splashing its crew. Whether out of shock that they had come so near being hit themselves, or to render aid to their fellows, they stopped rowing for a moment. But only for a moment.
“Load grapeshot,” ordered the chief gunner. Grapeshot was in quilted bags like hail shot, with the balls grouped around a spindle, but the balls were bigger. In the version fired by a 32 pounder, the nine balls were almost three inches in diameter, and each weighed over three pounds. That made them as dangerous at close range to the proas as to their crews. “Fire!” This time, it was the rightmost proa that was targeted, as it had come into the lead. A substantial number of its crew were killed or wounded, and the vessel itself was holed and started taking on water.
By now, some of the Rode Draak‘s crew had come above deck, carrying muskets, rifles and grenades; others manned the guns of the gun deck, which was the first full-length enclosed deck.
The gunports of that deck opened. The situation was too urgent to permit any gun crew to wait upon another; given enough time, the attacking boats would come around to the bow, where few guns could be brought to bear, and whose deck was lower than that of the stern, and board the Rode Draak.
One of the lower deck carronades fired. The good news was that its projectile, common shot since that was the easiest to load in haste, struck the command ship squarely, reducing it to splinters.
The bad news was that the carronade crew, accustomed to long guns, in the excitement had used the standard long gun charge–one quarter of the shot weight–rather than the one-twelfth charge appropriate to the more lightly built carronade. As a result, her recoil was so strong as to break the bolts holding her slide carriage to the hull. Fortunately, no one was standing directly behind the cannon as it came free, and, since it wasn’t on a four-wheeled truck mount, it didn’t have the freedom of motion that had given rise to the expression “loose cannon”. Still, the accident caused considerable disruption on the lower deck.
Thankfully the destruction of the second of the three ships took the fight out of the enemy. The third proa, with the more lightly wounded bailing water and those still uninjured rowing, turned tail.
The pirates in the water were still of concern. One of the Rode Draak sailors, noticing a group that was swimming toward the Rode Draak, lit a grenade and tossed it into their midst. However, it was not one of the fancy “anti-diver” grenades with an internal fuse. When the grenade hit the water, the fuse fizzled out. The sailor shrugged and drew a large pistol.
He wasn’t the only one shooting, of course; the men of the Rode Draak, lining the rails, fired methodically at the frantically swimming pirates until at last the cove was quiet once more. Quiet, that is, until the saltwater crocodiles that had been waiting patiently on a nearby sandbar slipped into the water for an unexpected but welcome feast.
Nonetheless, the captain doubled the watch and those who did return below slept fitfully for what was left of the night.
The following morning, Captain Lyell summoned all hands on deck. He talked about what was done well in the evening action, and what he found wanting.
The team who had overcharged their carronade were easy to pick out from their fellows; they were the ones with the guilty expressions. Their punishment might have been harsher if they hadn’t struck the decisive blow. As it was, they had to help the carpenter repair the broken carronade carriage and remount the barrel on its slide. Some parts of the old carriage were unusable and these were cut up and given to the offenders to hang from their necks as a reminder to them and the rest of the crew of the error.
They emerged at last from the Sunda Strait and set course for the island of Pulao Aur, the “the Island of Bamboo.” which lay off the coast of Malaya. On a day when the wind was light, and they weren’t making much progress, Captain Lyell decreed an hour of target practice. Their target was a small uninhabited island that hadn’t done them any harm, but they shot it up anyway.
Of all the gun deck teams, the best performer was the very one that had overcharged their carronade in the Bangka Strait engagement. After this was acknowledged publicly, they hung their little pieces of carronade carriage around their necks once again, this time as a badge of pride rather than of shame.
At Pulao Aur, which was marked by twin peaks, they stopped for fresh water. There was a small fishing village, with each house raised on stilts and having a veranda and a steeply pitched roof. The sailors traded some trinkets for goats, and mutton stew was on the crew’s menu that night.
From there they headed for Pulao Condore, or Co Son, an island a bit east of the southern tip of Vietnam, and then partway along the Vietnamese coast.
By this time, there were sure signs that the southwest monsoon had begun, and “No Legs” recommended that instead of continuing along the coast–the “Inner Passage”–they ease into the open sea. And indeed, they were soon making much better time than they had been previously.