1636 The China Venture – Snippet 29
“I think I have heard of your brother….” That was an understatement. According to Mike’s teachers back in Taiwan, Zheng Zhilong was a former pirate chieftain who was offered an admiralty, used his new position to wipe out his former rivals, and then controlled the overseas trade of Fujian by demanding licenses to sail. Thanks to these payments, and his own trading ventures, his income was said to be greater than that of the Dutch East India Company. And a few years after the Manchu invaded, he cut his hair into a Manchu pigtail, although they ultimately executed him because his son remained loyal to the Ming cause. That son, in turn, later took Taiwan from the Dutch, hence his family’s prominent place in Taiwanese schoolbooks.
“All good, I hope! Now, I see that your two ships have many guns….”
“They are well armed,” Eric acknowledged.
“Then may I suggest that you join your forces to his against Liu Xiang? It will serve as proof, to him and to the officials in Guangzhou, of your friendly intentions. If you are willing, I can guide you to him, and tell you the proper recognition signs so that you aren’t fired upon. By his forces, that is.”
Eric’s eyes widened. “I… I would have to consult with my advisors. Could you stay aboard while I do so?”
“I’d like a tour of your ship, actually.”
Eric arranged for Yan to be given a tour by the first officer of the Rode Draak, with Mike Song as his interpreter.
And in the meantime, Eric called a council in which he was joined by Jim Saluzzo, Captain Lyell, Maarten Vries, Pieter Minuit, and Colonel von Siegroth.
The final conclusion was that Eric should politely decline, citing as his reason that there were substantial quantities of silver on board, for purchasing silk and other Chinese goods. Consequently, his responsibility to those who had supplied the silver was to keep the Rode Draak out of harm’s way if possible, and use its guns to defend itself only when it had to fight.
If Yan the Swallow was disappointed by this answer, he did not show it. He promised to put the USE mission in touch with Zheng Zhilong once Liu Xiang had been dealt with.
Third Month, Day 23
“Get up, sir!”
Eric Garlow rubbed his eyes. “What’s wrong?”
“You need to come to the captain’s cabin right away sir!”
When he reached the cabin, Eric found that Jim Saluzzo, Mike Song, and Pieter Minuit were there already. And that Yan the Swallow was back, accompanied by a servant.
“He says the Portuguese have paid the locals to launch a fireship attack on us. After midnight, at the ebb tide,” said Captain Lyell.
“So the questions are, first, do we believe him, or is this just a dodge to get us away from dealing with his competitors? And second, do we flee or fight?”
Yan assured them that if they doubted his words, they were welcome to wait for the attack.
Tiger’s Island was so named because it resembled a tiger crouching in preparation to leap upon some passing prey. Were the Chinese imitating the tiger?
Eric proposed that a lookout be posted on the summit of Tiger’s Island, which was almost six hundred feet high. However, that would mean that after the fireship attack, they would have to return to the cove to pick up the lookout. And that would give more time for the forts to come into action, assuming that the attack was authorized by the government rather than a private enterprise of the Portuguese allies.
“Let’s hoist anchor and move a bit down-channel,” said the captain. “We can hold position, even with sails set, if we let out a sea anchor behind us. If we spot fireships, we just cut loose the sea anchor and we will quickly speed ahead. Both the wind and the current favor us, and the fireships will merely be drifting downriver.”
The Rode Draak exchanged signals with the Groen Feniks, and Lyell’s plan was put into practice.
As Yan the Swallow had predicted, a flotilla of small junks rounded Tiger’s Island and then proceeded downriver toward the two European vessels.
“Cut away the sea anchor!” Lyell ordered, and a moment later there was a jolt as the ship’s resistance to the force of the wind abruptly lessened.
The forts remained silent, and as they lost sight of the fireships, far behind them, Captain Lyell asked quietly, “What now?”
“Where will we find Zheng Zhilong?” Eric asked Yan.
“Since you don’t want to be part of the sea battle, you should sail for Xiamen, which is a port on Liaoluo Bay. I will guide you. But I believe that you are towing behind you the small boat I came by. Please allow my servant to board it and return to Guangzhou. I will give him instructions; he will make sure that my letter to the admiral goes out immediately on a Zheng family junk and advises the admiral of where to find you. At least, as soon as the winds permit.”
“Very well,” said Eric. “Captain Lyell, are you agreeable?”
“I am,” said Lyell. “I will make the arrangements.” He turned and then paused. “You know, the fireship attack was botched. The cove we were in didn’t face upriver; so the fireship crews would have had to remain on board to steer around the island and even then the current into the cove was weak. We moved into a more exposed position, but they couldn’t take proper advantage of it because the wind gave us the greater speed.”
“Perhaps the miscreants were inexperienced, or perhaps they were misinformed as to your exact position,” Yan suggested.
“Well, it’s no matter, we evaded the attack. Let me get your servant back where he belongs.” Captain Lyell strode off.
Yan the Swallow cleared his throat. “Now that we know each other a little better, I hope that I may raise a ticklish subject. Your flag. Please don’t fly your flag any more. At least, not in Chinese waters and most especially not in my family’s home port, Xiamen.”
Captain Lyell raised his eyebrows. “What’s wrong with the flag?” The USE flag featured a black St. Andrews Cross on a red field, with eight gold stars overlaying the diagonal stripes of the cross, and at the center, a big gold crown with three small ones below it. The central symbol was the lesser coat of arms of Sweden.
“The ‘X’ is very bad luck! An ‘X” is used to mark the names of criminals who are to be executed!”
Captain Lyell sighed. “I will consult with the Americans; I am just the hired help. Excuse me.”
“To be honest,” said Jim Saluzzo, “I have never liked the USE flag. From a distance it looks like a Confederate battle flag.”
“We have a SoTF flag on board, don’t we?” asked Martina. The flag of the State of Thuringia-Franconia was essentially identical to the flag of the New United States which had preceded it, and very similar to the Stars and Stripes. The principal difference was that in the blue quarter, there were seven white stars in a circle, Betsy Ross style.
“Yes, but it has seven stars instead of eight. Is that going to be a problem?” asked Jim. “I heard somewhere that in China, even numbers were considered lucky and odd ones unlucky.”
“Not always. Seven is odd but lucky. Perhaps not as much as ‘eight,’ but well enough,” said Mike. “The word for seven sounds like the word that means the essence of life. And each lunar phase is seven days.”
“Not exactly…” Jim objected.
“To everyone except the astronomers,” said Mike. “And the stars are in a circle, and the circle is the symbol of heaven.”
“Which fits with the blue background for the sky, and the white stars,” Martina added.
“Okay,” said Eric. “We’ll use the SoTF flag. Perhaps we can sew on a patch in the center with the Lesser Coat of Arms of Sweden on it? I think that’s the part of the flag that Gustav Adolf cares about most.”
“That’s feasible,” said Martina. “I can get scrap sailcloth from the sailmaker, dye it blue to match the blue on the flag, and embroider the yellow tre kronor on it. May take a while, depending on how big you want it.”
“There’s no rush on the patch,” said Eric. “It’s just a sop to the emperor’s ego, and he’s not around. We just need it before the next SOAC ship catches up with us. That probably won’t be until summer of 1636, at the earliest.”