1636 The China Venture – Snippet 17

Chapter 12

Year of the Dog, Seventh Month (August 23-September 21, 1634)

Tongcheng, China

The carter pushed a two-wheeled barrow down the main street of Tongcheng. It was laden with firewood.

Tongcheng met the two criteria for a town: it had a protective wall, and a market. The word in the market was that someone had seen a cloud in the shape of a snake cross in front of the sun. Unfortunately, there was disagreement as to the color of the cloud. If it were red, it portended treason; if black, flooding rains; if white, a mutiny of the nearest military garrison; and if green, epidemic. Such, at least, was what was written in Yu Xiangdou’s 1599 almanac, The Correct Source for a Myriad Practical Uses, and if it was in print, then surely it must be so.

At last the carter arrived at his destination, an old barn. Two men, with hatchets laid across their knees, were seated beside its doors. At his approach, they rose, and studied him. When the carter came close enough to be recognized, they relaxed.

“About time,” one said.

The carter shrugged. “When rats infest the castle, a lame cat is better than a swift horse.”

The hatchet men opened the barn doors, and the carter rolled the barrow inside. There were shapes in the shadows. As his eyes adjusted to the murk, he recognized the shapes as men.

“Well, what are you waiting for?” the carter said impatiently. The men crowded around the barrow, tossing off the firewood. Concealed below it were weapons.


Fang Yizhi had slept uneasily. There were ugly rumors in town, rumors that some of the servants, tenant farmers and migrant workers were in secret communication with one of the bandit bands, and would revolt as soon as the bandits appeared outside the walls.

Yizhi’s father Kongzhao, confident that his family had treated its dependents well, had armed and drilled his house servants and farmhands, and the family villa was guarded day and night. Other town notables, more pessimistic, or perhaps plagued by a guilty conscience, had sent their male servants to the countryside, trusting to the younger family members for defense.

Kongzhao thought this ill-advised. He had told Yizhi, “treat a dog as if it is a wolf, and it will become a wolf in fact.”

Still, there had been some family debate as to whether it was better to remain at the villa, where they were less likely to be trouble by riotous townsmen, or at their house inside the city, where the city walls would offer protection from bandit attack. They had at last decided it was better to remain in town.


Fang Yizhi rushed into his father’s study. “Trouble, father! There’s a large group of ruffians down by the temple on Old Street, chanting ‘Plunder the Gentry!’ And there’s another doing the same by the river gate, and a third by the yamen.” The yamen was the office and residence of the district magistrate.

Fang Kongzhao rose from his seat. “Did you see them yourself?”

“No, but one of the servants saw one of the groups, and was told by a passerby about the other. Indeed, there are supposed to be many more mobs, but those are the only locations that have been reported to me.”

“And how large are these mobs?”

“Well, the servant thinks that there are ten thousand rioters….”

Kongzhao guffawed despite the seriousness of the situation. “Fear always multiplies the numbers of the foe. I doubt that there are even a thousand, spread across town. Still, that’s plenty, given that we don’t have a garrison in town to call upon for help. Do you know what happened at the yamen? Was there any fighting?”

“The mob burnt it down. If they encountered any resistance, it wasn’t mentioned to me. However, I heard that the district magistrate escaped through a secret tunnel. As for the yamen runners and guards, those who weren’t caught in the fire apparently stripped off their uniforms and fled. Some may even have joined the mob; most of the runners are an unsavory lot.”


The members of the extended Fang family, aided by their house servants, barricaded the gates to Fang Kongzhao’s home, where they had congregated for safety, and several of the younger ones took to the rooftops. A few of these brought bows and arrows up with them, but most were armed with roof tiles and other projectiles of convenience. The servants, above and below, were also equipped with buckets of water. It was a thoughtful precaution on Fang Kongzhao’s part.

Yizhi made the rounds, looking out the upper story windows on each side of the Fang residence, to track as best he could the movements of the rioters. By the hour of the rat–from 11 p.m. to 1 a.m. in European reckoning–several fires could be seen burning.

‘The Yao, the Hu, and the Chang families have all lost at least one home,” he reported to his father.

“There will be more affected before the night is over,” said his father grimly. He was right. By sunrise, dozens of homes had been attacked. Whether because of his reputation for fair dealing, or because of the preparedness of his family and servants, Fang Kongzhao’s home was unscathed.


Fang Home


Fang Kongzhao motioned his son forward.

“Yizhi, I need you to take the women of the household, under suitable escort, to Nanjing. I want them to stay there for several months, at least, until we are sure that we have caught all the rebels, and there are no bandit bands lurking near Tongcheng.”

Yizhi bowed. “Of course, father, but what of you?”

“The district magistrate is young, but still wise enough to know that he needs my guidance in these matters.” Kongzhao had been in government service from 1618 to 1625. He had been a magistrate in Sichuan and Fujian, and Director of the Bureau of Personnel and later of the Bureau of Operations in the Ministry of War.

After some initial success, plundering and burning the houses of the more hated landlords, the rebels had fought among themselves. Some had surrendered in response to an offer of leniency, and others had been killed or captured by the local militia, placed under Kongzhao’s command.

“While the internal threat is pacified, the bandit armies are still on the move. One of them may belatedly heed the messages from our Tongcheng rebels, and probe our defenses. I must see to it that the walls of Tongcheng remain in good repair, that we have enough supplies to withstand a siege of a month or more, that our citizens are trained to fight, and that we keep a proper lookout for the enemy.”

“Are you sure, Father, that it is wise for grandma, auntie and my wife to travel this late in the year?”

“It is better that they face snowflakes than arrows,” said Kongzhao.

Chapter 13

September 1634


The southwest wind that had kept the Rode Draak and Groen Feniks in port brought a welcome surprise: Captain David Pieterszoon de Vries in the Walvis, accompanied by two other ships, the Koninck David and the Hoop. They were Hamburg-bound, but being Dutch, de Vries and his fellow captains had been anxious for news of the Netherlands. A fisherman had told them about the ceasefire, the USE squadron in the Zuider Zee, and the SEAC ships waiting at Texel for a friendly wind. Since he had been consulted about the China venture the year before, he was curious and decided to pay a call on Captains Lyell and Hamilton while his crew took on fresh water and provisions. That in turn led to dinner with De Vries, his apprentice navigator the up-timer Philip Jenkins, the captains of the Koninck David and the Hoop, the local SEAC agent, and of course Ambassador Salvius, the four up-timers of the China mission, SEAC Senior Merchant Peter Minuit, and Maarten Gerritzoon Vries.

That night, Lyell summoned his first mate to the quarterdeck. “We are waiting for a transfer of cargo from the Walvis, which just put into port.”

“The Walvis?”

“Chartered by the United Equatorial Company, and captained by David Pieterszoon de Vries. Mr. Garlow thinks that some of the goods they collected in the New World will be quite salable in China. And De Vries, who served with Coen in Batavia, agrees. They are giving us a sampling of their wares and if they sell well, there’s more where it came from.”

“What exactly are they giving us? How will it affect stowage?”

“A few tons of assorted woods, cut into planks, and a couple of tons of something they call unvulcanized latex.”

“Unvulcanized latex? What’s that?”

“It’s a bit like pine resin, not really solid or liquid. It stretches easily.”

“How soon will it be ready for us, sir? What will we do if the easterlies start blowing?”

“It’s too late to leave today in any event, and Captain de Vries promised that it would be ready for us tomorrow.”

September 1634

In the English Channel

And now we’re committed, Eric mused. Captain Lyell had advised that the journey to Dutch Batavia, while it could be accomplished in six months or less, more often took seven or eight, and could take even longer. Although Lyell was hopeful that with the up-timers’ watches, sextants, and lunar tables, that he would have a better idea of the ship’s longitude during the long journey and thereby cross the doldrums in the Atlantic, and turn north in the Indian Ocean, at the best meridians. That would make for an unusually fast passage. The fastest one on record so far was the Gouden Leeuw: one hundred and twenty-seven days in 1621.