1636 The China Venture – Snippet 26

Chapter 18

April, 1635

The land breeze had begun in the afternoon, with a rainy, thunderous squall, and then continued as a moderate breeze. With this filling their sails, the Rode Draak and the Groen Feniks had exchanged salutes with Batavia Fort and headed north on April 1, 1635. Among the up-timers, there was some nervous joking about April Fools Day.

They were taking the “inner passage,” that is, skirting the east coasts of Sumatra, Malaya, and Vietnam, where they could take advantage of any favorable inshore winds and take refuge if the northeast monsoon developed a rebirth of vigor.

It was the least evil. If they barreled down the center of the Java Sea and the South China Sea, as they would have if it were summer already, they would make little progress until the southwest monsoon fully set in.

They could hug the west coasts of Borneo, Palawan and Luzon, but that path was little explored by the Dutch as it lay close to the Spanish center of power. While Manila had fallen, the ignorance of the hazards of that route remained.

Finally, they could take the long way around, by the Straits of Macassar, then east of the Philippines where the monsoon was less pronounced, and then through the Taiwan Straits, but it would be time-consuming.

One advantage of the route was that they could visit Bangka Island, whose southern tip was about two hundred miles north of Batavia, along the way. Eric had a reason for proposing this; one of the Grantville atlases had indicated that it and nearby Belitung were major sources of tin. Tin was alloyed with copper to make bronze, and the principal European source of tin was Cornwall, England. While tin was also mined in the Erzegebirge, the Ore Mountains between Saxony and Bohemia, it would be nice to have an alternative source.

Thanks to the presence of Mike Song in the USE mission, the visitors had developed a surprisingly warm relationship with some of the Chinese merchants living in Batavia, and they had recommended a pilot who knew the Sumatran and Malayan coasts even better than did Lyell or Vries. The pilot, in turn, had business in Guangzhou.

Having headed north from Batavia, the first choice confronting the Rode Draak was how to pass from the Java Sea into the South China Sea: that is, whether to take the western route, the Bangka Strait between Sumatra and Bangka; the central route, the Gaspar Strait between Bangka and Beitung, or the much wider Karimata Strait further east, between Beitung and Borneo.

The Chinese pilot they took on at Batavia, “No Leg” Huang, strongly favored the Bangka Strait, as the approach was much easier than that to the Gaspar, and there were numerous anchorages. With a fresh, steady wind and fair weather, he conceded, the Gaspar would be preferable, but those were not the conditions that faced them.

As for the Karimata Strait, it wasn’t much used by either the Dutch or Chinese, and consequently its hazards weren’t well known, either. Moreover, it was known that its currents were very irregular, making it much more difficult to navigate by dead reckoning. Lastly, and most importantly, the further east you went, the later the southeast monsoon settled in, and that was true in both the Java Sea and the South China Sea.

Captain Lyell decided to defer to “No Leg,” and gave the appropriate orders.

Huang had two perfectly good legs, and therefore his moniker had been a source of bewilderment for all on board. At last, Captain Lyell asked Huang to explain it.

“My first job in the family business was as a messenger. Some official told the family that I ran so fast, my legs were a blur, as if I had no legs.”

The Groen Feniks, being lighter in draft than the Rode Draak, took the lead. On the pilot’s instructions, they steered NNW for a rock that the Dutch called the Zuyder Wachter, the South Watcher, and then bore around. After some further maneuvers, and sounding frequently, they came into waters that were twelve fathoms deep, and then, veering as needed to avoid waters that were much shallower or deeper, came into the Bangka Strait.

The Dutch had a trading post in Palembang, on the great island of Sumatra across the Bangka Strait from Bangka Island, but it dealt mostly in pepper. Since they knew that both Palembang and Bangka were under the thumb of the militant Sultan of Makaram, the new visitors were circumspect, anchoring in a small cove rather than the main harbor, and sending Aratun the Armenian out in a small boat to find out what he could. He took a couple of tin artifacts, and a sample of tin ore, with him.

On his return, Aratun reported that it did not appear that there was any large-scale mining of tin on either island, but he had arranged for a Chinese tradesman he had met to make further inquiries and report back to the USE mission’s friends among the Chinese merchants in Batavia. And so they left the matter; tin was of interest, but not a priority.

They continued on north through the Bangka Strait. Here, their local pilot cautioned them to pay great attention to the ebb and flow of the tide, and to have the great ships led by a small boat, the latter sounding frequently. They took care to keep at least a league away from the coast of Sumatra. Despite the inconvenience posed by the shoal waters, the route meant that the mass of Bangka Island shielded them from any last gasps of the northeast monsoon

The cautious advance was tedious work, but necessary for the safety of everyone on board.


It had been a long day. The principal current in the Bangka Strait in early April was southward, the wrong direction, but there were cross-currents whenever a river or stream mouth was passed. The wind had kept waxing and waning, backing and veering, forcing continual adjustments to the sails and intermittent anchoring when the wind and current were both unfavorable. After twelve hours of “stop-and-go” sailing, Captain Lyell ordered the Rode Draak to anchor for the night, and their local pilot “No Legs” guided them to a safe anchorage large enough for it and the Groen Feniks. He then went below deck for some rest.

It being the tropics, the sun dropped quickly toward the horizon, and, once it had set, the sky darkened quickly. Boarding nets were hung across the waist of the ship, between the quarter deck and the forecastle, thus protecting the lowest, most vulnerable portion. Lanterns were lit so the deck sentries could see the waters on either side. Two of the upper deck carronades, one port and the other starboard, were manned. In addition, there were men stationed by each of the ten breechloading swivel guns; these had two inch bores and were loaded with case shot. Six of these were on the waist of the ship, and four were aloft, on the fighting tops.

The Rode Draak had three masts, and none of these was from a single tree. Rather, each mast came in overlapping sections–lower mast, top mast, and topgallant mast–with the heel of the upper mast held to the head of the lower one by trestle and cross trees, in turn supported by knees. The top, a platform to which the shrouds of the topsail were attached, rested above the trees, which were in turn above the yard of the course, the lowest sail.

As originally built, the tops were of modest size, being intended just to impart a sufficiently broad angle to the shrouds. However, after the Swedes took over the ship, they had enlarged the tops, and thus the supporting structures, to make them more suitable as fighting platforms. In any event, the “fighting tops” had a rail three feet high, from which was suspended netting covered with canvas. This was, somewhat ingenuously, called the “top-armor.” While the canvas didn’t provide any actual protection from enemy fire, it did provide a modicum of concealment for someone reloading a weapon. Each top also bore one or more pintle mounts to which a swivel gun could be attached. There was one swivel mounted in each of the foretop and mizzentop, and two in the maintop.