I can’t, but Sandokan

(Outlook Traveller asked for a piece on fictional pirates, and since I was stuck in Calcutta with an ornery Net connection, I made them walk the plank for the damn thing. The fun part was Googling Sandokan posters online; and discovering (offline) Borges’ pirate fascination.)

A mean-spirited adult put paid to our childhood games of cowboys and Indians with two succinct essays in postcolonial criticism. Watching us squabble over who would be Billy the Kid and who would be Sitting Bull, she said: “Quit fighting, you’re the wrong kind of Indians to be cowboys.” “So we’re Indians, we’ll be Sioux or Cherokee,” I said. “You’re the wrong kind of Indians for Indians too,” she said, leaving our game in tatters.

We contemplated scalping the woman, but our hearts, minds and assegais (we were a little confused on this Red Indian business) weren’t in it. It wasn’t until someone switched genres and came back bursting with tales of galleons and shipwrecks, parrots and pieces o’ eight, that we found revenge. We hung her—in our imaginations—from the yardarm in the focsle off the mainmast (we knew as much about pirates as we did about Red Indians). And we tipped her the black spot, though she may not have noticed because the paper wasn’t very clean to start with.

I liked the pirates in Treasure Island , including Long John Silver with his deadly crutch; they drank rum, sang shanties (“Fifteen men on the dead man’s chest…Drink and the devil had done for the rest”), swore, killed, broke faith for the sake of doubloons, moindores and pieces of eight, and had terrible personal hygiene. To us, subjected to moral stories that featured protagonists of alarming goodness and terrifying cleanliness, Stevenson’s ruffians, with no redeeming features whatsoever, were a blessed relief. Stevenson tossed off Treasure Island as entertainment. He might have been surprised at the many imitations and ironic homages he spawned, including Arturo Perez-Reverte’s elegant The Nautical Chart , featuring a hero who tips his hat to Treasure Island, Conrad and Melville in turn, and villains who’re modern-day pirates thinly disguised as wreck salvage specialists.

But Perez-Reverte, respected as he is, would die for the fan following that Emilio Salgari commands. Sandokan, the Tiger of Malaysia, a figure made legendary in India by Kabir Bedi, counted Mario Vargas Llosa, Umberto Eco and Che Guevara among his admirers. Sandokan is a Malay prince, deprived of family and throne by the dastardly British—he has an especial grievance against the White Rajah, the very real James Brooke. Sandokan was the defender of small native principalities against the might of Empire, combining the talents that any self-respecting Tiger of Malaysia must have with the spirit of a true scourge of the seas.

Long before Salgari, Rafael Sabatini had switched native and white roles in unusual fashion. In The Sea Hawk , Sir Oliver Tressillian conceals a past of honourable piracy, where he ruled the high seas as ‘Sakr-el-Bahr, the hawk of the sea, the scourge of the Mediterranean and the terror of Christian Spain”. Sabatini makes it clear that Oliver/ Sakr-el-Bahr’s conversion is not nominal: he fights against “the Spanish dogs”, wields “the Moslem lash” under the flag of the green crescent, and is considered the “most valiant of all the servants of Islam”.

Secretly, the pirate I wanted most to be wasn’t Blackbeard or Cap’n Flint, or even Sandokan—certainly not the pirates in Marlon Brando’s posthumously published Fan-Tan . (Brando’s pirate adventure earned him a Bad Sex award nomination; nothing more needs to be said of the book.) My dream pirate was the manipulative, scheming, ruthless Ching Shih; she who inherited control over a pirate league that numbered over 400 ships. Ching Shih’s end was diplomatic rather than bloody—she retired after gaining pardon, and she died the successful proprietor of a brothel known for its inventive exploration of sensuality and cruelty.

I have, sadly, never run either a pirate coalition or a brothel, but I am content knowing that my enthusiasm for pirates in general and Ching Shih in particular was shared by Jorge Luis Borges. He immortalized Ching Shih in ‘The Widow Ching’, in his Universal History of Infamy . To be written about by Borges: that’s a fate worth many adventures on the high seas, many sackfuls of doubloons, and a rousing toast in grog.





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