Authors: Sara Sheridan
Tags: #Fiction, #Historical
Secret of the Sands
‘Thus in England, where law leaves men comparatively free, they are slaves to a grinding despotism of conventionalities, unknown in the land of tyrannical rule. This explains why many men, accustomed to live under despotic governments, feel fettered and enslaved in the so-called free countries.’
Sir Richard Francis Burton, 1821–1890
Great Arabian Explorer
Fifty miles inland from the coast of Abyssinia, Tuesday, 11 June 1833
It is dark when they come, at about an hour before dawn. Far away in London, pretty housemaids in Marylebone are setting the fires while the more dissolute rakes make their way home through deserted streets now devoid of the night’s sport. The whores are all abed now as are the Honourable Directors of the East India Company, each to a man concerned that the French, despite being routed, surely have it in mind to capture Bombay, Calcutta and Delhi and unfurl England’s grip on its ruby-encrusted prize. In short order, William Wilberforce, hero of The Cause, will rise habitually early despite his failing health, dress in a sober jacket with dark breeches and, discreetly and behind the scenes, preach the rights of these men and women from thousands of miles away. He has been doing so with success, in and out of Parliament, for the best part of fifty years and he will not have too much longer to wait. But here in the village that makes no difference now.
In the clearing surrounded by lush foliage, the silence is broken and the sleepy huts made of rushes and daub are already being ransacked. There is little anyone can do and it makes no odds whether the families rise fighting, iron daggers in hand, or wake slowly, sleepily, only half-conscious to the screams of their children. One or two of the quickest slip into the darkness, a jumble of long, flaying limbs and flashing eyes, young men abandoning their mothers and sisters, one child with the instincts of a seer, fleeing on instinct alone blindly into the dark jungle and away from the torches and the sparking embers of last night’s fire. A pitcher is knocked over in the panic and douses the rising flames, filling the cool, early morning air with a salty cloud of scorched goat curds that were meant to be breakfast.
It takes only seven minutes to capture almost everyone. The slavers are practised at this. They separate the elderly to one side (hardly worth the trouble to transport even as far as Zanzibar) and beat one old man who shouts so furiously and in such a babble that his own wife cannot fully understand him. There is always one would-be hero. He is usually a grandfather. The slaver known as Kasim consigns him to silence.
The broken body quietens the crowd. The villagers shift uneasily and the raiders turn to the task of sorting through the women. This is the most difficult job for mistakes are easily made with these dusky women in the darkness. Abyssinian slave girls are worth a great deal if they are beautiful. Sultans and emirs have been known to take an ebony slave or two to wive – a rich man’s
is a place of no borders and should include every colour of skin, after all. White, of course, is the most enticing. Most men have never so much as seen white skin – all those who have agree it is strange and unearthly, the skin of a fearsome devil, a soul bleached to the colour of dry bones and shocking to the core, like a spectre. But still, on a woman, desirable enough.
In this village the women are as dark as bitter coffee and their young bodies are lithe. Kasim’s boyhood friend and business partner, Asaf Ibn Mohammed, eyes the pert titties as if they are liquorice. When he comes to Zena, Ibn Mohammed raises the hem of her winding cloth with the tip of his scimitar and glares at her ripe pudenda. He thinks only of the Marie Theresa dollars that this prize is worth shipped on to Muscat, and how easy she will be to sell. Then, dropping the skirt, he reaches out to check her teeth and nods to his fellow, the one with the ropes.
‘This one,’ he says in Arabic, his tawny eyes cold, the contours of his face caught in the flickering lamplight so it appears he is composed of nothing but long, thin lines. Paler and taller than Kasim, Ibn Mohammed has an elegant air and looks more like a scholar than a man of action. Today nothing has riled him – the raid is going entirely as he expects, so his temper, which often proves deadly, remains in check. ‘Yes, this one will do. Not as skinny as the others and she shows no fear.’
Zena, frozen and so afraid that she is scarcely able to breathe, pretends she cannot understand him. He seems so calm and cold, assured in his right to simply steal her away. Kasim nods silently in agreement though his black eyes sparkle – she can see he is enjoying the process of humiliating the villagers as they are assessed one by one. Something in him feeds off the uneasy atmosphere. The raid isn’t merely a living for this man. In the trade he has found his vocation.
I will run,
I will run.
But her legs do not move. It is probably a blessing – the slavers do not deal kindly when they catch the ones who try to get away. You escape either very quickly or not at all. This is no time for Zena to show her spirit. As the guards pull her out of the line, she stumbles over the corpse of her uncle, the old man she has just watched Kasim murder with his bare hands. Zena does not look at the body. She tries to ignore the outrage that is rising in her belly. Silently, she lets them bind her along with some of the others and then, with the rising sun before them, the slavers drive their spoils, the pick of the village, away from their homes and families forever.
The principal residence of Sir Charles Malcolm, Head of the Bombay Marine, India
has been on duty for over twelve hours and the wafting fan has slowed to a soporific movement that is having little effect on the soupy air.
‘Feeling better, Pottinger?’ Sir Charles enquires as he pours them each a drop of dry, ruby port from the Douro.
‘Oh yes, sir. The fever is gone. Had to be done, I expect,’ the young man assures his superior brightly, as if he had been serving at the wicket on the village cricket team. For new arrivals, a fever is practically mandatory, though by all accounts Pottinger had a particularly fierce bout and is fortunate to have survived.
‘Go on then, have a look,’ Sir Charles motions.
The captain crosses eagerly to the mahogany table and pores over the new charts of the Red Sea that arrived at the dock only a few hours before. The papers represent the first step in the Bombay Marine’s overall mission in the region, which is twofold. First, to find a way to link Europe to India inside a month by cutting out the African leg of the existing route. If that means developing the market for trade with the Arabs so much the better. Second, to ensure that recent British naval losses on the reefs of the tropical Arabian seas are never repeated. In the scramble for global dominance every scrap of advantage to be had over the French is vital and too many ships have gone down of late due to in adequate maps. For the East India Company these tactics have worked well elsewhere and it is gratifying to Sir Charles that more of the map is coloured pink every year and, in particular, that this victory is in no small measure due to the exploits of his men. It is for this reason that he briefs each of his officers personally at the beginning of their tour of duty. ‘Gives me the measure of them,’ he says.
Pottinger sees immediately that though the newly arrived drawings are detailed in places, there remain gaps. ‘When will our chaps complete it?’ he asks.
‘Another year, at least. And that is with both ships splitting the work. It’s hostile territory and the coastline is complex. We’ve sent a small exploratory party inland to the west of the Arabian Peninsula from the ship
. Information gathering, that kind of thing. It’s a start
’ Malcolm is glad that Pottinger is getting to grips with the issues. ‘The party comprises a lieutenant and a ship’s doctor, Lieutenant Jones and Doctor Jessop. They’ve gone in south of Mecca with a party of local guides and will travel as far as the camp of a Bedouin emir that we have paid for the privilege. The whole area is desert. The rendezvous is at Aden in four weeks.’
‘They sent in a doctor?’
‘An officer like any other.’ Sir Charles waves his hand blithely. Officers of the Bombay Marine are expected to turn their hand to anything. The corps prides itself on the flexibility of its men – a single officer can make a huge difference, in fact, many of the East India Company’s most startling successes have been instigated by a bright spark who has taken the initiative on the Company’s behalf. ‘Apparently, he was keen,’ Sir Charles says.
‘So, if we can secure Egypt,’ Pottinger muses, ‘we will still have to ferry everything across the land at Suez.’ He points at the most northerly port on the Red Sea.
In Sir Charles Malcolm’s experience, these discussions always come back to the same point on the map but it is good the lad has cottoned on so quickly. The thin strip of land in question lies between his territory and that of his brother, Pultney, who is Commander in Chief of the British Navy in the Mediterranean. Between them, the Malcolm brothers rule most of Britannia’s waves and keep an eye on the French for His Majesty. It is acknowledged that Sir Charles has the raw end of the deal. The Gulf is tribal and savage and even if they can oust the French from Egypt, Malcolm is all too aware how difficult it is to move substantial quantities of troops and supplies, to say nothing of trade goods, from one sea to another. There is no obvious place to build a railway to indulge in the relatively new science of steam locomotion. In any case, the land around Suez that is not desert is peppered with saltwater lakes – mixed terrain is, to use Sir Charles’ own parlance, the most tricky of all.
The Malcolm brothers, however, act as a team and by hook or by crook they will fix this problem somehow, so that not only will the sun never set on His Majesty’s empire, but His Majesty’s troops will move as smoothly as possible across it. If Hannibal can cross the Alps, Sir Charles Malcolm will be damned if he can’t get British men and goods across what is essentially a thin land bridge, whether he has to employ elephants to do the job or not.
Malcolm marks the chart carefully to show Pottinger what he’s hoping for.
‘Ooh, the French won’t like that,’ the youngster smiles.
Malcolm makes a sound like a furious camel and a gesture that clearly demonstrates that he couldn’t care less what the French would like. Some of Sir Charles Malcolm’s friends and acquaintances have not yet given up on England winning back her influence in French ports despite an almost four-hundred-year gap since the end of the Hundred Years War. Sir Charles Malcolm is no quitter nor are any of his ilk. He takes another sip of port.
Pottinger puts his finger on the dot that marks Suez. ‘A canal would be the easiest way . . . But the chart, sir, the chart is everything. We can’t go further without it.’
The boy is sharp. He’ll do.
At this juncture, Sir Charles notices that the
is lying prone and has dropped the red cord with which he should be operating the fan. The child has fallen fast asleep and, if Sir Charles is not mistaken, is dribbling over the
’s fancy new carpet.
‘Well, really,’ the Head of the Bombay Marine bellows, ‘no wonder it’s like a bally oven in here, and we are trying to think.’
He launches a pencil across the room. It hits its target admirably, striking the boy squarely on the forehead. The child jerks upright, mortified at his dereliction of duty and starts to babble, apologising frantically in Hindi. Then he recalls that it is an absolute rule that the house staff should remain silent at all times. Sir Charles, now somewhat pink in the cheeks, stops in his fury and laughs at the aghast expression on the boy’s face.
‘Go!’ he motions the child. ‘Away with you! Fetch another
, for heaven’s sake, or we’ll broil in here. It’s June, for God’s sake.’
The boy bows and disappears instantly as Pottinger pours more port into his glass and passes Sir Charles the decanter. ‘Thank you for showing me, sir,’ he says.
Sir Charles raises his glass. It is unusual for a commanding officer to bother, but Sir Charles always prefers to survey his resources personally. ‘Welcome to the Bombay Marine,’ he says. ‘A toast – to the very good health of His Majesty and, of course, our chaps in the field,’ he says as he reminds himself silently that the chaps in the field are getting there. Slow but sure.