The quiet slave

Episode One: Near Mutiny

In 1820, Alexander Hare, the owner of a household of slaves and an increasingly controversial figure among the British in the East Indies, abandoned his plantation on Java and sailed for Cape Town. After setting up a farm and working it for five years, he decided to return to the Indies. On the question of whether this was prompted by his being ostracised by Cape Town society for his behaviour and owning slaves, the records are unclear. However, it is well recorded that Hare was undecided as to his ship’s final destination, and this uncertainty led to a mutinous confrontation between him and the crew before their eventual landing at the Cocos (Keeling) Islands.

ROSIE WAS WITH her baby on the deck of the ship when the fight broke out. They were arguing. She could not understand what the sailors and the captain were saying to Tuan Alexander, their owner, who had brought them all the way across the ocean for the second time. They were shouting in English. First the sailors were shouting and shaking their heads and raising their fists to Tuan Alexander and the captain, then Tuan Alexander was speaking harshly to the captain, shouting back at the sailors. One of the male slaves whispered to Rosie that she should go down from the deck with her baby. MALE SLAVE: Maybe there will be trouble. The sailors want Tuan Alexander to stop sailing from port to port. There had been talk for many days that Tuan Alexander was confused, that he did not know what to do, where to go. He wanted to return to Java, but for some reason none of the slaves knew why he could not. He had taken them to Africa – the Cape – six years before. Rosie still remembered their arrival, waiting on board, after all those weeks at sea, for permission to go ashore, with the icy winds like whips and the rain and hail like curses. And it had taken a long time for them to get used to being on the farm. Like most of the other slaves, Rosie had never been somewhere so cold before, nor worked as a labourer. The slaves were people used to being in the heat, and all of them, having being in Tuan Alexander’s household for more than a decade, were Malaccan people. Now Malacca was a distant, but fond, memory. Before that long, sad voyage to Cape Town they had for years lived on Tuan Alexander’s Java plantation. Cape Town, if only Tuan Alexander had made his home there, in that port city, instead of on a windy farm! Cape Town was like Malacca, with all its British and Dutch and Portuguese, with the many slaves from Bengal, Mozambique, Madagascar, even Java and Bali. And many were Muslims, too, like Tuan Alexander’s people, like Rosie. Once she had even seen a Malay funeral party walking alongside the road, led by a proud imam wearing a turban! Tuan Alexander’s farm had been a day’s walk from Cape Town. While at first they had been shocked by the cold and the labour – some slaves ran away to complain to the district magistrate about their treatment by Tuan Alexander and his Dutch overseer – after the first months they had grown used to life there. On board this ship sailing across the ocean, they even started to call themselves Orang Cape. They had begun to forget their own stories of how they had become slaves. Anyway, many of them, like Rosie, had been born in Tuan Alexander’s house in Malacca. Others were like her mother, and still remembered where they came from, how they had been given as gifts by the Rajas and Sultans of faraway Borneo or Sulawesi, men who had wanted to be friends of Tuan Alexander. ROSIE: At least none of us were bought in the dark caves of shops in Sumatra, or at the auctions in Batavia or Cape Town. The male slaves who knew several languages had spread the rumour that slavery was over, that they should now all be free, that Tuan Alexander was unfairly keeping them. But Rosie and many of the others believed that if this were true, then Tuan Alexander would have freed them. Tuan Alexander, they felt, was not an unfair man. Those same male slaves had said that Tuan Alexander was in trouble with the Dutch and the King of England. That was why he had been forced to leave Java. That was the reason they had had to leave the Cape, and were now sailing again, already having crossed the ocean, visiting Mozambique, Mauritius, Diego Garcia and the small island of Nias, off Sumatra. MALE SLAVE: Tuan Alexander does not know where he wants to go! He is like a bird who has forgotten the way home... Maybe he is trying to sell us, and nobody wants us? Now below the deck, as the sound of the ocean was slapping at the hull and the inside of the ship stank like a dying animal, Rosie was worried. She was the mother of two boys, one a baby at her breast, the other an adolescent. The ship was filled with slave-men and their women and children. This was not a ship that could sail to England. There, in the half-dark, Rosie started to pray, as she did every day. This time she was praying for a home, for a sanctuary for her children, for her people. She was also praying for the man who had fathered her children – for their Tuan Alexander. In the long calm of prayer she was lost in quiet until one of the slave women, Tuan Alexander’s favourite – whom all the slaves called Nyai Satu – touched her shoulder. NYAI SATU: The English sailors are demanding Tuan Alexander take us to a proper, European port. Unless he does, they will mutiny. Rosie continued with her prayer. After many days and more prayers, the ship arrived at the islands. On board the ship, before a single person could disembark, Tuan Alexander addressed them all in Malay. TUAN ALEXANDER: This is where we will live now. We will stay here until I can find a new Malay crew who will follow my orders. That was only one of his lies, Rosie would later realise when she defended him against the criticisms made by the other slaves. There were other lies, too. Ships had visited these islands before: there were rats on one island and an illegible carving in Jawi on some trees, and another island was already inhabited by a sailor – Tuan Henry – who had been shipwrecked and who lived with them for a year until departing on a passing ship. But the worst lie was Tuan Alexander’s promise that he wanted to take them all, his people, his Orang Cape, back to Java or Malacca, back home.

Episode Two: Recollections of Malacca and Java

It is believed that Alexander Hare resided in Malacca between the years of 1801 and 1811, and it is assumed that he met Stamford Raffles, the esteemed administrator and chronicler of the Indies, there prior to the British invasion of Java known in accounts of that time as the Java Expedition. Hare is thought to have been a crucial figure in Malacca during that period due to his knowledge of Malay and his considerable business links with the regional kings. After 1812, although he also had at least one property in Java, he is said to have been given a sizeable portion of land in Borneo for his role as Resident, and it was this controversial gift from the Sultan of Banjarmassin that led to his downfall. Strangely, after settling the islands Hare finally chose the tiny Pulau Bras at the north of the atoll as his abode.

NOW THAT THEY were on these distant islands, Rosie remembered better than ever before their life in Malacca and Java. Even in the Cape, on the farm where they had all had to work in the cold and the wind with the Dutch overseer shouting at them – even at her, Rosie, who was only used to housework! – she had not remembered life in the warm lands as clearly as she did now. It made her dizzy, almost sick. ROSIE: These islands are not land. They are as small and cramped as boats! And she had been born in the great city of Malacca, with its markets and traders and ships, and all those voices – Malay, Portuguese, Arabic, English, Javanese, Dutch and Hindi, a wonderful babble. Looking up at the sky over these islands she felt that she was always falling, or sailing. She had been a child in Malacca. She promised herself that she would explain her life to her boys when they would be old enough to understand. Her eldest boy was now just old enough to understand some of these things, but her baby, born in the Cape, at her breast on the ship, would not be able to for many years. ROSIE: Hopefully we will be back at Tuan Alexander’s plantation in Java before then. Or maybe even back in Malacca. That would be wonderful, to be back home! She wondered about the wife of Tuan Alexander, whom he had left in Java with her own son. Some of the slaves said that his son was now the owner of the plantation. MALE SLAVE: Even though he is only a boy, he is keeping the plantation until his father, Tuan Alexander, can return. Rosie had laughed at that. MALE SLAVE: Why do you think it is impossible? Have you not heard of child-kings? She had, yet she could not imagine the English believing in something like that. ROSIE: Because the English do not believe in kings or gods, only in business. Although they had their own Raja back in England, Rosie never saw any of the English in Malacca or elsewhere honour him. The English were not like the people of Aceh or Java, or of Lombok, where her mother was born. Rosie’s mother, even though she had been sold by the Raja of Lombok, never said anything against him. She would fear being cursed. Now, on the islands, Rosie started to wonder if in the future she herself would remember Malacca. She remembered when she was a child. Not long after the English had arrived, they decided that they should destroy the Fort. Like all the slaves she was afraid of the Fort. She got a chill whenever she passed it. Sometimes, when she was with her mother on an errand for Tuan Alexander’s wife, they would pass it and hear men inside groaning. ROSIE: Is that true, or only something my mother told me? The English had decided to destroy the Fort, which had first been Portuguese, then Dutch. They employed many Malays and other workmen to start attacking the massive stone walls. MALE SLAVES: The Fort is cursed!  Many of them had nightmares or became ill, vomiting even as they worked. Some ran away back to the forest, leaving the English shaking their heads. At night there were voices murmuring from under the stones of the Fort. So the English decided that they needed to use explosives. On those days, a gong was struck. Then silence. Rosie could still remember the silence, then the boom, even here on the islands! Rosie had been standing in the crowd, squeezing her mother’s hand, when she had seen the explosions for the first time. There was the smoke and huge stones, stones as large as elephants, flying through the air. This continued for several days. Some workers were killed by falling stones. Everyone agreed that they should now be afraid of the English, if the English could destroy something like that, something so old, in only a few days, and frighten all the ghosts and spirits away. The English did not scare Rosie. After the Fort had been made a ruin, many more Englishmen started arriving. Rosie’s mother told her that they were warriors of the English Raja, that they would go to fight the Rajas of Java and the sultans of Borneo. Sometimes, when Rosie was with her mother, she would see those Englishmen standing in rows, walking all together in rows. Often they were led by other men wearing strange clothes: leather trousers, tiger skins over their shoulders, hats with long pink and black feathers that Rosie’s mother said came from tall African birds that cannot fly. Although Rosie had now been to the Cape, she still wondered about those birds. Some of the men said that there was a place in the Cape where men could ride them like horses! With the English in Malacca, the city was busy and crowded. Rosie’s mother did not like it. She complained that the Englishmen were eating too much food, that their cooks always got the best food at the markets. ROSIE'S MOTHER: Remember, Tuan Alexander is a very important man, more important now. He will take us to Java, and there we will live like queens. Even though she was just a child then, Rosie thought of Tuan Alexander’s wife, and of his other wife, the woman they called Nyai Satu. They did not use that expression in her presence. Nyai Satu was Tuan Alexander’s real wife, a slave from Bali. Everyone said she was from Bali because she said she was. She said she was the daughter of a Raja. She was Tuan Alexander’s favourite, the mother of two of his children. Who would have thought then that Rosie, little Rosie, would become Nyai Dua, and would also have two children for Tuan Alexander? Here, on these tiny islands, the great cities of Batavia and Malacca were almost forgotten dreams. Occasionally, when she was nearly asleep, lying against the bodies of the other women in the Cave under the house of Tuan Alexander on Pulau Bras, hearing the other slave women whispering in the kind of Malay that always reminded her of Batavia, Rosie would remember that one evening when Tuan Alexander had allowed the slave women to bring their children to a party that he and his wife hosted in the grandest room in their house on the Java plantation. Important people had come from Batavia and other cities. Rosie, holding her mother’s hand, had entered the room that was bright with countless candles. She was almost a young woman then. She held her mother’s hand because she had never been allowed somewhere like this before. They were amazed. There were hundreds of candles, and the smell of tobacco, coffee and freshly washed clothes, and of flowers. And the music of gamelan and fiddles. The wives of the Dutchmen were sitting on the floor in their best sarongs and kabayas, the golden threads in their clothes shimmering like tiny, happy lightning. They were talking in Malay and Javanese. Rosie and her mother did not yet understand Javanese. The important men were speaking their European languages. Rosie shivered with excitement. The wives of the Englishmen and Tuan Alexander’s wife were seated in chairs, fanning themselves, in dresses like large, fleshy flowers, white and pink. But what Rosie remembered best, even now, even on Pulau Bras, was the moment when one of the Dutchmen’s wives stood up from the floor, her mouth red from chewing betel nut. The wife was dressed like a Javanese queen. Then she took a few steps to sit down on a chair behind a large harp and started to play a wonderful music. ROSIE'S MOTHER: Beautiful, isn’t it? That is the music we will hear in heaven.

Episode Three: The Cave and the Kraal

After landing on the islands of the Cocos (Keeling) atoll in late 1825 or early 1826, Alexander Hare found that John Clunies-Ross, his former long-term employee, had also decided to establish a settlement on the islands. As Hare had preceded Ross and was accompanied by workers, the great majority of them slaves, Hare was able to occupy most of the islands, leaving only Palau Atas to Ross and his family. According to all accounts of this time, Hare’s behaviour was becoming increasingly erratic: he divided the male from the female slaves, and at his home on the impractical Pulau Bras at the north of the atoll held the single women and children in what was a kind of imprisonment.

THE SLAVES COULD not say for how long they had been on the islands. Pulau Bras was the female slaves’ home now. Their imam would have known, but he was on Pulau Panjang with some of the men. Rosie and the women had not seen him since the slaves had been separated. Tuan Alexander had sent the men to set up camps on almost all of the islands. He only allowed Tuan John and his men to have one or two of the islands. Tuan John had only a few people with him – his family and some English workers, and the Portuguese cook who had been with them since Malacca. Rosie sometimes spoke with the cook in her Portuguese. Tuan Alexander was much stricter on the islands than he had ever been before, even in the Cape, when they had had to work so hard on the farm – planting crops, picking grapes and all those other jobs that had been done for them by local slaves in Java. But in the Cape he had not been bad-tempered and agitated. In the Cape and in Java there had been only a few occasions when one of the men was flogged, and Tuan Alexander had never before separated the male from the female slaves and their children. Tuan Alexander had always recognised that many of them were married, even if they had only been married by their imam. It was true that their imam was not an imam educated in a mosque. Still, he knew more than anyone else did about prayers and rituals. They believed everything he told them. Now they were on the islands and it seemed that Tuan Alexander did not know where he could take them next, even if he did say that one day, once he had made the arrangements to regain ownership of his plantation, he would take them back to live in Java. Everyone liked the idea of returning to Java. It was not as good as Malacca, but it was better than being in Africa or on these lonely islands so far from everywhere. As soon as they had reached the islands, Tuan Alexander had separated the men from the women, the boys from the girls. Many of the married slaves were allowed to live together, unless Tuan Alexander believed that the husband had done something wrong, in which case he would keep the wife with him on Pulau Bras. Mostly it was the childless women whom Tuan Alexander kept with him. On their arrival on the islands, he had told the slaves in Malay that separating them from one another was to protect the purity of the women, to keep the children safe: he did not want the girls to become pregnant or the boys to hurt themselves or drown. When some of the men tried to object he had spoken to them in harsh English. Those few who could understand him kept quiet, knowing that he was warning them that if anyone disobeyed him they would be whipped or drowned. MALE SLAVE: Tuan Alexander said that he wished he had brought the Dutch overseer with him from his farm in the Cape, that savage man who whipped us when we were working out in the fields, swearing at us in his strange Dutch or in his devilish Portuguese. When Tuan Alexander had addressed them on their arrival on the islands he had held up the whip he had brought with him from Cape Town, a whip made of the leather of a rhino! None of them had ever seen a rhino, yet they could imagine it clearly when they closed their eyes – an animal large as an elephant, with a single long horn that could stab through a man faster than a spear. They feared that being whipped with that would be like being speared over and over. ROSIE: What made Tuan Alexander think like that? What made him so cruel? Maybe all of them wondered the same. Even though she was Nyai Dua, she was kept with the other female slaves in the Cave under Tuan Alexander’s house on Pulau Bras. Only Nyai Satu could sleep with Tuan Alexander in the room above them. Tuan Alexander sent the single men and the married couples to the other islands where they had to work from dawn until dusk, with only a half an hour for food at midday, without a day of rest. Rosie and the other women and girls worked in the day on Pulau Bras, or sometimes on the other islands: finding coconuts, making palm oil and boiling seawater for salt. At night they were all locked up under Tuan Alexander’s house. They called their new home ‘the Cave’. The girls were with them there, while the boys were kept in the Kraal – like what the dark-skinned people in the Cape used for their animals – beyond the two tall fences surrounding Tuan Alexander’s house. There were two fences around Tuan Alexander’s house, one around the Kraal. Tuan Alexander explained that the fences were needed to protect the women from Tuan John’s men. Tuan John’s men were all European and all unmarried. To those slaves who knew about the tribes in Borneo and Sumatra, the Cave was like a cage only animals or prisoners should be made to live in. Rosie did not see it like that. To her the Cave was a dark, safe place, somewhere she could hide among the women. There she could keep her baby close to her. Her older boy was in the Kraal. Even if they were like prisoners, at least they were together, on one island. ROSIE: Because they are Tuan Alexander’s sons he will always take care of us. None of them could have known how long they had already been on the islands. Occasionally, they would hear something from the imam who, by observing the moon or talking with sailors from a passing ship who were buying supplies from Tuan John’s settlement, knew which year it was – how long they had been on the islands. None of the slaves had much clothing. Each had only a sarong, except Nyai Satu, who had two sarongs, enough cloth to cover her breasts. And there was little food for the nearly one hundred slaves, Tuan Alexander’s Orang Cape. Being on these islands was nothing like being in Malacca, Java or the Cape. It was like being on a becalmed ship. On those days when Rosie was able to wander away from her tasks for a while, she would go to the north side of the tiny island and stare at the open ocean, its angry grey like the ocean at the Cape. There she would quietly, sadly, think of nothing.

The preceding is an extract from an eight-episode text conceived for radio broadcast. The Quiet Slave is a historically accurate fiction that describes the first years of settlement on the Cocos (Keeling) Islands, a tiny atoll midway between Perth and Sri Lanka, through the eyes of a female slave in the possession of Alexander Hare. It was Hare, rather than the first John Clunies-Ross, who brought the Malay people to the islands in the early nineteenth century. Even today, most of the Cocos Malay community are under the impression that the Clunies-Ross dynasty, who ruled the islands until the 1970s, was solely responsible for the founding of the settlement and for the Malay people’s one hundred and fifty years of servitude. The history of the Cocos Malays is a complex one, shaped by the ambitions of the Clunies-Ross family and the British colonial administration as well as by the Australian government, not least through its White Australia Policy. The Cocos Malay population is now divided between the Cocos (Keeling) Islands, the WA towns of Katanning and Port Hedland, and the Malaysian state of Borneo. My text was conceived with the aim of informing the Cocos Malay communities of the Cocos (Keeling) Islands and the Australian mainland of the nature of their origins, restoring a sense of their place in the history of the South-East Asian slave trade and the British Empire. It is currently being translated into Malay and will be transcribed in the Jawi script. The completed text, performed in English and Malay by members of the Cocos Malay community of the town of Katanning, will be produced for broadcast on 6CKI, Cocos (Keeling) Islands’ radio station, and, perhaps, on ABC radio in the Great Southern region of WA. After the broadcasts, the edited sound work (with documentation) will be exhibited as an installation at the Western Australian Museum, as part of spaced 2: future recall, the international biennale of contemporary art for which it was commissioned, before a national tour.


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