1818 The South China Sea
The wild storm seems to have no end, the heavens above unleashing a relentless torrent as the sea rises and falls in response. The wind howls, screeching as it cuts through the torrential rain, snapping at every item that had the misfortune to be left loose. The small fishing vessel is not built for this type of onslaught at all, and it tumbles in the rising waves like a child’s toy.
A shrieking gale knocks open a loose hatch and sends a deluge of rain below deck. The storm’s rough waves send all the empty hammocks swinging. A chubby hand reaches for the edge of one of the two hammocks whose owners should be sleeping. Her eyes blink wide awake.
The girl is but eight years old, grinning wide enough to rival yesterday’s shining crescent moon. A particularly ferocious wave crashes against the hull, knocking her grip loose and sending the hammock swinging. She tumbles to the rough-hewn floor in a heap, but rights herself quickly, her bare feet plopping against the wet planks.
She climbs above deck, and immediately her hair whips behind her with the sheer force of the wind. The crew is shouting, barely audible over the roar of the wind and the rain. She can hear her mother barking orders, something about avoiding the shoals and more complicated directions lost in the wind.
The ship heels perilously to one side, and she laughs when she almost falls, skidding to the right to keep her balance. It’s like a dance—the moon trying to peek out behind the clouds, the rains making all the surfaces as slick as if they’ve been coated with oil, the ship’s deck approaching vertical as crew members desperately hang onto something, anything, to avoid being thrown into the sea.
“Anh! Get back below deck! This storm is no joke!”
“I can help, M?!” Anh calls out to her mother.
“The halyard line is twisted! It won’t pass through the eye!” Bác Tu shouts. A particularly fierce gust wrenches the line out of his hands, and the wind whips it up into the air before he seizes it again.
“I’ll get it, Bác Tu! Don’t worry!” Anh races forward, her hands trailing along the rail as she makes her way to the mast. Anh delights in the challenge, her hands and feet finding their place on the swaying lacings. She climbs the drenched, slippery mast, ignoring the commotion below.
Her uncle shouts at her something incomprehensible, but Anh gets the gist of it; he wants her back down on deck immediately. But she is almost there, and no one else would have done it—or could, she guesses, as she’s smaller and faster than anyone, except maybe Auntie Ling, who outraced her across the deck the other day.
Anh concentrates on holding tight, using the lacings for balance as she makes it to the top. She finds the tangle and shakes it loose, and immediately the line pulls taut with the force of the wind, passing through the eye easily.
Anh slides back down to the deck from the mast, and for a second it feels like she’s flying, a small act of defiance against the storm as she falls toward the deck. The surface rises up to meet her sooner than she anticipates. Her cheek smarts from where her face smacks against the wet wooden planks of the deck; she curls up into a ball and rolls just as an errant wave sends the ship toppling in the other direction.
“Anh!” M? shouts out in horror.
“I’m fine!” Anh declares, getting up. She races over to where her mother is pulling her line and joins her, her arms straining with effort as they pull. Together they manage to furl the sail in a few moments. Anh barely has time to be proud before her mother picks her up and starts carrying her below deck.
“Hey!” Anh struggles, wiggling playfully.
“Do not ever do that again,” M? says.
“But I helped,” Anh insists.
“It’s too dangerous in a storm. The mast is no place to climb,” M? says, setting her down. “Go back to sleep.”
“But I want to be up top!”
“Stop acting like a wet fish!” M? snaps, holding her still.
Anh frowns; usually her mother joins her in the game, teasing and tickling her.
“It’s safer down here. You can help above deck another time, when the sea can’t take you away from me.”
Anh nods and makes her way back toward her hammock. She listens to the footsteps on the deck above, the crew’s shouts.
A shrill cry rises up from the hammock next to hers. Her little brother is awake.
Anh peers over the edge of the swaying fabric, looking down at his little face scrunched up and covered in tears. He cries even harder, reaching for comfort.
“It’s just a storm, Thanh, it’ll pass,” she says. She reaches out, and he takes her hand, his stubby fingers closing around her own, but he only bawls louder.
Her mother climbs down the ladder and wrings out her shirtsleeves, dripping water onto the floor as she approaches them.
“Hush, hush, it’s fine, it’ll be over soon,” M? says, coming up to Thanh’s hammock. She picks up Thanh, and he presses his face against her neck.
“When?” he sobs.
“That is not for us to know or decide. All we must do is endure it. And all you can do right now, little one, is to go back to sleep.”
Anh settles into her hammock and watches her mother sit down, gently holding Thanh and making soothing noises. With her foot, she reaches out and steadies Anh’s hammock as well. Anh smiles, listening to the storm rage on.
Thanh fusses, continuing to cry.
“What about a story?” M? asks with a soft smile.
Thanh sniffles and nods, wiping at his face.
Voices shout from above deck. “Captain! Should we try to make for the lee of the island to weather the storm?”
“I’ll be there in a moment! Go ahead!” M? calls out. “All right, little ones. A story.”
“One with treasure!” Thanh gurgles, breaking into a smile.
“Zheng Yi Sao,” Anh presses. One of her favorites. She knows the story of this formidable woman by heart, but she loves the way her mother tells it.
“Yes, yes,” Thanh mumbles. “Tell us about the treasure again.”
Her mother snorts and smiles. “Again? Well. Let me see if I remember.”
“The thousands and thousands of ships!” Anh chirps. “The great Dragon Fleet!”
Her mother smiles at Anh, stroking Thanh’s hair as her voice slips into a familiar cadence. “Many years ago, before you both were born, these seas were ruled by pirates. Seeing another sail on the horizon would be worse than seeing a rising storm. You didn’t know what you were chancing when you set out for a haul; it could be your ship, your entire livelihood, your life itself. Most fishers went upriver instead, going inland instead of facing the pirates.”
“But you and Ba didn’t, M?!” Thanh gurgles excitedly.
“Yes, well, many called us fools. But we took our chances, and we caught fish and crabs and prawns and continued to make our living. See, the pirates hardly bothered with us. In fact, the few times a ship would come alongside they would perhaps intimidate us a bit, but mostly it was to convince us to join their fleet. The pirates were so bold, they set out for only the most desirable of prizes—traders from distant lands, kings’ galleons filled with precious spices, lumber and oil, gold and jade, riches you could only dream of.”
Anh sighs as she settles into the familiar story, thinking of the daring feats of the pirates. She’s heard so many stories of their sieges, how they fought against the Qing emperor’s navy when no one else dared to. The sounds of the storm fade away as she listens to her mother’s story.
“The waters were soon impassable without the seal of protection from the great Dragon Fleet, a massive confederation of pirates who sailed under the command of one woman, a fierce and ruthless leader who commanded thousands and thousands of ships. For years they controlled all the travel in these waters, the entire coast of Vi?t Nam and the south of China, and were so fearsome that the Qing even enlisted help from the British and the Portuguese. But their massive ships could not maneuver the narrow channels and bays, especially in the archipelago of H? Long Bay.”
Anh nods sleepily, thinking of the small floating fishing villages adrift on makeshift docks, and the scores of tiny places tucked inside the coves. She’s never seen a large imperial warship like the ones in M?’s stories, but she can imagine how silly it might look, trying to wedge between the tall narrow passages of cliffs rising up in the bay, the shallow rivers that led inland toward hidden coves and clusters of villages.
“Zheng Yi Sao had a colossal ship, and all her lieutenants had these beasts that were practically like floating cities. The Dragon Fleet was a massive organization—many squadrons sailed under their banner with thousands of ships, including the Red, Yellow, Blue, and Black Banner Squadrons, only united under Zheng Yi Sao’s command. Cheung Po Tsai, the lieutenant of the Red Banner Squadron, had a temple constructed on his, but the majority of the vessels that made up the bulk of the ships were small junks, flat-bottomed ships—”
“Like ours!” Anh says, excited.
M? smiles. “Do you want to tell the story, or should I?”
Anh ducks her head sheepishly and waits for her mother to continue.
“Yes, ships like ours could easily sail upriver without any trouble. There were many fishing vessels that joined the fleets, local fishing folk looking to try their luck at something more.” M? shrugs and smiles, lost in a distant memory. “And then as more ships did the same, and the stories of Zheng Yi Sao and the Dragon Fleet grew and spread, the Qing Emperor grew tired of the pirates challenging him and humiliating his navy, but try as he could he could not best their cunning. She and her pirates would lay waste to his ships, ruthlessly seizing any goods he tried to distribute or those of foreigners hoping to do trade with his empire. A whole ship laden with gold, jade, and jewels headed for the kingdom of Siam fell to her once, and her sights grew even higher.
“Zheng Yi Sao had done what no other pirate in the South China Sea had before—she had united multiple squadrons into an army, amassing enough wealth and power to draw the attention of multiple empires … at least until the emperor could take no more.”
“What happened?” Thanh asks sleepily.
“At first, he attempted to eradicate the pirates. The Liangguang governor-general of the Guangdong province and the Qing navy, however, were helpless against the might of the fleet. The Chinese, the Portuguese, the British—even in their attempts to work together to fight the Dragon Fleet—could not defeat Zheng Yi Sao and her pirate army. They attempted to corner her, but she held the entire port of Canton under siege, her Red Banner Squadron blocking all trade until the Liangguang governor-general surrendered to her terms. They issued pardons to all the pirates, and many of the skilled lieutenants and captains were recruited into the navy and given official positions of their own. The rest of the pirates, pardoned but with nowhere to go, went back to their lives—fishers and merchants, struggling to get along.”
Thanh is asleep now, and M? rises up slowly from his hammock, giving him a soft smile.
“And Zheng Yi Sao? What happened to her?” Anh asks, gripping the edge of her hammock.
M? smiles, lowering her voice. “No one knows. She disappeared. Some say she took a position in the navy, or that she died in that battle. And some say she still commands a ship to this day, and you can see the shadow of it on nights like these, riding a wild storm.”
“And the treasure?”
“Lost forever. The loot of thousands of ships, plunder from different kingdoms, collected over her reign when she commanded these waters. Some say it was hidden so cleverly that she must have summoned dark magic to help hide the island where it was buried. That the island itself is only visible on the night of a full moon, and that no one could sail there without the blessing of the sea gods, or the ghost of Zheng Yi Sao herself guiding the way.”
Copyright © 2021 by C.B. Lee