The Queen of
Madagascar. A Bombay "suttee." The python in Ceylon.
Tamatave, the capital of
Madagascar, was our next anchorage, and there we found the harbor well sprinkled
with ships from all over the globe. At that time the Queen of this island
territory had not been deposed by the French, and she was then at the zenith of
her power. She felt honored by the presence of a British man-of-war in her
dominions and was profuse in her endeavor to ingratiate herself in the favor of
our commander. She invited all of our officers to the palace, which proved to be
a reception on a lavish scale.
The palace was a large building
in the center of houses of smaller dimensions. A series of stone steps led up to
the entrance, and on the whole I thought the building was much more modern than
I expected to see, but still was typical of the Orient. At the entrance we were
met by a sort of bodyguard composed of soldiers, tall as the Sikhs of Calcutta,
armed with short swords and lances, who formed a line on both sides of the hall.
A sort of royal chamberlain conducted us to the audience chamber, where the
Queen and her attendants were waiting.
I thought I had never seen such a
beautiful woman as she sat on a throne under a dais of gold and silk. She wore a
tiara of precious stones on her head instead of the crown she was entitled to,
and she probably looked more beautiful without it. Her skin was dark, as were
her eyes; her hair curling over her shoulders in wavy abundance. As she rose to
great us she showed an outline of her perfect symmetry, with gestures that were
imperious and queenly. She was tall, agile, flexible, and her movements were
adorable. We judged her age to be about thirty-five years. She held a short
conversation with our captain through an interpreter, and then led the way to
another sumptuously furnished room, where we were served tea and biscuits. It
was a pleasurable entertainment.
On our departure from Tamatave,
the bosen borrowed one of the sheets from my bunk, and the Queen’s ensign, a
milk-white flag, was hoisted as we left the harbor thundering a farewell salute
of twenty-one guns.
Bombay was our ultimate
destination, but on our way we crossed over the Seychelles Islands, a British
dependency where a school was maintained by England’s government for the
education of the indigent wards of the country. Where we anchored, the floor of
the ocean could b plainly seen to a depth of fifteen fathoms, and the fairy dell
of shell and marine vegetation was a never-ceasing topic interest. After two
day’s stop at this interesting port, and a call at Manila in the Philippines,
we left for Trincomalee, our home station on the island of Ceylon.
Trincomalee is one of the
world’s most beautiful harbors, large enough to accommodate all the navies of
the world, completely landlocked and speckled with islands that accentuate its
beauty. It has a country behind it that is self-sustaining by its wonderful
plantations of tea, spices, coconuts, tropical fruits, vegetables, etc. Here, on
a small island inside the harbor, was established a rest house for the use of
the officers, with a small for a landing place. The dock afforded a good
jumping-off platform when we wanted to bathe. The sharks, though plentiful, were
arrant cowards and never bothered when three or four of us were in the water
together. One evening a big shovel-nosed shark paraded in front of the dock with
only his fin showing. We waited for him to leave until our patience was
exhausted, and then three of us lined up abreast, took a running dive from the
dock, which gave the shark such a scare that we saw his fin scurrying for open
water for minutes afterward.
We reached Bombay after an
uneventful trip, and picked our moorings off the Bund. Parsees with their queer
hats and Brahmins with caste marks on their foreheads were there in an endless
procession, while the humble Hindoos did the digging, the carrying, and the
sweeping of the big city. During our leave from the ship we prowled through the
bazaars and found plenty to interest us in the Armenian quarter where the girls
sat in the doorways with tattoo marks extending from their necks to a point
below their navels. Beggars annoyed us all along the line with their display of
mutilated limbs, disease in the stages of corruption; and naked children would
rub their bellies with one hand, hold out the other and treble, “Rice! Give it
We were returning through the
darkness of the evening when we were attracted by a bright red glow coming from
a courtyard just off one of the principal streets of Bombay. On drawing nearer
we saw that the courtyard was surrounded by four-story building, the occupants
of which were sitting in the windows with their legs dangling outside, while the
yard below was crowded with people, their faces illuminated by the blaze of a
bonfire set against a building. We were at a loss to know what the gathering
meant until one of the crowd explained to us it was a “suttee,” or the
burning of the widow with the corpse of her dead husband.
Squeezing through the crowd to
get a better view of the proceedings, we saw that a pile of wood had been built
up, like a rectangle, with at intervals around it that were stuffed with
inflammable kindling. Two men with jars of cocoanut oil were sprinkling it over
the mass, and when all was ready a procession filed from one of the houses, led
by priests, followed by the corpse on a litter and the child wife. The girl was
weeping, and was supported by some old hags who were probably relatives. The
corpse was laid on the pyre, and then the wife tried to make a break for
freedom, but she was frustrated by the priests, who tied her hands and feet with
a cord and tossed her bodily on to the blaze with the corpse. The woman’s
screams were drowned in the loud incantations of the priests as the fire mounted
in a roar of flame. Suddenly all was silence, as a priest spoke some final
benediction. The fire died down, the crowd dispersed, and the suttee rites were
There is now a law prohibiting
the suttee, but is still observed in some parts of India.
From Bombay we laid our course
for Kalicut, then to Aden, where our crew invested their spare cash in ostrich
feathers. In another month we were back at Tricomalee to refit and take on
One bad feature of Ceylon is the
snake population. They exist in every variety of species and cussedness. There
is always some of the villagers laid up with a snakebite, and a few of them
recover. On one hot, sultry day I joined a party for a hike into the country. We
were swinging along the road when someone spotted a python in the timber nearby.
He had evidently just finished a meal, for his body had a big bulge, which
prevented him from moving very swiftly. One of our party had a rifle and started
to shoot at him. The first shot missed, while the big snake tried to reach a
tree. Another shot struck him ‘midships and that made him angry, for he made a
turn, tried to coil, and began reaching and spitting at us. The third shot
caught him just behind the jaw and he laid down. It took two more shot to give
the reptile his final quietus. He was the longest snake I ever saw, measuring
eleven paces (about thirty feet), and beautifully marked.
To make the scene more realistic, we spent an hour draping the python
along the bushes, and no doubt the sight created some consternation to travelers
passing along that road.