We are left one epic account of an attack by an Illanun (Malay) pirate squadron against a lone British ship in 1863.
The ship was the Singapore-based coastal trading brig, the Lizzie Webber; she carried 12 six-pounder cannons for her defense and was captained by John Ross Northwood assisted by the chief officer Mr Simpson and a local Malay crew.
On one of his trading trips to Borneo, Captain Northwood had taken his English wife and four-year-old son with him on the ship.
In Borneo he loaded passengers and, amongst other cargo, a large box of gold and silver coins from some local merchants to take back to bank for them in Singapore.
Word of this valuable cargo must have got out, as one day in port a Malay “trader” came aboard the Lizzie Webber, but “never came down to business”.
Instead he seemed suspiciously curious about the ship’s cannons. Kassim, Northwood’s faithful Malay first mate, later heard that the visitor had actually been Si Rahman, a renowned Illanun pirate chief.
The Lizzie Webber set sail that evening but by the next morning she found herself becalmed in a listless sea near Labuan Island. Then eight Illanun war prows were spotted approaching in the far distance, their oars pacing swiftly through the bright morning sea.
Captain Northwood knew he had no chance of running from the pirates so he must fight his ship… the men beat to quarters, the cannons were run out and rifles and cutlasses served to the crew.
Captain Northwood hurried below to find his wife. She knew as well as he the fate that would await her if the pirates carried the ship, he handed her a revolver telling her to shoot both her son and herself if the pirates carried the ship… the pirate squadron swept down on their prey, each prahu pulling some forty oars or more.
The pirates were several hundred strong and had they gone straight to work, the fate of the Lizzie Webber would have been settled within half an hour.
That fortunately is not the native way of doing things… instead the leading pirate prahu came within easy hailing distance.
Amidship on the lead prahu was a raised platform. Si Rahman, the pirate chief, stood up on it, resplendent in a scarlet coat.
He shouted across that they needed some tobacco and asked if they could come aboard. Captain Northwood shouted back that he knew pirates when he saw them and, if the prahus did not “sheer off”, he would open fire.
Si Rahman advised Northwood to give up his ship without a useless fight, as he himself was “kabal” (one who had undergone magic) and wore a magic charm which rendered him invulnerable to shot or steel.
At this point, without being ordered, Northwood’s Malay first mate, Kassim, fired his gun at Si Rahman.
And thus commenced the action… The crew kept up a rapid fire which greatly disconcerted the pirates… her twelve pounders were each loaded with round shot and a canvas bag of bullets rammed home on top of it which made a very effective charge at short range.
The pirates who mounted a number of light guns, replied vigorously… The roar of the guns and the constant rattle of the musketry made a terrific din, above which rose the yell of the pirates.
Within a few minutes after the action commenced, Mr Simpson (the chief officer) was carried below badly wounded with three native sailors in the same condition.
In the absence of any surgeon, Mrs Northwood had to attend as best she could to the wounded. Her son Johnnie, who so far from being frightened by the din of battle, made frantic attempts to escape to the upper deck to see what “papa was doing”.
In the meantime Captain Northwood fought his ship for all he was worth. His great object was to bring down Si Rahman, who exhibited the most extraordinary daring – possessed as he was of the idea that his magic charm would preserve him from all danger.
He stood on his platform, like a scarlet demon, directing the attack and constantly exposed to a rattling fire and somehow nothing could touch him… scores of shots were directed at Si Rahman without hurting [him].
The man was perfectly aware of the unavailing attempts to bring him down and openly rejoiced in the strength of his magic charm. It really seemed as if the charm was working to some purpose.
After three hours of desperate struggle there came a lull. Captain Northwood went round his decks and saw that the heated 12 pounders were sponged out and ready for further service and the small arms reloaded.
Barely had he completed his round when the pirate vessels swept down upon them again under the full pressure of their swift oars.
Si Rahman’s plan of battle was now evident… what he should have done some hours before, that is throwing his hundreds of men on the deck of the Lizzie Webber and leave cold steel to do the rest. Northwood saw the coming on-rush with the blackest despair.
How could he hope with his scanty crew to withstand the onslaught of some hundreds of desperate Illanun pirates?
He had half a mind to rush below and after dispatching his wife and child to blow up the magazine… he watched the shots from his starboard guns flying harmlessly over the approaching prahus which lay so low in the water that it was impossible to depress the muzzles of the cannons sufficiently to hit them.
Si Rahman’s own prahu, by far the best manned, drew rapidly ahead of the rest and was almost alongside the brig when Northwood saw Kassim about to fire his twelve pounder again.
Northwood shouted “don’t fire over the prahu”, but Kassim showed that he had driven the wedge beneath the cannon’s breech as far as it would go and could depress the gun muzzle no further.
Looking round with hunted desperation in his eyes, Northwood saw a mast spar lying on the deck.
Bending down he put forth the whole of his great strength and lifting the gun carriage bodily, he got Kassim and another sailor to roll the spar beneath it.
Then taking a hasty look along the sights, he fired. … dire yells arose from the pirate prahu while shouts of joy rang from the deck of the Lizzie Webber.
What Northwood saw when he looked over his bulwarks was a pile of wreckage in place of the famous platform on which Si Rahman had so recklessly displayed his scarlet coat.
As for Si Rahman himself, a scarlet patch in the water swirling around the sinking prahu sufficiently accounted for the fiery Illanun Chief. His magic charm had failed him at the critical moment.
The pirate fleet still hung around the brig, their boats could pull much faster than she could sail and it was clear that the foe was only waiting for darkness to deliver his final attack.
It was a grim and hopeless prospect, but the breeze was freshening all the time.
As the Lizzie Webber began to slip though the water, the pirates, thirsting for revenge and plunder, closed on her again under the rays of the evening sun. Once more the firing raged hotly on both sides.
Then Mrs Northwood appeared to tell her husband there were only six more kegs of gunpowder.
This would just allow her guns to fire one more round apiece, with some to spare for the muskets.. suddenly he [Northwood] altered his tactics… down went his helm, he spilled his sails and before the pirates could comprehend his move, he was sailing through their fleet firing his last broadsides.
One of the prahus was caught at a disadvantage and springing to the wheel Northwood altered the Lizzie Webber’s course again… next minute there was tremendous crash as the keel of the brig rode over the wreck of the prahu.
Some of the pirates were shot as they swam away, others with the usual agility of natives managed to climb up the ship’s chains in an endeavor to reach the deck but were promptly cut down.
Then came the sudden darkness of the tropics and in its welcome obscurity the Lizzie Webber’s sails filled and bore her to safety.
The author of this stirring passage was John Dillon Ross, the four-year-old “Johnny” in this story.
Adapted with kind permission from the book ‘A History of Phuket and the Surrounding Region’ by Colin Mackay. Available from good bookshops and Amazon.com. Order the softcover 2nd edition directly at: www.historyofphuket.com