A Lady's Captivity Among Chinese Pirates

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 12 October, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 12 October, 2008, 12:00am

A Lady's Captivity Among Chinese Pirates

by Fanny Loviot National Maritime Museum, HK$136

Some lady. Despite the title of this non-fiction classic, Fanny Loviot, the French narrator heroine, was far from refined. According to the deputy director of Britain's National Maritime Museum, Margarette Lincoln, writing in the introduction, Loviot may well have been a prostitute. Judging by the setbacks recounted in her ripping real-life yarn, she was also a magnet for trouble.

Part of a series of titles from the Caird Library collection reissued by the museum, the book is strong on adventure, however inadvertent, and tells of how, in May 1852, with 17 other lost souls, including a bankrupt boot-maker and a disgraced nobleman, Loviot sailed from French port Le Havre aboard the schooner Dunkirk Independence: she was off to seek her fortune in the Californian gold rush. Aptly, she was riding on the back of the Golden Ingots Lottery, an expedient means for the state to send undesirables on a one-way ticket overseas.

During the tumultuous voyage, Independence narrowly missed foundering on a reef, stopped at Rio and rounded Cape Horn in a storm, losing at least one sailor. When the ship finally reached San Francisco in November the half-starved passengers went wild.

Almost certainly, like many unmarried women then, Loviot fell into prostitution, but habitually wore men's clothes because they made moving around easier. Mobility mattered because California's melting-pot society was beset by conflict. She found herself in danger, narrowly missing taking a bullet while running away from a ruckus at a Sacramento 'hotel'.

Worse drama loomed in the shape of a random fire that wiped out her workplace one lovely summer night. On the invitation of another French 'tradeswoman', in June 1854 the survivor sailed for the Javanese island of Batavia (now Jakarta) via Hong Kong.

The scenery mesmerised Loviot. 'The vegetation of Hong Kong is the most luxuriant in the world, and the flowers are redolent with a perfume more sweet and more penetrating than those of Europe,' she gushes.

At the same time, Loviot voices disgust for the bugs that infested her dodgy lodgings.

On October 4, 1854, she withdrew again, heading back to California aboard a Chilean brig called the Caldera, which was hit by a crippling tempest before being becalmed, then stormed by firebomb-hurling Chinese pirates.

'One of them then passed the cold blade of his sabre along my throat, while the others made signs expressive of their inclination to behead me,' she writes. 'I stirred neither hand nor foot, though my face, I dare say, indicated the depth of my despair.'

Her hero, the Caldera's British captain, Rooney, evaporated. Enter Chinese merchant and fellow passenger Than-Sing, who touched her on the shoulder and gave his reassurance that the invaders wanted only to frighten, not harm her. What an impact that gesture made on Loviot who, like most Europeans then, looked down on non-westerners. Than-Sing's 'charity' made her realise that not all Chinese were blackguards.

After an escape plan she boldly suggested was vetoed by her companions and another attempt failed, deliverance materialised on October 18: a 'heaven-sent day, never to be named unless with prayer and thankfulness'.

Out of the blue, a Hong Kong steamer carrying Captain Rooney and a team of marines emerged, sending the pirates scurrying into the nearby mountains.

The explanation for this miraculous turn of events proves to be a surprise sub-plot worthy of any dramatist. After the pirates boarded the ship some took Rooney to Macau, where two followed him into town believing he would raise a ransom. Instead, he turned them in to the governor and requested support for a rescue mission.

Loviot was destined to wind up back in France where she would capitalise on her experiences, publishing her memoir in French in 1858. An instant hit, A Lady's Captivity was translated and published in London and Stockholm the same year.

The reasons for the yarn's success are as plain as the black, scudding clouds that bedevilled her travels. Marrying bodice-ripper drama with the ominous overtones of Conrad and Coleridge, it gives a unique glimpse into history.

It is hard to think of any other book from the era that sheds so much light on a woman's mind. Ironically, the women that do come to mind are the likes of the heavily mythologised pirate Anne Bonny.