Flashman and the Pirates

as presented at Border Reiver 2008 by Durham Wargames Group

This game combined into one event two related operations of the Royal Navy in the 1840s against Chinese pirates and those of Borneo. As far as is known, there was never a Sino-Dyak alliance, but as the Chinese diaspora was already very sizeable we felt justified in setting our game on an imaginary piece of seacoast, not far from Sarawak, where a Chinese settlement co-exists with one of the local Sea Dyaks. The Royal Navy and Royal Marines are joined in their attack on the nest of corsairs by James Brooke, the famous "White Rajah" of Sarawak, and by Harry Flashman, whose exploits in this area are well known thanks to Flashman's Lady by the late and much- missed George MacDonald Fraser. The British have their own locally-recruited allied Dyaks.

William Congreve's famous product will be enlivening the proceedings, and you should imagine some distance offshore Brooke's own Jolly Batchelor and a few small European warships such as HM Corvette Dido, or the East India Company's paddlers Phlegethon or Nemesis.

As is unfortunately only too common with clashes between European and non- European forces in this period, the evidence so far available to the average wargamer is almost entirely from the victor. The Chinese certainly have their own views, but we have not been able to use any written evidence from them or the Dyaks. It should be remembered that there was also powerful criticism of these operations from within Britain at the time.

We used the rules Sharp Practise, available from www.toofatlardies.co.uk. Like all of the Lard rules, they aim to provide an entertaining game, rather than an excuse for sea-lawyers to hyperventilate, and this set is deliberately designed to reflect the heroes and villains of fiction rather than "real" battles. Nonetheless, as a writer and historian of MacDonald Eraser's quality bases his tales in a well-researched and convincing historical scene, we feel that the rules by extension give a reasonably accurate mechanism for re-enacting the minor actions of these particular "sub- Napoleonic" conflicts on the table-top.

The Dyak figures are mainly from Scheltrum Miniatures as are some of the Royal Marines and most on the Royal Navy. The Chinese are from Irregular and Foundry, and other figures are converted from Minifigs and Lamming. The buildings are from various sources, including Scheltrum and a member's goldfish tank.

The vessels are not intended to be accurate representations of their prototypes (wargames watercraft rarely are, as the demands of gaming trump the any wish to do the ships and boats in true scale - 1760th would be about right- or include the rigging)

There is not a great deal of easily available information on the prahas of the area, or even on the Chinese junk, which must have been one of the most long-lived and most important families of ships in history. The models are either as sold by Scheltrum, or conversions of hulls into vessels that at least have the basic appearance of their originals. The sources for information on the vessels is listed below, the most interesting being a set of non-European models now in Madrid. The Indian Ocean dhow probably got blown further east than was planned, but at least the flag is correct -Brooke's own arms, which he used in the east.

Sources:

  • Nigel Barley, White Rajah-a biography of Sir James Brooke, London, 2002.
  • Carl Bock, The Head-Hunters of Borneo, London 1881, new edn. Singapore 1985.
  • Alicia Castellanos Escudier, Cuarteroni y los piratos malayos, Madrid, 2004.
  • William Laird Clowes, The Royal Navy, VI, London, 1901.
  • Gertrude Jacob, The Raja of Sarawak, London, 1876.
  • Henry Keppel, The Expedition to Borneo of HMS Dido for the Suppression of Piracy:
    with Extracts from the journal of James Brooke, Esq., London, 1853.
  • Michael Levien (ed), The Cree Journals, Exeter, 1981.
  • Basil Lubbock, Adventures by sea from art of old time, London, 1925.
  • Frank Marryat, Borneo and the Indian Archipelago, London, 1848.
  • W. E. May, The Boats of Men-of-war, Greenwich, 1999.
  • Articles in Journal of the United Services Institution, August 1914;
  • Mariner's Mirror Jan. 1948, Oct. 1949, May 1956, May 1959, Aug. 1960, May 1967, Nov. 1974, Feb. 1997.
  • Pitt-Rivers Museum, Oxford; naval Museums in Madrid and Venice.
  • There is a late twentieth-century but traditionally-built Hong Kong junk in Eyemouth harbour, Berwickshire.
  • Cornell University website- dixs.library.comeli.edu/s/sea/browse.php

The Game

The battle was very much a fight of two halves. Our table had a decent-sized amount of water for the various craft to cross, but we decided that for the sake of both simplicity and visual appeal we would not allow the non-European forces to set sail - presumably they had over-indulged in the pirate sherry and were caught by surprise.

What followed was rather like a Nelsonian cutting-out expedition, with some of the defenders sufficiently alert to have got on board the two most important vessels.

Brooke commanded his own civilian sailors and those Dyaks who found it more to their taste to support the forces of law and order. He therefore had easily the weakest section of the European force to face four groups of Chinese, one of them deserters from the imperial army. It was not one of the Rajah's palmiest days. He had a medium-sized prahu, but the trouble with prahus is that they are lower in the water than junks, and this made grappling a bit of a problem. Two canoe-loads of Dyaks and the civilians chose to hit the beach instead, but this left them vulnerable to Chinese musketeers and a small and ugly gun. The Chinese made very bad practise when shooting at incoming boats, but it was a different matter when theses had disgorged onto the flat sands.

Meanwhile, in another part of the forest, the Royal Navy and a dhow full of Royal Marines took on the sea Dyaks. After a couple of attempts to board the fiag-prahu, an armoured crimson monster with a frog-figurehead, the bluejackets sensibly veered off to find a nice low beach. Once ashore the cutlass showed just how superior a weapon it is to any number ofkrises, sampatans and perangs, and two groups of Dyaks hid in the jungle or ran off the battlefields after unwisely attacking the Navy.

The Marines seemed to make rather more stately progress. They disembarked in fine style but then a unlucky shot took off their captain, leaving Flashman as the highest- ranking officer, albeit of a very different corps. The fact that the marines were never in serious danger is shown by this hero's continual presence on the beach, rather than in the bilges of the dhow. As the game ended, the marines were getting fed up with a line of pirates who had skulked in the bushes for several turns, pootling away with musketry and (ineffectual) poison darts, and a volley and charge next turn would have settled the action on this half of the field. The Dyak crew still held the "Frog" but in a few minutes would have been surrounded.

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As predicted, the rocket-boat was both amusing and useless. For once the Royal Navy realised that the chances of hitting, or at least greatly scarring, people on its own side were as least as great as doing the same to the enemy unless the boat was well out in front of other "British" forces, so it started shooting at the beginning of the game and tended to desist thereafter.

All in all a most entertaining game, that was enjoyed by participants and visitors alike.

- Conrad Cairns