Daily Archives: 26 October 2005

A Kiwi Officer in Borneo, 1965

The website of the Royal New Zealand Artillery Old Comrades Association contains a lot of military memoirs from the days when New Zealand had more of a military than it does now. Here’s a tale recorded in April 2001 by former Captain John Masters MC from his days on the border of Malaysia and Indonesia.

It was 1965 in the jungles of Borneo. In the tropical rain forest we lived in a constant sauna. The temperature was the same at 2 in the morning as it was at 2 in the afternoon.

As a young subaltern, my first independent command on active service was small, but we were certain we were elite. Well, after all, we were Royal Horse Artillery.

My single gun crew were all Glaswegians. The Sergeant was a big taciturn Kentishman. I had a battery surveyor, a signaller and a gleaming, well-oiled 105mm howitzer which we made no effort to camouflage. We fired it regularly in support of C Coy, 3 RAR with whom we co-habitated on a little ridge a few feet above the mangrove swamp, and we believed in advertising our presence. Thus we spent three months, never more than fifty miles from the Equator, and never more than fifty feet above sea level.

After seven weeks of this untroubled existence (stress-free because we were forty miles across untracked virgin forest from Battery HQ, and the BSM) we were to be visited in our base by the Director Royal Artillery. He was a wonderful old fellow out from London to visit the only Regiment in the British Army, which was on active service that year. We assembled in our immaculate gun-pit, stripped to the waist and in our Hats, floppy, but with polished brass and our boots gleaming.

My last briefing to the troops, as the General’s helicopter landed, was to tell them to speak when spoken to. “Don’t hesitate to say what you think if he asks you a question.” I was well aware, of course, that Sergeant Smithers had already threatened dire things if anybody moved a muscle.

The dear old chap was overweight and drenched with sweat, but he carefully inspected us all, had a word to each, and then stood us at ease. He then asked if there was anything he could do for us.

Gunner Wilson, the layer, was from the Gorbals. Even after many weeks he was still blue-white in colour. Somewhat flat-chested and with a rather prominent adams apple, he did not look too capable of much initiative in such circumstances. He was however, as I was well aware, the Regimental featherweight champion. I had seen him very effectively deal with a well-muscled Australian who took him at face value, in two rounds.

Well, Gunner Wilson immediately snapped to attention, cleared his throat, and, looking fixedly into the middle distance, belted out, “Sir, when our beer comes in it is too hot.” Sgt. Smithers seemed to lose two inches in height, his jaw muscles slackened into rictus, and his eyes rolled to heaven.

The DRA blanched, but only slightly. He wasn’t a General for nothing. He knew he could do nothing for Gunner Wilson, but, with only the barest pause, he came up with a response none of us ever forgot. Reaching back to his subaltern days on the Indian sub-continent, he said, “Well, I remember, when we had that problem we would hang the bottles in the trees, and the breeze would blow, and cool our beer.”

There was a frisson that rippled through the little group in the gun-pit. An eyelid flickered, a face muscle twitched, but they were British, by God. Unlike any bunch of Kiwis who would have fallen about laughing, they held themselves erect until the General’s helicopter lifted off. Then they fell about.

For the rest of our tour, the answer to any question, or the reaction to any complaint was “Just hang it in the trees, and the breeze will blow, and the beer will be cool.” I loved the Brits.

via Japundit, by a very circuitous route

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Fraser Weir on Islam’s Arrival in Coastal Southeast Asia

Fraser Weir’s A Centennial History of Philippine Independence, 1898-1998 gives an account of Islam’s arrival in coastal Southeast Asia in the 14th and 15th century, closely followed by the arrival of the first Portuguese and Spanish Christians.

Regular coastal trade in the Persian Gulf and Arabian Sea linking Mesopotamia and the Indus valley dates from at least the time of the Assyrian Empire (729-612 BC). Arab and Persian merchants are reported in the southern Chinese port of Guangzhou (Canton) in the 8th century AD. However, after Mahmud of Ghazni’s invasions of the Indus valley (997-1030), the Sword of Islam added a vigorous religious and political dimension to the commerce.

On his return to Venice from the court of Kublai Khan, Marco Polo noted in 1292 that Pasai in northern Sumatra had converted to Islam. The Sultan of Pasai, the first Muslim ruler on Sumatra, died in 1297 and Pasai returned under Majapahit’s Hindu ambit in 1350. Despite this reverse, Islam was moving steadily through the archipelago.

Islamic inscriptions in Malaya date from 1326. A Muslim scholar, Mukdum, from Malaya is reported in the Philippine’s Sulu archipelago in 1380. In 1400, the northern Sumatran province of Aceh converted to Islam.

When Majapahit captured the Sri Vijayan capital Palembang in 1377, a prince of the royal house, Parameshwara, escaped to Malaya. In 1402 he chose the choke point where the Straits of Malacca narrow to 53 km in width to found his new capital, Melaka. Parameshwara moved quickly to protect his fledgling state. He sent a mission to the Emperor Zhu Di (Yong Li) seeking Ming protection from his Majapahit enemies. Admiral Zheng He (Cheng Ho) arrived at Melaka in 1409 with the Ming’s Dragon Fleet. Parameshwara paid a personal visit to Beijing in 1411 to cement his alliance with the Ming Empire.

In the same year as a Muslim mission was attracting converts far to the east on Ambon in the Moluccas, Parameshwara announced his conversion to Islam in 1414 and proclaimed himself Sultan of Malacca. The appeal of Islam was strong. The Sultanate’s arch rival, Majapahit converted in 1447. Hindus who wanted to retain their faith were under siege. From mid-century on, Javanese Hindus concentrated on the island of Bali where they have succeeded in preserving their religion to the present day. In 1475 the Moluccan islands of Ternate and Tidore converted to Islam.

Through the 15th century the upstart Sultanate of Malacca grew from strength to strength. It successfully repelled overland and seaborne attacks from the Thai Empire in 1445 and 1456. The Sultan Mansur Shah put down the Thai’s peninsular allies Kedah and Pahang in 1459. Finally in 1498, by the efforts of its Admiral Hang Tuah, Malacca had secured the monopoly. All the trade in the Straits, and especially the spices from the Celebes and the Moluccas, moved under its protection and through its markets.

Considering that in over a thousand years, Buddhism and Hinduism had barely made an impression east of Borneo, for Islam to have travelled the length of the archipelago from Sumatra to the Moluccas in under two centuries is remarkable. As a religion, Islam had popular appeal. The Hindu and Buddhist religions had been used mainly to deify the rule of the Rajas. Islam offered its converts a personal salvation.

Islam was also carried with the mobility of the merchant community. The landed Hindu-Buddhist Rajas were content to let the trade come to them and tax it as it passed through their ports. Lacking a fixed land base, the Islamic merchants followed their commercial instincts knowing that the best profits on the trade were to be made at source. The trail of conversions led straight to the spices.

Perhaps most important of all, Islam brought with it gunpowder, firearms and cannon. Recalling how smartly the Sultan of Malacca accepted the new faith and how quickly others followed his lead, access to the new weapons may have been restricted to the faithful. The religion’s rapid progress through the islands may have been, at least in part, an arms race.

The year that the Sultanate of Malacca finally consolidated its hold on the Straits was fateful. That same year, Vasco da Gama rounded the Cape of Good Hope from Portugal with four ships, crossed the Indian Ocean and landed on 27 May 1498 at Calicut on the Malabar coast. Indian Hindus and Portuguese Christians shared in common a deep animosity for Islam. In 1510, Affonso de Albuquerque, the Viceroy of India, by treaty with Krishna Deva Raya, the Emperor of Vijayanagar, secured the port of Gao [sic] as a naval base for Portuguese operations in the Indian Ocean.

Albuquerque had already learned of Malacca’s strategic importance to the spice trade. The very next year, in 1511, he took with him eighteen Portuguese warships from Gao [sic] and ended the Sultanate of Malacca. The loss of Malacca shattered the Islamic trade network at a blow. From so far away, though, Portugal was operating at the very limit of its power and was never quite able to rebuild the trading network it had destroyed. Ten years later, the Portuguese were greatly alarmed to see Magellan’s flagship Victoria returning to Spain – westward from the Philippines.

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