The Smuggler’s Curse is a story set in Broome, a wild and lawless town in the north-west of Australia in 1896 and is about a boy who is sold by his mother as a cabin boy to a sea captain. Captain Black Bowen turns out to be the most notorious smuggler to ever sail the wild Western Australian coast. Before too long, they are at sea and involved in out-running customs patrols, being chased by murderous pirates, nearly killed in a cyclone and entangled in smuggling guns to guerrillas fighting the colonial Dutch in Sumatra.
Red, the narrator, is the son of Mary Read, owner of The Smuggler’s Curse Hotel which sits high on the cliff overlooking Roebuck Bay in Broome. I borrowed her name from a famous 18th century female pirate of the Caribbean, as well as Red’s name from the pirate, Red Rackham. The other main character, as far as I’m concerned, is a beautiful Baltimore Clipper sailing ship called The Black Dragon owned by Captain Bowen.
On holiday a few years ago, I stayed in a lighthouse on the southern tip of the Shetland Islands off the coast of Scotland, where I discovered I was in the exact room where Robert Louis Stevenson had written Treasure Island, my favourite book as a kid. Later that night, imaging to the ghost of RLS looking over my shoulder, I tried to write my own pirate story set in 1810, but it quickly evolved into a smugglers’ tale. Later on, I moved the story up to 1895 and reset the plot in Broome and South-East Asia.
The plot is grounded in real history, as are all the places mentioned such as Broome, Singapore, Sumatra, Aceh, Cossack, Fremantle and Albany. There was a fierce and bloody war raging between the colonial Dutch and the Sumatran resistance fighters at the time, Chinese and Malay pirates roamed wild and Broome was a hotbed for smuggling pearls and opium. Into this late part of the 19th century, I added my characters and gave them perilous adventures. There are possibly a few more explosions and guns firing than in the real Broome at that time.
Reading a lot about Broome and the pearling days, I had no idea smuggling was so rife in the colony. Among all the other contraband goods, opium was hidden in banana boxes from Singapore and pearls smuggled out in payment.
To absorb the atmosphere and imagine scenes, I visited Broome, Singapore, and the places in South-East Asia where I set the action in the book, including treking to a longhouse in Sumatra where the recent descendants of head-hunters still have skulls hanging from fishing nets in their ceilings. That was a shock. Luckily, they ceased collecting them about 1948.
I also discovered the little-known Aceh Independence War and learned about Ibu Purbu, the female leader of the Sumatran resistance, who continued the war against the Dutch invaders for almost forty years. When her father and husband were captured and executed, she immediately took over as leader and led a savage revolt where over five thousand Dutch soldiers were killed. She is now a national hero in Indonesia, with her picture on the 10,000 rupiah note. Having discovered her story, and being impressed with her courage, I couldn’t resist including her as a character in the book.
Although the story begins in Broome, it quickly moves to South East Asia, where the tropical feel of the heat, the humidity, the vivid colours, the huge tides and unfamiliar culture all impact on Red and the crew of The Black Dragon.The ongoing fate of Red, the young hero, remains, however, the main focus as we see him fighting bravely, sometimes against impossible odds, and being forced to grow up very quickly indeed.
I hope it is an exciting yarn. I had a lot of fun researching the history and locations, but my most enjoyable experience was imagining the perils Red, Captain Black Bowen and the rest of the crew encounter. I wanted the settings, the seamanship, atmosphere and life on board the Dragon to be as realistic and as authentic as I could make them. I learned how to haul in a jib, handle a ship’s wheel, read a compass, shoot a blowpipe, fire a musket and load a cannon, all essential skills for a smuggler.
Recently, I made a visit to Cocos Islands District High School as Writer-in-Residence, where the school kids provided me loads of fabulous ideas for an exciting story about The Black Dragon being shipwrecked off their island in the middle of the Indian Ocean. They want a sequel to The Smuggler’s Curse, so I had better start thinking about it.