National Geographic : 2007 Oct
BY PETER GWIN NATIONALGEOGRAPHICSTAFF PHOTOGRAPHS BY JOHN STANMEYER "I CAN SMELL THE SEA FROM HERE," says the prisoner. That seems a wild improbability com ing from a man in a soundproof cell in northern Malaysia, several miles as the gull flies from the closest salt water. All I can smell in this humid, whitewashed prison is the faint tang of ammo nia used to clean the floors. It is hard to know what to believe of the pris oner's claims. At times he has declared his inno cence and then later confessed to being a willing criminal. He mentions he has three children, later the number is four. His passport lists his name as Johan Ariffin, but Malaysian authori ties doubt that's his real name. His age is noted as 44 (streaks of gray in his black hair make that plausible) and his residence as Batam, an Indonesian island just south of Singapore. Men like him often come from Batam, a guard says. Though his jailers remain unsure who he is, they know exactly what he is: lanun (pronounced la-noon). When asked for a direct English equiv alent, an interpreter explains that there is none, that it is a word freighted with many layers of culture and history. The short, imperfect answer is: The prisoner is a pirate. He earned that epithet when Malaysia's marine police captured him and nine accom plices after they hijacked the Nepline Delima, a tanker carrying 7,000 tons of diesel fuel worth three million dollars, in the Strait of Malacca. It was one of several attacks reported during 2005 in the 550-mile channel separating the Indonesian island of Sumatra from the Malay Peninsula, Singapore perched at its southern tip. For centuries, this sliver of ocean has capti vated seamen, offering the most direct route between India and China, along with a bounty of resources, including spices, rubber, mahogany, and tin. But it is a watery kingdom unto itself, harboring hundreds of rivers that feed into the channel, miles of swampy shoreline, and a vast constellation of tiny islands, reefs, and shoals. Its early inhabitants learned to lead amphibian lives, building their villages over water and devising specialized boats for fishing, trading, 132 NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC * OCTOBER 2007 and warfare. Some made their living as pirates, preying on foreign vessels that dared to ply their waters. Armadas of these skilled sea raiders in light, maneuverable craft regularly plundered passing ships and retreated upriver to fortified villages. Their raids yielded troves of gold, gems, gunpowder, opium, and slaves, which they used to build powerful sultanates that dominated much of the Sumatran and Malaysian coastlines. Sailors chronicled the horrors they faced in the strait and nearby waters. One 19th-century episode involved the capture of British Captain James Ross. Believing his ship held a stash of silver coins, lanun forced him to watch as his young son was lashed to an anchor and drowned.