Trapped in the Hold

of the SS Madras

A Kingdom of Hawai’i Short Story by Erica Anoe

"We were not sick with smallpox, but we knew we would be soon if we couldn't get out of this hold."

April 1883. The SS Madras arrives at the port of Honolulu with hundreds of workers for the rice paddies of Waikiki – but it also carries smallpox. Historical fiction set in the waters of the Kingdom of Hawai'i, "Trapped in the Hold of the SS Madras" tells the story of a steamer mired in uncertainty, a kingdom determined to avoid another plague, and passengers desperate to disembark before they contract a deadly disease.

Includes a historical note by the author with information about the case heard by the Supreme Court of the Kingdom of Hawai'i that inspired this story.

Available now in ebook and print editions. Scroll down to read an excerpt.

Trapped in the Hold of the SS Madras: A Kingdom of Hawai'i Short Story by Erica Anoe

Read an Excerpt

April 9, 1883, SS Madras, anchored outside the Port of Honolulu in the Kingdom of Hawai’i

My brother and I were not sick with smallpox, but we knew we would be soon if we couldn’t get out of this damnable hold.

Old Fong was dying in the corner, and at least his coughing had stopped. It was his fault we were trapped here. He was the one who’d searched the ship for spare blankets as we slowly made our way from Hong Kong to Yokohama and out into the open ocean. He’d been so proud when he found a few smelly gray scraps of cloth tucked behind some half-rotten crates, but it wasn’t long before he and Xing Wei got a fever. Now, the sharks of the Pacific Ocean probably had fallen ill from feeding off Xing Wei’s scab-riddled body, which we’d thrown into the water 10 days out from Yokohama.

When we did arrive in Hawai’i, where jobs waited for us in the rice paddies of Waikiki, one port physician and then another had come to examine us. An official appeared, brown-skinned and thick-haired but dressed like a British dignitary. His uniform bore insignia similar to the British flag, but he spoke English with an accent that made it impossible for me to work out the words. Then the SS Madras churned away from the harbor, dropping anchor just outside the port. All passengers – hundreds of us – were herded into the hold, and the hatch leading into it was barred from above.

Old Fong groaned softly, but I didn’t want to help him anymore. Why couldn’t the old bastard have simply put up with being cold?

I climbed as far upward as I could, huddling my body against the hatch. The air was a little fresher up here, likely due to a long, thin flaw in the hull near the ladder. When the seas were rough, ocean water leaked through it, but here at port, it provided a hint of the island breeze.

It was hard to stop myself from pounding my fist against the inflexible wood above me. I’d seen the telltale scars on the faces and forearms of some of the crew, and Old Fong’s cloth scraps told the rest of the story. We hadn’t brought smallpox aboard the SS Madras. It had been waiting here for us. Now, if they kept us locked up with it, there was no telling how many of us would survive.

Raised voices sounded from above. “What are they saying?” my brother asked in Cantonese, his accent almost perfect to my ear. I shook my head, concentrating. The careless, uncoordinated melodies of English jangled inside my skull until I could untangle them enough to snatch some sense from them.

“They’re angry,” I said, also in Cantonese, careful to infuse it with the sharp, authentic swing used by those born to the tongue.

“Obvious,” said my brother.

It had been easier to understand the lover who taught me English. Daughter of a merchant, thrilled by slumming with the son of a Hakka charcoal burner, she’d fed the words to me like milk on the spoon of her tongue. These sailors, on the other hand, peppered their speech with the slang and swagger of a dozen port cities. My forehead began to ache where I’d wrinkled my brow. I gestured for general silence. Slowly, a few pieces fell into place.

“They’re angry because the Hawaiians say they can’t control us. They say they’ve been controlling us just fine.”

“When are we going to land?”

“They don’t know.”

“What do you mean? We’re here, aren’t we?”

I squinted as if I might be able to see through the flaw in the hull. “I’m not sure we’re here at all.”

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