The Treasure of Asō Lin
Legend has it that when the proud and ruthless wokou Asō Lin perished on the deck of the Takanobo, she left her considerable spoils buried on an island only she could locate. Her last words taunted her crew: They could take her life but would gain nothing by it. Her fortune would forever be her own.
The outline is brief since our story begins almost fifty years later when the rumor of Asō Lin’s treasure first reached the shores of England. Such a rumor could hardly fail to excite the public, whose fascination with piracy is echoed by much of the era’s fiction. But its impact on the lives of two men, Ben Monke and Lord McNay, and the curious fates it entailed for both, are as worthy of our interest as the pirate queen herself.
By no means were Monke and McNay the only expeditors of their era. In the wake of Raleigh and Drake, any man with the capital to charter a ship and a crew would invariably cast their fortunes to sea. A fair number never came back. Many more proved slightly successful; here and there a new taste, expression, tool or garment made its way into Elizabethan culture. But Monke and McNay were known less as pioneers than for their longstanding public rivalry. As is often true of two people with similarly oriented egos, they held each other in extreme contempt; which, sadly, reached new heights after two recent voyages almost brought them both to ruin.
The first of these was Monke’s who, in May of 1580, sailed out from Bristol to prolong the setting of the sun. Benedict Monke was a short, brusque-mannered heir to minor aristocracy. He had no difficulty in obtaining a ship. However, owing to a crisis of navigation, his crew traveled less than a thousand nautical miles to Iceland; which, this being one of very few voyages the crew had actually made, they mistook for the New World. After a further eight months at sea, they returned to England with a cargo of a noisome herb that did not find a market and is not used today. It is said that in frustration, Monke ordered the entire boatload be tossed into the sea.
More or less concurrently, Lord McNay (‘Lord’ being his middle name, adopted as his first) returned from many months of eastward exploration with thirty-three crates of gray powder, to be chewed to a paste, then expectorated in the custom (or so he was led to believe) of the Arawak tribe in what we now call Suriname. Unlike tobacco, as popular then as today, the internal damage caused by arasin was quickly apparent, superficially by a blackening of the nostrils and lips. McNay paid by reputation: He had the misfortune to be regarded as both imbecile and thwarted mass-murderer. Such was his pride, however, that he continued to stain his own sinuses until he died.
Both failures put pressure on each of them to restore their good names, and all the talk of Asō Lin in the dockland set Monke thinking. On June 16th, 1581, he issued a public challenge in the Evening Standard: Any man who saw fit to call himself a captain is hereby warned, G. B. Monke intends to claim the treasure of Asō Lin—or forfeit his ship to the person who does. No-one doubted whom the challenge was intended for, and sure enough, two days later, a curt response appeared on the same page:
Your ship you may keep. The treasure is mine. Sincerely, L. McNay.
Monke had good reason to throw down this particular gauntlet. Not a week before, an associate of his had covertly obtained the complete recovered diaries of Asō Lin, in which the location of a secret map was said to be disclosed. The purchase nearly bankrupted the luckless explorer. But the rewards hinted at were more than worth it; of the two, he had most to gain by the wager, and he was confident of his advantage.
As Monke foresaw, his ash-mouthed rival (who of the two was more inclined to reckon on his luck) took a very different approach.
As the scourge of the Philippine Sea, Asō Lin would undoubtedly have found an island for her bounty there. And so, lacking perhaps an accurate perception of that ocean’s size, McNay chartered a ship and a crew and set sail from Plymouth a mere three weeks after the challenge was made.
Acting on the hint of an unmapped outcrop off the coast of Papua New Guinea, McNay was also confident of his advantage, seemingly upheld by a steady wind that accompanied them down the coast of Africa. The Cape of Good Hope would curtail this run of fortune—but for now, let us leave them in high spirits, bawling sea ballads and facing manfully into the wind.
The diary of Asō Lin was a heavy tome—malodorous and concerned as much with reporting the weather as with details of real piracy. The sacking of the Rumi coast earned a mere three lines, while the flight paths of black-bellied terns occupied over six pages. Nonetheless, Monke devoured the whole tome with even diligence, turning the brittle pages with his winter gloves.
After several months, he discovered only two mentions of a map—at least, those that weren’t expunged by ocean spray. The first confirmed the drawing of one on April 2nd, 1518, while berthed in Mangalore. The second boasted of an intricate code that would prevent the chance acquirer from interpreting it—knowledge of which entailed access to both an aviation map and a compass.
The deeper he dove, the more the diary seemed to demand of him. Cipher piled on cipher, code upon code, until Monke had crowded countless pages of his own with calculations, ink tests, alphabets, alien symbols and spidery annotations—all without absenting his study (which he locked at all times), or the reference rooms of the British Library.
In abject contrast, McNay’s crew were now freezing, exhausted, and lost in the extreme—somewhere in the Bay of Bengal. By secret consent, the sky and ocean deemed them far enough from land to bully without mercy: The mainsail tore, became two white flags; lightning danced on the horizon; then the vessel was gripped by a whirlpool and only just released, though not without loss of life and vital navigational equipment. Storms waylaid them, sheering paint from the hull until their maps were useless even as kindling. Both masts toppled in submission, then they were discarded in a sudden calm.
The superstitious crew believed the ship was cursed. They mutinied, roping three life rafts together and seizing every scrap of food for their escape. Two of them were picked up by fishermen near Itu Aba and made new lives with the settlers from Hainan, building huts for themselves a great distance from the shore.
To Ben Monke—still ensconced in London—the wokou’s diary held no less turmoil than the oceans it described. He was by now educated in both Spanish and crude Japanese; he could chart the meteorology of seas he’d never visited, at times he’d never lived, and knew a porpoise from a narwhal, a junk from a caravel, without having seen any of them. His mind was awash with the deeds of Black Bellamy and Shirahama Kenki in such detail as would chasten a scholar.
Nights and days were negated by endless research. More than once he leapt up from his chair, convinced that someone had been spying over his shoulder. Accordingly, all servants were dismissed and guests were discouraged from returning. His work would not be interrupted.
And yet, the more he unraveled, the more paranoid he became that he’d missed something; that while he slept, or tried to, his rival had chanced upon the hidden trove; that the riddle was endless; that some other anxiety kept him rooted to England. He talked under his breath of spies, traps, cryptograms, and opportunists waiting to swoop down and appropriate his work. When the puzzle seemed to demand a grasp of Portuguese, he chose to study it himself rather than entrust the translation to a stranger. In the same way, where Asō Lin had computed her crew’s wages, he saw yet another code, one that might elucidate a pattern in the dates that so far had proved unyielding.
There was a thread. Sometimes it appeared that way, in dreams, a silvery ribbon like moonlight on the water that scattered the moment he reached for it. There were clues, but far too many. Likely spots included Pulau Nias, the Nicobar Islands, or somewhere in the Sulu Sea. But setting out to any of them would leave the others exposed to Lord McNay, who might be there already. The indecision shucked his fingernails and locked his face into a lasting wince.
By luck, a few kind peers intervened. At first, Monke dispatched them. Later, he confided in them that he was secretly adrift and afraid. His mind was not his own. They counseled him. At last, to a shame that he would never overcome, his search was over. For the sake of his health, he had failed. He could only pray the loot stayed lost—his sanity depended on it.
At that moment, or so it is cleaner to assume, McNay awoke to a sky made of rock. He could not feel the wind. A drop of seawater on his cheek roused him to further inspection: It seemed the leaking hull had found refuge in a cave. He could hear the ocean distantly; the cave was very long and echoed.
As if in a dream, McNay lifted himself from the deck and staggered into darkness, finding new strength with every step, though the wet sand desired his knees. The way led upwards, through many pitch-black contortions, the walls of which started to feel like earth. He was spilled at last into a bulb-shaped chamber; groping there, his hand met wood.
He pulled. A chest emerged from the sand, unremarkable in all but location. Now, his hands pried at the lid, knowing full well its contents would, like him, never leave the cave. There inside was a single piece of paper.
Numbly, he unfolded it. Drawn in the same hand that Monke would attest to be Asō Lin’s own was a map, but of no lines he recognized, no coast he knew, and with no key he could decrypt. After a time, he laughed and tore it into pieces, then, suddenly exhausted, settled down for his final prayer.
And now we must make a voyage of our own, possible only by proxy, through thirty years….and find the contest long forgotten, save by one man: Ernest Monke, in whose heart a timorous unhappiness has festered. Though free of his burden, the captain made no effort to resume his former life; instead, his malaise took the form of a chronic restlessness, as though dogged by a slow-moving menace he could only temporarily delay.
Soon after closing the diary for good, he sold his flat in London for another outside Inverness, where he left no impression before moving again, this time abroad to Kungshamn, a Swedish coastal town. Several fishermen there were glad of his help, but most hadn’t caught his name. He had an old book, they said, which never left his side; a bible, so they thought. On Monke ventured, bearing east, settling briefly in Khadjibey (now called Odessa) and Muscat, by the Gulf of Oman. Next, he was spotted in Sri Lanka.
Only at night, in the voyages of sleep, did Asō Lin still disturb him, speaking passages he knew by heart, and telling him not to despair, since her fortune was never his, or anyone’s, to find. He died on August 4th, 1593. Perhaps by then, he believed it.
Monke’s last years were spent in a little bungalow perched with almost comical precarity atop the desolate gray ridge of the Kagoshima coast. His only neighbor operated a lighthouse that was mostly obscured behind the fog. He was discovered many weeks after his death.
What effect this had, if any, on the final event of our tale was not in any case immediate. Almost half a century would pass before the gradual erosion of the tide (which none can truly escape) exposed a great fissure in the cliff just below the lighthouse, where a stockpile of gold coins, weapons and jewelry was at last revealed.
What had drawn Monke toward it is a mystery; not even he could have guessed the true pull on his compass. As it happened, the discovery of Asō Lin’s fortune is owed entirely to the East China Sea.
So, too, is the return of McNay’s ship in 1607, delivered to the shallows of Bougainville Island. McNay alone was found, a near-skeleton caught in the rigging. Of his former crew, we may assume the worst.
Today, fragments of Asō Lin’s treasure are displayed in the British Museum, the Zhejiang Provincial Museum, and the Rekihaku in Chiba, Japan.
About the Author
M.T. Ingoldby works as a copywriter in the UK. His stories have appeared in Litro, Pennsylvania Literary Journal, Lowestoft Chronicle, The Next Review, Existere, Octavius Magazine, Crimson Streets, Story and Grit, and one or two anthologies, working his way up to a novel. He is an active member of the Waterloo Theatre Group and a keen runner. He currently lives in London.