The Man in the Buffalo Hide by Louis Becke
Twelve years ago in a North Queensland town I was told the
story of "The Man in the Buffalo Hide" by Ned D——.
He (D——) was then a prosperous citizen, having made
a small fortune by "striking it rich" on the Gilbert and
Etheridge Rivers goldfields. Returning from the arid wastes of
the Queensland back country to Sydney, he tired of leading an
inactive life, and hearing that gold had been discovered on one
of the Solomon Islands, he took passage thither in the Sydney
packet, and though he returned to Australia without discovering
gold in the islands, he had kept one of the most interesting
logs of a whaling cruise it has ever been my fortune to read.
The master of the whaleship was Captain J.Y. Carpenter, a man
who is well known and highly respected, not only in Sydney
(where he now resides), but throughout the East Indies and
China, where he had lived for over thirty years. And it was
from Captain Carpenter who was one of the actors in this
twice-told tragedy, that D——heard this story of
Chinese vengeance. He (D——) related it to me in
'88, and I wish I
could write the tale as well and vividly as he told it.
However, I wrote it out for him then and there. Much to our
disgust the editor of the little journal to whom we sent the
MS., considered it a fairy tale, and cut it down to some two or
three hundred words. I mention these apparently unnecessary
details merely that the reader may not think that the tale is
fiction, for two years or so after, Captain Carpenter
corroborated my friend's story.
It was after the Taeping rebellion had been stamped out in
blood and fire by Gordon and his "Ever Victorious Army," and
the Viceroy (Li Hung Chang) had taken up his quarters in
Canton, and was secretly torturing and beheading those
prisoners whom he had sworn to the English Government to
Carpenter was in command of a Chinese Government despatch
vessel—a side-wheeler—which was immediately under
the Viceroy's orders. She was but lightly armed, but was very
fast, as fast went in those days. His ship had been lying in
the filthy river for about a week, when, one afternoon, a
mandarin came off with a written order for him to get ready to
proceed to sea at daylight on the following morning. Previous
experience of his estimable and astute Chinese employers warned
him not to ask the fat-faced, almond-eyed mandarin any
questions as to the steamer's destination, or the duration of
the voyage. He simply said that he would be ready at the
At daylight another mandarin, named Kwang—
one of much higher rank than his visitor of the previous
day—came on board. He was attended by thirty of the most
ruffianly-looking scoundrels—even for Chinamen—that
the captain had ever seen. They were all well armed, and came
off in a large, well-appointed boat, which, the mandarin
intimated with a polite smile, was to be towed, if she was too
heavy to be hoisted aboard. A couple of hands were put in her,
and she was veered astern. Then the anchor was lifted, and the
steamer started on her eighty miles trip down the river to the
sea, the mandarin informing the captain that he would name the
ship's destination as soon as they were clear of the land.
Most of Carpenter's officers were Europeans—Englishmen
or Americans—and one or two of them who spoke Chinese,
attempted to enter into conversation with the thirty braves,
and endeavour to learn the object of the steamer's mission.
Their inquiries were met either with a mocking jest or
downright insult, and presently the mandarin, who hitherto had
preserved a smiling and affable demeanour as he sat on the
quarter-deck, turned to the captain with a sullen and ferocious
aspect, and bade him remind his officers that they had no
business to question the servants of the "high and excellent
But though neither Carpenter nor any of his officers could
learn aught about this sudden mission, one of their servants, a
Chinese who was deeply attached to his master, whispered
tremblingly to him that the mandarin and the thirty braves were
in quest of one of the Viceroy's most hated enemies—a
of the Taepings who had escaped the bloodied hands of Li Hung
Chang, and whose retreat had been betrayed to the cruel,
merciless Li the previous day.
Once clear of the land, the mandarin, with a polite smile
and many compliments to Carpenter on the skilful and
expeditious manner in which he had navigated the steamer down
the river, requested him to proceed to a certain point on the
western side of the island of Formosa.
"When you are within twenty miles of the land, captain," he
said suavely, "you will make the steamer stop, and my men and I
will leave you in the boat. You must await our return, which
may be on the following day, or the day after, or perhaps
longer still. But whether I am absent one, or two, or six days,
you must keep your ship in the position I indicate as nearly as
possible. You must avoid observation from the shore, you must
be watchful, diligent, and patient, and, when you see my boat
returning, you must make your engines work quickly, and come
towards us with all speed. High commendation and a great reward
from the serene nobleness of our great Viceroy—who has
already condescended to notice your honourable ability and
great integrity in your profession—awaits you." Then with
another smile and bow he went to his cabin.
As soon as the steamer reached the place indicated by the
mandarin the engines were stopped. The boat, which was towing
astern, was hauled alongside, and the thirty truculent
"braves," with a Chinese
pilot and the ever-smiling mandarin, got into her and pushed
off for the shore. That they were all picked men, who could
handle an oar as well as a rifle, was very evident from the
manner in which they sent the big boat along towards the blue
outline of the distant shore.
For two days Carpenter and his officers waited and watched,
the steamer lying and rolling about upon a long swell, and
under a hot and brazen sun. Then, about seven o'clock in the
morning, as the sea haze lifted, a look-out on the foreyard
hailed the deck and said the boat was in sight. The steamer's
head was at once put towards her under a full head of steam,
and in another hour the mandarin and his braves were
The mandarin clambered up on deck, his always-smiling face
(which Carpenter and his officers had come to detest) now
"You have done well, sir," he said to the captain; "the
Viceroy himself, when my own miserable worthlessness abases
itself before him, shall know how truly and cleverly you and
your officers (who shall be honoured for countless ages in the
future) have obeyed the behests which I have had the
never-to-be-extinguished honour to convey from him to you.
There is a prisoner in the boat—a prisoner who is to be
tried before those high and merciful judges whose Heaven-sent
authority your valorous commander of the Ever Victorious Army
Carpenter, being a sailor man before all else,
swallowed the mandarin's compliments for all they were worth,
and I can imagine him giving a grumpy nod to the smiling minion
of the Viceroy as he ordered "the prisoner" to be brought on
deck, and the boat to be veered astern for towing.
The official interposed oilily. There was no need, he said,
to tow the boat to Canton if she could not be hoisted on board,
and was likely to impede the steamer's progress. Some of his
braves could remain in her, and the insignia of the Viceroy
which they wore would ensure both their and the boat's
safety—no pirates would touch them.
The captain said that to tow such a heavy boat for such a
long distance would certainly delay the steamer's arrival in
Canton by at least six or eight hours. The mandarin smiled
sweetly, and said that as speed was everything the most
honourable navigator, whom he now had the privilege to address,
and who was so soon to be distinguished by his mightiness the
Viceroy, could at once let the boat which had conveyed his
worthless self into the sunshine of his (the captain's)
presence, go adrift.
At a sign from Kwang, six of his cutthroats clambered down
the side into the boat, which was at once cast oft; the steamer
was sent along under a full head of steam, and the captain was
about to ascend the bridge when the mandarin stayed him, and
requested that a meal should be at once prepared in the cabin
for the prisoner, who, he said, was somewhat exhausted, for his
capture was only effected after he had killed three and wounded
half a dozen of "the
braves." So courageous a man, he added softly, whatever his
offence might be, must not be allowed to suffer the pangs of
hunger and thirst.
Carpenter gave the necessary order to the steward with a
sensation of pleasure, feeling that he had done the suave and
gentle-voiced Kwang an injustice in imagining him to be like
most Chinese officials—utterly indifferent and callous to
human suffering. Then he stepped along the deck towards the
bridge just as two of the braves lifted the prisoner to his
feet, which a third had freed from a thong of hide, bound so
tightly around them that it had literally cut into the flesh.
His hands were tied in the same manner, and round his neck was
an iron collar, with a chain about six feet in length which was
secured at the end to another band around the waist of one of
As the prisoner stood erect, Carpenter saw that he was a man
of herculean proportions and over six feet three or four inches
in height. His arms and naked chest were cut, bleeding and
bruised, and a bamboo gag was in his mouth; but what at once
attracted the captain's attention and sympathy was the man's
So calm, steadfast, and serene were his clear, undaunted
eyes; so proud, lofty, and contemptuous and yet so dignified
his bearing, as he glanced at his guards when they bade him
walk, that Carpenter, drawing back a little, raised his hand in
In an instant the deep, dark eyes lit up, and the tortured,
distorted mouth would have smiled had it not been for the cruel
gag. But twice he bent his
head, and his eyes did that which was denied to his lips.
Captain Carpenter was deeply moved. The man's heroic
fortitude, his noble bearing under such physical suffering, the
tender, woman-like resignation in the eyes which could yet
smile into his, affected him so strongly that he could not help
asking one of the "braves" the prisoner's name.
An insolent, threatening gesture was the only answer. But
the prisoner had heard, and bent his head in acknowledgment.
When he raised it again and saw that Carpenter had now taken
off his cap, tears trickled down his cheeks. In another moment
he was hurried along the deck into the cabin, and half a dozen
"braves" stood guard at the door to prevent intrusion, whilst
the gag was removed, and the victim of the Viceroy's vengeance
was urged to eat. Whether he did so or not was never known, for
half an hour afterwards he was removed to one of the
state-rooms, where he was closely guarded by Kwang's
cutthroats. When he was next seen by Carpenter and the officers
of the steamer the gag was again in his mouth, but the calm,
resolute eyes met theirs as it trying to tell them that the
heroic soul within the tortured body knew no fear, and felt and
appreciated their sympathy.
On the afternoon of the third day after leaving Formosa the
steamer ploughed her way up the muddy waters of the river, and
came to an anchor off the city at a place which was within half
a mile of the Viceroy's residence. The mandarin requested the
captain to fire three guns, and hoist the Chinese flag at both
the fore and main peaks.
This signal was, so Kwang condescended to say, to inform His
Illustriousness the Ever-Merciful Viceroy that he, Kwang, his
crawling dependent, guided by Carpenter's high intelligence,
and supreme and honoured skill as a navigator, had achieved the
object which His Illustriousness desired.
The captain listened to all this "flam," bowed his
acknowledgments, and then suddenly asked the mandarin the
Again the fat, complacent face darkened, and almost scowled.
"No," he replied sullenly, he himself "was not permitted" to
know the prisoner's name. His crime? He did not know. When was
he to be tried? To-morrow. Then he rose and abruptly requested
the captain to ask no more questions. But, he added, with a
smile, he could promise him that he should at least see the
In a few minutes a boat came off, and the prisoner, closely
guarded, and with his face covered with a piece of cloth, was
Four days had passed—days of heat so intense that even
the Chinese crew of the steamer lay about the decks under the
awning, stripped to their waists, and fanning themselves
languidly. During this time the captain and his officers, by
careful inquiries, ascertained that the unfortunate prisoner
was a brother of one of the Wangs, or seven "Heavenly Kings,"
who had led the Taeping forces, and that for a long time past
the Viceroy had made most strenuous efforts to effect his
capture, being particularly exasperated with him, not only for
his courage in the field, and the influence he had wielded over
the unfortunate Taepings, who were wiped out by Gordon and the
Ever-Victorious Army, but also because he refused to accept Li
Hung Chang's sworn word to spare his life if he surrendered;
for well he knew that a death by torture awaited him. Gordon
himself, it was said, revolver in hand, and with tears of rage
streaming down his face, had sought to find and shoot the
Viceroy for the cruel murder of other leaders who had
surrendered to him under the solemn promise of their lives
Late in the afternoon, a messenger came on board with a note
to the captain. It was from the mandarin Kwang, and contained
but a line. "Follow the bearer, who will guide you to the
An hour later Carpenter was conducted through a narrow door
which was set in a very high wall of great thickness. He found
himself in a garden of the greatest beauty, and magnificent
proportions. Temples and other buildings of the most elaborate
and artistic design and construction showed here and there amid
a profusion of gloriously-foliaged trees and flowering shrubs.
No sound broke the silence except the twittering of birds; and
not a single person was visible.
The guide, who had not yet uttered a single word, now turned
and motioned Carpenter to follow him along a winding path,
paved with white marble slabs,
and bordered with gaily-hued flowers. Suddenly they emerged
upon a lovely sward of the brightest green, in the centre of
which a fountain played, sending its fine feathery spray high
On one side of the fountain were a number of "braves" who
stood in a close circle, and, as Carpenter approached, two of
them silently stepped out of the cordon, brought their rifles
to the salute, and the guide whispered to him to enter.
Within the circle was Kwang, who was seated in his chair of
office. He rose and greeted the captain politely.
"I promised you that you should again see the criminal in
whom you and your officers took such a deep and benevolent
interest. I now fulfil that promise—and leave you." And,
with a malevolent smile, he bowed and disappeared.
The guide touched Carpenter's arm.
"Look," he said in a whisper.
Within a few inches of a wavering line of spray from the
fountain, purposely diverted so as to fall upon the grass, lay
what appeared at first sight to be a round bundle tied up in a
buffalo hide. A black swarm of flies buzzed and buzzed over and
"Draw near and look," said the harsh voice of the officer
who commanded the grim, silent guard, as he stepped up to the
strange-looking bundle, and waved his fan quickly to and fro
over a protuberance in the centre.
A black cloud of flies arose, and revealed a sight
that will haunt Carpenter to his dying day—the purpled,
distorted face of a living man. The eyelids had been cut off,
and only two dreadful, bloodied, glaring things of horror
appealed mutely to God. The victim's knees had been drawn up to
his chin, and only his head was visible; for the fresh buffalo
hide in which his body had been sewn, fitted tightly around his
Shuddering with horror, and yet fascinated with the dreadful
spectacle, Carpenter asked the officer how long the prisoner
had been tortured.
"Four days," was the reply.
For the buffalo, the hide of which was to be the prisoner's
death-wrap, was in readiness the moment the steamer arrived,
and ten minutes after the signal was hoisted, the creature was
killed, the hide stripped off, and the prisoner sewn up in it,
only his head being left free.
Then he was carried to a heated room, so that the hide
should contract quickly. From there he was taken to the
fountain, where his eyelids were cut off, and then he was laid
upon the ground, his mouth just within a few inches of a spray
from the fountain.
And the Viceroy came, saw, approved, and smiled, and
assigned to Kwang the honoured post of watching his hated enemy
die under slow and agonising torture. To attract the flies,
honeyed water was applied to the prisoner's shaven head and
face. And the guards, now and then as his thirst increased,
offered him brine to drink.
"He is still alive," the brutal-faced Tartar officer
said genially, as he touched one of the dreadful eyeballs, and
the poor, tortured creature's lips moved slightly.
Sick at heart and almost overcome with horror, Captain
Carpenter, with quickened footsteps, passed through the cordon
of guards, and followed his guide from the dreadful spot.
In a few minutes he was without the wall, and a sigh of
relief broke from him as he set out towards the river.