The War with the Newts, by Karel Čapek

Chapter 1

Massacre on the Coconut Isles

In one thing, Mr. Povondra was mistaken: the shots exchanged at Kankesanturai were not the first conflict between people and newts. The first known skirmish had taken place some years before on the Coconut Isles in the golden age of pirate raids on the salamanders; but even that was not the oldest incident of this sort and in the ports of the Pacific Ocean there was much talk about certain regrettable cases when newts had offered any kind of resistance, sometimes even to the normal S-Trade; although petty incidents such as these are not written about in the history books.

On the Coconut Isles, or Keeling Isles, this is what happened: The Montrose, a raiding ship operated by Harriman’s Pacific Trade Company and under the captaincy of James Lindley, sailed in for one of its usual newt gathering expeditions of the sort known as a Macaroni Run. The Coconut Isles were well known for a bay with a large newt population settled there by Captain van Toch himself but which, because of its remoteness, was left, as they say, to its own devices. No-one could accuse Captain Lindley of any lack of care and attention, not even in that the men who went on shore were not armed. (At that time the trade in hunting newts had already taken on a standard form; it is true, of course, that the pirate ships had earlier used to equip themselves with machine guns and even light cannons, although they were not intended for use against the newts but against unfair competition from other pirates. One day however, off the island of Karakelong, one of Harrimans steamers came up against a Danish ship whose captain considered the hunting grounds of Karakelong as his territory; so the two sides settled some old accounts to do with their prestige and some trading disputes by leaving the newts alone and starting to fire at each other with their rifles and Hotchkiss guns; on land, victory went to the Danes after their successful knife attack but the Harriman ship then had its success by firing its cannons at the Danish ship and sinking it with all hands, including Captain Nielsen. This became known as the Karakelong Incident. So then governments and officials of the relevant countries had to become involved; pirate ships were from then on forbidden to use cannons, machine guns or hand grenades; the companies involved also allocated what they called the free hunting ground among themselves so that any one newt settlement would only ever be visited by a certain raiding ship; this gentleman’s agreement among the great pirates was adhered to and respected even by the smallest raiding businesses.) But to return to Captain Lindley, he conducted himself entirely in accordance with commercial and marine practices of the time when he sent his men out to gather newts armed only with sticks and oars, and the later official enquiry gave the dead captain full satisfaction in that respect.

The men who went down to the Coconut Isles that moonlit night were under the command of Lieutenant Eddie McCarth, who was already experienced in this sort of newt-gathering expedition. It is true that the herd of newts they found on the shore was exceptionally large, estimated at between six and seven hundred strong and fully grown males, whereas Lieutenant McCarth had only sixteen men at his command; but it cannot be said that he failed to do his duty, partly because the officers and ratings on the pirate ships were paid, it was said, according to how many newts they captured. In the ensuing enquiry by the marine authorities it was found that “although Lieutenant McCarth is responsible for this unhappy incident it is quite clear that no-one else would have acted differently under the circumstances”. The unfortunate young officer had, in fact, shown remarkable prudence in that instead of slowly surrounding the newts, which, given their numbers, could not have been fully achieved, he ordered a sudden attack with the intention of cutting the newts off from the sea, forcing them inland and stunning them one by one with a blow to the head with a club or an oar. Unfortunately, when the attack took place the sailors were separated from each other and nearly two hundred salamanders escaped into the water. While the attacking men were processing those newts which had been prevented from reaching the sea they began to hear shots behind themselves from shark guns; no-one had any idea that these wild and natural newts on the Keeling Isles were equipped with weapons against sharks and no-one ever found out who had given them to them.

One of the deck hands, Michael Kelly, who had survived the whole catastrophe, said: “When we heard the first shots we thought it must be some other ship that had come to hunt for newts like we had. Lieutenant McCarth turned round quick and shouted, ‘What are you doing, you fools, this is the crew of the Montrose here!’ Then he was hit in the side, but he still pulled out his revolver and started shooting. Then he got a second shot in the neck and he fell. Then we saw for the first time that it was the newts firing at us and trying to cut us off from the sea. Then Long Steve raised his oar and rushed out at the newts shouting Montrose! Montrose! so we all started shouting Montrose! and thumping at these horrors with oars or whatever we could. There was about five of us left lying there, but the rest of us fought our way down to the water. Long Steve jumped in and waded out to the boat; but when he got there some of the newts grabbed hold of him and pulled him down under the water. They drowned Charlie and all; he shouted to us Lads, Jesus Christ lads, don’t let them get me, but there was nothing we could do. Those vermin were shooting us in the back; Bodkin turned round and he got it in the belly, all he said was Oh no! and he fell. So we all tried to get back inland to the interior of the island; wed already broken all our oars and sticks on these monsters, so all we did was run like rabbits. By then, there was only the four of us left. We didn’t dare go any further away from the shore in case we couldn’t get back on board ship; we hid behind some stones and bushes and had to look on while the newts finished off our mates. Drowned them in the water like kittens, they did, and if anyone still tried to swim they gave him one on the head with a crowbar. It was only then I saw I had a twisted ankle and couldn’t run any further.”

Captain James Lindley, who had remained on board the Montrose, must have heard the gunfire from the island; whether he thought there was some trouble with the natives or that there were some other newt traders there, he simply took the cook and two of the stokers who had stayed on board, had the machine gun (which was clearly hidden on the ship despite being strictly forbidden) put on the remaining boat, and went out to help his crewmen. He was careful not to set foot on the shore; he merely went close in the boat with the machine gun ready on its prow and stood there with folded arms for all to see. Let us allow Mister Kelly to explain further.

“We didn’t want to call out to the captain so that the newts wouldn’t find us. Mister Lindley stood in the boat with his arms folded and called out, What’s going on here? Then the newts turned round to look at him. There was a couple of hundred of them on the shore, and more and more of them kept swimming up from the sea and surrounded the boat. What’s going on here? the captain asked, and then a big newt went up close to him and said, Go back! The captain just looked at him, he didn’t say anything for a while and then he asked, Are you a newt?

We are newts, said this newt. Now please, go back!

I want to see what you’ve been doing with my men, said the old man. You should not have attacked us, said the newt. You will now, please, go back to your ship! The captain didn’t say anything again for a while, and then he calmly said,

 Alright Jenkins, fire! And Stoker Jenkins started firing at the newts with the machine gun.”

(Later, at the official enquiry, the affair was described in these words: In this respect, Captain James Lindley did no more than we are entitled to expect from a British seaman.)

“All the newts were together in a group,” Kelly’s testimony continued, “and so they fell like corn in a field. Some of them shot at Mr. Lindley with those guns of theirs, but he stood there with his arms folded and didn’t even move. Just then a black newt came out of the water just behind the boat, and it had something in its paw something like a tin can, with its other paw it pulled something out of it and threw it into the water under the boat. After about five seconds there was a column of water came up and there was a loud bang, but sort of muffled sounding, and we could feel how it made the ground shake under our feet.”

(From Kelly’s description, the official enquiry concluded that the newts had used an explosive known as W3, supplied to them for removing rock from under the water at the fortification works in Singapore, but it remained a mystery how it came into the hands of the newts on the Coconut Isles. There were some who surmised that the explosives were given them by people, others supposed the newts themselves must already have had some long distance communications. Public opinion clamoured for a ban on giving the newts such dangerous explosives; however the appropriate office declared that there was still no other explosive that was as “highly effective and relatively safe” as W3, and that’s how things were left.)

“The boat flew up into the air,” Kelly’s testimony continued,” and was ripped to pieces. All the newts, the ones that were still alive, rushed up to the place. We couldn’t really see whether Mr. Lindley was dead or alive; but all three of my shipmates - Donovan, Burke and Kennedy - jumped up and went to help him so that he wouldn’t fall into the hands of those newts. I wanted to run up as well but I had that twisted ankle so I sat where I was and pulled on my foot with both hands to try and get the bones in the right place. So I don’t know what happened next, but when I looked up there was Kennedy lying there face down in the sand and there was no sign at all of Donovan or Burke; there was just still something going on in the water.”

Kelly then escaped deeper into the island until he found a native village; but the natives behaved strangely towards him and were unwilling even to offer him shelter; perhaps they were afraid of the newts. It was only seven weeks later that the Montrose was found, entirely plundered and abandoned, at anchor off the Coconut Isles by a fishing boat which rescued Kelly.

Some weeks later, a British gunboat, HMS Fireball, sailed to the Coconut Isles and spent the night waiting at anchor. It was once again full moon, and the newts came out of the sea, took up their places in a circle on the sand and began their ceremonial dance. Then His Majesty’s Ship fired its first rounds of grapeshot into them. Those newts that weren’t cut to pieces immediately stiffened and then fled into the water; that was when the six cannons thundered out their terrible salvo and the only newts left were the few that still crawled towards the water on their broken limbs. Then there was another salvo from the cannons, and then a third.

When that had ended, HMS Fireball withdrew to half a mile offshore and began to fire into the water as it slowly sailed up and down the coast. This lasted six hours and used about eight hundred rounds of ammunition. Then the Fireball sailed away. Over the following two days, the whole of the sea around the Keeling Isles was covered with the dismembered remains of thousands and thousands of newts.

That same night a battleship from Holland, the Van Dijck, fired three rounds into a colony of newts on the island of Goenong Api; the Japanese cruiser Hakodate shot three grenades onto the little newt island of Ailinglaplap; the French gunboat, Bechamel, disrupted the newts dance on the island of Rawaiwai with three shots. This was a warning to the newts. It was not in vain; there was no further incident anywhere comparable with the Keeling Killing, and the trade in newts, both organised and freelance, was able to flourish without disturbance and with official blessing.

Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:52