Indonesia: in search of salty Sam

The former comedienne Pamela Stephenson sets sail for Indonesia to discover the truth about her great great-grandfather's final voyage. Interview by Jenny Cockle

My great-great grandfather Samuel Stephenson - known as Salty Sam - was an entrepreneurial master mariner from Rotherhithe, London. In 1821, it was said, he set off from Java aboard his ship, the Rosalie, to trade along the old spice route in the Indonesian archipelago, but he never made it back. His crew mutinied and seized control of the Rosalie with all its cargo and Salty Sam was thrown overboard.

I accepted all this as family history until last summer, when I had a chance meeting with a sun-beaten Englishwoman called Trudy in a bar in Malta. It was one of the most peculiar things that has ever happened to me. She came right up to me and said: "It wasn't a mutiny. They were pirated in the Sunda Straits." You see, I had mentioned the story of Salty Sam in my book, Billy, and Trudy said she'd got chills when she read it because she realised that one of her ancestors had been on the same ship.

Her news completely threw me and I didn't immediately realise the importance of it. In fact, I was slightly irritated. But it kept gnawing at me and it was an urge that came to be overpowering. I'm passionate by nature, a little obsessive you might say, and it became an obsession to find out what really happened to Salty Sam - was it murder or mutiny?

It wasn't until I was in my 20s that I was told that my great-grandmother was a Maori. You wouldn't think it to look at me, but I'm proud of it. I don't know why it was kept a secret all those years. My favourite aunt, Sal, was just like an old Maori woman in many ways. Although I was born in New Zealand, I grew up in Australia, so I was a bit removed from all that. Nevertheless, the past has always fascinated me.

I decided to retrace Salty Sam's final journey and started researching the trip last November. I knew I needed to get a TV deal to finance it but it was hard to secure one at short notice. I'm very bloody-minded when I want to be and I really pushed for it.

My husband and I are lucky enough to own a wonderful 112ft sailboat, the Takapuna, which was moored in Australia. Taking a boat anywhere is expensive, plus, I had to get a security team to travel with us because there is still a real threat of piracy around the Spice Islands. I assembled a crew with two Gurkhas, one of our cameramen was ex-SAS, I had an former Marine as my security chief on board and an ex-SAS adviser was on the ground.

For a previous journey to the South Pacific, I'd undergone weapons training, so I am quite proficient with AKS rifles and hand-guns. I see myself as a female Errol Flynn. My grandson thinks it's very cool too: "That's my granny there ... with the gun!"

I know it sounds "woo woo" but I felt that Salty Sam was reaching out to me from beyond the grave because I'm the wild one in the family. I loved the fact that I couldn't explain psychologically why I was undertaking such a huge and daunting project which would take me away from my family for three months.

At the time, I felt that my universe had become a little too organised; I could explain things and knew a lot about myself. It was lovely to just abandon everything to the unknown. However, I knew we were confronting some obvious dangers. No matter how good your modern navigation equipment is, we'd be sailing in some dodgy, uncharted waters. Added to that, Indonesian officials weren't necessarily going to cast a benevolent eye over what we were doing. We were afraid that they wouldn't be able to distinguish us from the treasure- hunters who rip them off. A big fear of mine was that the boat would be impounded. I knew we should carry weapons and although we were doing everything by the book and declaring our weapons, there was still a possibility we could end up in jail.

My research began in London, in the British Library. I then spoke to the Royal Navy's First Sea Lord, and the Clerk to the Honorable Company of Master Mariners, who gave me some amazing information and advice about the journey. In February, I flew to Cairns to check preparations for the boat and to choose the crew. Then I made a quick side-trip to New Zealand to visit the Alexander Turnbull Library in Wellington, where I knew there were some legal documents concerning Salty Sam. Those documents turned out to be incredibly important as they told us what kind of cargo he would have been carrying before he left Surabaya. Also, it wasn't mentioned in the documents, but unofficially he would most likely have been carrying opium, too. It's amazing how much you can find out after 200 years.

We set sail from Cairns but ran into some serious weather conditions with two cyclones either side of us - Larry and Glenda. The boat was damaged in the storms so we limped into Darwin and while the crew were doing repairs, I flew to Jakarta and Surabaya to do some advance filming. On 16 March, we set off for the Arafura Sea and headed for the Spice Islands, picking up clues everywhere we went.

Going to sea is rigorous, especially when you have 17 people on board, because you're living in such close proximity. There is a trust issue. You want to be sure that you trust your team because your life could be in their hands at some point. People new to sailing don't always understand why you have to be so pedantic and why, if someone leaves a coffee spoon in the sink, it is very significant because it rattles around and no one gets any sleep. There was a point on the journey where I didn't feel like continuing.

There were so many squabbles among us that, even as a psychologist, I was powerless to resolve them. But I was determined to complete the trip, no matter what. Since Billy and I got the boat I've rarely been off it, so I've done a lot of sailing now, including 19,000 nautical miles through the South Pacific. However, we hit some really bad weather on this trip, far worse than I had expected, yet it was also exhilarating.

The most exciting part was when we reached the point where we were following in Salty Sam's wake. I'm pretty certain he was running opium. Most people were back then if they were interested in making money. Initially, I thought he might have been a member of the East India Trading Company, so I was thrilled when I realised he would have been somebody they wouldn't have spat on! He'd have been a complete thorn in their side as an independent mariner. He must have been incredibly brave.

Due to various delays and complications, it was the end of March by the time we reached the Spice Islands. Banda Island is absolutely gorgeous - everything you imagine in your most romantic dreams about the Spice Islands.

It is lush, with palm trees and colourful bougainvillaea. It has a beautiful harbour and stunning Portuguese forts. Unfortunately, I missed watching us pull into the harbour because nobody remembered to wake me up. One of the main reasons I wanted to go to sea is because I'm sick of seeing countries from airport lounges. One thing I have in common with Robert Louis Stevenson is that he was addicted to seeing an island from far away and gradually approaching by sea.

With all the frustrations of the trip I had a complete meltdown about missing the approach to Banda harbour. I freaked out, shouting: "Why didn't you wake me up!" I'm embarrassed about it now because I'm supposed to be more grown-up than that. I think it happened because when I got up on deck and sawBanda, it was possibly themost beautiful sight I have ever seen, and I was completely overwhelmed.

We were met by Des Alwi, the King of Banda, a wonderful character who runs hotels and is a historian by day, and a crooner by night. We climbed the island's great mountain, Gunung Api, known as Fire Mountain.

Des told us that if we climbed the mountain and swam across the harbour we would be granted honorary citizenship of Banda. The decision to do this happened late at night when we were all a bit tipsy, but I'm proud to say we managed it.

I love Indonesia and have visited it over the years, but most of my forays have been confined to Bali and certain parts of Java. It was wonderful to explore the other islands. The Spice Route is not on the tourist trail and for good reason. It was pretty scary. Around the east coast of Lombok I had a bad feeling, then one night we were attacked by pirates.

A group tried to board the ship at 10pm posing as government officials - that's the modern face of piracy. It was the most terrifying experience and it could have gone so badly wrong. However, we were lucky to have a strong security presence plus two excellent Indonesian speakers on board, which really saved us.

The high point of the trip was finally reaching the island of Carabatoo and searching for a wreck that we believed to be the Rosalie. It had taken months of detective work just to find the island because it doesn't exist by that name any more. We began our search for the Rosalie both by snorkelling and scuba diving. Our research led us to believe that the Rosalie had gone aground, and due to all the currents she would have drifted to that particular spot. The excitement of beginning to see things underwater was amazing.

I was fascinated to discover that Sam had a lady friend with him on the ship, even though he had a wife, Anne, back home in Rotherhithe. I haven't broken that bit of news to my family yet. I was shocked but not in a prudish way; it was just such a surprise. The First Sea Lord had told me that it wasn't unusual for mariners to be involved with a local woman when they were away from home for such long periods of time. Apparently, Surabaya was full of women who were half Indonesian, half European. They were shunned by Indonesians, so marrying or becoming involved with a European man was a way out for them.

Without giving the ending away, I do feel satisfied with the quest, because what I wanted most from this journey was to learn about Salty Sam's life and to understand what kind of man he was. I have done that and I now feel very close to him. I think it's really important to honour our ancestors,and having retraced my great-great grandfather's final journey, I feel I've done my best to lay him to rest in that Boy's Own fashion. I think I have inherited Salty Sam's adventurous spirit and I'm very grateful for it. It's a wonderful thing to have - it really is life-affirming.

'Murder or Mutiny' by Pamela Stephenson is published by Weidenfeld & Nicholson, on 10 October, price £20. The four-part Sky One TV series also starts on 10 October, at 9pm. The DVD of the series, including unseen footage, will be released by EMI on 27 November, price £13.99

My top hotel

When we stayed in Bali, we had some much-needed R&R time, so I spent a couple of nights at the Ritz-Carlton, which is the most fabulous hotel. I particularly like the fact that it's very Balinese with beautiful gardens, its own little beach and a stunning cliff-top setting. It also has the nicest spa I've ever seen. It's hard to do aerobic exercise on a sailboat so I did some water aerobics there.

My best beach

We spent one night on the deserted island of Nailaka. It was an amazing experience. We built a bonfire on the gorgeous beach and some of our team went off in a canoe to catch fish for dinner. We had an excellent meal in a beautiful setting. Unfortunately, the island turned out to be inhabited - by a large gang of rats.

My favourite view

The most unbelievable view I enjoyed was sunset from the restored Fort Belgica, on Banda Neira, in the Banda Islands. The fort is Portuguese-style and has been very beautifully restored. It's surrounded by lush foliage and you can see the big mountain, Gunung Api. Spectacular!

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