When London Became An Island

Soochong, Shoguns and the Saracen’s surveys

Following the Battle of Trafalgar the British Royal Navy retained command of the seas for over a century. This was maintained not only by the great men-of-war, such as Nelson’s HMS Victory, but by a whole range of other vessels, some of which were designed to operate in inshore waters and were not merely scaled down versions of larger ships. One of these was HMS Cherokee, a brig planned on the drawing board of Sir Henry Peake, Surveyor of the Navy. The vessel was launched at Woolwich Dockyard in 1807 and the name Cherokee was subsequently given to other brigs built to the same lines.

Cherokee brigs were constructed with a hull of 6 inch thick planks, of oak if available but of other wood, including teak, if not. They were painted regulation black, sometimes with yellow striping and outline work in scarlet and gold, and armed with ten muzzle loading guns, eight short-barrelled carronades, which were very effective for close range fighting, and two long-barrelled chase guns. Dimensions of approximately 90 feet by 25 meant the ships company, usually numbering more than 60, lived in cramped quarters where the mediocre conditions were exacerbated by indifferent lighting and ventilation. The advantage of the two-masted brigs, as far as the Admiralty was concerned anyway, was that they were relatively cheap to build and run and had an adaptable design. They were normally square rigged and carried a fore and aft sail on the mainmast, but it was possible to add a rear (mizzen) mast with a fore and aft sail to improve handling.

One might speculate why the Admiralty did not choose to send a steam ship on the mission. After all steam propulsion had come a long way since the Charlotte Dundas first plied a Scottish canal in 1803 and some of the Royal Navy’s first steam-powered vessels were based on Cherokee plans. In 1850, all sea going vessels were hybrids, that is they carried both sail and engines, but it seemed certain that in the not-so-distant future pure sailing vessels would be rendered obsolete. The advent of a new and sooty world was a matter of great regret to many officers, especially those who had seen exciting service in the sailing ships of the Napoleonic era. But the nostalgia evoked by paintings such as Turner’s  ‘The Fighting Temeraire’ could not stem progress. Indeed to have allowed it to do so would have been to jeopardise Britain’s contemporary position as the only global ‘superpower’. One drawback of steamships, as far as the Admiralty was concerned was that side paddles, such as those fitted to the passenger ships Sirius and Great Western, which took part in a transatlantic race in 1838, might prove a liability on a warship. The paddles would be vulnerable to enemy fire and would reduce the number of guns that might be deployed in a broadside. This issue was eventually resolved by the introduction of the screw propeller. When races and a tug of war between a paddle-steamer, HMS Alecto and the propeller driven HMS Rattler took place in 1845 the Rattler proved to be the clean winner in both contests. Despite this triumph paddle steamers, which were usually called paddlers, remained in Royal Navy service for some time, one ship being HMS Virago, which was to see action in the attack on Petropavlovsk in 1854.

The development of small hybrid vessels, like the Virago, certainly helped the penetration of British power and influence into coastal hinterlands bisected by major river systems and they were also used in survey work around the British Isles until the Irish famine of 1846, when they were re-deployed on humanitarian work. The use of hybrids allowed a freedom of movement, which proved very useful in combined operations like the ones that took place in the Second Anglo-Burmese War of 1852 but for paddlers to be cost effective an adequate supply of spare parts was needed and the crew had to include an engineer. Unlike the Virago, which formed part of a squadron and could call on assistance from other British vessels in an emergency, a survey ship working in distant waters often had to work alone for months at a time. Moreover, space on a steamer had to be found for the storage of coal to feed the low pressure engines, much of which had to be shipped out to re-fuelling stations from Britain. All of the extra requirements made by a hybrid added to cost, of course, and although the work of the Hydrographic Office was highly valued, this was rarely mirrored in the allocation of resources. The office itself was located in several rooms in the Admiralty. Each gloomy, gas lit room had two people at work and boxes and chart spilled out into an adjacent corridor, reducing the access passageway, to which natural light was admitted through a grimy skylight, to four and a half feet. Given that similar offices in Paris and St Petersburg had larger accommodation than the whole of the Admiralty building, it is no surprise one commentator said it was ‘a disgrace that the Hydrographic Office should be lodged in such a rookery’. Despite this unsatisfactory state of affairs the Hydrographic Office was always an easy target when economies were made and, even as the deployment of the Saracen was being considered, the Hydrographer was told his budget was being reduced from £70,000 to £60,000. Given this parsimony it is hardly surprising cheap wind rather than expensive coal was favoured when plans were being laid for the Far East survey.

Launched at Plymouth Dockyard in January 1831, the Saracen was one of the last of the Cherokees. Evidently no easier to sail than the others, at least she survived. Almost a quarter of her hundred or so sister ships were lost at sea, so it is little wonder that sailors called the class ‘coffin brigs’ or ‘half-tide rocks’.  In the first years of her service the Royal Navy was continuing its attempt to thwart the Atlantic slave trade and the Saracen was directed to West Africa. Many of her crew never returned from this posting, succumbing to fever caught on the notorious coast, whilst the ship itself proved unsuited for interception and chasing work because of handling difficulties. She failed to catch at least one slaving schooner, which must have been a terrible disappointment to any of the human cargo who became aware of the chase, although she did take part in the destruction of slave barracoons at Gallinas before being recalled to England. Then, in 1853, after years of inaction, she was assigned to surveying duties, which would send her on a voyage to the other end of the world and effectively place her under the control of the Hydrographer of the Navy.

On to Chapter 3 -  The captain and his preparations

Back to Introduction

Chapter 2 - Why sail, not steam?

HMS Virago