When London Became An Island

Soochong, Shoguns and the Saracen’s surveys

Cherokee class brigs are sometimes referred to as brig-sloops as, for example, on a list of ships now displayed in the Chatham Dockyard Museum. The reason for using the term brig-sloop was not technical, but to do with Royal Navy ranks. Richards was always referred to as Master and Commander on maps for which he had full responsibility and as commander, never captain, in the brig’s log. He was, however, the captain of the Saracen during the whole of its deployment on the survey mission.

Anyone sailing on the Saracen who had never come across Richards before would have been keen to know how he would run things. They might be aware he had previous experience in the West Indies, but would be more interested in whether he was a martinet or a reasonable man, sympathetic to justifiable grievances. The brig was likely to be away for years, a travelling home in which disputes and disagreements could fester, breeding great discontent.

Probably the most difficult survey captain of the period was Sir Edward Belcher, an officer with a notorious reputation. During his first command he court-martialed most of his officers, was then court-martialed himself and had only been given new survey work because he kept the confidence of the Hydrographer, Sir Francis Beaufort. There was no doubt that Belcher was fastidious and competent, but he usually made life very unpleasant for those who had to survey with him, one recorded criticism being;

How unfortunate it is that such a capital fellow for work should be such a devil incarnate with his officers.

As eccentric and unpleasant a Belcher may seem the demands made on the captains of survey ships were so exacting it is hardly surprising only a particularly tough-minded and dedicated officer could hold the post successfully. Even then some succumbed to the huge workload and the loneliness of commanding a ship engaged in isolated work for years at a time thousands of miles from home. Pringle Stokes, for example, captain of the Beagle on her first mission committed suicide when the work got on top of him and Robert FitzRoy, his successor decided to relieve himself of his command at one point, being, according to Darwin, in a state of depression ‘bordering on insanity’. It is then, a tribute to the captains of these small vessels that that so much of the work they produced was of such high quality that their names have appeared on the charts for which they were responsible until the present day. Not all captains were as difficult as Belcher, of course. A contemporary observer who sailed on a survey ship with someone more benign wrote;

Being a survey ship, the men had many advantages and were not of the ordinary men- of-war type. Everything went on smoothly and without friction of any sort. Discipline was maintained strictly and firmly and there was a remarkable absence of crime and punishment. The utmost attention was paid to the comfort and well-being of the men in every detail, the result being that our captain was universally beloved and respected.  

Perhaps this was the ideal to which Richards aimed when, in November 1853, he took charge of the Saracen, which had recently been overhauled at Devonport. Richards professed ignorance of when the ship had been built, but she was actually launched at Plymouth Dockyard in January 1831. The renovations changed her appearance somewhat, as she now sported new cabins under a new poop deck and was fitted with a mizzen mast, which had much improved her sailing qualities. Since she was being sent on research rather than fighting duties her armament was reduced and would carry only two carronades and two long barrelled guns, which were to be used on surveys as well as for defence. These were supplemented by a collection of muskets and rifles and Congreve rockets of a design, like the Saracen itself, dating back to the Napoleonic Wars. The brig’s company reflected the new operational requirements too and besides four Royal Marines she carried sixteen seamen, four boys, eleven petty officers and seven officers.

December and January may have been tiresome for Richards, who, naturally enough, would have wanted to be under way, especially since he was waiting through two of the coldest and darkest months of northern Europe. But Richards would not have been idle for it was his responsibility alone to ensure that the ship was as perfectly prepared as possible with all necessary provisions and equipment diligently stored away. Day after day casks and barrels of food and drink were recorded on arrival and packed in the hold, to be opened and checked very carefully as the voyage progressed. The brig’s water tanks could carry 18 tons and as an average of about 50 gallons a day was used she could comfortably sail for over two months without needing replenishment. Coal was needed for cooking, candles for light, gunpowder and percussion caps for shooting, cloth for clothes and sails - the list must have seemed endless.

The guidelines under which Richard’s actual surveys were to take place were set out in an official booklet, first published in 1850, called General Instructions for Hydrogaphic Surveyors of the Admiralty. This served as a reminder to survey officers of what the Hydrographer expected them to be doing and how they should be doing it. Of course a new Hydrographer could mean changes of policy, which may have been of some concern to Richards as the incumbent, Beaufort, was almost an octogenarian. Not surprisingly Beaufort wanted to retire, but the Admiralty would not hear of it even though he had already worked for twenty five years at sea and longer in the Hydrographic Office itself. And so he continued although, as he said himself, he was;

 … eighty years old, deaf as a post, with failing eyes and shaking hands and above all, with memory clean gone …

It is a mark of how highly Beaufort was valued that he was required to remain and there were plenty of other things for Richards to worry about besides a change at the top of the hierarchy. One was to make sure all the survey and ancillary instruments, particularly the chronometers, were serviceable and accurate.

Richards had learnt his craft in an era of constant improvement in chronometers, in part spurred on by an annual competition sponsored by the Admiralty, but they still needed special attention. Whether issued by the Admiralty or bought privately, they were cosseted and cared for like a piece of fabulously expensive but fragile cargo from the moment they were brought aboard. Fitted in wooden boxes with a glass viewing dome in the lid, they had to be placed in a dry and well-ventilated place that had the least variation in temperature possible. A good bed had to be made up, preferably of springy bunting or horsehair, but never of sawdust, to protect them from jolts and jars and nothing had to be stored nearby which would generate dust. The Saracen had a special chronometer store, close to Richard’s cabin, and although the timepieces were disturbed as little as possible each had to be wound once every day, and then carefully restored to its original position. Preferably this would be in line with all the others so that each would have the same hour numeral pointing in the same direction. For the sake of accuracy their care lay with a single officer who would try to become acquainted with any developing quirks or tendencies, for it was not unknown for a perfectly reliable chronometer to jump a few seconds in a day and then return to its original rate. Discrepancies were recorded in a chronometer journal, which was kept throughout the voyage. The officer also had to note daily temperatures, indicate anything that may have affected the accuracy of the clocks, give the reasons for any adjustments and record several other very technical matters. Even when great care was lavished on it there was always the possibility of incorrect adjustment and so, before each survey began, each one would be cross-checked against lunar-distance calculations made with the help of the current edition of the ‘Nautical Almanac’, which any master would have guarded with great care. As the almanac tables were based on Greenwich observations all chronometers were initially set to Greenwich time.

On to Chapter 4 - The problem of longitude

Back to Introduction

Chapter 3 - The captain and his preparations

Sir Edward Belcher

Chronometer used on HMS Beagle