When London Became An Island

Soochong, Shoguns and the Saracen’s surveys

The Saracen, looking spic, span and newly painted, sailed from Plymouth Sound on February 7th 1854. She left behind rumours of a forthcoming war with Russia, and passed from the English Channel to the Atlantic. No one could know when the vessel would return, but it was almost certain that when it did the four boys would be grown into tough young men. As the hours and days went by Richards would have made an assessment of his crew, the crew would have made an assessment of him and everybody would have made an assessment of the brig. Richards himself wrote that he did not know when the Saracen had been built, perhaps indicating a scientist’s disdain for history, but he must have known she was of a design nearly fifty years old and that no amount of refitting could conceal she was not in the first flush of youth. It would have been a matter of concern to everybody on board when, five days out, water began seeping into the bread room through the rudder casing, but the leak was not serious enough to warrant a change of course. When the Saracen reached the Portuguese Island of Madeira repairs were undertaken and the bow was recaulked. Meanwhile, seagulls and fish benefited from the dumping of nearly half a ton of ruined ‘bread’. This ‘bread’ was probably ship’s biscuit which, once damp, quickly spoilt and went mouldy.


The brig left Funchal at the end of February and continued sailing south, following the general trade route taken by eastward bound merchants ships, which passed well to the west of Ascension Island. The last time the Saracen had been this far south was when she was deployed against the trans-Atlantic slave trade and, although the Royal Navy continued to maintain a squadron to intercept slaving vessels off the west coast of sub-Saharan Africa, such work was not part of her duties now.

As the Saracen headed towards the equator, latitude was checked by astronomical observation and sometimes two separate readings, one hour apart, were taken focusing on two different planets or stars, whilst longitude was calculated using astronomical observation and a chronometer. Speed was checked by the use of a Massey Patent log, a mechanical recording device that registered distance travelled as it was hauled along. Recording was in knots, or nautical sea miles, per hour. A nautical sea mile was, unlike a land mile, based on a mathematical calculation, one sea mile being the measurement of the equator in yards divided by 21600, which is the number of minutes in a circle.


The sea lane was always busy so it was rare for a day to pass when no other ship was sighted and occasionally these came so close that signals could be exchanged. Approaching the equator the Saracen ran into an area where air currents were very light and sometimes faded altogether. Becalmed in these doldrums for over a week she finally caught a good breeze on March 11th, which took her ‘over the line’ on the following day.


By this time the routine of life and work on board was well established. Ships on survey duty were expected to be gathering information almost all the time they were at sea, not just when they were involved in charting coasts. Deep sea soundings were made and sea temperatures taken at a various levels with depths recorded in fathoms, that is units of six feet, and temperatures in degrees Fahrenheit. The Hydrographic Office was always interested in finding out about the currents too, trying to track them by the use of messages in bottles. These were thrown into the sea in the hope that they would be picked up later, enabling the direction and speed of the current that had carried it along could be calculated. Richards ensured that his bottles went overboard, usually half an hour after noon, but there is no record that any others were collected. Had they been then he would have noted the message, re-dated it and thrown it back and written the incident up in the log.


Besides recording technical information the log also carried intimations of life on board the Saracen and it seems that maintaining high morale was a priority for Richards. The way he dealt with food rations was a good example. Because of the difficulties of keeping meat fresh the brig carried containers of preserved pork, mutton and beef. Once the Saracen was a day or so beyond Funchal the cook started serving salted beef, but there were complaints that this shrank when boiled. Richards wisely agreed to an extra issue to compensate, knowing that poor or inadequate food could dampen spirits on any vessel. A further indication of a generally firm but fair attitude is shown in his attitude to loss. Throughout the voyage all kinds of small things, such as buckets, marling spikes and scrapers went overboard and their disappearance was duly recorded. But Richards accepted that these incidents were accidental and no-one was to blame. When, however, he thought there had been negligence he ordered the pay of those responsible to be docked, although this happened very rarely. As for more general misdemeanours only one punishment was recorded between Plymouth and Cape Town, and that was relatively light, Robert Thompson, a Royal Marine, being stripped of a good conduct badge.


As the brig closed on the Cape of Good Hope she encountered the gales and heavy seas that had proved a danger to Europeans ever since the Portuguese had made their first voyages into the Indian Ocean. The cold, sometimes icy, Benguela current flows north from the Antarctic towards the west coast of Africa and there can be considerable turbulence where it meets the Agulhas current, which runs down the east coast. Such a meeting can be spectacular. The warm and fast flowing Agulhas bunches close to the Cape before fanning out in the South Atlantic and the difficult conditions resulting from the mixing of cool and warm waters at a point where two oceans might be considered to meet caused many east bound vessels to miss the area altogether by sailing far to the south. For Richards this was not an option, for he was due to call at Simon’s Bay and would have welcomed the sight of a whitewashed Martello Tower as he approached the port. The seas around the Cape were not only perilous because of the currents; there were submerged dangers too. Only two years before HMS Birkenhead, an iron paddle troopship, had sunk with the loss of some 350 lives when she had struck such an uncharted rock less than a day after leaving Simon’s Bay.

The Saracen sailed into Simon’s Bay more than two months after leaving Plymouth and stayed for three weeks. This gave the crew a chance to go ashore and Richards probably took the opportunity to socialise with the captains of three other Royal Navy ships, the Penguin, Dart and Hydra that he found at the anchorage. The Penguin and the Dart were both fairly small sailing vessels but the Hydra was a wooden paddle sloop, recently involved in survey work and which had just returned from a cruise up the coast to Mozambique. She had previously been engaged in the suppression of the Atlantic slave trade too and, probably due to the advantages given by her method of propulsion and shallow draught, had been markedly more successful than the Saracen. Indeed, in two deployments, she had captured seven slaving vessels. Richards would doubtless have been keen to talk to her commander about whatever survey work had been done and, perhaps, to speculate about who might succeed Beaufort when he gave up his position. Everyone on all the ships would also have wanted to know, if they had not received the information already, if Britain was at war with Russia. However, it would have probably been the weather of the southern winter, rather than the chance of running into one of the Czar’s warships that concentrated most minds on the Saracen as the days went by.


Repaired, restocked, with her water tanks full to the brim and everything secured against anticipated rough weather the brig resumed her voyage on May 9th. The cyclone season in the southern Indian Ocean runs between November and mid-May so Richards knew he would probably be spared that danger. Ships that looped a long way south of Cape Town tried to pick up the strong, cold westerly winds of the roaring 40s, which blew between latitudes of 40 and 50 degrees south, but Richards avoided going too far towards the Antarctic. Keeping the Saracen very close to the 40 degree line, he caught the westerlies but tried to avoid the mountainous seas of a storm, or worse. The Beaufort Scale, named after the Hydrographer, is a method of indicating sea conditions by use of numbers between 1 and 12. The higher numbers indicate more violent conditions and the Admiralty ordered that a guide be pasted into the front of every log book setting out the sails that a vessel should carry at each level. By May 17th the Saracen was in a force 10 gale, which meant she was probably running through very high waves with long overhanging crests, which, when blown off as foam, dressed the sea in a whipped white shroud. Water poured over her decks and with all hatches battened down, she made headway under a single, closely reefed, topsail. Checking and winding the chronometers must have been a tricky task in these conditions and the force of the sea endlessly sought out structural weakness of the vessel itself, but as things grew calmer it appeared that nearly everything had remained secure and watertight although another leak in the bread room had occurred and once again a quarter of a ton of ruined food had to be thrown overboard, a treat for the stormy petrels.

The Saracen scudded along the 40 degree line for over two weeks before altering course to the north east for the run towards the Sunda Straight, the channel separating Java from Sumatra, islands in the hands of the Dutch, who controlled much of the Indonesian Archipelago. As the days became warmer and the seas calmer Richards ordered gun drills, for, for the first time since the brig had left Plymouth there was the real possibility that she would be engaged in a fight, although not with the Dutch. Pirates plagued the seas and trade routes of maritime south-east Asia and although Britain and the Netherlands had recently made strenuous efforts to reduce the threat, it was impossible to eradicate the danger completely. The Saracen just might be called to assist in an act of suppression and there might be other, more dramatic, possibilities too. If trouble broke out in China perhaps Richards would be called on to pilot a fleet up one of the rivers, as had happened to other surveyors in the First Opium War. In that case the Saracen might well find herself in the thick of the action, her officers aiming pistols rather than astronomical instruments.

Those men who had joined the Royal Navy to see something of the world had seen little but sea for the past weeks, but as the Saracen approached the Sunda Straight they would have caught sight of the three cones of the volcanic island of Krakatoa. Few of the crew would ever have seen a volcano before and it would have left an indelible impression. Perhaps the memory of the first sighting flooded back to more than one of them when, thirty years later, they read of the tremendous explosion that all but destroyed the island. Looking out on one of the extraordinary sunsets caused by Krakatoa’s ash spreading around the world, an old able seaman, or an ex-marine or even a retired officer, might have enthralled their grandchildren with the description of what they had seen so long ago.

The Indonesian archipelago was where the real work of the Saracen would begin and as his brig headed towards Java Richards would have been acutely conscious he might soon have to make difficult choices. As the captain of a survey vessel he would have studied the obligatory ‘General Instructions for Hydrological Surveys of the Admiralty’, which set out his technical responsibilities, but it is almost certain that he would have read the ‘Treatise on Nautical Surveying’ written by the irascible Belcher, too. This book gave sound advice on dealing with the human factor when involved in naval surveys. In Belcher’s opinion;

The first object of the surveyor should be to determine the means of command for carrying his purpose to execution. Whatever his own abilities may be, he has yet to determine those under his direction.

To this end it was important that all assistants understood a surveyor’s method and followed them. Belcher, never one to let sentiment cloud his professional judgement, also made clear that unpleasant duties should never be shirked. Once surveying began it would become obvious which officers were most suited to the most responsible tasks and the correlation would not necessarily reflect positions in the Royal Navy hierarchy. Belcher reminded those who commanded survey vessels (and to aspirants too, who probably greatly outnumbered them) that;

Ability is not coupled with rank and it may be one unpleasant part of his duty to place the juniors in positions of trust, and thereby cause heartburnings, which are not readily overcome.

In the confines of a small ship engaged in conducting surveys far from home for several years one can well imagine how such heartburnings could depress the spirits of even the most able captains. Theirs was a very lonely post.

On to Chapter 7 - The Sunda Strait to Hong Kong - June to August 1854

Back to Introduction

Chapter 6 - Plymouth to the Sunda Strait - February to June1854

A ship’s biscuit

Benguela meets Agulhas

Martello Tower Simon’s Bay 1868

Krakatoa 1883