When London Became An Island

Soochong, Shoguns and the Saracen’s surveys

There must have been some apprehension, mixed with a desire to get started, on first day of surveying. This was to take place near Anjer Point, an important watering point for international shipping, and Richards would doubtless have prepared his orders very carefully. As an experienced surveyor he knew it was most important that these were drafted in a clear and unambiguous manner and as he put pen to paper perhaps he remembered Belcher’s view that it was infinitely better;

to devote time to the framing of distinct orders, on which no comment is to be made, and which it is well known must be completed, or others more competent will be employed.

It appears that the Saracen carried four boats; a dingy, a gig, a cutter and a pinnace and all could be deployed on survey duties. Work started as soon as possible, each boat being loaded with lines and leads, anchors and cables, provisions and water, flags and weapons and anything else that might be needed for day. When all was ready the crew would begin to pull on the oars, propelling their boat to the first position listed on their commander’s orders.

The Saracen remained near Anjer Point for a little over two weeks during which time the commander would have made constant, if subtle, assessments of the capabilities of his officers. Richards must have taken charge of one of the surveying boats and keen attention would have been given to the way he worked for everyone knew it was his methods that had to be adhered to and that these would take time to learn. Accuracy was of paramount importance, not only in making observations but also in recording those observations and when his work with the sextant was done Richards would begin further hours of concentration, checking the work of his subordinates and drawing up his draft charts by lamplight. Belcher well knew the difficulties that could be experienced in the initial period of a new deployment, but considered the trials must be patiently endured and that ‘bitter pills’ might have to be swallowed in order to get the ‘machinery in action’.

One of the most important jobs of a survey vessel was to locate and record the position of dangerous rocks, such as the one on which the Birkenhead had come to grief. Whilst some of these were submerged, at least at high tide, others were clearly visible at all times but still needed to be given a wide berth.The log book of the Saracen has references to named rocks in every sphere in which the ship worked and at one occasion it seems the commander, his officers and most of the crew were all engaged in looking for a treacherous lock near Anjer point. Whether it was found or not is unclear but this initial period of survey work would have been most important in helping to get the ‘machinery in action’. Lubricating oil for this machinery would undoubtedly come in the way in which the crew perceived their commander’s attention to their welfare. Consequently, they would have been well satisfied that he ordered fresh beef and vegetables soon after making landfall and that, before the Saracen began to make for Singapore, via a visit to the Cornelius Rock, they were issued with boiled mutton and bottles of sherry.

The Saracen arrived at Singapore roads on July 8th and the crew were paid their savings so they could enjoy what the town had to offer. Doubtless, before going ashore, the sailors were warned what they should beware of for the port was notorious for opium abuse, gambling and prostitution and an opinion expressed in the English language Singapore Free Press, published in 1854, said the island was ‘full of the dregs of the population of south-east Asia’. Moreover, a ‘turf war’ between criminal Chinese secret societies had recently cost hundreds of lives and on the very day that the Saracen arrived the Volunteer Rifle Corps, a kind of militia intended to be mustered in the event of further riots, was established. Nor was the hinterland of the port deemed particularly safe, as there were enough reports of roaming tigers, which sometimes swam over the Strait of Johor, to make any visitor nervous.

The Saracen’s log book makes no mention of tiger attacks or of any mishap befalling any of the crew but Richards would have taken comfort in the fact that at least one other Royal Navy ship was at anchor nearby. As was often the case such meetings led to the requirements of one ship being met by another and, as stocks of food and fresh water were being replenished, HMS Rapid was supplied with 144 yards of white cotton drill. This kind of transaction would have generated little interest from the gongoozlers on shore, but the Saracen evidently became something of an attraction when the carpenter began to fashion stands for Congreve’s rockets.

At the start of the C19th William Congreve had worked on rockets at Woolwich Arsenal, where his father was Comptroller of the Royal Laboratories. It is generally assumed that the missiles he developed were based on weapons captured in India and, as they proved effective on the battlefield, they certainly helped keep his name in the public eye. A substantial quantity were ordered and many were manufactured at the Royal Gunpowder Works at Waltham Abbey. Although Congreve’s prestige was enhanced by being an equerry to the Prince Regent, he seems to have been somewhat impetuous character and his other projects did not always meet with great success. In 1814, for example, when in charge of a firework display to mark the centenary of the accession of George the First, he started the pyrotechnics too soon, causing a model Chinese pagoda, designed by John Nash, to be destroyed by fire. Also, of course, many early investors in the Regents’ Canal would have looked on gloomily as his supposedly water saving ‘hydro pneumatic double balance lock’ proved a costly failure. Still, for at least a quarter of a century after Congreve’s death in 1828, the rockets which bore his name continued to give valuable service. It seems as though a number had been supplied to the Saracen to help in surveys, but perhaps the installation of the stands in Singapore were in anticipation of using them in action. One way of installing the rockets on a warship is shown in the picture on the right.

For all its drawbacks Singapore was as much a validation of the benefits of free trade as the success of the wharf on Radcliffe Highway. It stood at an important point on the trade routes between the occident and the orient, but was by no means the first or only port in maritime south-east Asia to serve merchant ships involved in intercontinental commerce or war ships charged with their supervision and safety. It had certain natural advantages including fresh water springs, a deep water harbour and a plentiful supply of timber, which could be used to repair damaged vessels and construct rocket stands too. But what drew traders to what was initially a trading post, established by Sir Stamford Raffles in 1819, was that no duties were imposed. Traders of all nationalities and ethnicities, including many Chinese, were quick take advantage of the opportunities this presented and some abandoned more expensive ports in the region. Raffles, incidentally, was one of the prime movers in the creation of the London Zoological Society. The society was to establish what became London Zoo, which now straddles the Regents Canal.

The next leg of the Saracen’s voyage would be to Hong Kong and Singapore harbour must have provided the crew with first glimpse of the kinds of vessels commonly used in trade with China. To the eye of western sailors the huge, ungainly junks, must have seemed very strange, but merchant vessels of similar design had been seen in the Sunda Straights for at least two thousand years and were exceptionally seaworthy. Indeed one, the Keying, had sailed to both the USA and Britain in the 1840s. The vessel had been a great attraction when moored in London at the East India Docks, one visitor being Queen Victoria.

The winds of the South China Sea dictated the patterns of trade between ports such as Foochow (the Keying was a Foochow trading junk) or Shanghai and Singapore. The junks would arrive on the north-east monsoon, which blows from December until early March, then wait for a change in the wind direction and return on the south-west monsoon, which blows from June to September. Observing the little survey ship from high poop decks many Chinese captains may have had an ambiguous attitude to the Saracen. On the one hand they knew the British were quite prepared to use naked aggression to get what they wanted in China, on the other that Chinese traders were benefiting not only from free trade, but also from the technological developments that made the seas safer. Modern survey and printing methods meant accurate charts, showing dangerous shoals and hidden reefs, were freely available and the steam gun boat had proved extremely successful in hunting down the five gun ‘prohus’ favoured by pirates in south-east Asian waters.

During the time the Saracen was engaged in survey duties in the Far East a mission arrived from London lead by the Earl of Elgin. One member was 28 year old Laurence Oliphant, who kept copious notes about his travels and made perceptive observations about the places he visited, one of which was Singapore. The mission took the fast route to the east, which meant travelling to Egypt, crossing the desert (on the first railway train to serve the route) and taking a steamer down the Red Sea into the Indian Ocean. Elgin’s eventual destinations were China and Japan but Oliphant took the opportunity to explore Singapore when in transit being unconcerned, evidently, with tiger attacks. In the more rural areas he noticed plantations of sugar, gambia, pepper and opium and the handsome bungalows of German and English merchants. But it was port activity which impressed him most and he came to the view that Singapore was the most prosperous of the oriental settlements the mission visited. For this, he said, a good deal of credit must go to the Chinese. At the time of his arrival, in 1857, an estimated 70,000 Chinese were living on the island and he thought their community showed great industry and enterprise. Every street, he said, ‘swarmed with long tails and loose trousers’, from dawn until midnight there was incessant hammering, stitching and cobblering and even in the early hours some work continued by the subdued light of huge paper lanterns. Unfortunately, none of the Europeans resident on island could speak Chinese and no effort had been made to share responsibility for local government with what was obviously the largest single ethnic group. If it was, thought Oliphant, then what he sensed as the mutual distrust and suspicion between Europeans and the Chinese would quickly disappear. In his opinion the Chinese had a ‘reverence for authority when judiciously enforced’.


The Saracen left Singapore, which Oliphant said was inevitably destined ‘to hold the highest position amongst eastern emporia’, ten days after her arrival and although bound for China would replenish her stocks of fresh vegetables and meat at Victoria Harbour, Labuan. Britain had acquired Labuan, an island off the coast of Borneo, a few years earlier as a result of the drive and opportunism of an Englishman named James Brooke.

Brooke, on whom Joseph Conrad was to model Lord Jim, had sailed from England to Borneo on his own schooner The Royalist, which was essentially a small private warship that was later to carry opium between India and China. Brooke was convinced of the need for a British colony in the region and finding the ruler of Brunei in difficulties, gave help at a crucial time. He was rewarded with the sovereignty of Sarawak, a power base on which he was to establish himself as the ‘White Raj’. It was a peculiar situation, but Britain obtained control of the island as a consequence of Brooke’s successes, supplemented by a certain amount of naval pressure. Labuan not only provided a good anchorage in Victoria Harbour, but was a perfect point from which to control Brunei's access to the oceans. Brunei became, like, Singapore, a port subscribing to the principles of free trade, although another reason for British keenness in establishing control of the area was to keep it out of the hands of the USA, seen as an increasingly dangerous competitor. In this attitude the limitations of free trade were, perhaps, once again illustrated. The British, perhaps understandably, wanted to maintain free trade on their own terms. As there were quite enough competitors for power and influence in the region already, there was no need to add to them unnecessarily.


Arriving off the coast of Borneo, the Saracen made its presence known by firing her guns and rockets, which would not only have been a reminder of British power to anyone watching from shore, but also an opportunity for the armourers to ensure everything worked properly. It is not clear exactly where the display of firepower was made, but on one occasion when a salute to Brooke was fired by a warship of the East India Company it could not be returned as it was found the White Raj had walked off with the key to the ammunition store in his pocket. The Saracen did not stay long at Labuan and after replenishing her stock of victuals she sailed for another off-shore island proving invaluable as a base for British trade. She reached there on August 12th.


When Oliphant arrived in Hong Kong a couple of years later he found the topography not unlike that of western Scotland but thought it had the worst tropical climate in the world. He found the heat intolerable, which lead to a certain depression of the spirits, and he was not impressed with the ‘ostentatious magnificence’ that invested the port with a ‘somewhat parvenu character’. He much preferred the respectable antiquity of Macau and thought;

Like a beautiful woman with a bad temper, Hong Kong claims our admiration while it repels our advances.

If Oliphant had been prescient about the future of Singapore perhaps he had unwittingly predicted the future for Britain’s relationship with China too. This would be very much influenced by a woman who was, in her own opinion anyway, beautiful, certainly bad tempered on occasions and implacably resistant, rather than indifferent, to advances from the West. It is almost certain that had she been invited to visit a moored, state-of-the-art British trading ship she would have declined.

On to Chapter 8 - Trouble in China

Back to Introduction

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

Nash’s pagoda

Congreve’s rockets

Sir Stamford Raffles

The Keying

James Brooke

Anjer Point

Ports of call