The United States completed the drive to the western seaboard in 1848 when, after a war with Mexico, it acquired a huge swathe of territory including what are now the states of California, Nevada, Utah and New Mexico. After this expansion it was probably inevitable the country would become the dominant Pacific power, although even before war there were substantial American commercial interests in China and in the Pacific whaling industry too.
In the 1850s the American merchant marine and United States Navy captains largely depended on British charts and, although the Department of the Navy had created a Depot of Charts and Instruments in 1830, it was not until nearly a quarter of a century later that the Naval Observatory and Hydrographical Office was established. Nonetheless, in the interim period, the United States Navy was deeply involved in surveying and exploration and a four year expedition, which began in 1838 and was widely called the US Ex.Ex., collected a huge amount of valuable information. Unfortunately, as far as the crews of the ships were concerned, it was lead by John Wilkes, a martinet officer who seems to have been as difficult to deal with as Belcher. Curiously the two met when their paths crossed in the Pacific. Wilkes thought Belcher to be prickly, secretive and evasive and Belcher’s views of Wilkes were unlikely to have been any more complimentary. On his return to the United States Wilkes was court-martialed and, amongst other things, charged with regularly mistreating his subordinate officers. It is said that Herman Melville may have used Wilkes as a model for the obsessive Captain Ahab in the 1851 novel Moby Dick.
One of the officers who sailed with the US Ex.Ex. was Cadwalader Ringgold, who was captain of the USS Porpoise. When another expedition, comprised of five ships and charged with exploring and surveying the north Pacific, left Hampton Roads in 1853 Ringgold was in command. This American surveying squadron, which included the Porpoise was the one which Richards found at anchor on arriving at Hong Kong. At that point he must also have discovered that Ringgold had just been removed from his post.
It is unclear exactly why Ringgold was replaced. The official reason was, evidently, that he had contracted malaria and was too unwell to continue but other sources claim he began to behave in a strange way that had nothing to with a mosquito bite. Indeed, the senior officer who convened the panel which relieved Ringgold of his command is quoted as saying he thought the commander was insane. Whatever the truth it appears Ringgold was either unwilling or unable to continue with the survey and he returned to the United States.
No doubt Richards took a keen interest in what had happened in the American squadron as his own vessel was restocked and repaired. He would have been aware that, as the American ships were engaged in the same kind of work in the same waters they were likely to meet again no matter who was in command and was, no doubt, reassured by the presence of a steam frigate flying the stars and stripes. For a variety of reasons relationships between the United States and Great Britain were occasionally tense in the 1850s, but on the Chinese coast their navies sometimes worked in concert against their common enemy, the infestation of pirates.
No one quite knew which ships involved in coastwise traffic were pirates and which were not for many predators masqueraded as ordinary coastal traders, revealing themselves when it was too late for their prey to escape. These bandit vessels were often well supplied with cannon, sometimes worked together and could be quite prepared to take on a lone warship, even a steam gunboat of the Royal Navy. For example, when HMS Hermes, a paddler, chased armed junks which had attacked a British merchant ship on its way from Shanghai to Hong Kong the pirates fought back and fought well, their shots coming close to hitting the bow and the paddle boxes.
The crews of the pirate vessels were overwhelmingly Chinese but there were a few renegade Westerners too. In the 1850s a trial took place in Hong Kong of a young American named Eli Boggs. He was accused of piracy although many found it hard to believe that such a youthful and good looking man could have been involved in this kind of criminality. A contemporary newspaper report said that he looked like the hero of a sentimental novel and that he had;
large lustrous eyes, a mouth the smile of which might woo a coy maiden, affluent black hair and hands so delicately white that they would have created a sensation in Belgravia.
This cut-throat dandy was accused of taking part in a raid in which a number of sailors were killed and others forced overboard. In the end his handsome features did not save him from prison for, although found not guilty of murder, he was sentenced for piracy.
For a small sailing vessel like the Saracen the danger of being caught in a situation similar to that which faced the Hermes must have been very real and Richards maintained close attention to regularly drilling his crew in the use of small arms and sometimes in the use of the cutlass too. When the Saracen left Hong Kong, bound for the River Min, on September 2nd Richards would have been as confident as possible about the fighting qualities of his ship. He had an unexpected passenger too, who, he probably hoped, might be a help if the need arose to negotiate with any Chinese officials or even interrogate captured pirates. A student interpreter, Patrick J Hughes, was granted passage along the coast and we might wonder if the captain anticipated taking the opportunity to learn a few words and phrases which might be useful when surveying.
If Mr Hughes, who was destined for consular service in Foochow, had hoped for speedy journey he was to be disappointed for he could not disembark until the 14th, which was the day the Saracen arrived at the mouth of the Min. Slow though the journey was he might have reflected on his good fortune after he heard news about the American survey ships some time later. Part of the squadron, including both the Porpoise and another US Ex.Ex. veteran, the USS Vincennes, had, after a few days, followed the Saracen taking the same initial course as the British ship. But the American vessels did not keep together and after they parted the Porpoise was never heard from again.
Chapter 9 - An American squadron, an American pirate
Commanders and clippers
Wilkes (top) and Ringgold both photographed in later life
Soochong, Shoguns and the Saracen’s surveys
When London Became An Island