When London Became An Island

Soochong, Shoguns and the Saracen’s surveys

Had Commander Richards sought to improve his knowledge of Chinese as the Saracen progressed up the coast he would have soon discovered that ‘student’ was far more important in the title student interpreter than ‘interpreter’. Mr Hughes was an intelligent man, one of a group who had been recruited with considerable alacrity in the previous few months, but someone who was going to have to learn Chinese on the job by trial and effort.

After 1842 a consular service had been established in the treaty ports with the aim of advancing the interests of British trade. Unfortunately, the consuls, vice-consuls and assistants on whom it depended were subject to the attrition of the climate and a number died and others became too ill to continue. As trade with China continued to increase, combined with the possibility of new markets being opened in Japan, the Governor of Hong Kong, Sir John Bowring, suggested to the Earl of Clarendon, the British Foreign Secretary, that student interpreters might be used to bolster the depleted establishment. Clearly such men would need to be capable linguists, in robust health and, hopefully, able to offer many prospective years of service. The earl agreed and recommendations were sought for the posts. There was no shortage of prospective candidates. One was an Ulsterman, Robert Hart, a recent graduate of Queens College, Belfast and certainly a capable linguist, having recently won a scholarship in modern languages and modern history. The speed at which this nineteen year old was appointed and moved from Ireland to China was surprising. In April 1854, two months after the Saracen left Plymouth, he was offered employment with the consular service when still in Belfast. He arrived in Hong Kong in July, having travelled on the ‘overland’ route to the Far East. The Saracen did not drop anchor until the following month.

While waiting to hear where he would be deployed Hart began a journal and on September 2nd recorded that Hughes had departed on the Saracen. He also wrote a cryptic comment about ‘H’, who I think we might take to be Hughes, to say that, although moral, he thought him to be dry, phlegmatic and an unpleasant companion. Perhaps Hughes spent much of his time on the journey to the Min enjoying his own company and this was not regretted by the captain. In any event as soon as the Saracen arrived at the mouth of the Min Hughes was discharged to continue his journey to Foochow and Richards immediately began his own work in the service of British trade. Day after day the Saracen log book began to record that the commander, officers and boat crews left the ship on surveying duties and did not usually return before sunset.

Over 20 years previously the Lord Amherst, a vessel chartered by the E.I.C. had been engaged in similar work. On seeing an E.I.C vessel off the coast of Fujian some observers evidently thought she might be carrying opium and must have been bemused to find all she had to distribute were pamphlets written by the President of the company’s Canton Council, which had been translated into a kind of rough Chinese. It was entitled ‘A brief account of the English Character’. This, presumably, was part of a kind of charm offensive but whether the recipients took the publication seriously is anyone’s guess. In any event the Lord Amherst was evidently unmolested as it went about its work and there was a certain irony in the fact that the actual Lord Amherst, sent as an ambassador to China some years earlier, had been shipwrecked when the vessel in which he was sailing struck a rock.

The chart of the mouth of the Min drafted by Thomas Rees, commander of the Lord Amherst, was fairly simple, reflecting the results of a restricted number of soundings and observations, but some rocks and sandbanks were identified and a suggestion made as to the best access channel. His work was followed by that of two Royal Navy captains, Kellet and Collinson in the 1840s but it was Richards who was to make the most comprehensive surveys.

Merchant ships leaving the Pagoda Anchorage, which lay close to Losing Island, would take a local pilot on board. Given this assistance a chart could be viewed as an important additional resource to ensure safe passage, but many captains would have placed more trust in sheets printed on British Admiralty presses than the views of local pilots. As Richard’s surveying boats identified dangerous rocks the most significant were often given names (Scout Rock, for example) and although no names were allocated to the shifting sandbanks captains were cautioned about what to look out for. There were several rocks to avoid even before an outgoing merchant ship negotiated the Mingan Pass, which lay to the north east of Losing Island. Once beyond the pass, which had a deep channel but was dominated by four forts, a shallow channel, never used by large ships, ran off to the east. To the north of this channel was Woufou Island, which had low-lying paddy fields leading down to the edge of the Min and several areas of high land. At a north-easterly point of Woufou Island, the end of a short ridge faced a spur across the river. Between these high points, on which forts had also been built, was the Kingpai Pass. As ships approached the Kingpai Pass there was a danger of grounding on shoals and sandbanks and the channel itself, though deep, was narrow. Even after negotiating the Kingpai Pass, other obstructions, including a rock named after the captain of the Lord Amherst, had to be avoided before the outer bar was crossed. Given the Min was a fast flowing river and large sandbanks could be hidden under tidal waters it is easy to imagine the great relief many captains, even the most experienced, felt as their ships and precious cargoes reached the sea.

One thing which neither Kellet nor Collinson needed to be concerned about was the sudden attack of an enemy frigate. Both officers were involved in the Opium War, but by the time the Saracen arrived at the Min hostilities with Russia meant the Royal Navy was searching the Pacific for enemy raiders. The war between Russia and Turkey, begun in October 1853, centred around south-east Europe, the Black Sea and the Crimea, but after Britain and France declared war in March of the following year, action was seen in the Baltic, the White Sea and on the Kamchatka peninsula. Moreover, there was such concern about the Russian threat in the Pacific that the colony of New South Wales commissioned a gunboat, the Spitfire, to help defend Sydney harbour.

Although, after reaching the Min, Richards once again made sure his guns were properly exercised concern about a Russian attack did not impair attention to his surveying duties. The Saracen worked at the mouth of the river for over three months, occasionally changing the point where she anchored but never venturing much further inland than Losing Island. Crew members not required on the survey boats were set to work on other tasks and the ship must have looked increasingly pristine as September gave way to October. Painting, cleaning, scrubbing and holystoning were never ending requirements of course, and a new round would have been needed after a coal boat brought four and a half tons of fuel to be hauled on board. The opportunity offered by being reasonably stationary was also taken to make repairs, the armourer spending long hours at the forge fashioning new bolts for the main hatchway, for instance, and work being done on the pump and hoses.

I have been unable to find a photograph of the Saracen under sail or at anchor, but when reading through the ship’s log came across a pencil illustration that I think may have been drawn by one of the officers or crew. It bears the name of neither the ship nor the amateur artist and I had hoped it might be of the Saracen. Perhaps it was, but if so it was not a very good representation as the mizzen mast is, I think, too far forward. Nor does there appear to be anyone on board - but maybe they were all away surveying. What definitely does belong to the Saracen is the plan of the holds in 1854.
The hazards of the Min were brought home to Richards on several occasions, the first being in the first week of October when an outward bound merchant ship, apparently the
Lord Warrington, ran aground on a sandbank. This was probably one of the large banks to the north of Woufou Island, hidden at high water. The ship was carrying a full cargo and must have been stuck fast as it took two days to re-float her, but when she was eventually freed Richards ordered a pinnace to escort her out to sea. A few days later a clipper got into difficulties. It was the John Bunyan. How ironic it would have been if this ship, which had salvaged British pride when the Oriental made her record breaking run to London, had foundered in the same year and in the same waters as her American rival. However, strenuous efforts, which included assistance given by the cutter from the Saracen, to rescue the John Bunyan and her cargo of tea were successful and she was able to depart.

The following month it was the Saracen itself that got into trouble – twice. Survey ships were, by their very nature, at risk when engaged in their work. At the end of the C18th, Jean-François de Galaup, comte de La Pérouse, the French answer to the simply named Captain Cook, sailed from Australia having left journals, charts (wonderfully drawn) and letters to be forwarded to France by the British. The documents arrived safely but the expedition subsequently vanished. Not until many years later was some evidence found to suggest Lapérouse’s ships had run aground on a Pacific island. There was no chance that the Saracen would disappear without trace on the Min, nonetheless it was always possible she could have been wrecked.

The first incident occurred when the Saracen was coming down the river and ran aground on a paddy field. This may have been because she was sailing close to the shore to avoid the Half Tide Rock but, unfortunately, a depth of two fathoms was not enough to allow her clear passage. As the tide ebbed the Saracen began settle on the mud and heel over and she came to rest at an angle of about 45 degrees. The crew quickly improvised to stop their ship falling further and outriggers and a large Chinese boat were used to prop her up until the tide began to flood again. The second incident was potentially more serious and occurred on the south side of the Mingan Pass. A little after 8.30 in the morning the Saracen was tacking towards the pass when she suddenly lost the wind and was carried by eddies towards the Scout Rock, where she was ‘held by the heel’. Fortunately, the rising tide eventually lifted the ship clear but then she began to be carried towards other, unamed, rocks. Skilful handling prevented this happening but no sooner was the brig through the Mingan Pass than she ran agound on a sandbank, again in two fathoms. This time a kedge, a light anchor, was dropped some distance from the port bow and allowing the ship to be hauled free. All the drama was over by noon, but it had been some morning.

The grounding on Scout Rock occurred just a year after Richards had taken charge of the Saracen. Christmas was approaching in a quite different climate to that of southern England but it was probably inevitable the thoughts of many would turn to home and the sight of a mail boat keenly anticipated. At the time postal communication to Foochow was being provided by the Lady Mary Wood a small paddler owned by the Peninsula and Orient Steam Navigation Company (usually known as P and O), which was observed from the Saracen steaming up river on November 27th and returning the following day. Anticipating the arrival of envelopes addressed with copperplate handwriting would not have been restricted to the crew of the surveying vessel of course, the tiny number of isolated Western expatriates living in Fujian’s unwelcoming treaty port must have thought they were really at the end of the line. Like Robert Hart, now living in Ningpo, some may have had bouts of loneliness and homesickness and even on the Saracen there may have been regrets about having signed up on the cramped little brig. As was often the case sorrows were submerged in drink and when William Purvis, the Boatswain’s Mate, succumbed he started to use what was called disgusting language too. His immediate punishment, demotion to Able Seaman, was mild, reflecting, in my view, the firmness and fairness that seems to have been a hallmark of Richard’s command.

I am not sure how Christmas was celebrated on the Saracen, nor in Foochow, but Hart’s journal tells us that he spent an entertaining December evening with drunken sea captains and penned and sang a song to the tune of Auld Lang Syne. Who knew what 1855 would bring? The defeat of Russia in the Crimea? The end of the Taiping rebellion? A reward for missionary societies in a sudden and widespread acceptance of the Gospel? None of this seems to have concerned Hart in his evening of revelry and here are two verses and a chorus of a ditty we might call ‘Ningpofoo Lang Syne’, which you might try to sing to yourself before leaving this page.

No evening walks with ladies fair, no squeezing of the waist,
The nectar of rich rosy lips tho' now we never taste, -
Tho' moonlight meetings there are none, - no tender billets doux-
Yet still we've some enjoyment here at Ningpofoo,

At Ningpofoo, my friends,
At Ningpofoo,
We taste the brimming wine cup's joys
At Ningpofoo

Then as we're far from English joys – girls – concerts - balls - and plays-
The Best of Chinese customs blend with good old English ways -
Love native lassies - smoke cigars - drink wine - good toddy brew-
The fault's our own if we don't enjoy some life at Ningpofoo,

The following morning Hart, a devoted and self-critical Christian, bitterly regretted what he had done. But if you can’t regret a lack of a tender billets doux and the nectar of rosy lips at nineteen or twenty, when can you regret it?

Chapter 13 - Richards imposes the ‘red-checked shirt’

Back to Introduction

Chapter 12 - At the mouth of the Min

Commanders and clippers

HMS Saracen?

Plan of the holds of HMS Saracen 1854

Mouth of the River Min 1854

Hazards and defences on the Min