When London Became An Island

Soochong, Shoguns and the Saracen’s surveys

With survey work completed the Saracen left the mouth of the Min on January 2nd 1855 and arrived in Hong Kong just three days later. This was where the demoted William Purvis was to end his service with Richards for he was transferred to HMS Winchester, a ship which, some eighteen months previously, had been involved in a near mutiny. The Winchester had been the flagship of Sir Fleetwood Broughton Reynolds Pellew, the vice-admiral in command of the East India and China Station and one of those aging officers who suddenly found the Crimean War gave them a new opportunity for active service. Like the Saracen Pellew really belonged to the Napoleonic era and had, in fact, first seen action (in which he showed great courage) in 1806, which was before the first Cherokee class brig had been launched. Nearly five decades later, in April 1853, after thirty years on half pay, he raised his flag over the Winchester in Rangoon and sailed for Hong Kong. The ship reached there six months later at which point the crew were naturally anticipating shore leave. Without explanation this was refused and when complaints were made Pellew ordered the drummer to ‘beat to quarters’ and directed his officers to enforce this command with drawn swords. Several men were subsequently injured and although such firmness may, possibly, have nipped a mutiny in the bud when news of the incident reached the Admiralty Pellew was soon relieved of his command. He was replaced by Sir James Stirling.


It is hard to imagine that Richards would have ever have mis-handled a situation in the way that Pellew did although he showed himself to be quite capable of firm action if he considered it necessary. Purvis may well have witnessed such firmness before he transferred to the Winchester, for another member of the crew, John Leech, was found guilty of theft and sentenced to three dozen lashes.

There was as much an element of theatre surrounding a flogging on a Royal Navy ship in early Victorian times as there had been in the Napoleonic War. It was an era when it was still possible to impose the death sentence through hanging from the yard arm, a punishment not abolished until 1860, which was the year in which the sentence was given to a marine who had assaulted an officer on the China station. There were probably a fair number of officers who regretted the ending of what they saw as an effective disciplinary deterrent and there were many more who certainly did not want corporal punishment abolished. A few years earlier, in a publication called ‘The Midshipman’s Friend’, a lieutenant had written;

The ceremony was an imposing sight unmarked by cruelty. Everything was done with a solemnity and feeling truly impressive. If flogging was abolished it would be necessary to have some form of torture such as would make even a cannibal blush for his country.

Chastisement took place at 11 a.m. and began after the boatswain's mate piped 'All hands to witness punishment' and the appearance on deck of both the ships officers, in full dress uniform, and armed marines, who kept watch on the crew. The instrument of punishment was the ‘cat o’nine tails’, a thick rope to which nine cord tails, each about eighteen inches long, had been attached and which was kept in a red baize bag. Leech would have been tied to a grating and, after his shirt had been removed and the boatswain’s mate had been given the order to do his duty, the flogging would have begun. At the end of the century a vice-admiral was to write;

There was a certain art in being flogged which was taught in the lower deck …. a seaman or marine much practiced could take four dozen lashes quite calmly. Seamen called it ‘getting a red-checked shirt at the gangway.’

How Leech took the flogging we do not know but the punishment, unusual on the Saracen, was duly recorded in the ship’s log.

The cat was inflicted on Leech on January 8th and the day afterwards he was discharged to shore, presumably leaving the Saracen for good. Another miscreant sent off the vessel was allowed to return, but only after spending time in the local prison. Richard Thompson, the Royal Marine who had already lost a good conduct badge on the way to the Cape of Good Hope, was found guilty of both drunkenness and insubordination. However, although sentenced to seven days in the cells he was allowed to return in five.


As Thompson languished in jail the most powerful man in Hong Kong, Sir John Bowring, was considering where the Saracen would be deployed next. The governor, who had wide plenipotentiary powers and was intent on further expansion of British trade in the region and had decided to order a survey of part of the coast of Formosa. The island came under the jurisdiction of the governor-general of Fujian although the local mandarins had considerable autonomy. Parts had been occupied by the Spanish and Dutch as long ago as the C17th and, for a short time, the English had a trading station there too, but subsequent immigration from the mainland meant that by the mid C19th it was very much a Chinese island and it was with the Chinese bureaucracy that Bowring, and anyone else interested in the island, had to deal.


No doubt reports of the arrival of ships from an American squadron, commanded by Commodore Matthew Perry, in the previous year had sharpened British interest in Formosa. It was known that Perry’s prime interest was Japan but surveyors from a corvette, the USS Macedonian, drafted charts of the waters around Keelung. This northern port gave access to substantial supplies of coal, a commodity given prime importance by recent technological changes. Within a few months of the American survey P and O had been granted the right to carry all British mail in the far east and it was clear, after the success of steamships like the Lady Mary Wood, that this would mean an increasing demand for coal. It was calculated that P and O alone would need 38,000 tons a year and, of course, there were demands from other companies and from the Royal Navy too.


Bowring and the Foreign Office may have been even more concerned if they had an intimation of an observation made by the American commodore that Formosa could serve US interests in China as Cuba had served those of Spain in the colonisation of central and south America. How the British would have reacted if the United States government had decided to act on this suggestion, which was essentially to occupy Formosa, is unclear. The compromise settlement of the Oregon issue in the mid-1840s reflected the general British attitude of not antagonising Washington despite concerns about American expansionism. After the outbreak of the Crimean War Anglo-American tensions rose, partly because of the way in which the British tried to recruit soldiers in the United States, the recruiters seeking to avoid acting illegally by processing enlistment in Canada. This situation was to lead to a diplomatic row and, eventually, lead to the expulsion of the British minister to the United States. It is no means certain, if the US had entered the Crimean War, which side she would have joined. Fortunately, however, the British did not have to consider the prospect of an American colonisation of Formosa as the idea was dismissed by the US president and the Royal and US navies continued to co-operate on the Chinese coast against their mutual enemy, the pirate fleets.


The difficulty faced by any potential purchasers of Formosan coal was that the Chinese authorities were unwilling to sell it. As with many such prohibitions, blind eyes and bribes allowed a limited supply to be secured and in 1847 P and O had bought a consignment for half the price they would have had to pay in London. And coal from Keelung was of very good quality too, better, in fact, than that dug near Newcastle-on-Tyne. At the end of 1854 a report by Harry Parkes, the British consul in Amoy, said that between a hundred and two hundred tons of Formosian coal could be obtained in a clandestine way. Obviously, however, if everything could be put on a proper commercial footing it would be far better.


There were other reasons, besides coal, for Bowring’s interest in Formosa, one being a desire to reduce piracy, a second a determination to assist shipwrecked crews and a third to give assistance to Jardine Matheson, which wanted a base on the island.


The Chinese authorities were as concerned as any foreign trader about piracy and the British, in return for being given the right to mine coal, offered to help in anti-piracy intervention. No doubt the Americans would have helped in this and would also have approved of taking action to help shipwrecked crews, as Formosa had something of a reputation for mistreating stranded sailors. Between 1844 and 1851 at least five British merchant ships had been wrecked on the coast of Formosa and all the crew of one, the Larpent, were slaughtered save for three who were sold into slavery. The US would have been far less likely to assist Jardine Matheson to obtain its commercial objectives as it had its own enterprises to support but to Governor Bowring they were important. His fortunes were closely tied to those of the firm.


Bowring was a man of his time and would have very much approved of the construction of Free Trade Wharf on Radcliffe Highway. In a way he was not someone who backed the right horse but a horse that others backed. He first made a name for himself in translating foreign language poetry into English and was a notable liberal at a time when reactionary forces in both Britain and on the continent were in post-Napoleonic ascendancy. At the time of the Hellenic struggle for independence he became secretary of the London Greek committee headed by the ‘mad, bad and dangerous to know’ Lord Byron but in the late 1820s, partly as a result of spending too much time working for liberty rather than lucre, he fell on hard times. It was at this point he decided to turn from poetry to accountancy and began to write about the value and benefit of free trade, which linked to freedom in a wider sense. He wanted discrimination against Catholics in public life ended and a radical reform of the British electoral system. When these two objectives were attained he must have felt his star was rising again, but his free trade ideas did not meet with universal approval. Karl Marx considered Bowring’s economic theories would harm the working classes and the influential German-American economist Friedrich List believed tariffs might be profitably used to develop certain national industries. List was sceptical about the idea of free trade emanating from Britain, pointing out that protectionism had been one reason why that country had reached the dominating position she presently held. Moreover, when Benjamin Disraeli published the novel ‘Sybil’ in 1845 it contained this description of a character who was clearly modelled on another free trader, William Jardine;


a dreadful man! A Scotchman richer than Croesus, one McDruggy fresh from Canton with a million of opium in each pocket, denouncing corruption and bellowing free trade.


Despite the opposition Bowring did not change his views and found further success as an MP and a businessman. Then, when financial struck a second time, he was lucky to be thrown a lifeline by the prime minister, Lord Palmeston, who offered him the post of British Consul in Canton and Superintendent of Trade in China. Although Bowring knew he would now receive a salary this did not immediately end his financial difficulties. Fortunately, Jardine Matheson soon stepped forward to offer assistance in the form of loans and short time afterwards his son, John Charles, was given employment with the firm. Within a couple of years Bowring, who became well regarded in his new post, was promoted to governor of Hong Kong. This, perhaps, pleased Jardine Matheson more than their Scottish rival Dent and Co.


The close association between the most powerful British official in Hong Kong and the most influential British firm was bound to be viewed with suspicion by some, but both were in the forefront of expanding British trade with China. It was an initiative that, by 1855 and even taking the opium business into account, had proved something of a disappointment. Consequently, looking for further opportunities to help redress the balance of trade, which was still very much in China’s favour, Bowring authorised the Saracen to sail to Formosa.


As the governor of Hong Kong prepared his direction to Richards and composed letters asking the mandarins of Formosa to give the Saracen assistance, the ship itself was being thoroughly cleaned and refitted. Artificers came on board to help with the work and the gig was sent to the dockyard for repair. The decks were holystoned, the water tanks whitewashed and refilled to capacity and as fresh provisions ordered and stored in the holds the crew enjoyed a diet of soft bread, roast beef and fresh vegetables. Meanwhile, more numbered containers of durable commodities brought from Plymouth were opened and checked. One held 44 lbs of tea, which must have been sent half way round the world only to be sent back to where it started.


On January 24th a note in the ships log showed the Winchester was seen under tow by HMS Rattler, the vessel which, in the contest with Alecto had demonstrated the superiority of propellers over paddles. I wonder if William Purvis caught sight of his old ship and wished he was back on board. Whether he did or not one thing which the demoted boatswain’s mate probably appreciated was a little more space on the Winchester. When Charles Darwin sailed on the Beagle he complained that the absolute want of room is a great evil that nothing can surmount and I imagine things were little better on the Saracen but, cramped or not, the charts and other documents produced in the captain’s cabin were of first class quality. Beaufort, still the Hydrographer at the start of 1855, would have scrutinised those relating to the mouth of the Min very carefully before they were developed into final proofs and printed. Publication took place in October and soon afterwards, like the tea, some copies would have arrived back where they originated.


Chapter 14 -  From Gull Point to Saracen Head


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

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A youthful Fleetwood Pellew

Sir John Bowring

Chinese coast and Formosa