When London Became An Island

Soochong, Shoguns and the Saracen’s surveys

The Saracen took 10 days to sail from Hong Kong to that part of Formosa where the coastal surveys were to be made. Although the winds were not favourable the monsoon season had ended so there was less concern she would meet the same fate as the USS Porpoise. Nonetheless, there was always the possibility of a skirmish with pirates and Richards might have reflected there was a remote chance of an engagement with a Russian raider as he would have been well aware of the failure of the British and French to take the port of Petropavlosk on the Kamchatka peninsula. British forces had been under the command of Rear-Admiral David Price. Another veteran of the Napoleonic wars, Price had also fought against the United States in the War of 1812 and was severely wounded at the Battle of New Orleans. Just before the unsuccessful initial attack on Petropavlosk Price died in his cabin from a pistol shot, which may have been accidental or, it was suggested, suicide. A second assault, which included a costly landing, was also a complete failure. British and French prestige in the Far East had clearly been dented and there was no news of the Russian frigate Aurora, which the allies had set out to destroy.

The chances of meeting the Aurora in the vastness of the Pacific were, of course, very slight and as soon as she reached the waters off Tainan the Saracen began to go about her work and take soundings of the seabed. It is reasonable to presume the Chinese authorities were, by this time, aware that the British were intent on developing trade with Formosa, whether they wanted it or not. Consequently, they would have known that what the British were after was a good, easily accessible harbour facing the mainland even though the whole west coast offered relatively few of these. It was the Portuguese who had given the island the name Formosa, which translates as ‘beautiful isle’, and it was certainly that, although to many shipwrecked sailors it had proved most inhospitable. The central part of the island was dominated by mountain ranges, often snow capped in winter, that comprised, for the most part, of unstable rocks. The highest peak was Mount Morrison, named after the hero of the Protestant missionary organisations on the mainland. During the monsoon season there were frequent mudslides and landslips and suddenly swollen rivers and streams would carry limestone, sandstone and shale down to the coast. When the first soundings were taken a few miles off the coast it was found that, at 40 fathoms, only sand, course and fine, and small shells were drawn up on the lead and as the ship closed on the island it would have been clear that long stretches of sand bank bordered the coastal plain.

The first thing that Richards did on arrival was to visit the local mandarins taking, presumably, the document prepared by Bowring with him. The unfortunate events surrounding the Larpent had underscored the issue of the mistreatment of stranded crews but whenever such matters were raised with local officials they blamed criminals or those outside Chinese control. When, however, attempts were made to formalise trade the same officials would say this was a matter for authorities on the mainland. Such attitudes must have meant that even if the document, which asked for assistance in the work the Saracen was to do, was accepted, there would always remain some doubt as to whether it would have a practical effect. Nonetheless, the governor of Hong Kong, and no doubt Richards too, hoped this request would smooth the way to a trouble free survey. In any event the mandarins would have been fully aware that if they did not provide what was wanted the next Royal Navy ships to call were likely to be rather more aggressive in their demands. As it happened the meeting between Richards and his officers and the mandarins appeared to pass off cordially and a few days later Chinese officials actually visited the ship. On leaving they were given a three gun salute. The next guns they heard would have been those fired to make a base. The survey of the coast had begun and Richards noted that he was not hindered in any way as he went about his duty.

Tainan, which Richards regarded as the principle town of the whole island was situated about two miles inland from Fort Zealandia, which had been built during the Dutch occupation. This had long been abandoned but the ruins, approximately 60 feet high, served as a landmark on a coast on which they were few natural features. The commander thought that between December and March the waters close to the ruins offered a good anchorage for ships wanting to obtain supplies from Tainan, but advised that the chance of being blown onshore by southwesterlies meant it would be better to anchor further out during the rest of the year.

To the north of Tainan, close by Gull Point, was the little port of Cock-si-con, which Richards found to be no more than a bay behind sandbanks. It was used by large junks and access was via a channel marked by a few huts but the commander was distinctly unimpressed by the area. He must have made a reconnoitre from the sand itself for he noted that no vegetation could be seen from there and the whole area running towards the higher ground was simply covered in sand and mud banks interspersed with shallows and the occasional patch of sedge. The only inhabitants appeared to be poor fishing families whose miserable huts and bamboo rafts are the only relieving features of the dreary scene. Perhaps this dreariness affected the crew too for the log book records that, as survey work was taking place, the assistant to the ship’s steward was suspended for drunkenness and lost his allowance.

Richards would have had to have gone quite a long way north east before finding cultivated land. Even here the soil was poor, the main crop being sweet potatoes, but things were much brighter to the south of Tainan, although sand banks still formed a barrier between land and sea. Dry land was about a mile distant but the intervening area, although marshy, was given over to rice cultivation. Moreover, the sand banks themselves occasionally supported bushes and grass and the numerous fisherfolk seemed much happier and more content than those who lived close to Cock-si-con. They were well fed and clothed and when surveying parties went on shore not only were they treated with deference and civility but there was a notable absence of pilfering of surveying marks. Although the tops of the inland mountains were often shrouded in mist it would have been possible to see the forests on their slopes and, occasionally, a glinting waterfall would have come into view too. Between the rice and the forest was an area given over sugar cane, a product offering the opportunity of good profits for those merchants who could develop an export trade. Some, indeed, were already dealing in sugar, illicit though the trade was, and in tobacco and camphor too. I imagine one or two of the sailors would have wondered if Formosa was indeed an idyllic place to which they could one day return, even setting up as traders themselves.

The long, almost straight stretch of sand banks, punctuated by only four small streams, which ran south from Tainan terminated in an outcrop that was really the final throw of the most westerly of the mountain ranges. Close by were two small hills one of which Richards called the Whale Back as it resembled a whale sleeping on water. The main outcrop was called Ape’s Hill by British captains and Takow by the local Chinese. From the summit Ape’s Hill descended in a gradual slope until levelling out into kind of mole, at the end of which there was a narrow gap to a single rock. This was separated from a continuation of the outcrop by a deep channel giving access to Takow harbour. There were some drawbacks to the harbour, one being its small size, but weighed against this was the fact that Ape’s Hill was often visible when the rest of the coast was shrouded in mist. In March the weather was relatively benign and the seas calm but Richards was informed that in June and July the seas became ‘boisterous’ and water could flow over the sandbanks. As a consequence, in April, local fishermen would dismantle their huts and move inland. Takao could offer a safe refuge in the more dangerous periods and as it was already a port serving a number of foreign ships (some of which imported opium) it could also provide a wide range of foodstuff. Bullocks and pigs were to be had as were ducks and other fowl and Richards noted the price of fish and vegetables was very low. Ominously, at least for the Chinese authorities, the commander was to write that when Formosa is open to commerce this place must advance in importance. Note the when not if.  And, perhaps to remind those who were to use the chart produced as a result of the labours of himself and his crew, he decided to the name the tip of the southern part of the mole Saracen Head.

By the end of March Richards had completed his work and the Saracen sailed for Hong Kong. The voyage back took only two full days and as soon as practicable after landing the survey documents he had produced would have been dispatched to London. On arrival at the Admiralty they would not, however, have been scrutinised by Beaufort. Appointed as Hydrographer before the Saracen had been built he had, after 68 years of naval service, finally retired.

Chapter 15 - Hunting Putiatin

Back to Introduction

Chapter 14 -  From Gull Point to Saracen Head

Commanders and clippers

Track between Hong Kong and Formosa

Northern area of survey

Southern area of survey

Sir Francis Beaufort