When London Became An Island

Soochong, Shoguns and the Saracen’s surveys

The Saracen only remained in Hong Kong for a fortnight but this was time enough to complete such repairs as needed, replenish stocks of victuals, fill the water tanks and for the commander to make use of the local prison to punish one of his crew, Robert Marsh. But Richard’s most pressing concern would not have been a drunken sailor but a new deployment that had the potential to be more dangerous than the surveys of either the mouth of the Min or the coast of Formosa.


Five British ships, the Winchester, Sybille, Spartan, Hornet and the Bittern were gathered at Hong Kong in preparation for an expedition that would seek any Russian ships which had escaped after the debacle at Petropavlovsk and also those under the command of  the Czarist Admiral Putiatin, who had been in the Pacific since the middle of 1853. The British warships would also look to neutralise any naval threat emerging from the Russian push to the mouth of the River Amur. Another attack on Petropavlovsk would not be an objective, however, as that task had been allocated elsewhere.


The British Admiralty divided the Pacific Ocean between two stations. The East India and China Station was now commanded by Rear-Admiral Sir James Stirling, another veteran of the wars against Napoleon and the United States. It dealt with the western areas including the coasts of China, Japan and Korea. The coasts of north, central and south America came under the Pacific Station, now commanded by Rear-Admiral Henry Bruce, Price’s replacement. Strict demarcation could not always be ensured, of course. Price, for example, was in charge of the Pacific Station but his pursuit of Russian ships to Petropavlovsk came about because they had been using harbour facilities in South America at the outbreak of hostilities. One consequence of having bases on either side of the international meridian on the opposite side of the world to Greenwich was that vessels of the Pacific Station would always be a day behind those of the East India and China Station. It was unusual to change the date if a ship from one station was in a different time zone for a relatively short period and this hardly seems to have caused any problems. However, when ships from both stations worked together over a weekend East India and China Station sailors might be called to Divine Service while those on a nearby Pacific Station vessel continued to holystone decks or scrub the paintwork or do whatever else had been ordered for a Saturday.


The Admiralty decided a further attack on Petropavlovsk would be made after winter ice in the area had melted. Bruce would direct this, although two ships under Stirling’s command, the screw steamer Encounter and the Barracouta, a paddler, would be sent to rendezvous with the Pacific Station force prior to the assault. On April 14th 1855, the day Richards received orders from Stirling as to where the Saracen should proceed next, the Encounter and the Barracouta had already arrived at Petropavlovsk. Whatever time zone was used, they would have to wait some time before Bruce reached the rendezvous point but the Russians, spotting the steamers, quickly realised they would soon be under attack. Some then withdrew into the hinterland and many others boarded vessels at anchor in the harbour. Then the ice was cut to allow the little convoy passage to the open sea, which was achieved under the cover of fog.


It was the middle of the following month before Bruce felt he had a force large enough to act against Petropavlovsk and when he did he sent the Barracouta to reconnoitre. Given what had happened the previous year the crew must have anticipated the defensive batteries would open fire and watched for flashes and listened for gunfire over the sound of paddles and machinery. But there was nothing. When the British landed there was no opposition at all, the only occupants of the town appearing to be deserted dogs that begged for biscuits and three American traders flying the stars and stripes over their properties. The trio evidently claimed the whole town for themselves as it had been abandoned and one is reported to have met Bruce with the greeting ‘I guess ye’re rather late Admiral’.


As the Russians were preparing to leave Petropavlovsk the crews of the Saracen, Winchester, Sybille, Spartan, Hornet and Bittern made ready to sail from Hong Kong. The Rear-Admiral, who would depart in the Winchester, was probably pleased he did not have to take his leave of Bowring for bad feeling had developed between the two men, each thinking the other had encroached on their own areas of responsibility. However, in March, Bowring had departed for Siam on the Rattler seeking to negotiate a trade treaty. At that moment, understandably, Stirling was more concerned with prosecuting the war against Russia than with trade and ordered the Sybille, Hornet and Bittern to sail to the mouth of the River Amur, to see what the Russians were doing. Naturally, if they came across any Russian warships they would seek to engage them.


Imperial Russia had been expanding eastwards for centuries and in the late C17th a group of Cossacks discovered that the Amur, which began at the confluence of the Shilka and Argun rivers to the east of Lake Baikal, ran to the Pacific coast. Unfortunately, the river passed through territory controlled by the Manchu Empire, at that period still a powerful entity capable of maintaining its territorial integrity by military force. The Chinese made their position on encroachment clear, obliging the Russians to sign a treaty in which it was agreed that a little town near Lake Baikal would be the trading point between the two states. The river route to the ocean was blocked.


Despite the treaty Russian expansion continued, mainly to exploit the fur trade and a number of small and scattered settlements, both inland and on the coast, were established well to the north of the river. Eventually these were established on the Alaskan panhandle too and in 1799 all were placed under the control of the joint-stock Russian-American Company, which became based in St Petersburg.


By the 1840s the Manchu empire was clearly much weaker than it had been a century and a half previously and, aware of how Britain had made territorial gains in Burma and China, some elements within the Russian government thought the time had come to try to open the river route to the Gulf of Tartary and Sea of Okhotsk. Clearly, Russia did not want to be left behind in any scramble for the north-west Pacific. They had a champion in Nikolai Muravev, the Governor-General of eastern Siberia, who was suspicious of the British and thought they might try to seize the mouth of the Amur themselves. In 1853 Czar Nicholas the 1st authorised Muravev to launch an expedition and in May of the following year over seventy rafts and barges began to transport an impressive military force down the river. By that time Britain and Russia were at war but as the Chinese government, struggling against the Taiping rebels, offered no resistance the Russians were able to establish themselves at De Castries Bay on the Gulf of Tartary without opposition. This remote bay had been named by de La Pérouse, who had explored the area seventy years earlier. Another bay, about 150 miles further south, was also used as a base but this had no French overtones. It was called Imperatorskaia Gavan, or Emperor’s Bay and the emperor after whom it was named was certainly not Napoleon the 3rd. It was at Imperatorskaia Gavan that Muravev met Putiatin, someone whom Stirling had been trying to locate for some time and who, by April 1855, had a significant naval force at his disposal.


As the Saracen waited to depart from Hong Kong, two American ships lay close by. One was the Macedonian, the other the Vincennes, which belonged to the surveying squadron that Richards saw when he arrived the previous year. The activities of this squadron, important though they were, were overshadowed by those of the ‘Black Ships’, commanded by Perry. The initial Perry expedition, which comprised of two powerful steam frigates and two sloops, left the eastern seaboard of the United States in 1852 and arrived in Japan the following year. The primary objective of the deployment was to help ‘open up’ a country which had long sought to insulate itself from the outside world, to foreign, particularly American, trade. The commodore’s vessels may have been called ‘Black Ships’ by the Japanese because of their black hulls or because of the smoke pouring out of their funnels. In any event at least one local artist depicted them as having an air of malignancy. This was of no consequence to Perry who was determined to keep pressure on the Japanese government until it gave him what he wanted. And what he wanted was not just a trade agreement.


In a letter sent in January 1855 to ‘The Honourable Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs, Kingdom of Japan’, Lt. John Rodgers, who had replaced Ringgold as commander of the surveying squadron, wrote;


Sir,

The government of the United States sent five vessels of which this is the chief, to examine the dangers of the Ocean. We have been round more than half the Globe. We have at last arrived at one of the Japanese ports. If the Islands of Japan with the rocks and shoals which surround them were out of the paths which our vessels must follow across the Oceans of the world we could say nothing, but as these dangers remain in the road of ships we must examine them, and tell our countrymen where they lie. Otherwise our vessels would be wrecked and many valuable lives might be lost.


The ‘paths that the vessels must follow’ were obviously between China and the American Pacific coast and Perry wanted no interference with any surveys the US Navy might undertake that would help reduce dangers to navigation. Other ships which did not need to go to China were also of concern. These were whalers. The American whaling industry in the Pacific had grown dramatically in the first half of the C19th and by the 1840s a large number of whalers made their way from the Atlantic seaboard to the north-west Pacific every year. Though the work could be very dangerous it could be very profitable too. In the 1849 season over two hundred whalers killed over two thousand bowhead whales in the Bering Sea. Such a kill-rate naturally caused a dramatic decline in stocks and the so the fleet moved on, this time to the Sea of Okhotsk. Muravev said he thought there were about 250 there, even in 1849. With so many vessels in the area it was natural that some would eventually come to grief or need assistance but unfortunately, when shipwrecks had occurred on the coasts of Japanese islands, the reception given to crews was usually hostile. How badly most sailors were actually treated is a matter of some dispute, nonetheless the US government was seeking at least one haven whalers could use without the fear of being incarcerated.  


When news of the proposed American expedition to the eastern Pacific, which was publicised well in advance, reached St Petersburg the government decided Russia must also seek a treaty with Japan. Admiral Putiatin was charged with obtaining this and left Kronstadt in October 1852. After visiting Britain, where he bought weapons and a small steamer, he took the Cape of Good Hope route to the Pacific, called at Singapore and finally reached the coast of Japan in August 1853, a month after Perry. Putiatin took rather a different approach to negotiation than Perry. He was more diplomatic, with no shows of force, and stayed well away from the capital, Edo, unlike his American rival who anchored at the entrance to Edo Bay. When Perry had left the United States the New York Times thought the arrival of the armed force would probably frighten the poor Japanese out of their wits and perhaps Putiatin hoped a less aggressive profile would expedite the signing of a treaty. If he did he was to be disappointed as his softer stance did not lead to a quick breakthrough and by the time the Crimean War broke out he was still in the process of intermittent negotiation.


When Rear-Admiral Stirling arrived in Hong Kong he did not really know the strength of the Russian naval forces he might meet and although he was aware Putiatin was somewhere in the region, he was not sure quite where. But, despite the uncertainty, Stirling took the view that any engagement was likely to be close to the mouth of the Amur and therefore sought access to a harbour where he could at least obtain supplies for his ships. With this in mind he went to Japan himself and negotiated a treaty that allowed Britain to use the ports of Nagasaki and Hakodadi, which was on the northern island of Yesso (Hokkaido today). Like Putiatin, Stirling kept away from Edo, negotiating at Nagasaki. Why he went to Nagasaki rather than Edo is unclear but perhaps he had no desire to antagonise the Japanese government more than necessary. This would have been understandable given he was intending to use Hakodadi, a port approximately 450 miles from Imperatorskaia Gavan, as a kind of base for forces that were likely to see action against a state that could well prove a threat to Japan itself.


It was to Hakodadi that Stirling was to send the Saracen.



Chapter 16 - To Port Hamilton


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Chapter 15 - Hunting Putiatin

Commanders and clippers

Sir James Stirling

Nikolai Muravev

Japanese view of a ‘Black Ship’

The American whaler ‘Morrison’ in 1845

Putiatin in Japan

Muravev’s drive to the mouth of the Amur

Japan and Sea of Okhotsk