When London Became An Island

Soochong, Shoguns and the Saracen’s surveys

From the time the Saracen arrived at Anjer Point she had always worked alone on surveys that would assist the development of British trade rather than as part of a Royal Navy force seeking to engage an enemy. This changed when the ship came under the command of Rear-Admiral Stirling. Her duties now were to sail to Hakodadi and survey both the port itself and the surrounding coastline. The results of such work might well help merchant ships, but the immediate objective was to identify hazards that could impair the projected action against such forces as Putiatin and Muravev could muster.


Stirling had agreed with the Japanese that Hakodadi could be opened to British shipping, but whether the government in Edo quite understood that the British commander wanted to establish a base, on neutral territory, from which he could project power into the Gulf of Tartary and Sea of Okhotsk is unclear. However, even if the intent had been realised, it is hard to see what the Japanese could have done about it except express displeasure in ways that stopped short of military action. The ‘Black Ships’ of the US Navy are credited with opening up Japan, but it was the British who had shown the Japanese that the bolts and hinges of their door were probably unable to withstand the kind of blows that modern warships could land. The First Opium War and the subsequent treaties indicated the kind of treatment the Japanese could expect if they resisted the British and, by implication, other Western powers too.


The Saracen did not make a swift passage as she sailed north. After a brief stop on the coast, where the ship’s company were allowed to bathe, she altered course and headed for Formosa, which was sighted on April 27th, nearly two weeks after leaving Hong Kong. She then proceeded directly towards Japan and would probably have reached Nagasaki in the first week of May had Richards not ordered a deviation towards three small islands, which the British referred to as the Port Hamilton group, in the archipelago south of the Korean Peninsula. The group, usually known simply as Port Hamilton, were recognised as being in Korean territory, but had been given an English language name, as a compliment to the Secretary of the Admiralty, by Sir Edward Belcher, captain of the Samarang, when he surveyed the area ten years previously.


As the Saracen approached Port Hamilton she passed the volcanic Quelpart Island, which the Samarang had also surveyed. On arrival Belcher had informed the local authorities that;


‘my Queen had sent me to visit foreign countries, in order to correct the charts by which our vessels might navigate in safety and that it was important we should obtain a knowledge of the hidden dangers surrounding their island in order that none should be wrecked upon its shores ….’


Not so very different to the reasons given by Lt. Rogers as to why the United States wanted surveys made of the coast of Japan.


In the event it is doubtful if Belcher would have taken much notice of a refusal by the Quelpart authorities to allow surveying and several tense situations arose. On one occasion, when the captain landed with an armed party in order to meet a local magistrate, he took the precaution of bringing cannon and Congreve rockets in support. These did not, however, have quite the effect hoped for and on finding himself surrounded by a press of several thousand people, including troops, he took a local mandarin hostage. It was then made clear that if the party from the Samarang were not able to return to the beach without molestation the official would have his brains shot out. The unfortunate man was released when safety was reached, evidently and naturally to his great relief.


The Saracen did not attempt a landing at Quelpart but Mount Auckland, named by Belcher and the highest peak on the island, could be seen in passing. Richards would have looked for a more favourable reception at Port Hamilton, where the crew of the Samarang had been well received, but he must have watched carefully as his command approached the three islands, which could be distinguished from other islets and rocks in area but their greater size. Although it is unlikely he would have had much concern about the Korean navy, there was always the possibility that a Russian ship, or ships, might just be lurking in the well sheltered harbour. No French or British commanders knew exactly how many Russian vessels were in the region but before the Saracen left Hong Kong Richards would have known of the destruction of a particular ship about which the Admiralty was most concerned. The Diana, a new frigate which had been recently sent from the Baltic and which had carried Putiatin to Japan, was in the port of Shimoda when caught by the effects of a huge earthquake and a subsequent tsunami. The combination of the two phenomena more or less destroyed the town and badly damaged the Diana too. Repair of the ship was attempted but, although the vessel was refloated, she later sank in deep water, although there was minimal loss of life. Such a disaster for the Russians was welcome news for the allies, but there was apprehension about what the crew would do. Such a body of experienced men, if they could make their way to rejoin their compatriots or even acquire another ship, would certainly strengthen Tsarist forces.


However likely Richards thought engagement with the Russians was he certainly made sure the Saracen was prepared for action, ordering the gun crews to be drilled on two successive days before changing course towards Port Hamilton. There was also the possibility of action against pirates too and on one of the drill days the Saracen approached a junk that appeared to be in distress. It was, in fact, just a fishing boat from Ningpo which had simply lowered its mast, a wise precaution as it turned out as the weather was worsening and the following day one of the sails of the Saracen was carried away.


The Saracen anchored at Port Hamilton, where no ships, Russian or otherwise, were to be seen on the 3rd of May and Richards and his officers immediately went ashore in the gig. Conscious of the need to begin surveys around Hakodadi and to meet with Stirling at the end of the month Richards clearly wanted to make contact with the local authorities and start work as soon as possible. There were four villages on the islands. Belcher found the main authority to be an old man ‘well marked by age and with silver hair’ and perhaps the same elder still held power when Richards visited. In any event there was no objection to the proposed survey and, having given orders that the ship should be cleaned in his absence, the master and commander and his officers began work the following day.


Korea, even more than Japan or China sought isolation and carefully regulated contact with the outside world. The Japanese, for example, were restricted to a small commercial and diplomatic enclave near Pusan. There were severe punishments for any Korean who made unauthorised contact with the Japanese and the antipathy of the ruling Choson dynasty towards foreigners must account for the contradiction noticed by a number of explorers and surveyors, including de La Pérouse, who landed in Korea. The people were often obliging and sometimes curious and friendly, but it was clear they normally wanted visitors to leave as soon as possible and would usually supply only a very restricted number of commodities. At Port Hamilton the atmosphere seemed more relaxed than it might have been on Quelpart Island, which continued to have something of a reputation for hostility for some years to come, and as Richards began his survey and the crew began a general spruce up of the Saracen many islanders came to visit. This raised no concern on the ship because, like Belcher, the crew may have noticed the absence of any men of military age amongst the inhabitants. However, the following day, explosions may possibly have alarmed the islanders who began to think of the dangers in what, despite its small size and peaceful intentions, was clearly a warship carrying a good deal of gunpowder. For whatever reason no more visitors were noted until the Saracen departed.


The source of the explosions were the blank charges, which, with Congreve rockets, were often used to facilitate measurement during a survey. A watch or a pocket chronometer had five beats to two seconds and using such devices to record the time between seeing the flash of a canon and hearing the report meant the distance between the observer and the gun could be calculated, albeit with not with precise accuracy. Congreve rockets, if they were calibrated, could be set to explode at a certain height. Richards used rockets, calibrated or not, at Port Hamilton and had blank charges fired too but the sound of detonations, which older residents must have remembered from the visit of the Samarang, did not appear to cause any real problems, even if it did make some of them reluctant to visit the ship. Richards, noting the friendliness of the islanders, allowed shore leave after the usual Sunday service and, after landing, the crew were able to go where they wanted, although they were not allowed into any houses.


Unfortunately, as elsewhere on the Korean coast and on the adjacent islands, it proved impossible to replenish stocks of meat or vegetables. Wood was scarce too and it may well have been that such trees as there were were jealously guarded. It is curious that one of the points on the chart produced after the 1855 survey was a tree called Gap Tree. An illustration on the chart shows a single tree standing in a dip on the crest of the hills of Aberdeen Island, which was one of the larger islands. A single tree might be thought vulnerable to those seeking timber, especially for the repair of a passing ship. But Belcher noted that, on one island he visited in the region, permission to cut pine was rescinded when an old man embraced a trunk and said it was his ‘child’. Belcher though this might have been because it was private property, but it perhaps it was simply an assertion of a spiritual bond felt by the man to the tree, especially as he might have known it since childhood. Felling the Gap Tree would probably have been avoided by any captain anyway as it was a marker that could be used to avoid danger and it appears to have been more impressive and taller than any other at Port Hamilton. When the French reproduced the chart in 1871, after which further updates had been made, the Gap Tree became an ‘Arbre remarquable dans une fente’.


Timber shortages or not one thing Port Hamilton could provide was plenty of fresh water, which was transported to the Saracen in the cutter, but fish was the only available supply of food. Although fishing parties were sent out and seine nets drawn a number of times Richards decided to serve beef before the Saracen sailed away. Cask number 2 was opened and 19 pieces counted out, which must have provided a welcome variation to the fish diet.   


The Saracen remained at Port Hamilton for little over a week before she departed, with some difficulty because of adverse winds, for the Tushima Straits and then Hakodadi. Her stay had been short but valuable work had been done and it was clear that Port Hamilton would be worth occupying by any power with naval ambitions in the area. The precious documents Richards produced were sent back to London as soon as possible where they were reviewed at the Admiralty. In all probability Rear-Admiral Washington, the successor to Beaufort, took a keen interest and authorised their use in the preparation of a new chart, published in 1856. This chart shows that Saracen Rock was added to Saracen Head in Formosa as another marker of the passage of the little survey vessel but although ‘Roche Saracen’ was shown on the French chart the contribution of Richards was not acknowledged. The Admiralty may have had another quibble with the Depot des Cartes et Plans de la Marine too. The Royal Navy was described as the Marine Royale d’Angleterre - but by 1871 the French had much more important things to think about.



Chapter 17 - To Hakodadi



Back to Introduction















Chapter 16 - To Port Hamilton

Commanders and clippers

Track to Port Hamilton

The Diana going down

Port Hamilton