When London Became An Island

Soochong, Shoguns and the Saracen’s surveys

Adverse winds meant it took two days for the Saracen to leave Port Hamilton. The subsequent journey to Hakodadi was made in difficult sailing conditions, during which time Richards would have had concerns other than threatening weather and thick fog to consider. He would have been unsure of the supplies on offer in the Japanese port but, having been unable to replenish foodstuffs on the three islands, authorised another barrel of meat to be opened. This provided 40 pieces of pork. A cask of sugar was opened too and the contents, 226 lbs, carefully weighed before distribution. A restricted diet was always a cause of anxiety to the captain of any Royal Navy ship and, although Richards did not know it, there had been an outbreak of scurvy on La Sybille, a French frigate sailing with Stirling to the rendezvous in Hakodadi. This was so severe that the ship eventually had to turn back, an unfortunate situation which compounded difficulties caused when another French vessel, the Colbert, struck a rock and had to return to port for repairs. An officer, A.W. Habersham, sailing on the United States survey squadron steamer USS John Hancock, which was also making its way to Hakodadi, complained that he and his fellow officers had been compelled to live for eight months on salt beef, ditto pork and insipid meats with forty gallons of lime juice on hand to retard the arrival of scurvy. He and his compatriots looked forward to a break in the monotonous diet when they were presented with two chickens as they sailed along the coast of Japan but these, so he said, were so old and tough they proved impenetrable to even our scurvy threatened teeth.


Besides deliberations over victuals Richards must also have been aware that as the Saracen sailed further north the possibility of meeting Russian ships would grow and may have been perturbed had he known that all the ships in Petropavlovsk, including the Aurora, had departed before Bruce arrived. There was, of course, the ever present threat of meeting pirates too and a careful watch was kept for the sails of vessels which might be hostile. However, all that appear to have been seen were a junk and, for the first time, an American whaler. Had an engagement taken place the Saracen would doubtless have put up a good fight and many sailors may have welcomed the opportunity to use their training in the use of the cutlass.


The type of cutlass stored on the ship was probably of the 1845 pattern, with a slightly curved blade and a smooth bowl guard. These were not always used for practice, sticks often being substituted when two rows of sailors faced each other for training. However, it was important that each man was capable of using the real thing in action and once the cutlasses were issued the instructor would have insisted on repeating, again and again, movements that would facilitate ambidextrous handling of the weapon. The cut, guard and parry were all important but did not overshadow the importance of the thrust. Faster than the slashing cut a successful thrust would plunge the blade into the vital organs of an opponent and cause a wound that, at the least, could be difficult to treat and in many cases would prove fatal.  However, useful though the drill may have been in maintaining morale, the crew of the Saracen had no opportunity to use a cutlass in a skirmish on the nine day voyage.


After the Saracen passed into the Strait of Sangar she entered Hakodadi Bay, which was regarded, according to the 1858 edition of the China Pilot, published by the Admiralty, as spacious and beautiful. About four miles wide at the entrance and five miles deep it was for accessibility and safety … one of the finest in the world. Praise indeed and lifted directly from ‘Narrative of the Expedition to China Seas and Japan 1852-54’ by Commodore Perry. A battery of guns stood on the western shore but these remained silent as the Saracen entered and after the anchor was dropped the guard boat which came alongside did not issue instructions that she should leave immediately. Until very recently this was the kind of reception foreign ships had been given but things had begun to change after Perry’s expedition and Hakodadi Bay itself had been surveyed by the United States Navy. Moreover, in April, the Sybille, Hornet and Bittern had visited the port on their way north. Commodore Elliot, who was in command, reported to Stirling that he had been well received and that a substantial number of officials had recently arrived from Edo under a new governor who could overrule the local daimyo. Although there was no sign of the British squadron when the Saracen arrived, as they had left to seek the Russians, another Western vessel, which was recorded as an American merchant brig in the log, lay at anchor.


How the Japanese officer who came on board the Saracen felt about the change in government policy towards Western powers is unknown but he must have already been aware of the strength of the United States Navy. Over the next few weeks, as Stirling concentrated his forces in Hakodadi, he must have realised just how powerful the Royal and French navies were too, especially in contrast to the forces Japan could muster. This consciousness of the current weakness of the Japanese position was, of course, something also felt in government circles and was the reason why Perry had been so successful. It was also why unequal treaties, under which the Edo authorities gave up currency, fiscal and tariff autonomy, were soon signed with the United States, Holland, Britain, France and other European states. Such concessions were made under duress and nurtured a determination to restrict, where possible, Western encroachment even though it was accepted that the only way to strengthen Japan was through the accelerated adoption and development of Western technology, ideas and processes.


In several ways Japan in the 1850s was as advanced as some of the states which sought to exploit her weakness and draw her into the global free trade system or, as the US Secretary to the Navy had reminded Perry, to awaken the Japanese Government to its Christian obligation to join the family of Christendom. Whilst remaining untroubled by any sense of Christian obligation Japan had enjoyed, for over two centuries, a period of relative internal tranquillity and had no involvement in foreign wars. This helped foster civil development including a huge expansion of the amount of land devoted to paddy and the improvement of agricultural techniques, which led to her agricultural productivity being higher than that of her neighbours. The largest city of the country, Edo, was probably second only in size to London and was far better organised, not least as far as sanitation was concerned. It would have been unthinkable for a river running through Edo to have been allowed to become as polluted as the stinking River Thames of that period. The literacy rate in Edo was better too, despite the complexity of Japanese alphabet and although artisans did not mass produce cutlasses such as those with ‘Wilkinson Pall Mall’ stamped on the blades the quality of the steel produced by Japanese swordsmiths was some of the finest in the world. However, there were grave weaknesses in the social structure of the country and these were rooted in the very system which had ushered in and maintained the long period of peace.


Supreme authority in Japan was ostensibly in the hands of a mikado, or emperor, but for centuries real power had resided with a shogun, a powerful, hereditary figure also known as a tycoon, to whom the daimyo, or lords, owed allegiance. In 1600 Tokugawa Ieyasu had won the decisive Battle of Sekigahara and established the Tokugawa dynasty. As shogun he then drew on loyal daimyo to serve in the feudal parliament, the bakufu, an institution which still held power when the Black Ships arrived. But by the 1850s the Tokugawa shogunate was much weakened and faced not only an increasingly restless, and sometimes rebellious, peasantry, on whom most of the tax burden disproportionately fell, but also a merchant class dissatisfied with the rigidity of the social class system. Moreover the warrior class, the samurai, were increasingly indebted and this added to stresses on the economy.


Had Japan been more open to the outside world during the Tokugawa period perhaps it would have been possible to negotiate with the West from a position of greater strength but in the middle of the C17th she had entered a period known as Sakoku in which she became very, but not totally, isolated. Strangely, this isolation may well have had something to do with Will Adams, a man who knew Limehouse well and who had served in the Royal Navy before eventually taking a position as a pilot for a small fleet sent from Holland to try their luck in the Pacific.


Adams reached Japan in April 1600 on one of the ships of the fleet, the Liefde. Many of the crew were sick and the vessel was in poor condition but the daimyo of the area where the Liefde made landfall, Tokugawa Ieyasu, apparently saw the value of the cannon she carried, ordered them to be unloaded and sent them to his armoury. It may well have been that the added firepower was decisive in the Battle of Sekigahara in which case we might take the view that Western naval guns both helped begin and helped end the Tokugawa Shogunate. At first Adams was placed under arrest but after a time, when Ieyasu became shogun, he was released and set to work in helping to build a ship on the European model, which would be used for survey work. When that was complete Ieyasu was so pleased he began to take advice from Adams on more things than shipbuilding. It was almost inevitable that this would bring the Protestant Englishman into conflict with the Jesuits, who had been established in Japan for several decades, and it appears that Adams may well have counselled Ieyasu over the problems that the establishment of Catholicism seemed to have created. Perhaps there was an element of revenge in this. When the Liefde arrived Catholic priests had demanded the crew, Adams included, be crucified as pirates.


Catholicism was subsequently banned in Japan and this was followed by the persecution of those who would not relinquish their faith. The establishment of Catholicism was now viewed as a precursor to a possible invasion by the Iberian states and C19th Japanese historians asserted that the introduction of Christianity had generated a number of negative trends within their society. It is certainly true that firearms, in the form of arquebuses, became widely available after the Portuguese arrived in the middle of the C16th. To reinforce the barriers against what were seen as malign foreign, and particularly Western, influences, restrictions were placed on trade (although the Dutch were allowed to maintain a very limited base) as the C17th wore on and long sea voyages made virtually impossible by a law enacted in 1689. This ordered that all junks were to be built with open sterns and equipped with large square rudders, which would make them unfit for ocean sailing, and all ships built on the foreign model were to be destroyed. Such a measure ended the possibility of more vessels like the one Adams had designed being built in Japan although the junk trade to Japan from east and south-east Asia, using vessels constructed abroad, continued. Indeed, it appeared to have flourished. During the 1640s and 50s, for example, nearly 40 junks arrived in Japan from Cambodia, surpassing the numbers which sailed from Siam, and in the 1690s records show the relatively buoyant trade was continuing despite Sakoku.


When no objections were raised by the authorities to the work Richards was to undertake at Hakodadi the ship’s boats were prepared for survey duties and the Saracen itself was given the usual restorative treatment. Out came the paint, the holystone and the blacking. It is doubtful if any of the crew looked forward to this particular element of the routine of life aboard their ship. A holystone was Portland stone. A large piece could be hauled backwards and forwards by two men pulling on an attached rope. As abrasive sand would be spread beneath the stone this action would remove dirt from the wood. Smaller holystones, known as ‘bibles’, would be used in difficult areas but these would necessitate the sailors working on their hands and knees so this work would usually be arduous and unpleasant.  Blacking, for use on the guns, was usually slightly warmed coal tar mixed with salt water, although a variety of other ingredients, including lamp black, might be used. The compound would be applied to the guns using paint brushes and if the day was very cold a heated cannon ball might be pushed into the barrel to warm the metal in order to improve adhesion. Once a gun had been blacked rust would be held at bay until the coating began to weather and more would then be reapplied. Rigging would also be blacked, using a solution of pine tar, coal tar and water. This would have been a messy job that would have left its mark on skin and clothes, so little wonder British sailors were nicknamed ‘Jack Tar’.


As the Saracen was being overhauled Richards began his surveying duties. He does not seem to have spent much time in Hakodadi Bay itself, probably because of the previous work done by the United States Navy and when a detailed chart was issued by the Admiralty in 1859 acknowledgment was given to Lt. W.L. Maury and other Americans with no indication of any input from a British survey ship. When the French produced their own version of the chart in 1860 even Lt. Maury was not acknowledged. Instead it was stated that the chart had been created ‘par ordre du Commodore M. C. Perry de la Marine des Etas-Unis’. This was probably just as well. In the same year the American Civil War broke out and Maury decided to offer his services to the navy of the Confederacy rather than the ‘Etas-Unis’. It was ironic that his command, the CSS Georgia started life as the British built Japan.


The town of Hakodadi had a population of approximately 6000 and was sheltered by a promontory which was dominated by three high peaks, sometimes topped with snow. A substantial junk trade was conducted from the sheltered harbour, which meant there were always plenty of transient mouths to feed, and the inhabitants, depending on their station, may have looked with either apprehension or anticipation (or perhaps a mixture of both) at the arrival, with the new governor, of two hundred officials and then an increasing number of Western ships. The China Pilot, to which Richards would also make a contribution, indicated that water was freely available in Hakodadi and at the nearby Kamida creek. Wood was also plentiful but supplies of food had been limited when American ships visited in the last weeks of May 1854. However, Commodore Elliot reported that there was plenty to buy by the time of his visit in April 1855 although it was not possible to purchase beef because, although there were plenty of cattle, they would not be killed for food as the animals were more valuable as beasts of burden. Generally speaking the Japanese diet did not include milk or butter and one product which looked like cheese was, in fact, a blend of beans and rice flour. Rice was served instead of bread and this was supplemented with all kinds of sea food including fine shell fish. Sweet and Irish potatoes could be sometimes purchased in Hakodadi too but, feeling somewhat deprived of the fresh bread, beef and vegetables that they had been supplied with in Hong Kong, all on board the Saracen were probably gratified when the captain ordered an issue of chocolate and then, a week later, when a cask of boiled mutton was opened.


As the sailors enjoyed their chocolate treat Hakodadi Bay was hosting a steadily increasing number of their compatriots, all with healthy appetites and probably craving for a variation of diet too. The steamer Tartar had turned up first followed by the Winchester and then an American brigantine arrived from San Francisco. The Spartan came next, then the John Hancock, the Vincennes, the Styx, the Fennimore Cooper, a chartered brig from Bremen called the Greta, and finally two French ships La Sybille and the Virginne. Some of these vessels, which all arrived within the space of about a month, stayed only a day or so, but it is little surprise that the Japanese authorities objected to the drain which they said was being made on local resources or that they attempted to make money from subsequent dealings. Elliot complained that all supplies had to be bought through the government at inflated prices and Habersham related one story of how, in his opinion, officials attempted to profiteer from the supply of food.


As with the Saracen the John Hancock sent out parties to haul the seine and plenty of salmon, perch, trout and flounder were caught in Hakodadi Bay. But then officials then turned up and said they were catching too many fish, much to the detriment of local people, who were very poor and depended on seafood for their sustenance. Habersham took the view that the assertion of the officials was absurd as there were plenty for everyone, but it was agreed that the Americans would buy a catch from the officials instead and, provided it was of good quality, the seine nets would not be used again. However, when the fish sent for sale proved to be very inferior, there was no further negotiation. The seine nets of the John Hancock were immediately restored to use and a subsequent altercation on the beach led to Japanese officials being chased off by Habersham and his sailors. This seems fairly typical. On the whole the Americans seemed less inclined to acquiesce to the demands of Japanese officialdom than the British but then they had a less delicate balance to maintain. It was the state of war which made the difference. Stirling had to consider the dangers posed by the Russians whilst maintaining an equitable relationship with the Japanese whose port he was using as a base for hostile action. The United States, neutral in the conflict, had greater freedom of action in respect of the Japanese and their whalers sometimes aided the Russians too.



Chapter 18 - Escape and Capture



Back to Introduction


Footnote - Recently I came across a letter from an officer of the Saracen published in October 1855. It may well have been written in Hokadadi. Click here to read the letter














Chapter 17 - To Hakodadi

To hakododi

Commanders and clippers

1845 pattern cutlass

Tokugawa Ieyasu

A Japanese junk

Hakodadi Bay 1855