When London Became An Island

Soochong, Shoguns and the Saracen’s surveys

The sailing directions published in the 1858 China Pilot warned ships entering Hakodadi harbour to give the promontory a wide berth. This would avoid calms under the high land. Such measures might not be necessary for vessels such as the Hornet or Barracouta when under steam and when Richards saw his American counterpart at anchor perhaps he reflected on how different his deployment might have been had the Admiralty placed him in command of a vessel with engines. It would certainly have saved him time in some circumstances, such as leaving Port Hamilton, but the drawbacks soon became apparent too. The US Navy had charted the Greta, which the Saracen log book recorded as being an American brig, to transport coal and provisions to Hakodadi from Hong Kong. It would take several days for transshipment to take place and ‘coaling’ was a notoriously grimy business. Moreover, although the John Hancock or ‘old John’ as Habersham called her, had only been launched in 1850 she was originally intended to be a steam tug and, even though modified, appeared to have been quite unsuited for sailing the oceans. The irascible Habersham called her a ‘miserable old craft’, ‘a disgrace to the country’ and ‘the laughing stock of foreign officers’. Nonetheless, there was one occasion when her ability to tug was put to good use. The Lord Warrington was a British ship which got into difficulties during the period the Saracen was surveying the River Min. Richards sent a pinnace to escort her out to sea. Habersham reported that, around the same time, the captain had offered a thousand dollars if the John Hancock would tow the Lord Warrington from the Pagoda Anchorage to a point on the river free from the danger of grounding. ‘Old John’ obliged but the money was refused although the captain said that the Americans would hear from the owners when he reached Liverpool. They never did and Habersham speculated that the captain must have died on the passage or ‘wilfully neglected us’. It sounds as though the Lord Warrington got into difficulties after the John Hancock had departed and perhaps the captain thought the whole debacle, which might have been a reflection on his capabilities, was best downplayed and any implied obligation best not mentioned to the owners.

Despite the occasional diplomatic tensions between Britain and the United States, in the western Pacific the general relationship between the officers of their respective navies appears to have been quite cordial. The log book of the Saracen notes that a cutter was sent to the John Hancock shortly after she arrived and Habersham reported an amicable meeting with his counterparts on the Tartar when both ships were moored in Hakodadi Bay. The John Hancock and the Tartar had met previously and the Americans were warmly welcomed aboard the British steamer when she returned from seeking Czarist warships. It was quite natural that the American officers would be keen to have the latest news, but they found, at first, some reluctance to explain what had happened. ‘The beggars cut stick in a heavy fog and left us sucking our fingers’ was evidently what the British said initially, but after a time the bones of the story came out.

After leaving Hakodadi Commodore Elliot cruised along the Gulf of Tartary and discovered the ships that had departed from Petropavlovsk after the Barracouta and Encounter had been sighted. They were now at anchor in De Castries Bay and well placed for defence. As the British force comprised of only three vessels, the Bittern was dispatched to alert Stirling and ask for reinforcements. Meanwhile Elliot maintained, as best he could with just two ships, a kind of blockade some distance south of the bay. As far as he knew there was no direct passage possible between Sakhalin and the mainland that would lead to the Sea of Okhotsk. Although outnumbered he would certainly have engaged the Russian ships had they attempted to pass. However, on returning to De Castries Bay a few days later he found the settlement deserted. The abandonment had been hurried. Perfectly baked bread was still in the oven, there were barrels of good flour and clothes belonging to women who had previously fled Petropavlovsk had been left behind.  There was even a daguerreotype of a lady which had been taken in, of all places, London. Unlike Elliot the Russians knew it was possible, at certain times of the year, to sail directly to the Sea of Okhotsk from De Castries Bay and they had taken the opportunity, in adverse weather conditions and a fog that masked their movements, to sail north. By the time Elliot met with Stirling the birds had long flown.

As the introduction to the China Pilot was to reiterate,

there are no charts of any parts of the world so accurate and no directions so perfect as not to furnish frequent occasions for revision and improvement

Had Elliot known of the real situation north of De Castries Bay perhaps he would have acted differently, but accurate charts in this part of the world were few, which was why the work of survey vessels like the Saracen and the John Hancock were so important.

It is no surprise the Saracen played no part in searching for the Russians but although Richards spent his days surveying the coast he would have been as keen as Habersham to hear news from the Gulf of Tartary. Perhaps some of his crew were a little envious of those on the warships, anticipating the excitement of possible action, but they were not to see any. The only guns fired by the Saracen were to measure a base and these no doubt alarmed fishermen and anyone on shore within earshot. Hakodadi did offer one compensation though, it was a far bigger place than Port Hamilton and the crew were paid their savings and allowed shore leave with money in their pockets.

In a number of ways Hakodadi must have seemed quite surprising to sailors whose main Asian experience had been in China. It was a served by straight, ‘macadamised’ roads some thirty to forty feet wide and laid out in a grid pattern. These thoroughfares, which sometimes had pavements, were kept clean and well swept and a high level of public sanitation was supported by a properly maintained drainage system, which fed effluent into the bay. The houses were generally of one story and made of combustible material with roofs covered in wooden shingles. Given that moveable charcoal braziers were used for heating, concern about the possibility of fire was understandable. Not only were water tubs installed on roofs but tanks were placed at the roadside too and fire engines stood ready for emergencies. From a general security point of view a system of communal responsibility was adhered to and the town was divided into separate units with an official called an ottana being held responsible for behaviour of everybody in each one. Sentry boxes were also in evidence and the town roads were divided into sections by the use of wicket fences and wooden gates that were opened in the day and closed at night. The general orderliness and quietness of the town must have been something of a novelty to sailors from the Saracen especially if compared to a port like Singapore.

There were no carriages or wagons in Hakodadi, the general method of transport being pack horses, nor was there a market or even street vendors calling attention to their wares. There was probably, however, the usual noise made by many children playing. Like many Japanese towns, Hakodadi would have had what must have seemed like more than its fair share of children adding animation to the scene as they engaged in spinning tops, hopped around on stilts, flew kites or just romped about in energetic games. Given that the Black Ships had visited the previous year the novelty of seeing so many Westerners would almost certainly have worn off a little, but no doubt many children, some with smaller brothers or sisters strapped to their backs, would have gazed with curiosity at these strange, rather frightening men with loud voices who were wandering about the streets and occasionally laughing in a raucous way. But they would probably have helped where the could and no doubt some sailors were tugged towards a shop where they could buy trinkets, try to eat small portions of exotic dishes with chopsticks or even sip a tiny cup of weak unsweetened tea. A few of the more adventurous children might have hung about seeking to show what they had learned from previous visitors, including greetings such as ‘How do you do?’, and attempting to learn more. Habersham recalled that when in Shimoda he gave a piece of paper with the numbers 1 to 10 written on to a Japanese boy. On the beach the next day he found the boy writing the numbers with a stick. When the boy asked for more numbers to be written down Habersham obliged and was impressed with the will the child showed in translating these into Japanese and continuing his sandy studies. The American officer said he looked at the boy’s bright, shining eyes and began to conceive a high idea of Japanese brains and then blushed when he thought of how he had misspent his own days of truancy when the same age.

Perhaps some of the crew of the Saracen would have wandered away from the main thoroughfares and climbed a short distance out of town. Looking back they would have observed the full sweep of the bay with hundreds of junks at anchor and have seen for themselves how the topography of area so closely resembled Gibraltar. They would have seen their ship at anchor too. It would have looked so small and perhaps some would have reflected how remarkable it was that such an apparently insignificant vessel should have sailed safely half way round the world. Well aware of the dangers of local waters they may also have wondered how long it would be before they were ordered south.

As the end of June approached the US survey squadron prepared to depart for San Francisco and Admiral Stirling decided to sail to the Sea of Okhotsk to search for traces of the escaped convoy. The British would continue to be on the lookout for the substantial body of Russian sailors from the Diana too for they could pose a threat even without a ship and it was reasonable to suppose they would make their way back to a Russian base if they could. Additional military manpower would certainly be welcomed there and these sailors were, according to one source, ‘tall, strong and well-made men’ who looked more like soldiers than seamen. Some, in fact, had already succeeded in leaving Japan being carried first in the American brig William Penn before switching to the Caroline E. Foote. Although a substantial number of sailors remained in Shimoda they anticipated they would be collected by the returning Caroline E. Foote. However, when the master of that vessel reneged on his agreement, they found themselves marooned again so must have thought themselves lucky when the Greta agreed to assist. The master of the Greta, now no longer under charter to the US Navy, filled his hold with shipwrecked sailors rather than coal and provisions and set off for the Sea of Okhotsk. He sailed under US colours hoping, it would seem, the Royal Navy would think twice about stopping an American ship. He also carried a letter from a Commodore Rodgers (probably Lt. Rodgers, who had assumed command of the US survey squadron) which, presumably, was relevant to the charter from Hong Kong to Hakodadi. All went well until the Greta entered the Sea of Okhotsk where unfortunately, at least for those on board, she was spotted by the Barracouta. At first the brig refused to stop but after two blank charges had been fired she hove to and allowed a British officer to come aboard. It did not take long for him to discover just what errand the brig from Bremen was engaged on and, Stars and Stripes or not, the master found his vessel put under tow by the paddler. His passengers were now considered prisoners of war.

The detention of the Greta raises the question as to what would have happened had the Caroline E. Foote returned to Shimoda. Would she have been detained too? It was by no means certain that the Russians could be regarded as combatants as, when the Diana sank, she had been supporting a diplomatic mission to Japan and not engaged in offensive action against the Allies. The whole question of the Royal Navy stopping and searching American ships was a source of friction between Washington and London, highlighted by British attempts to stop trans-Atlantic slavers sailing under the US flag. Perhaps the detention would have taken place anyway but, after the Russians had been taken off, the brig would have been released, for it is doubtful if the Caroline E. Foote would have been claimed as a prize as the Greta was. It is also intriguing to speculate if Habersham tipped off the officers on the Tartar, even inadvertently, about what was being planned. He met a number of Russians from the Diana when in Shimoda and perhaps they sought his advice as to how they could get away. It is curious, but perhaps purely coincidental, that it was the Greta, which had serviced the John Hancock, that undertook the rescue mission.

The capture of nearly 300 Russian sailors not to mention the potential profit from the sale of the Greta, was a rare success in what, by late summer, of must have seemed a rather disappointing expedition as far as Franco-British forces were concerned. The failure to take Petropavlovsk in 1854 and the escape of Russian ships from that port and De Castries Bay in 1855 meant the naval threat in the western Pacific, particularly from the Aurora had not been removed. It was unlikely that this would be achieved before the following year, if at all, and the weather would inevitably deteriorate as the winter drew on. Stirling decided that he would return to Nagasaki and gave orders to Richards to go there too, which may have been some relief to the crew. A few days after a last shore leave the Japanese authorities sent the Saracen a present of vegetables and she departed from Hakodadi in the middle of August. In a way this was a start of her long journey home for she would never be further away from Plymouth than when surveying the coast of Yesso.

Chapter 19 -  To Nagasaki

Back to Introduction

Chapter 18 - Escape and Capture

Commanders and clippers

Street scene in Hakodadi 1854