When London Became An Island

Soochong, Shoguns and the Saracen’s surveys

After leaving Hakodadi the John Hancock sailed north along the west coast of Yesso, heading towards the Kamchatka peninsula. At one point she was approached by the Winchester and the Bittern but they returned to their original course after, according to Habersham, confirming she was not ‘the Vosgoth under American colours’. The Saracen sailed in the other direction, making track surveys as she made her way towards Nagasaki. The report of this voyage would eventually find its way into the 1858 edition of The China Pilot and also lead to the production of a revised Admiralty chart. It is something of a puzzle that, on the chart I have seen, there are numerous additions and corrections credited to Richards, yet the publication date is shown as October 12th 1855. Given that the Saracen didn’t reach the waters around Nagasaki until early September it seems improbable that Richard’s work could have been transported to London, checked, engraved and printed within six weeks. The date is almost certain to be of a chart published in October 1855 but on which the publication data was not updated when additions were made. What is interesting, however, is that this document had evidently been compiled according to Krusenstern’s chart of 1827 and Richards makes a number of references to the work. Coincidentally, as Richards was putting the chart to use, Longmans, Green, Brown and Longmans of Paternoster Row, were preparing to publish a ‘Memoir of Admiral de Krusenstern’. The fact that Britain and Russia were engaged in hostilities and that Krusenstern had conducted his surveys for the Imperial Russian Navy made not the slightest difference to the veneration felt for this exceptional navigator and astronomer, who had little interest in war or politics. Krusenstern was always well disposed towards Great Britain and his daughter, Madame Charlotte Bernhardi, said of him that England was a country which he had cherished from his youth with all the warmth of his heart and, of the Crimean War, that we cannot help thinking how deeply my father would have been affected by this unhappy conflict; how much his heart – patriotic and English at the same time – would have suffered under the present circumstances.

The admiral had been born in Estonia, which was within the Russian empire at that time, in 1770. His family, of minor nobility, had no association with the navy but Krusenstern decided to become a naval cadet and was fortunate to be given accelerated promotion after Russia became involved in an unexpected conflict with Sweden. He made such a good impression he was chosen to travel to Great Britain where he was attached to the Royal Navy. The young lieutenant, noted for the modesty and simplicity of his manners, had opportunities to travel that would never have presented themselves had he remained at the naval base of Kronstadt, for the Czarist fleet was largely confined to the Baltic. With the Royal Navy Krusenstern sailed to the Mediterranean and crossed the Atlantic and when on the east coast of the United States made the acquaintance of George Washington. He also visited islands in the West Indies and on returning to Britain decided to try and get to India, although the British authorities were somewhat dubious about allowing a Russian officer to gain insight into the commercial opportunities in the Indian Ocean and beyond. Nonetheless, Krusenstern achieved his aim and eventually arrived in Canton where it became clear just how much profit shippers and merchants could make in carrying and selling furs from Siberia and Russian America to the Chinese. At the time Russian presence in the Pacific was very restricted, although a single unarmed ship was allowed to trade with Japan once a year.

After returning to Russia Krusenstern presented his observation to the Minister of the Navy and suggested that Russia should mount an expedition to the north west Pacific with the object not only of developing sea trade in areas contiguous to the Bering Strait but also in collecting scientific evidence and making surveys on little visited coasts. His suggestions were favourably received by Czar Alexander 1st, grandson of the outward looking Catherine the Great. Some in the St Petersburg Admiralty were less impressed, one senior officer, for example, urging that if the expedition was authorised it should be crewed by English sailors. Krusenstern disagreed, saying that from the point of view of docility, perseverance and goodwill Russian sailors would be better. He had his way, although the two vessels to be used, renamed the Nadezhda and Neva, were bought in London (the Neva had originally been called the Thames) as were Pennington and Arnold timepieces and navigation equipment made by Troughton.

Anyone travelling to London in the first years of the C19th, especially if they were involved in maritime matters, could not help but be impressed by the development of the new docks, which clearly indicated the national confidence felt in the future expansion of British trade. Such assurance, despite the threat from Napoleon, was one reason why plans for the Regents Canal soon found investors. Krusenstern was fully aware of British commercial ambition, but did not consider them to be inconsistent with those of Russia, rather, he thought, they were complimentary. This was hardly a view that was universally shared, especially as the century wore on.

The tiny fleet left Kronstadt in August 1803 and, after calling at Falmouth, set out for the north Pacific via Cape Horn. At sea Krusenstern proved himself to be a more humane commander than either Belcher or Wilkes, although like them he was dedicated to the acquisition of knowledge of the oceans and the production of cartography to the highest standard. An atlas of his work was eventually published and his surveys on the Japanese coast were collated into chart number 22 ‘Carte de L’Empire du Japon et du Detroit de Sangar. Plan du Port Nangasaki.’ It would also form the basis of the chart of 1827 that Richards consulted as the Saracen followed Krusenstern’s route fifty years later.

Two days after the Saracen cleared the Straits of Sangar the ship reached the Oga-sima peninsula on the west coast of Nipon, as the main island of Japan was called. Here Richards made his first comment on errors on Krusenstern’s chart saying the whole peninsula was shown as being 12 miles too far south. The following day the island of Tabu-sima was also reported as being shown in the wrong place. It was 43 miles further south than indicated on the Russian chart, something which led to the Saracen arriving late in the day and which thus prevented a survey being started before the light faded. Next day the Saracen sailed by the substantial Sado island. There were no complaints about Krusenstern’s chart here but, unusually, the ship was paid a visit by Japanese fishermen. Surprisingly, given the control exercised within Japanese society and in contrast to Habersham’s experience, these folk do not seem to have been cowed by local officials who may have discouraged intercourse with foreigners. Perhaps none were present and, in any event, Richards was impressed by the respectful behaviour of the fishermen and the gratitude shown when given small presents.

Four days later Richards was to comment on misplacement once again. Off Cape Noto, he found none of the rocks and islands shown on Krusenstern’s chart were to be seen, although he added the caveat that perhaps they lay further inshore than the Saracen, which was nineteen miles from land, was sailing. It would have been puzzling if at least some of the rocks and islands shown did not exist because, in the ‘Memoir of Admiral Krusenstern’, the point was made that less conscientious hydrographers did not properly check the veracity of the information they used in drawing up charts. Indeed they;

… thought it incumbent on them to make all such pretended discoveries on their charts in order to render them complete and thus many and celebrated charts of the ocean abound in hundreds and even thousands of small islands and rocks which in reality do not exist.

The scrupulous Russian admiral was unlikely, surely, to have added rocks and islands off Cape Noto merely to fill in empty space on his chart?

On August further errors were found when the island of Mina-sima was found to be 28 miles away from its true position. Richards must have been very sure of the correctness of his own survey as on the same day he decided to name an island after himself. It was only small and the name did not ‘stick’ for long and did not appear on the relevant ‘Japan’s Islands’ chart, published by James Imray in 1865. Ironically an island close by named after Mr Obree, the Second Master of the Saracen did appear (although only in brackets after the Japanese name) as did another, named by Richards after Captain Wilson of the Winchester.

By this time the Saracen was off the coast of Klousiou, as the large, southernmost island of the Japanese archipelago was called and here, according to the China Pilot;

… a number of Japanese government boats hove into sight….. they were supposed to be going to Nagasaki through the Firando channel.

How the destination of this little flotilla was established is unclear but the use of the word ‘supposed’ indicates, perhaps, that Richards was not completely convinced about where it was going. The China Pilot was published primarily as a guide for navigation and there are limited references to the wider context in which surveys had been made. It would have been understandable if the government boats were, in fact, rather more interested in keeping the Saracen under observation than in going to Nagasaki.

By September 1855 the Japanese authorities must, to some extent, have been aware of what had happened in the Bay of Tartary and the Sea of Okhosk and would certainly have been concerned about what the Royal Navy might do as the weather in the north west Pacific worsened. The war against Russia had concentrated a larger British fleet in Japanese waters than had ever been seen before and Britain, rather than any other power, was regarded as being the greatest danger to Japanese sovereignty. There was certainly speculation as to what would happen if Russia was defeated and whether the British would then become more aggressive in their policies towards Japan.

At a local level there would have inevitably been anxiety about any foreign, particularly British, ships taking soundings and making observations for this might mean an area was being identified as suitable for a landing and possible occupation. Two days after spotting the flotilla, when the Saracen anchored in a ‘snug bay’ to shelter from a storm a boat containing several respectably dressed Japanese officials came out from a nearby village to see what it wanted. Using a vocabulary, a few signs and grimaces (we might wonder what faces were pulled about the dangers of storms) Richards tried to explain his purposes and the officials, after minutely inspecting the ship and taking copious notes, departed. Had the crew of the Saracen hoped the visit would lead to an invitation to go ashore they were to be disappointed for early the following morning the ship experienced the usual treatment given to unwelcome foreign visitors. Gifts of fish, vegetables, wood and water were made but it was made clear the sooner the anchor was weighed the better. Richards, probably to the relief of the inspectors and note takers, obliged and after leaving the bay and investigating a few more islands set a course for Nagasaki.

Nagasaki had been the only direct point of contact between the West and Japan since the time the isolationist policy of Sokaku had been imposed over two centuries previously. On Dejima, a very small and very closely monitored island, linked to main town by a footbridge, a handful of traders had maintained the trade of the VOC, as the Dutch East India Company was known. The Dutch were tolerated by the Japanese because they were Protestant and did not seek converts in the way Catholic missionaries of the C16th and C17th had. Given the favoured status of the Dutch, who were required to provide the Japanese government with regular reports on what was happening in the rest of the world, and the value of trade to the VOC and so to Holland itself, it is little wonder that there was a desire to shield commercial information from potential competitors. Krusenstern, although he arrived a few years after the VOC had been dissolved, was to complain;

This reserve of the Dutch to a ridiculous, mean and at all events a very useless policy, contrary to the spirit of a philosophical age and unbecoming a republican government. Has the trade of England suffered at all by the liberality of her government or has that of the Dutch gained anything by their disgusting secrecy?

He did not feel much better about the Japanese for they too seemed obsessed by secrecy and when he arrived at Nagasaki in October 1804 his sailors were kept confined on board for weeks on end. Even the ambassador was refused permission to land for a month.

Any foreign ship which aggressively transgressed the isolationist policy could expect, at the least, to be shot at. One such intruder was HMS Phaeton which, four years after Krusenstern’s visit, sought to ambush two Dutch ships on their arrival at Dejima. Slipping into Nagasaki harbour under a Dutch flag the youthful commander captured traders from the island as they were rowed out to what they thought was a Dutch ship. The captain then threatened to execute his captives unless the Japanese provided the Phaeton with supplies and informed the port authorities he would also sink Chinese and Japanese ships in the harbour if his demands were not met. At that particular moment the defences at Nagasaki were too poor to challenge even a single well armed ship but a request was sent for reinforcements and these were soon dispatched. As this force included 40 ships it is a matter of speculation as to whether the Phaeton could have fought her way out sea once they appeared. But when the British captain found that the real Dutch ships would not be arriving that year he decided to leave, obtained his supplies and escaped. The magistrate who had acceded to the demand for supplies subsequently committed ritual suicide.

After this kind of experience it is hardly surprising that the Japanese were wary of Royal Navy vessels and although few visited, one that did was the Samarang commanded by Belcher. He arrived in August 1845 and reportedly did not meet with hostility. By this time, of course, the Japanese were well aware of what had happened in China three years previously. Belcher did not remain long and was provided with the supplies he requested, but during his short stay was told that there was still bad feeling in Japan about the way the captain of the Phaeton had behaved. There would clearly have been suspicion of a Royal Navy vessel even sailing alone and, although this is not mentioned in the China Pilot, the Saracen was far from alone. In fact, under orders from Stirling a powerful force was sailing to Nagasaki.

At noon on the 4th of September 1855 the Saracen anchored in the outer harbour of Nagasaki. The previous year Stirling had been provided with the local harbour rules when negotiating the treaty to open ports for his ships. Richards would, therefore, have known the requirements were stricter than at Hakodadi. He could not go into the inner harbour, could not launch any boats to go surveying and his crew were not allowed to land.

The Saracen was not to leave the outer harbour until the beginning of October and during the intervening period the crew set about the usual cleaning and restorative tasks as did sailors on other British ships now concentrating in the area. After Elliot anchored he met with local officials and argued forcefully that the crews of his squadron should be allowed to go ashore, but to no avail. Even when Stirling arrived for a ceremonial exchange of copies of the treaty, which had been ratified by both the British and Japanese governments, local officials insisted the this agreement made no changes to the requirements of the harbour rules.

One problem both the British and the Japanese had concerned translation and it proved very difficult to finalise the exact terms of the treaty to suit both parties. On October 1st Stirling, who generally took the view that the ‘appearance of menace’ was necessary when negotiating with the Japanese, was to write a report to the Admiralty saying that there was now an ‘exhibition of force’ at the Nagasaki. He listed the Saracen along with ten other ships, which were the Winchester, Sybille, Nankin, Pique, Encounter, Spartan, Hornet, Barracouta, Styx, and Tartar. This was certainly a powerful presence and, had it not been for the unjustified harshness shown on arrival at Hong Kong, could well have been commanded by Fleetwood Pellew. One can imagine the reaction of the Japanese government had they been obliged to negotiate with the very man who, nearly fifty years previously, had sailed the Phaeton into Nagasaki harbour.

Despite the blank refusal of the authorities to sanction surveys being made at Nagasaki and the subsequent obstruction Richards faced when attempting to work elsewhere it does appear that some surreptitious observations were made. A chart of Nagasaki harbours was published by the Admiralty in January 1856 under the title ‘Nagasaki Bay from Siebold 1828’ with an indication that it was corrected by Richards in 1855. It is hard to know which corrections were made without seeing the original chart produced by Siebold, a German botanist who had lived at Dejima in the 1820’s, but the Barracouta Rock was almost certainly identified and named in the correction process.

The nervousness of the Japanese who watched the British ships may have been exacerbated when the Saracen began to fire her guns and rockets. The intention was, according to the ship’s log, purely for signalling purposes, but in the febrile atmosphere the displays could well have been seen as intimidatory. When the authorities saw the ship leave the outer harbour on October 1st they would surely have wanted to know where she was going and may have had her followed. Her destination was Kabe-sima, one of an archipelago of rocks and small islands collectively known as the Goto Islands. Here, based in another ‘snug’ place Richards was able to complete some observations but it was clear local officials were not pleased at his arrival. On the evening of the 5th the Saracen made ready to leave and Richards noted;

Our Japanese friends were delighted to see us prepare to depart, and gladly acceded to our request to tow us out. With their assistance we soon cleared the port, and arrived at the southern entrance to the strait, where we anchored for the night, intending to carry on the survey to the southward in the morning.

Richards hoped that he had now rid himself of what he called ‘our troublesome friends’, which indicated how he really felt about them. But he was in for a surprise for the following morning;

… we found that the number of boats had increased considerably, and on getting under weigh they stuck to us closer than ever. They had evidently received fresh orders from their superiors concerning us, and considering the probability of a collision, and having previously secured all necessary points in the immediate neighbourhood, we again shaped our course for Nagasaki, where we arrived the following day.

During the absence of the Saracen negotiations over the final interpretation of the treaty had continued. When it was finally agreed Stirling may have taken the view there was no further reason to maintain the ‘exhibition of force’ and so the Saracen was able to leave Japanese waters for good. Richards made no mention of this, however. According to the China Pilot the reason for the prompt departure was;

The Japanese having steadily refused to permit any survey to be made of Nagasaki, or any part of their coasts, our further stay was useless, we, therefore, finally left the coast for Hong-kong on the 15th of October.

After a brief stop to check the position of some rocks the Saracen sailed back to Hong Kong and arrived on the evening of the 22nd. Another ship was sailing towards Hong Kong too, bringing news of the fall of Sevastapol. Within a few months the war with Russia would be over.

Chapter 20 - A new focus

Back to Introduction

Chapter 19 - To Nagasaki

Commanders and clippers



Japan 1855