When London Became An Island

Soochong, Shoguns and the Saracen’s surveys

The Saracen was to spend over two months in Hong Kong, during which time she was given as good an overhaul as could be provided by the developing naval dockyard. After being taken out of the water to enable her copper sheathing to be inspected it was found repairs were needed, a job which fell to the carpenter. The rest of the crew were put to work in the usual round of renovation. Guns were blackened, decks holystoned, storerooms whitewashed and woodwork scraped and oiled or painted. New running gear was received too so that by the end of December the ship must have looked almost as good as when she left Plymouth almost two years previously. Her store of fuel was topped up, at much lower cost than had she been a coal burning paddler like the Encounter, which was using the port facilities at the same time. The contents of the gunners store were also replenished, as were her water tanks and her food supplies. Unfortunately the victuals turned out to be of less than perfect quality.   

Richards, although constantly busy with administrative matters, would have taken the opportunity to socialise with other officers of a similar rank when he could. One was Captain Wilson of the Winchester who had doubtless expressed his approval at having a island named after him, a marker of his presence in at least one Admiralty chart. In the fluid situation of the China Seas neither man knew where they would be in a month or two or if they would meet again after leaving harbour. But the fall of Sevastopol, celebrated by the Saracen with a Royal Salute, was clearly an important victory in the war against Russia and if it heralded the end of the conflict there would no more wild goose chases after elusive Tsarist frigates or landings at remote ports where the inhabitants had melted away into the forest. Some of the prisoners taken from the Diana were sent back to Britain on the Styx and would arrive just two days before the peace treaty was signed in the following March. Ironically, the Styx dropped anchor at Falmouth, where Krusenstern had called before setting out for the north Pacific. Experiences of Japan were bound to have been shared in conversation between Wilson and Richards too and perhaps both officers reflected on the difference between Hakodadi and Hong Kong. The orderly nature of the Japanese port mirrored the culture of a disciplined nation which lacked, just at that time, the means to defend itself from the West. Hong Kong, which relied on the power of the Royal Navy for security, had a quite different tone. The well constructed and well swept streets of Hakodadi were a marked contrast to those of Hong Kong. According to a report of the time, the island’s infrastructure left much to be desired with a shortage of drains and pavements but plenty of pigsties, cowsheds and stagnant pools. Hong Kong sounds much like one of the poorer quarters of a British city of the 1850s and it is hardly surprising it suffered from the same diseases. There would be a cholera outbreak in 1857 the same year as an outbreak in West Ham, a couple of miles from the Regents Canal.

As well as meeting other officers on an unofficial footing perhaps Richards was invited to socialise with the Bowring family on at least one occasion for the governor threw a Christmas party while the Saracen was undergoing its overhaul. Given that for the next two years Richards would be almost wholly engaged on work that could be directly attributed to the new treaty with Siam, which soon became known as the Bowring treaty, it would have been fitting for him to be invited. In the Hong Kong climate the party would hardly have met the snowy Dickensian ideal, but at least plum pudding was served.

The Saracen left Hong Kong on January 5th 1856 under orders to sail to the Gulf of Siam. Some of her crew, remembering surveys made on the voyage from Plymouth, may not have looked forward to further work in a tropical climate. Admiral Krusenstern had a lifelong friend in the distinguished British naval officer Sir John Ross, who, in fact, edited the ‘Memoir of Admiral de Krusenstern’. They corresponded on all manner of naval matters and both men agreed that sailors of ruddy complexion, short stature and hearty appetites were more fitted to work in cold climates whereas those of an apparently weak constitution survived better in the tropics. Whatever the constitutional balance amongst the sailors of the Saracen the ship made good progress and after skirting the Paracel Islands and reached Pulo Obi, where the Gulf of Siam might be said to begin, on January 11th.

As she cruised south a lookout may initially have been kept not only for pirates but also for ships flying the British flag and carrying indentured labourers. Four months previously Bowring had issued a proclamation in Hong Kong prohibiting British ships from transporting Chinese emigrants to the Chincha or Guano Islands due to the infamous cruelties being perpetrated there. Officially the coolies taken to the islands, which were a few miles off the coast of Peru, were part of a huge and continuing exodus of free Chinese men seeking to escape poverty. The demand for cheap Chinese labour was prompted by the demands of a developing global economy and sometimes the Chinese were substitutes for slaves in those parts of the world where slavery had, officially at least, been abolished. On the Peruvian Chincha islands the lives of the coolies were hardly distinguishable from those of slaves, and badly mistreated slaves at that. Bowring had never been to the Chincha islands but had seen the conditions in Amoy, which was the main despatch point for what was known as the ‘pig trade’. He saw hundreds of coolies concentrated in barracoons, where they were stripped naked and stamped or painted with a C, P or S. Each initial indicated their destination. C was for California, P for Peru and S for the Sandwich Islands, as Hawaii was known at that time. The principle shipper was a Mr Tait, a British subject who also acted as a consul for the Spanish, Dutch and Portuguese. The unobstructed involvement of traders like Tait was one reason for local Chinese resentment of the British although it was, of course, Chinese brokers who fed the trade. Ships other than those flying the British flag, over which Bowring had no jurisdiction, were coolie carriers too and conditions on these vessels were often appalling.

When the Saracen entered the Gulf of Siam Richards had only the most rudimentary charts to guide him. Less than a month before the Saracen left Hong Kong the Hydrographic Office, now under John Washington, had published a chart of the gulf based on a drawing by Mr G. A. Stabb, described as an Acting Master R.N. Given this was produced in London Richards could not have had a copy in January 1856. In the following year, when a revision was issued, Richards was given credit on the updated document because in the intervening period his work had already improved knowledge of the gulf coast considerably. A second revision, published in 1858, showed the Saracen had completed a survey of a thousand miles of coast which, as it was done in only twenty months, reflected considerable credit on Richards and his officers and crew. However, on this chart Mr Stabb’s name also reappeared. This was only fair, after all it was his original work that was being updated.

In January 1856 all this was in the future for the Saracen had yet to begin its task and, heading for Bangkok, Richards had time only to make brief surveys of two islands, one of which was Pulo Panjang and the other Pulo Way. The waters of the central part of the Gulf of Siam must have been a pleasant surprise to sailors with recent experience of the tricky currents and rough seas off the coasts of China and Japan and at this stage the work would not have taxed those of a ruddy complexion much either. The area was rarely disturbed by strong winds or storms and its islands could provide food, water and wood. When anchored in a safe and sandy bay the seine net could be drawn and a lookout was always kept for turtles. However, there were dangers beneath the warmer waters for there were hidden reefs and submerged rocks, sometimes miles from land. Although the occasional western ship might be seen the main vessels sailing in these waters were junks, some Chinese and some Siamese. Some of these junks were crewed by pirates but many were ordinary trading ships and having carried Siamese exports to China carried emigrants on their return. Given that Chinese emigration to Siam in 1850 was estimated to be 15,000 per year, there must have been a fair number of such vessels going to and fro. Some would have come to grief and on Pulo Panjang Richards came across five distressed Chinese men who told him they had been on a passage to Siam. Presumably their junk had been wrecked close to the Pulo Panjang and as the Saracen was itself heading for Siam Richards agreed to take them along. However, at the next island, Puolo Way, the five men asked to be discharged and were allowed to land. It was a curious incident but probably quickly forgotten when a couple of days later the Saracen struck a patch of coral as soundings were being made. Fortunately, no serious damage was done and after floating clear the survey work continued. It would have been a grim irony indeed if the crew of the Saracen had been obliged to join the five shipwreck survivors to whom they had so recently rendered assistance.

As the Saracen approached the Paknam at the mouth of the Chao Phraya River so Harry Parkes was returning from London along with the ratified treaty, presents and letters from Queen Victoria and a new wife who he had married six weeks after their first meeting. Obtaining ratification of the treaty had not been easy one reason being that Lord Shaftsbury and his supporters had been critical of the stipulations about opium. Interestingly, John Crawfurd, who had negotiated with the Siamese in the early 1820s and was still influential in Britain in matters concerning South-East Asia, thought smoking opium was preferable to drinking gin. He cited the positive benefits that the poet Coleridge and the essayist De Quincey appeared to have gained from use of the drug and even asserted that William Wilberforce, the great anti-slavery campaigner, had taken opium pills. At the end of the day the relevant clause remained unchanged and despite the criticism the treaty was ratified.

The first leg of the journey to Singapore was on the ‘overland route’ through Egypt. As Parkes and his wife made a start nine days after their marriage this and the subsequent voyage across the Indian Ocean must have been something of a substitute honeymoon. From Singapore they were to be taken to Bangkok by a naval steamer and the journey would, in fact, be made on the Auckland, a 6 gun Bombay built frigate owned by the East India Company. The accent of Queen Victoria’s presents, as was often the case in contemporaneous official Occidental gifts to the Orient, was on science and technology. It was anticipated this would please King Mongkut who had a great interest in Western scientific advances and wanted to find out all he could about them. The king was an able astronomer in his own right and when working on his own celestial computations would, perhaps, use a silver inkstand, richly gilt with figures, which was amongst the gifts. He would also find a camera and Daguerreotype photographic apparatus and, for a popular overview of the state of technology in British industry, there were two volumes of the highly illuminated Digby Watts Industrial Arts. Something that would have drawn attention to the work of the survey vessels like the Saracen was a complete set of charts of the Indian and Chinese seas and it is possible a copy of Richard’s chart of the mouth of the River Min was amongst them. Unfortunately, ‘many a slip twixt cup and lip’ and a disaster in the waters off Singapore meant Parkes might arrive with only his letters, the treaty and his bride.

Chapter 23 - A tricky time in Siam

Back to Introduction

Chapter 22 - To the Gulf of Siam

Commanders and clippers

A tomb for Chinese emigrants to the USA at Ishigaki, Ryukyu Islands, Japan

British bombardment of Savastopol

Into the Gulf of Siam