When London Became An Island
Soochong, Shoguns and the Saracen’s surveys
In preparation for his return to Bangkok Harry Parkes would have ensured the ratified treaty and letters from Queen Victoria to King Mongkut were kept secure at all times. Apparently the queen’s presents were treated as being of rather less importance and when transhipped to the Auckland at Singapore, seem to have been given no special consideration. With hindsight this was probably seen as a mistake as the boat carrying them sank and most were ruined. When Parkes arrived at the mouth of the Chao Phraya River it was ironic that the ‘complete set of charts of Indian and Chinese seas’ all showed signs of immersion in sea water.
The East India Company gunboat arrived off Paknam on March 12th, by which time the Saracen had been surveying local waters for over a month. She had heralded her arrival, as usual, with the gunfire needed to measure a base and although striking a rock when making soundings had suffered no serious damage. After their long voyage the crew were given the opportunity to go ashore to wash their clothes and haul the seine and an awning was rigged up over the deck to catch rain water. Fish would have been a welcome addition to the daily diet as by now there was some concern over stores loaded in Hong Kong. Weevils had been busy destroying ships biscuit and an inspection of suet showed some was no longer fit for human consumption.
As he waited for the arrival of the Auckland Richards was aware a huge amount of work lay ahead on the Gulf coast, but knew his surveying skills might also be needed on the Chao Phraya River. The insert shown via the thumbnail to the right illustrates the limitation of the charts in circulation before the Saracen arrived. Parkes, naturally, was more interested in delivering the queen’s letters and the ratified treaty than surveying and wanted to execute this duty in a manner reflecting the status to which he felt entitled. Reaching Bangkok was not simply a matter of sailing up the river though, for the bar at the mouth of the Chao Phraya could only be crossed at certain tides. This was why Townshend Harris, who was in Bangkok when Parkes arrived, was to stipulate the draft of warships on his speculative coercive mission. Bowring’s Rattler had managed both entry and exit on successive spring tides and Parkes now wanted the Auckland to steam all the way up to Bangkok too. In his view such an arrival would reflect the gravitas of the occasion. Not everyone in the Siamese court agreed.
After a few days at anchor a yacht arrived to take Parkes to Bangkok with a request that he bring the letters and ratified treaty with him, a suggestion which he ignored. Parkes wanted to deliver his documents directly from the Auckland because, in his opinion, it would ensure his task was done in ‘a becoming and suitable manner, and to give me the support of her presence in my transactions with the Siamese government’. His obduracy succeeded and on returning to the frigate a few days later boats were sent to help carry excess weight to shore. The Auckland was then able to pass over the bar and sail up to the capital, but other obstacles still remained. Parkes intended to deliver the queen’s communications directly to the monarch but some Siamese ministers thought they should be presented through an intermediary in order that they might be first examined. Parkes resisted this suggestion too and was able to gain an audience with King Mongkut at which he handed over Victoria’s letters and explained what had happened to the presents. He said the king was well pleased with the personal attention shown by the British sovereign, but mentions nothing about her salt stained gifts.
Although the treaty brought back from London was much the same as the one sent there, some points needed further clarification and discussions now took place to deal with them. These negotiations were to take much longer than the time taken to agree the original treaty, but as Parkes was anxious to catch the Hong Kong mailboat, which was due to arrive in Singapore on May 17th, the Auckland sailed back down the river and crossed the bar, ready for a quick getaway on the 7th or 8th. One issue requiring settlement was the area within which British traders would be forbidden to acquire land or buildings unless they had been resident in Siam for 10 years or had special permission. This exclusion zone had a radius of approximately four miles from the centre of Bangkok but as there were no adequate maps to clearly define the area it was agreed that four lines, based on the points of the compass, would be surveyed and that these would allow the creation of suitable interim guides. Parkes decided to enlist the help of Richards and his officers in settling these lines and so sent word to the Saracen of the help needed.
By mid-April the Saracen had been working close to the mouth of the Chao Phraya River for two months, during which period temperatures had risen sharply and heavy rains had begun to fall. The cramped, airless and humid conditions below decks may well have contributed to a certain indiscipline amongst the crew because the log book shows there was a relative increase in demotions and the removal of good conduct badges in this period. Spirits would not have been lifted when it was discovered there was no fresh beef to be had and when over 1500 lbs of weevil infested ships biscuit had to be thrown overboard. The Auckland hardly seems to have been in a better situation and this was a matter of concern to Parkes who wrote;
The obstacles in the way of obtaining supplies of fresh provisions rested chiefly on religious grounds, the Siamese viewing the slaughter of animals as an offence against both their laws and religion, and individuals not of the national faith hesitated to purchase for us bullocks and other stock…
Fortunately, he managed to obtain an assurance that anyone who supplied bullocks for slaughter would face no punishment for doing so. He was impressed by this concession and went on to say;
It is creditable to the Siamese Government, as instancing their liberality in matters of religious opinion, for me to add that live supplies were eventually furnished us in ample quantity and at very reasonable rates.
Having joined with officers from the Auckland the Saracen party spent over a week in the vicinity of Bangkok. The task, which was done with the assistance of Siamese surveyors, was not easy because the ‘compass point’ guide lines were intersected with ditches and canals. Also, away from the city itself, much of the ground was covered with thick vegetation and even jungle which had to be cut down before surveys could be made. Adding to the difficulties were several periods of heavy rain, but the work was eventually completed satisfactorily.
It was probably during this period when Richards, with Parkes, spent some time with the king who was certainly impressed both with the demeanour and technical skills shown by the commander of the Saracen. In a letter to Bowring, he was to write, Captain Rechurch is a good navigator. He has several conversations with me. His character appeared very good pleased me much. Nothing should be read into the confusion of Rechurch with Richards, for there was no Captain Rechurch on the scene and the Saracen itself was referred to as the Saracennee.
Despite the favourable impression Richards made on Mongkut when the commander returned to the Saracen on May 3rd he found the food situation no better. There was mounting concern on the Auckland about dwindling provisions too but at least Richards had managed to obtain a supply of lemon juice. Fortunately, because of Parkes intervention, bullocks were eventually supplied and within a few days fresh beef finally became available. Moreover, enough good ‘bread’ remained on the Saracen to supply the Auckland and in return she received a supply of oil. Unfortunately, Parkes was not able to speed final agreement over the ratified treaty and could not quit Bangkok until May 15th. When he did, however, he was well satisfied with his achievement and was convinced of Mongkut’s intention to make the treaty work. He asserted that the king was;
certainly the best friend we have in the country, and I have no doubt that while he continues so, everything will go on well,- a few years will suffice for the new system to take a deep enough root for it to stand thenceforward by its own strength.
As for Richards, who was also preparing to depart, he knew the Saracen would soon be back Siam because there was, as the system took a deep enough root, the prospect of rapidly increasing trade between Bangkok and Singapore. There would probably be a greater Royal Navy presence in the Gulf of Siam too and as Bangkok would loom ever larger as an important trading port new charts would be demanded. One of the first tasks on the next visit of the Saracen was sure to be to survey the Chao Phraya River.
Chapter 23 A tricky time in Siam
Commanders and clippers
The Chao Phraya (or Menam) between Bangkok and Paknam