When London Became An Island

Soochong, Shoguns and the Saracen’s surveys

The Saracen arrived in Singapore on May 22nd 1856 almost two years after her first visit. The port continued to thrive and had a steadily growing population, the  number of Europeans officially resident on the island rising sharply, albeit from a low base. It would reach 2,445 by 1860, quite an increase from the 360 there a decade earlier. Throughout the period, however, the main immigrants were from India and, above all, from China.

Not all of the new arrivals on the island wanted to be there, for this Straits Settlement was a destination of convicts brought from other parts South-East Asia and India. They were often used as a source of cheap labour, although some were eventually given an element of freedom and paid an allowance. When on shore leave, crew members of the Saracen probably observed convicts employed on various public works including the new St Andrews Cathedral, which had been begun in March. Some of the prisoners became skilled artisans and one group became so expert at brick making they would win a silver medal at a competition in India. The relatively benign regime did not apply to all those who were detained, however. One of the incarcerated, who would surely have loved to have seen any work in progress, or even the light of day, was Bhai Maharaj Singh, a Sikh who had led resistance to the British in the Punjab. He had been arrested and transported to Singapore and was held in solitary confinement in a ‘dark, dingy and absolutely unhealthy’ cell. Given his deteriorating health the local Civil Surgeon had recommended that Singh be allowed an occasional walk in the open but this was refused by the Government of India, which was still, essentially, the East India Company.

It is doubtful if such cruelty was extended to British sailors sent to the cells by their captain but, even if conditions were better than those endured by the Sikh leader. Nonetheless their days, even though their sentences would have been short, would not have been relaxing. Richards, having dealt with incidents of indiscipline off the coast of Siam relatively leniently, decided one of his crew, named Palmer, should go to Singapore prison after being found guilty of desertion. The seaman was sentenced to ten days with hard labour. At least Palmer was able to return to his ship. Singh was never to return to India. He was to die in prison in July.

Apart from irritating matters of discipline Richards probably enjoyed his time in Singapore. For the first time in six months he would have had the opportunity to mix with the captains of several other ships, including the Spartan, and find out what had been happening in China and Japan. A certain amount of ceremony had to be observed too. All visiting Royal Navy vessels were required to be ‘dressed’ with flags on May 24th, which was Queen Victoria’s birthday. This occasion was celebrated wherever the British held sway and remains an official holiday in Canada today. The flags were out again on June 14th to mark the birth of the Prince Imperial of France. The son of Napoleon the Third, the boy had actually been born in March but he was to be baptised in Paris on that day. The display was a suitable tribute to the heir to the throne of Britain’s Crimean War ally, although the Crown Prince would never become Emperor. Instead, when his father was deposed, he went into exile. He eventually found his way to South Africa in the British Army, where he died a heroic death in a skirmish with the Zulus. If the start of his life was celebrated by the British so too was its end. Queen Victoria herself lead the funeral procession after his body had been returned to England on a British troopship.

More routine but nonetheless demanding tasks also had to be attended to by each Royal Navy captain in Singapore as they prepared to put to sea again. Given the depleted state of provisions when off the mouth of the Chao Phraya there would have been plenty of storage space on the Saracen for fresh supplies. Purchases, which had to be carefully recorded, were made of ships biscuit, oatmeal, salt beef, salt pork, flour, suet, tea, sugar, raisins, pepper and mustard, vinegar, lime juice and rum. Items needed for the cleanliness and efficient running of the ship were bought too and canvass and needles were acquired as were beeswax and deck brushes and new iron rollocks for the ship’s boats. A month after arrival the Saracen was ready to depart. Palmer was back on board and as the ships cook, William Flashman, had departed for Hong Kong on the Spartan the galley was under new management. The brig-sloop left Singapore on June 22nd on what was to prove be a series of notable surveys.

Although, even in the Gulf of Siam, the number of merchant steamers was increasing, wind rather than coal was still the main source of energy used in transporting goods by sea. Consequently, the work of the Saracen would to some extent be dictated by the imperative to make the passage of sailing ships involved in trans-Gulf trade with Singapore safer. When the Saracen left Singapore she was ultimately bound for Bangkok and as the south-west monsoon was blowing Richards followed the usual practice of sailing along the Peninsula coast and making for the Redang Islands first. Of course, once the surveys were made, they would be of similar value to the captains of both sailing and steam ships.    

There were no Straits Settlements on the east coast of the Peninsula, just a series of harbours belonging either to Siam or one of the small states between which the southern part was divided. The coast was not much frequented by the Royal Navy or European merchant ships and such trade as there was lay with small local trading vessels, mostly controlled by the Chinese.

The Chinese had a history of immigration into South-East Asia long before the the global economy began to develop, although Manchu government was suspicious of these ‘overseas’ Chinese, seeing them as a potential threat. Sometimes the emigrants faced hostility in places where they settled too and the level of integration varied. In Siam there was much intermarriage and families with a mixed Sino-Siamese background were common but in the Muslim Malay states, intermarriage was virtually unknown and the two ethnicities remained largely separate and distinct. The reaction of the colonial powers to the Chinese varied and changed over time. The Spanish, for example, would have found developing the Philippines impossible without their help. The islands were, nonetheless, the scene of massacres in the early C17th and expulsions nearly two hundred years later. The British, like the Dutch, had a different attitude and were more interested in making profits from trade than settling themselves as feudal landlords. Consequently, the East India Company found local Chinese trade networks invaluable and the Chinese thrived under the security of Company rule, which is why they were so attracted to the Straits Settlements. The benefit of this regime was apparently expressed by a Penang boatman. When asked what he thought of Queen Victoria he is purported to have said ‘Empress good, coolie get money – keep it.’ The benefits for the British were in turn considerable as they were able to tap into what one historian called ‘the almost inhuman industry and the talent for business’ which were, in his opinion, Chinese national characteristics.

Sometimes, of course, the ‘almost inhuman industry’ was put to use against legitimate trade as those who fell foul of pirates off the Chinese coast found out. However, for the Saracen, this danger was markedly less than it had been either there or on the opposite side of the Gulf. Although once plagued with marauders the Strait of Malacca and the southern parts of the Gulf of Siam were now far safer. The Royal Navy had long made efforts at suppression of piracy in these waters. The captain of H.M.S. Woolf, which was deployed in the 1830s, had tempted pirates to attack his ship by disguising her as a merchant ship engaged in the tropical animal trade. This added an exotic dimension to life on the warship, one officer reporting that;

Baboons flew playfully at your legs, a loathsome orang-outang ….. crawled up to shake hands ….. pigs and peccaries, sheep, fowls, a honey bear and a black panther made her a floating menagerie.

It is too obvious to say that when pirates attacked they realised, too late, the Woolf was a woolf in sheep’s clothing.

Although the introduction of the steam gunboat, which could make progress against the wind, had played a part in reducing piracy it was the determination to destroy pirate bases that lead to the final demise. This was not to say that a spectacular engagement at sea did not add to demoralisation of the renegades. Some pirates sailed in long open boats not unlike those which had been used by the Vikings. Neither sail nor oars could save them from the power of two 60 HP Forester steam engines, however, and a small fleet of such raiders was almost destroyed after being intercepted by the Nemesis. Similar destruction was wrought by a small steam gunboat when a pirate fleet that had been raiding off the east coast of the Peninsula, made the mistake of venturing into waters off Sarawak.

As the Saracen began to sail up the east coast of the peninsula Richards had to keep in mind that wherever the Saracen went she would be seen as a, sometimes unwelcome, representative of British sea power. Such a role would require delicacy in areas of tension and this coast was an area of tension.

Although the Browning Treaty had opened the door to free trade, Siam, under King Mongkut continued to exert pressure on her southern neighbours (see Chapter 20). Two states on the eastern seaboard of the Peninsula were Terengganu and Keletan. As with Kedah each of these states had sent Bunga Mas to Bangkok and the official Siamese view was that both had tributary status. This was disputed by the rulers of the states who, although acknowledging Siamese suzerain, asserted they were actually independent. They took the position that occasional Siamese demands for money and supplies were illegal and need not be complied with. The general policy of the East India Company was to avoid promises of support to the Malay states and avoid intervention until it became absolutely essential, but interest in the area could be usefully shown through occasionally ‘showing the flag’ and giving a demonstration of firepower. Small though she might be the Saracen could play a useful role in this respect.

Before the C14th the inhabitants of Terengganu had, like those other polities with a seaboard on the Gulf of Siam, practiced animanism overlaid with a fusion of Hindu-Buddhism. However, Islam was eventually brought by merchants from Arabia and Terengganu is regarded as the first Malay state to have received and then adopted this religion. The main town of Terengganu, which was to the south of Keletan, was called Tringano by Richards (Kuala Terengannu today). It lay at the mouth of the Tringano River, access to which was obstructed by a bar. However, once over the bar, which was covered by only 7 feet of water at low tide, a ship could find a good anchorage close to the town and the Saracen took advantage of this.

On a chart produced on the basis of the surveys made by the Saracen there is a helpful drawing showing the approach to Tringano. On either side of the river mouth are dense groves of palm trees but two features would have confirmed to a look-out on a ship bound for Tringano that this was the river on which the port stood. In the distance, to the south-west of the town, was a volcanic cone, which Richards called ‘remarkable, and not far from the anchorage was a small hill, Bukit Puteri, on top of which stood a fort. In times of conflict this could serve as a useful strong point but everything was peaceful when the Saracen arrived and the Raja of Terengganu, Sultan Umar, had apparently ordered that his flag be displayed on the ramparts when any vessel passed within signalling distance. This appears to have been a welcoming gesture, which was underscored when Richards visited the port to make a survey. He said he found the Raja very hospitable and in fact, all along the coast of Terengganu, the inhabitants proved to be friendly. Such cordiality may have been as a result of a desire to encourage the British to extend their protection against the Siamese and if so they may have been comforted on seeing the Saracen launch Congreve’s rockets. Richards, however, must have known he would have to ensure Siamese officials further along the coast did not take offence at this display. He needed to show himself as an even handed representative of the British government.

Back to Introduction

Chapter 24 - Gulf of Siam surveys - To Tringano

Commanders and clippers

St Andrews Cathedral

Bhai Maharaj Singh

The Malay Peninsula

Bukit Puteri