In the C17th century work was started on a waterway to link the Atlantic with the Mediterranean through south-west France. It was an impressive project and appears to have prompted the Siamese King, Narai, to commission a survey of the Kra isthmus with a view to creating an artificial waterway between the Gulf of Siam and the Andaman Sea. Given French influence in Siam at the time it was natural a French engineer would be employed to do the work. Although this is the first recorded investigation of the possibility of making such a waterway the idea had probably been dreamt about on previous occasions, for the advantages to traders would have been clear and the opportunities provided for the swift movement of troops obvious. Nothing came of Narai’s project, nor of one proposed over a century later by the younger brother of King Chakri. Chakri was King Mongkut’s grandfather who was subsequently known as Rama the First. However, in middle of the C19th, as British pressure to open Siam to world markets grew, the idea of a canal was dusted off. As might be expected, a leading exponent was Sir John Bowring. He raised the idea in his negotiations with the Siamese monarch but, despite the interest shown by his great-uncle in the Kra project, Mongkut took a more circumspect view. Aware of the advantages a canal might bring, he was also conscious it could become the focus of colonial rivalry, which would not necessarily be to Siam’s advantage. Commenting to Bowring on the work Richards had done in the Gulf before sailing off to Singapore, Mongkut, in his inimitable style, wrote;
He did not yet survey the Isthmus or narrow neck of the Malay Peninsula which Your Excellency suggests we to make a canal upon. It was but a rumour circulated amongst many merchants whose thoughts are to carry the opium trade to China nearer than usual course. But in fact the Isthmus is of thick mountainous and rocky land in its middle part for several miles and solid and stones under the ground higher than the level of sea for several fathoms.
He then went on to raise what, in many contemporary Western eyes at least, may have been a strange objection. He said;
I think the natural division of the world forbid such the purpose according to the pleasure of the Super Agency that believed by many as the Almighty Creator of whole universe.
However, the monarch seemed to be open to the idea that it would be possible to overcome the geological and topographical obstacles presented at Kra for he thought;
.. Captain Wm. Richards R.N. might decide that it can be done in any rate..
And made it clear he was not against driving canals across necks of land in principle, although taking the view that;
Those Isthmuses more important than this are the Isthmuses of Red Sea and that of two continents of America.
By 1856, of, course, plans for developing a canal from the Mediterranean to the Red Sea were well advanced and considerable interest had been shown in opening a ship canal in Central America over what was then known as the Isthmus of Darien. Understandably, it is not surprising that the Kra canal came to be seen, by some at least, as an achievable project that would rank with the other two in spurring on global economic progress. In their optimistic eyes it was not merely the opium traders who would benefit although others, with investments in Singapore, were concerned such a development might have a negative impact on the amount of trade passing through the Straits of Malacca. And there was also the question of whether the French, who, despite co-operation in the Crimean War, were enduringly viewed with suspicion by many British diplomats, might seek to drive such a project forward in their own interests.
Given the very positive view he had formed of Richards it is not surprising that Mongkut showed confidence in the abilities of the commander of the Saracen to make a tentative judgement about the possibilities of a canal across a southern Siamese province. The King would also have been reassured if he knew that another capable officer of the brig-sloop had undertaken similar survey work on the Isthmus of Darien, an adventure which ended rather dramatically.
In the Admiralty Surveys section of the 1856 Journal of the Royal Geographical Society optimism was expressed that the arrival in the Gulf of Siam of two officers from the China Station would soon lead to the production of a chart that would be ‘sufficiently accurate for all the common purposes of navigation’. One of these two officers was Richards, the other Inskip. They were clearly so well known to the journal’s readers that neither title nor initials were needed to identify them.
George Hastings Inskip already had considerable surveying experience on the coasts of Australia and the Americas. In December 1853, whilst Richards had been making the final preparations for the departure of the Saracen from England, Inskip was an officer of HMS Virago as it steamed to the mouth of the Savana River near Panama. The Savana drained waters to the Pacific from a range of hills rising from the Isthmus of Darien. Shortly after the paddler arrived an expedition, small but well armed and under the leadership of the Commander of the Virago, J.C.Prevost, set out in a cutter and gig in order to survey a way to the Atlantic. The party, aided by locally recruited labour, soon began to push overland but the terrain and, perhaps, the threat of a hostile reception immediately reduced the size of the group, Prevost reporting that two of the indigenous assistants would go no further as ‘their hearts had failed them’. Although everyone else carried on the going proved hard, Prevost noting that;
The trees of stupendous size were matted with creepers and parasitical vines, which hung in festoons from tree to tree, forming an almost impenetrable network and obliging us to hew open a passage with our axes every step we advanced.
There were also streams and swamp to be crossed and at the end of a day a simple shelter, called a rancho, had to be built. This was where the explorers would try to rest, although the prevalence of fleas, mosquitoes and ants combined with what Inskip called the ‘discordant sounds’ of frogs, birds, animals and the occasional falling tree or branch made sleep very difficult.
In the circumstances it is not surprising that progress was slow, not even two miles a day, but care was taken to ensure the way being cut would be identifiable on the return journey and Inskip supervised the construction of rudimentary bridges over streams where this was thought prudent. Despite the difficulties morale remained high and time was found to carve the name Virago on a tree as the party passed. Unfortunately, fifteen days into the expedition, it was decided to turn back even though the Atlantic had not been sighted. The main problem appears to have been lack of provisions. At rancho 12, 25 miles and 14 chains (a chain measures 22 yards, the length of a cricket pitch) from rancho 1, Prevost gave the order to return to the mouth of the Savana.
Disappointing though this decision must have been, at least those who had gone furthest inland looked forward to a good dinner at rancho 10, where three marine artillery men and a sailor had been left to protect a dump of supplies. In anticipation, someone from the main party was sent ahead to tell the guards to prepare a meal. But when the messenger returned he brought alarming news. Rancho 10 had been ransacked and there was no sign of the guards. It did not take long to find the bodies of three men, all of whom had been shot. There was also evidence that a fourth must have tried, unsuccessfully, to escape but there was no sign of his corpse. Clearly, there was now nothing for it but for the rest of the party to hasten back to the Virago as quickly as possible. However, although the newly cut path through the forest was clearly identifiable, progress was slowed by ‘Old Kinnerish’ an expedition member, who, according to Inskip, had ‘a heart like a lion’ but did not have the physical strength to match. Fortified only by the last of the pork rations, ships biscuit and a little rum the survivors must have been constantly watching for signs of an ambush as they worked their way back through the creepers and swamps, traversed such a short time before. Fortunately, no further hostility was encountered, but it would have been a sad return to the Virago.
There was no attempt to cover up what had happened on Prevost’s expedition, for such events seemed to be accepted as being part of the risk of visiting dangerous places when geographical and scientific borders were being expanded. Inskip remained with the Virago until after the ill fated attack on Petropavlovsk and was subsequently transferred directly to the Saracen.
The social and political conditions in central America were quite different from those on the southern border of Siam, but Richards and Inskip probably had more than one conversation concerning the difficulties facing survey parties involved in work in tropical forests. Given the need to create charts of the Gulf rather than maps of the hinterland it seems doubtful if Richards would have been very enthusiastic about undertaking a survey of the Kra isthmus just at that moment. However, he would certainly have been aware of Bowring’s enthusiasm.
To have reached an opinion on whether construction of a Kra canal was a realistic possibility perhaps Richards would have needed to make the kind of effort Prevost had made in Panama, leading an expedition at least some way inland. Yet time was tight and pressures considerable with officers setting off individually or together on the coastal surveys for which the Saracen was being deployed. The log book entry of July 3rd indicates, for example, that Inskip left the Saracen at 6.30 am, which would have been around dawn, to begin work whilst four days later both he and Richards, along with another officer called Christian, embarked on a survey with 10 days provisions. Clearly it was anticipated the gig and pinnace in which the party would travel would be away for some time. A survey of the coast of a large island, which Richards called Great Redang, and a small archipelago of islets and rocky outcrops close by was probably the work that the two boats were engaged in, but after five days the whole party returned. As the record shows the Rajah of Tingay visited the day after arrival perhaps Richards had felt the need to play his role as a kind of ‘surveying ambassador’. The Rajah would, doubtless, have been impressed by a display of gunfire and rockets, which were part of the brig-sloop’s working day when a base was being measured. Indeed, possibly everyone along the coast and on the islands visited was impressed, although puzzled too as to why the ship was expending so much gunpowder and making so much noise. It was clearly not involved in any kind of engagement with pirates or anyone else. Perhaps some thought it was a kind of celebration to do with Queen Victoria.
The work at Great Redang done the Saracen continued along the coast of Kalantan toward the neck of land that joined Siam with the Malay peninsula, reaching Singora by July 30th. The ship was now in undisputed Siamese waters and had a reached the point where, over 150 years previously, Monsieur De Lamar, who was called an engineer but who must have had considerable skill in surveying, had set out to give King Narai an appraisal of how realistic the idea of cutting a canal through to the Andaman Sea was. Soon after arrival Richards made a visit to a local rajah and then, and this was probably more significant, to the Viceroy of the Southern Provinces of Siam. It would, surely, have been at this juncture that the commander, if intent on making an assessment of the prospects of building a Kra canal, would have halted and started off inland, or at least sent Inskip in his stead. But it would appear that no detailed land survey of any kind was made from Singora. Moreover, in the following four weeks, as the Saracen continued on towards the mouth of the Chao Phraya River, there was only one occasion when Richards, Inskip and Christian left the ship together and then they had provisions for only four days. These were likely to have been for sustenance when surveying the archipelago of islands that lie to the east of the very narrowest point of the isthmus. If Richards did give his opinion on the practicality of a Kra canal it would not have been based on the kind of observations Prevost may have made during his, albeit brief, expedition in Panama.
Chapter 25 - Gulf of Siam surveys - The Kra isthmus
Commanders and clippers
When London Became An Island
Soochong, Shoguns and the Saracen’s surveys