When London Became An Island
Soochong, Shoguns and the Saracen’s surveys
Some of the crew of the Saracen may have relished the thought of an adventurous expedition over the Kra peninsula as a change from coastal surveying, which, particularly for ordinary seamen, must have had periods of tedium. It would have meant a chance to escape the very cramped and airless on-board living conditions too, but this was something that might also be experienced by the small parties sent out in the ship’s boats for a duration of several days.
If there was not much variety in the work the seamen had to do neither were there many ways in which the cook could vary the food he prepared for them. Fishing parties were usually organised every couple of days to ‘haul the seine’ but on the west coast of the Gulf of Siam there was the chance to supplement the usual issue of salted beef and pork with more than fish. In some places and at certain times of the year it was possible to find fresh meat which could be roasted or turned into nourishing stews or soup. And for a Royal Navy captain, who had to account for every penny spent, it had the same attraction as fish – it was free.
Having previously served in the West Indies Richards may well have dined more than once on sea turtle, which was found in such abundance there. The possibility of these reptiles supplementing the rations of Royal Navy ships was certainly something taken into account by the Admiralty, but even in early C18th London it would have been quite possible to dine on fresh turtle. Once it was discovered turtles could be kept alive in water tanks they began to be shipped across the Atlantic and a recipe, which evidently originated in Barbados, for preparing turtle for the table was published in Britain in 1727. In the 1760s a tavern in Bishopsgate installed a water tank from which a Caribbean turtle could be selected and their meat certainly found favour with those who had power and influence in the City of London. One species, the Green Turtle, became identified as the London Alderman’s Turtle because no Alderman’s Banquet would be considered quite complete without Green Turtle soup.
When gathering information that might be useful to the captains of ships sailing along the west coast of the Gulf, Richards was conscientious in noting where food might be bought and firewood and water obtained and also suggested where turtles might be found. He noted Great Redang Island presented an opportunity to catch turtles and when, in early August, a survey was made of the small island of Koh Krah, which was about 35 miles offshore, another was discovered. The latitude and longitude of Koh Krah was carefully recorded as was the fact that it was barely half a mile long and a third of a mile wide with a maximum height of 530 feet. Attention was also drawn to the dangers of two high rocks and one ‘rock awash’ to any ships which approached. The island may well have been uninhabited but although no food appears to have been available to purchase Richard confirmed that Koh Krah could provide fresh, albeit stagnant, water. And in the right season it could also provide an abundance of sea turtle.
The cycle of turtle life starts with the laying of eggs and the sandy beaches of the northern coast of the Gulf and the offshore islands were places to which, year after year, female turtles would return. The homing instinct of the turtle was well known and an article from ‘Montgomery Martin’s British Colonies’, which was reproduced in a number of British newspapers in the 1830s drew attention to the way in which shoals of turtle swam the 450 miles between the Bay of Honduras and the Cayman Islands with an accuracy superior to the ‘efforts of human skill’. So large were these shoals that, it was asserted, ships which had lost their bearings in hazy weather were able to steer towards land by following the noise of the swimming turtles. When they reached their destination on the Cayman Islands the turtles would have emerged from the surf warily, just as they did everywhere in the world.
Perhaps members of a survey party from the Saracen were able to watch the landings on Koh Krah unobserved. Leaving the sea no earlier than dusk the turtles would crawl over the beach to find a suitable spot. They would then dig a pit with their back flippers and begin to lay their eggs. Once the laying process starts turtles are unmoved by distraction and might appear to be crying, but the tears are, in fact, a kind of transparent mucus which helps reduce dehydration and protect the eyes from sand. The contributor to ‘Montgomery Martin’s British Colonies’ stated that a turtle laid 900 eggs, which was something of an exaggeration as a clutch will normally run from between less than 50 to nearly 200. The egg laying process usually takes about an hour after which the back flippers are in operation again and when the eggs are fully covered in sand, making the exact spot of burial difficult to find, then the turtle, job done, will make its way back to the sea. The turtles would never return to check if their clutch was still secure but many eggs would never hatch because, in more accessible places, it might not be long before animals or humans in search of food would begin scraping and digging in the sand. Unfortunately for the adult turtles seen on Koh Krah, they were vulnerable when on the beach too and at some point between landing and attempting to leave, one or two were probably caught by the crew of the Saracen.
A few years before the Saracen set sail from Plymouth Sound a society created to disseminate a wide spectrum of up-to-date information had been closed. Called the Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge it was in existence for a little over 20 years and although though based in London it had supporting committees in many towns and cities. One of the largest appears to have been in Plymouth. Information was diffused through a number of publications including the Penny Cyclopaedia in which all kinds of subjects were listed in alphabetical order. In volume 21, under S, was Siam. Here reference was made to the ‘Green Turtle (Testudo Midas)’ which abounded on the islands off the east coast of the Gulf of Siam. Koh Krah was, of course, off the west coast but, nevertheless, it seems reasonable to presume, particularly as the Saracen visited the east coast of the Gulf between June and August, which were months during which this species of turtle usually laid its eggs, that the turtles the Saracen came across on Koh Krah and elsewhere were Green Turtles. The Penny Cyclopeadia article said the eggs from the east coast islands were collected and sent to Bangkok as food. It is unclear whether Koh Krah was visited by itinerant egg collectors or not but even if they did the number of hatchlings that eventually broke their shells, dug themselves out of their pit and then attempted to make their way to the sea must have been huge. Richards said 150 turtles came ashore on the island in one night and so, if each laid an average of 100 eggs, it means that there was a potential addition to the turtle population of 15000 from one night’s pit creation alone! Perhaps the large number of returnees indicates that Koh Krah was, indeed, something of a refuge for turtles, with a lower than usual count of bird, animal and human predators.
It would be interesting to know who supplied the information about the east coast islands of the Gulf of Siam. Could it have been Captain Beaufort, R.N. who was a member of the main committee of the Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge and who had such wide connections with scientists and Royal Navy surveyors? He, like Richards, had probably tasted turtle on more than one occasion. Whoever it was it seems reasonable to suppose that, as recorded in the ship’s log, two parties sent out from the Saracen to ‘catch turtles’ in August were successful. If so the officers and crew may have enjoyed a surfeit of turtle meat, roast or stewed, as the ship continued up the coast.
Richards considered it important to publish information about Koh Krah for reasons beyond sustenance too. The tides and currents within the Gulf of Thailand (as the Gulf of Siam became) are notoriously complex, but his observations lead him to believe that the flood tide from the South China Sea reached the western coast of the Gulf and subsequently divided, affecting offshore currents. Beyond the Redang islands the current turned south, but beyond Koh Krah it went north and the Saracen found itself in a particularly strong current between Lem Chong P’ra, a craggy headland, and the many peaks of Sam-roi-yot. When taking a view on the best course for a sailing ship on the Singapore to Bangkok run Richards suggested that, in the south-west monsoon, it would be good practice to hug the peninsula coast, which would mean passing to the west of Koh Krah rather than heading towards the middle of the Gulf.
After leaving Singora the wind favoured the Saracen when sailing towards Bangkok and the occasional heavy shower might have provide a top-up for the tank but care was taken to ensure there was little chance of the ship running out of water before it reached the mouth of the Chao Phraya River. Watering the Saracen could be a time consuming procedure as barrels needed to be filled on shore and then rowed out on the ship’s boats to where the vessel was anchored. About a 100 gallons a day were being used by the Saracen in August 1856 and as, by the 23rd, there were only about 7 days supply remaining, a source of fresh water was located and the dingy and cutter assigned to ferry work. Consequently, by the 26th, the tanks were holding 1100 gallons, which would have been deemed sufficient for the final few days of the voyage even if there was an unexpected delay. As it happened there was plain sailing ahead, but any ship which needed to replenish stocks on this part of the coast would have found it only in wells. Although obtaining water from one of those would have been possible it would have added to time lost and to cost too.
The Saracen arrived at the mouth of the Chao Phraya River right at the end of August and found a French warship, La Capricieuse, already at anchor. Both ships had been in Singapore in the middle of June. Given that the Saracen had celebrated the birth of the Prince Imperial three days after the French ship had dropped anchor there, Richards would probably have had no hesitation in making arrangements to visit La Capricieuse before she sailed on towards Cambodia. The French ship was evidently flying a commodore’s pennant and the British captain would have been aware that a voyage made the previous year had helped foster good relations between the ‘traditional enemies’.
In the C18th one area in which France and Britain were bitter rivals was North America and in Canada particularly. In the 1760s after the end of the Seven Years War France had been obliged to hand over her Canadian territories to Britain and, although Canadians of a French heritage were not expelled and some concession were made to their culture, subsequent relations between French and English speaking Canadians were, in general, somewhat lukewarm. They were hardly likely to improve so long as another conflict was on the horizon but Waterloo was the last battle fought between French and British armies and by the 1850s bygones had so much become bygones that Queen Victoria felt able to visit the tomb of Napoleon when on the state visit to France. In her diary she wrote about the way this visit was a ‘tribute of respect to a departed and great foe’ and that ‘old enmities and rivalries were wiped out, and the seal of heaven placed upon that bond of amity which is now happily established between two great Nations!’ What better way to help cement this bond of amity than trying to heal the rifts in Canada.
In May 1855 as the Saracen was heading from Hong Kong to Japan La Capricieuse set sail from La Rochelle bound for North America. The ship carried a significant range of paintings and volumes of French literature which, it was hoped, would help cultivate the strong links between French Canadians and France itself. Such a contribution did not mean the French government was about to revive territorial claims in Canada however and her arrival on the St Lawrence underscored the fact that many English speaking Canadians were as pleased to see her as those who spoke French. The first French warship in nearly a century to be welcomed in Canadian waters La Capricieuse was saluted and escorted by two British warships as she made her way to Quebec, where she was given an enthusiastic reception.
Prior to her visit to Canada La Capricieuse had seen service in south-east Asia and China and after her return from Quebec was ordered to return to the Orient. On her way to Siam she called at Simon’s Bay and passed through the Sunda Straight and although we cannot be sure the meeting of Richard and the French captain was more convivial than when, for example, Belcher met Wilkes, they would have had plenty to talk about and reason enough to toast the ending of ‘old enmities and rivalries’. But there was little time for further socialising as, since June, difficulties had arisen in Siam which were threatening good Anglo-Siamese relations. The Saracen was required cross the bar at Paknam and continue north until she reached Bangkok.
Chapter 26 - Gulf of Siam surveys - Return to the Chao Phraya River
Commanders and clippers
La Capricieuse in Quebec, August 1855
Kok Krah (Kra)
These are probably the two ‘high rocks’ to which Richards drew attention