When London Became An Island

Soochong, Shoguns and the Saracen’s surveys

Compared to the 99 strokes of the rattan given to the unfortunate Siamese official involved in the ‘Puddicombe crisis’, a flogging ordered by Richards whilst the Saracen was anchored not far from the royal palace might seem almost trivial. Nonetheless, it would still have been regarded as barbaric by many naval reformers and would not have been allowed on any American ship in the area, as Congress had outlawed the practice, in both the United States Navy and the merchant marine, in 1850. The events leading up to the punishment ordered by Richards, which many sailors would not have regarded as severe even if unjustified, were unusual.

The survey of the west coast of the Gulf of Siam had been done under considerable pressure and in weather conditions that were not ideal. It must have been a particularly taxing time for those who found the hot and humid climate trying and whose discomfort would have been compounded by the airless and cramped conditions on board the Saracen. It is no surprise that some found relief in excessive consumption alcohol or that Richards had to deal with several cases of drunkenness whilst the ship remained in Bangkok. Palmer, who had been sent to prison in Singapore for desertion was incarcerated again, this time for drunkenness and insubordination, and the carpenter’s mate, named May, was also punished for drunkenness and disorderly conduct. What was out of the ordinary, however, was a charge of drunkenness made by an able seaman named Eagan against Mr Reed, the 2nd Master.

As an officer Reed would have no reason to anticipate the cry of ‘Up Spirits’ which usually proceeded a daily distribution of the rum ration nor have joined in with a chorus of ‘Stand fast the Holy Ghost’ that was a common response. The abolition of this distribution had already been raised in Parliament, but it was popular with most sailors and the discovery of a leak in a rum barrel, as had happened on the Saracen, would have certainly caused some concern. Richards, like many other Royal Navy captains, probably felt the positive side of the rum tradition outweighed the negative for it was an opportunity to ensure the crew were given sufficient quantities of either lemon or lime juice, which was added to the liquor. This helped to avoid scurvy. It is impossible to know whether Reed diluted his own liquor with anything or indeed if he had been drinking alcohol at all, but the charge by Eagan may have put Richards in a difficult position.

Since leaving Plymouth Richards had handled disciplinary matters in a way that, despite the use of the cat, would probably have been regarded as fair and humane in the context of the Royal Navy in 1850s. He had shown an expected firmness when dealing with a thief in Hong Kong in January 1855 and had ordered the culprit, John Leech, to be punished with 36 lashes before being discharged to shore. This drew a firm line under the incident. It is doubtful if a moderate punishment for intoxication, such as the loss of a good conduct badge, caused much resentment amongst sailors who were found guilty, but there would have been, naturally, an expectation that if an officer was proven to have been drunk when on duty he too would at least be reprimanded. For Eagan the stakes were also high, for should he be regarded as having brought a malicious charge, then he would be the one to be disciplined.

Drunkeness can manifest itself in a number of ways. Being disorderly is one that most readily comes to mind, but lapsing into a stupor rendering an individual incapable of performing their duties is another and, for an officer with responsibilities on one of Her Majesty’s ships this was a serious matter. It seems fairly unlikely that Eagan would have accused the 2nd Master of being drunk without good reason, but the effects of drink wear off and once they have, unless there is a witness who will step forward in support and defence, only equally weighted opinion, rather than evidence, remains.

It was this lack of proof which, in the log book, was given as the reason why the case against Reed was dismissed. Eagan must have been aware he himself would now be punished for the charge, which he must have always known he could not prove. Perhaps, even after considering this, he made the allegation against Reed as he thought it was in the best interests of the future safety of the ship. Whatever his motivation he was sentenced to four lashes.

We can imagine Richards may have struggled in balancing the conflicting needs of his command when reaching his decision. He had to show support to a loyal and hardworking officer with whom he appears to have had a good working relationship and who was listed as an assistant in the preparation of more than one chart produced by the Saracen. Yet he did not want to appear unnecessarily harsh on a sailor who had probably served on the ship as long and as efficiently as Reed and who would have been fully aware of the punishment he would face if he were not believed.

It seems that immediately after the punishment was carried out some of the crew were allowed 48 hours shore leave. Whether Eagan was amongst the group is unclear but it was probably a wise move to allow some steam out of the pressure cooker, which at some stage the Saracen must have seemed to be. Despite the issue of excessive drinking on board it is doubtfull if many of the disembarking sailors immediately made their way to a temperance hall. Indeed, it is unclear if Bangkok had any at that time.

In the period immediately after Hillier died the Saracen remained in Bangkok and continued to observe the necessary protocols, the ship being dressed and the sailors manning the yards as, on October 23rd, King Mongkut passed by. But the day after the ship’s company went on shore for a final church service Siamese onlookers would have seen the little British vessel set off down the Chao Phraya River. They may have thought she would be immediately heading for open waters because, having surveyed the western part of the Gulf, the ship had to continue east, along the coasts of Siam and Cambodia. As the rainy season was ending cooler more pleasant working conditions were anticipated, but Richards had concerns about the seaworthiness of the Saracen and decided to make as thorough an inspection of the hull as possible before returning to sea. In view of this he wanted to seek out a suitable place to make an inspection and, having found one, ordered the Saracen to be hauled out of the water so checks could be made. Consequently, Eliza Hillier and her children, had they taken a last look at Siam from the King’s steamer as they were taken to the Auckland, would have seen the brig-sloop secured on a sandbank. Like the little family, the Saracen at that point must have seemed rather vulnerable.

All wooden sailing ships, no matter how well made or maintained eventually had to be rebuilt or scrapped. Frames would rot whilst planking would develop soft spots and when repairs were undertaken away from a naval dockyard with proper facilities, it was inevitable that unsuitable mixing of woods might take place. If, for example, trenails, wooden pegs used to hold ship’s timbers together, were of a different type of wood to those to be fastened then both pegs and timbers could soon rot. In Bangkok, however, Richards was able to purchase some material which he was probably pleased with. A plank of teak, 28 feet long, was brought on board along with 2 rods of iron weighing about one and a half pounds each.

It is unclear what the exact problem was which Richards sought to remedy. However, given that the copper sheathing, which comprised of rows of copper plates that were usually about 4 inches wide and 15 inches long, was the main defence against the wood-boring teredo worm and other threats to the hull, the inspection would have been carried out with great care. Unfortunately, the Saracen soon settled in the sand and this prevented a full inspection of the bilge and keel, but it appears that enough was revealed for satisfactory repairs to the bottom to be made. Once inspected the copper sheathing was recorded to have been ‘perfectly clean’ so the problem must have been with the wood of the hull. In that case the teak would have proved invaluable. The repairs were clearly time consuming and the carpenter and his mate had to sweat for nearly two weeks before the Saracen was sound enough to be refloated and ready to go to work. The waiting period was put to good use in stocking up on fresh foodstuffs though. A junk brought provisions to the sandbank and once stowed on board the Saracen made her way to the Gulf and a course was set for Samit.   

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Chapter 28 - Return to the Gulf

Commanders and clippers