If Ang Duong appreciated the potential benefits of a Royal Navy survey he must also, surely, have been aware that any charts subsequently produced could be used in military action that would not necessarily serve the interests of Cambodia. The reaction of the authorities in several places the Saracen had visited, which was particularly marked in Japan, was not to allow officers to go wherever they chose after landing. This was understandable as, although the initial contacts might be friendly, it was Lord Palmerston’s opinion that although Britain had neither eternal allies nor perpetual enemies it did have eternal and perpetual interests, which the government had a duty to follow. A change in those interests might, of course, eventually lead to an outbreak of hostilities with a country with which there had previously been cordial relations and in that case information gathered by an observant officer could be very valuable. Belcher made it clear what he considered an officer should do after landing, commenting, in his Nautical Treatise;

It should be his endeavour to make himself thoroughly acquainted with as much of the surrounding country as he is permitted to traverse.

But the visitor’s obligation was to observe more than just topographical features, Belcher suggesting that;

From the instant an officer lands until he quits the soil, of friend or foe, his mind should register such observations and before going to rest (on board) should commit them to paper.

‘Such observations’ would cover many things, including, if possible, the inspection of military units where careful note should be taken of;

The discipline, particularly the respect paid to their officers, the tone of command and the bearing of the officers towards their men, are all strong grounds, which enable a close observer to estimate how they will behave in the field.

Of course, any material collected would need to be handled with caution, as Belcher was well aware. Consequently, he suggested;

… all such details as would, if published on the marine plan, give reasonable, or even the shadow of offence, should be combined on a separate sheet, and be forwarded as one of confidential details, a copy of which should be lodged at the Ordnance office …..

It is not clear if any such supplementary documents were ever dispatched to the Ordnance office by Richards but he was well aware of the crucial importance of how, in Belcher’s words;

….the pursuit of surveying may be rendered of infinite importance in the conducting of warlike operations, by fleets, or single ships as well as rendering the monotonous cruises of blockading squadrons of some importance, by adding to the store of hydrographic matter.

As far as the survey of Kampot Bay was concerned there appears to have been no restriction to landing at all made by the Cambodian authorities but, as the Saracen began work in Cambodian waters, news would have arrived of trouble involving Harry Parkes. After leaving Siam, Parkes returned to China where he became acting British consul in Canton. There he came into conflict with Ye Mingchen, the Chinese Governor-General of a port that was something of a flashpoint in the strained Sino-British relationship.

Following the First Opium War four new ports had been opened up to British commercial interests but any hopes of a sudden, or even gradual, increase in Chinese demand for goods manufactured in Britain proved to be in vain. Indeed, although imports to Britain of tea (the passage of which would be made safer by the surveys of the Saracen) continued to increase and those of silk went through the roof, there was less demand for the products of British workshops and factories in 1847 than there had been in 1843. The balance of payment situation looked bleaker and bleaker and had it not been for opium, which continued to be carried from British controlled territory in India to the Chinese coast, then there would have been increasingly dire economic consequences. By 1856, as far as Lord Palmerston, who was now Prime Minister, was concerned, the solution to this problem did not lie in restricting the import of tea and silk, which at least generated substantial duties, but in opening up the vast Chinese interior to British trade. He was not the only leader to think in this way and within a few months, despite the very recent ending of the Crimean War, secret discussions were sanctioned with Russia about joint military action in China in order to expand, by force, trading opportunities. Approaches were made to the United States and France too. In the event of success each of these potential allies would, of course, be looking to have their own share of the spoils.

The question arises as to how far Palmerston had encouraged Parkes to create a situation that would undoubtedly risk conflict. At a private meeting held when Parkes was in London, even if the senior statesman had not given his opinion as to what he thought Parkes might do, it is unlikely an attempt was made to reign in the headstrong attitude of the young consular official. In any event trouble did not take long to brew. In October, the Arrow, a vessel of ill-repute, was boarded by Chinese marines in Canton harbour and twelve men were removed under suspicion of being involved in piracy. When information was passed to Parkes he made his way to the harbour to demand the release of these men as the Arrow was, so he said, registered in Hong Kong and did not, therefore, fall under the jurisdiction of the Chinese authorities. Tempers flared and, evidently, Parkes was assaulted. The acting consul subsequently asserted the marines had also insulted Britain by pulling down the Red Ensign, an action disputed by the Chinese authorities who insisted no flag had been flying at the time of the boarding. When Ye Mingchen became involved he decided to release nine of the men but keep the other three in custody.

This first phase of what was to be called either the Arrow War or the Second Opium War, was triggered by this incident. Although such news as Richards received about unfolding events would have been a few weeks out of date, the speed and violence of the subsequent escalation may have given him cause for concern. However, despite the animosity generated by the events in Canton the Chinese community in Cambodia, which had strong links with that in Singapore and dominated commercial life, probably fully supported the work of the brig because anything which could enhance the security of Kampot Bay shipping lanes would be welcome. Perhaps these traders hoped this enhancement would encourage the development of commerce although those who imported goods from Great Britain must, surely, have been aware that it would take a great deal of effort to stimulate demand. In fact only four British products; plates, needles, thread and bottled beer seemed to have made much of an impact, although a rare British visitor to the country might well have handled coins, the dies of which had been made in Birmingham.

Ten years after the Saracen worked on the coast of Cambodia, a photographer arrived in Kampot from Phnom Penh on his way back to Siam. He was John Thomson, a Scot who had taken the first pictures of Angkor Wat and who now carried the precious glass negatives in well protected wooden boxes. With him was H.G. Kennedy, a student interpreter at the British Consulate in Bangkok. Subsequent to their expedition Kennedy wrote an account of the journey, which was published in The Journal of the Royal Geographic Society in 1867. This provided interesting observations about British imports, of which he thought there were very few. Kennedy saw decorated British earthenware plates on sale in Phnom Penh but the only goods which had made extensive inroads into the markets of the country were needles and thread which, he said, could be found in the remotest corner of the kingdom. Although Kennedy was writing about the mid 1860s it is probable things were much the same 10 years previously. Curiously, Kennedy did not mention bottled beer, consignments of which were imported to Cambodia, so helping justify the boast of the Bass brewery that its products were available in ‘every country in the globe’.

The needles to which Kennedy referred almost certainly came from Reddich, which had a virtual monopoly of British needle production by the middle of the C19th. Manufacture involved a number of processes, most of which were undertaken in factories in the west midlands town, where, as was common in the C19th, working conditions were often harsh and dangerous. As the century wore on, the quality of Reddich needles, the expansion of trade networks and the dominance of the Royal Navy ensured it was possible to supply markets in every continent and where Reddich needles went it is no surprise British thread would follow. Curiously, in 1856 transport between Reddich and Kampot may have been almost totally by water for the railway did not reach the town before 1859. Until then needles were sent off via the Birmingham and Worcester canal and, if destined for the hold of a Singapore bound vessel moored on the Thames, would have possibly been carried along the Regents Canal to the London docks.

By the mid-1850s Reddich was producing millions of needles per year, a fraction of which ended up in Cambodia but needle supply was not the only contact the country had with the English west midlands, which was the hub of British engineering proficiency. One of the processes involved in needle making was stamping. In a Reddich needle factory a foot operated stamping machine, fitted with a metal die, made an impression, under pressure, on an unfinished needle to show where the eye should be. The use of pressure on a die to make needles was one example of how the process could be used. Metal coins had long been made in a similar way, although production usually depended on hammer blows or, in the post-medieval period, a screw press. A far more sophisticated method of coin production, using steam power, was developed in Birmingham by Matthew Boulton in the late C18th and this revolutionised coin production. A handful of loose change fished out of an English county town pocket in 1800 might have included a number of tokens produced privately in order to meet a local shortage of low face value coins of the realm. It was, for example, quite usual for canal navvies to be paid in this kind of unofficial currency, particularly away from London, but adoption of Boulton’s steam press enabled the Royal Mint to greatly increase the number of both copper and bronze coins in circulation.

By 1820 Britain was mass producing low cost, low denomination but high quality coins on a model that many other countries eventually sought to emulate, one of which was Siam where, after the Bowring Treaty began to be implemented, there was a surge in demand for flat, European style coins. King Monguk decided to address this issue by importing a steam powered press that could strike 100,000 coins a day. A few years prior to this Cambodia had also begun to produce flat coins on a British made machine, although this was of an ordinary hand (or animal) powered screw type and the numbers of coins minted was relatively small.   

In the grounds of the Sosoro museum in Phnom Penh there is a coin screw press of indeterminate age. A plaque indicates it was found in 1960 near Udong and that local villagers believed it was the residence of a neak, or spirit. Parts are broken and words on the surface, which might give a clue to where it was manufactured, are illegible. However, it is known that a screw press was imported from Birmingham in the early 1850s and assembled at Oudong, so perhaps the machine on display was one of several bought by King Ang Duong who intended to have his own mechanical mint. The British screw press arrived via Singapore.

Ang Duong was known to be fascinated by the products of European workshops and factories, an interest that was doubtless encouraged by those vying to develop trade with Cambodia. It would appear that a key agency in the link between Singapore and Udong was the firm of Jose d’Almeida and Sons, which  possibly ensured a bias towards recommending British made goods. Jose d’Almeida was a Portuguese naval surgeon who, based in Macau, had fallen foul of the reactionary Viceroy of Portuguese India. He had been arrested and sent to Goa to stand trial but managed to escape to Calcutta, where his skills as a physician and organiser were recognised by Stamford Raffles. The fugitive was invited to go to Singapore to set up a dispensary, which he did, but he also developed his business talents and soon set up a trading firm in his own name. As time went by he stood back from running this business, the responsibility for which he passed to two of his sons.


In 1851 Captain Bonneyman of the Pantaloon and a Mr Helms, who was working for Jose d’Almeida and Sons, undertook the journey from Kampot to Udong and it is possible that during their stay a request for a screw press, to be used to manufacture coins, was made. It would, presumably, have been possible to have ordered a machine from France, particularly as Bishop Miche was a notable French presence in Oudong and one of a number of priests working under him, M. Bouillevaux, was a keen observer of Ang Dong’s court. However, evidenced by the sharp remarks made by Miche about Constantine Monteiro (see chapter 30) I think there may have been some residual tension between the Bishop and the trusted servant of the King, which, we might speculate, militated against ordering a French machine. Monteiro was himself of Portuguese descent and doubtless had maintained a good relationship with d’Almeida and his two sons, which probably helped the company to secure the agency for the purchase. Given the high esteem in which the elder d’Almeida was held in Singapore and which was recognised in both Portugal and Britain, it is not surprising that a sound commercial relationship between Ang Duong and Jose d’Almeida and Sons had developed.

In whatever way the order was made a screw press, with dies to be used in the production of coins of different denominations, was subsequently manufactured in Birmingham and sent off via Singapore and Kampot to Oudong. Maybe there were boxes of Cambodia-bound needles, made in Reddich, and bottles of Bass beer, brewed in Burton on Trent, in the same consignment. The combined weight of the screw press machine parts must have made the transfer from the cargo ship that had brought them to Kampot Bay to the point where they could be loaded onto a cart for onward transport rather tricky.

The image to the right looks as though it might have been made by a Victorian photographer using the wet collodion process but it was taken using a roll of black and white film about 25 years ago. In a digital age that process also seems well out of date, but I think the picture itself helps to explain the difficulties of importing through Kampot in the 1850s. Large vessels could not sail up to dock at Kampot because of shallow water and a bar. Consequently, they had to anchor offshore, sometimes a couple of miles out. The Teuk Chhou river emptied into the bay via two channels and the one to the west divided again around an island (a little to the right of centre on the photograph) close to which was an outcrop called, locally, the ‘Paps’. Cargo had to be transhipped from the importing vessel into smaller boats, taken over a bar and carried another two miles inland to the port itself along the mangrove scrub fringed river. The Kampot of that time was on the left bank of the river, the site of which is hidden from view in the photograph (see sketch map). From Kampot the consignment would be taken, again by boat, to Bumbi, a large village really, where the road to Oudong began. Then the tortuous journey for goods, such as the screw press, destined to the distant banks of the River Mekong, on which Oudong and Phnom Penh both stood, would start.

After all this effort it is unfortunate that the screw press project proved something of a disappointment. Ang Dong made this clear to the next notable British visitor to his court, who started his journey in Singapore in April 1854. This visit had, as might be expected, a connection with Jose d’Almeida and Sons for the brother of the visitor, a Captain Whistler who was identified in a report published in the ‘Journal of the Indian Archipelago and Eastern Asia’ simply as A Madras Officer, was an agent for the company. The sea journey from Singapore to Kampot, in a barque called the Polka, took 9 days and it took longer than that to then reach Oudong by road. However, on arrival the officer and his brother were made welcome by Ang Duong and during their stay were shown the press.

The coin press had, complained the King, arrived with neither a plan nor diagram to help installation and it had therefore remained in pieces for nearly a year. Even French priests, in whom Ang Duong must have had some faith to solve problems in European technology, were unable to put it together and it was only when a Siamese resident of Bangkok, who had a little knowledge of European engineering, figured out how the machine should be assembled that it was put into working order. The press had been designed to be powered by buffalo but it was decided to operate it purely by hand in order to better regulate minting. Despite this, the machine proved unsatisfactory as it could not be made to produce as many coins in a day as had been promised and blanks had to be made by hand, which was a tedious process. The officer and his brother then took a look at the press and determined that it was short of auxiliary equipment, including a rolling and flattening mill and a punching machine to cut out the blanks. Nor was there a hopper or feeder for the blanks themselves. A final annoyance was that the dies which had been supplied were not of good quality and one was cracked and therefore useless.

It is surprising, after this litany of complaints, that Ang Duong appeared to still have confidence in the manufacturer, Ingram of Birmingham, for he said he would order more dies via the trading company. The story of the screw press was not a ringing endorsement of Birmingham’s engineering prowess but it may well have been that the auxiliary apparatus and a plan or diagram had been mislaid en-route. After all even a present from Queen Victoria to King Mongkut had ended up submerged in Singapore harbour.  However, there could, surely, have been no excuse for sending sub-standard dies.

The screw press was not the only British product about which And Duong complained for, although he was pleased by other instruments the visitors had brought, such as an electro-magnetic device which could be used to treat rheumatism, he was not impressed with a telescope that he had ordered from an instrument maker in London. Although it was perfectly serviceable the King was not pleased with it and wanted to send it back to Singapore. He changed his mind when it was pointed out that if he did this the trading company would be very displeased as they would have to bear the cost of the instrument and might well refuse to deal with him again considering he had played ‘a shabby trick’. Clearly, Ang Duong did not want that to happen and in what seems to have been a gesture of appreciation for good service decided to send the company a present of rice and sugar.

During their stay in Oudong, Captain Whistler and his brother appear to have benefited in at least one way from the curiosity of their royal host about Britain and its products for when a special meal was prepared for the visitors bottles of Bass were supplied from the royal cellar. They had travelled well and, although they would certainly not have been chilled, the officer said the beer was first rate. Sometimes only beer will do!

Back to Introduction        Back to Home

When London Became An Island

Soochong, Shoguns and the Saracen’s surveys

Chapter 31 - The edge of a global market

Commanders and clippers

Reflection in the millpond of the National Needle Museum, Reddich

Kampot Bay

Coin screw press, Sosoro Museum, Phnom Penh

Sketch map