As La Marceau weighed anchor and departed from Kampot, the Saracen was setting out on another long period of survey work. During the north-east monsoon ships making their way from the Siamese capital to Singapore would usually first sail along the eastern coast of the Gulf to the South China Sea. As it was anticipated the Bowring Treaty would increase trade along this route, so the surveys of the brig would help make the passage less hazardous and also improve access to the coastal towns of Chantabun and Kampot. There must have been a particular hope that publication of an accurate, large scale chart of the approaches to Kampot, would assist a continued increase in commerce with Cambodia. This was important to Western traders for Kampot was the only port between Bangkok and Macau, in which they could operate freely.

After so many weeks in Bangkok it must have been something of a relief for Richards to return to the duties for which he had been trained. His first task was to survey the coast between Cape Liant (also called Lem Sa-hem-san) and the island of Koh Kut. This would be welcome to navigators as the 1855 Admiralty chart was particularly inaccurate in this area. In fact, there was virtually no accurate information, based on a scientific survey, for some 500 miles of the whole eastern coast of the Gulf. One notable attempt to remedy the situation had been made by Captain G.D. Bonnyman of the Pantaloon, a merchant vessel trading between Kampot and Singapore. He sailed from Kampot to Chantabun in 1850, making notes about the chain of islands which lay off the coast, looking for commercial possibilities, taking soundings and trying to fix positions where he could. He found difficulties in this. At the small Siamese port of Chantabun, for example, it was made clear trade was only possible with Bangkok and, when working out the longitude of a fort at the mouth of the Chantabun river, he found a sudden change in temperature had affected his chronometers and consequently felt he could not depend on them when making his calculations. Valuable although Bonnyman’s hydrographical contributions were and although they were acknowledged on the 1855 Admiralty chart, a survey at the highest possible level was called for and this could only really be made by a dedicated vessel like the Saracen.


Once started, Richards certainly maintained a high work rate and seems, as usual, to have followed the general procedures set out in Belcher’s Nautical Treatise. Belcher was well acquainted with coastal and river surveys in maritime South-East Asia and, in one of the examples of surveying practice, mentions coastal mangroves, something the surveying parties of Saracen were certainly aware of. Although a brig usually had four boats available to deploy on triangulation work, Belcher advised one should always be kept close to the ship, or at least within hailing distance, in case of a man overboard. He was also conscious of the need for a captain to take great care in providing written orders so there would be no time wasted on a survey caused by lack of clarity. In his view it would be better to frame distinct orders on which no comment is to be made and which it is well known must be completed or others more competent will be employed but also suggested that the wording of such orders must be suited to the comprehension of the party selected. However, he recognised that the team spirit which could be created between the captain and his subordinates meant little superfluous direction might be needed for;

…there is a secret telegraph of the eye, which tells more than the tongue can express. In fact an officer of ability may clearly read, he needs no order, a nod is quite sufficient answer and the manoeuvre is frequently completed before the others have thought of it. (Belcher’s emphasis is underlined)

After working together for such a long period and on so many surveys it seems reasonable to suppose Richards and his officers, particularly Inskip and Reed, had developed a good professional relationship and this was reflected in a high level of efficiency amongst the crew. 6 am until 6 pm with an hour for lunch were probably the usual hours of the surveying day, so three of the four boats would be pulling away to their initial positions at first light. Each would be loaded with food and water for the day and, if possible, half a gallon of lime juice. There would also be surveying equipment, including a set of boat flags, arms fitted into a chest and two anchors. There might also be a sail. Belcher thought it was often sufficient that two hours rowing in the morning and two in the afternoon would be enough to accomplish a day’s work but also suggested that, where possible, each boat should make use of canvas in order to reduce the demands on sailors at the oars. If all were properly organised then;

It is almost incredible what can be achieved in one day where the work is fairly conducted and with what satisfaction each individual, even the seamen themselves, talk over their manoeuvres.

The work of the Saracen formed the basis, over the following three years, of a revision of the Admiralty charts of the Gulf but publication was not held up until all the surveys had been done. Instead, in July 1857 a revised edition of the 1855 chart was issued. This showed some changes based on Richards’ work but it was not until the following year that a complete revision was made available and on which a major error concerning the mouth of the Chantabun river was rectified. On the 1855 and 1857 charts the mouth was shown as being almost 103 degrees east of Greenwich, but on the 1858 chart it was shown as being close to 102 degrees, which, in physical distance, approximated to about 50 miles. Clearly, the chronometers on the Saracen had functioned better than the ones Captain Bonnyman had used. Larger scale charts were issued later, the one for the area between Cape Liant and the Koh Kut being published in 1860. This chart included an insert showing the results of a survey of the Chantabun river, although not all the way up to the town of Chantabun itself. It also showed three important comments made by Richards as to where boundaries between the territories claimed by the Siamese, Cambodian and Annamese (or Cochin-Chinese as Richards referred to them) might lay.

On the 1860 edition of the Cape Liant to Koh Kut chart the hinterland is shown as Camboja yet the area was certainly regarded by the Siamese government as being part of Siam. However, those parts of the Siam that had been acquired from Cambodia in the late C18th (and which included the Angkor complex) were known as Siamese Cambodia and the population remained overwhelmingly Khmer, which was, and is, the predominant ethnic group in Cambodia itself. It would have been difficult for Richards to have ascertained where the border actually was because it was not until some years later that map makers began to engage in inland survey work using scientific methods. Subsequently, maps defining borders, so important in colonial expansion, were produced but before that, generally speaking, a border might be a hazy concept linked to the ethnicity of those who lived in villages, or a bank of a river or a range of hills. King Mongkut might well have accepted Cambodja as referring to Siamese Cambodia, but nonetheless, according to the first of Richards’ notes, the monarch claimed dominion as far as the Kampong–som estuary, which was a long way from Koh Kut. Richards gave no opinion as to whether this claim was valid or not but his second note stated that Cambodja includes the coast between Kam-pong-son and Cancao, a town which was further south-east than Kampot. The third note indicated The Cochin Chinese are in possession of Koh Tron, Cancao and the entire coast to the southward.(underlined words show Richards emphasis).

After completing the surveys around Koh Kut the Saracen moved into inadequately charted Cambodian waters. At the time the geography of Cambodia itself was very much an unknown quantity as was admitted by the ‘Journal of the Indian Archipelago and Eastern Asia’, an important English language publication based in Singapore. The magazine, founded by James Logan, a Scottish lawyer, was dedicated to expanding knowledge about countries which bordered the Gulf and Indonesia and the Philippines too. In 1851 the journal published a sketch map of Cambodia on the basis of information provided by Constantine Monteiro. A few months later the editor received a letter from Jean-Claude Miche, an influential French bishop active in Cambodia, who asserted that Monteiro had the defect of speaking with equal assurance on subjects about which he is and is not acquainted and who then went on to list many of the errors in the map. The journal responded by saying that the map had not been put forward as being perfect but ..rather to show how  small was the authentic information we possessed concerning one of the most fertile countries of East Asia.. It also slightly rebuked the bishop by implying he should have read the notes accompanying the map, which made this clear.

It is doubtful if any better map of Cambodia could have been procured in Bangkok when the Saracen arrived there in 1856. At that time probably one of the most prominent, English-speaking, sources of information about the country, at least from a political perspective, was the Reverend Stephen Mattoon. He had arrived in Siam in 1847. It is unclear if Richards ever met Mattoon, but it is most likely, particularly as Mattoon was highly regarded in King Mongkut’s court. Although primarily a missionary, Mattoon acted in a diplomatic capacity too. He was a gifted linguist, fascinated by the Siamese language to such an extent that he determined to learn it in order to translate the New Testament into the vernacular. He was successful, although, as might be anticipated, such a project was very time consuming and he eventually deferred his return to the United States until the work was complete. It is probable that Mattoon’s translation skills were one reason why he was invited to help both the American and British governments in drawing up trade agreements with the Siamese government and hardly surprising he was subsequently offered, and accepted, the post of first United States Consul in Bangkok. Mattoon had not travelled to Cambodia, but had both a good grasp of regional history and indirect links with Ang Duong. He knew of the problems Siam’s neighbour faced and would have been very supportive of Richard’s work in the eastern Gulf.

In 1850 Ang Duong had sent his two young sons, Norodom and Sisowath, to receive an education in Bangkok under what may be seen as the guardianship of  Mongkut. This arrangement underscored the view that, in the relationship between the two monarchs, Rama V1 was clearly the dominant partner. As the Cambodian royal regalia was also kept in Bangkok and a new monarch could not have a coronation without it, it is clear the Siamese would have considerable leverage over the question of any future succession to the throne at Oudong. Mattoon almost certainly had some input into the education of at least one of And Dong’s sons and this must have had the approval of his father for, when tribute bearers from Oudong came to Bangkok, they called on the missionary on more than one occasion and invited him to visit Cambodia.

Mattoon was well aware of the gradual collapse of the Khmer empire and of the way in which the annexation of land on the Mekong Delta had closed off the river route between central Cambodia and the South China Sea. It was well known that, for many centuries, forest products had been exported to China and Japan, indeed, one of the carvings on the freeze of the Bayon temple, shows a Chinese junk steering a course through the abundant fish of the Tonle Sap. When Europeans began to explore South-East Asia, they too began to trade directly with Cambodia and riverside ‘factories’, really trading stations, were established. The Portuguese were the first on the scene but this involvement faded as their power in the area was eclipsed. In the late C17th the East India Company tried to create an inland base too, but the initiative soon failed and commerce returned to the hands of Chinese traders. After the river route was closed few Europeans ventured inland.  

The possibility of a revival of direct trade with Cambodia did not occur until the middle of the C19th. Then, under the guidance of Ang Duong, whom Mattoon clearly admired, the loss of access to the sea along the lower Mekong was, to some extent, overcome. Despite goods being carried to and from the small port of Kampot over indifferent roads on either elephants or in very basic conveyances, there had been something of a commercial boom as more ships from Singapore began to arrive after the king’s accession. In 1852, for example, six vessels dropped anchor in three months. From the British perspective, given the status of Singapore as regional trading hub, the opportunities Kampot offered must have seemed worth following up. No doubt the prospect of the Saracen surveying Kampot Bay would have been welcomed by the enlightened Cambodian monarch himself as anything that strengthened the economy would be beneficial to his realm and people.

Chapter 31 - The edge of a global market

Back to Introduction

When London Became An Island

Soochong, Shoguns and the Saracen’s surveys

Chapter 30 -  Coastal Claims

Commanders and clippers

Cape Liant to Koh Kut as shown on the 1855 Admiralty chart.