Almost three years after Captain Whistler’s visit, the Saracen crossed the mouth of the Kampong Som river, the acknowledged boundary of Cambodia and Siam, and entered Cambodian waters. Surveying soon began around the nearby offshore islands, including Koh Rong Samloem and Koh Rong (shown as Rong Sam Lem and Koh Kong on the 1855 Admiralty chart). From one point of view November and December could hardly have been a better time to visit, for the typical azure skies, warm and tranquil waters, light breezes and balmy temperatures offered quite a contrast to what many would have remembered as being the usual weather in Britain in those months. For example, in London, the 16 year old Edward Whymper, who was later to become a famous mountaineer and make the first ascent of the Matterhorn, wrote in his diary in early December that it had been;
Raining, snowing and hailing, thawing, freezing, such are the gradations of temperature today. The last named is the present state, which makes the road and pavement like glass.
Things did not improve much in the rest of the month, strong winds causing the young diarist to write;
I expect to hear of numerous wrecks on the south coast.
As for Christmas Day it was;
Very foggy. Freezing. A thoroughly English day.
Of course, many of the crew might have missed the sociability of the Christmas period, which was some compensation to Whymper, who;
…. went to a party at my uncle's, played at Bagatelle, dancing and singing and so passed the evening and part of the morning for I did not get to bed till 2 o'clock.
And on Christmas Eve observed;
The bells of Lambeth Church have just been ringing their merry peal, and now all London is retiring to rest after a day's work of preparation for a day's work of piggery.
Despite spending the festive season in what must have seemed a tropical paradise, if any individual on the Saracen felt pangs of homesickness there was little to do in mitigation except immerse themselves in their work and take advantage of expeditions onshore to collect firewood and search for places where the ship’s water tanks could be replenished. These forays certainly had their compensations for, although the islands were evidently uninhabited, there were plenty of deer and wild pigs about. A few well aimed shots doubtless ensured the galley was able to serve fresh venison or pork, which would be a break from seine caught fish and, as an added bonus, the gunfire would have frightened away any roaming tigers. I think Richards may have regarded the arrival of his command at the islands just at this time as very fortuitous and, consequently, decided the large, sheltered bay on the eastern side of Koh Rong Samloem would be designated Saracen Bay, a name it still retains. However, before the Saracen moved on towards Kampot there was a reminder that the idyll might not be completely perfect because at one stage the ship went aground. During the incident a rope was chaffed on rocks and had to be spliced, but there appears to have been no damage to the hull. The event must, however, have once again drawn attention to the many barely submerged hazards on this part of the coast.
The seine was cast near the islands for the final time on New Year’s Eve and then, on the first day of 1857 the Saracen set sail towards the mouth of the Teuk Chhou river. It was from this point that Richards made surveys which would eventually lead to the production of a chart which would render invaluable assistance to navigators heading for Cambodia’s only port. The fact that a new chart was needed was shown not only by the incomplete and inaccurate Admiralty publication of 1855 but by another guide to the local coast which had been created by Captain Bonneyman of the Pantaloon and published by the Singapore Free Press.
The first thing which Richards needed to do once anchored off Kampot was to arrange to visit the town itself and introduce himself to the local governor. He may also have been aware a request might be made for a reciprocal visit and with a view to this ordered the Saracen be ‘thoroughly cleaned throughout’. On Monday, January 5th, the commander and his officers set out for Kampot in the pinnace and gig with the intention of making an overnight stay. Although the tide in the Gulf is notoriously erratic the party would have tried to ensure their boats could cross the bar quite easily so officers would avoid having to follow Captain Whistler’s lead. It would have been rather undignified if Richards and the rest of the group had had to take off their shoes and stockings, roll up their trousers and splash through the shallow water dragging their boats with them. Kampot was invisible from the bar, but after entering the Teuk Chhou and travelling some distance between mangrove shrouded river banks, the little convoy arrived at the port, which, although predominantly on the west bank had spilled over to the east.
Kampot was the place to which imports and exports were brought prior to transfer inland or to ships waiting in the roads. It is not clear where Richards and his officers stayed overnight but perhaps they were accommodated in one of the two buildings constructed on the east bank of the river. These had been built on the orders of Ang Doung because Whistler’s brother, the local agent for Jose d’Almeida and Sons, had complained to his employer he had no-where to store the goods in his charge. The buildings stood at right angles to the river and faced each other, providing godown storage on the ground floor and well lit apartments above. The walls were made of lath and plaster but the roof, which was supported by strong wooden posts and cross beams, was covered with tiles imported from Singapore. According to Whistler these were the finest houses in Cambodia, even Ang Duong’s residence in Oudong not being as good. Given their position, the view from the verandas which served the accommodation must have been spectacular for, to the west, the southern edge of the hill range known, to Europeans anyway, as the Elephant Range, rose steeply from the Teuk Chhou valley. The highest points, visible from Kampot, are often shrouded in mist and cloud, which would have made them even more impressive.
As Whistler’s brother dealt with those products for export that were directly owned by the King (who had received them as tribute) then the godowns would have been used to store all kinds of agricultural produce including, cardamom, pepper and rice, which would be sold on in Singapore. Individual traders also operated out of Kampot and high value consignments included raw silk, some of which may have found its way to Spitalfields in London, where the silk weaving industry, although shrinking, still operated. In 1857 Siamese silk, in quantities large enough to have a separate entry in the official record, was imported on British ships, presumably through Singapore. There must be a strong possibility that Cambodian silk, although in smaller quantities, was shipped to London on a consolidated basis.
Other profitable exports were forest products collected and traded by hill people. Sticklac, the excretions of an insect which were collected from the twigs of trees and used to make shellac was one example, and gambodge another. Gambodge is an organic pigment made from the resin of the Garcinia tree. Curiously, the latin name for pigment is gambogium so it appears Cambodia may have taken its name from the association with the colour. It is also possible that Cambodia was exporting edible bird’s nest directly to China as a main ingredient for bird’s nest soup. The nest’s themselves were wholly created from the dried saliva of the whitenest swiftlet and usually collected from caves that were difficult to access. There was certainly a ready market in China where they would be boiled up with rock sugar to make a soup that had, so many believed, health enhancing properties not to mention being an aphrodisiac.
Fascinating though the list of exports may have been, Richards would have been more interested in the quality and price of foodstuff for his crew. He would not have been disappointed. Cambodia offered an abundance of fruit and vegetables. They would have been cheap too, Whistler having reported that one hundred mangos could be had for a single Spanish dollar. Richards would also have wanted to find a regular source of fresh meat, preferably beef, and there seems to have been less of a problem negotiating a supply of bullocks than there had been in Bangkok. In whatever way Richards paid for his purchases it would have been understandable had he been reluctant to accept small change. The commonest coin in Cambodia at this time was the petis, a brittle alloy of zinc and tin minted in Cochin-China. The coin had Chinese characters on one side and hole in the middle through which a string could be threaded. A bundle of change weighed very heavily because the individual value was extremely low, around 4000 to a single Spanish dollar. We might wonder if Richards ever saw any of the coins minted on the Birmingham made coin press but it is possible, as the Polka was seen off Kampot during the time the Saracen was working there, the trading ship was bringing dies to replace those which were broken.
Although the ship’s log does not record which officials Richard’s met in Kampot, he would probably have had a friendly reception from the governor, hopeful the arrival of the Saracen might be a precursor to naval support against the pirates lurking around the islands east of Koh Tron. Indeed, these islands were actually called the Pirate Islands.
Beyond useful local information, Richards would also have been keen to find out about events from any sources in the port that had up to date and reliable information from Hong Kong. It is not clear exactly what he knew about the Arrow incident, which had taken place in early October, and the subsequent escalation of hostilities before he left Bangkok later that month but his visit to Kampot may have offered him the opportunity to learn what had happened more recently. Given fair winds Kampot was only 6 days sailing from Hong Kong and no doubt the crew of any vessel which arrived had plenty to tell about what they had seen or heard before they left the Chinese coast. Coincidentally, on December 29th, Edward Whymper wrote that news had arrived that Canton had been bombarded. He then went on to report why, taking his information from the London press. Part of his diary entry reads;
The cause of it was as follows. The feeling of the English and Chinese had been for a long time in a state of mutual irritation, which kept on increasing; but at last the governor of Canton took it into his head without the slightest pretext to seize a vessel which had been under the protection of the English flag, but was not actually under at that time. The commander of the ships of war stationed there (Sir M. Seymour) seized the opportunity to demand the admission of an English ambassador there, which was refused. He then seized a junk by way of reprisals and repeated his demand. Refused. Then he battered an old wall down, then took all the forts round about, which defended the city, and finally battered the governor's quarters, which had no effect at all.
The actual causes and events were a little less clear cut than this. Imperial Commissioner Yeh had good reason to seize the Arrow because of a strong suspicion that the lorcha had been involved in piracy. Moreover, the protection of the ‘English flag’ had indeed lapsed because the vessel’s registration had not been renewed in Hong Kong. Although Parkes and Bowring had only found out about the expiry after the arrest of the crew, the information was kept from Sir Michael Seymour, the vice-admiral who had recently taken over command of the East India and China Station. Consequently, as Seymour understood the registration of the Arrow to be valid he thought the crew was entitled to Royal Navy protection and that an apology should be made for the insult to the British ensign. He subsequently ordered his forces to take punitive action at a level he regarded as being moderate. Bowring hoped the strong hand, essentially based on his own sleight of hand, would compel Yeh to submit and so now, in full agreement with Parkes, a meeting, between the Imperial Commissioner and Admiral Seymour, was included in the demands of atonement for the perceived insults. A reception in Canton, which is essentially what this meeting would bring, would almost certainly be a precursor to a revision of the 1842 treaties that would formalise the right of entry of British officials into the city. It is hardly surprising that Yeh, well aware of British ambition and with Cantonese public opinion behind him, would not accept this demand so the attack on the city itself continued, went beyond the ‘old wall’ and the forts and caused substantial civilian casualties and loss of property. The Cantonese were enraged and when, at 1 p.m. on October 27th, the Encounter began to fire its pivot gun at their city at about ten minute intervals and the Barracouta gave support in shelling military targets beyond the city itself. The bombardments lasted until sunset. The following day placards, authorised by Yeh, appeared offering a reward of $30 for every English head taken.
It took a long time for reports about the events in Canton to reach England. Even the fastest route, using steamship to the Arabian gulf, then land transport to the Mediterranean and steamship again to Trieste, from where dispatches could be telegraphed to London, took around two months at least. The return of orders from London would be just as time consuming so the freedom of Parkes and Bowring to act on their own initiative was considerable and this could then present the British government with the ‘back me or sack me’ conundrum, which could be difficult to resolve. Surprisingly, a message from Canton to Beijing also took, at best, about two weeks each way, so Yeh could not have been easily overruled, even if the authorities in Beijing had wanted to.
By the end of his short stay in Kampot Richards probably knew more about the current situation in China than anyone in London could possibly have done. Moreover, the officers and members of the Saracen’s crew must have known many of their counterparts on the China Station and have been keen to find out what was happening to them. Richards, for example, had named an island off the coast of Japan in honour of the captain of the Winchester, which was now part of Seymour’s force and the drunken and demoted William Purvis and been transferred to that ship nearly two years previously (see chapter 12) There would certainly have been professional interest in the deployment of British naval strength for, along with the Saracen, the Winchester, Sybille, Hornet, Barracouta Encounter and Nankin had been involved in both the expedition against Putiatin and the ‘exhibition of force’ in Nagasaki. Now the warships were part of a similar exhibition in Chinese waters and this time they had seen real action.
Whatever was happening in China, the Saracen had its own work to do in the Gulf. After the prolonged period of living in the cramped quarters the officers would doubtless have enjoyed spending a few days relaxing in Kampot before they began their next period of surveys. At least one would, surely, have read Whistler’s account of his visit and could have explained to his colleagues that the Madras Officer had spent nearly two weeks in the town and been able to shoot several brace of widgeon and teal. But there was no time to do that. The day after arrival the pinnace and gig returned to the Saracen taking a bullock and stock of fresh vegetables with them.
In the following few days work was done on maintaining the Saracen in the usual way including ‘picking oakum’, a task so unpopular it was often demanded from inmates in British workhouses and prisons. On sailing ships old ropes had to be cut into lengths and then pulled to pieces to make the oakum, which was used as a seal between the deck planks. Meanwhile, the ship’s boats had also to be prepared for the coming weeks. Sir Edward Belcher had pointed out the value of using sails wherever possible on survey work so it was no surprise a set were prepared for the pinnace. The sailmaker, no doubt, used Reddich-made needles as he worked on his task. More vegetables arrived from Kampot as did three more bullocks meaning there would be no shortage of fresh beef to feed those returning from a hard days work or picking oakum or caulking or, once again, taking part in the interminable ‘cleaning the ship throughout’. Fresh water supplies were important and as Richards found a good supply on an island, which he called Water Island, to the north west of Koh Tron it appears he may have decided to anchor the Saracen here in a sheltered bay. He was to recommend that all vessels intending to remain any length of time at Kampot do the same but it is doubtful if the anchorage ever appeared overcrowded. Two merchant vessels, a schooner and a barque, arrived on the same day just after Richard’s visit to Kampot, but this was unusual.
In November, December and January, so Richards noted, the sky over the eastern shore of the Gulf could be unclouded for a week at a time but with a strong cooling breeze working conditions for the crew of the Saracen would not have been unpleasant. There would have been no signs at all of a gathering storm and yet storms of a different kind were about to break in both London and Hong Kong and in India too. 1857 was to be a year of unexpected drama in both Britain and her imperial acquisitions.
When London Became An Island
Soochong, Shoguns and the Saracen’s surveys
Chapter 32 - Kampot interlude
Commanders and clippers
The Kampong Som river
Captain Bonneyman’s chart
The ‘English’ flag of HMS Saracen painted whilst the ship was in Nagasaki harbour in 1855.