The dangers posed by barely submerged rocks and reefs made it necessary to create an accurate chart, supplemented by sailing directions, that would assist navigators reaching and leaving the main Kampot anchorage. This was the task which the Saracen undertook in January and February 1857. Despite the season being pleasant and relatively cool in this part of the Gulf, the schedule was gruelling and, for Richards in particular, would have meant very long days. Sometimes, three of the four ship’s boats were deployed on survey work at the same time, but the collation of the information generated would ultimately be the responsibility of Richards, which in itself would have been very taxing. As Belcher pointed out in his Treatise, any officer leading a survey party in the tropics might work up to fifteen hours at a stretch in the hot sun and for Richards, if he was not himself engaged in surveys that necessitated being away from his command for some days, more hours of work would have followed in his lantern-lit, cramped cabin. Belcher reflected on the effect this kind of pressure might have and did not seem certain there would be any compensation. He wrote;
The surveyor, who risks his constitution – and where is the man who has not suffered? – might then hope for a retirement, which in the event of sickness might support him.
But I doubt if Richards thought much about retirement at this point in his career. He appears to have been full of drive and energy and must have been aware that, although his ship was lost from view, many were awaiting its reappearance. Indeed, on January 30th the Portsmouth Times and Naval Gazette would carry an item, previously published by the Straits Times, indicating the Saracen might be expected in Singapore early in March by which time Commander Richards hopes to complete the survey of the Gulf of Siam.
As of early January, there was much work to be done before the brig could set sail to meet that deadline.
The coast of Koh Tron, the largest island off Kampot, had to be given as much attention as the mainland coast because ships travelling to and from the anchorage had to pass to either the east or west. Richards would be expected to give a recommendation as to which passage was best, although neither was without hazard. The island itself had a number of hills, the heights of which needed to be calculated, whilst observations around the coast would show where there were any notable features and supplies of fresh water or villages.
The first any of the inhabitants of the island may have known of the intentions of the Saracen would have been when they heard gunfire on Friday January 9th. Many may have been anxious that the detonations were signs of a forthcoming attack, but, if the commander tried to put such concerns to rest with assurances the explosions were just the result of blank charges used to facilitate making a base for a survey, he would have been rebuffed. Koh Tron was clearly not under the control of Ang Duong. Richards called the main settlement on the island, which was on the west coast and appeared to be the seat of government, the Chief Town. This more or less followed the non-committal term ‘village’ as shown on the 1855 Admiralty chart. Richards may have been acutely aware that he was now walking on ethnic and cultural and, possibly, considering French interests in the area, prospective colonial eggshells and it was best not to give this village a name implying it was in anyway officially Annamese, or Cochin-Chinese to use the term increasingly coming into play. On the chart he produced he would name the island ‘Koh Tron called by the Siamese Koh Dud’ so following the precedent of the Bonneyman chart. No-one could be offended by the term Chief Town, surely?
An approach appears to have been made to purchase provisions at the Chief Town, but ‘friendly advances’ were not reciprocated by the authorities and the presence of war junks at anchor close by seemed to confirm the view that the island was under the control of Cochin-Chinese officials who had quite a different attitude to the Saracen than those on the Cambodian mainland.
Despite the unfriendly reception, surveys around the island continued and although it was found that the eastern shore was dangerous because of sunken rocks and coral reefs, these were absent on other parts of the coast. From the southern tip of the island was a seven mile archipelago of small islands but beyond this there was a safe channel, about 5 miles wide, before two small islands, which Richards named the Brothers, were reached.
It appears, and this is supported by the Bonneyman chart, that some captains favoured approaching the Kampot anchorage from the south by initially passing through the 5 mile channel. For those who made this choice, Richards warned of the particular danger in approaching Round Hill, which was at the southernmost tip of Koh Tron, because a reef extended two and a half miles from the shore. Once safely through the channel a ship would sail north along the coast of Koh Tron, passing two tree-covered islets, called Pulo Cici, to the east. From this point on the coast was very treacherous because of another submerged rocky and irregular bank. However, at the edge of this bank, the water suddenly deepened so if deep water was detected by a vessel using this passage Richards advised immediate tacking. As was standard practice Richards always had sailing vessels in mind when compiling his directions, which was not surprising as there were relatively few steamships operating in the South China Sea and hardly any ventured into this part of the Gulf. All were hybrids anyway.
Even when Pulo Cici had been left behind vessels heading for the anchorage had to steer clear of another dangerous obstruction, barely covered by the sea. It was a steep sided rock named after an English schooner, the Rosita, which had recently come to grief after striking it.
A little north of Kampot is a cone shaped hill which stands alone in the flat Tech Chou valley. It might be seen from Pulo Cici as could the headland called Bumbi Bluff and Richards suggested one way of passing the rock to the west was to line the bluff up with the cone and then follow this line all the way to the anchorage. The section of the chart, numbered 1 to the right, shows the line running down from Bumbi Cone and passing by the bluff. In section 2 the Rosita rock is shown. Unfortunately, the cone would be lost sight of before reaching the rock and so very careful soundings needed to be taken and a sharp look out kept for discoloured water, which swirled around the underwater hazard. When the Koh Tron chart was eventually published a sailing instruction was actually inscribed close to Pulo Cici which read ‘Bumbi Cone in line with the East extreme of Bumbi Bluff clears the Rosita Rock and leads to the anchorage’. This may be seen at the end of the line in section 2.
Another way in which ships approaching the anchorage could be warned of the danger was to place a buoy over the rock and in an appendix to the China Pilot, published in 1858 and which covered the work of the Saracen in the Gulf, Richards reported that this had actually been done. However, he then went on to say he doubted if it would be allowed to remain. Quite why he took this view is unclear but perhaps he thought there were those who knew of the rock and who would prefer to see a ship strike it so they could carry off plunder before it sank. Stories of such wreckers were, of course, known world wide, not least in England, particularly along the rocky coast of Cornwall. It is interesting that in a subsequent edition of the Gulf of Siam Pilot, published in 1863, no mention is made of the buoy.
On January 12th Richards, Inskip and Christian set off in the pinnace, which had been stocked with several days provisions, to make a survey of the mainland coast. The heights of salient points on the highland that rose steeply from the coast were measured and, where a pre-existing name for a summit was unknown, Richards gave one himself. To the west of Kampot the ‘Elephant or Tekliang’ range appeared as on the Bonneyman chart and Richards added the Nipple and Drumsnab as notable features. Beyond Bumbi Cone no other name appeared away from the mainland shore, although eight high points were named on Koh Tron. Clearly this was to aid navigators to get their bearings when negotiating the passage into the anchorage, one example being Byoot Peak, which could be used to avoid the Rosita rock. Scarce though mainland hinterland details were, the chart Richards ultimately created was almost certainly the first map or chart ever created by scientific method of any part of Cambodia.
Whilst the commander was away the normal routine, including interminable cleaning, went on as usual and other boats were assigned to conduct surveys closer to the Saracen. The sailmaker was now employed in making an awning for the cutter, which was put to immediate use, and the inhabitants of Koh Tron must have become more reassured that the firing of rockets did not mean they would soon have to defend themselves. With that great care for detail and consciousness of accountability demanded by the Royal Navy and shown since the Saracen had been prepared for service in Plymouth, the issuing of rockets was carefully recorded. So too was the opening of barrels taken from the ships stores, for if anything was found to have been ruined by neglect, then those deemed responsible would find the costs deducted from their wages. But there does not appear to have been any problems in this regard and, given the excellent quality of provisions on sale in Kampot, the crew probably enjoyed better ‘grub’ than at almost anytime in the voyage. As an added bonus, when small expeditions were launched to collect firewood, no mention was made of the danger of roaming tigers on any of the smaller nearby islands, although they remained on Koh Tron itself.
As the long working days continued the crews and officers in each survey party and on the brig itself would have kept a sharp look out for the sight of the arrival of any ships rigged in a European manner but it seems that it was not until January 19th that such a ship was sighted and that was the Polka leaving for Singapore. Out in the South China Sea any vessels carrying the latest news about events in Canton and Hong Kong steamed south from China but none made a sharp turn towards Kampot. Consequently, Richards may well have been unaware of the deteriorating situation faced by Bowring and Parkes at that moment and, because of the distances involved, would certainly not have known of the furore which reports of the Arrow incident and its consequences had generated in Britain.
It had been, perhaps, a surprise to Seymour, Parkes and Bowring that Yeh would not agree to receive a British representative despite military action which led to much destruction of property and loss of life, the capture and occupation of the forts which defended Canton and even of Yeh’s residence in the city itself. However, the Imperial Commissioner remained intransigent and so intermittent British shelling continued through November and December, which served to further enrage the Cantonese population. As time went by and the failure of British pressure became more apparent, Royal Navy warships found themselves under rocket and stinkpot attack. Moreover, anxiety grew in Hong Kong that some kind of retaliatory action might soon be felt there, a fear not misplaced. On December 29th a surprise attack took place on the Thistle, a postal packet plying between Hong Kong and Canton and eleven European passengers were murdered by Chinese soldiers in civilian dress. Naturally, this event and the way in which the tide seemed to be turning against British forces, caused, as Seymour said, ‘great uneasiness’ in Hong Kong and Bowring asked the admiral to strengthen local defences. Nonetheless, British action against civilian areas in Canton continued and what may have been a further reprisal soon followed. It was just at this point that, in Britain, the first reports of what had been happening in Canton were being published. Although well out of date they were comprehensive, and were complemented by correspondence between Bowring and Yeh. Click here to read a plea from the Canton population published in the London Evening Standard on January 6th 1857.
On January 15th, the pinnace returned to the Saracen and the officers and crew probably looked forward to a substantial cooked meal. Many other Europeans, domiciled in Hong Kong, had probably relished their meals on that day too unaware, at first, that there had been an attempt at mass poisoning for, at a bakery which supplied their bread, arsenic was surreptitiously added to the dough. Fortunately, in the majority of cases, this caused vomiting rather than anything more serious, although Lady Bowring was made seriously ill and was to die prematurely in the following year.
It was to be many weeks before news of what was called the Esing Bakery incident reached London but when it did it helped raise the tension in a bitter political debate. By that time many of those in Britain who remembered the conflict which led to the Treaty of Nanking may have already rummaged amongst their old documents and found a map, published by James Wyld, the ‘Geographer to the Queen and H.R.H. Prince Albert’, on February 10th 1842. It was entitled ‘A Map to illustrate the war in China’. Seeing an opportunity the publisher made a few revisions and republished it on February 10th 1857. No change was made to the title.
When London Became An Island
Soochong, Shoguns and the Saracen’s surveys
Chapter 33 - A gruelling schedule.
Commanders and clippers