When the Hydrographic Office published Appendix 1 of the Gulf of Siam survey in 1858 it carried a recommendation as to the best way large ships could access the anchorage serving Kampot. Richards suggested the western channel, lying between Water Island and the north-west point of Koh Tron, was best, but urged caution because, even though the water was deep and the soundings regular, there were a number of hazards. He particularly urged navigators entering the western entrance to look out for a flat rock and other small rocky islands and pass to the north of them. On the 1855 Admiralty chart (see Chapter 29) this western access was called Austens Channel, but Richards did not give it any name.

As January gave way to February more contact was made with Kampot, presumably in order to purchase more fresh provisions to supplement the salt beef and pickles that now appeared from the Saracen’s own food stocks. However, although five and a half tons of water were loaded it is unlikely this came from wells near the port as Richards said that that supply was muddy, bad and procured at great expense. Fortunately, there were adequate sources elsewhere and it is likely the fine running stream on Water Island was used to restock the water tanks. On the first Sunday in February, after Divine Service, Richards allowed the ship’s company to go ashore from noon until sunset and, as the concession was also granted on the following two Sundays, it would seem the Saracen remained fairly close to Kampot during this period. Keeping close to the anchorage would have allowed contact to be made fairly quickly with any arriving ships and on February 5th, one day after Richards, Inskip and Christian set off on another surveying expedition in the pinnace, a brig from Singapore was sighted and communication established. We can imagine how keen the officers and crew of the Saracen would have been to hear about the latest developments in the wider world particularly those involving the Royal Navy in Canton.

It is likely that relationships with the French residents who lived at the French mission in Kampot, which would be the only institution shown on the Koh Tron chart, were probably positive and provided a valuable source of local information. Due to their imperial rivalry the interaction between France and Britain was usually in a state of flux but at a personal level any respectable European was likely to be given a welcome at the Kampot mission because, even if not Catholic, they were at least nominally Christian and the religious toleration shown by the Royal Navy would almost certainly have been respected. Unless other duties or the weather prevented it, Divine Worship was held was every Sunday on the Saracen. This reflected the Protestantism of England but a special dispensation for non-attendance was given to Roman Catholics who had religious scruples about attending a Church of England service. Whether anyone in the Saracen was Roman Catholic and ever absented themselves is unclear.

There was, of course, always the possibility that less respectable individuals might end up in Kampot and sour relationships. On January 17th, as debate about the results of the Arrow incident raged in England, the Westmorland Gazette published an article taken from the radical Daily News deploring the actions of Bowring and Parkes. Attention was drawn to certain kinds of individuals of the English race who could be found in Canton. These were loafers from California, fugitives from our Australian colonies and deserters from the innumerable merchant vessels and whalers which plough the Pacific. Was it any wonder, the author of the article said, that some Cantonese might contract prejudices against the English.

Was it possible that such characters might have also made their way to Kampot? It seems doubtful as there was relatively little commercial contact, even with Singapore, on European vessels and once in the port it might be difficult for anyone to find a way out. So, it is likely that the local impression of the English race would have been based on rare visitors such as Captain Whistler and the officers and crew of the Saracen.

Even if Kampot itself had not been visited on their Sunday afternoon excursion it is doubtful if the landing of a party of Saracen sailors ‘at leisure’ on the nearby coastline would have caused problems. According to Captain Whistler the Cambodians met when out walking were well disposed towards his party and such positive attitudes were supported by the local authorities. It may well have been such sailors would, out of sight of officialdom, have been welcomed in Cochin-Chinese settlements a few miles to the east too but there, because of religious issues, the attitude of officers of the state towards Europeans was quite different to that in Siam and Cambodia. Tensions had been growing for decades.

At the start of the C19th the Nguyen dynasty established itself on the eastern seaboard of the Indo-Chinese peninsula dominating all the land between the mouths of the Red River and those of the Mekong. This success was a result of winning, with significant French help, a civil war. The first emperor of this unified polity was Gia Long, who took a fairly enlightened view of religious toleration. Consequently, there was relatively little friction in his reign over the activities of Christian missionaries, although the emperor was well aware of machinations aimed at expanding the empires of various European states and of how proselytising missionary work could contribute to this. When Ming Mang, Gia Long’s son, acceded to the throne there was a radical change in attitude for the new emperor was far from religiously tolerant, partly because he found the fanatical zeal of the missionaries conflicted with Confucian belief of the importance of ancestor worship. Calling Christianity a depraved doctrine Ming Mang sought to isolate the empire from French and other Western influences but even so, during his reign, there were numerous occasions when Catholic converts and their European priests were involved in rebellions against the authority of the state. All were suppressed, sometimes with great cruelty and there were many executions.

The accession of Ming Mang’s son Thien Tri heralded a less confrontational period and during his reign, in the 1840s, no missionaries were executed although an isolationist policy was continued. This continued under the rule of his son Tu Duc but French naval action, based on a religious dispute, occurred in 1847 in the bay of Tourane (Da Nang today) and again in 1856. Charles de Montigny, who sailed from Kampot to make landfall on the South China Sea coast, was no more welcome than he had been in Siam or Cambodia.  

To the east of the Kampot anchorage, in the vicinity of Kep Point, lay the border between Cambodia and the domain of Tu Duc. Even before Richards began surveying the coast between Pulo Obi and Kep Point he would have been aware that, if the Saracen tried to visit the Cochin-Chinese port of Cancao (called Ha Tien today), the ship was unlikely to be better received than it had been when approaching the Chief Town of Koh Tron. Despite trade being in the hands of Chinese merchants linked to Singapore it was not possible for a European cargo ship, such as the Polka or Pantaloon, to approach the port to load or unload. All had to remain at the Kampot anchorage where transhipment took place via junks sent out from the Cancao river.

When the Saracen was surveying in the vicinity of Cancao it was noted there was another anchorage, which was for large junks, closer to the port and that cargoes were carried out in flat boats. The junks would have carried all kinds of products but, due to the isolationist policies which had been enforced by the post-civil war Ngyuen dynasty, combined with the predations of pirates, Cancao must have been less prosperous than it had been in the previous century.

The peak period of prosperity for Cancao appears to have been around the 1760s and to have been linked to the Canton junk trade. In fact, at that time, around three quarters of junks based in Canton (there were at least 30) were involved in trade with Cochin-China, Cancao and Cambodia. They undertook the transport of various cargoes with rice, tea and tin being prominent. When tea was sent from Chinese ports to Europe it was loaded into wooden boxes sometimes lined with lead. Weight counted for less when a shipment was made by sea from the coast of China to England, but within China the necessary use of land transport meant that another metal, which, like lead, would protect the leaves from absorbing moisture and not impart a metallic taste, was essential for containers. There were other reasons, such as the need for small denomination coins and household utensils, which also fed the growing demand for tin in China. To satisfy this demand mines on the island of Bangka, close to the east of Sumatra, were developed and became one of main areas of regional tin production, much of the work being done by imported Chinese labour. Consequently, there was an increasing need for junks to export tin and to import rice, substantial amounts of which came from the rice basin of the Mekong Delta. Chinese tea was also wanted by the growing workforce. It is, perhaps, surprising that Cancao, although well over 500 miles from Bangka, became an important hub for the shipment of these commodities and operated as almost a self regulating state established by Chinese emigrants.

The halcyon days did not last, partly due to the civil war, but after Gia Long came to power he sought to bring the Gulf coast more closely under central control. Cancao was re-established but not as an independent entity something which, when the Saracen arrived, was quite clear. Unfortunately, during the 1830s and in the following two decades, the threat of piracy increased in both the Gulf of Siam and on the South China Sea coast. The pirate ships generally had Chinese crews but there were also the occasional Western renegades on board and some of the larger junks were able to refit in Hong Kong, much to the chagrin of the Chinese authorities. The dispute over what was and what was not a pirate vessel was, of course, the root of the Arrow incident. On passages to Kampot or Cancao no small junk was safe, Whistler reporting that during his visit there was some concern in Oudong about the possibility that Ang Duong’s vessels, carrying cargoes to Singapore, might be seized by pirates hovering about Pulo Obi. They had taken three or four trading junks in the season already. It is no surprise that islands between Cancao and the Kampot anchorage were called the Pirate Islands. To clear the menace steam vessels were needed. However, the Royal Navy, despite the drive to increase trade in this part of the Gulf, was stretched to provide such gunboats at that time and the French Navy prioritised action in support of French missions rather than piracy suppression.

If the main purpose of the Saracen’s Gulf surveys was to facilitate safer navigation for trading ships and this could be eventually achieved, there would, provided the authorities were supportive, be a possibility of agricultural and other developments in coastal areas and the hinterland. Consequently, it was understandable that Richards was keen to find out what lay beyond the entrance to the Cancao river, the conduit by which produce from the interior arrived at the coast. In Kampot information had been given by a resident at the French mission that he had been assured by a local boatman there was also a channel, 13 feet deep, which ran into the river. Such a channel did exist. It was a canal, constructed over thirty years previously between Cancao and Chou Doc. If such a waterway was in good condition it could certainly provide a valuable link to the Mekong river system. Although pressed for time, Richards would probably, had he been allowed, have landed and made efforts to find out more about this mysterious waterway.

On the seaward side of Cancao, which Richards understood to have a population of about 8000, there was a fort specifically constructed to protect the town from attack. Occasionally, so Richards was told, this fort fired a warning shot at unauthorised merchant vessels which came too close. No cannon fire was directed at the Saracen because, as Richards wanted to avoid conflict, his ship remained at the river entrance. From here the town could be seen at a distance of six or seven miles. Richards did make soundings of the junk anchorage but, after calculating the depth of the river entrance at high water, he decided not to make a thorough survey of the bar as he did not wish to ‘risk a collision with the authorities of the place’. It would seem the only contact he actually had with these authorities occurred when government boats were sent out to warn the Saracen away, as, presumably, it was about to undertake further survey work. At least these warnings were given, according to Richards, ‘with civility’. Having departed from Cancao the Saracen sailed towards Kep Point, which was in Cambodia, but no soundings were made along this ten mile stretch as it was considered only navigable by junks. There was no safe passage for ships to the east of the islands which ran south of Kep Point, the Saracen having run aground twice when exploring the possibility. The extract from the Koh Tron chart on the right shows the area between Cancao and Kep Point. Although Cancao is only shown as a town on the river on the chart and is not mentioned in the 1858 Appendix 1 it is mentioned by name in the much more comprehensive Gulf of Siam pilot of 1863.

The work on the coast to the east of Kampot concluded the Gulf survey and on February 24th Richards began his last short stay in Kampot, when, presumably, he thanked local Cambodian officials and residents of the French mission for their help. On the following day the ship’s log recorded preparations being made to get the Saracen ready for sea and four days later she departed, heading for Singapore. Just as expected, the brig arrived in early March having been sailing for five days. During this time we might imagine the officers and crew celebrated a job well done for it had been a considerable achievement, their vessel having covered over 1000 miles in 22 months in conditions and on coastlines quite different to those they had experienced further north. Disciplinary issues had been minimal and I’m sure each of those on board, from the four boys, to Inskip, Christian and Reed would have felt a certain pride in their individual contributions. For Richards it was certainly a triumph. Now all the documents needed to produce a chart of ‘Koh Tron and channels leading to the anchorage off Kamput’ would be sent on by steamer and land transport to the Admiralty in London where the engravers would soon set to work.

Chapter 35 - The Chinese election

Back to Introduction    

When London Became An Island

Soochong, Shoguns and the Saracen’s surveys

Chapter 34     A job well done

   Commanders and clippers

The view across the bay from Kep to the Elephant Range.