CHINA AND JAPAN
Arrival at Hong Kong -- Unfortunate again in a pilot -- Ship stormed by Chinese tailors, compradors, etc. -- Com. Tattnall transfers his flag to Powhatan -- Sailing for home of San Jacinto -- A "fast boat" -- Old Achin's family -- Amusements at Hong Kong -- Rice fields -- Sail for Gulf of Pecheelee
We made the passage to Hong Kong within eight days, the distance being something more than sixteen hundred miles by the course we took, along the western edge of the China Sea, passing inside of Pulo Sapata, a small island which lies off the eastern coast of Siam. On the morning of the 12th of May, we made the Ladrone Islands, a little to the southward of Hong Kong, and the ship was soon afterwards surrounded by a large number of Chinese fishing-boats, with their square flat-setting mat sails and broad elevated sterns, looming up in the distance with the appearance of large square-rigged vessels. One of these odd-looking craft, with a red flag flying at her masthead, seemed to be making strenuous efforts to reach our ship, and taking it for granted that she contained the very individual whose services we required, in the shape of a pilot, the bell was rung to "slow," and then to "stop." The boat was soon brought alongside in a very seaman-like manner, and a sharp-looking Chinaman jumped on board, strode briskly up to the hurricane deck, and being shown to the captain, exhibited to him in turn, his "branch" as a Hong Kong pilot. We were soon under way again, under his directions as to our course, and early in the forenoon we entered the harbor, which, although large, seemed to be crowded with vessels, and among them we soon descried the United States steamer "San Jacinto," with Commodore Tattnall's broad pendant flying at her main royal masthead. A salute of thirteen guns was fired immediately, in honor of our Commander-in-chief, and answered with nine from the San Jacinto.
The Chinese pilot whom we had taken on board outside the harbor, had an air of confidence in his professional skill, which forbade, in the outset, any suspicion on our part of his real incapacity, and as neither the captain, master, nor executive officer had ever visited the port before, to place implicit faith in the directions of the pilot seemed the only safe means of reaching a favorable anchorage. What was our amazement, though, when we discovered, after getting so hemmed in by vessels on all sides as to render a moment's indecision a certain catastrophe, that the "celestial" humbug wanted to stop the ship and back her out of this position, with the tide setting her rapidly down across the bows of several vessels anchored close together, and within twenty yards of our broadside. Seeing a clearer space a little further ahead, I positively refused to comply with his repeated and imploring request to "back," until we had safely passed the vessels lying under our port-beam, but unfortunately, by this time the bows of the Powhatan had reached the bulwarks of a large English ship lying at anchor ahead, and came into collision with them just abaft the fore chains, causing a trifling damage to the light wood work, while her headway being thereby stopped, and the tide operating on the starboard side, she swung with her port quarter across the bows of a beautiful little Dutch barque, carrying away her head booms. After this graceful manoeuvre, I assumed the responsibility, (with the captain's approbation,) of backing the ship down between these two vessels until she reached a position where there was sufficient space between the surrounding shipping to swing clear of them all, and here the anchor was dropped and all made secure. Of course, "Uncle Samuel" had to foot the bills for damages to the vessels, amounting to some fifteen hundred dollars, but two important lessons were learned from this experience -- first, never to trust a Chinese pilot in a tight place, and secondly, to keep a sharp look out whenever a vessel bearing the Dutch flag made her appearance on the horizon, as there seemed a remarkable amount of the attraction of cohesion between the hull of the Powhatan and the nasal extremities of all Dutchmen.
The steamer San Jacinto was anchored some half mile ahead of us, and an officer soon came from her to welcome our arrival, and bring on board the letters, etc., that had been accumulating at Hong Kong, during the five months we had already been absent from our homes. Boats of all sorts and sizes seemed to pop alongside as if by magic, bringing a promiscuous crowd of people, of whom all were in the most intense state of excitement. Compradors rushed after the Purser, and the caterers of the different officer's messes, soliciting with eager manner and beseeching tone, their patronage in the provision line, while the "Fuss Tenny" (1st Lt.) was besieged by bumboatmen with "dations" (recommendations) of the most incongruous character; some of which announced their possessors as "extortioners," "liars," "cheats," etc. Those who came in the capacity of shoemakers, tailors, and peddlers of various nick-nacks, were kept in anxious suspense alongside, awaiting the "pipe to dinner" for the crew, before they were permitted to come on board; and during this delay, Bedlam was as quiet as a graveyard, compared with the unearthly gabble of the crowd of cormorants who surrounded the ship. My attention was called from all these distracting, and in some respects novel sights and sounds, to the more important objects, by an order from the Captain to fire a salute of 21 guns with the English flag at the fore, in compliment to the town, which was duly acknowledged by a similar expenditure of John Bull's powder.
On the following day, Commodore Josiah Tattnall transferred his broad pendant from the "San Jacinto" to the "Powhatan," under a salute of thirteen guns from the former, as a farewell compliment, and the same number from his new Flagship. Orders were immediately give to prepare for sea with all possible dispatch, it being understood that our destination was the Gulf of Pecheelee, where the allied forces of England and France had, in the previous month, destroyed the forts at the mouth of the Pei-ho river, and ascended to Tientsin, with a force of about 1500 men in gun-boats, for the purpose of negotiating a treaty with the Chinese Government, and re-establishing pacific relations between the "high contracting parties." The United States steam frigates "Minnesota" and "Mississippi" were also in the gulf, and Commodore Tattnall's earnest desire to join them as early as practicable, gave an additional impetus to our efforts to get ready for sea; creating such a bustle on board as would have induced a stranger to suppose we contemplated an attack on "the enemy," in some quarter; although the policy pursued by our government in the premises was known to be of a painfully pacific character, according to the views of many of our officers, who were eager for the "pomp and circumstance of glorious war," and also a little desirous of promotion and prize money.
On the 14th of May, the San Jacinto got under way for home, having been absent two years and a half, the greater part of the time as the Flagship of the Commodore James Armstrong, under whose orders the barrier forts in the Canton river were demolished in 1857, by the San Jacinto, Portsmouth, and Levant. The failure of Commodore Armstrong's health a few months after this occurrence, compelled him to leave his post and return to the United States, upon which Commodore Tattnall received orders from the Navy Department to proceed to China, via the overland route, and assume command of the squadron. On his arrival at Hong Kong, he hoisted his broad pendant on board the San Jacinto, retaining that vessel as his flagship until the Powhatan's arrival. Having been detained a few months beyond the allotted duration of a cruise, according to the present "two years" system for our men-of-war, the officers and crew of the San Jacinto hailed our arrival with a more than ordinary degree of satisfaction, and no time was lost by them in completing the requisite preparations for the homeward bound voyage. As the San Jacinto steamed out of the harbor, she passed quite near the Powhatan and gave us three hearty cheers, with a parting salute to the Commodore; both which we duly returned, while our band played "Home, sweet home," with what, under the circumstances, we regarded as a most provoking degree of pathos; the poor fellows composing our musical corps doubtless thinking of their own far distant firesides, and infusing into the plaintive strains their longing feelings of love and regret for country and friends.
The departure of the San Jacinto caused us all to feel as if the "last link was broken" which bound us to the glorious land of our nativity, but we soon realized the obligation that henceforth we were bound to assume with cheerful hearts and willing hands the responsibilities devolving upon us as the representatives of our country's power, and of her standing as one of the great nations of the earth. Our preparations for the important service upon which we soon expected to be employed, were pushed forward with energy and zeal -- coal, wood, water, provisions, and stores of various kinds, for the different departments of the ship, were hustled on board with a degree of expedition which rather astonished the "natives," and at the end of nine days from the period of our arrival, we were again under way.
While at Hong Kong I took an occasional walk on the "Queen's road," as the principal street is called, for the purpose of observing the general appearance of the town, which, by the way, bears the royal name of Victoria. On the occasion of my first visit, I took passage to the shore in company with several messmates, on board the Chinese "Fast boat," employed to perform the ordinary boating duty between the ship and shore, and made the acquaintance of a faithful old Chinaman who has devoted himself and family to the service of American men-of-war in these waters for more than thirty years past. Many commanding officers in the navy have cause to remember old Achin with kindly feelings, for the faithful and efficient manner in which he discharged the duties of "Fast boatman" and pilot on board the ships under their command. He came to us with a "fuss chop," "number one, dation," from the first Lieutenant of the San Jacinto, and was, of course, employed without hesitation, at the rate of $#36;1.50 per diem.
When I embarked in this old gent's floating home, I innocently imagined that the distance between the ship and shore was about to be annihilated in somewhat similar style with such achievements in our own country, especially as I had been informed by previous cruisers in this part of the world, that these "fast boats" were remarkable for their speed. I soon learned, however, that their name was bestowed, not in consequence of the celerity of their movements, but because they were the only boats permitted to "make fast" astern of the ships employing them -- a striking exemplification of the way in which travellers practise upon the credulity of their stay-at-home friends; and while calling the sympathetic attention of my readers to this fact, let me inform them that implicit reliance may be placed in the interpretation which I have just given the term. And now, having set my reader and myself both right on this important point, I will take my seat under the tent-shaped roof, erected nearly in the centre of this singular craft, making it appear like a cross between a thatched hut and a State barge; and having assumed a comfortable position, look around to see how things are managed generally. Glancing forward, I see three long-tailed boys, varying in age from ten to sixteen, tugging away at the oars on the starboard side, and opposite to them -- one man, and two rather good looking girls (the latter being each about thirteen), engaged in the same healthful exercise. At every stroke of the oars the boys emit a simultaneous sound, compounded of a grunt and a hiss, by way of encouragement, I presume, to the feminine rowers, who preserve a demure and quiet demeanor under their hood-shaped handkerchiefs, and make their oars plunge into the green water with a vim far from effeminate. Casting my eye toward the taffrail, an elderly female appears, whose "delicate situation" promises to add another to the numerous "responsibilities" of old Achin. This matronly dame also carries a chubby urchin, some twelve months old, lashed to her back, and wears a smiling countenance with a terrible squint -- the latter acquired perhaps, by the necessity for keeping a sharp look-out in all directions; one eye being fixed on the juvenile members of the family, and the other glancing around her in pursuance of her important duties as helmswoman. With one hand she grasps the tiller, and in the other holds the rope by which it is retained in any position she may choose to give it; and the confidence and skill she displays in guiding this lumbering craft through swarms of sampans and other light row boats, without collision or accident of any kind, does not fail to excite the surprise and admiration of the newly-arrived Fank-wei, or "foreign devils." Achin himself, the captain and owner of this wonderful craft, worked lazily at an immense sculling oar on the port quarter, indulging in occasional guttural utterances, directed at his "wifoo" and the rowers forward, for the exact meaning of which I respectfully refer the inquiring reader to the special Interpreter of the present Chinese legation. The personnel of the craft I perceived to be further represented by five juvenile specimens of the Achinian race, ranging from seven down to two years of age, who were stowed away in the most inconceivably small space, situated immediately under the old woman's feet, as she stood at the helm, the height between the deck above their head, and the one beneath, being about two feet, and the width of the boat at this point not more than six. The forward bulkhead of this spacious nursery was constructed with sliding panels, and the frequency and facility with which they were opened and shut by these little Celestials, certainly reminded one more of the antics of monkeys than of human beings. Just below this apartment, but extending somewhat further forward, were the culinary arrangements for the household -- consisting of a box of sand upon which to build a fire, and an iron pot in which to boil the rice. Around the stern and quarter were galleries a foot or more in width, for the reception of any spare articles required for the domestic menàge, as well as for the stowage of boat-hooks, oars, etc. One large sail near the centre of the boat, and a small one placed so near the bow, and projecting so far beyond it, so as to suggest the idea of being about to jump overboard, form the sailing equipments of the "fast boats;" and it must be confessed they are by no means slow when these sails, usually made of matting, are filled with a good breeze. As for "beating to windward," they are quite equal, if not superior, to our crack bay and river craft. This boat of thirty feet length, by seven in width, furnished space enough, according to Chinese notions, for the production, sustenance, amusement, exercise, and rest of a family of thirteen persons, none of whom ever touched the land except, perhaps, with a boat hook. The old man got off occasionally on what he called a "sky pidgin," when he had a special request to make of his "Jos," and wanted an excuse for drinking a little more samshu than usual, generally returning from such pilgrimages with a decidedly seedy aspect, and a slight accession of dignity.
Notwithstanding the vigorous efforts and encouraging grunts of our energetic rowers, the wind being adverse, we were fully half an hour reaching the landing, where the American flat was displayed by our Consul -- General Keenan; during this time the party in the boat did not fail to make themselves thoroughly acquainted with the past history, present condition, and future prospects of each member of the numerous family which composed the crew; related in a style, however, that would be rather incomprehensible to the uninitiated reader.
Landing then, as I said before, under the shadow of the "stars and stripes," we pursued our course leisurely toward the foot of the immense hills back of the town, taking it for granted that we should come to a street running parallel with the water before very long, and sure enough, the first corner we reached turned us into the "Queen's road," a broad and smooth, but unpaved street, leading from one end of the town to the other; the sidewalks are narrow and indifferently paved, causing pedestrians generally to prefer the middle of the street, where there is a constant stream of humanity with its eddying tides, pouring, tossing, and rushing in every direction over its surface -- composed of all ages, sexes, colors, nations, and conditions. The Parsees, or Persians, were more strongly represented here than at any other port we had visited, and it was fair to conclude, from the hot haste with which they rushed along, that their receipt of several specimens of the "almighty dollar" was dependent upon their early arrival at the other end of the avenue.
The shops were crowded in the same manner as the boats and the streets, with myriads of human beings, whose busy hands were plying with wonderful dexterity and unremitting efforts, their various implements of trade. Tailors, shoemakers, painters, workers in silver, ivory, copper, tin, iron and wood, abound on every side; and stores containing every variety of article manufactured in Canton and the interior towns, excite the curiosity and admiration of the stranger to such a degree that the wily shopman finds but little difficulty in extorting from him a few of his Mexican dollars, in exchange for the commodities which he knows so well how to command.
There are many handsome and spacious residences on this street, constructed on the European plan, and occupied by merchants from Great Britain and America. At the lower end there is a small open space, or parade ground, where the soldiers from the adjoining barracks are drilled occasionally, and where the Regimental Band performs once a week for the edification of the élite of Hong Kong; and also, I suppose, for the benefit of the "great unwashed," if they possess musical tastes, which I believe the Chinese rarely do. This musical entertainment, together with the periodical representations in the theatrical line, gotten up by the English Army officers stationed here, and patronized by subscriptions from the government officials and the principal merchants, form the only sources of amusement, apart from the annual horseraces on the beautiful race-course at Happy Valley, some two miles east of the city. The wealthy and enterprising British houses of Jardine, Mathison, # Co., and Dent # Co., are the rival establishments in procuring the best stock for the sports of the turf in China, as well as in speculations in opium, teas, silks, etc., and the amount they expend on each of these objects seem quite fabulous to a newcomer. There is only one American gentleman who participates in these sports of the turf, except in the character of spectator, and he is universally regarded as the Prince of American merchants in China, if a royal title may be applied to so fine a specimen of Yankee excellence. I allude to the present representative of the house of Augustine Heard # Co., John Heard, Esq., who will long be remembered by the officers of the East India Squadron who have visited China during the last five years, as one of the most hospitable, refined, and intelligent gentlemen they have ever known. He commands the respect, and, I may say, the admiration of all who have the good fortune to make his acquaintance, either in the transaction of business, or in the more agreeable intercourse of the social circle.
At the time of which I am writing, the island of Hong Kong was under the civil government of Sir John Bowring, but he was superseded in the following summer by Sir Hercules Robinson -- an exchange of rulers with which the European inhabitants seem to have been extremely well pleased, the former being a sort of poetical abstractionist, while the latter is a practical common sense man, of good abilities and popular manners. Lady Robinson may be said to add very materially to her husband's title to public favor, as she appears to have created quite a revolution in the state of society at Victoria, by breaking down the wall of exclusiveness which had existed during Sir John's administration, and making the gubernatorial mansion the most charming place to visit on the island.
During this long digression from the course of my narrative, the Powhatan had been prepared in every particular for an absence of six months, and on the morning of the 21st of May, at early daylight, she was under way for the Gulf of Pecheelee, the scene of our "masterly inactivity" up to this time.
Go to top page of China and Japan material