Operations in the Canton River
A FEW days after our return to Canton I was ordered down the river in tow of the Coromandel to destroy some mandarin junks which were building at a kind of dockyard on the river's bank. We soon found them: thirty-five junks were on the stocks, some only in frame, others ready for launching. We burnt the lot. It seemed a pity to destroy them, as they were fine handsome craft and worth a lot of money, but they made a grand blaze.
For the next few weeks we were busy making and repairing fire-booms, and at night guarding them against the enemy's fire-rafts. The work was hard, and there were only four boats to do it - two of the Calcutta's and two Nankin's. It must be remembered also that in those days we had no steam-launches or torpedo-boats, so everything had to be done by rowing-boats - even sails were useless for that work.
Life in an open boat for months together would have been wearisome but for the constant excitement. There was not much room to move about, and only a plank to lie on at night. Pork, biscuit, and river-water constituted our daily fare, no extras.
OPERATIONS IN THE CANTON RIVER.
My kit consisted of a blanket, two flannel shirts - one on and one off - tooth-brush, comb, towel, and soap. For society I had my coxswain and boat's crew, working under a broiling sun by day, with a chance of being blown up at night, or having one's head taken off by a round-shot next morning. But there is a charm in having a command of one's own, be it ever so humble, at eighteen years of age. My coxswain, Jim Parnell, captain of the foretop of the Calcutta, was as fine a seaman as ever I came across - being thrown together so much, I got to know his value, and he backed me up on several occasions when I was in a tight place.
We were not only shipmates, but messmates ; for our stock of crockery - never very great - had been sadly diminished by a shot which smashed the greater part; and we had but one basin to eat our pea-soup out of, and this was afterwards rinsed out for our grog. Our evenings used to be spent according to fancy - some sleeping, others smoking or joining in a song, whilst I generally played cribbage with the coxswain or the gunner's mate, until the time came for us to take up our station for the night.
I often think that it is on detached service of this sort that bluejackets show to advantage - always cheerful and contented and respectful at a time when it is not easy to enforce the discipline of a man-of-war. No matter whether the pork was rancid or the water stank, I never heard a murmur of discontent: they knew that what did for them did for me. One day our coppers - the only cooking apparatus we had - was lost overboard, and it could not be replaced for some days, so we had to eat our
pork raw, but we all shared alike. I had no medicines in the boat - we couldn't afford to be sick - but I told the men that if any of them were really ill they should have an extra glass of rum from our limited store, and some of us would go without it. I never had a single application, nor did I have a case of sickness in the boat, although we drank the river-water, about the same colour and consistency as that of the Thames at London Bridge; and at this very time the Calcutta's men were dying in the hospitals at Hong-Kong from dysentery, caused by drinking impure water. The Calcutta, being a sailing-ship, had no condenser on board. During this time the Chinamen had not been idle: they repaired the French-folly Fort and mounted some guns, making it as strong as it was before ; so it became necessary to give them another lesson. On 4th December the Encounter and Coromandel, towing the boats of the squadron, steamed down and opened fire on the fort ; the boats lay on the off side of the ships so as to be protected by their hulls until the fort was silenced, when our turn came, and we pulled in to the assault under a scattered but ill-directed fire from gingalls and rockets. Having driven out the garrison, a party remained to dismount the guns and destroy the fort.
Our casualties were slight : a marine was killed by a rocket, and a few were wounded. As a rule, these Chinese rockets did little harm, and as often as not they doubled back from whence they came. Whilst we were in the pinnace, lying quietly at anchor off the fort after the business was over, a sneaking rascal fired a rocket at us from amongst the ruins. The rocket came over one side of the boat, set fire to
OPERATIONS IN THE CANTON RIVER.
some bread-bags in the bottom, and popped over the other side without hurting us. I always kept a loaded rifle handy, but before I could get it to my shoulder the villain was gone.
Our cutter was also struck by a rocket, which burnt a hole in her. This boat was under my orders as well as the pinnace ; she was in charge of a young master's assistant named Pearn, and as he was seventeen years old and I eighteen, and a midshipman, I was the senior officer ! We were great chums. A report reached us that the Chinese intended to burn the English quarter in return for the injuries we had inflicted on them. We had always expected something of the kind, and prepared for it by placing sentries about. The merchants had removed their property to Hong-Kong, so that beyond the fact of its being useful to us as our headquarters, its destruction mattered little. However, the sentries were doubled, and we kept a sharp look-out every night ; but notwithstanding all our precautions, the Chinamen were too sharp for us.
One night, about the middle of December, there was an alarm of fire in the Factories. The boats were at this time moored in the camber, close at hand, so we were quickly on the spot. It was to no purpose : the Chinese soldiers, reckless of life, ran from house to house with lighted torches in their hands, and as fast as we shot them down others would take their places. All that night the fire raged, and the next day it was still burning. We made desperate efforts to save the Consulate, by blowing down the adjacent walls with gunpowder, but without avail. Every one, from the Admiral downwards, worked with a will; and it
A FIRE IN THE FACTORIES
was amusing to see captains, lieutenants, mids, bluejackets, and soldiers passing the water along in every conceivable conveyance. Pearn and I were pointing a hose till we could hold it no longer on account of the heat, and every stitch we had on was wet through. During the night I was working in a house trying to get the fire under, when some one shouted out that the roof was falling, and that if there was any one inside to come out directly. The room I was in was filled with boxes of prime Manilla cigars, so taking a box under each arm, I bolted from the house just as the walls caved in with a crash. Trifles such as these cigars were very acceptable, and after the fire we managed to pick up a few things which were of use to us, living as we were on the meanest fare. But these expeditions were rather risky, as the Chinese authorities offered 500 dollars for the head of any Englishman dead or alive, and already some poor fellows had been captured, their heads at the time adorning the walls of the city: in fact, it was dangerous to wander only a few hundred yards from our boats, as the following adventure will show.
One day, in company with Pearn, we took advantage of a spare hour when the men were at dinner to ramble amongst the ruins of the Factories. We were exploring the inside of a house the walls of which, with the staircase, remained standing. We had not been long upstairs when we heard a noise in the street, and on looking out we perceived, to our horror, a mob of Chinese soldiers round the only entrance to the house, with the evident intention of capturing us alive or dead.
OPERATIONS IN THE CANTON RIVER.
We were caught in a trap: there was but one stair, and our retreat was completely cut off.
There was no time for reflection. Fortunately we had our revolvers with us, and knew how to use them, so without a moment's delay further than a grasp of each other's hands, we rushed down the stairs into the street. Our sudden appearance took the Chinamen by surprise. Pearn fired his revolver in the first man's face, the man staggered but did not fall, and to this day I cannot think what happened, as he couldn't have missed. In front of me stood a big brawny fellow armed with a pike; I shot him through the body, and he doubled up and fell on his face. Pearn fired again, and the whole lot bolted - from two boys, for we were nothing more ; and we were saved. I raked another as he ran, and saw the blood spurt from his neck. We then cut the tail off my man and made tracks for the boats. We never made mention of this adventure, as we had no business there, and we should have been forbidden to leave our boats in future.
It may seem rather cold-blooded, waiting to cut the man's pig-tail off, but we were not in the humour to discuss that question. Had we been captured we should have been first tortured, then beheaded. Shortly after this occurrence the Admiral decided to burn down part of the suburbs of the city as a reprisal for burning the Factories, and we were ordered to prepare fire-balls for the purpose.
The necessary arrangements being complete, we were attached as before to the Barracouta, and proceeded with her to a spot about a mile from
"GIVE 'EM SOME `SPIRITUAL CASE,' SIR."
our quarters. Another party went in the opposite direction, so as to fire the city simultaneously in several places. The Barracouta having anchored, we pulled up a creek in the pinnace and threaded our way through the streets (which are really waterways, the houses in the suburbs being built on piles), keeping a sharp look out for ambuscades.
Having advanced as far as we could, we landed, and set to work, firing the houses right and left. This accomplished, Captain Fortescue, who had accompanied us so far in his galley, returned on board to breakfast, leaving me in the pinnace with orders to shoot down any one who attempted to interfere with us.
Presently a mob of Chinamen appeared on the scene, and would have made short work of us, but a few rounds from the howitzer dispersed them. The creek we were in was blocked with a barricade of piles, so we lashed the boat's bow to the piles, pointing the gun through them, and whenever any soldiers appeared " we let them have it."
The gunner's mate was in the stern, passing the ammunition forward to me in the bows, and exclaiming in his excitement, " Give 'em some `spiritual case,' sir," meaning " spherical case " (canister containing musket-balls, a very effective missile at close quarters). The creek was only a few yards broad, with houses down to the water on both sides, affording shelter for a hidden enemy. Whilst our attention was directed to those in front, a soldier stepped out from behind a door on our right and took a deliberate pot-shot at me from only a few yards off. It was a shocking bad shot,
OPERATIONS IN THE CANTON RIVER.
as he missed, and stepped back behind the door, probably to load. I snatched up a rifle and fired slap through the door, and then thought no more about it. When the time came for us to retire I went ashore and out of curiosity looked behind the door, when, lo! my friend was lying there dead.
We then returned to the Barracouta to report proceedings and have dinner. Christmas came round in due time, and we determined to keep it in good old-fashioned style, and enjoy a good dinner if it could be got; so we cleared away the billiard-room, the only building left standing, and had our dinner there, and a very good dinner it was, considering the circumstances. I had shot some ducks a short time before, which came in handy, and we had looted a few bottles of wine from the ruins of the houses, so the toasts went merrily round, " absent friends" not being forgotten. At midnight I left to row guard as usual. I had to keep watch ahead of the Hornet, which was at anchor outside the boom.
On returning to my boat, I found that my boat's crew had also been keeping Christmas, having probably cleared the consul's cellar for the purpose - they were all helplessly drunk, excepting the coxswain and one other. What was to be done ? I dared not report them unfit for duty, as I should have been punished for not looking after them ; so, making the two sober ones take an oar and taking the helm myself, I pushed off into the stream, having first refreshed the rest of the crew by a few buckets of water thrown over them.
We managed to reach a position ahead of the Hornet, when, seeing the impossibility of rowing
SPORT IN THE RIVER.
guard with only two oars against a strong current, I dropped anchor, and making the two sober men take a couple of oars each and keep dipping them in the water, I kept a good look out till daylight, when we returned to the camber.
Fortunately the Chinamen did not attempt to molest us that night, or the consequences might have been disastrous. The best of the joke was, the captain of the Hornet, Commander Forsyth, sent for me and complimented me upon the admirable way we had kept guard during the night.
Whilst in the river I used frequently to be sent away with despatches to various parts, and I always took advantage of these occasions to replenish our larder. Having delivered the despatches, I devoted the return journey to sport, shooting along the banks whilst the boat was being tracked against the current like a canal-boat, this being less labour for the boat's crew than pulling. One day, whilst engaged in this way, we saw two fat ducks on the bank, which were bagged. The bowman, who retrieved them, said there was a whole flock of them in the paddy-fields, so I landed and blazed into the crowd till all the ammunition was expended, when we gathered up the slain, amounting to 180 - sufficient to supply the squadron. It is almost needless to say they were tame ducks. Sometimes we raided a village for fowls, keeping the boat handy, so as to cover our retreat in case of accidents! I got an invitation once to visit a village in this way, but I took care to have a previous engagement. Sometime afterwards Lieutenant Bedford Pim, the commander of the Banterer, was chased, with some of his boat's crew, and cut off from his boat: they had
OPERATIONS IN THE CANTON RIVER.
to fight their way down, losing several men, Pim himself being severely wounded.
New Year's Day had come and gone, and this brings me to a very sorrowful part of my story. I have already mentioned my young shipmate, Pearn, a charming fellow and a great favourite. We had been up-river together from the first, and I entertained a great affection for him, coupled with admiration for his coolness and gallantry.
On Sunday, January 4 (1857), our worthy captain, W. King-Hall, read service, and preached a sermon in the little English church attached to the Factories, which had escaped from the general destruction. As we had not had the opportunity of attending church since we left the ship, nearly three months before, Pearn and I agreed to go ; so to church we went, and heard a very good discourse from our kind skipper, on readiness to die, and such like.
Coming out of church we met Captain Rolland, our commander, who told me I was wanted to go down the river with despatches for Macao Fort, which was now garrisoned by a party from H.M.S. Sybille, under Lieutenant Alston of that ship. Nothing pleased me better; so as soon as my men had finished dinner I started in the pinnace, calling alongside the Coromandel to pick up another young midshipman, Mather Byles, who was a particular friend of mine, and - who agreed to accompany me on the trip. It was as well he did.
We had got about a mile from Canton when we met with a boat coming up from Macao Fort with all speed: she was in charge of a midshipman named Eden, who reported that a large fleet of mandarin junks had come out of Fatshan creek
A DARE-DEVIL DASH
with the evident intention of attacking the fort, and Alston had sent this boat to inform the Admiral and ask for immediate assistance. Having told us this much, the boat proceeded on her way. Byles and I immediately held a council of war, and having taken the coxswain into our confidence, we decided to attack the junks. My duty was clearly to deliver my despatches and place myself under the orders of Lieutenant Alston, especially as the fleet of junks, which we could now plainly see drawn up in order of battle, was beyond the fort. But such a chance was not to be thrown away, and we thought there could be no harm in having a brush with the junks before the boats of the squadron could arrive. Having thus decided, we swept rapidly down the river with the current. On passing Macao Fort we were hailed by Lieutenant Alston to know where we were going; for answer I pointed to the junks ahead. Some orders were shouted out, but we pretended not to hear, and paid no attention.
I am not prepared to justify this foolish proceeding, which was not only contrary to orders, but altogether preposterous, seeing that the junks, numbering at least eighty (the same fleet which we subsequently destroyed at Fatshan on the 1st June), were armed with 32-pounders and crowded with men, whilst we were in an open boat, armed with a 12-pounder howitzer, and a crew of fourteen all told, besides ourselves, two mids ! But at eighteen midshipmen are not always gifted with discretion.
On getting within range we opened fire with our little gun, pitching shot after shot well into the
OPERATIONS IN THE CANTON RIVER.
brown of them. The junks were at anchor, swung to the current, with their heads up-river; they were formed in a crescent right across the river, one horn extending up the Fatshan creek (see plan).
At first the Chinamen took no notice of us, apparently disdaining so insignificant a foe ; but as we drew closer and our shots began to tell, they suddenly with one accord opened fire on us right along the line. Some of the junks, hauling in the springs on their cables, slewed broadside to us; and others,
Plan of Boat Action, Jan. 4, 1857
manning their sweeps, advanced to meet us. We now saw, when too late, that we had gone too far. The current, which we had not allowed for, was sweeping us down on to the junks, and retreat was impossible. There was nothing for it but to do our best, so, putting a bold face on it, we blazed away, keeping the boat's bow to the enemy, the men backing with their oars against the stream.
I was forward in the bows working the gun; Byles was at the helm, and Jim Parnell passed the powder
forward, when one of those panics occurred which sometimes take place even with the best men. One fellow threw his oar overboard and lay down in the bottom of the boat, and, to their shame be it said, nine others followed his example, only leaving their oars in the boat. In vain I ordered, entreated, and even threatened them with my revolver. Byles gallantly supported me, using the boat's tiller on their heads with good effect, and so did the coxswain and three brave fellows who were helping me with the gun. The boat meanwhile was drifting helplessly to destruction, and we could hear the yells of the Chinamen as their prey seemed within their reach. In Macao Fort they had no large guns to help us, but we could hear the cheers of the garrison as they manned the parapets to encourage us.
At last the boat's crew became alive to the danger and returned to their duty. Manning the oars, and facing forwards, they backed against the stream. To turn tail would have been fatal, as some of the junks, called fast-boats, pulled one hundred oars apiece, and would have caught us in no time, so we steadfastly faced the enemy still and kept the gun going. But this unequal contest could not last long; shots were dropping round us, wetting us with spray, or whizzing over our heads. They dropped among the oars, plunged under the bows, shook the ensign staff - in fact, did everything but hit us. It was, however, only a question of time ; for sooner or later a shot must strike the boat, and then it would have been all over with us, and I should not be alive to tell the tale. The junks were slowly but surely advancing, when, looking backwards, we saw, to our joy and relief, the Coromandel coming down the river with
OPERATIONS IN THE CANTON RIVER.
the Admiral's flag flying, and towing the boats of the squadron.
It was none too soon, for we were nearly done. The little brass gun had served us well, and was so hot I could hardly bear to touch it, and kicked so, that at the fifty-sixth round the breeching broke and the gun came over backwards, nearly on the top of me. At this critical moment the Coromandel got within range and opened fire ; but by this time we were so mixed up with the junks that the shots from our people fell dangerously close to us. The Chinamen now turned their attention to the Coromandel, and in the confusion we managed to escape.
But it was still a most unequal fight, for the little Coromandel with her 24-pounder pop-guns was no match for a whole fleet of heavily armed junks, carrying twenty broadside guns apiece and a 32-pounder in the bows. As soon as the vessel stopped we slipped alongside and put Byles on board. The Admiral sent for me on the bridge, just to tell me I had no business to be where I had been ; but it was no time for explanation, the Chinamen had got our range, and shot were flying thick about us. Just as I stepped back into my boat I met Pearn, who was in the cutter. "Why don't they let us go at the beggars?" said he. Poor fellow, they were his last words, for at that moment a round-shot came skipping along the water and struck him in the chest.
The Admiral now ordered all the boats to land to protect Macao Fort, and the Coromandel backed astern, as there was no room for her to turn in that part of the river. We landed at the back of the fort, and manning the parapets, kept up a brisk fire on the junks from our rifles. The Chinamen approached to
DEATH OF YOUNG PEARN
within 300 yards, and hammered away at their own fort, sending the stones flying, but doing us no harm. Finding they were getting well peppered themselves, they retreated leisurely to their old quarters in the Fatshan creek. We discovered that their object in coming out was to sink some junks loaded with stones on the bar, and thus block the river and cut us off from Hong-Kong.
The Encounter had been ordered to come down to our assistance ; but she managed to get ashore, and was of no use whatever - a most unfortunate mishap, to say the least of it, as she might have given a good account of a number of the junks. As soon as the action was over, I went aboard the Coromandel to see the last of my poor shipmate, whose body had been sent to that vessel. I found him lying in a cot, his countenance quite composed, and he looked as if he were asleep. The shot appeared to have grazed his chest, and a piece of iron had pierced his lungs. I cut off a lock of his hair and kissed the cold forehead, and having reverently covered the remains with the union-jack, returned sadly in my boat to Canton. The next day the body was sent down to Hong-Kong to be laid alongside others of his shipmates in "Happy Valley."
The morning after poor young Pearn's death I was busy cleaning out my boat in the camber, when the Admiral and Captain Hall came by : they wished me good morning, and asked particularly after the action of the previous day, and especially as to the behaviour of my boat's crew. I suppose they must have had an inkling of the affair, though not from me. I was obliged to tell them
OPERATIONS IN THE CANTON RIVER.
the whole story: how the coxswain and those who worked the gun with me had nobly supported me, and how the others had disgraced themselves. The captain was so indignant that he seized one man - the one who threw his oar overboard - by the throat, and declared he would hang him at the Calcutta's yard-arm. To make a short story of it, they were disrated on the spot and the others promoted, and I was sent down the river to the Calcutta to choose another crew and return as soon as possible.
The ship was lying at the Bogue Forts, so thither we went, and I was not long in picking up a new crew, as the whole ship's company volunteered. In forty-eight hours I was back again, tracking the boat along the bank and shooting in the paddy-fields abreast of her. An amusing thing occurred on this trip : two of the boat's crew could not agree, and as they kept on squabbling, I landed them in a paddy-field to fight it out. A ring was formed, and my coxswain and the gunner's mate attended to see fair play. After a few rounds, one of the combatants measured his length in the mud - they then shook hands, and were the best of friends ever afterwards.
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