Thursday, 19 July 2012

The CSS Alabama in Singapore

When the Confederate commerce raider the CSS Alabama called into Singapore in 1863 she drew quite a crowd. One of the visitors, John Cameron, left a record in his book, now available as a google free ebook.*

 The CSS Alabama in Singapore harbour

"She arrived at dusk on the evening of the 21st December. A few made her out as she came to anchor, but as the larger part of the residents had retired to their houses in the country, the news did not spread. Early next morning however, for it was the morning of the despatch of the Europe mail, around Commercial Square were clustered groups of eager and inquiring faces learning the particulars of the arrival of the renowned cruiser. The effect of these groups was heightened by the appearance, here and there, of the strange grey uniform of the Confederate Government. There was no longer any doubt about it, the Alabama was lying in the roads in full view of all the godowns facing the beach, and here, knocking about, talking in an unconcerned yet affable manner, were the men who had held the torch to many a stately merchantman, and who had taken not a few thousands out of the pockets of some of the very merchants with whom they were standing side by side.

From the beach, a considerable way out, the long low black hull, with its raking masts and stumpy funnel, could be seen. There was no doubting her identity; and how other vessels could so often have been mistaken for her by those who had once seen her, it is difficult to understand. At ten o'clock in the morning she proceeded from her anchorage of the night to one of the wharves at New Harbour to take in a supply of coals; she moved with great rapidity, and yet made but a ripple in the water. The promontories of the land soon shut her out from the view of the town, and Captain Semmes caused a notice to appear in the newspapers that visitors could not then be received, as his ship was coaling, but that all who chose to inspect her on the following day would be gladly welcomed on board.

 Singapore harbour 1865

New Harbour is three miles distant from the town by the road, and next day carriages were at a premium, for natives of all classes, as well as the European residents, had determined to avail themselves of the opportunity to inspect a ship that will possess some place in the history of the present age. The excitement among the natives was the more remarkable; for they generally display no interest in events which do not purely relate to themselves. Seven years ago, at the time of the Chinese war, the town batteries were constantly saluting the arrivals of important plenipotentiaries in the finest ships of the British Navy, and yet seldom was even an inquiry ventured by the natives as to the cause of these unusual proceedings. All however, from the smallest boy to the greyheaded old patriarchs, could tell that the Alabama was in. They had learned her name, and flocked in crowds to see her. What their conjectures were concerning her, or what they could see about her more attractive than about the war-ships of three times her size and armament, which arrive in the roadstead at all seasons of the year, it is somewhat difficult to say. Some had doubtless learned her story, but the great mass must have been ignorant of it. Perhaps a clue to the interest they displayed might be found in the often repeated exclamations,—" Hantu, Kappal Hantu— « Ghost—ghost ship.'"

The Alabama under sail

The Alabama is in appearance a small vessel, I should say barely of 1,000 tons register; she looks trim and compact, however, and likely to prove a match for a much larger enemy. She is very long and very narrow: I paced her length as she lay along the wharf, and made it 210 feet, her breadth is barely 27 feet; and she is extremely low in the water. She is bark, but not full bark rigged, with long raking spars; and has the greatest spread of canvas in her fore and aft sails, which are of enormous size. I was assured that with canvas alone, under favourable circumstances, she has gone thirteen knots per hour; whether this be exaggerated or not, she must have great sailing powers, for one of the officers on board told me that she had only coaled three times since she had been in commission, before coming to Singapore. Her deck appeared to me slightly crowded for a fighting ship, but while she was taking in stores was not the best time to judge of this. Her engine-room is large, and her engines kept in beautiful order. She has made, they said, as much as fourteen knots under steam, but her ordinary speed was ten to eleven knots.

Her mounted armament consists of six 32-pounder broadside guns, and two large pivots, one 100-pounder rifled Blakely, placed forward, and the other a smooth bore 68-pounder. She is not a slimly built vessel as has been frequently represented, but is of thorough man-of-war build. The only action in which she had yet been engaged was off Galveston, when she was chased by the Hatteras. The action was a longer one than is generally believed, for it took eight broadsides of the Alabama to sink her enemy, and not one, as was reported. Her officers pointed me out several places where she had been damaged by the fire of the Hatteras; one was just under the main chains where the shot had gone right through her side and lodged in the opposite timbers; one ball had hulled her a little before the foremast—low down —one struck her on the deck, close to her middle starboard broadside gun, nearly killing a number of the crew who were working it, and another shot went clean through her funnel. These are small scars for a ship eighteen months in commission during war time; but I could see that they were carefully cherished. Round the wheel, inlaid in large brass letters, I noticed the rather remarkable motto, "Aide toi, et Dieu t' aidera."

I was anxious to ascertain the loyalty of the crew, of which, according to late accounts, there were good reasons to doubt. When I went on board they were washing decks and cleaning up after coaling, by no means an occupation calculated to foster the most agreeable spirit in a sailor; and yet I must say I could remark no sign of impatience, much less of insubordination. Nor could I attribute this contented behaviour to fear of the officers, who were far from rough or domineering in their manners; so that I conclude whatever may be their hardships or the precarious nature of their pay and emoluments, the crew of the Alabama would stand by her in case of danger. The officers were all Americans, except two, an Englishman and a German. They were all fine men, and seem enthusiastic in the service on which they had adventured. Some of them admitted to me, however, that the capture and destruction of merchantmen had begun to lose its excitement, and I should not be surprised, were the officers left to themselves, to learn that the Alabama had risked an encounter with the armed ships of her enemy; her commander however I should say was a man slow to move on a rash enterprise.

 Captain Semmes and First Lieutenant Kell on the Alabama, 1863

Captain Semmes is in appearance as well as in character a remarkable man. He is not tall, is thin and rather bilious-looking, and would consort much more readily to the picture of a Georgia cottonplanter than to that of a sailor. He speaks very little, but when he does allude to the Confederate States it is with a bold confidence as to their future fate, somewhat surprising in these latter days of Southern reverses. When the somewhat disheartening news for the Confederate cause just received by the previous mail was handed to him on his quarter-deck at New Harbour, he simply replied, pointing to the Confederate ensign above him,—" It is no matter; that flag never comes down." Time will tell whether or not his boast be a true one.

Whatever may be one's impressions when he sedately views the mission of the Alabama, it is impossible in the presence of the trim little ship herself not to be momentarily carried away by a sympathy for her cause; and perhaps some more tangible palliative than momentary enthusiasm may be urged in her favour. "You must remember, sir," said one of her officers to me, "that we but retaliate on our enemy that destruction of property which he has been the first to inaugurate in this war. His power at sea was by a simple chance too much for us to cope with from the first, or we should by this time have had a small navy of our own, built in our own dockyards; and as we have been content to fight him in the field with a disparity of numbers, so we should have attacked him at sea with a weaker force. Such," he continued, "has not been our fortune; but it has been our fortune to obtain this and some few other ships, and to bring them to bear on our enemies' most salient point. General Gilmore himself, when he uses the advantage which the Federal ships have placed in his hands to destroy from his batteries the warehouses and mansions of Charleston,(The news of the shelling of Charleston with Greek fire had reached Singapore by the previous mail from Europe) endorses our course as legitimate. It is true, Charleston has its forts and batteries which do their best to protect these defenceless buildings, but does this alter the parallel? Is it confessed that the merchant shipping of the Federal Government can find no protection in the Federal navy? and if it is so confessed, is it urged that we should therefore hold back from the advantage which our enemies' defencelessness gives us in one particular, while he advantages to the full by our insufficiently protected state in another? No! when the Northern hordes pause on their onward raid by the consideration of the inability of the Confederate Government to afford protection to its cities, then may we too pause on our course, for the reason that the Federal Government cannot or will not spare ships from the blockade of Southern ports to protect her foreign shipping." It was a strong argument—as strong probably as could be urged, and it did not lose its force from being put on the deck of the Alabama.

Photograph of the CSS Alabama in Singapore harbour

There the renowned ship lay, in calm unruffled water, making with a background of the beautiful green islands of New Harbour as pretty and as peaceful a picture as the eye could wish to gaze on.

On the morning of the 24th, at about ten o'clock, the Alabama proceeded out of New Harbour, to the westward, and her long low dark hull, raking spars, and short stumpy funnel, rapidly faded from the view of the green island of Singapore—probably for ever. But like Dundee and his blue-bonnets of old, if Singapore had seen the last of the Alabama, it certainly had not heard the last of her and Captain Semmes and his grey-coats. On the night of her departure from New Harbour, scarcely thirty miles off, she came up with and destroyed the British, or at least British registered, barque Martaban; two days later she burned the American ships Sonora and Highlander, as they lay at anchor in the Straits of Malacca. Captain Semmes found means, too, to send back to Singapore a justification of his destruction of the first ship which appeared in the newspapers there three days after the event.

In very few foreign ports could the proximity of the Alabama have created a more visible effect than it did at Singapore. At the beginning of the present year there were eighteen large American ships, aggregating over 12,000 tons' measurement, lying idle in the harbour, when there was a brisk demand for shipping. Fully one-half of that number changed owners shortly afterwards, and passed under another flag. I heard one of the officers of the Alabama remark:— "We don't care much whether or not we succeed in destroying any more of the enemy's merchantmen; we have done enough already, our presence alone in these waters will now suffice to ruin the eastern commerce of the Federal States." And truly the observation has come nearly to be realized. Besides these idle ships, there were no less than 120 men who had been cast adrift by the Alabama, maintained at Singapore at one time by the United States' consul. One crew had the singularly bad fortune to be burned out twice; they came up from Batavia after having been landed from on board the Contest, which was burned in the Java Sea, and shipped again at Singapore on board the Sonora—one of the vessels burned while at anchor in the Straits of Malacca. Certainly the Alabama will be remembered in Singapore."

* Our tropical possessions in Malayan India: being a descriptive account of Singapore, Penang, Province Wellesley, and Malacca : their peoples, products, commerce, and government (available as a free google ebook)

No comments:

Post a Comment