Search just our sites by using our customised search engine

Unique Cottages | Electric Scotland's Classified Directory

Click here to get a Printer Friendly PageSmiley

Recollections of Thirty-nine Years in the Army
Chapter XIX


Ordered to China—Embark--" Overland" route —Alexandria - Cairo—DesertSuez—Red S ea—Aden—Galle— Across the Bay—Penang—Baron Gros and Lord Elgin—Hong-Kong.

QN April 26 I had the unlooked-for surprise to receive a semiofficial letter from the Departmental Office, warning me for service in China on promotion. The note of the circumstance recorded in my diary at the time was this: "Bitter has been my disappointment on being superseded. In my turn I am now to supersede others; but the system is not the less cruel to those who suffer by it." The promotion so indicated implied that I was about to pass over an entire grade, including its members, all of whom are my seniors in the service.

Short was the time allowed to make arrangements for my dear wife and children, from all of whom I took leave on May 2. On the following day I received further orders in London, and proceeded to Southampton; on 4th embarked on board the P. and O. steamer Ripon; by 2 p.m. we were on our voyage.

The "Overland" route was now before us, its attractions and incidents new to me. The bold coast scenery of Portugal, towns, forts, and convents succeeded each other at short intervals ; Mondego Bay; Mafra, near to which the "lines" of Torres Vedras were begun, by England's great commander. Then the Spanish coast with its vineyards and olive groves, villages and hamlets; Tarifa, at the siege of which by the French, in 1811-12, the 87th Regiment gained distinction by repelling the assailants under General Laval, the old Moorish walls of that town being clearly seen by us. Now came into view, on our right, Ceuta, far away behind which rose peaks of the Atlas range; the great rock and fortress of Gibraltar, between it and Africa the "gut" some twelve miles broad; then we are in the comparatively wide expanse of the "blue Mediterranean." Rising to a height of 11,000 feet, the Sierra Nevada, white with snow and magnificent in outline on our left, the chilly breezes from which now swept across our track. Next, passing close by the Cane rocks, where since the previous January a lighthouse was established; then the sight of the Gulf of Tunis carried historical associations back to Carthage and its wars. The island of Pantellaria, pretty to view from the distance, but as a penal settlement for Sicilian convicts, it is in all probability less agreeable as a place of residence. Then, on our right, Gozo, the cultivated terraces on which could be distinctly seen through our binoculars; otherwise the island looked treeless and bare, the most prominent objects upon it a succession of fortifications, for it is garrisoned by British troops. Yet, bare as it seems, Gozo is said to be a "garden" whence fruit and vegetables are chiefly supplied to Malta. Now we approach that island, the densely crowded town of Valetta comes in sight; we enter the harbour, ramparts and bastions on either side of us, the monotony of the town buildings interrupted by spires and pinnacles; every building dazzling white. As the anchor drops, we know that our stay is to be brief; a hasty run ashore, a visit to St. John's Cathedral, the Armoury, one or two other places of interest, then we resume our journey eastward.

Alexandria was our next point of interest. As in the early hours of morning we approached that historical port and city, the lighthouse, the numerous windmills along the shore line, were the distinctive objects first seen; as we entered the harbour, the Lazaretto, seraglio and palace of the Sultan were on our left. Ships of all nations, but the majority British, swing at anchor in our near proximity. A steamer conveyed us to the railway station, whence by train to Cairo, passing on our way an extensive line of ruins of the ancient aqueduct of Alexandria, destroyed by Diocletian, A.D. 296; the station of Meyrout, the name indicating Meotis, the lake or reservoir so named being indicated by a succession of shallow pools, on some of which "sportsmen" were engaged in shooting water-birds of sorts ; then the windings of the Mahmoodieh Canal to our left; fields of bearded wheat and barley ready for the sickle, while in some few places "thrashing floors" were extemporised, oxen un- muzzled engaged on them, as in the days of the patriarchs. Crossing the Nile at Kafr ez Zajyat, the first glimpse of that sacred stream was obtained; then the Pyramids of Ghizeh came in view, recalling to our minds many associations connected with their wonderful history; then early in the afternoon we were at Cairo.

El Kahira, "the Beautiful"! Under the guidance of a dragoman from the hotel where a brief stay was made, we started to explore the city. Winding our way through narrow streets, named respectively the Turkish, French, and Greek Bazaars, opportunity was given to observe the manners and strange variety of persons and costumes in those places. Having visited various smaller mosques, we ascended to the Citadel, the work of Saladin, A.D. 1176, but interesting not so much in itself as for the famous mosque of alabaster contained within it, that edifice erected by Mahomed Ali, and now forming his tomb. The portion of the citadel wall whence, on the occasion of the massacre of the Mamelukes by order of that monarch in March, 1811, Emir Bey leaped his horse to a depth of 6o to 8o feet, then succeeded in effecting his escape, was carefully scanned. At a little distance from it we stood in the palace yard in which 700 doomed Beys, having been treacherously invited to a pretended marriage, were shot down from loopholes around, while in a window pointed out to us the Pasha sat looking on, and quietly enjoying his chebouk. From the walls we readily followed by the eye the Nile, winding and flowing smoothly on as in the days of the Pharaohs. Green with vegetation was the island of Rhodda, upon which, B.C. 1517, the infant Moses was found by Thermuthis, the king's daughter in the distance the plain of Bussateen, upon which tradition records that the Israelites encamped in the first day of their flight. Further away were the Pyramids of Sakarah and Dahshur. Beyond them the haze seemed to blend with the desert.

Next day the passengers via Marseilles arrived, and the whole party of us resumed our journey. It was not long until our train had entered the desert, extending far as the eye could reach ; in some places varied by sandhills of different sizes, in others flat, but everywhere destitute of vegetation save a few stunted bushes. In the bright sunshine the mirage glittered deceptively, presenting the appearance of sea and islands, to vanish in their turn as we approached them. A few short halts at stations, and we detrain at Suez, to resume our journey by sea; we have completed the "overland" portion of it.

Suez, supposed to be the ancient Arsinoe, was interesting for the reason that in our approach thereto we had an opportunity of observing the line of retreat assigned by tradition to the Israelites in their flight from their oppressors. But now our movements were hurried; we were quickly on board the Colombo, ready waiting for us in the gulf, and so away we steamed towards the Red Sea.

Our progress was uneventful during the five days occupied in traversing that much-dreaded track. The temperature of air and sea rose to a higher point than we had yet experienced; the numerous islands, the greater number destitute of lighthouses, were material proofs of dangers to navigation by night—a danger rendered the more significant as we steamed close past a rock on which a P. and O. vessel' had shortly before been wrecked. As we passed the position of Mocha, binoculars revealed to us the white houses, minarets, pillars, and balconies of that Arabian town.

The rock of Aden, bare, rugged and unattractive in appearance, rose before us; in due time we were at anchor in the bay. The usual rush ashore was not indulged in, because of the great heat prevailing, nor did we look with envy upon the few residents who took their afternoon drive along the strand, our own amusement consisting in throwing small coins into the sea, and seeing the great agility of young Arabs as they dived after and caught them.

In the early morning of June 4, our ship arrived in Galle harbour, the view as we entered rich and beautiful, the hills on either side and in front thickly covered with palms and under vegetation, but the heavy hot atmosphere causing a sense of great oppression. The southwest monsoon was at full strength, the sea beating in heavy breakers over some rocks at the harbour. As we entered we came close to the wreck of the Malabar; that vessel, while starting from her anchorage a few days previous, having on board the English and French Plenipotentiaries to China, was driven upon a rock, and wrecked by the heavy weather prevailing. Here we had to tranship to the Pekin, to continue by that vessel our voyage eastward. While so delayed, we indulged in the usual drives to places in the neighbourhood, everywhere through dense forests of palms, alternated with those of other tropical forms, the atmosphere hot, damp, and oppressive. The Cinnamon Gardens, so named from what was formerly a principal product of the island, were in a state of neglect and decay; the cinnamon industry a thing of the past, like that of the nutmeg, at one time prosperous while as yet Ceylon was Dutch property; nor was the cultivation of coffee a success by British planters, the shrub which yields that berry being attacked by insect and vegetable blights, the general result being ruin to nearly all interested in its cultivation.

The accident referred to led to the rescued passengers from the Malabar being sent on board the Pekin, and our ship was crowded to a degree that speedily became unpleasant. As we steamed across the Bay of Bengal in heavy monsoon weather, the ports had to be closed. Then it was that, in addition to the sweltering atmosphere "below," emanations from opium, that drug being the chief portion of the ship's cargo, affected us unpleasantly, first by the sense of taste, then by exerting to some extent its narcotising influence; it was therefore a most welcome relief to us, as we approached Sumatra, to get into clear weather, to have everything thrown open, and so enjoy the delightful change that had taken place in our condition.

Our next point was the high and thickly wooded island of Penang. Our ship having dropped anchor, several of our party started to "explore" that very lovely island. We drove along well-made roads, on either side bordered with bamboo hedges, through which flowering creepers stretched or hung in festoons. Bungalows, each in its well-kept garden, in which grew palms, tropical fruit trees, and flowers, were thickly dotted about; an extensive field of "pawn" pepper, then groves of nutmeg trees were passed, and we arrived at the object of our excursion, the cascade, 140 to 16o feet high. Here, for the first time, we indulged in that delicious fruit the mangosteen.

Arrived at Singapore, the busy aspect of the town, with its population Of 70,000, chiefly Chinese, impressed us. We noted with interest the numerous temples connected with the sects into which that population is divided. In the course of a ramble taken for purposes of discovery we were accosted by a Chinaman. He addressed us rudely; laughing and gesticulating as he spoke, he said, "Plenty English going to China; they will soon be all shot;" thus expressing his own views and probably also his desire in regard to the issue of the war. Among a great variety of articles publicly exposed for sale were two small pieces of ordnance; nor could the sale of such weapons be interfered with, as no Declaration of War had so far been made. 'While our ship, the Pekin, remained in harbour, some of our number paid their respects to His Excellency the Governor—namely, to Colonel Cavanagh—whose story at Maharaj pore has already been recorded.

On various occasions during this part of our voyage, opportunity brought us in contact with the representatives of France and England, our fellow-passengers. Baron Gros was generally reserved in manner; Lord Elgin, on the contrary, frank and open. The latter expressed his views that an advance on Pekin had become a matter of necessity; in his negotiations with the Chinese, he meant to ask only for what is reasonable and just, and having done so to obtain it; but not to take advantage of one concession to base upon it a demand for another. He was of opinion that the season was too far advanced to permit of further proceedings than the capture of the Tientsin forts, as a base of operations for the ensuing spring; some of the islands in the Gulf of Pehchili being taken possession of to serve as sanatoria. He observed, with reference to the existence of the Taiping rebellion, that if on the one hand the influence of the Court at Pekin were to be seriously weakened, the schemes of the rebel party would be thereby assisted; while on the other hand severe chastisement was necessary as retribution for treacherous action against our ambassadors and their ships at Taku. Therefore, the difficulty to be overcome was to punish and yet not seriously injure the Imperial power. But events were to outrun the anticipations so expressed.

Hong-Kong was reached on Midsummer Day. As the town of Victoria came in sight, the general aspect presented by it produced a favourable impression upon us; the light and airy style of houses rising in tiers above each other upwards along the precipitous mountain face, that mountain culminating in a peak some 11,300 feet above sea level, presented a panorama different altogether in character from anything we had hitherto seen. The circumstance that the town and the roads where the shipping lay were completely sheltered from the south-west monsoon then prevailing furnished full explanation for the oppressive damp heat to which we were at once introduced. It became my painful duty to announce myself to the officer, who, by the fact of my arrival, was superseded in his position, with whom in his disappointment and chagrin I much sympathised. Indeed, so greatly did he feel what he looked upon as the disgrace into which he had departmentally fallen, that his subsequent career was unfortunate; nor did he ever return to England.


This comment system requires you to be logged in through either a Disqus account or an account you already have with Google, Twitter, Facebook or Yahoo. In the event you don't have an account with any of these companies then you can create an account with Disqus. All comments are moderated so they won't display until the moderator has approved your comment.

comments powered by Disqus