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Diary, 1851 September – 1853 January

 Item — Box: Vol. 1
Call Number: MSS 38 , Series II

Scope and Contents

Holograph diary, labelled: “E.A. Porcher. Notes on Ports Visited in H.M.S. CLEOPATRA, September 1851 – circa 1853”. Includes the following small pen and ink drawings: “purchase for hauling vessels up at Jardine’s slip” (page 7), chart (18), map of Labuan (20), diagram (25), 2 sketches (26), sketch of a lighthouse (45) and a map of Amoy (55).

Porcher provides general descriptions of the ports visited by the Cleopatra, including hydrographical information, natural resources, natural history, and inhabitants. The diary is roughly divided into sections describing the following topics: the island and harbor of Hong Kong; monsoons, currents, and other weather patterns affecting navigation of the China Sea; Labuan; A Conflict with Pirates in Borneo, 1852; the Straits of Singapore; Shanghai; Amoy; Macau; Hong Kong’s population; Burma.

Porcher begins with Hong Kong, describing its general topographical character, soil, climate, measurements, demographics, and geology. The main feature of the island is “the secure and convenient harbor,” which he notes has “induced the English plenipotentiary to select this island, and owing to the few inhabitants becomes a much safer retreat for the English in case of another misunderstanding with the Chinese” (1-2). Hong Kong is preferable to nearby Chusan, in Porcher’s view, which had a number of islands where pirates could easily hide or escape. Upriver at Whampoa, an island where foreign traders would unload their cargo onto smaller vessels to take up the narrow Straits to Canton, Porcher lists some foreign vessels at the dry dock such as the “Villa de Bilboa” (a Spanish frigate), a patent slip in Jardine’s establishment, and the “Royalist,” the steamer “Canton” (6). As a result of the European populace who resided there for several months of each year, Whampoa became a cosmopolitan way-station between the Chinese city of Canton and the Portuguese colony of Macau.

The diary provides valuable insight into how naval ships negotiated changing weather conditions in Hong Kong and in travel between South China sea ports. Pages 7-15 are devoted to explanations of meteorological information: the South-West monsoon, which occurs from April to October; the North-East Monsoon, which prevails from September or October in the north; typhoons on the southern coast in June and July; Gales that blow steadily in September on the China coast; and variable currents which depend on local wind, shoreline, and monsoon conditions. Porcher’s log might have been intended for use by future officers in determining the best seasonal routes and naval maneuvers in the region.

He provides a general description of the Island of Labuan, off the coast of Borneo, which was originally proposed as a British base against piracy in 1840 and became a Crown Colony in 1848. His descriptions strike a note of interest in the natural products and cultivation – information useful for determining Labuan’s suitability for settlement and resource extraction. Particularly interested in raw materials such as camphor wood - valuable for its gum, oil, and use as insect repellent – and rattan for rigging and furniture, Porcher stresses that “the most important product is certainly the coal,” he writes, “both in a political as well as commercial view” (23). This point was of strategic importance to the British navy, as a steady supply of coal was essential for steamship operations, and “should the steam route through the Eastern Archipelago come into practice, this coal district would be of vast importance” (24). Porcher also speculates that the island could be conducive to the lucrative cultivation of cotton, sugar, rice, coffee (27). Another of its exports is leeches, evidently still used to treat disease.

Pages 29-44 of Porcher’s diary are devoted to incidents in early 1852, in which members of the Cleopatra’s crew was dispatched on the steamers Semiramis and Pluto to seek out pirates who had murdered the crew of a small trading schooner, the HMS Dolphin. With the Political Agent for Borneo and Captain Brooke from Sarawak accompanying the expedition, the Cleopatra first stopped at Gaya Bay in late January to meet with the Chief Pangeran Madand, “about his rendering the Illanun [Iranun] pirates assistance, particularly in selling them a boat in which they went pirating in” (30). Some marines disembark, but then all at once “the men in the boats were suddenly fired upon from the jungle, that grew close down to the water on each side, and one man killed and two wounded.” (33). The next day (February 18), the boats return to the chief’s house and burn forty houses and property in revenge for the previous day’s ambush. The men in boats were again shot upon from the jungle – one killed, two wounded. Porcher illustrates select episodes from this incident (see “25. Official visit of the boats of the Cleopatra to the Pangeran Madoud’s house […]” and “27. Borneo. Skirmish with the Illanoon pirates at Tooncoo […]”). Devoting pages 37-44 to a lengthy description of the Iranun pirates, he explains the details of the pirate escape routes, hideouts, vessels, and fighting weapons (42).

With its rapidly increasing trade as a result of treaty port status, the formerly isolated trading center of Shanghai “is likely erelong to become the principal emporia in China” (48), speculates Porcher. Its advantageous position at the junction of two rivers allow communication with Suchow-fu, the capital, as well as Yunnan and Su’chuen [Sichuan?]. Merchandise such as silk, cotton, bamboo, bronze and earthenware attract interest, but food products most of all – “dining rooms, tea houses, and bakers shops are met with in at every step” (49). A temperature table “from Dr. Lockhart’s hospital report” is included for comparison with Hong Kong’s climate.

Porcher describes the southwest corner of the island of Amoy [Xiamen] as “the most important harbor in the province of Fuhkien [Fujian],” delighting in the “picturesque” scenery caused by the number of pagoda-topped islands dotting the bay (52). At the western side of the harbour is Kulang-su [Gulanyu], littered with batteries and once occupied by English troops after the city’s capture in 1841. Porcher is quick to recommend Kulang-su for English settlement, “in case of another misunderstanding with the Chinese," for its strategic position between high ridges and as a source of fresh water (53). Moreover, the location's lack of significant waves makes it an ideal spot for repair docks (54).

Porcher describes Macau, the Portuguese colony, as “a far more healthy and agreeable residence than Hong Kong, on account of its being open to all breezes” (56). The lack of harbor in the vicinity is one drawback, however, that forces ships to anchor four miles away from the main town. He describes the means by which ships might pass the Typa anchor in the low water, and in monsoons. This description is followed by a population chart of Hong Kong for 1851, broken down into the demographics: Europeans and Americans (647); Goa and Macao Portuguese (489); Indians, Malays and Natives of Manita (221); aliens or temporary residents (13) and Chinese (31,983). The Chinese are then broken down by locations and occupations. A “map of Canton, Macao, Hong Kong, and the adjacent islands” on page 62 is in Porcher’s characteristic, meticulous hand.

In his last pages, Porcher conveys the dangers of running aground along the Rangoon (Burma/Myanmar) coast in the Southwest Monsoon, due to its “many creeks and rivers with reef and shoal water” (64). And yet braving this is well worth the trouble for the traveler, as the town is situated on the shore of a great river, and the magnificent Dagon Pagoda is “supposed to be the finest in this part of the country” (65). During the “last war,” East India Company surveys penetrated up the river, and the town has “every prospect of being a very flourishing place, after it has been our possession a few years, it will make a good building establishment” (65). The area known as the Martaban or Salween river was ceded to the British government and the village of Amherst built on a peninsula on the mouth of the river. Moulmein [Mawlamyine], about 25 miles from Amherst, was founded as the principle British settlement on the northern boundary. A description and table of rainfall at Moulmein during the Southwest monsoons from 1845-52 completes Porcher’s description of Rangoon’s physical geography and meteorology.


  • 1851 September – 1853 January


Physical Description

1 volume (68 pages) : 8 pen and ink drawings ; 18 x 12 cm

Conditions Governing Access

From the Collection: The materials are open for research.

Language of Materials

From the Collection: English

Part of the Yale Center for British Art, Rare Books and Manuscripts Repository

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