Thursday, March 6, 2014

Singapore During the Civil War Era, Part II: The CSS Alabama Pays a Visit in December 1863

As I wrote last week, a recent business trip inspired me to take a deeper look at Singapore during the Civil War era. In Part I of the series, I examined some sites associated with British colonial rule in the nineteenth century, including St. Andrew's Cathedral and Fort Canning. This week I get more to the point. Believe it or not, far-away Singapore has a direct connection to the Civil War involving a famed Confederate commerce raider.

Stating in August 1862, Capt. Raphael Semmes led the CSS Alabama on far-ranging expeditions to harass Federal shipping. The Confederate raider struck targets in the Atlantic, West Indies, and Indian Ocean, all the while eluding capture by the Union Navy. As November 1863 got underway, the Alabama entered waters around present-day Indonesia, where Semmes attacked and burned three U.S. merchant ships.

The Alabama, a screw steam sloop, required periodic refueling, and Semmes soon set his sights on procuring more coal in Singapore. Early on Monday, December 21, 1863, the Alabama headed towards the port city in a tropical downpour. A clearing around noon enabled Semmes to get his bearings, and the Alabama finally anchored off Singapore at around 5:30 in the afternoon. The U.S. Vice Counsel, Francis D. Cobb, attempted to reach the Alabama that night, but was prevented from getting too close to the ship. (Foenander.)

On Tuesday, December 22 the Alabama entered New Harbor, about three miles down the road from the city of Singapore. The ship docked at the wharves of the P & O Steamship Company and began coaling. The entire refueling operation took around ten hours, but the Alabama also needed additional supplies. Luckily, the English merchant Hugh Rowland Beaver of the firm Cumming, Beaver & Co. had offered to help the crew procure provisions, and Semmes put him in contact with the ship's paymaster. The captain also sent an officer to meet with the governor of Singapore and assure him of the Alabama's intentions while in the colony.

"The Alabama at New Harbor, Singapore," from Cameron, Our Tropical Possessions in Malayan India (1865) (courtesy of Marshall University)
Docked at New Harbor, Semmes saw first-hand the impact his raids were having on Union shipping in the region. As he later wrote in his memoirs:
A very gratifying spectacle met our eyes at Singapore. There were twenty-two American ships there — large Indiamen — almost all of which were dismantled and laid up! The burning of our first ship in these seas, the Amanda, off the Strait of Sunda, had sent a thrill of terror through all the Yankee shipping, far and near, and it had hastened to port, to get out of harm's way. We had recent news here from all parts of the China seas, by vessels passing constantly through the Strait of Malacca, and touching at Singapore for orders or refreshments. There were two American ships laid up in Bangkok, in Siam; one or two at Canton; two or three at Shanghai; one at the Philippine Islands; and one or two more in Japanese waters. (Semmes 708-09.)
Word of the Alabama's arrival spread as people went about their business in Commercial Square on Tuesday morning. The inhabitants became excited to learn that the famous raider was anchored at New Harbor. Before long, "crowds gathered to look curiously upon her, and compare her appearance with what they had read of her." (Semmes 710.) Semmes observed:
. . . all the races and all the religions of the world were represented in the throngs that crowded the coaling jetty, to look upon the Alabama, wearing the new flag of a new nation, mysterious for its very distance from them. We were to their eastern eyes a curious people of the antipodes. (Semmes 710.)
Semmes advertised in the local papers that although the Alabama was closed to visitors on Tuesday because of coaling, those wanting to inspect the ship would be welcomed aboard the next day. Carriages to take visitors to New Harbor on Wednesday 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." (Cameron 273.) Semmes attributed some of the natives' curiosity to a rumor that the Confederates kept "negro giants" chained in the ship's hold, "whom we armed with immense weapons and let loose, in time of battle. . . ." (Semmes 711.)  Author John Cameron speculated that "a clue to the interest [the natives] displayed might be found in the often repeated exclamations,—'Hantu, Kappal Hantu'— 'Ghost—ghost ship.'" (Cameron 273.)

Photograph of the CSS Alabama in Singapore, December 1863. This photograph, likely taken by August Sachtler, appeared in the album, Views and Types of Singapore, 1863 (courtesy Marshall University/Lee Kip Lin).
Heading out to New Harbor, Cameron took advantage of the chance to climb on board the ship. After walking around and examining the Alabama and its armaments, he concluded that "[s]he is not a slimly built vessel as has been frequently represented, but is of thorough man-of-war build." (Cameron 274.) Cameron was also "anxious to ascertain the loyalty of the crew, of which, according to late accounts, there were good reasons to doubt." (Cameron 275.) He "could remark no sign of impatience, much less of insubordination" and believed that "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." (Cameron 275.)

Capt. Raphael Semmes (courtesy of Wikipedia)

While the Alabama was docked in Singapore, Semmes had an opportunity to tour the city. He too seemed just as curious about the place as the inhabitants were about his ship. Semmes recorded some observations in his daily journal:
Visited the city, and was astonished at its amount of population and business. . . . Singapore being a free port, it is a great entrepot of trade. Great quantities of Eastern produce reaches it from all quarters, whence it is shipped to Europe. The business is almost exclusively in the hands of the Chinese, who are also the artisans and laborers of the place. The streets are thronged with foot passengers and vehicles, among which are prominent the ox, or rather the buffalo cart, and the hacks for hire, of which latter there are 900 licensed. The canal is filled with country boats, of excellent model, and the warehouses are crammed with goods. Money seems to be abundant and things dear. They are just finishing a tasteful Gothic church, with a tall spire, which is a notable landmark as you approach the town, and are completing officers' quarters, etc., on a hill which commands the town. . . . The moving multitude in the streets comprises every variety of the human race, every shade of color, and every variety of dress, among which are prominent the gay tartans and fancy jackets of the Mohammedan, Hindu, etc. (ORN, 1:2, 791.)*

Semmes also visited Beaver's estate outside the city, where he dined and spent the night of December 22.** The captain noted that Beaver "lived in luxurious style, as do most European merchants in the East." (Semmes 714.) His "grounds were extensive, and well kept," and the "household. . . was a pattern of neatness and comfort." (Semmes 714.) On the way back into town the next day, Semmes stopped at the British officers' mess, where he had been invited to lunch. He found a very English spread of cheese, cold meats, porter, and wines.

The night of December 23, the crew rounded up sailors who had gone on a drunken "frolic" in town. (Semmes 715.) In the end, ten crew members successfully deserted in Singapore, but at least the Alabama was able to secure four new enlistments.

Early on Thursday morning, December 24, the Alabama left the port at Singapore under a cloudy sky, loaded with coal and provisions. The ship headed for the Strait of Malacca, where Semmes wasted no time in getting back to work -- he attacked and burned three U.S. merchant ships between the 24th and 26th. The Alabama then sailed to France for desperately needed repairs. Six months later, the raider would meet its demise in the waters off Cherbourg.

Modern view of the waters off Singapore showing extensive commercial cargo traffic. Singapore is the world's second busiest container port. (I snapped this picture from the 57th floor of the Marina Bay Sands.)
Back in Singapore, the Straits Times downplayed reception accorded the Alabama. On January 12, 1864, the paper reported that "almost every person in Singapore paid her a visit." However, it was "worthy of remark. . . that there was no display of enthusiasm in her behalf, and that no public demonstration whatever was made in her favor." The tone is perhaps not surprising. In a December 12, 1863 article, the Times had criticized the Alabama's "cold blooded" and "wanton" destruction of unprotected U.S.merchant ships. As the paper commented:
However much we may sympathize with the South as the weaker power against the stronger, and as a people seeking independence, we can scarcely hail with satisfaction the advantages thus gained by their corsair fleet. (Straits Times, Dec. 12, 1864.)
News of the Alabama's visit to Singapore also reached America's shores, although long after the fact. Papers such as the Alexandria Gazette and New York Times carried the story of Semmes' movements around the Strait of Malacca at the end of December.

Traveling all the way to Singapore was quite a long haul. After over twenty-one hours in the air, I stepped out into a tropical land half a world away from home. Today, Singapore is a booming, modern metropolis, with a population as diverse as in Semmes' day. Exploring the city's colonial quarter, I pondered the visit by the CSS Alabama. Perhaps this is the last place you'd expect to find a link to the American Civil War. Yet just over 150 years ago, the Confederate sailors from the Alabama walked some of the same streets, and saw some of the same landmarks, as their vessel refueled for future voyages. I couldn't help but think -- now all we need is to place a Civil War Trails marker down by the harbor!


*The Gothic cathedral is likely St. Andrew's, which was consecrated in 1862. The officers' barracks were being constructed at Ft. Canning. I discussed both sites in last week's post.

**An officer from the Alabama, possibly Lt. Arthur Sinclair, later presented Beaver with the ship's battle ensign after the Alabam was sunk by the USS Kersage in June 1864.  Beaver had hosted Sinclair at his homes in Singapore and London.


Alexandria Gazette, Feb. 12, 1864; John Cameron, Our Tropical Possessions in Malayan India (1865); Martyn Downer Works of Art, "A Rare Naval Treasure of the American Civil War"; Terry Foenander, "Raphael Semmes' Description of Early Singapore," Navy & Marine Living History Assn. (website); Colyer Meriwether, Raphael Semmes (1913); N.Y. Times, Mar. 9, 1864;  Official Records of the Union and Confederate Navies in the War of the Rebellion, Series 1, Volume 2, pp. 791-92 (1895) (ORN); Raphael Semmes, Memoirs of Service Afloat, During the War Between the States (1869): Straits Times, Dec. 12, 1864 (in Southland Times, Feb. 15, 1864); Straits Times, Jan. 12, 1864 (in N.Y. Times, Mar. 9, 1864); John M. Taylor, Semmes: Rebel Raider (2004); Wikipedia, CSS Alabama.


Keith Yoder said...

Really enjoyed your two Singapore posts - very interesting. However, your work is not done - need to get those Singapore markers on HMDB.

Ron Baumgarten said...

Thanks, Keith. I knew they'd be a little different than normal, but I just couldn't help myself! Funny you mention HMDB....I snapped shots of several historical markers. Adding them to the database is on a to-do list!