Judson and the Empire

Extract from The Times, December 17th 1890


The East Indies Station, October 1890

Last year’s exploits of Major Serpa Pinto are, of course, fresh in your mind …..with a view to guard against the occurrence of similar troubles in the future, the Government determined to place upon the Zambesi a couple of light stern-wheel gunboats ….. Mosquito and Herald ….. men and stores for them proceeded to the mouth of the river in her Majesty’s storeship Humber ….. At that period the Zambesi was a private Portuguese waterway, or was regarded as such by the Portuguese; and as it was contemplated that forcible objections might be raised against our intended actions, Sir Edmund Fremantle, Commander-in-Chief on the East Indies Station collected a large naval force ……. letting it plainly be seen that, whether the Portuguese liked it or not, we had made up our minds to fly the White Ensign on the river. In the meantime, however, the Governments were engaged in diplomatic negotiations …. The Admiral learnt that ….. Portugal had engaged to allow us to put our stern-wheel gunboats together in the Chinde mouth of the Zambesi and to enter the river.

On September 2nd a further telegram from home ordered the expedition to act upon this agreement … doubtless in order to spare Portuguese susceptibilities … that Sir E. Fremantle was not to go, and that the only armed escort for the stern-wheeler was to consist of one of the first-class screw gunboats, Redbreast, six guns, 805 tons, 1200-horse power, and Pigeon, six guns 755 tons, 1200-horse power. The Admiral selected the Redbreast, possibly because her commander, Lieutenant Francis William Keary, had had the advantage of a great deal of surveying experience.

The passage of the outer bar (at the entrance to the Chinde mouth of the Zambesi: AW) was, however, a relatively minor matter. Lieutenant Kearey had orders from the Admiral to ascertain whether the Redbreast could proceed through the Chinde Mouth into the Zambesi proper. If so he was to escort the stern-wheelers and their convoy of canoes laden with stores into the great river ….. The Chinde Mouth is 18 miles long, and, being almost unknown, had first to be carefully surveyed. ….. A day or two later, while [Lieutenant Kearey was] prosecuting his survey as usual, he was hailed by a Portuguese light-draught gunboat, and politely requested to (a) desist, (b) return, and (c) haul down the British colours. Of course he did not obey the last direction. ….. The Portuguese gunboat had brought down the Governor of Quilimane, a fire-eating gentleman, who at once began writing protests, issuing orders for the British flag not to be flown, and forbidding the natives to sell food to the expedition. He was willing to admit that the treaty had been signed and that we were acting in accordance with it, but his point was that the waters had not been officially declared free, and that, until they were so declared, they remained closed. While he fumed and protested, the Mosquito and Herald were quietly completed. When they were evidently ready, the Portuguese gunboat reappeared, and her captain declared plump that his orders were to oppose the advance, and that he should do so, scuttling his ship, if necessary, to block the river, and then lining the banks with rifles. On learning from Lieutenant Brown (the senior RN officer, in the Humber: AW) that the stern-wheelers and the Redbreast were going up, no matter what might happen, the Portuguese returned to the Governor in apparently dejected mood. Of course he was in no position to oppose a vessel of the Redbreast’s force: but it was in his power to lie in the middle of the narrow channel and to calmly say, ‘If you wish to pass, take the rest of the river.’ In that event there would have been no difficulty about his capture or destruction; but the case would have been deplorable.

…What the Vice-Admiral’s orders were cannot be told; but clearly they decided the business, for early next morning the flotilla started, the Redbreast leading, followed in succession by the Herald, James Stephenson (a stern-wheeler belonging to the African Lakes Company: AW), two large lighters, 31 canoes, and the Mosquito. ….. The first twelve miles of the passage were got over without accident; but off Sombo, just as had been apprehended, lay the Portuguese gunboat. Fortunately, she was swung so that the flotilla could just scrape by her. The Redbreast made the dash, passing a few feet from her side, and then dropped a stern anchor and signaled to the Herald to anchor instantly, the result being that the Portuguese lay between two fires. His game was up, but as the Redbreast passed, hailed her to bring to. That she did so was owing to the facts that the tide would not serve her any further, that the Mosquito was too far astern, and that Kearey intended to call on the Governor; but probably the Portuguese captain did not regard the affair in that light. He boarded the Redbreast, accompanied Lieutenant Kearey ashore, and left him closeted with the Governor who was ill in bed. The Governor, by all accounts talked a great deal about outrage and violation of rights, next begged and implored, and finally gave way, and sent orders to the gunboat to offer no further opposition, the advancing force being too powerful. The captain, however, boarded the Redbreast again to deliver a written protest of a long and verbose nature, and was regaled with a view of a big gun trained upon his ship, and of a deck covered with cartridge-boxes all ready for his entertainment.

The flotilla weighed soon afterwards, and entered a most difficult and dangerous stretch of navigation … (Which it clearly was, but it’s not germane to RK’s version in “Judson and the Empire”: AW. However, The Times concludes )… and at length anchored safely, with all the convoy, in the river Zambesi, with 24 feet of water under her. For the first time a British man-of war lay on that great stream.