1830’s – The Eastern Seas

“The Eastern seas: or, Voyages and adventures in the Indian Archipelago, in 1832-33-34, comprising a tour of the island of Java — visits to Borneo, the Malay Peninsula, Siam … (1837)” by George Windsor Earl

We passed the high islands off Cape Liant on the 30th, and steered towards the mouth of the Meinan river, on which Bankok, the capital of the Siamese empire, is situated. A large ship was descried at anchor some distance ahead, and as the main land was not visible, she appeared to be anchored in the middle of the sea. She proved to be the American sloop of war Peacock, and we brought up a short distance astern of her, in three and a half fathoms’ water, about eight miles from the land, which could now be indistinctly perceived. Soon afterwards a boat, with a midshipman from the Peacock, came on board, and we learned that a diplomatic agent from the United States was now at Bankok, endeavouring to make a commercial treaty with the King of Siam.

The opium, which was the only part of our cargo suited to the market, was contraband, its importation being strictly prohibited by the authorities; great caution was therefore necessary in endeavouring to dispose of it.

Mr. Hunter and Capt. Burgess proceeded to Bankok, which is about forty miles distant, the following morning, but I was unable to pay it a visit until the 6th, when I left the vessel in the long-boat in the early part of the afternoon. The mouth by which we entered the river (for there are several), extended to about five miles in breadth, while the navigable channel was not more than half a mile wide, the water in the other parts being extremely shallow. We saw a large junk grounded on a sand-shoal near the entrance, which appeared to be bumping very hard; two other junks were working out against the sea-breeze, and with the exception of these, not a boat nor vessel was to be seen, the low swampy shores being also totally without houses or other symptoms of human habitation.

We sailed lazily along before the sea-breeze, the waters of the river having the appearance and consistency of liquid mud, in consequence of the bottom being stirred up by the strength of the ebbtide. At six o’clock we reached Paknam, a large town about three miles from the mouth of the river. We passed between it and a large fort erected on an artificial island in the middle of the river, which is here a mile and a half wide, though the navigable channel is contracted to a third of this width, by a dam reaching from the fort to the opposite bank.

At nightfall we lost the breeze, and were therefore obliged to have recourse to the oars; the tide was against us and we consequently anticipated a tedious passage, Bankok being still thirty miles distant. We were overtaken by several boats from Paknam, and we discovered that they were ascending the river to procure fresh water, an essential article in which Paknam is totally deficient. They had to pull against the ebb-tide for at least twelve miles before they could find water sufficiently fresh for their purpose.

Perceiving that the men were much fatigued, I determined to await the turn of the tide, and the boat being attached to one of the oars thrust into the mud, I endeavoured to procure a little rest: sleep, however, was quite out of the question. The low jungle proved to be full of crickets and frogs, and the united chorus of reptile and insect soon became perfectly deafening, while the occasional splash of a heavy body falling into the water reminded us that a good look-out would be necessary to prevent a domiciliary visit from an alligator. I contented myself, therefore, with watching the myriads of little sparkling fire-flies glittering among the trees, some of which occasionally came into the boat.

Soon after midnight the tide turned, and we again advanced. Our water barica had been carelessly placed in such a position that the whole of its contents had escaped, and the river water being perfectly salt, we approached a small trading boat which was lying at anchor, for the purpose of procuring some of a more palatable description. The seamen being Javanese, had no better acquaintance than myself with the Siamese language, so that we could not make the people in the boat understand what we wanted. After some time I recollected Mr. Hunter having observed that Paknam signified the ” mouth of the waters,” and with the assistance of this hint my auditors speedily comprehended our wants, and made preparations to supply them by kindling a bamboo torch. Two youths who sat near the part of the Siamese boat to which I was holding, appeared rather alarmed on seeing, by the light of the torch, that they were so near an European, and they gradually retreated, casting furtive glances over their shoulders, until they concealed themselves under the thatched covering of the boat. The men however, did not seem to care much about me, and, though maintaining the strictest taciturnity, gave us the water, on which I presented them with a red cotton handkerchief, which was received without a word of acknowledgment, and having concluded our silent bargain, we pushed off and continued our journey.

About an hour before daybreak we arrived at the lower part of Bankok.