Once a gunboat had been sent to the Far East it was Admiralty policy that she should end her days there, with any necessary repairs being carried out at Hong Kong. Commissions lasted between three and four years, with replacement crews being sent out aboard transports or troopships. Service aboard gunboats was uncomfortable and so cramped that tall officers shaved with their heads through the skylight and their mirrors propped up on deck. The food was dreadful and the ships themselves notoriously bug-ridden. Nevertheless, the service was popular. It provided junior officers with a real chance to distinguish themselves, and it gave the crews a far more interesting life than they would ever have had aboard the spit-and-polish battleships of the Home Fleet. It did not matter whether a man was serving aboard a gunboat, a gunvessel or a sloop – being a gunboat man indicated a special state of mind involving the use of personal initiative and action, and that set him apart from the rest of the Navy.

Gunboat service could also be lucrative. Long before, the Admiralty had introduced an incentive known as Head Money, awarded as a bounty to crews in proportion to the number of slaves freed from captured slavers, and pirates killed or captured. For example, the crews of Niger, Clown and Janus shared £1600 for the actions of March 1859 described above. Once the Second Opium War was over, the gunboats returned to the suppression of piracy with a will. Kestrel, repaired after her battering at the Taku Forts, received £1400 for actions on 23 and 25 July 1860 and 18 November 1861. The gunboat squadron’s biggest earner was undoubtedly Opossum, whose crew received £1000 for nine actions between 29 October 1864 and 17 October 1865; £1000 for two actions in February 1866; shared £2000 with Osprey for an action on 18 July 1866; shared £1715 with Cockchafer, Haughty and Algerine for various actions between October 1863 and March 1868; and shared £2500 with Janus, Bouncer, Leven and Haughty for actions between May 1865 and June 1869. As a commander earned £301 per annum, a lieutenant £200, a mate or sub-lieutenant £66, a midshipman £31, and an ordinary seaman £23, these figures are impressive, especially when one takes into account the small size of a gunboat’s crew. Altogether, a total of £56, 238 was paid in such bounties between 1851 and 1869, indicating the scale of the problem, the principal beneficiary being the sloop Bittern which, prior to the arrival of the Crimean gunboats, earned £10,000 between June 1854 and March 1856. Complaints that the system was open to abuse by the over-enthusiastic may have been justified in some cases, but it produced results. By 1869 coastal piracy was all but dead, leaving the gunboats free to concentrate on maintaining order on China’s rivers, along which trade was steadily expanding inland.

Pirates were not the only problem facing the gunboats. Quite apart from its troubles with foreign powers, the Chinese Imperial government was engaged in a protracted and bloody civil war with the Taiping rebels, who wished to place their own candidate on the throne. Officially, the United Kingdom played no part in the conflict, but when British interests in Shanghai were threatened by the Tai-pings, Admiral Hope threw the Royal Navy’s weight behind the Peking authorities. On 10 May 1862 the Imperial army launched an attack on Ningpo, off which was anchored a small Allied naval force under Captain Roderick Dew of the sloop Encounter. Several Imperial junks deliberately placed themselves close to the Allied ships, so that the latter were also treated to some of the defenders’ fire. Dew, a fire-eater, promptly retaliated by ordering all his ships, including the gunvessel Ringdove, the gunboats Hardy and Kestrel and the French gunboats Etoile and Confucius, to open fire on the walls of the city, which were then stormed by the grateful Imperial faction. Taking the Hardy and Confucius with him, Dew proceeded up the Yangtse and began interpreting neutrality in his own fashion, forming a naval brigade which assisted an Imperial force in the capture of Kahding on 24 October 1862. For Whitehall, already embroiled in a dispute with the United States over the British-built and crewed commerce raider Alabama, this was one exercise in personal initiative too many, and Dew was recalled early the following year. Curiously, command of the rag-bag Chinese force, designated the Ever Victorious Army by Peking, was given to a seconded officer of the Royal Engineers, Major Charles Gordon, who we shall meet again.

No summary of gunboat operations in Chinese waters would be complete without mention of an unusual squadron known as The Vampire Fleet. This was nominally part of the Imperial Navy and consisted of seven former British ships, including the gunvessel Mohawk and the gunboat Jasper. The Vampires were commanded by Captain Sherard Osborn, now a Chinese admiral, but soon established a reputation for doing just as they pleased, which sometimes lay well beyond any recognised definition of law and order. One of his subordinates, Captain Hugh Burgoyne, VC, another veteran of the Azov Flotilla, went off to become a blockade runner for the Confederacy; returning to the Royal Navy, he lost his life when his ship, the experimental battleship Captain, capsized while on manoeuvres with the Channel Fleet on 7 September 1870. Osborn resigned command of the Vampires when Peking suggested his ships be placed under the control of local mandarins, believing that the latter would simply use them in their own petty squabbles. To prevent their falling into pirate or Taiping hands, the British insisted that they were sold outside China.

As has already been mentioned, the wooden Crimean gunboats had been rushed into service and obviously they would not last forever. Their bigger replacements, of composite iron and wood construction, began entering service in 1867. They had a barquentine rig and, depending upon their class, were driven by either single or twin screws at a speed of nine or ten knots. Armament consisted of two 64-pounder muzzle-loaders and two 20-pounder Armstrong breech-loaders; in the 1880s some were rearmed with 4-inch and 5-inch breech-loaders. New gunvessels also began entering service in 1870. Some, with twin screws, were designed specifically for work in Chinese rivers; others, with a single screw, were intended for ocean-going service. Their common armament was one 7-inch rifled muzzle-loader between the funnel and the mainmast, and two 68-pounder muzzle-loaders or two 64-pounder breech-loaders, one at the bow and the other at the stern.

In 1860 there were 24 gunboats and six gunvessels serving on the China Station. Thirteen years later there were only three gunboats and eleven gunvessels present, proof enough that the Chinese equivalent of the Jolly Roger had been driven from the seas, although the great rivers of China could never be regarded as being completely safe from gentlemen of fortune. They required constant patrolling by the gunboats of the Western nations but, by and large, a form of stability had been imposed that would last until the ancient empire was swept away by revolution.


During the past 5,000 years the expansion of the Austronesians from Taiwan into Southeast Asia, and from there into the Pacific and to Madagascar, has always been carried out, out of necessity, across the seas and upstream along the rivers of the major islands. At the turn of the first millennium C.E., local and regional maritime exchange networks had expanded into long-distance overseas commerce that brought local ships and traders to harbors of the South China Sea and the Indian Ocean. Linguistic, ethnographic, archaeological, and historical research has all contributed to a considerable body of knowledge on Austronesian shipbuilding traditions. Other peoples of Southeast Asia, particularly the Mon, appear in time to have developed their own shipbuilding industries. However, for lack of proper studies, it is not clear how much of it was indigenous, or how much they owed to borrowings during interaction with the neighboring Austronesians (Austronesian nautical terms appear in Old Mon inscriptions).

The typical Austronesian vessel appears to have been developed from a dugout canoe. As its size grew, side-planks were added to the dugout hull, which progressively turned into a keel. In the early stages of seafaring, as in historical and modern smaller and narrower boats, outriggers were necessary stabilizing devices. As these smaller vessels grew into bulkier, high seas trading ships with rounded hulls, however, it appears that outriggers were not used: the earliest descriptions of Austronesian ships, in third- to eighth-century Chinese texts, do not mention stabilizing devices. What they do describe are very large ships, carrying hundreds of tons of cargo and passengers, propelled by multiple sails rigged on several masts. According to these early witnesses, no iron was ever used in fastening the planks of these ships, only strings made of vegetal fibers. Archaeological work carried out in Peninsular Malaysia, Sumatra, and the Philippines has indeed brought to light an indigenous tradition of shipbuilding that fully confirms these early texts. Sites from the third to the twelfth centuries C.E. have yielded remains of hulls made of planks fastened together by wooden dowels and stitches of palm-sugar fiber strings. Some of these shipwrecks were as much as 30 meters in length. These sites also yielded some side rudders, a feature described in later ships that survived in twentieth century Javanese and Bugis traders. Their sails and masts were reconstructed from iconography, as depicted on a few early seals and on the famous eighth-century relief of the Borobudur temple: they carried multiple tripod masts and canted square sails made of matting. This early stitched technique partly survived in seventeenth- century Philippines and Moluccan boats and in modern whaling boats of Lomblen.

By the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, much of the local large-scale trade was carried out in ships known in Malay or Javanese as jong, a local term that gave birth to the word “junk” in European languages (later to be used only for Chinese ships). Their hulls were still being assembled without any iron fastenings: wooden dowels had by then completely replaced the earlier fiber lashings to keep the planks fastened together, and the shell was in turn dowelled to the sturdy frames. These were huge sailing vessels, even by European standards of the times: Malay and Javanese jong that hauled 500 tons of merchandise and a few hundred people were regularly described in Portuguese sources. Like earlier vessels, they were steered with a pair of side rudders and carried multiple masts, and as many lug sails of fiber matting, including a typical bowsprit sail.

The fleets of large indigenous jong were to disappear in the second half of the sixteenth century because of a combination of economic and political factors that laid considerable strain on the capacities of local powers to maintain their own trading fleets. As a result of increased warfare at sea, much of the local capital and energy was then spent on building and maintaining profusely armed war fleets of long craft. The largest were new ships for the region, galley-type craft built according to Mediterranean standards learned from Portuguese renegades and Turkish shipwrights, built in such a way as to allow them to carry and shoot the large cannon necessary for battles at sea.

Shipwreck archaeology has also proved that, by the fifteenth century, indigenous Malay and Javanese jong were no longer the only large trading ships built locally. Southern Chinese vessels had conquered their own share of the local shipping. However, the ban on shipbuilding and overseas shipping imposed by the Ming dynasty (1368–1644) appears to have prompted many Chinese to settle in Southeast Asia and to build their ships locally. This contributed to the birth of the so-called South China Sea shipbuilding tradition, a blend of two nautical traditions, Austronesian and southern Chinese.

In Indonesian seas, a significant fleet of lesser coasters (under 100 tons) survived the disappearance of the large oceangoing jong. The building of these vessels kept the local shipbuilding traditions alive until modern times. Together with the fishing boats, these fleets of small to medium-size Madurese, Butonese, and Bugis ships were the last to bear witness to the earlier grandeur of Malay world shippers.

References: Green, Jeremy, and Rosemary Harper. 1987. The Maritime Archaeology of Shipwrecks and Ceramics in Southeast Asia. Special Publication no. 4.Albert Park: Australian Institute for Maritime Archaeology. Horridge, G.Adrian. 1982. The Lashed-lug Boat of the Eastern Archipelagoes. Monographs and Reports, no. 54. London: National Maritime Museum. Manguin, Pierre-Yves. 1980.“The Southeast Asian Ship: An Historical Approach.” Journal of Southeast Asian Studies 11, no. 2: 266–276. ———.1989.“The Trading Ships of Insular Southeast Asia: New Evidence from Indonesian Archaeological Sites.” Vol. I, pp. 200–220 in Proceedings Pertemuan Ilmiah Arkeologi V, Yogyakarta 1989. Jakarta: Ikatan Ahli Arkeologi Indonesia. ———.1993.“Trading Ships of the South China Sea: Shipbuilding Techniques and Their Role in the Development of Asian Trade Networks.” Journal of the Economic and Social History of the Orient 36: 253–280. ———.1996.“Southeast Asian Shipping in the Indian Ocean during the 1st Millennium AD.” Pp. 181–198 in Tradition and Archaeology: Early Maritime Contacts in the Indian Ocean. Edited by H. P. Ray and J.-F. Salles. Lyon and New Delhi: Manohar (Maison de l’Orient Méditerranéen/NISTADS). Scott, William Henry. 1982.“Boatbuilding and Seamanship in Classic Philippine Society.” Philippine Studies 30: 335–376.

The Chinese junk

During the period that the sailing ship was developing in the Mediterranean world, China, with its vast land areas and poor road communications, was turning to water for transportation. Starting with a dugout canoe, the Chinese joined two canoes with planking, forming a square punt, or raft. Next, the side, bow, and stern were built up with planking to form a large, flat-bottomed wooden box. The bow was sharpened with a wedge-shaped addition below the waterline. At the stern, instead of merely hanging a steering oar over one side as did the Western ships, Chinese shipbuilders contrived a watertight box, extending through the deck and bottom, that allowed the steering oar or rudder to be placed on the centreline, thus giving better control. The stern was built to a high, small platform at the stern deck, later called a castle in the West, so that, in a following sea, the ship would remain dry. Thus, in spite of what to Western eyes seemed an ungainly figure, the “Chinese junk” was an excellent hull for seaworthiness as well as for beaching in shoal (shallow) water. The principal advantage, however, not apparent from an external view, was great structural rigidity. In order to support the side and the bow planking, the Chinese used solid planked walls (bulkheads), running both longitudinally and transversely and dividing the ship into 12 or more compartments. This produced not only strength but also protection against damage.

In rigging the Chinese junk was far ahead of Western ships, with sails made of narrow panels, each tied to a sheet (line) at each end so that the force of the wind could be taken in many lines rather than on the mast alone. Also, the sail could be hauled about to permit the ship to sail somewhat into the wind. By the 15th century junks had developed into the largest, strongest, and most seaworthy ships in the world. Not until about the 19th century did Western ships catch up in performance.

Navigation and Ships in China

This picture of a medieval Chinese war junk distorts many of the key features to give a dramatic effect, but it does illustrate the multiple decks, the highly responsive rigging and steering systems, including a stern rudder controlled by a tiller and a lateral auxiliary steering oar.

It was the increasing number of guns on the European warships of the sixteenth, seventeenth and eighteenth centuries that were to make them particularly effective against the ships and coastal fortifications of the Orient. The Chinese, for example, had long used artillery in warfare, but they did not employ large guns on their ship.

The seas of the Far East are far more windswept than the Mediterranean, so the use of paddles and oars as methods of propulsion did not override the importance of sails. The earliest clear evidence of the use of fore and aft sails in China dates to the third century ad, but it seems likely that they were developed well before then, and simple, square sails may have been in use some two thousand years earlier. The long coastline of China, punctuated by several major river estuaries, of which the Yangtze is the longest and broadest, gave rise to a myriad of seafaring communities. By the end of the first millennium ad they had evolved a variety of ships for use in both coastal and long-distance seafaring. The fruits of their experience produced the characteristic Chinese sailing ship, usually called the junk (from the word jonq used by Arab sources), which was suitable for both high seas and broad rivers like the Yangtze.

From the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries ad we have vivid descriptions of harbours thronged with seagoing ships by the Venetian traveller Marco Polo (1254–1324) and the widely travelled Arab geographer Ibn Battuta (1304–77). By combining European and Chinese written accounts with artistic and archaeological evidence we can put together a picture of the typical large trading vessels of fourteenth century China. They were plank-built from pine or fir, using iron fastenings and a variety of caulkings, and they had internal, watertight bulkheads. They were equipped with from four to six masts and a complex set of sails made from both canvas and matting, stiffened with battens. The hull was gently curved, rather than entirely flat, but there was no keel and the stern ended in a broad vertical board, or transom, which easily accommodated a stern rudder, attached to a post. This latter invention seems to date from as early as the fourth century AD. The stern rudder, when combined with pivoted sails, which were much easier to adjust to the strength and direction of the wind than the standard riggings of the Arab and Western traditions, and other technical innovations, such as the drop-keel, or dagger board, enabled Chinese mariners to sail their junks very close to the wind and make very quick, precise changes in direction.

The political and economic efforts of two dynasties, the Sui (581–617) and the T’ang (618–907), laid the basis for an imperial expansion which resulted in Sung China (960–1279) emerging as the dominant power in the Far East on both land and sea. Chinese naval power was not primarily directed towards the high seas, however, and the expansion of commercial contacts was largely in the hands of enterprising private traders, who often had to contend with an imperial authority that was extremely wary of foreign contacts. To a large extent this can be blamed on the persistent problem of invasions from the steppes.

In the reign of the early Ming emperor Yung-le (1403–24), when China was recovering from the internal disruption and economic problems of Mongol rule, there was a brief period of maritime imperialism, exemplified by the voyages of Cheng Ho (1371–1433). Cheng Ho was a Muslim from southern China who was entrusted with a series of expeditions that were a combination of military and diplomatic missions, intended to assert the prestige and power of China in the Indian Ocean and South-east Asia. They involved some 200 large vessels crewed by nearly 30,000 men – sailors, soldiers, diplomats, scholars and traders. The impact of these voyages was dramatic. Chinese naval power was demonstrated at a time when piracy, particularly from Japan, was a growing problem. China’s economic position in the region was enhanced and the imperial court was inundated with rich gifts, embassies from distant peoples, all anxious to better their trading prospects. Yet the successors of Yung-le did not follow up his initiative and attempt to push the boundaries of political power outwards to the fringes of the commercial networks that China was linked into. Instead, again in response to the enormous pressure of incursions on their northern frontiers, they reverted to the defensive, inward-looking posture on both land and sea that had characterized earlier dynasties. External seafarers were still welcome at Chinese ports and there were many Chinese who traded overseas and settled in South-east Asia and India.

13th Century Mongol Multi-masted Oceanic Junk.

Japanese Junk
Japanese junks differed somewhat from the junks of China, since it was necessary to sail among the islands of Japanese archipelago where the large flat-bottomed Chinese vessels would find it difficult to maneuver in the rough seas.

Similar ships to this one were equipped as warships and composed the fleet of the Mongol emperor of China Kublai-Khan. So in the 13th century a 1000 sea junks with 100 000 soldiers aboard were sent to invade the Japanese archipelago. If this fleet had not been destroyed by a powerful typhoons (Kamikaze-Divine Wind), then the history of these countries would have changed dramatically.

The Kamikaze (Japanese for divine wind), were a pair or series of typhoons that are said to have saved Japan from two Mongol fleets under Kublai Khan that attacked Japan in 1274 and again in 1281. The latter is said to have been the largest attempted naval invasion in history whose scale was only recently eclipsed in modern times by the D-Day invasion of allied forces into Normandy in 1944.

The first invasion devastated the Japanese. The battle took place on the beaches where the two forces met. The Mongols had several advantages; The Japanese were overwhelmed and began to retreat. Not knowing they had won, the Mongols feared the Japanese were coming back with reinforcements and also retreated.

During the time period between the first and second invasion, the Japanese built walls to protect themselves from future invaders.

Seven years later, the Mongols returned. They found themselves unable to find any suitable landing beaches due to the walls. The fleet stayed afloat for months as they depleted their supplies and searched for an area to land. After months of being exposed to the elements, the fleet was destroyed by a great typhoon. The Japanese called it Kamikaze. The Mongols never returned. The Japanese were saved by the walls they had built and nature’s fury.

In popular Japanese myths at the time, the god Raijin was the god who turned the storms against the Mongols. Other variations say that the god Fūjin or Ryūjin caused the destructive kamikaze.

Recent research has found that other causes contributing to the invasion’s failure included:

* Many of the ships were requisitioned river craft with flat bottoms and wobbly masts, and thus unstable in rough sea.

* Some of the ships had been poorly made, perhaps as the result of deliberate sabotage by Chinese shipbuilders who resented their Mongol conquerors.