Aground in the Yangtze

Elgin's private secretary Laurence Oliphant, 1858
Nov 16th. At seven o'clock this morning the thermometer stood at 37. Shortly after getting under weigh we passed Keunshan Pagoda, perched upon a hill overhanging the river. At this point the banks become very picturesque - high rocky bluffs rise precipitously from the water's edge, and behind them a range of irregular pointed hills form a complete amphitheatre. On the left bank the shores are wooded and populous, occasionally extensively cultivated, and groups of peasants collect upon the water's edge to look at us, as the five ships progress steadily in line against both wind and stream. Here, too, we remarked extraordinary changes in the course of the river. At one place it divides; one channel, at least half a mile in width, surrounding a populous island, which, at the date of the chart, had been part of the mainland. The sharp exhilarating air, our steady progress, and the increasing interest of the river-banks, all combined to raise our spirits. Presently we sweep round a bold projecting bluff, and Silver Island opens to view, with its quaint temples embowered in autumnal foliage;their white walls are gleaming, and their frowzy priests are basking in the mid-day sun. Beyond, a noble reach of the river curves beneath the swelling hills which rise from its margin, their summits crowned with the irregular wall of Chinkiang, and their slopes strewn with the debris of that once populous city;while in the distance, as though rising from mid-stream, stands a precipitous rock called Golden Island, with its tall pagoda pointing to the skies. The scene is one of such surpassing interest and beauty that it rivets our gaze. We are just lamenting that we cannot stop for a moment to appreciate more fully its merits, when--crash, our wishes are gratified-the old ship gives a heave and a lurch. It is too late now to'stop her', and go 'full speed astern'. We are irrevocably pinnacled on the top of a rock;the Cruizer has barely had time to avoid running into us, and shaves cleverly past us as she sheers off. The Retribution, panic-stricken, has let go her anchor. With her gunboats swinging in mid-stream astern, she looks like a kite with a tail. The current sweeps and eddies past with impetuous velocity, and gradually succeeds in jamming us broadside on to the rock, converting us into a sort of breakwater, so that we have quite a little sea on one side, and a dead calm on the other. We have ceased to enjoy the view now, that pleasure being transferred to our friends the priests who are apparently much interested in the spectacle. We are within easy hailing distance of them:they afterwards told us they were perfectly aware of the danger that awaited us;but they gave us no warning. The whole British fleet, consisting of several ships of the line, besides smaller craft, had passed through this channel fifteen years before, without discovering this fatal rock, and sixteen fathoms were marked above it. We were by no means proud of our discovery, but nobody was to blame except the priests, and we were too amiable to quarrel with them, so we landed and paid them a visit. The island had been visited by the rebels at a comparatively recent date. A great part of the very handsome temple had been destroyed, and the idols cast into the river by them. A celebrated vase, reputed to be more than two thousand years old, was kept here; but on the rumoured approach of these iconoclasts, those who were intrusted with the safe keeping of this precious relic buried it in time to insure its safety, and it has not since been exhumed. A temple, which formerly stood on the highest part of the island, had been burned, more, according to the Bonzes, for the purpose of terrifying the neighbourhood than from fanaticism. . . As in nature the most exquisite flowers are generally inhabited by slimy caterpillars, so in China the most lovely retreats are invariably tenanted by grimy ecclesiastics. We are bound to remember, however, that we are indebted to them for picturesque buildings, which harmonise admirably with the scenes in which they are situated;while the priests themselves, in their long ash-coloured robes, are an agreeable addition, so long as they are kept in the background of the picture. These gentry informed us that the tidal influence extended beyond this point, but was not regular in its operations. They led us to expect, however, a rise of two or three feet, and this we trusted would be sufficient to float us off. Meantime, in order to be the better able to take advantage of any favourable change which might occur, we commenced, for the second time, to lighten the ship, divesting her of shot, guns, spars, coal, &c. , and working all through the night. 17th. ----Landed on the right bank, and walked to Chinkiang over about two miles of plain, intersected by the remains of rough earthworks. This strip of level ground, which intervenes between a range of hills and the river, was until recently the abode of a thriving and industrious population. Scarce a year has elapsed since it was a scene of violence and bloodshed, the theatre of an action between the Rebel and Imperialist forces. The devastation is now widespread and complete. A few of the peasantry have crawled back to the desolate spots which they recognise as the sites of their former homes, and, selecting the heaps of rubbish which still belong to them, have commenced to construct out of them wretched abodes, ---roughly thatching in a gable-end that has escaped the general destruction, or replacing the stones which once composed the walls with strips of matting. Miserable patches of garden were being brought into existence between the crumbling, weed-covered walls;but the destitute appearance of the scanty population served rather to increase than diminish the effect which this abomination of desolation was calculated to produce. We entered the city by the north gate, and might have imagined ourselves in Pompeii. We walked along deserted streets, between roofless houses, and walls overgrown with rank, tangled weeds; heaps of rubbish blocked up the thoroughfares, but they obstructed nobody. There was something oppressive in the universal stillness;and we almost felt refreshed by a foul odour which greeted our nostrils, and warned us that we had approached an inhabited street. At a spot where were a few chow-chow shops, and two partially inhabited streets crossed each other, was the most lively place in the town. We obtained a small share of interest here from a mob of hungry, ragged boys;but the people generally seemed too much depressed even to stare at a barbarian, and we strolled unmolested in any direction our fancy led us. On our way to a fort which crowned a bluff overhanging the river, we passed under some handsome stone arches, which were still standing conspicuous amid the desolation by which they were surrounded. From our elevated position we commanded an extensive view over the area enclosed by the walls of the city, and which was thickly strewn with its ruins. Chinkiang was first taken by the Insurgents, almost without resistance, on the 1st of April 1853, and was held by them against a continued Imperialist siege up to the commencement of 1857, when it was evacuated in consequence of the failure of supplies. It has been held by the Imperialist forces ever since. To judge, however, from the reluctance manifested by its former inhabitants to return to it, confidence is but partially restored. Only the very poorest class of traders and shopkeepers have ventured into its dilapidated streets; and although efforts are being made by the Government to give some stimulus to its repopulation, by rebuilding some of the public buildings, such as the Government offices, the Confucian Temple, the Drum Tower, &c. the results are by no means encouraging. The rebels have, during their occupation, considerably enlarged the boundaries of the city, having carried a wall over the heights to the east of it, and down nearly to the water's edge on the bank of the river, enclosing a large space beyond the old wall in both directions. The population of Chinkiang was formerly estimated at about 500, 000; it does not now probably contain above 500 souls. 18th. We have painted a water-line on the rocks, so as to be able to detect the variations of the tide at a glance. As, however, there were no indications of a rise today, and the ship seemed immovable, we chartered a small native boat, and started off on an expedition to Golden Island, distant about five miles. As we approached it we discovered, to our astonishment, that it was no longer an island. Flourishing cabbage-fields now occupied the space marked on the chart as a channel with four fathoms of water in it. We landed on this recently-formed peninsula, and walked across it to the Rock. Climbing up the steps hewn out of the living stone, we reached the base of the Pagoda, shorn now of those external decorations which once rendered it celebrated, but still standing, a battered monument of its own departed glory, and of the beauty by which it was surrounded. . . Now, with the exception of the dilapidated pagoda, there is not one stone left upon another of the remaining buildings. Though so recently destroyed, a remarkable air of antiquity seems to pervade this sacred spot. The rock-cut steps are worn and crumbling, and the ruins generally look as though centuries had passed since the destroyer's hand had been ruthlessly at work. A line of wall with a few wretched guns in the embrasures, a few wretched soldiers in some mat tents in rear, and a quantity of gay flaunting flags, indicate that this is a military post. These banners and embrasures are apparent on numerous hill-tops, and surround the city of Chinkiang. If we were to judge by them, the preparations for defence would seem extensive indeed;but it is scarcely too much to assert that there are more flags than embrasures, more embrasures than guns, and more guns than men. We sat down on the top of the rock to discuss a sandwich and a glass of sherry, and enjoy the view. It was one of melancholy beauty. On our-right the skeleton houses of the city clustering up the hillsides, and filling the whole amphitheatre with their ruins-the straggling wall running along the ridges, gay with gaudy banners when all around is sad, and defending, as though in mockery, a dreary waste of rubbish; beyond, the irregular outline of distant hills, with the broad river spreading itself proudly out upon the fertile plains to the north and east;fronting us Silver Island, its bright colouring toned down by distance, and its soft outline contrasting with the precipitous bluffs beside it, all combined to form a picture upon which it was pleasant to gaze in that mild autumnal afternoon. We could discern the ships anchored in midstream:one which was broadside on, and leaning very much over, was a feature in the scene we could have gladly dispensed with, In the situation of Chinkiang, its ruined state and the nature of the surrounding country, I was a good deal reminded of Kertch after its evacuation by the Russians, We walked through it on our way back, and found on our arrival at the ship some excitement existing at the prospect of getting off. The paddle-wheels were revolving violently;hawsers and stream-cables were out in sundry directions;those who were not hauling at something were jumping or rolling the ship. At last a happy and combined effort proved successful, and she seemed literally to tumble off her perch into deep water. The event was signalled by three hearty cheers from all hands, which had no sooner subsided than, to our astonishment, we heard them faintly echoed from the shore. We were wondering whether the Chinamen were mocking us when they were repeated, and we then discovered that Lord Elgin and a small party of walkers were thus heartily testifying their satisfaction. The singular stillness of the evening air rendered sounds audible at a great distance. Two hundred and sixty tons in weight had been removed from the ship before she had been sufficiently lightened to float off the rock.