This post presents extracts from the journal of HMS Ringdove, now held in the Caird Library in Greenwich. It was kept by Commander Uvedale Corbet Singleton between 1874 and 1877 and is of particular interest for its coverage of the conflict that took place in Perak, one of the Malay States, in 1875. This was one of a number of minor colonial wars that took place during the era of so-called ‘gunboat diplomacy’. Gunboats and larger gunvessels like the Ringdove (generically referred to as gunboats) had first been used in the shallow inlets of the Black Sea and the Baltic coast during the Crimean War of 1854-56. Short, tubby, and flat-bottomed, they proved so successful that they soon became the workhorses of the fleet. They were deployed around the globe, to the Mediterranean, Africa, the West and East Indies, and in particular China, to hunt down pirates and slavers, keep the peace and impose the values of Gladstone’s Liberal government – free trade and Christian civilisation.
The Ringdove (666 tons) was a wooden gunvessel of the Plover class built in Portsmouth in 1867, with a narrow, telescopic funnel, three masts, and two engines driving twin screws. She had a draught of just 10½ feet. On deck she carried three guns, along with two gigs, a steam skiff, a cutter, and a whaler. Her crew consisted of four officers, a surgeon, a boatswain, a paymaster and three engineers who, together with 80 ratings, all squeezed into the extremely cramped quarters below decks.
In November 1875 the Ringdove was in Hong Kong for a refit when trouble broke out in Perak. Malaya had assumed a new importance earlier in the century with the discovery of tin. In one of the native states, Perak, a land of impenetrable jungle traversed only by elephant tracks, the succession was disputed. In 1874 the various parties had signed an agreement known as the Pangkor engagement, where the elderly Rajah Ismail conceded the Sultanate to another Rajah called Abdullah, accepted a pension and retreated upstream to plot against his rival. Rajah Abdullah, whose home territory was downstream, did a deal with the Mantri or chief of the tin mining district of Larut, which was in reality under the control of the Chinese secret societies, who supplied labour and management to the mines and regularly fought amongst themselves. Everyone chose to ignore the claim of a third Rajah, Yusuf, who had his headquarters even further upstream and was universally loathed. Discontent rumbled on, coming to a head in the following year.
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