Windham Life and Times – November 4, 2016

Frederick Bessell

A View of the Don-nai River near Saigon from the book History of a Voyage to the China Sea

A View of the Don-nai River near Saigon from the book History of a Voyage to the China Sea


John White published the History of a Voyage to the China Sea in 1823. It is a fascinating account of the merchant ship Franklin exploring the “Orient,” in the early nineteenth century. It seems a decision was made by Captain White and his backers in Salem, to make this voyage in order to establish contacts and to open trade in Cochin China.  After setting sail from Salem to Batavia, the Franklin sailed for Saigon. And on this journey of discovery we also find our intrepid Frederick Bessell acting as Captain White’s clerk.

On May 24, 1819, having entered the Straits of Banca, they were attacked by a large contingent of Malay pirates in their well armed proa canoes including 12 pound cannons. These pirates were notorious for the cruelty toward European, and were known to slowly torture them to death. Having successfully repelled the pirate attack, Captain White entered Mintow, a Dutch settlement where he was told that the pirates were well known as being violent and jacked up on copious amounts of opium. Mintow, which must have been very much like Padang, where Francis Bessell was born, describes the population as being Chinese, Malay and “half-casts,” being the children of Malay, Chinese and the Dutch inhabits. The Franklin then sailed on to the Don-nai River, arriving on June 7th and entered a small bay at Vung-tau, where they awaited permission and a guide to take them up-river to Saigon.

The Captain and crew, upon meeting the local chief by the name of Heo, found him insatiable in demanding that they bestow on him gifts from the ship. In Canjeo “I prepared to accompany them to the village, taking with me Mr. Bessell, a young gentleman who acted in the capacity of clerk…” After spending many days trying to get permission proceed to Saigon, and after many meetings that ended in subterfuge on the part of the locals, a frustrated Captain White and crew departed to explore the coast of “Cochin China.” At Cape Turon, they learned that the king, had left Hue and was doing battle to recover land lost in a recent civil war. They also learned that two French trading vessels were to arrive soon, and the only items valued by the king were side arms which he could use in battle.

The State Galley of the Viceroy of Don-nai from Captain White's Account of Cochin China

The State Galley of the Viceroy of Don-nai from Captain White’s Account of Cochin China

“At dawn on September 7, (1819) the Franklin of Salem, became the first American vessel to reach Saigon. The crew dropped anchor a mile below the city and admired a wide river filled with ‘boats of light and airy construction, each, in many cases, managed by a single woman, in picturesque costume,’ while ‘great number of native vessels, of different sizes, plying in various directions upon the stream, gave a busy and lively interest to the scene.’ That first night, White and Bessell stayed in a typical riverbank house, standing on pilings two feet above the mud, sided with boards and roofed with enormous palm leaves. Inside were teenage girls, big jars of fish-pickle, pigs, ducks and fowls, a ‘blear-eyed old woman, furrowed and smoke-dried ,’ and asleep in a hammock, a miserable child, covered in filth and vermin, and emancipated with disease.’ The morning tide brought the Marmion, a Boston ship that White had encountered at Manila. Captain Brown and his supercargo, Mr. Putnam, came ashore, and they and White and Bessel were ‘surrounded by a bevy of woman, soliciting employments as merchandise brokers and offering assistance in purchasing cargos.’ He did not realize that they were eunuchs, designated as their culture’s trader caste. The Yankees demurred and went on to Saigon, where their appearance caused a sensation. At the ‘great bazaar or market-place,’ an ‘immense concourse of the wondering natives,’ manhandled these improbable don-ong-olan, strangers from the West, with their unreal faces like pale masks.”

“The Franklin and Marmion swung at their anchors for almost four months as their masters endured insults, indifference, and occasional rock peltings as they laid siege to the traders of Saigon. Through it all, the Yankees kept smiling, trying gamely to break through. Finally, the two captains understood. Women were forbidden to make bulk deals; and Western armament was wanted not goods. Giving up their dream of starting a new commerce, the two captains paid Spanish gold for half cargoes of sugar, promised to return with guns, and sailed away in their tall ships. Each had been given a parting gift of a young royal tiger and pen full of squirming puppies.”

“At Batvia, Brown sold White his sugar and the Franklin sailed for home on April 29 (1820).” The trip home was a disaster. When the tiger ran out of food because of bad weather White was forced to shoot her. Several men died of fever and sickness, and another died after falling from the topsail. Then a most violent hurricane struck, forcing the men to cut away the spars to prevent the ship capsizing. “Diseased and death haunted after two years at sea, Franklin staggered into Salem with an unprofitable cargo and three stumps where the masts had been.”  So ended Frederick Bessell’s harrowing, two year journey, to the Asia.


John White,  History of a Voyage to the China Sea in 1823. Free e-book:

Death of an Empire, Robert Booth


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