Sunday, September 30, 2012

Upon the China Station

The First Opium War, known more formally as the First Anglo-Chinese War, began in 1839 when relations between China and Great Britain deteriorated, largely due to massive quantities of British opium flooding the Chinese trade market. I will not elaborate on the moral implications and deleterious effects of this conflict (Wikipedia does an adequate job of that); rather, I would like to briefly mention the roles of several Royal Navy Men who would later become linked in a desperate fight for their survival in the Canadian Arctic.

HMS Volage was a 28-gun sixth rate ship that saw action during the early stages of the war. Young Thomas Hartnell, Able Seaman, served on her from January 1838 to May 1841 and was probably present during the First Battle of Chuenpee. This was an easy victory for the more maneuverable and heavily armed British ships. Thomas' older brother, John, joined the Volage in mid-September 1841, after Tom had already transferred to HMS Tortoise. One of Tom Hartnell's superior officers on the Volage was 1st Lt. Graham Gore; the two would later serve together on HMS Erebus on the last Franklin Expedition. The article "The Men who Sailed with Franklin" by Ralph Lloyd-Jones is an excellent source for the dates of service for Franklin's ratings.

Another young lieutenant (or "luff" in nautical parlance) who saw active service in the First Opium War was Henry T.D. Le Vesconte, who was appointed Mate of HMS Calliope, a ship very similar to the Volage. The Calliope was present at a number of key engagements, and even carried most of the Canton ransom money. After the war's end in 1842 (a victory for the British), Le Vesconte joined James Fitzjames on HMS Clio. William Battersby cleverly identified Fitzjames in the painting "The Signing of the Treaty of Nanking". Le Vesconte is also somewhere in this painting, perhaps standing  adjacent to his friend Fitzjames. Here is an image of that painting.

Readers will find an excellent summary of the First Anglo-Chinese War and its participants in Battersby's exquisite book James Fitzjames: The Mystery Man of the Franklin Expedition.

In writing this cursory post, this website was of great assistance. It is an index of Royal Navy ships and their services, and I recommend it to all of you.

The men who fought bravely in the First Opium War endured great hardships. It is a genuine tragedy that some of them would go on to endure further hardships in a much different environment, equally far-removed from their native Britain.


  1. Then Gore was with Tom in the Voilage, but,and after? Did continue Gore in that ship after Tom leave it? He coincided with John also?

  2. So glad you asked, Andres! John Hartnell was on the "Volage" until 1 February 1845 (I have to double-check that date, though). Lt. Gore joined HMS "Beagle" in November 1840, so he left the "Volage" before J. Hartnell's appointment to that ship. Capt. Stokes was Gore's commanding officer on the "Beagle". He wrote a two-volume account of this particular journey called "Discoveries in Australia". Gore is mentioned a lot in the second volume.