Jerome F. Keating discusses what happened when steam and iron replaced sail, analyzing the important relations between Britain and China that are revealed by the history of just one sailing vessel.

Adrian G. Marshall, NemesisThe First Iron Warship and Her World (National University of Singapore Press, 2016), 375pp.

With the end of the Napoleonic Wars and the Industrial Revolution in full swing, Britain was well positioned to focus on its global empire. The destructive land battles had all been on the continent, so the next challenge was to bring iron, coal and steam together in the building of a new navy; one that would be a game-changer in the world of trade. Adrian G. Marshall’s  new book, Nemesis, The First Iron Warship and Her World, is that story, showing how Britannia would come to “rule the waves” in the 19th Century.


What makes this book an interesting read is how Marshall weaves together not only the story of the Nemesis, but also, as the title states, the story of  “her world.” Ordered from Lairds shipbuilders by a Secret Committee of the East India Company, the Nemesis would be the first in a long line of iron ships to see action in Asia. It arrived there in November 1840 and was immediately put into service in the First Opium War, where it played a crucial role.

With a shallow draught of six feet and reversible engines this ship was able to navigate the shallow rivers of China and land troops most anywhere. Its guns also made it formidable. Marshall does not hide the fact that the Opium War was primarily the result of a British addiction to Chinese tea. Provocative chapters such as “A War More Unjust” and “The Vikings Sail North” point out how this “addiction” caused a trade imbalance that led to war. China was little interested in any goods from England. And so, facing a drain of silver with this imbalance, and the fact that tea could only later be imported from India in 1858, British merchants quickly saw that opium was their most marketable free trade commodity, but it had to be “forcibly” brought in.

However, things did not end there, even with the victories in Canton. The merchants, famed Jardine Matheson & Co. included, realized that to get the attention of Beijing they had to strike the nation closer to the capital otherwise their victories would be reported as defeats. Thus the Nemesis once again joined the fleet and saw action in the service of trade further north by Ningbo and Nanjing. Marshall lists the many ships involved, and the deaths on both sides. Ironically, often in those climates the greater number of deaths came not from battle but from disease.


Nemesis fighting in China, 1841

China was not the only place where the Nemesis would be engaged in service and battle. Once faraway names, and names which are now changing fill the pages such as Burma, Rangoon, Mandalay, Bengal, Borneo, Siam etc. Pirates are often a challenge to trade in those waters and the battle of Batang Maru is recounted in detail. ”Head money” is listed as a price paid for the number of pirates killed and a factor of rewarding ships involved. Yet, action is not the only story here. For those more interested in the nuts and bolts of the ship there are chapters on the types of engines, the strength of iron and steel under the stress of the seas. These are long enough to be informative but also (crucially) brief enough to avoid boredom. The watertight bulkheads of the Nemesis, for example, proved their worth on its first trial run where it struck submerged rocks near the entrance to St. Ives Bay and would have surely sunk. Instead of an illustrious career, it would have been one of a startling 600 British ships lost at sea that year.

Readers learn of the staffing of such ships and how the Nemesis was served well in its captains. Statistics also show the number of Europeans, East Indians, Natives and Chinamen that served. Other intriguing details appear as the fact that 80 % of those who went to serve the Crown in India never returned to England for a variety of reasons. Numerous illustrations of ships, maps and people abound. The initial voyage of Nemesis from Portsmouth to Macau is illustrated step-by-step and port-by-port; it was a long and slow journey of 243 days, of which 181 days were spent at sea.

Trade is impossible without a navy to back it up and such navies of course create ”gun-boat diplomacy” as well as trade support.  One sees here the close and sometimes blurred relationship between the British Royal Navy and the East India Company navy for which the Nemesis was originally commissioned.

By the time one is finished with this book, one has a grasp of how ships became an essential part of the making and defining Victorian England. The last existing report about the Nemesis is on July 31, 1860 when she is listed as stationed in Calcutta.

Jerome F. Keating, PhD, is author of 8 books and innumerable articles has lived and worked in Asia for 29 years. He served as Technology Transfer Manager on the Taipei and Kaohsiung Mass Rapid Transit Systems and retired as an Associate Professor of National Taipei University.

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