Yvonne Wong reviews a book that explores a seminal moment in the history of Hong Kong.
Stephen Davies, Transport to Another World: HMS Tamar and the Sinews of Empire (City University Press, 2022), 464pp.
In 1841, three British navy sailors landed on a spot along the beach of the Victoria Harbour, Hong Kong, toasted three cheers to their queen, Queen Victoria, and claimed the plot of land as a British possession. That original spot is now called “Possession Street,” a busy street in Sheung Wan, Hong Kong. In 1941, the HMS Tamar, which was then the depot ship of the British navy in Hong Kong, was set to be sunk by the very navy that took possession of the island a century ago. The emotions triggered by this factual juxtaposition or stark contrast could be equivocal and provocative. Nonetheless, one of the questions that could be prompted by this parallel display is: has the British Empire been transported to another world by the (indifferent) flow of time? While it would take at least a few books to answer this contentious question responsibly, a glimpse into what is usually side-lined by mainstream scholarly interests might yield some fruitful findings: the history of British navy transport ships. Responding to this niche of research is a recent book penned by maritime historian Stephen Davies titled Transport to Another World: HMS Tamar and the Sinews of the Empire (2022). Through the sympathetic, meticulous rendering of the microcosm of the HMS Tamar as an apercu of the macrocosm of the British Empire, from its unrepeatable pinnacle during the Victorian Age to its inevitable decline during the 20th century, Davies conveys with profound depth, vividness, and prowess the unescapable tide of history, and our ways of being in (and out of) its waves and splashes, across time(s) and space(s).
The Microcosm of the HMS Tamar: The World Aboard and the Worlds Beyond
While the HMS Tamar was carried by the waves of the oceans, she was also the carrier of the lives of people aboard. With the ship’s primary role as a trooping or transport vessel (though she was capable of being a warship in the earlier stage of her career), the focus of lives aboard revolved rarely around the actual battles or warfare she directly engaged in. Davies’s telling and humanistic selection of materials is self-explanatory in this regard:
The logbook for the long voyage out to China [one of her trips to Hong Kong] in balmy, trade wind conditions gives a clear picture of the way the days were passed. It was a constant round of painting, cleaning, washing clothes, airing bedding (daily in good weather), making and mending clothes (on make and mend days once a week), scrubbing hammocks, seamanship instruction for seamen and boys, and occasional rifle drills and cutlass drills (121)
The gerunds go on, specifying what constitute the daily routine aboard, and the everyday-ness of this depiction proffers a touch of certainty and control that anchors not only the souls on the ship, who are stealing a few merciful glances from the heavens above (the “balmy” “good weather”), but the reader who is dealing with the massive (and often, messy) topic of British naval history during the Victorian era. Another ordinary and palpable illustration of domesticity aboard is about “the bullocks” that “were for fresh meat—the stalling, mucking out, and gradual slaughtering of…bullocks aboard” shows “the less salubrious side of 1870’s troopship life” (101).
The Tamar, as a carrier and a transporter, also transferred people from one world to another, known or unknown. “Young Knott had been born in Melbourne on 5 February 1885,” and shortly after the delivery, Mrs. Knott “and her tiny baby had been moved aboard the Tamar.” Then, “it was on 15 February 1885” at 10:30, the ship’s log states, “divine services including baptism of Thomas Macfarlane Knott, son of Fleet Surgeon” (169). In a matter-of-fact manner, the author notes the dates of Mrs. Knott’s delivery and that of the baby’s baptism. The message between the lines is clear: neither the war machine of the empire, nor the sea lanes that sustained it, saw the need for a post-natal recovery, nor was there anything problematic in giving a five-day buffer between giving birth and a trans-Atlantic voyage of 58 days. The author takes care to highlight the father of baby Knott, the “fleet surgeon,” and reveals that it was often the officer’s children’s baptisms that got logged (101). Here, the class structure that governed the ship, ran the military, and ruled the empire was made audible from the cry of an infant.
As with the entrance to Christendom, the Tamar also channeled the descent to the worlds beyond, or below. For junior staff working in engines and boiler rooms, heat stroke was a common cause of death: the conditions were so exceptional that an anonymous member of the Army Medical Department wrote to the British Medical Journal about the “insupportable,” “awful” humidity and temperature where the staff concerned worked (172–173). Though the “Tamar’s logbooks are full of the ship heaving-to within a few hours of a death on board for the body to be committed to the deep” (211). However, “life aboard a troopship…was in fact a lot healthier than life ashore” (212), with a general death rate of less than 1 percent, compared to 1.7 percent ashore (212). This comparative weaving of data evokes in the reader more than just surprise and curiosity, but an admiration for the author’s ingenuity of juxtaposing expectation and reality in such a way that overthrows their assumptions, as well as the solid research that goes on behind the scenes.
The Twists and Turns of the British Empire in 19th and 20th Centuries: As Carried by the HMS Tamar
Britain learnt, though not as gracefully as she hoped, some harsh lessons from history: for the nation to survive and prosper, she had to become a supreme naval power, then to consolidate her position as such. Confronting this challenge, the pressing need to build the strongest navy in the world for Britain’s national defence and global conquest presented itself not as an option, but an imperative. Yet, how about the next need in line—the need to establish a transport fleet that constituted mainly of trooping ships like the HMS Tamar to safeguard her lines of “communication” across the world’s oceans, by providing unfailing military logistical support? The answer, as smoothly articulated by Davies, was far from straightforward, as expected.
In the first few decades of 19th-century Britain, the country’s military neither centralised nor designed the coordination of its logistics and transport manoeuvres. Against this backdrop, it was not surprising that the proposition of launching a new branch of administration solely for the aforementioned purpose was greeted with little enthusiasm. Many other factors, such as the issue of resource distribution during a time when battleship building was very much in vogue, the tricky question of line of reporting, or in the author’s crisp surmise, “bureaucratic in-infighting” (41) (in effect, who’s the boss? The navy, the army, or the War Office?), and the reality of national military performance, especially her logistical orchestrations when compared to that of the French during the Crimean War (1853–1856), were whirled into this complicated matrix. Eventually, in 1862, the Transport Department (as a part of the Admiralty) was created “to carry out transport of every kind required by our government to any part of our coast and to all our colonies and possessions, including India” (51). With the required elements pulled together, the conception of the HMS Tamar became tangible, and a year later in 1863, a ship that would become a part of Hongkongers’ collective memory and her local history, set sail from London. Destination? The Asante States in Africa. Purpose? The venture of imperialistic colonial expansion.
In the author’s succinct “tracking” of where the Tamar “went, when, and with whom, we [the reader] can see how the final phase of the creation of the British Empire took place” (96). In the first two to three decades of her career, most of the Tamar’s commissions required her to carry troops and reliefs for security and policing purposes in British colonies or territories abroad, in “responses to the agitations, unrest, and occasional significant threats to stability of the new territories brought under British suzerainty” (95). From 1860s to 1890s, she carried troops to the Middle East (for events revolving around the Suez Canal and Levant), Africa (the Scramble for Africa of 1873–1883), Jamaica (1865), Canada (1866), and Yokohama (1867–1868, 1871) to secure British interests, for example. Other areas of work include New Zealand, the Straits (1867), and of course, Hong Kong (1865 marked her first visit to Hong Kong), where she finally dropped her anchor for the one last time. From Africa to South America, then to Asia and the Pacific regions, the shores that the Tamar kissed across the globe mapped out before the eyes of the reader the vastness of the empire. Here, the HMS Tamar is the moving dot that charts the latitudinal and longitudinal boundaries of an imperial power, an oceanic web never before seen in human history.
Also, interestingly, although the Tamar was designed and built as a trooper and a relief carrier, she carried more than military personnel to battlegrounds of various sorts in various places: she was also a part of the exemplars of the empire. “Doubl[ing] as Royal Yacht and VIP ferry” (185), she ferried some bigwigs, such as the members of the House of Lords, together with some heavyweights of financial importance during Queen Victoria’s Fleet Review in 1886. The HMS Tamar did not have a “starry role” in the Review, as it was “all about naval braggadocio” (190). From transporting troops of strategic value, to ferrying VIPs in military shows. What happened to the HMS Tamar? The answer is relatively simple this time around: cost efficiency. With the necessity of sustaining the expensive Transport Department and its fleet being repeatedly questioned and criticised in 1880s, the tide turned against the Tamar, and “by the early 1890s, the Tamar was old, tired, and obsolete” (190). In 1897, four years before the death of Queen Victoria, the HMS Tamar’s fate was set: She was to become the naval depot ship of Britain in Hong Kong. In other words: She was going to be still.
“Still” is a word choice steeped in irony when used to describe the tumultuous complexities of world politics in the first half of the twentieth century, as well as the Tamar’s last four decades of service. The Congress of Vienna marked the end of Pax Britannica, and it inevitably altered British’s military and strategic evaluation of her possessions in the Asia Pacific: the British navy was to designate Singapore as her port of defence, obliterating the military needs of Hong Kong, while underestimating the expansionist threat of yet another island country: Japan. This was the prelude to Hong Kong’s fatal and fatalistic fall into the hands of the Japanese in December 1941, and the gift unwrapped for Hongkongers that Christmas was the darkness that was to last for three years and eight months. “Putting it succinctly, if cruelly, by the autumn of 1941, the largest Royal Navy ship east of Singapore was the engineless, weaponless HMS Tamar” (258, emphasis mine). This clear statement of fact says it all about the British defense of Hong Kong in the face of Japanese invasion, and “from the outset of the battle, the Tamar was effectively a nuisance” (261). As the navy retreated in one way or the other, this “nuisance” had to be dealt with, and “it was decided she should be scuttled to deny her to the enemy” (261, emphasis mine). On 11 December 1941, after the failed attempt to sink her with torpedo, “charges” were “put aboard” to fragment the Tamar under the shield of darkness. Yet, “three masts” of a ship were found in a piece of a painting inked in 1946 by “an official war artist to the British Pacific Fleet,” and they belonged to the “wreck of HMS Tamar” (263). Here, the word “deny” is an intriguing presence. One can’t help but doubt: who or what is in command of what or who is to be denied? This question became even more of a delicate yet potentially consequential nuance more than half a century later, when the wreckage of a ship highly resembling the Tamar was discovered again, somewhere round the seabed of Wan Chai in 2013, as the HKSAR government was preparing to construct the Central-Wan Chai Bypass. This time, whatever the identity of the wreck, the HKSAR officials upheld the stance that it is not the HMS Tamar.
Ashore, there is no shipwreck to be found. Yet, Admiralty and Tamar Park still hold the beating heart of our Fragrant Harbour. What goes into the record might go beyond our control; what lives in ones’ memories, flows its own tide.
Yvonne Wong holds a PhD in English Literature from Durham University, UK. She has published on Dorothy Richardson and popular culture. She has taught literature in the UK and in Hong Kong, and is currently teaching at Hong Kong Baptist University. Her research interests include modernism, phenomenology, women writers, space and place in literature and inter-arts studies. A cat and art lover who enjoys the company of nature and anything beautiful.