Tuesday October 30, 2007 | 0 comments
The Company’s returning China fleet laden with eight milion pounds’ worth of tea, silk and porcelain found an imposing French squadron laying in wait at the mouth of the Strait of Malacca (where fifteen years later Sir Stamford Raffles was to found Singapore for the Company). Commodore Nathaniel Dance had the Indiamen calmly form a line of battle and ordered the three leading ships to hoist the Royal Navy ensign instead of the Company’s red and white stripes. All day and all night the French followed. “If the bold front put on by the enemy in the daytime had been a ruse,” the French admiral wrote later, “he would have profited by the darkness to endeavor to conceal his escape. But I soon became convinced that this security was not feigned; three of his ships constantly kept their lights up, and the fleet continued to lie in order of battle throughout the night.” Commodore Dance carried his desperate gamble right to the point of exchanging fire the following day and, when the French admiral lost his nerve and veered off, capped the hoax by signalling a general pursuit!
When Dance finally reached London exactly six months later he received a hero’s welcome. He was knighted by George III, feted everywhere, and made a rich man by the Company which settled an annuity of five hundred pounds on him and appropriated fifty thousand for the officers and men of the sixteen ships in his convoy. In time this once proud fleet was sold off as scrap with the advent of clipper and, soon after, steamships. The last known East Indiaman was used until the 1920s as a dismasted coal hulk towed behind a tugboat at Gibraltar, the adventure and wealth of the tea trade forgotten. It could well symbolize the ruin the East India fleet had brought in its wake to China, the oldest civilization of the planet. The British flag at Canton, future Prime Minister Gladstone was to admit, “is hoisted to protect an infamous contraband traffic…we should recoil from its sight with horror.” None would feel this horror more keenly than the countless “Sons of the Yellow Emperor” who were reduced to leaving their Celestial Kingdom to serve as the world’s coolies and suffer injury and discrimination everywhere, even in the child’s rhyme:
“Chink Chink, Chinaman, sitting on a rail,
Along comes the white man and cuts off his tail…”