1862_header.gif (113114 bytes)


Raphael Semmes'
Description of Early Singapore

By Terry Foenander

The Official Records of the Union and Confederate Navies includes extracts of the journal of Raphael Semmes, while he was in command of the CSS Alabama. The entries, dated between January 5, 1863 and March 31, 1864, can be found in Series 1, Volume 2, on pages 720 to 807. Semmes was often quite descriptive in his notes and observations, and at times made his personal feelings known through the journal entries. One such entry, dated Monday, December 7, 1863, shows the common attitude of the time, towards African Americans, when he discussed slavery with the French commandant of the island of Condore, off the coast of modern day Vietnam. Semmes states that "He [the Commandant] told me that he had 140 forcats (slave prisoners) at the village, whom he meant to put to good use in constructing store and dwelling houses, etc., upon which I rallied him upon his system of slavery away off here in Cochin China, and told him he was worse than we, since the Cochin Chinese were quasi white people, whereas we enslaved only the African."

Singapore, at this point in time, had only been under British colonial rule for less than 45 years. Sir Stamford Raffles had noted the island's convenient position at the crossroads of sea traffic between the Far East and the western nations, and acquired the island from the Sultan of Johore in 1819. Thenceforth it's prominent position was used as a stopover for vessels passing through the Strait of Malacca. It's rapid growth as a seaport was due in no small part to the various races who settled the island, many of whom were brought in as cheap labour by the British from China, India, and other nations in the region.

By the time the Civil War had commenced in far away America, Singapore was already quite well developed, mainly in the southern portion of the island. It's position as a stopover point for vessels refuelling and restocking their provisions had already been utilised by at least one other war vessel of the belligerent nations, the USS Wyoming. The cruises of the CSS Alabama were quite well known in the region, and the local language newspaper, The Straits Times, included accounts of her activities in the area. It had been predicted that the vessel would eventually call in to the port of Singapore, but there had been so many false alarms, that the residents had become rather doubtful of her arrival. The journal entries here commence with her arrival in the harbor in the early evening of December 21, 1863. Notes have been included after each day's entry, and sources for the notes are shown at the end of the article.

Monday, December 21 [1863] - At 3.30 a.m., we got underway under steam and sail, and steered S. by E. 32 1/2 miles, S. 18 miles, and S. by W. 14 miles, and the weather setting in very thick, with heavy rain obscuring all things, I was obliged to come [to], in 10 1/4 fathoms with the north point of Bintang Island bearing ----- and within 12 miles by computation of the Pedra Branca light house. We have thus to war against the weather as well as our enemies. Soon after daylight we made a ship-rigged steamer on our port bow, bound also for Singapore. She anchored also, near us, astern. It clearing a little at noon, we got hold of the marks and got underway, and taking a Malay pilot anchored off Singapore at 5.30 p.m.

Bintan Island, or Pulau Bintan, one of the numerous islands that form the nation of Indonesia, is situated about 25 miles south-east of Singapore.

The U.S. Vice Consul in Singapore, Francis D. Cobb, advised Secretary of State, William Henry Seward, in a communication dated December 22, 1863, that he had tried unsuccessfully, the previous night [December 21st], to communicate with the crew of the CSS Alabama, but his boat was prevented from approaching the Confederate cruiser.

Tuesday, December 22 [1863] - Weather cloudy. At 9.30 a.m. the pilot came on board and we ran up into New Harbor, alongside of the coaling depot, and commenced coaling. Singapore is quite a large town, with an air of thrift and prosperity; a large number of ships in the harbor. The country is beautiful and green, with an abundance of fine fruit, etc. The country around highly improved with tasteful houses and well laid out grounds. The English residents call it the Madeira of the East, in allusion to its healthfulness. Some twenty-two American merchant ships here, most of them laid up. Wyoming was here twenty days ago, and left for Rhio Strait, where she remained for some days. Finished coaling last night, the operation having occupied no more than ten hours. Receiving provisions.

New Harbor, now known as Keppel Harbor, is about three miles from the city center. When word had spread that the famous Confederate cruiser was in the harbor, there was great excitement amongst the local populace. Many of the residents headed west to the docks in an attempt to see for themselves what the locals termed the 'Kappal Hantu,' or 'Ghost Ship.' The hub of activity on the island was at Commercial Square, and with the appearance of some of the personnel of the Confederate cruiser amongst the locals at the Square on Tuesday, December 22nd, there was no doubt that the famed vessel was indeed in the harbor.

The USS Wyoming had arrived in Singapore at the end of November, and left the next day, December 1st, in search of the Confederate vessel.

Wednesday, December 23 [1863] - Weather variable, with occasional showers of rain. Raining heavily in the afternoon. Last night seven of my vagabonds ran away; two of them were apprehended and brought back this morning. Visited the city, and was astonished at its amount of population and business. There are from 80,000 to 100,000 Chinese on Singapore Island, nearly all of them in the city; from 12,000 to 15,000 Malays, and about 1,500 Europeans. Singapore being a free port, it is a great entreport of trade. Great quantities of Eastern produce reaches it from all quarters, whence it is shipped to Europe. The business is almost exclusively in the hands of the Chinese, who are also the artisans and laborers of the place. The streets are thronged with foot passengers and vehicles, among which are prominent the ox, or rather buffalo cart, and the hacks for hire, of which latter there are 900 licensed. The canal is filled with country boats, of excellent model, and the warehouses are crammed with goods. Money seems to be abundant and things dear. They are just finishing a tasteful Gothic church, with a tall spire, which is a notable landmark as you approach the town, and are completing officers' quarters, etc., on a hill which commands the town. Barracks for three or [four] regiments lie unoccupied a couple of miles outside the city, and a large court-house and town hall adorn one of the squares. The moving multitude in the streets comprises every variety of the human race, every shade of color, and every variety of dress, among which are prominent the gay tartans and fancy jackets of the Mohammedan, Hindu, etc. Almost all the artisans and laborers were naked, except a cloth or a pair of short trousers tucked about the waist. The finest dressed part of the population was decidedly the jet blacks, with their white flowing mantles and spotless turbans. The upper class of Chinese merchants are exceedingly polite, and seem intelligent. I visited the establishment of Whampoa & Co. Whampoa was above the middle size, stout, and with a large, well-developed head. I was told that his profits some years amounted to 40,000 or 50,000 [pounds sterling]. He was sitting in a small, dingy, ill-lighted little office on the ground floor, and had before him a Chinese calculating machine, over the numerous small balls of which, strung on wires, he was running his hands for amusement, as a gambler will sometimes do with his checks. At the suggestion of the gentleman who was with me, I requested him to multiply four places of figures by three places - naming the figures - and the operation was done about as rapidly as I could write down the result. Their shaved heads and long queues, sometimes nearly touching the ground, are curious features of their personal appearance. The workshops all front upon the streets, and these busy, half-naked creatures may be seen working away as industriously as so many beavers all day long, seeming never to tire of their ceaseless toil. I saw but one female in the street, and she of the lower class, amid all this busy population. Dined in the country with Mr. Beaver. The ride out was over good roads or avenues flanked by large forest and ornamental trees, among which was the tall, slender, graceful palm of the betel nut. The botanical gardens are on an elevation commanding a fine view of the town and the sea, and are laid out with taste, ornamented with flowering trees and shrubs and flowers. Hither a band of music comes to play several times a week, when the townspeople ride out to enjoy the scene. A few miles beyond the town the whole island is a jungle, in which abounds the ferocious Bengal tiger. It is said that one man and a half per day is the average destruction of human life by these animals. Visited opium-preparation shop. It pays an enormous license. All this beauty fails to reconcile the European ladies to the country, I was told. The eternal sameness of summer and heat and moisture weigh upon and oppress them, and their husbands being away all day on business, they wilt and pine for their European homes. The life seems agreeable enough to the men. The governor of the "Straits Settlement" is a colonel.

As it was then, and still is to this day, the industrious Chinese make up the vast majority of the population of the island, followed by the native Malays, and then the Indians, and numerous other races. Visitors to the vessel were allowed aboard on Wednesday, after coaling had been completed, and many residents took advantage of this invitation to inspect the vessel that had caused so much fear amongst the merchant fleet of the U.S. A local reporter for the Straits Times had an opportunity to visit the cruiser and gave an account of his visit in the issue of Saturday, December 26. He describes her as "essentially a handy craft, capable of the most rapid movements, and thoroughly effective to the extent of her strength." The reporter also had a chance to meet with Commander Semmes, and notes that he (Semmes) had boasted that the Confederate flag on the vessel would never be lowered in surrender.

The church mentioned in the preceding entry was St. Andrew's Cathedral, built by convict labour, and the officers' quarters were situated on Fort Canning, a prominent feature during that period. The enlisted men's barracks were at Tanglin, one of the outer suburbs of Singapore.

Hoo Ah Kay, or Whampoa as he was popularly known was a businessman who had built his fortune on shipping. He conversed fluently in English and often entertained naval officers and other dignitaries who visited Singapore, and did not differentiate between belligerents. Some 16 years after Semmes' stopover, Whampoa was visited by then ex-President Ulysses Grant, at his stately mansion in Serangoon, another suburb of Singapore.

In the early days Singapore consisted mainly of jungle, but as settlement expanded, and the land was cleared, the 'ferocious Bengal tiger' and other such animals were eventually wiped out. Currently the island is a vast concrete jungle, and a major world business center.

Thursday, December 24 [1863] - Cloudy. Five more deserters last night. We brought out with us four volunteers. The Quang Tung got underway at 8.30 a.m., and we followed her and steered for the Strait of Malacca, several sail in sight.

The ten sailors who had successfully deserted from the vessel on December 23 and 24 were John Allen, seaman; Henry Cosgrove, boy; John Doyle, seaman; John Grady, boy; Richard Hambly, ordinary seaman; Albert Hyer, ordinary seaman; William R. King, quartermaster; Frank Mahany, ordinary seaman; James Smith, captain of the forecastle, and James Williams, captain of the foretop. The four volunteers taken on at Singapore were Robert Devine, ordinary seaman; Henry Higgins, ordinary seaman; James King, ordinary seaman, who was later killed in action against the USS Kearsarge, and Thomas Watson, ordinary seaman.

When she left Singapore, the CSS Alabama had less than six months of cruising left before meeting her final destiny off Cherbourg, France.


"Our Tropical Possessions in Malayan India." by John Cameron. Smith, Elder and Co., London, 1865.

"The Alabama and the Kearsarge: the Sailor's Civil War." by William Marvel. University of North Carolina Press, 1996.

"The Singapore Story." by Noel Barber. Fontana, 1978.

"The Straits Times." (newspaper). See the article titled "The Alabama," in the issue of Saturday, December 26, 1863, page 1.

"Traveller's Tales of Old Singapore." compiled by Michael Wise. Times Books International, 1985.

U.S. Consulate Despatches, Singapore. [Microfilm copies held at the Singapore National Archives. This author wishes to express his utmost gratitude to the staff of the Archives for their kind assistance in using the materials.]

Copyright, Terry Foenander

Return to table of contents