A few months after I was promoted, Vice-Admiral Sir Nowell Salmon, V.C., who had been appointed Commander-in-Chief on the China Station, asked me to go with him as Flag-Captain in the Impérieuse. She was the latest type of cruiser, commissioned on March 1st, 1888, and we left Plymouth on March 31st, 1888. The Admiral went out by mail steamer and I took the Impérieuse round the Cape, as she could not go through the Canal on account of her deep draught. The Suez Canal, at that time, could not take a vessel of more than 27-ft. draught, and the Impérieuse drew 30 ft. She was originally designed and fitted with sails, and was then only supposed to carry 400 tons of coal; she was sent to sea to find out whether the sails were any good to her, and the officer in command reported that they were not. So they were taken out, and another 800 tons of coal put in, making 1,200 tons altogether, but this put her down in the water to such an extent that the top of her armour belt, when fully laden, was almost level with the water, even after taking out two of her 6-in. guns to give her more buoyancy.
On the way to China we touched at Madeira and St. Vincent, and went to the Cape of Good Hope, where we arrived on April 30th. At Simon’s Bay, we found the Raleigh, Flagship of Sir Walter Hunt-Grubbe. From the Cape we went to Mauritius and encountered very heavy seas and high winds, the ship rolling a great deal.
At Mauritius the people were exceedingly kind. One of my lieutenants—whose family lived at Mauritius – had arranged several entertainments for us and two or three days’ shooting. The lieutenant and his brother invited me and two of my officers to shoot, and we went out to their house in the country, which they reopened for the time, the family being at their town house. When we sat down to dinner I thought they both had had too much to drink. In the course of conversation I make some remark, and the lieutenant replied, “You old fool, what do you know about it?” This placed me in a very awkward position, as I could not leave the house, there being no conveyance. The next morning they were full of apologies,-and I passed it over, thinking it was a special occasion, but I found out this was not the case. I gave up all further engagements at Mauritius. This officer gave me a great deal of trouble, and eventually I had to have him tried by court martial and he was dismissed from the ship. He was a very good officer when sober, and a pleasant companion.
We then went to Singapore. En route I had secret orders to take possession of Christmas Island; this is an island situated in latitude 10 degrees 31′ S. and longitude 1050 35′ E., and is not far from the Sunda Straits. I took possession in the name of H.M. Queen Victoria. I landed a guard of honour, hoisted the Union Jack, fired a royal salute and left a record, in a tin case, marking the spot with a cairn. The record reads as follows:
“This Island, known as Christmas Island, was taken possession of, in the name of Her Most Gracious Majesty Queen Victoria of Great Britain, Ireland, and Empress of India, by Captain William Henry May, commanding Her Britannic Majesty’s ship Impérieuse, on the 6th day of June, 1888.”
The record was left inside the cairn. The island is covered with guano and phosphate deposits and is now being worked by a company, so I suppose it is of some value.
The voyage between Mauritius and Christmas Island gave me a great deal of anxiety, as we had a very heavy steam against a strong south-easterly wind, and I feared we should not have sufficient coal to reach Christmas Island and Singapore. At one time I nearly turned back. We passed the Sunda Straits, after leaving Christmas Island, and arrived at Singapore on June 10th, 1888, with hardly any coal. Theoretically, we should have had plenty, but the very strong winds and the leaky state of the condensers, with the consequent deduction of power obtainable from the boilers, were the chief causes of my great anxiety, especially as there was no means of communicating with any one, being off the track of ordinary vessels.
We remained at Singapore for a few days, coaling and reprovisioning, and I stayed with the Governor, Sir Clementi Smith who was exceedingly kind and insisted on my remaining there the whole time. The quietude of the house and the comparative coolness of it was very enjoyable.
From Singapore we went on to Hongkong, arriving on June 20th, and there we had to have a thorough refit, the worst feature being that the whole of the condensers had to be refitted. In fact, they were in such a condition that if we could have got new condenser tubes at Hongkong, we should have had them fitted there and then. As it was, the Admiral telegraphed to England for the tubes and they were sent out. During the three years I was in that ship we shifted our condenser tubes three times, and even then they were not right.
When we arrived at Hongkong, cholera was rife in the island and there were a great many cases. I am sorry to say there were two cases in the ship, and both men died. We could not trace the cause, except that the men had been ashore. The Commodore, at my request, ordered us away to the north, and we left Hongkong on June 25th. The ship was painted red, as she had got very rusty on the way out, and we had to scrape the side and use red-lead before painting her white again. Forty-eight hours would have put us clear of any more cases, and the time was almost up when the doctor came to me and reported another case; it was a severe one, and the man was buried the next morning at sea. After that we were perfectly free of cholera.
We arrived at Nagasaki on July 25th and were not put in quarantine. We then went through the Shimonoseki Straits into the Inland Sea. We were the deepest draught ship that had ever been through the Straits; luckily I had plenty of steam ready, as the currents are very strong, and at times we had difficulty in steaming against them. The Inland Sea was perfectly calm when we went through. All the thousands of fishing boats, with their sails up, looked most picturesque, and the scenery was magnificent. We went on to Yokohama, where we found the Admiral and he then joined his Flagship. The Fleet was also there, and we left for a cruise round the Northern Islands, making our headquarters Hakodate.
Hakodate Harbour reminds one somewhat of Gibraltar, only it is more sheltered and ships can lie there with greater safety. The scenery and the weather were quite beautiful, and the natives very civil and courteous; they would help us in any way, allowing us to have paper-chases and gallop about over their fields whenever we liked.
The Admiral went each year for a cruise with his Fleet, which consisted of the Impérieuse, three of the C class corvettes, and eight small ships, and we always went round the Northern Islands of Japan, the coast of Siberia, and other places. He was very keen on manoeuvring the Fleet; as the ships were of so many different classes and some so small, it was rather difficult. However, I think it gave all the officers good experience.
We visited Possiette Bay on the Siberian Coast. The Admiral and I went out shooting; it was a hot, oppressive day, heavy walking, and little to shoot. In the evening we had to cross a swamp, and the mosquitoes were something terrible. I really thought that a tired man walking through two or three miles of this marsh would have thrown in his hand and given up. Our bodies were covered with mosquitoes, and my coxswain, wearing the low dress of a seaman, suffered badly; however, the consequences were not very serious. My hands swelled up and I could not appear at dinner that night, for which I was sorry, as some of the Russian military officers came to dine and I should have liked to have met them.
My wife came out for six months, travelling by the Canadian Pacific railway to Vancouver, and on to Yokohama in the steamship Fairy, in May, 1889. She had a stormy crossing and the cargo shifted. They really had a nasty and trying time, were several days late, and I was very glad to see her arrive safely. The Admiral, as was his usual custom after the cruise, went away in the Alacrity, the yacht attached to the Flagship, visiting Pekin and other places on the Station. In fact, he was never in the Flagship for more than about four or five months in the year. The Admiral allowed me to arrange a cruise, so I visited several of the Ports in Japan. My wife used to meet me there, and I was always able to get a few days’ leave and go inland to see some of the interesting places.
In going in to Nagasaki, without the Admiral on board, in 1890, I met the Russian Fleet. The Flagship was called the Admiral Nakimoff, the Admiral’s name was Smith, and the Captain, De Livron. The Admiral Nakimoff had been designed on the same lines as the Impérieuse, and they say that the drawings of the Impérieuse had been stolen by the Russians. I cannot say whether it is true or not, but the Russians sent the Nakimoff out to China as soon as they knew the Impérieuse was going there, and for the first two years the ships were not in harbour together.
I went to pay my official call on the Admiral and he was exceedingly pleasant; the Captain asked if he and his officers could come and have a look at the Impérieuse, so I said, “Yes, certainly,” and he duly came and we showed them round. Then I said to Captain De Livron, “I should very much like to see your ship,” and he said, “Yes, I should be delighted,” adding, “bring your officers.” We went, and he outdid me in showing, not only his ship, but also the drawings of the ship; and when I was leaving he said, “You are going to coal to-morrow. I wish you would send all your midshipmen and let them see the ship.” I sent him a photograph of the Imperieuse, and he sent me one of his own ship and the negative as well. In feet, we made great friends, and, when Naval Attaché, I met him again at St. Petersburg. The Nakimoff was better armed and better designed than the Impérieuse, and I immediately reported this to the Admiralty and asked permission to ship the 6-in. guns which had been taken out owing to the deep draught. I never had a quicker reply from the Admiralty than when they telegraphed out: “Ship them.”
A curious incident occurred afterwards. The latest design of Russian cruisers came in to Hongkong, Admiral Korniloff, commanded by Captain Alexieff (afterwards the Admiral who was in command at Port Arthur during the Russo-Japanese War). I went to pay my usual call, as did our other Captains, Grenfell, Watson, and the others. I asked Captain Alexieff in a casual way if I might see his ship, and he replied, “We have had a very hard steam out and we shall be a fortnight before we are ready to receive anybody.” Captains Grenfell, Watson, and Henderson were very keen to go over the cruiser, but Captain Alexieff would not invite them on board. I never thought anything more of the matter until one day I received a very polite invitation to go to lunch, which of course I accepted; and there Captain Alexieff gave me a very recherché meal, had all his senior officers to meet me, and then took me round the ship and showed me everything as if I was an inspecting Admiral, finishing up by showing me all the drawings of the ship. It all points to the fact that the Russians, in my opinion, are always very suspicious of you until you show your hand (as I did when I showed them the Impérieuse), and then they try to meet you more than half way; this certainly has been my experience on two or three occasions.
On our way north from Hongkong in April, 1890, I put in at Amoy. When we anchored, a Chinaman began to fire at us, but I sent to the Consul and they soon stopped that. The pilot came off and said, “I think that you have anchored quite close to an unknown rock.” I said, “In that case I will shift billet.” So we weighed anchor and shifted to what he thought was a safer anchorage. In the afternoon I went ashore for a walk, and when I came off, the Commander met me at the gangway and said, “We are leaning up against a rock, I have kept everything perfectly quiet, so that when the tide rises, I hope the ship will go over it.” The rock was examined and found to have a sharp ledge about 4 ft. long, the depth of water over it at low-water spring tides being only 21 ft. The position of the rock was fixed and named after the ship. Luckily, we sustained no damage; but if the ship had been exactly over this rock as the tide fell, it would have come 9 ft. through the ship’s bottom.