During my stay in Hue, I was looking for traces left behind by international navigators, who used to be the witnesses in waters under the sovereignty of Viet Nam centuries ago. While the artifacts left behind concerning these navigators were scarce, detailed notes were made in historical books.
Especially, among the historical documents were memoirs, travel notes and articles written by them on dangerous sea routes and interesting businesses with the Vietnamese. There included the memoirs of lieutenant John White, the captain of the Franklin - an American ship.
A type of flexible merchant ships redrawn by John White - Documentary photo
In the waters of the Viet Nam
In a study room faded with time, the Hue researchers Ho Tan Phan and Nguyen Huu Chau Phan spared no effort to find the documents and notes of international navigators on the sea routes and the ancient Vietnamese’s techniques to conquer the sea. It is interesting that not only the French coming from the ships laden with gratitude and rancour during almost one hundred years with this country, but also from many other maritime powers, such as Portugal, the Netherlands, Great Britain, the United States, whose ships went to and fro in the East Sea of the Vietnamese in those early days.
From his homeland in Massachusetts, captain John White started his voyage from early January 1819 on the Franklin through many waters and ports, including battles against pirates in Malacca, and arrived at Cap Saint Jacques (Vung Tau) on the 7th June. In his memoir "A voyage to Cochinchina” released in 1824 in London, it was told by the captain, merchant and adventurer that: "At 11 a.m. on the 7th (June 1819), we descried Cape Saint James, bearing north-northeast. This promontory is the commencement of a chain of mountains which extend along the coast to the north… Being the first high land seen in coming from the south, it is an excellent mark for the entrance of the Dong Nai river, on the north side of which it is situated. We steered directly for the cape... till we opened a small picturesque semilunar bay, situated at the foot of the mountain. There situated the village of Vung Tau, from which the bay takes its name...”
John White told in detail how he anchored the ship in five fathoms of water, just one nautical mile from the village of Vung Tau. He praised the place as a safe and excellent place for ships. The aim of the American captain is to go deep to Saigon through Can Gio estuary to probe trading opportunities. But it took him so much time to clear complex entry procedures, including going to Hue for the King’s permission. But it was during the time of anchoring and making a voyage along the coast to Hue citadel, John White witnessed with his own eyes and praised the shipbuilding techniques and seafaring skills of the Vietnamese.
The admirable local ships
John White’s memoir realistically described when the Franklin “encountered” the Vietnamese boats: “We were greatly admired at the quickness of their vessels, and on observing the very dexterous manner in which they were managed. They are of various capacities, from five to one hundred tons, but in general they are of from fifteen to thirty tons. They are of great length, sharp at both ends, projecting far out above… This would lead us to suppose that they would not perform well in working to windward, but this is not the case…" Describing the local boats in Vung Tau-Can Gio sea, at first, the captain coming from the maritime U.S. power, showed that a series of structures, which were the shipbuilding techniques of the Vietnamese own, seemed to be unusual. But then, he himself confirmed and praised the excellent performance of the boats.
John White also spared no word to praise the boats of unique structure with common bamboo mats, namely the wooden barges or sea-boats of the Hoang Sa detachment: "Our curiosity was greatly excited on seeing some of vessels above fifty tons whose bottoms were composed of basket work. On examination, we found that they consisted of strips of bamboo...very closely woven, in two entire pieces, each of which completely covered one section of the bottom below the wales. The timbers of this description of vessels are nearer each other than those of the other kind, and are so contrived as to be taken apart, and replaced again, with very little trouble, and no injury. And, as they make but one voyage in a year, always sailing with the favourable monsoon, after having discharged their cargoes, vessels are taken to pieces, and secured from the vicissitudes of the weather. Their bottoms, as well as those of the other sort, are covered outside to the thickness of half an inch, with gul-gul, which is a mixture of dammer, or pitch, oil, and chunam, or lime, and when properly amalgamated, is very tenacious and elastic, completely impervious to the water, and resists most admirably the encroachments of worms…”
When describing the ability of these original boats with bamboo bottom in breaking the waves, John White wrote: “They possess a great degree of stability, bearing a great press of sail, and are most excellent sea boats; they carry from one to three, very well cut, and neatly made lateen sails. Their sails are of matting, and we observed that all the fishing boats had the clue pieces of theirs coloured black. They use the wooden anchor, with one fluke, so common in the East. Their shrouds and cables are mostly of rattan, and their running rigging of coiar, the well-known cordage, made from the husk of the coconut…"
Back to Central Viet Nam to meet the elders who built fishing boats in the provinces of Quang Ngai and Quang Nam, I gave them the memoirs of John White to read and verify the authenticity of his descriptions. Surprisingly, nearly 200 years later, what was seen and touched by the US captain concerning the shipbuilding techniques of the Vietnamese has been maintained by the local workers generation after generation. The foreman Nguyen Tan Tra, 76, who is renowned for shipbuilding occupation in Nghia Phu, Tu Nghia district, Quang Ngai, commented: “Nearly all of the descriptions of the US captain on the shipbuilding techniques are accurate. Not only the type of curved-hull boats good at breaking the waves or easily noticeable bamboo mats, but the matting sails, cordage made from the husk of cocoa nut, ironwood anchor detected by him were also accurate.”
Without concealing his pride, the old Tra further told that till mid-20th century, the village workers still built seafaring boats with these techniques. This proves that John White was very interested in and quite accurately knew the shipbuilding techniques of the Vietnamese. His memoirs also mentioned to the numerous curios taken home from this country for the maritime museum of the East - India Marine Society.