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103 Meridian East » History »  Singapore through theEyes of a Russian Gentleman
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Russian writer, Ivan Goncharov, most famous for his novel Oblomov, took part in a sea voyage between 1852 and 1855 aboard the Russian three-master warship Pallada, as secretary to Admiral Yevfimy Putyatin. The goal of this expedition was to establish political and economic relations with Japan, which, starting from 1639, stood apart from the rest of the world, having closed its borders to foreigners and punished trespassers by death.

"Open, Sesame-san!"

What were the Japanese afraid of? Negative influences from the outside world. According to Goncharov, they were apprehensive of foreigners "bringing their own beliefs, ideas, customs, statutes, goods and vices". Only Chinese and Dutch merchant ships were exempted from the ban, and yet, even they were only allowed to call at the port of Nagasaki, and there alone.
However, by the 19th century, Japan had become aware of its colossal economic lag in comparison with other countries, caused by its chosen policy. By that time, the Russian Empire and United States of North America had engaged in rivalry for influence over the Asia-Pacific region. Each wishing to penetrate the Japanese market with its own goods, both superpowers of the time sent, practically simultaneously, their naval squadrons to the Land of the Rising Sun to flaunt their up-to-date weaponry and persuade the Japanese to open up their country to foreigners. After some negotiations, both expeditions bore fruit: the Japanese signed trade agreements with both Russia and America, allowing their merchant ships access.
This was the global underlying motive that led to the appearance of civil service officer Ivan Goncharov, who served as translator of the Department of Foreign Commerce at the Ministry of Finance, aboard the Pallada.

Roaming the Seas and Oceans

Goncharov's duty of secretary demanded that he write down in detail the progression of the negotiations with the Japanese. However, he had so many impressions from his long journey, and so exotic at that, that he couldn't help but write lengthy letters to his friends back in Russia. Later, it was his addressees who demanded that all the correspondence be published under one cover as a separate book. As a result of the friendly insistence, we today have the travelogue called The Frigate Pallada.

This title may seem rather ingenuous, but it is highly justifiable, as it was thanks to the warship named after the ancient Greek goddess of wisdom and just warfare that Goncharov had visited numerous countries and places such as England, the Cape Colony in South Africa, Java, Singapore, Hong Kong, Shanghai, the Philippines and Japan.
Accustomed to much higher speeds today, the duration of the Pallada's voyage may seem unbelievably long to us. These days, we can travel from "here" to "there" in a matter of hours but, in the past, sailing ships were entirely dependent on the wind's whimsy and, once they hit a dead calm zone, could remain at the same spot in the ocean for weeks without budging a notch. That was why the mean distance covered per day was ridiculously short, making the voyage extremely wearing.

The Singapore Chapter

Every chapter of The Frigate Pallada is devoted to a certain country or place along its route. Goncharov's eye shrewdly registered everything unveiling in front of him, while his brain processed it from the viewpoint of a Russian grand gentleman, who was forced to overcome his laziness (which became known as the oblomovshchina phenomenon of Russian society in the 19th century) and travel around the world by sea. Goncharov's travel notes are very personal, subjective and extremely politically incorrect in the modern context. Reading his book today is quite amusing.
Our attention was drawn to the fact that it was Chapter 6 on Singapore that had been published separately, in eight consecutive issues of a provincial Siberian newspaper of which Goncharov's brother was editor-in-chief – well before the whole The Frigate Pallada book saw the light of day.
For obvious reasons, our editorial team was extremely interested in Goncharov's Chapter 6 from that book. Over the next few pages, we offer our Russian readers the original abridged version, as well as our own English translation of the extracts for our Anglophone readers.

Text Julia Sherstyuk
Illustration Svetlana Lapina


The Frigate Pallada
by Ivan Goncharov
Chapter VI: Singapore

24 March – 2 June 1853

Where am I, oh, where am I, my friends? Where had fate brought me, away from our birch trees and spruces, away from the snow and ice, from wicked winter and indistinct summer? I was below the equator, under the sun's vertical rays, at the boundary of India and China, in the realm of eternal and ruthlessly sultry summer. The eye, accustomed to immense expanses of rye fields, now saw plantations of sugar and rice; evergreen spruces had given way to always-green bananas and coconut palms; the cranberry and cloudberry were ousted by pineapples and mangoes. I was in the land of pungent pepper, spicy herbs, elephants, tigers, snakes; in the country of shaved and bearded men, of whom some were capless and others wore a pile of cloth on their heads; some were pottering about, either with a hammer, a crowbar, a needle or a chisel; others couldn't care less as to eat a handful of rice or budge from the same spot all day long; a third kind, loathing order and toil, scoured the sea and forced sea merchants to pay tribute.

<…> Suddenly, one night, amid the night's serenity, the sound of oars next to the frigate was heard. <…> Some Malays brought pineapples and offered their services as pilots. We made assumptions, jokingly, that they might be pirates sent by their gang to find out what kind of ship ours was, how many people and what arms were on it, and then to decide as to whether to assault us or not. Such was the usual tactic of local pirates. On one occasion, some pirates appeared, numbering three or four, on the deck of a Dutch boat carrying poisoned fruit and, after having poisoned the crew, the rest of the gang hurried in and took over the ship. The pirates, as they always did, took the people to the Sunda Islands1 as prisoners and sank the ship. One Malay climbed up onto our deck and stayed for the night; the other two remained in their boat tied to our frigate and following it behind. It was 24 May, at about 11 o'clock in the morning. Manoeuvring, we entered Singapore's Straits. It started to rain, with a squall at that, which refreshed the air. It allowed us respite from the heat. The temperature was 23.5° R2, but the Malay was freezing. He was wearing a cotton skirt, had a kind of shirt on his shoulders and a piece of red cotton cloth over it; on his head was a scarf, akin to that worn by our married women; his feet were bare. Such was a complete outfit – the majority of them go half-naked. The Malay was hiding behind the awning of the quarterdeck till he saw the door to my cabin open, and he stepped in with one foot, then with the other and his back, while his head was still outside. – "Cold?" I asked him. – "Yes," he replied and went into my cabin completely. But it seemed unnatural to me to feel cold at above 20; therefore, I could not get myself to take pity on his condition, so I waved at him to get out as he was blocking my light. His two companions down there in the boat were not bothered by the water it drew, both with its nose and stern in the squall. One of them was lazily ladling the water out overboard; the other was just watching him, even lazier.
In the evening, we approached Singapore. I was curious to have a look at the mass of multi-coloured and multilingual peoples swarming this tiny patch of land, of which the American Wilks3 counts 21 different Asiatic tribes.

25 May
It was morning. The sun was shining, and everything was shining along with it. What picturesque views surrounded us! What life, bustle, noise! What faces! What languages! Around us were islands. All green; in front, behind the forest of ship masts, rose city buildings. Junks, boats, Chinese and Indians went from shore to ship and back, crossing each other's paths. To our left and right was wilderness; an impenetrable forest of coconut trees overlooked the bay; behind us was the sea.
I looked overboard; there was a small fleet of boats loaded with sundries, mainly fruit. Pineapples were heaped, like turnips and potatoes would be at home. And what pineapples! I didn't know that they could be so big and beautiful.

<…> I bought a shell in one place, a knickknack in another, but mostly I was perusing those faces, so new to me.
There was an old Indian, black with grey sideburns and beard growing below his lips. And there was a Malay the colour of tough-pitch copper, rowing with two oars bundled together, pushing them forward from him.

<…> Some were lying under the direct sun, others were sitting on their heels in a manner a European would never imagine possible. I was approached several times by a French-speaking Indian. – "Where do you come from?" I asked. He mentioned a name that I didn't catch and wasn't aware of. – "Are you an Indian?" – "No," he replied, vigorously shaking his head. – "Well, a Malay?" He denied that even more strongly. – "What country are you from, then?" – "Islam, Mussulman." – "Yes, that is your religion, but from where are you?" – "Islam, Mussulman," he insisted. "Well, from which city?" – "Pondicherry4." – "In this case, you are Indian!" – He shook his head. – "Hindus there," he said, pointing at some men who looked exactly like him. "Me, Islam." – "Ah, those ones believe in Brahma." – "Yes, yes! Brahma, Hindus!" he kept repeating.

<…> The captain was not ready before six o'clock. When we approached the shore, it was already dark; the distance on the roads was about two miles. When on land, we were met by fiacres – light carriages drawn by one small horse, just like the ones that children ride at home. However, we were disinclined to ride; still, the Indians followed us. We didn't really know where to go; gaslight had not reached here yet, so it was pitch-dark. We headed left but our way was barred by a little river and a pavilion; on the opposite side, lights were glimmering from what seemed to be a row of shops. We knew that there had to be bridges somewhere, but how were we to find them? Luckily, we met two Germans who accompanied us to the London Hotel. It was a very dark evening. I was taken aback by a sickly sweet, strong smell, like musk, rather nasty. Insects were humming in the grass so loudly that it sounded almost like birdsong. In the hotel, we ordered soda water and tea and sat down upstairs, on the balcony.

<…> Having nothing to do, I started studying the walls and suddenly noticed something crawling over the door, then on the ceiling over my head, all around the walls, in the corners – everywhere. – "What's that?" I asked the Portuguese servant. He answered something I didn't understand. I then got up and looked nearer – they were lizards, about three inches long. They are useful as they kill insects in households.
They <…> told the Chinese boy to wave a gigantic fan, which was hanging from the ceiling along the whole length of the dining room. It was a mere wide cloth bordered with a muslin fringe; it had attached strings which were pulled by the servant, thus cooling the room. However, looking at this contraption, one couldn't stop thinking that it was only an artificial and temporary breeze, and that as soon as the servant stopped, one would immediately feel again as if a fur coat had been thrown upon him, and in the bathhouse at that.


27 May
The four of us gathered decided to take a more thorough walking tour, so we left at about 11 o'clock in the morning, but it was already quite late. We wanted to walk, but it felt impossible. On the roads, we passed a Chinese junk. With its stern and bow rising disproportionately out of the water, it evoked our curiosity from a distance. It seemed like its flimsy, chicken-legged extensions, which looked like a pigeon loft, could collapse any minute. The junk was painted in blue, red and yellow. On its nose, a fisheye was painted on both sides – the Chinese want all their ships to look like fishes. We drew nearer; the boats made way for us; the Chinese received us with smiles… The junk had been loaded with timber of various kinds that it was bringing to China: mahogany, sandalwood and others. We climbed a ladder to the stern. There was a joss house with idols, and dirty cabins on both sides from it. One Chinaman was combing the pigtail of another, who was probably his boss. They looked at us silently and let us pass and observe. Everything was knocked together of planks, poles, mats; the sails were also made of mats; the rudder was clumsy, rough and ugly. We left and breathed freely again on our launch, wondering how people could sail these boats at sea, reaching here, which was some 1,800 nautical miles away from Canton.

<…> Having entered the river and passed many junks and skiffs scurrying to and fro, some with goods, others with passengers, we came ashore onto the embankment lined with stone buildings in the same manner as our shopping arcades back home: with the same arches, shops, warehouses, bales, barrels, etc.; the same hustle and bustle. The majority of the traders were Chinese; the goods were sold wholesale and sent them from China to Europe, or vice versa, ordered from Europe to China. At last, we found small businesses. The Chinese sat in their stores, clad in the same outfits that we had seen in Java. A white cotton shirt, like a woman's nightgown, and wide trousers, black and often blue, satin ones for those richer, a clean-shaven front part of the head, and a long pigtail hanging down to the heels, either natural or artificial – such was their complete costume. A Chinaman always had a fan in his hand and used it to cover his head when going outdoors. Commoners who worked in the open air wore conical hats with wide brims, woven of cane or reed. On Java, I saw Malays who covered their heads with just a turtleshell. The Europeans wore… well, what do you think? Linen helmets! These helmets looked exactly like the one Don Quixote wore. Why were there no straw hats? They would seem to be a better choice.
Manila was near, and it had excellent straw. But experience taught me later on that straw was too thin a protection against the sun here. These helmets were double and hollow inside, with a small vent to let air in. Other people, especially skippers, wore straw hats, but wrapped their brims and crown with white material, like a turban.
We went past rows of stone structures and came to wooden ones, which were the homes of Chinese people. Upstairs were the living quarters; downstairs served as a store. Everything that offended the eye and sense of smell was gathered here. Naked Chinese, clad only in skirts or pants, others wearing only a cloth around their hips, sat inside the shop or outside on the threshold, combing each other's pigtails or shaving heads and chins. They spent hours engaged in these activities; it was their kef. Some sat and put their heads on a little table, and the barber, having done his shaving, kneaded the backs of these sybarites. It was akin to our heel-rubbing and bone-setting performed in our bathhouses on people who enjoyed this sort of thing.

To be continued

English Translation Julia Sherstyuk
Illustrations Ekaterina Protsenko


1 The Sunda Islands are a vast archipelago in Southeast Asia, between the Malacca peninsula and New Guinea, between the Indian Ocean and the Pacific Ocean (here and hereinafter comments by the translator).
2  The Réaumur scale is an obsolete unit of measuring temperature. 1°C = 0.8°R, 1°R = 1.25°C. It was proposed by René Antoine Ferchault de Réaumur in 1730
3 Charles Wilks (1798-1877), an American traveller.
4 A Union Territory of India, whose governance and administration fell directly under the federal authority in New Delhi. In Goncharov's time, it was a French colony.


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