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The Pamphlet Collection of Sir Robert Stout: Volume 72

War with Russia. — A Calamity for Auckland. — Hostile Visit of a Russian Ironclad. — Seizure of Gold and Hostages

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War with Russia.

A Calamity for Auckland.

Hostile Visit of a Russian Ironclad.

Seizure of Gold and Hostages.

Notwithstanding the telegraphic communication from England to Melbourne, and the periodical intercourse by steamer between New Zealand and the Australian ports, the sudden declaration of war between Russia and England, arising out of the Central Asian difficulty and the dishonesty of the Shah of Persia, was only made known to Auckland yesterday (Sunday) by one of the greatest calamities that ever overtook the Colony—an event productive of grave disaster to New Zealand, and destructive of the ancient prestige of England and her boasted supremacy as Sovereign of the Seas. That event was the sudden appearance of the hostile ironclad man-of-war, the "Kaskowiski," which took possession of the British warship lying in the waters of the Waitemata, seized our principal citizens as hostages, demanded a heavy ransom for the city, and emptied the coffers of the banks of all the gold and specie they contained.

The consternation which, for a time, overwhelmed the people of the Province, who were made aware of this nefarious and barbarous transaction, which is utterly at variance with the laws and practice of modern warfare, may be understood by the reader but cannot be described here. At this moment we are under the complete domination of Russia, our own guns in our own man-of-war being pointed against the city, ready to be opened upon us at any moment that the barbarous caprice of her captors may select. A domiciliary visitation to the office of this paper for daring to publish this narrative is what will probably have taken place ere these lines meet the eyes of our more distant readers. Duty to the public, however, demands that we set down the particulars of this terrible visitation, regardless of any consequences of temporary loss or inconvenience to ourselves.

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Before describing the circumstances of this "untoward event" we must compare the action of the British cruisers during the Crimean war with this piratical proceeding which our Northern enemy has adopted and which has degraded the chivalry of modern war to the level of mercenary robbery. In the Baltic and in the Black Sea in 1854-6, no cannon of ours desolated unfortified towns, no predatory visits were made by our warships, no black mail was levied; our very provisions were liberally paid for when we landed at any part of the coast of Russia which was without fortification. It is true we captured Bomarsund, seized the Aland Islands, bombarded Sveaborg, and many other places; and sent a hostile expedition to the Chersonesus. These were fortified cities and stations held for strategic purposes, and were fair marks for the guns of an enemy; but on no occasion was an unarmed town assailed. Even, when bent on destruction, our guns were carefully directed against fortifications and arsenals only The civil quarters of a city were religiously guarded. We never asked for ransom. We treated the people of the country with more kindness and consideration than they met with at the hands of their own troops. The Russian repays this forbearance by taking advantage of a few days of prior intelligence, under her superior force, suddenly displayed, committing robbery which civilised nations will denounce as soon as it is known. Bitterly do we now regret the absence of that telegraphic cable which should directly connect New Zealand with Europe.

These considerations have, for a moment, delayed the narrative of events, which we now proceed to detail.

The steamer "Wonga Wonga" left Auckland on Saturday afternoon with a large number of passengers for Australia. On Saturday night, a little after midnight, three rockets were sent up from the vicinity of the North Head, their sticks, in a still fiery condition, falling in the neighbourhood of Devonport Hall. It is supposed that there was some treachery on the North Shore, and that some spies had arranged this as a signal to teach the "Kaskowiski" the proper time to enter the harbour. Of this there is no certainty, and the strict surveillance kept on the harbour prevents the possibility of enquiry.

It should be mentioned here that this vessel (as we learn from the statement of one of the crew, a native of the United States, who was found by our shipping reporter on the Bastion Rock, which it appears, was first taken for a fort, and which was reconnoitred by a boat's crew, who left the American behind by mistake) was built on the Alaska Peninsula. Alaska, as is well known, was sold by Russia to the United States some years ago. But, by a baseness of treachery, which only the lax supervision of our consular agents could have rendered possible, the Government of Washington had permitted the secret construction of this ironclad in that remote region, so that, when the time came for action, she might enter the Pacific and unannounced, pounce upon the unprotected colonies of the British Empire. She has a complement of 953 men and officers, all told, is provisioned for a year, carries twelve 30-ton guns, and has machinery page 17 [unclear: gg] the manufacture or the deadly water-gas invented by the late [unclear: eral] Todtleben, and, for the first time, now employed in warfare by Russia, the sole depositary of the secret. This gas can be injected [unclear: to] an opposing vessel from a considerable distance, and so stealth[unclear: ily] not to be discovered until its paralysing effects have done their work Its strength can be so modified as either to ignite of its own [unclear: tive], and blow up or set on fire all inflammable material with whi[unclear: ch] cones in contact, or it may be so diluted as to cause a mephitic [unclear: pour] to overpower all the animal life within the range of its [unclear: inhala]. This explains the easy seizure of our brave defenders in our [unclear: ship] into and over which this fatal gas was poured. But we [unclear: ticipate].

At 7 o'clock on Saturday, the "Wonga Wonga" while off Kawau, [unclear: cried] a large vessel, hull down, steaming apparently towards her. [unclear: fter] a short time, darkness came on and she lost sight of the ship. at 8.10 p.m. a shot was fired across her bows; she slowed her engines, and a boat came alongside. In peremptory tones its occupants [unclear: anded] what she was, whither bound, and her cargo. On obtaini[unclear: ng] reply, the order was given in good English, to lie-to as a prize of a Russian ship of war. On hearing this a gallant naval officer, who [unclear: was] board the "Wonga," with the aid of some of the passengers and [unclear: ew] lifted a small cannon off the carriage, raised it over the bulwarks, and dropped it into the boat. A loud crash followed. The feat was successful. The gun stove the boat, and in a moment she sank, having the crew struggling in the water helpless. All lights on boa[unclear: rd] "Wonga" were immediately extinguished. She altered her [unclear: urse] and steered for Auckland; but she saw, as the moon rose, that the great speed of the Russian ship, 17 knots an hour, was too much for her, and that unless she sought refuge in some of the harbours [unclear: on] coast, she would inevitably be overhauled and captured. Accordingly, she made for shelter to Mahurangi; and, a point of land interlining between her and her pursuer she evaded the chase. The swift [unclear: ling] cutter "Volunteer" was providentially in the river at the time of her arrival, and the captain of the "Wonga" despatched her to Auckland, with a favouring breeze, to apprise the authorities there of their danger.

It was "too late." The great speed of the Russian rendered these well meant efforts fruitless, for the cutter did not arrive until yesterday (Sunday) morning, by which time the "Kaskowiski" had done her work; had seized our war steamer in the darkness, arrested our chief citizens and bankers, left a prize crew on board the captured warship, and bad gone off at full steam to resume the chase of the "Wonga," for the double purpose of preventing her carrying the intelligence to Australia and of avenging the destruction of her boat and crew, and at the same time making a prize of the ship and the treasure in gold-dust which she carried. Heaven help the crew and passengers and save our Australian towns from the power of this almost invulnerable vessel, and of her scientific apparatus for dealing death and destruction.

Arriving stealthily in our harbour, and without showing any lights, the "Kaskowiski" sent her submarine pinnace, well manned, and page 18 with the mephitic water-gas apparatus on board, toward our washing This new invention silently proceeded, sailing six feet bel[unclear: ow] surface of the smooth water of the Waitemata, and, rising [unclear: at] distance of half a cable's length, projected the fatal gas on the [unclear: vesse] Heavier than our atmospheric air, this vapour speedily penetrated [unclear: th] interior of the ship, producing semi-suffocation to all on board [unclear: Th] watch alarmed those below; but it was again too late." Six [unclear: bo] laden with marines surrounded the vessel, and she was boarded. [unclear: Th] captain and some of the officers of our ship, with a handful of the [unclear: cre] weak and almost breathless, attempted to face the boarders, [unclear: bu] without effect. It was resolved to fire the magazine and prevent the foe from taking the vessel. Taking instructions from the captain, who was overcome by the vapour, one of the lieutenants crawled below He was seen and followed by one of the Russian officers, who cut him down as be was about to fire a pistol into the magazine, the hate of which was then closed. There was a brief struggle on deck, The fainting blue-jackets were overpowered. The ship was in the enemy's hands, and she now lies with the bated double-eagle floating at the main above our loved "meteor flag of England."

Then came the extortion of the enemy. Detachments had been sent ashore during the night. These took possession of the armoury and magazines, with all the arms and ammunition in the city. The telegraphic offices wore occupied to prevent the transmission of the news of this disaster to other places in the Colony, and particularly to the Thames. The telegraphic station at Onehunga, and all stations within 40 miles of Auckland were occupied by strong guards. The steamer "Golden Crown" was seized, and a body of 80 men armed with short repeating rifles, and strengthened with four rocket tubes, to fire the town if necessary, was sent to Grahamstown, in order to take the treasure from the banks in that town. There could be only one result, but we have heard nothing of it, as, although the enemy permits the passing of ordinary telegrams (they have their own English trained telegraphists) for obvious reasons they allow nothing to pass along the wires respecting their own proceedings.

During the night the captain of the Russian ship, Vice-Admiral Herodskoff, landed with a body of Russian marines and sailors, armed with cutlasses and repeating needle-carbines. He proceeded to the Provincial Council Chamber, and thence sent messengers commanding the attendance of the Superintendent of the Province, the Mayor of the [unclear: ity], all the bankers and bank directors, and members of the Assembly. These gentlemen were ordered out of bed, and, amidst the dismay and terror of their families, were led to the Council room. On their arrival they were placed in the centre of the chamber, the armed men, with carbines loaded and bayonets fixed, lining the walls of the room. Seated on the Speaker's chair, Admiral Herodskoff, in good English, read a requisition demanding immediate payment of one-and-a-half million roubles (£250,000 sterling) as a ransom for the safety of the city, and intimating that, if the money were not paid within three hours he should retire to his ship and burn the town He first asked what the Superintendent had to produce from the page 19 [unclear: vincial] chest, whereupon his Honor exhibited the Treasurer's [unclear: ccounts], and proceeded to prove that the province had "no accumulated savings," that the assets had entirely disappeared in conscience of recent financial arrangements under the hands of his officials. He proposed that the General Government should be appli[unclear: ed] as from his own experience he knew there were funds in that [unclear: chequer]. He was proceeding to show the means by which the money might be forthcoming from Wellington, when he was interacted by the Admiral, who said he should himself see to that port, with which the Superintendent had nothing to do, and he should take [unclear: re] he never should, and he discourteously added that in Russia his Honor would have been knouted and sent to Siberia for daring to [unclear: stuct] such a balance-sheet as he had produced.

Mr. Sheehan, M.H.R., and Mr. Lusk, Provincial Secretary, both [unclear: wyers], humbly suggested that the action of the Russian Admiral [unclear: ras] in contravention of the laws of war. Mr. Sheehan quoted from Vattel, at the wrong place, respecting the law of nations, and Mr. Lask sought to show the "invalidity" of the whole proceedings, but with a bow admitted his error, and dropped to the rear, when the Admiral haughtily waved his hand towards his armed force, and remarked that their presence proved the perfect "propriety" of his [unclear: tion]. Mr. Lusk then also referred to Vattel, and affirmed the general validity of that well-known author's work. But the Admiral, with that diplomatic astuteness and ripe knowledge which Russia's [unclear: aining] gives to her officers, demolished his argument by stating that Vattel's work was merely a synopsis of the works of Puffendorf, [unclear: rotius], and others; that he was often wrong in his generalisations, and drew many false conclusions, because he omitted from his presses the practice of nations, and displayed an ignorance of the principle of utility in our time so generally adopted as the test of international morality. The Admiral added, with something of letterless, that he did not come to dispute, but to command, and he desired to hear no more of such law.

Mr. Creighton, M.H.R., (as representing the Onehunga Ironsand Smelting Company) proffered, as his contribution to the ransom, the secret for smelting our ironsand at one process, which he said would be a great boon to Russia; at the same time suggesting to the Supervenient that a poll-tax should be levied on the people of the province to recoup himself and his partners for the sacrifice. Both proposals were instantly rejected, the Admiral scornfully remarking that Russia had long been in possession of the secret, and was only waiting until it was convenient to annex Norway and Sweden in order to apply the discovery to Swedish iron.

The next person interrogated happened to be Mr. Swanson, M.H.R., who said he would consent to advance a large sum of money (less exchange), but was told that it would be taken from him with or without his consent.

On behalf of the new National Bank, Mr. W. S. Grahame, and Mr. Head, the manager, said they were anxious to save the city from ruin, page 20 and offered to provide £60,000, or one-fifth the sum demanded, on the security of the English shareholders; but were sternly informed that with such security to back them they ought to provide double the sum. Mr. Thomas Russell said the Bank of New Zealand was proposed to give £50,000; but on this sum being declared too little by a fifth, he agreed, at the suggestion of some of the directors, to provide the other £10,000. The representatives of the other hanks were ordered to furnish their quota; and armed parties were told off, in charge of the bank managers, to ransack the cellars for the specie and gold-dust they contained.

During their absence some one suggested that the old floating paper in Auckland, and the mining scrip, should be tendered as part of the ransom, but the proposal was derided with scorn by the stern Russian. It was not a moment for mirth; but the suggestion brought a smile to many of the anxious faces which looked upon the hard impassive face of this self-appointed judge. After the lapse of half an hour the detachments returned from the banks with all the gold and silver that could be found. It amounted to only £131,096 17s. 6d., little more than half the sum demanded. Admiral Herodskoff threatened the lives of the gentlemen who were before him, and at last gave orders to have them taken on board the "Kaskowiski,' stating that immediately after daybreak he would sail in pursuit of the "Wonga," and, if he overtook her, and found sufficient gold on board to make up the sum required, he should land his hostages at Fiji.

He then rose, the hostages were ordered downstairs, and placed in the centre of a hollow square, formed by the sailors and marines, and in this fashion they were marched to Wynward Pier, in the dull grey of the peaceful-looking morning, put on board two boats, and taken to the "Kaskowiski," which almost immediately after steamed out of the harbour, leaving the town as we have said, at the mercy of the prize crew put on board our own warship!

We have given a narrative of this terrible disaster, as succinct as could be gathered in the circumstances. The grief of the community it is unnecessary to parade. Deep as that is at the loss of our treasure, a far deeper pang fastens on each heart to think of the dishonour this affair has cast on the British flag and the British nation Lord Granville promised to defend England's Colonies with England's "last ship and her last shilling." Russia has taken both in Auckland waters. From the depths of our despair, we cry,—

"Where is the British Navy?"