The 1859 Batavia (Java) to Singapore telegraph cable was manufactured for the Dutch East Indies Government
by R.S. Newall & Company, with core supplied by the Gutta Percha Company. The cable was laid by CS Bahiana.
A detailed description of the laying of the cable, written by Lewis Gordon, a partner at Newall & Company, is given below.
The handwritten title in the cable sample box notes that the cable ran from Batavia to Singapore via Banca.
...as neither memorial nor written record of the period appears to have been preserved, we must step at once from the 31st of October in 1856 to the 24th of November 1858, when we find the earliest mention of the laying of that Red Sea Cable, which was to have so disastrous a result for some of those employed in the work, and for no one more so than for the subject of this Memoir.
The contract for the submarine line from Singapore and Banca to Batavia was also entered on at this time, as will be seen from the following extracts:—
After the completion of the Red Sea Cable, on the 11th of June  , Mr. Gordon and his partner, Mr. Newall, with Mr. Werner Siemens and Mr. Francis Gisborne, left Aden in the Peninsular and Oriental Company’s steamer ‘Alma,’ with the intention of an immediate return to England, but before they had been many hours on board, and in the middle of the night, the vessel struck a coral reef, where, although passengers and crew were all landed without loss of life, they would probably—but for the intrepidity and presence of mind of Mr. Newall and Mr. Gisborne—have perished from exposure and starvation.
The following letter addressed to his partners details Gordon’s actual experience in this cable-laying expedition. The solution of the problem had not then been so well worked out as in recent times, but, as the result showed, it was eminently successful.
15th Nov.—At 5 a.m. we unmoored; at 5.30 up anchor, and steamed slowly out of New Harbour. Tide just turned, and very moderate current with us. At 6 a.m. abreast of Peak Island—about 2 cables’ length from it, and we were moving at the rate of about 5 knots, or 30 revolutions of the drum, although the engines were still going ‘dead slow.’ The current had increased to more than 3 knots in our favour. About 6.30 the splice went overboard. The brake was adjusted to the light cable. Our visitors left us. The ‘Mirapi’ of H.M. navy joined company, and led the way. We were now going 36 and 37 revolutions, and engines still dead slow; but the water was only 10 fathoms to 15, and as we were paying out with 4 to 5 cwt. strain on the cable, we knew that all was right. About 8 o’clock the current had moderated, and we had the speed reduced to 6 knots, at which we continued steadily till 10 o’clock p.m., never altering the brake in any way.
At 10 p.m. we observed the ‘Mirapi’ haul suddenly to the westward; we ported the helm, and followed. Speed reduced to about 4 knots. Finding the ‘Mirapi’ continuing westward at midnight, we made the agreed signal—two guns and a rocket—for her to come alongside.
At 12.30 spoke the ‘Mirapi.’ She had found herself running on rocks and islands which were four miles to the westward of our true course. She had been diverted westward by strong currents.
Resumed our course, shaping S.S.W.; at 2 a.m. speed was again 5½ knots, and soon after we were steady at 6 knots.
About midnight I altered the strain to 3½ cwt., and I allowed this to continue till about 6 a.m. of the 16th Nov. On laying down the courses made during yesterday, we found that our set to the westward had involved us in an additional length of 8 knots. To the best of our measurement and reckoning we had at noon paid out 164 knots, and had made only 156 knots of distance, 8 knots of which distance was, as above mentioned, out of our course. The loss in paying out appeared to be nearly 5½%. With the adjustment of the brake adopted this is quite unaccountable, and we shall see that with exactly the same adjustment we paid out 300 miles, with not more than 2% loss. I however restored the strain from 3½ cwt, to which it had been reduced, to about 5½.
At mid-day our course was E.S.E., and then was changed to S.E. by E. ¼S., and continued so till we sighted Muntokin Hill, behind Muntok, on the island of Banco.
At 8 p.m. we were nearing Frederik Hendri shoals. The ‘Mirapi’ advised us to anchor for the night. We anchored in 9 fathoms, and veered away 40 fathoms cable. Swung to the current, which we found setting N.E. by E. ½E about 2 knots an hour.
17th Nov.—Up anchor at 5.30 a.m. Proceeded at first slowly, as we had to turn nearly right round, the ship having swung to the tide. Our cable had been carefully handled, kept pretty tight, and clear of the screw; but the form of the saddle proved itself faulty, and quite inefficient for tidal work when the ship swings so as to bring the cable even to 35° with the axis of the ship. We have altered and improved this after the cable had slipped twice out of the saddle, threatening great damage, and doing some. Of this hereafter.
9 a.m., passed Frederik Hendri shoals. Brake as before. Speed 6 to 6 ½ knots. All serene. 10 a.m., slowed; 10.10, stopped. Lowered second cutter. Passed her astern under cable. Cut cable. Insulated it, and left end in cutter. Proceeded to landing-place. Let go the anchor at 11.30, abreast of landing-place, about ¾ of a mile from shore; and now began a series of misfortunes and mismanagements.
Soon after mid-day we ran a grass rope on shore. About 1 o’clock it was found that the anchor was coming home, and we were in a very awkward place. While steaming ahead to a fair berth the tide turned, and then we found not only that we had strong currents, but very irregular ones, to work in.
We got down all boats about 2.30. Landed shore end at 3.30. The ‘Mirapi’ left us an officer and two well-manned boats to assist, which they did well.
As we were getting up anchor to steam out to second cutter with shore end, about 3 miles out, Loeffler came to say that shore end was faulty. Cut it away, after by exhaustive tests proving that the fault was about half-way between ship and shore. Night came on, and we could do nothing till
Friday, 18th Nov.—At 5.45 a line was on shore ready to land shore end. At 9, boats left the ship with shore end. Almost as soon as end on shore the tide unexpectedly turned. Ship swung, and gave us infinite trouble.
At 1 we weighed anchor, and proceeded out with shore end. Scarcely ¼ of a mile paid out, when the most extraordinary and ludicrously appalling accident in the annals of submarining occurred. In testing for the fault, we had cut the cable at about 3 miles from the top or end on shore. The cut ends were temporarily joined, and put in their original position apparently; but, when the cable came to the coils next the cone, it took hold of both ends of the cut place, and up came three ends of cable instead of one;before we could stop dead, these three ends had passed three times round the drum. We got all stopped, however, and the drum cleared, and were within ten minutes of being ready to start, when the tide turned, the ship swung. We could not pay out cable. We could not hold on, the tide was too strong; so again we had to cut the cable, but not till after it had slipped out of the saddle, and threatened destruction to our machinery!
Daylight was gone when all was again serene, the ends spliced, and all tested and ready for joining up at the second cutter, which was waiting all this time about 2 miles off!
Saturday, Nov. 19.—5 a.m., cable connected with Singapore, and exchange of messages, and explanations of the delay of 48 hours. First section of our work completed.
At 6.45 brought up anchor in Muntok Bay. During yesterday and to-day we land about 6 miles of cable, to make the land lines from Muntok station to the coast for Singapore, and for the Batavia and Muntok, and Muntok-Palembang lines. This was completed at 6 p.m. Siemens and Loeffler  got the station nearly ready, so that on Monday evening we shall be ready to start for Batavia.
1) The electricians. Walter Siemens, a younger brother of C. William Siemens, was afterwards Consul for the Caucasus. He died in 1868, his horse having reared and fallen upon him.
Sunday, Nov. 20.—A day of rest and meditation.
Brake.—The alteration of the Bahearn Brake was a complete mistake. It took a weight of 3 cwt. to produce the friction to counterbalance a strain of 5 cwt. on the indicator. If we had left it as it was, 1 cwt. on brake would have had the same effect.
Shore ends.—In tideways, and in almost any circumstances, it is ridiculous doing this work with the big ships. A small steamer absolutely necessary for despatch and economy.
Commanders.—The most intelligent seaman, the most conscientious man, and most indefatigable in his duty, is not all that is wanted. A man who can handle a big screw steamer must have a practical tact—only, I suppose, to be gained by experience. G. is not very experienced, and is timid; and a good deal of our delay may be attributed to the last qualities, although he has all the first qualities above specified.
The end result of our reckonings is, that we made a course 245 nauts long, and used 255 nauts of cable. There is an unknown error of 3 miles in the position of Muntok, which would be in our favour. I do not believe that we paid out 5% more than the total distance run.
As to electric tests.—-While paying out the cable no sudden change of any kind occurred throughout the voyage. The insulation underwent such slight changes as, I believe, always take place where dry gutta-percha is immersed in water. The tests made on the forenoon of the 17th, after 251 miles of the cable were laid, gave the following results :—
||per 100 knots
||of the copper-wire,
|| 824.0 units.
|Which gives a loss of
| = 0.43 %.
This is a considerably higher loss than when the cable was dry, but a perfectly satisfactory state of the cable itself.
I may here mention that when we returned to Muntok a fortnight later (Dec. 4) the tests were as follows, from station in Muntok to station in Singapore:—
||of the copper-wire,
|| 837. 0
|or a loss of 0.46%.
These tests were not made in exactly similar circumstances, of course. The first was deduced from measurements made through the 251 knots + 129 knots still in the forehold. The second was made on the line joined up to the station at Muntok. The difference of 0.03% is not looked upon as of any effect, and might even be allowed as error of observation, etc. etc.
Monday, 21st November.—The Resident or Governor of Banca came on board about 11. A very nice fellow; we went to his soiree last night. He gave me a great deal of information about gutta-percha, and is to make a collection of various gums of the same class, which he thinks might be made available.
At 1.30 up anchor, and to landing-place of Batavia cable. Got within 400 fathoms of the shore. Put that length of cable in a large proa, and towed that on shore, paying out from the proa, and keeping the cable quite taut by means of gear fitted in the proa. Landed the cable with great success, and had all boats up and ready for sea at 3.30.
At 9 p.m. ship swung. Had hard watching of cable, but kept all straight
At midnight the rain, which had poured in torrents since 6 o’clock, ceased; the weather cleared.
Tuesday, Nov. 22.—At 2 a.m., H.N.M. ship ‘Mirapi’ joined company. Up anchor, and proceeded after her. As ship had swung, we had to make an awkward round turn to get into course. Nothing of the least interest happened during the run. We went steadily at 6 or 7 knots. Once we increased to 10 knots; but the motion of the cable everywhere was alarming, and we soon gave it up.
5.10 a.m., entered Leucipara Channel. Only one vessel visible, loaded with Hadjis from Mecca.
5.10 p.m., Leucipara Island, East (true). Shaped a course S. by W., following ‘Mirapi.’ M.. Groll was growling at Grindle for not keeping more in-shore. Grindle followed ‘Mirapi.’ I wish Groll had told me what he wanted. Grindle is fearfully cautious, and afraid of shoal water, even with a muddy bottom. We passed close by the Hadji vessel, and all eyes were on us, and peering at the cable.—10 a.m., squally weather, with rain.
Wednesday, Nov. 23.—Found that the condition of the Muntok-Batavia cable, according to the tests made on the voyage out, gave—
Resistance of copper, . . 816.0 units.
Do. gutta-percha, . 346,933.0 "
which indicates a loss of 0.24%, while paying out up to noon. To-day no sudden change whatever has occurred; but there is the slight difference of a wet and dry cable constantly manifested, increasing as the length paid out increases. At present the loss appears to be about 0.29%. At 1.20 passed the North Watches, paying out fully 7 knots per hour. All serene. Great trouble with the telegraphists at Muntok, who sleep on duty, and otherwise keep Siemens constantly in the station. Same complaints from Singapore, with which we constantly exchange messages, etc. etc. 6.30 p.m., anchored for the night, as we have a most intricate navigation to go through to-morrow.
Thursday the 24th.—3.30 a.m., up anchor, and proceeded ahead slowly. 4.15, rounded Pojany Islands. 6.20, passed between the ‘Jouk’ Bank and ‘Agenieten’ Islands; a very close shave indeed. 6.50, anchored to connect the heavy cable or shore end. For this heavy cable was laid at that part of our course here which is subject to anchorage, and not, properly speaking, as a shore end. Groll reserved 8 to 9 miles of cable for this purpose. 9.40, up anchor, all splices being complete. Tests quite perfect. Paid out about 8 miles of heavy cable.
Anchored—cut —spliced, and at noon up anchor, and proceeded into Batavia Bay. A jolly scene it was. A small steamer came off, and kept on the three-fathom line. The ‘Mirapi’ followed her as close as possible, and we followed the ‘Mirapi,’—a regular chase through fishing-stakes by the score, stopping the screw as we crashed through each line of stakes, as a hunter takes up his legs during a leap.
3.55, anchored in 3¼ fathoms. Had scarcely anchored when a pleasure steamer with about sixty merchant dons from Batavia came alongside, presented an address to Groll, congratulated us, etc. Messages were sent to the Governor of Singapore by the Governor-General of Netherlands, India; from the merchants of Batavia to the merchants at Singapore, etc. etc. All tests were completed, and preparations made for landing the end of the cable. We were one mile and a half from the shore, one mile of which was in water from 3 feet to 2 feet deep, over deep mud!
Here I got the message, ‘The Alexandria cable broken, 70 miles from Alexandria!’ I cannot tell
you my feelings.
The end result of our Batavia-Muntok line was, that the course run and the cable paid out were within 1% the same! The balance of cable in hand proves to be very nearly 154 miles; that is, including 6 miles delivered at Muntok for making land lines.
Resistance of copper, . . 833.0 units.
Do. gutta-percha, . . 259,584.0 "
Percentage loss, = 0.32.
Tests made on the 4th December from Muntok, after the two breaks by anchors (hereafter detailed) had been repaired, gave the
Resistance of copper, . . 837.0 units.
Do. gutta-percha, . 180,840.0 "
or a loss of 046%; which small increase, after those mishaps of the cable and its repairs, proves the excellent state of the cable as it now lies.
10 p.m., Thursday, 24th Nov.—Got the end of the small cable on shore! amidst some discontent of the crew at being kept out so late. Great fun too with the good-natured ones, who, knowing there were plenty of alligators about, made many jokes with others more timid.
Friday, 25th Nov.—Mr. Condamine brought off our letters. Nothing of interest or importance, save that, thank God, all were well at home on 8th October. — Employed in getting line completed to station in Batavia; ¾ mile up a river; ¾ mile across country in a trench. Got it all but finished, and went on board.
“In passing up the river we saw multitudes of apes and parrots, and ibises and waterfowl, of beautiful plumage, and vultures and miners; and, above all, six or seven crocodiles; and also with these some interesting scenes of baulk in their sly attempts to seize apes fishing, and birds standing apparently half asleep in the water.
Saturday, 26th November.— On shore by 9 o’clock to see all joined up. Loeffler had the station ready, and about 12 o’clock the splice in the river was made.
By 4 p.m. we had proved incontestably that the cable was broken about 189 miles from the office! When I say incontestably, I mean with the greatest probability. Horrid disappointment! but courage and patience, soft heart!
We immediately determined to make one final test on Sunday morning, and to get away to Leucipara on Monday at daylight. Groll had been up to the Governor-General to Buitenzorg as to Palembang line, and as to shortening our time of probation. It was at once determined to lay the Palembang line, but no shortening of time of probation will be allowed. I agreed to lay the Palembang line for cost price—not more than £500—as soon as we had repaired the fracture.
Sunday, 27th.—Time for meditation and reflection.
‘If on our daily course our mind
Be set to hallow all we find,
New treasures still, of countless price,
God will provide for sacrifice.’
Monday, 28th Nov.—5.30 a.m., hove short. 6.10, weighed anchor and proceeded. 10.30, made North Watcher.
Tuesday, 29th Nov.—5 a.m., made Leucipara. 8.20, took a position Leucipara Island, East (true). Crept to westward for cable. 8.30, cable grappled. Connected from ship. It was the Muntok end. Siemens greatly rejoiced. Under run. Found end broken at ¾ mile from spot where taken up, and within that distance of the test indications. The cable was evidently broken by an anchor which had ridden upon it for a long time, almost wearing through the wires! 2 p.m., hauled to westward and crept for Batavia end. Found it immediately, though deep in the soft mud. Tested, and found that since Sunday morning the cable has been broken at 110 miles from Leucipara, that is, near the North Watcher! Very trying; but courage and patience are virtues. 9.45, finished repairs at Leucipara, excepting final join up by splicing in ¼ of a mile found damaged where the ship had been traversing backwards and forwards.
Wednesday, Nov. 30.—7.30, connected from ship with the ends of cable. Gave all necessary explanations to both ends, and finally joined up about 4 p.m. 9.5 p.m., weighed anchor, and proceeded full speed to North Watcher.
Thursday, Dec. 1.—Made the North Watcher. Hit the cable at once, and Loeffler was 5 miles out in his reckoning this time. The ship which broke the cable here has destroyed about ¼ mile of cable, in the same way as at Leucipara. Broken wires are ruffled up; places where she had ridden as worn down. The ¼ mile however tests well, and only the broken end came into play in the tests, to ascertain the locality. Could not finish the work to-day. There is, of course, no difficulty whatever in repairing cables in shallow smooth water. There was little or no sea on while we were at work; not enough to make me sea-sick, though Airley and Brown, one of the officers, were sea-sick in one of the boats!
December 2, 1859.— Occupied all day with repairs. 4 p.m., spoke with both ends. Batavia clerks abominably stupid; the principal clerk there, Brunneker by name, has hurt his leg, and is confined to the house; keys therefore in the hands of inexperts. Such are the influences our work is subject to! 6 p.m., all work finished. Weighed and proceeded to Muntok. Groll is with us, He is a patient, good fellow—hard-working and sociable enough, though, like all on board, rather a silent member. Our reunions are very like Quakers’ meetings. Thank Heaven, I have a good large cabin to myself.
Walter Scott is our standard reading. I have read Bulwer’s ‘What will he do with it?’ and consider it as trash worthy of the days of the Mysteries of Udolfo and the Castle of Otranto, and such like books.
Saturday afternoon.— We arrived in Muntok Bay. Found proas or barges ready to receive the Palembang cable. There are 60 miles of this cable in a narrow deep river; 15 miles in the course taken across the straits, to be paid out by the ‘Bahiana.’
Sunday, December 4.— Day of Rest: and experiments on shore, the results of which have been stated above as quite satisfactory.
Monday.— Occupied in fitting up proas; in paying cable into proas, about 10 miles into each of five.
Tuesday.— Still busy paying cable into proas.
Wednesday, 7th December.—Still busy paying cable into proas, and getting ready for landing shore end to-morrow morning.
Thursday.—6.30, to landing-place. Took up a good position. Got end on shore. In the very act of doing this the tide turned, and the ship swung. The tide, we were assured, would not turn before midday. As we were very near shore, and squalls of wind and rain were very heavy, we were in an awkward position for several hours. However, about 2 p.m. we got clear away, making however a disgustingly bad course out of Muntok Bay. Groll agreed, however, that in the circumstances we did our best.
The additions I had made to the saddle acted beautifully, and the swinging of the ship gave us no uneasiness about the cables leaving it, although we put a great strain on it to help the ship round. I simply added an angle iron ridge or stopper all round, so that the rope lay in the hollow at A, and could not come out!
We got to opposite the mouth of the river about half-past 5 p.m., and Grindle, to prove great courage, ran us on the mud-bank. We were aground for two hours, because the buoy rope, put over to buoy the cable, fouled the screw when we were backing off.
Friday, noon.— The last proa was loaded. Groll left us, with a fleet of eight small boats taking him in tow, with this last proa. The other four had been taken by a small steamer, which took one in tow at a time, having left them at different stations up the river, and came down with the last to join us at or near the entrance.
Our apparatus on board the proas worked well, and when we arrived at Singapore on Sunday morning, we had telegraphic message from Palembang to say that they had laid the line with great success. We gave them our jointer, our carpenter, and a good seaman, to superintend operations.
My narrative is now drawing to a close. We have been here since Sunday. The lines have been working beautifully when we have been able to get the clerks to attend to their duty.
The cable from Singapore to Banca and Batavia was thus laid successfully, but his firm having guaranteed its efficient working for one month from the date of completion, it became necessary that Lewis should remain at Singapore until the 24th December, and on the 13th he wrote as follows to his mother:—
The following interesting letter was begun at Buitenzorg, Java, on the 26th December 1859, and finished on the 6th January 1860, on board of the s.s. ‘Bahiana’:—
On Monday, the 30th of January, Lewis writes: “We shall be at Aden on Wednesday if we go on as we have done,” and on the 18th of February,
In his fond expectation of reaching home by the middle of March he was disappointed, and on the 3d of April we find him writing to his wife :—