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Henry Keppel surveys New Harbour 30th May 1848

Henry Keppel was appointed captain of the ship Maeander on 1 November 1847 at Chatham, England,[1] and tasked with the responsibility of sending the newly minted Governor of Labuan James Brooke and his party to Labuan, which is off the coast of Borneo.[2] The ship arrived in Singapore from Southampton, England, on 20May 1848.[3]

While awaiting preparations for the new colonial establishment at Labuan to complete, the ship was refitted at New Harbour (the present Keppel Harbour) in Singapore.[4] In a diary entry dated 30 May 1848, Keppel wrote: “In pulling about in my gig among the numerous prettily wooded islands on the westward entrance to the Singapore river, was astonished to find deep water close to the shore, with a safe passage through for ships larger than the Maeander. Now that steam is likely to come into use, this ready-made harbour as a depot for coal would be invaluable. I had the position surveyed, and sent it, with my report, to the Board of Admiralty; as it was, the forge was landed, boats repaired, and artificers employed under commodious sheds, all under the eyes of the officers on board. New Harbour has another advantage over Singapore Roads. In the latter, a ship’s bottom becomes more foul than in any known anchorage in these seas; perhaps from the near proximity to the bottom. This is not the case in New Harbour, through which there is always a tide running, while a current of air passing between the islands keeps it comparatively cool”.[5]

Unknown to Keppel, the naturally sheltered and deepwater harbour had been known by different names since the 14th century – “Longyamen” to the Chinese and the “Old Strait of Singapore” to the Europeans – until it was forgotten by most[6] and rediscovered by William Farquhar, first Resident of Singapore, in 1820. Plans had been afoot for a number of years to develop the area.[7] Keppel first wrote to the Board of Admiralty on the discovery of the deep harbour and the potential for developing it into a port, and then to the Peninsular and Oriental Steam Navigation Company when no news was heard from the admiral. Shortly after, the company took possession of the harbour.[8]

The Maeander set off for Labuan on 29 August 1848 once preparations were made. The ship docked in Singapore a few more times while performing other assigned duties in the region until  it left for  Sydney, Australia,  on  24 September 1849.[9]

At the age of 91, Keppel, then admiral of the fleet, revisited places in the Far East on a personal tour and met up with old friends.[10] During his visit to Singapore, New Harbour was renamed Keppel Harbour to honour his services in the Far East in a ceremony attended by then Acting Governor Alexander Swettenham on 19 April 1900.[11]

1. Keppel, H. (1853). A visit to the Indian Archipelago, in H. M. ship Maeander (pp. 1–2). London: R. Bentley. Call no.: RCLOS 959.52 KEP-[GBL]; Shipping in the harbor. (1848, June 14). The Straits Times, p. 4. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
2. Stuart, V. (1967). The beloved Little admiral: The life and times of admiral of the fleet the Hon. Sir Henry Keppel, G. C. B., O. M. C. L., 1809–1904 (p. 107). London: R. Hale. Call no.: RCLOS 359.092 KEP.S; The Free Press. (1848, March 16). The Singapore Free Press and Mercantile Advertiser (1835–1869), p. 3. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
3. Singapore shipping news. (1848, May 27). The Straits Times, p. 3; Untitled. (1848, May 24). The Straits Times, p. 5. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
4. Keppel, 1853, p. 16.
5. Keppel, H. (1899). A sailor’s life under four sovereigns (p. 77) [Microfilm: NL 25415]. London: Macmillan.
6. Gibson-Hill, C. A. (1956). Singapore old strait & new harbour, 1300–1870 (pp. 13, 35, 49). Memoirs of the Raffles Musuem, 3 [Microfilm: NL 10999]. Singapore: G. P. O. Call no.: RCLOS 959.51 BOG.
7. Gibson-Hill, 1956, pp. 76–93.
8. Keppel, 1853, p. 16; West, A. E. (1906). Memoir of Sir Henry Keppel, G. C. B., admiral of the fleet (p. 152). London: Smith, Elder. Call no.: RCLOS 359.0094 KEP.W-[RFL]; Stuart, 1967, p. 112; Buckley, C. B. (2012). An anecdotal history of old times in Singapore: From the foundation of the settlement under the Honorable the East India Company on February 6th, 1819, to the transfer to the Colonial Office as part of the colonial possessions of the Crown on April 1st, 1867 (p. 493). Singapore: Oxford University Press. Call no.: RSING 959.57 BUC-[HIS]. [Gibson-Hill stated that Keppel wrote to the admiral in 1849, and not 1848 as stated in Keppel’s memoir, A Sailor’s Life under Four Sovereigns. This would mean that Keppel did not survey New Harbour in May 1848 but in 1849. Also, Gibson-Hill noted that Keppel wrote to the commander-in-chief, and not to the Peninsular and Oriental Steam Navigation Company. His comments could be found in page 94 of his article, Singapore Old Strait & New Harbour.]
9. Keppel, 1853, p. 88; The Free Press. (1848, August 31). The Singapore Free Press and Mercantile Advertiser (1835–1869), p. 3; Singapore: Wednesday, 21st Feb. 1849. (1849, February 21). The Straits Times, p. 3; Untitled. (1849, August 24). The Singapore Free Press and Mercantile Advertiser (1835–1869), p. 3; Singapore shipping new arrivals. (1849, September 25). The Straits Times, p. 7; Untitled. (1849, August 28). The Straits Times, p. 5. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
10. Admiral Sir Henry Keppel. (1900, January 2). The Singapore Free Press and
Mercantile Advertiser (1884–1942)
, p. 3. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
11. ‘His honour’s folly’. (1900, April 20). The Straits Times, p. 3. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.


The information in this article is valid as at March 2015 and correct as far as we are able to ascertain from our sources. It is not intended to be an exhaustive or complete history of the subject. Please contact the Library for further reading materials on the topic.

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