Nemesis: The First Iron Warship and Her World tells a story about the first of a generation of iron-clad, steam-powered naval vessels that established British dominance in Asian waters in the nineteenth century. The world’s first iron warship, the first vessel with truly watertight compartments, and the first iron vessel to round the Cape of Good Hope, Nemesis represented a staggering superiority over the oar- and sail-powered naval forces of Britain’s Asian rivals. Yet strangely her story has never been told to modern audiences, and her origins and actions have until now been shrouded in mystery. This lively narrative places her in the historical context of the last years of the East India Company, and in the history of steam power and iron ships. It tells of her exploits in the First Opium War, in pirate suppression and naval actions across Asia, from Bombay to Burma to the Yangtze River and beyond.
The book traces the history of Nemesis from her 1840 birth at Liverpool in the service of the East India Company to her peaceful demise 15 years later as a hulk in West Bengal. The author explains in considerable detail her cutting-edge technology and strategic role in expanding British influence and dominion in the Far East. Nemesis ‘represented a staggering naval superiority over oar- and sail-powered Asian rivals’, Marshall notes. For example, she could sail in most weather conditions, manoeuvre in narrow inlets, and fire her guns on Chinese forts. She also had the ability to tow behind her stern boats filled with well-equipped soldiers. Marshall captures the reader’s interest with great insights into the running and operations of an early steam-powered vessel on the high seas with all the challenges of man and nature.
Following the First Opium War, the Nemesis was employed to suppress piracy in the South China Seas, where it was involved with Borneo’s Sir James Brooke, known as the White Rajah of Sarawak. Not only was piracy an issue for Brooke, but slavery and head-hunting were as well. The settlement at Singapore was rapidly developing as a major British trading centre, joining the network of Bombay, Calcutta, and now Hong Kong. The Nemesis also performed service in the ancient kingdoms of Siam and Burma as British influence expanded. Siam escaped colonization but Burma did not, and war with Britain followed. Nemesis played a role in pushing Burma into the British orbit after claims were made that the Burmese were violating British India with cross-border raids. The Burmese rulers had no issue with flexible borders, which was completely contrary to the British view. As marine technology continued to make great advances, Nemesis became increasingly obsolete, and the historic vessel was retired from service in 1855. She was dismantled and left on the banks of the Hooghly River in Bengal with her engines beating in another ship.
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