Among the ranks of history’s most iconic warships – the likes of HMS Victory, the USS Missouri, and the German dreadnought Bismarck – stands proudly the immortal Nemesis. The first iron-hulled warship in the East, it was employed with devastating effect in the First Opium War (1839–1841). Its debut was a milestone in naval technology and it played a starring role in a war that was a turning point for world history.

Magnificent in design and performance, the ship had a name to match. Nemesis! It hisses off the tongue with menace and beautiful simplicity – notice the lack of the HMS prefix (though the captain and the other top officers were from the navy, the ship belonged to the East India Company). The Royal Navy had some memorably named naval punishers – HMS Revenge, HMS Spiteful, HMS Vengeance, HMS Vindictive, HMS Spanker – but these sound rather too specific and hot-blooded in their passions. Nemesis was the Greek goddess of divine retribution, specifically retribution for the crime of arrogance before the gods (hubris), and it was a fitting name for the conflict because it was Chinese hubris (admittedly in the face of Western greed and arrogance) that sparked the war and prolonged it.

The Opium Wars have been well covered elsewhere so I’ll not go into details here. Similarly, Adrian G. Marshall’s Nemesis: The First Iron Warship and her World is the story of a ship and its place in time rather than just than an account of the war.

The Nemesis was built in Liverpool in 1839, and was the first steamship to sail out to the Orient under her own power. Because finding sufficient fuel was problematic, the standard practice was for steamships to be shipped out in parts and assembled in India.

Like a Toyota Prius – but a bit more exciting – the Nemesis was a hybrid, and she made most of the journey out under sail. She arrived off Macau in November 1840, after a journey of 243 days (of which 181 were spent at sea). At more than twenty thousand miles, this was the longest voyage ever completed by a steamship.

Although the ship had started out with an all-white crew, once in Asian waters some local men were employed. The cosmopolitan nature of the crew on such an important ship was a surprise (as were their wages). Talking about refueling and taking on new hands at Singapore, Marshall writes:

… four had ‘run’, so a number of new men – notably stokers – were engaged, Indians (‘lascars’), Chinese (‘Chinamen’) and Filipinos (‘Manila-men’), all paid at the same rate as Europeans; indeed from now on her stokers were nearly always Asians. The ship was also loaded with the maximum amount of coal that she could carry, 175 tons, enough for 15 days steaming. This took 20 coolies working all night and all day, paid a dollar (25p) for the night shift and half a dollar for the day, somewhat more than an Able Seaman was paid.

The book is full of such lovely detail. Needless-to-say, the ones about onboard beverages were of particular interest to me. The sailors enjoyed generous lashings of small beer (beer of one or – at most – two percent alcohol), black-strap (cheap red wine, diluted) or “grog” (diluted rum).

On ships of the Royal Navy a gallon

[4.5 liters] of beer was allowed each man each day – but this was ‘small beer’, with very little alcohol. For the water carried on board soon became virtually undrinkable – indeed, if a sailor had to partake he was advised to hold the tankard in one hand, pinch his nose with the other, and suck the water through clenched teeth to filter out the worms; presumably those who had lost teeth through accident or scurvy just had to swallow the wildlife. So alcoholic drinks or hot tea or coffee were a necessity and, unsurprisingly, drunkenness a nasty problem.

Officers had it better. Marshall quotes an 1844 account of the Nemesis’ early years: “each military officer on board a transport ‘was allowed, per diem, three bottles of beer, one of wine, and a pint of brandy.’”

Although the Nemesis was one small ship in a large fleet, it certainly punched above its weight. Not reliant on winds or currents, it could manoeuvre with ease in battle, and do so fearlessly because of its iron construction and watertight compartments. It also had the power to tow other ships into battle. Its shallow draught was perfect for coastal warfare and penetrating waterways to take the fight to the enemy. We shouldn’t, however, forget the decisive yet steady hand of Captain William Hall and the skilled seamen who manned the ship. When not in action, the ship was kept busy as an express workhorse, delivering important supplies and messages and transporting commanders.

The superiority of the British vessels and men in battle doesn’t come as a surprise, but the smooth running of the British war machine does. It was a logistical marvel. The author is no colonial triumphalist – unlike me, I suspect he doesn’t daydream about unleashing broadsides or storming forts with his fiercely loyal native troops – but what does come across is his respect for the achievements of these nineteenth-century men. Here he’s describing a campaign up the Yangtze River:

Without doubt this expedition was a truly remarkable feat of planning and of seamanship. The logistics were certainly formidable: over 70 ships, well over 13,000 men of many different ranks and races, the clothing and the food, the matériel for war, all gathered thousands of miles from home. And yet they were well supplied with all necessities, none of the first-hand accounts marked by significant complaint.

The skillful execution of the British campaigns of the First Opium War is even more impressive given that there was no unified command. There were two separate navies, Royal and East India Company, and similarly two armies, and yet no formal mechanism for coordination.

In the years following the Opium War, the Nemesis was employed in the suppression of pirates in the South China Seas, which included adventures in Borneo with James Brooke (aka the White Rajah). It was this part of the Nemesis story that first caught the author’s attention. Marshall, a biologist who has done research in S.E. Asia, “came across the Nemesis through my interest in the visit in the 1850s of the great naturalist Alfred Russel Wallace to Rajah Sir James Brooke in Sarawak, Borneo.”

Although the Nemesis took part in the Second Anglo-Burmese War (1852–1853), by then the ship was something of an aging star in her swansong. As Marshall says, “The transformation in the nature of British naval power between the invasions of China in 1840 and of Burma in 1852 was truly startling.” The Nemesis burned brightly but briefly. She came home from the sea for the final time only fifteen years old, ending her days as a hulk on the banks of the Hooghly River in West Bengal.

Despite coming from an academic publisher, Nemesis: The First Iron Warship and her World is a highly readable book full of fascinating information and anecdotes. Marshall writes well and with humor and admirable fairness. This book is perfect for readers who have already imbibed the “small beer” of general books on the region’s history and are looking for a stronger, more satisfying tipple.

Nemesis: The First Iron Warship and her World is published by National University of Singapore Press. It’s also available from