1867-02-11 RUSSIA

London Times, 11 February 1867, p. 10: RUSSIA. (From our Berlin correspondent.) Berlin, Feb. 7.

            Russia having again had occasion to fight the Ameer of Bokhara, the following article from the St. Petersburg Invalide will command attention. Being an account of steam navigation on the Sir-Daria river, it treats of the only means of transport which could have developed Russia's power in those pathless wildernesses: --

            "With the development of Russian power in Central Asia the Sir-Daria has gained fresh importance, both as regards the transport of troops and the export and import of merchandise. Taking its rise in the south-western declivity of the Tyan Shan hills, the Sir-Daria half-way from its source enters the Khanate of Kokand, forming the valley of Fergana, and retaining the impetuous character of a mountain stream. On emerging into the plain below Chodjent it becomes navigable, and remains so throughout the rest of its lengthened course along the southern districts of our own territory of Tukistan. However natural and excellent a communication the river may be, to profit by it a steam squadron was indispensable. Being at the same time an instrument of warfare and a means of conveying and provisioning troops, a steam flotilla on this noble river cannot but materially aid in improving our position in Central Asia. It must be likewise useful in carrying letters and messages between the different forts situate on the river, and also in the transmission of goods. As there is little hope of soon seeing private steamers plying on the Sir-Daria, commerce, unless assisted by our men-of-war, would have been obliged to rely exclusively on the slow and tardy medium of caravans. For these reasons the necessity of establishing a steam flotilla was universally admitted from the time of our first appearance in the country. No sooner had the Sir-Daria line of posts been established in 1853, than Captain, now Admiral, Butakoff launched the Peroffski, a 40-horse power steamer, at Fort No. 1, about 70 versts from the mouth of the river. This was the first vessel of the "Aral flotilla [sic], as it then called, being alike employed at that time on Lake Aral and the river Sir-Daria. Subsequently there were added to it the Aral, 40-horse power, the Sir-Daria, 20-horse power, the steam tug Obrutchen, and several barges, with the necessary complement of sloops and boats. All these had been completed by 1860; yet there were three obstacles in the way of our deriving the advantage expected from them. The first difficulty that offered was the condition of the river itself; another was the apparent absence of coal in the neighbourhood, and the third lay in the shortcomings of our fleet. The Sir-Daria, rising in mountains covered with eternal snows, has no tributaries during the whole of its central and lower course. It is principally fed by the melting of the snows in the hills; south of Fort Peroffski it sends out two branches, the Yani-Daria and the Kuvan-Daria, which formerly empties themselves into Lake Aral, but now, after running a considerable distance, are lost in the desert. Still, they continue to drain the river of a large volume of water. Further south, near Fort Peroffski, the river divides itself into two arms, one of which, the Kara-Usak, extending into a wide, swampy surface overgrown with reeds, is scarcely accessible to ships. The other, the Djaman-Daria, remains navigable, and at Fort No. 2 reunites with the Kara-Usak. The distance between Forts Peroffski and No. 2 presents the greatest difficulties to shipping, inasmuch as vessels drawing above three feet of water cannot pass the Djaman-Daria except at flood tide -- i.e., about two and a half months in the year. The second impediment in the way of steam navigation on the Sir-Daria was, we said, the lack of coal. The fuel for the Aral squadron had either to be sent from the coal-fields of the Don, making it cost two roubles a pud (35lb.), or we had to employ the low brushwood of the locality, which is the only article used by our garrisons and the natives. This brushwood, a sort of fir, called 'saksaul,' growing slowly, is fast consumed in an inhabited neighbourhood. So that the garrison of Fort Peroffski has to procure it from a distance of 40 versts, while that of Fort No. 1 cannot obtain nearer than 100 versts. According to Rear-Admiral Butakoff, the late commander of the Aral fleet, this useful material, at the present rate of consumption, will only last for a very limited number of years. To all these hindrances must be added that the greater part of our Aral steamers having been built before we were fully acquainted with the Sir-Daria did not answer the peculiar requirements of the river. Being at first destined for the lake as well as the river, our steamers were too deep in the water and the greater part of the year unable to navigate the Djaman-Daria. Our engines were, moreover, too weak, and scarcely capable of contending against the rapidity of the stream, especially with barges in tow. There were neither shipyards nor mechanics to attend to the necessary repairs, a defficiency compelling us either to send damaged portions a distance of 1,000 versts up the Volga, or replace them by new ones. To give our squadron that significance demanded by our present position in Asia we had to overcome all these difficulties, and it is satisfactory to know we did overcome them at last. As far back as 1863 the present commander of the Aral squadron caused some strips of land intervening between enormous sweeps of the river to be cut through, so as to shorten or straighten the course of the stream. Since then a special officer has been despatched by the Board of Public Works, with orders to improve the navigable capabilities of the Djaman-Daria, or to canalize the Kara-Usak. As regards fuel, this desideratum has been supplied by the discovery of coalfields in Tukistan. In 1863 Colonel, now Major-General, Tchernayeff, when reconnoitering the country near the Karatau hills, at 120 versts from the Sir-Daria, near Tchulak Kurgan, found coal, which on being analyzed proved of excellent quality. Closer investigations being then instituted, Lieutenant-Colonel Tartarinoffe, of the Mining Engineers, discovered other strata on the southern declivity of the Karatau, on the banks of the Great Bugun river, 90 versts from Tchemkent, Turkistan, and the mouth of the SDir-Daria. The same officer having since begun mining operations in the neighbourhood, there is every reason to anticipate that by the autumn of this year the Aral squadron will have been provided with an ample an permanent supply of Turkistan coal. The construction and improvement of our fleet was the first thing taken in hand by General Krishanoffski on being appointed to the governorship of Orenburg. In compliance with his proposal, the Aral squadron has been increased by one steamer, one ferry boat, three transports, six sloops, and several engines, to lay the foundation of a shipyard on the Sir-Daria. The steamer and the three iron barges, each of 7,000 puds tonnage, with a draught of 2ft., were despatched to the Sir-Daria last autumn. In the last summer, planing and boring machines, automatic keys, a hydrolic press, Western's differential block, and other indispensable implements were also sent off in the same direction. A mechanician, two engineers, two smiths, an iron-founder, a turner, a copper smith, a model maker, and a shipwright were engaged; and another steamer of 70-horse power, 150ft. long, with a draught of 2ft., making above 17 versts an hour, when unencumbered with other vessels, and five versts when towing barges with a cargo of 7,000 puds, was bought from the Belgian company Cockerell. All these machines will arrive, and the new steamer is to be put together in the course of this winter, so that the next period of navigation will find a considerable portion of the fleet in working order. With this reinforcement of ships, the number of our crews in the Turkistan territory has experienced a corresponding increase. The Imperial order reorganizing our naval force in Central Asia dates from June 30, 1866. We may hope that with it a new epoch has set in for steam navigation on the Sir-Daria. The advantages we shall derive will amply repay the expenses Government has incurred so long."

            To fully appreciate the benefit of steam navigation we need only refer to the journals of previous Russian expeditions in Turkistan. Some of these interesting documents have been reprinted, and accompanied with a running commentary, partly geographical, partly military, in the excellent memoir of the Lower Course of the Oxus (Amu-Daria) by Colonel Zimmermann, the chief of the topographical department of the Prussian War-office. As appears from them, the soldiers perform an average distance of 15 versts a day, and as soon as they quit the banks of the rivers have to contend with a want of water, fuel, and sufficient nourishment. The fact of these difficulties having been reduced by navigation only serves to make the defficiency of rivers in other parts, and the danger to military operations arising from it, the more keenly felt.

            Speaking of shipbuilding in Russia reminds me that the Government premium for the construction of iron vessels in the country has been recently reduced to 1½ per cent., that for wooden vessels remaining at 2 per cent., as formerly. Premiums, however, are now paid for all sorts of decked vessels, whereas the practice has hitherto been confined to men-of-war. To advance the shipbuilding art in Russia two engineers and two mechanics were sent to London in the course of the past year to attend the South Kensington Institution. Nine Russian workmen were placed in the St. Petersburg and 11 in the Cronstadt shipyards of the Crown to be initiated into the art, and become the nucleus of a Russian staff of scientific shipwrights; and the construction of iron vessels growing more general every day, two officers were appointed to make the study of this branch their special business. 

Provided by Stephen McLaughlin