Prologue Magazine

A Notable Passage to China: Myth and Memory in FDR's Family History, Part 2


Fall 1999, Vol. 31, No. 3

By R.J.C. Butow

© 1999 by R.J.C. Butow


As a sign of better days to come, the captain now began wearing his straw hat. Surprise was "twelve weeks out." The awning was spread once again over the deckhouse. "This carries us back," Catherine remarked, "to six weeks ago and it is very agreeable to go on deck without an accumulation of clothing."

By the third week of September, Surprise was escaping from "the debatable doldrums of Capricorn." The southeast trade winds were coming on handsomely— not butt-end first. These drying winds, blowing normally from southeast to northwest on the south side of the Equator, were driving Surprise closer to the Indies, a way station on the route to China. Since Ranlett was already thinking ahead to the day when he would turn his ship homeward, these welcome trade winds were carrying him "nearer New York."

Catherine expressed regret that she had not brought along "some red, white, and blue sugar plums to put on the cake" the steward was making for consumption the next day. Perhaps because Sallie Delano was the youngest of the family to have a birthday on board, or because Sunday, September 21, 1862, happened to be the captain's birthday as well, the day was treated as a special occasion. Looking out through the weather-port early in the morning, Catherine saw the sun breaking the horizon, as though it were rising right out of the sea— "a lovely morning." Sallie received numerous gifts as she sailed proudly into her eighth year that day in the Tropics. Ranlett, who turned twenty-six, was favored as well, remarking in his log that he "was the grateful recipient of a number of beautiful presents from the Misses Delano's."

The usual Sunday service was held, the captain reading a discourse by Chalmers to the congregation, which had gathered on top of the deckhouse because the weather was so fine. A sheep was killed for the men, and Ranlett "spliced the main brace" with all hands, instructing them (Louise noted) "to drink Sallie's health, which they did. They had duff with plums in it, & they told Warren they wished birthdays would come a little oftener."

The family and the captain dined on roast goose, boiled ham, corn, peas, tomatoes, and rice. "Drank champagne," Catherine wrote, "& did not get tight." To supplement the birthday cake, the steward offered "some tarts made in the shape of a palm-leaf." After tea, everyone sang on deck. Later, Dora played "Swallows" on the piano, and the captain shaved off his whiskers.

To her brother-in-law Frank Delano and his wife, Laura, Catherine wrote: "The Captain is a very good seaman and an intelligent man and we have got on more comfortably than I supposed so large a party could have done. . . . We have found [him] always kind and jolly and we feel confidence in his ability."

As the ship approached Java Head, Catherine noted in her journal that thirteen weeks had passed since they had quit New York. "The sailors buried their dead horse," she wrote, "which they marched round the capstan with, and plunged into the briny sea out of the lea port."

The poor beast that suffered this miserable end was only an old flour barrel with a painted head made of canvas. The "horse" represented the wages that had been paid to the crew in advance. For many, the money they had received was long since gone, having slipped through their fingers all too easily. They were conducting the burial service now because the period covered by the advance had passed. Soon they would be paid again, this time with tangible coin they could squander ashore, especially in Hong Kong, where they would find alluring opportunities to empty their pockets.

On the day the "horse" was committed to the deep, members of the crew acted as pallbearers, presiding minister, bible bearer, and chief mourner. A choir of sorts, appearing in blackface, burst into song. The previous day the seamen had offered up "The Plains of Mexico" while hauling the main topsail; now a different tune was heard, "The Nice Young Man." Louise found their efforts "quite melodious." She had trouble distinguishing the words but said that most of their songs had something to do with "my pretty young gal."

With a landfall expected at any time, Surprise could not reach Java Head fast enough to please the impatient travelers. Imagining an unlikely future, the crew sang "Oh happy is the Girl that will keep me as I go rolling on." At two o'clock in the morning, on Friday, September 26, 1862, Ranlett dropped anchor, with the beacon at Anjer less than two miles distant. 6 At daylight he was amazed to discover that his father's ship, Golden State (an A. A. Low clipper), was nearby. Captain Ranlett, Sr., whom his son had not seen for two years, had arrived the previous afternoon "42 dys from Amoy [bound] for New York."

In the log of the Surprise, Charles Jr. recorded another item of interest: "War news was that [Gen. George B.] McClellan had been repulsed at Richmond and had been obliged to retreat to James River." Reflecting the family's loyalty to the Union cause, Louise had earlier expressed the hope that Richmond would be in Northern hands by the time their ship reached Java Head. Now she learned that McClellan's forces had withdrawn after the Seven Days' Battle while the Delanos experienced their first week at sea.


Catherine had found it "difficult to sleep amid the excitement of being again near land, with the promise of going ashore and receiving letters." As morning dawned, a Malay bumboat came alongside the ship. The noise the occupants made, she wrote, "was very like persons with the asthma. Ellen . . . came to ask me if any one was in distress. . . . Soon Captain Ranlett Senior came on board, and we were introduced to him. He took part of us in his boat on shore and part went in the boat of the 'Surprise' [the first time they had set foot on land since June 25]."

On Sunday, September 28, perhaps too soon for her passengers and crew, Surprise hove up anchor, intending to make a start, but a contrary wind and unfavorable tide forced a postponement of its departure until the following morning. The cat-and-mouse game of trying to escape into the Java Sea continued, as oppressive temperatures made everyone uncomfortable. "Sometimes we feel inclined," Catherine wrote, "'to take off our clothes and sit in our bones.'"

The pervasive heat did not mean calm, peaceful weather. For days on end, Surprise encountered heavy squalls and hard rain, thunder and lightning, turbulent seas, even waterspouts on one occasion. So much downpour was collected on board that Catherine and her family could rejoice in the luxury of fresh-water baths after having spent months at sea with nothing but salt water to wash in.

One day was so "horribly rainy" that the geese and ducks on board, destined for the dinner table, were able to paddle around on deck. Lulls occurred, but they did not last. Squalls drenched Surprise anew, with rivulets of water invading the family's living quarters wherever cracks permitted the rain to trickle in. As soon as one shower ended, another began. "There was a perfect Niagara-Falls off the poop deck," Catherine wrote.

Not until two-thirds of October had passed did any significant improvement occur. The crew was kept busy scraping, sanding, varnishing, polishing— doing all the chores needed to make Surprise presentable for its arrival at Hong Kong— but monsoon conditions soon reappeared with winds blowing "all round the compass, very dirty weather," thick rain, and turbulent seas.

Warren Delano, Jr. While in Hong Kong, Warren Delano, Jr., sent this photograph of himself to his family in January 1862. (Franklin Roosevelt Library)

On Tuesday, October 28, Catherine's thoughts turned to her father-in-law in Fair Haven, Capt. Warren Delano, who would be eighty-three years old that day. Glasses were raised to his health, on the other side of the globe. Ranlett remarked that Surprise had logged nineteen thousand miles, "far enough to have gone to Pekin," but he had been obliged "to beat [against the wind] all the way."

On the twenty-ninth, Surprise was ninety-seven miles short of its goal but still beating against the wind. That evening the family sat on the poop deck watching the sun go down and the moon rise. Catherine wrote: "We imagine we smell the land." The next day, a China pilot came on board, but an adverse tide carried the ship back to where it had been in the morning. Beating all night, Surprise finally crept toward the harbor. Putting earlier grumblings behind him, Captain Ranlett was openhanded in his appraisal of the voyage: "A long but generally pleasant passage of 128 days."

Penning her last entry on Friday, October 31, 1862, Catherine wrote: "By eleven o'clk dear Warren was on board the 'Surprise', having come in the house-boat [the Russell & Co. boat]. He looks well, and the children said they should have known him anywhere. By & bye we saw the little steamer 'White Cloud' and on hoisting the flag and beckoning to her she came along and towed us in to our anchorage. It was between two and three o'clk that we anchored, and such a cavalcade of [sedan] chairs as waited on us up to Rose Hill [the home the Delanos would occupy in Hong Kong] was very strange. I feel very oddly to be again a 'Fanqui.'" It was an epithet Catherine remembered from the past, from a time when tensions had flared at Canton, causing angry Chinese to rail at the Westerners in their midst, calling them Fan-kuei— "Foreign Devils."

Nearly seventy years later, the "Sallie" of 1862, Sara Delano Roosevelt, vividly remembered how the voyage had drawn to a close. As she craned to catch the first glimpse of her father, a small boat appeared in the distance, its oars manned by a Chinese crew in white uniforms. In the stern, holding the tiller, was Sallie's "Papa." "Tall, slight, and keen," he was "dressed in white linen." As soon as he was alongside, he rushed onto the deck of the ship where the family had gathered to greet him. He now saw, for the first time, "darling little Katrina"— that precious bundle of perpetual motion, his youngest child, Cassie.

Writing in 1931, FDR's elderly mother carried the Delano story onward from ship to shore, noting that everyone was "soon settled most comfortably at 'Rose Hill,' a fine house above the town, with the peak rising behind it." A month after their arrival, the family celebrated Thanksgiving. It fell on one of the two days every week that the Crown Colony's band played on the parade ground, providing an opportunity for fashionable residents of Hong Kong to promenade. In a letter to her Uncle Frank, Louise Delano noted that her father's "old friend, Mr. Howqua," had arrived from Canton bearing gifts of preserves and fruit. "Papa took him out driving [in one of the carriages]," she reported. "He appeared to enjoy it, although he was not very demonstrative."

Later that day the Delanos shared their Thanksgiving dinner with Capt. Ranlett, who was still in port. Also present were "all the Miss Russells," Louise's tongue-in-cheek reference to the seven gentlemen-clerks of Russell & Co., who helped conduct the business of the house. "We had flags on the table," she told Uncle Frank, "& after dinner we sang all the national airs, & had quite a jollyfication dancing in the large drawing room."

The next morning, Captain Ranlett took tiffin with the family before saying goodbye. He would set sail that afternoon for Amoy, a "treaty port" to the north, remain there about a month, and then begin the long voyage home. "We are very sorry he has gone," Louise wrote later that day, "as we liked him, & felt very well acquainted with him after having lived with him four months [on board the Surprise]. Since we landed, he has been to see us very often & has taken us out walking frequently, which was very pleasant, as we cannot go alone, & it is not always convenient for Papa to go with us."

Louise, Dora, and Annie were already taller than their mother and Cousin Nancy (each of whom measured 5' 4"). "I think we can afford to stop growing now," Louise wrote. "Most all the gentlemen of the house are short, & we are as tall as some, & taller than the rest."

Louise and Dora found their daily routine "monotonous." They saw the same people all the time, and every conversation seemed to dissolve into gossip. One pleasant diversion was horseback riding, even though the "girl tribe" could venture forth only when an escort was available. Their father maintained a stable of three horses and two white ponies, one of which was Louise's favorite mount. She rode "quite well" and also quite fast, as did Dora and Annie. One foreign resident, who thought the Misses Delano were being reckless, anticipated having to bury them all before he left China.

Ten-year-old Warren, not being strong enough to control the ponies, contented himself with driving Sallie, Philippe, and Cassie around in a small barouche hitched to Blackberry, their donkey. Sallie had a friend her own age, the only child of the American consul. "They go out in the baruche," Louise wrote, "with two [American] flags, one on each side, which they take great pleasure in waving whenever they pass any Redcoats." The little girls were patriotically displaying the colors of the Union because they had been told that England favored the Confederacy.

At Rose Hill Cousin Nancy continued to provide instruction for all of the children, as she had done on board ship and at Algonac. FDR's mother remembered a large chamber that her father had arranged as a schoolroom "with specially designed straight-backed chairs"— presumably to encourage a posture conducive to learning whatever "Nannie" was trying to teach them.

There were rules of decorum the children were expected to observe, but life at Rose Hill was not puritanical. The entire family enjoyed the Hong Kong racing season at the Happy Valley course, a private jockey club for gentlemen, where Messrs. Russell & Co. had their own grandstand. Here the Delanos would gather not only to watch the action but also to place wagers on the outcome of one race or another. Each of the children was given a small bag of "cash"— a Chinese coin of copper-alloy that had very little value, being "worth about five to a cent" (as Sara remembered it) "just enough to permit the youngsters to join in the betting."

More exciting than even the races was an excursion to Canton, where Howqua had invited the Delanos to dine. The five-day visit, in February 1863, made a lasting impression on eight-year-old Sallie. "There were little dishes and many courses [she recalled in 1931], and chopsticks. But as it was a very rich and luxurious house, there were knives, forks, and spoons for the strangers. Papa told us children to pretend that we liked Chinese food, though it was very strange to us."

In a letter to Franklin Delano, penned at Rose Hill several days after returning from Canton, Sallie's mother Catherine described the scene: "Houqua gave us a dinner of thirty courses and we visited his wives. Number One made many demonstrations of affection & asked why we had not been before to see them. She said my husband was such an old friend of Houqua's that she had been longing to see us."

A second visit to Canton was made in April to accommodate those members of the family who had missed out earlier. Several days were devoted to exploring the city. Fifteen-year-old Dora described passing through temple after temple "filled with huge Idols, [with] candles and incense burning before them." Her father "was so busy tasting tea," she wrote, "that he could not come with us. . . . We all went in sedan chairs and the streets were just as narrow, dirty, and filthy as they could be." From "the Heights," however, the top of the five-storied pagoda afforded "a beautiful view overlooking the city, river, [and] rice fields."

On their last day in Canton, the family paid a courtesy call at Howqua's residence. "He has been quite ill," Dora noted, "and cannot eat anything. We were taken to see his wives. Mrs. Howqua . . . said she was very sad about her husband. Her face was covered up to her eyes with paint and powder and her [bound] feet were scarcely 3 inches long. We were then taken all through the house . . . room after room . . . nicely furnished with ebony and marble and carved panels with stained glass windows."

Dora's mother, Catherine, who had visited Canton in February, stayed at home in April. Five months later, in September 1863, she gave birth to a baby boy, Frederic Adrian DelaNo. Within hours of his arrival, his father carried him into the Hermitage, the residence occupied by the young bachelors of Russell & Co., to introduce "his little son to them with pride."

Sara and Philippe Delano Sara (Sallie) and Philippe Delano in 1864, following their return home from Hong Kong. (Franklin Roosevelt Library)

In 1864, ten-year-old Sallie, along with her brothers Warren and Philippe, twelve and seven, were sent home under the mothering eye of their sister Annie, who was fifteen-going-on-sixteen at the time. Their parents thought the health and education of the children would suffer if they remained in the Far East too long.

In her brief reminiscences, Sara Delano Roosevelt remembered leaving Hong Kong on a French ship that put in at Saigon, Singapore, Aden, and Suez. From there they traveled overland by train to Cairo (the Suez Canal would not open until five years later, in 1869). After sightseeing, they took a train to Alexandria, a steamer to Marseilles, and then continued to Paris by rail. They spent a fortnight there and a week or two in London. Finally they boarded a Cunard ship— an old tub in Sara's memory. Reaching New York after a very rough crossing, they were gathered up by anxious relatives.

Their absence was sorely felt at Rose Hill, which continued to shelter the remaining members of the family. Before 1864 had run its course, Louise, Dora, Cassie, and Frederic greeted the arrival of the eleventh and last child that Warren and Catherine brought into the world, Laura Franklin Delano. 7

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