A sailor’s life – 8. Rolling down to Rio: RMS Nile, 1911
I’ve never sailed the Amazon,
I’ve never reached Brazil;
But the Don and Magdalena,
they can go there when they will!
Yes, weekly from Southampton,
great steamers, white and gold,
Go rolling down to Rio
(Roll down, roll down to Rio)
And I’d like to roll to Rio
some day before I’m old
From The Beginning of the Armadillos, Just So Stories, 1902
Five months after running off to sea with the Royal Mail steam packets from Southampton, Bertie Sivell, still only fifteen years old, changed ships and at last rolled down to Rio as Rudyard Kipling had described, crossing the equator en route.
The RMS Nile had been purpose-built for the Argentine run with four promenade decks and nearly as many passengers in saloon class as in steerage. She shuttled from Southampton to Buenos Aires and back every eight weeks, crossing the Atlantic from St Vincent in the Cape Verde islands to Pernambuco (now Recife) in Brazil, and calling at Lisbon, Bahia (now Salvador), Rio de Janeiro and Montevideo.
The RMSP’s hefty Guide to Brazil and the River Plate for the year 1904 reports of St Vincent that it was very healthy, due to stringent quarantine regulations, but that there was not much to do ashore except take amusing photographs “of the coloured people and their numerous children”. Pernambuco, too, was picturesque, (“especially to the traveller who has not seen tropical scenery before”), and it benefited from restaurants and even a music hall. Although “to the lady of fashion neither the drapers nor the milliners establishments would form much attraction”, the guide warned. Somewhere between the two Bertie crossed the Line.
He sent six picture postcards from Lisbon, all blank, and twelve from St Vincent, showing the harbour, the market and a view of naked children around a mud hut, inscribed “this shows the general mode of living in these islands”. One marked where the ship lay in the bay, and one a church he could either see from the moorings or had visited. But nothing was found from Pernambuco.
In Rio, where the Sugar Loaf mountain loomed over picturesque forts, the ship threaded its way through a mass of shipping and Brazilian men-of-war to anchor off an island opposite the city. There, “fussy steam launches blowing their whistles” would race up, bringing family and friends too impatient to wait on shore, the guide said. The guide did not say that in Rio and Buenos Aires desertions among the crew were rife because both had rip-roaring sailor towns full of cheap booze and whores, and a nasty reputation for crimping or press-ganging, which remained widespread until the First World War. In Buenos Aires Bert bought coloured cards, but again did not write on them.
If Bert ever told the son he hardly knew what had happened to him that first trip across the Line, the boy did not remember it and if the teenager on Nile wrote letters, they were not kept.
The only record is Nile’s log, which shows that three days out of Southampton, Bertie Sivell, one of two page boys on board, was promoted to Captain’s Servant at £1 per month, backdated. Logs were only preserved if they recorded a death or illness, discipline problems or, more rarely, a marriage or birth. Nile’s log for 1911 survived because several men, including the “Jews’ waiter”, deserted the ship in Buenos Aires.