Lost at sea

Tales my grandfather would have told me. A sailor's life 1910-1941

A sailor’s life – 23. Deserters, stowaways & sailing to war, 1914

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 “No man will be a sailor who has contrivance enough to get himself into jail; for being in a ship is being in a jail, with the chance of being drowned … A man in jail has more room, better food, and commonly better company.”
Dr Johnson, from James Boswell’s The Life of Samuel Johnson

Buenos Aires port circa 1912, from the collection of the delightful metropostcard.com

Bert Sivell celebrated his 18th birthday in spring 1913 in Buenos Aires, surrounded by steam ships and bustle and electricity, unloading cement from Greenhithe, London, after 61 days at sea in an ill-lit, unheated square rigged sailing ship – cold, wet, uncomfortable and in Bert’s case, unpaid.

He was a British merchant ship apprentice on his second trip.
In Buenos Aires, four of the crew deserted, smuggling their clothes off the ship but abandoning their pay, one was carted off to hospital with syphilis, and while the harassed Mate’s back was turned the cook and the carpenter disappeared on a bender.
Down in the fo’c’sle a very young Swede with only ten months’ experience at sea found himself promoted Able Seaman on £3 a month.
Leif Asklund had gone to England the previous Christmas looking for a berth, because  he needed two years in sail to qualify as an officer in Sweden and it was solid winter in the Baltic. In London there was a Scandinavian sailors’ hostel near the West India docks run by a former Lutheran missionary, Agnes Welin, and it was Mrs Welin who had sent him down to the offices of John Stewart & Co that December, just before Christmas. Captain James Donaldson of Monkbarns, newly arrived from Taltal, in Chile, tested the lad on his English and signed him on. By Buenos Aires, three months later, the teenage apprentices had absorbed him as one of their own.

In Buenos Aires, with orders to sail for Australia, Donaldson was struggling. The ship’s papers specified a minimum number of hands needed to work the ship, so the loss of six left him badly short, even after the missing cook was carried back aboard, dead drunk. And then by a stroke of luck, while the ship idled expensively at anchor in the River Plate, two “stowaways” were allegedly discovered. The Old Man didn’t mess about. Both were promptly entered on the articles at £1 per month, and the ship sailed.

Newcastle NSW, 1913

Newcastle NSW, 1913

Three months later, in Newcastle NSW, six more men deserted – including the drunken cook. In fact, Asklund recalled, the fo’c’sle emptied, apart from him and two Finnish able seamen. The cook was owed £2 5s 2d, according to the log, but desertions in Australia were considered inevitable because coasting vessels there paid more than the British sailing ships passing through.

Monkbarns spent two months in Newcastle, loading coal, and hunting for crew. There were several British sailing ships in port, including John Stewart & Co’s Lorton, and Monkbarns’ twin Belford, and lots of lads stumbling among the bales and rails along the Dyke at home time. Asklund remembered the Reverend Forster Haire belting out My Old Shako at the mission concerts and Bert sent dozens of postcards showing the Reserve, where they walked, and the beach, where they lolled, and the kippered buildings along the steam tram line in Scott Street. He also sent one of Belford, highlighting his own ship’s superior points.

In the half deck the shortage of hands was felt acutely. Bert recorded that one night the callow mate — himself an out-of-time apprentice — had tried to stop the boys going ashore, to have them on standby to shift the ship off the loading Dyke. “Of course, we objected to that,” Bert wrote. “So we all dressed and all eight of us and our young Swede walked sedately over the gang-way. As we walked back along the Dyke at 10pm in a body we saw the old man and mate talking, so it was look out for trouble. But to our surprise nothing happened. They were waiting for us. It appears that the mate had tried to stop us on his own without the old man’s knowledge. We had been working hard since 3am that morning and it was past midnight before we finished. “

Sydney harbour from Kirribilli, 1913, and Circular Quay

Sydney harbour from Kirribilli, 1914, and Circular Quay

From Newcastle they sailed for Chile, to pick up saltpetre for Durban, South Africa, and from Durban they sailed in ballast – that is empty – back to Australia, arriving nine months after they had left, with another stowaway who had been made to work his passage.  In Sydney, four men deserted and two who signed on failed to join. The ship’s boy decided to join the navy. A postcard view of Sydney harbour, strangely bald to modern eyes without the harbour bridge and the opera house, records that Bert and another apprentice took an hour and twenty minutes hard rowing to get the Old Man ashore in the teeth of a southerly gale. They were loading for Chile again, seed wheat this time, and “working like niggers” [sic] he complained. But he “rowed the ladies about” and made friends at the Mission.

They left Australia in early June 1914 and were out in the southern Pacific cut off from everything except the sea and the sky when a young Serb nationalist in Sarajevo shot dead the heir to the Austro-Hungarian empire.

By the time Monkbarns dropped anchor in Corral, on the west coast of Chile, in the second week of August, war was erupting across Europe and beyond like firecrackers. In Monkbarns’ half deck the focus was on business as usual. The fighting was expected be over by Christmas, and Monkbarns would not be off the Lizard, in Cornwall, until the following April at the earliest.

Corrall, Chile, 1914

Bert Sivell’s postcard view of Corral, Chile, 1914

The log records daily lifeboat drills, which was new, and five apprentices were promoted to able seamen, but the ship had been in Chile for two months before Captain Donaldson and “H. Horstmeyer, German,” decided it might be better if the now enemy member of Monkbarns crew were discharged. Even then, Horstmeyer’s wages were properly calculated and paid to the consulate in Valdivia.

“Just a card to let you see that the Germans have not caught us yet,” Bert wrote casually from Corral to his Ma on a view of iron ore smelters. (“Needless to say closed, due to lack of funds.”) Chile was technically neutral, despite its large German community, and his main topic was not the war but a dispute with the owners of the ore works who were claiming 1,000 pesos, or £29, for Donaldson having put a line on their jetty to avoid a collision. It was also raining, he reported.

But war was about to come to the nitrate lanes.

Read on: Monkbarns and the Battle of Coronel
Previously: The nitrate coast, Chile, 1912

Work in progress: the book I never wrote about the sailor grandfather I never knew, from his apprenticeship on the square-rigger Monkbarns to his death by U97, presumed lost with all hands aboard the Shell oil tanker Chama in 1941 Blogroll


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  1. […] Read on: Desertions and war, 1914 […]

  2. […] Next: Monkbarns and Lusitania Previous: Desertions and the coming of war […]

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