Lost at sea

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

Archive for the ‘Royal Mail steamers’ Category

A sailor’s life – 65. Death at sea: RMS Homeric and Raifuku Maru

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Raifuku Maru NYT front page

Homeric passengers' account of the loss of the Raifuku Maru, front page New York Times 1925

The White Star liner Homeric arrived just in time to see through the sleet and spray the last of the 38 men of the Raifuku Maru swept to their deaths in the Atlantic.

It was 10.55 New York time and the exhausted Japanese crew had been clinging to the railings since the force 9 NNE gale shifted their grain cargo at 5 am, their ship listing ever deeper into the sucking, surging seas. The British sailors – who had battled for five hours to reach the distressed freighter – were distraught. Out on the pitching deck of the big mail liner, their passengers were horrified. In the narrowing gap between the ships, men drowned.

“Many of the passengers exclaimed from time to time, ‘there’s a man floating.  I see a head!’ But as the wreckage  drifted nearer the stern of the Homeric we could see that some of the objects that looked like human heads were only sacks,” said Mr George J Heatherton, of 553 Broome Street, New York.

When the ship docked in New York all hell broke loose. “No heroic effort was made to rescue those men,” marine insurance broker Paul E. Alberti told a waiting reporter and Amos RE Pinchot, brother to the governor of Pennsylvania, expressed his outrage across six columns of the New York Times. “I personally saw several men in the water, either swimming or being carried by the current,” he claimed. “It is hard to see how [the master] could have done less to save them.”

Raifuku Maru sinking, 21 April 1925

Raifuku Maru sinking, one of several snaps taken aboard Homeric - from coastalradio.org.uk, link below

A hundred and twenty-three of Homeric’s passengers disagreed, and signed a testimonial backing Captain John Roberts – sharing his “regret and sorrow that the terrible conditions prevailing at the time rendered his efforts unavailing”, but the row rumbled on.

On the waterfront in New Jersey, the slur against an honest colleague was taken personally. Bert Sivell, young officer-in-charge of the Shell depot ship Pyrula, was disgusted.

“There has been a terrible shipping disaster in the Atlantic, but I expect you read about it in the home papers,” he wrote home. “A Japanese freighter foundered with all hands during a bad gale. The Homeric arrived on the scene an hour before she sank but had not time to rescue anyone. That vessel is a big lump to handle in heavy weather. He got as near as he could and pumped oil overboard but could not get sufficient quantities out to do any good. It would require a proper tanker to cope with that situation.

White Star liner Homeric, papers and postcard

White Star liner Homeric, author's collection

“In today’s papers some of the passengers have told a story to the reporters that no efforts were made to effect a rescue. There are columns of this attack on the captain. It is positively disgusting. No ship will desert another in trouble at sea, nor is any effort spared to save life at sea. The captain of the Homeric has been at sea for probably 30 years. When chief officer he was instrumental in saving 1,200 from another Atlantic wreck so he knows how to handle a ship’s lifeboat and if he says it is impossible for a lifeboat to live in a sea such as was running at this time, then that should be sufficient for anyone. However some people will do anything to get their name in the paper.”

The gist of Pinchot’s complaint was not that lifeboats had not been launched – Capt Roberts had three swung out as they approached and even Pinchot expressed “grave doubts” as to whether such small boats could have survived in such tremendous seas. It was not even that Homeric had not fired lines (ropes) across to the stricken vessel, because he accepted she had no equipment to do so. His objection was that no rafts were dropped, and that Capt Roberts had steered his bucking, heaving 774ft, 35,000 ton passenger liner and the 944 lives aboard  away from the submerged wreckage and spreading flotsam too soon.

As he arrived in Quarantine in New York, the master told the waiting reporters wearily: “I was busy on the bridge manoeuvring my ship and I did not spend as much time looking at the freighter probably as some of the passengers.” He himself had seen only half a dozen survivors, and by the time he had managed to work his ship round to the lee side of the wreck where he might have picked them up, he could see no signs of life, neither on what was left visible of the deck nor in the water.

Kokusai Kisen Kaisha line 1937

Poster of the Kokusai Kisen Kaisha line, circa 1937. Collection Mariners Museum, Newport News

The ship’s owners, Kokusai Kisen, sent a telegram thanking him for his efforts – which White Star judiciously published.

Raifuku Maru had left Boston bound for Hamburg four days earlier, but she was only 400 miles out – barely two days’ steaming from Boston – when her new young wireless operator, Masao Hiwatari, sent his SOS. The message was relayed from Halifax NS. Homeric was the nearest ship, 70 miles away, blown off her own course by the gales and foul weather.

Down in Homeric’s stokeholds men sweated, shovelling mountains of coal into the furnaces, piling on speed until every rivet and gauge on the liner rattled. But all the while the crippled ship, now listing 40 degrees, was being swept away southwards. “Coming as fast as possible, twenty knots. Now seventy miles from you,” Homeric signalled. Other ships were also on their way. The Greek liner King Alexander (former SS Bremen) reportedly arrived in New York with one passenger “dead of excitement” having lost lifeboats, ventilators and several saloon windows before she called off her attempt to reach Raifuku Maru through the gales, after Homeric reported she’d sunk.

“We didn’t know our position and [Raifuku Maru] didn’t know her position,” said Captain Roberts later, “and we were able to get her direction only from her radio. We got signals from from the Japanese freighter for quite a long time. When we got the last message we were 45 miles from her. She was in pretty bad straits, and her last message was ‘we are waiting for lifeboats’… Water was pouring into her funnel when we arrived.” He had come 111 miles in just five hours.

Three of Homeric’s passengers said they saw men trying to launch a lifeboat, which was immediately smashed by the sea. As Homeric pumped out oil, lawyer Ralph Crews of 55 Wall Street watched three big waves sweep the surviving crew off the railings. “We could see them swimming around for a minute, but they quickly disappeared,” he said.

Sadly, when reports of the loss reached Japan, Amos Pinchot’s protests struck home. The Japanese press cried racism. The Japanese seamen’s union in Kobe, aghast to think their colleagues had been abandoned, appealed to the international community, and the emperor issued 300 yen payments to the bereaved relatives.

Meanwhile in the US, the media frenzy stoked by Amos Pinchot ensured the tale of the Raifuku Maru was not forgotten. Somewhere in the telling Hiwatari’s last message became “Danger like dagger now … come quick”, unleashing tales of mysterious water spouts (and spawning its own college-boy band). In fact, the 29-year-old wireless operator had lived in the US for several years, his English was good, and any deficiencies in his transmissions can more readily be ascribed to haste, fear and exhaustion as he risked his life below decks tapping away hour after hour to guide Homeric’s radio direction-finders. But why let the facts get in the way of a good story?

Nowadays, if you google Raifuku Maru, you end up – bizarrely – in the Bermuda Triangle, thanks to  the US linguist Charles Berlitz, who claimed her as an unsolved vanishing in his bestseller of the same name in 1974. The book sold 20 million copies in 30 languages.

The sighs of Captain John Roberts and his men, who did their best to no avail at Lat 41 43N Long 61 39W – off Nova Scotia, Canada – echo down the years.

Read on: The Clam, a moment in history
Previously: Reparations – Majestic’s maiden voyage

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

A sailor’s life – 64. Majestic’s maiden voyage

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Leviathan Majestic Berengaria in New York

White Star liner Majestic in New York, flanked by Leviathan and Berengaria, undated - collection merchantnavyofficers.com

“MAJESTIC, WORLD’S BIGGEST SHIP, HERE”, shouts the headline on the undated newspaper clipping. “White Star Liner Makes First Trip in 5 Days, 14 Hours, 45 Minutes.”

Bert Sivell was hugely excited when the steamer Majestic passed him in the New York narrows on 16 May 1922, at the end of her maiden voyage from Cherbourg. Yellowed cuttings spill from his letter that week.

Majestic docked in the north river at 18th Street, where a crowd was waiting on the pier head. Her passengers included the chairman of the White Star line, Harold Arthur Sanderson, and the executive head of Harland & Wolff, Henry Harland.

Everything in the lower and upper bays and the Hudson with steam power greeted the great ship vaporously,” wrote the unnamed New York reporter, “to show the gallant Briton that they believed in welcoming nautical genius, even if it did happen to be of German origin.”

The White Star leviathan Majestic started life as the Hamburg-Amerika line’s Atlantic challenger Bismarck, allegedly extended six foot during construction to outdo Cunard’s Aquitania and ensure her the title of biggest ship in the world. Unfortunately for Germany, she came down the slips a bare month before the outbreak of the first world war and remained unfinished in dock in Hamburg for the duration, gently taking on water. In 1919 she was handed over to Britain as war reparations, and was eventually completed (reluctantly and slowly) by the German workforce under the eye of Harland & Wolff’s engineers, who failed to prevent her being delivered for sea trials in the original HAPAG colours. It was not the Germans’ sole mute protest.

Majestic US newspaper report - maiden voyage May 1922

Majestic maiden voyage May 1922, newspaper report from New York

There was aboard the Majestic not a complete spirit of forgiveness for the talented Teutons who had put the hull of the splendid liner together,” Bert’s clipping records. “The Britons, mostly in a humorous spirit, recalled that just before the ship had left Hamburg, German painters had daubed in red lead on her hull many skulls and crossbones to show that they did not exactly wish the new ship a fine first trip.”

No bombs were discovered in remote corners, the report notes, slightly regretfully.



Majestic US newspaper cutting, part II

Majestic, continued

“The Majestic made a swift run from Quarantine to her dock and ten tugs assisted her in straightening out and heading for the pierhead at the foot of Eighteenth Street, North River. A great throng was there to greet her. For a moment they thought that the Majestic had decided to cut a trench across Manhattan Island … The sharp and lofty prow of the big ship was arrested, but not before she had stove in a twelve foot section of the corrugated pier shed and driven the startled group into confused flight.”


Bert was in hoots. Taking a chunk off the wharf was a rookie mistake. But Majestic’s tribulations were not over. Swishing past Pyrula again as she left New York outward bound for Europe later that week, one of the 800 steerage passengers jumped overboard and was lost.

The huge ship stopped in the narrows to search for him, but no body was ever found. It cost White Star thousands of dollars in fuel, “wear and wages”, the papers reported, and Majestic’s commander Sir Bertram Hayes felt constrained to issue a public statement after the New York Herald cheekily wired him to find out if he’d run aground.

Bert carefully cut out the story for Ena, but sadly he didn’t bother with the second column, tantalisingly headlined on the clipping: “Cocaine Worth $5,000 Found Under American Flags Aboard the America.”

America was the former HAPAG liner Amerika, seized in Boston when the US joined the war in 1917. Vaterland was caught in New York when war broke out, impounded and put into US service in 1917 as Leviathan. By the time Ena arrived in New York aboard the White Star’s new liner Homeric (formerly Norddeutscher Lloyd’s Columbus) in late 1922, HAPAG’s Imperator too was established as Berengaria – all taken as part of the allied countries’ crippling 132bn gold mark war reparations.

Read on: Death at sea – Raifuku Maru
Previously: To have and to hold, Pyrula 1922-1924

War reparations Germany 1920

War reparations: industrial machinery is shipped out of Germany, 1920, collection Bundesarchiv

A sailor’s life – 12. Coronation and seamen’s strike, 1911

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Commemorative postcard for the coronation of King George V, June 22nd 1911

Commemorative postcard for the coronation of King George V, June 22nd 1911

Hammering and stitching on parade floats and fancy dress was in full swing up and down the British Isles, commemorative medals had been struck, and “meat teas” were being cooked up for the deserving poor. By the time Bertie Sivell, cabin boy, left Pernambuco in Brazil on 2 June 1911 bound for Southampton aboard the RMS Nile, the coronation of George V was barely three weeks away.

In the Solent, ships were gathering – hundreds of ships, private yachts and warships, cheek by jowl. Ticket sales for steamer trips round the assembled fleet were booming; from 1s 6d the week before the grand coronation fleet review, to a week’s pay – £1 10s  – on the day. For an extra 6d, trippers could enjoy an hour aboard the visiting US battleship Delaware “by kind permission of the commander”.

No one expected the motley collection of nationalities crewing the ships to be able to unite in common cause for the seamen’s strike threatened on the 14th. No one expected a docks strike that would bring Britain to a juddering halt. But down in Southampton the trouble kicked off early, among the coal porters called to fuel the first of the White Star’s state-of-the-art new ocean liners for her maiden voyage.

Titanic was still under construction in Belfast, but her huge twin, Olympic, was bound for New York, booked solid to bring back half a hundred American millionaires for the coronation spectacle. If it seems an insane moment for the shipping companies to chance their arm with their workers, that’s because it was.

The coal porters were labourers, working in filthy black gangs of five men for up to twelve hours a day lifting mountains of coal into ships of all sizes for a penny halfpenny a ton. They had been called to standby the grand new Olympic at 6am the day after Nile left Brazil, but were kept waiting, unpaid, for five hours. When they were at last allowed to start work at 11am, they asked for a “monetary consideration” for the half day lost, suggesting five shillings each. When it was summarily refused, the men downed tools.

Coronation fleet review, Southampton 24 June 1911

Coronation fleet review, Southampton 24 June 1911

By mid afternoon, the colliery firm had realised its mistake and revised its response, offering first three shillings, then four, and eventually the full five. But by then the coal porters had thought of other grievances and conditions, and more men were joining them. By Tuesday, the strike was declared official and a  union organiser arrived from London – together with the first contingent of blackleg labour.

Harry Orbell had 28 years’ experience of industrial disputes. He opened the meeting by thanking the authorities for letting the men meet behind the Seamen’s Mission, and he called for calm – no rowdyism, no causing trouble in town, he said, and he urged the strikers to remember  that “whatever happened” the police were only carrying out the laws made by representatives of the people themselves. He didn’t blame the heads of the colliery firm, Russell Rea and his son, whom he said he knew personally and had always found to act as gentlemen (“hear, hear” roared a voice from the crowd). No, he said, the fault lay with the whippersnappers who got their pay rises by “winking at the boss’s daughter”.

The demands Orbell eventually laid before Rea & Co were for an extra halfpenny a ton per man, plus 7s 6d to work through the night, 6 shillings for working Sunday mornings, (4s for Sunday afternoons), and reasonable notice for overtime. Union recognition was almost an afterthought, but the firm still said no.

By Thursday the strike had spread to the steamers and yachts gathering in Southampton Water to run coronation cruises, after their owners too refused to pay the higher coaling rates. The striking coal porters waived their own picket lines for two vessels: one of which had put into port in distress and on fire, and the other “so as not to inconvenience the general public” as it contained only household coal, the Southampton Times & Hampshire Express reported. Reports of the strike were well back in the paper, on page 10.

But time was running out for the liner companies.  Seamen on the US liner St Paul were offered $750 dollars to coal the ship themselves, even the ship’s stewards were approached, but they all refused. In New York there were railway presidents and bankers waiting to be picked up. All the £800 state rooms for the return passage were booked.  Olympic’s maiden voyage – carrying the directors of both the White Star line and the ship builders Harland & Wolff – looked doomed. (Both they and Olympic’s commander, Captain Edward Smith, should have taken note. All three sailed on Titanic’s maiden voyage the following year. Only one survived.)

So, White Star capitulated. And then the seamen seized their chance, “heartened,” as the local paper reported, by the coal porters’ success. On the morning of the day the international seamen’s strike was to be declared, Olympic’s crew struck, demanding parity of pay with the rival Mauretania – and the White Star directors settled again, allowing Olympic to finally steam out of Southampton at noon on June 14th, leaving seething industrial unrest in her wake. The New York Times reported: “Strike of seamen ordered for to-day. Has already begun at Antwerp. English owners appear unconcerned.” Men refusing to board their vessels in the US would be deported and jailed, it said.

By evening the unionist leader Tom Mann in Liverpool had “declared war” on the shipping companies for £5 10s a month minimum wage and union recognition, but not before the Liverpool organisers had issued a message dismissing the strike in Southampton as premature. “This probably explains why some of the London papers did not awake to the fact that there was a strike until Thursday morning,” wrote the Southampton Times, sniffily. Premature or not, a week before the coronation thousands of seafarers in all the large ports had responded, and the strike had spread to the shore gangs. Atlantic sailings were cancelled, and even the cross-Channel service was threatened.

As ship after ship arrived in  port, more seamen joined the strike. The stewardesses on the Union Castle liner Briton joined, the ship’s bandsmen followed, and on shore even ships’ printers were agitating for more pay. In the commotion, the Union Castle laundry girls – who worked  nine hours a day for a pittance of 6s a week – approached their manageress for news of their own outstanding claim. When she rather rashly responded that the officials were far too busy to consider “such a matter as that”, they too walked out, leaving the linen for several thousand bunks unwashed.

It rained in Southampton on the day of King George’s coronation, a steady drizzle. As wet processions trailed through the town, the negotiations continued.

Having bowed to force majeure twice, White Star had jibbed and withdrawn its liner Majestic from the coronation pageant, ceding her place to St Paul, whose crew, because signed in the US and therefore not yet discharged, could be compelled to sail. Majestic had been laid-up in the river, where she was now joined by other laid-up liners as scheduled sailings began to be cancelled and cargoes diverted. Four days before the Coronation, the frantic managers of the Royal Mail and Union Castle made it known that they were offering “liberal terms” to anyone willing to crew the ships in the review that Saturday, but the seamen refused, pointing out that it was more important to be adequately paid for all the other days of the year.

The talking continued right up to the afternoon before the review, and White Star was the last to settle. At ten past two on Saturday 24th June 1911, the Southampton seamen’s strike was over: the shipping companies having agreed to a pay rise of 10s a month for deck hands and men in the stoke hold, and the shore gangs all getting an extra 1s 6d a week.

Olympic arrived back packed to the railings with millionaires. Forty or fifty of them, with an “aggregate wealth of £60m!” reported the Southampton Times. But it was too late for the Royal Mail, which had had to pull four fully-booked ships out of the royal parade, including Asturias and little Oruba. Four Union Castle ships had also been pulled, including the Armadale Castle.

Postcard of illuminations at naval review, found in Bertie Sivell's collection

Postcard of illuminations at naval review, found in Bertie Sivell's collection

Bertie Sivell arrived back in England that evening,  just in time for the illuminations. Four days later he was laid off, when a national docks strike was called, crippling trade through every port up and down the country. Nile’s next sailing was cancelled, so on June 28 1911 Bertie went home to his mam and dad on the Isle of Wight.

By August he was apprenticed – in sail.

Read on: A sailor’s life – 13. Apprenticeship
Previously: For the record, finding ships’ logs

A sailor’s life – 10. Below decks: RMS Nile, 1911

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Bertie Sivell, 1911 - promoted to £1 a month

Bertie Sivell, 1911 - promoted to £1 a month

Several ship’s logs for the Royal Mail steamers Nile and Oruba for 1911 survive in the Public Record Office at Kew. Though no more than a basic note by busy officers, they provide a rather blunter take on life at sea than the pictures of leisure and pleasure painted by the passengers and the shipping company guides.

Injuries figure large, particularly the burns, which were an occupational hazard among the stokers sweating in the bowels of the steam packets, endlessly shovelling coal into the furnaces; above decks, winches and other machinery took their toll of extremities. On one crossing Oruba’s master recorded, beside the usual desertions on the South America run, five crew laid up with various fractures, tonsillitis and rheumatic fever.

Both steamers either had to put sailors ashore for medical treatment, or had them put aboard by the consul for repatriation to the UK. Ordinary merchant ships did not carry a doctor, just the captain with a St John Ambulance certificate and a copy of the Ship Captain’s Medical Guide. If a man became too ill to be treated aboard, the ship put him ashore as soon as it could – and sailed on. Time and tide wait for no man. Money owed for the days worked was left for him, but his pay stopped until he went back to sea again. When the money ran out, he became a job for the local consul. Such men had their own shorthand presence in the logs: DBS, for distressed British seaman.

RMS Nile, 1911

RMS Nile, 1911

The voyage marked by the death of Nellie Thompson, Countess of Shannon, saw eight DBSs put on board Nile by various consuls for conveyance back to Southampton. Between them, they had typhoid, small pox, tuberculosis, chronic bronchitis, neuralgia, and severe burns in various limbs. The passenger ship doctor who had treated the countess’ pneumonia with “poultices, milk diet, digitalis, strychnine, sponging etc” recorded of the working men only that he had put the typhoid and the small pox cases on “saloon fare” and dosed the bronchitis and the TB with cod liver oil.

For this, the logs record an experienced seaman on Nile earned £4 a month, and a coal trimmer, (which was the nastiest job in the engine department) £3 15s.  The waiters, rushing between decks with four meals a day for 600 passengers, supported themselves and their families ashore on £2 10s a month. Even the first officer – who would have studied at his own expense for years, coming ashore to sit each ‘ticket’- received only £16 a month.

Amid the comforts of the passenger liners, the discrepancy between the haves in saloon and those who laboured below and around them was sharp. The Manchester Guardian that year noted: “… on the average, seamen and firemen [stokers] are worse paid, worse lodged and probably, even to-day, worse fed than Englishmen doing comparable work ashore.”

Shipboard discipline, at the sole discretion of the master, added to the financial squeeze. Crispino dos Santos, a 3rd class waiter on Nile, was fined 5s* for quarrelling with the passengers — which was nearly three days’ pay to his family. The bosun’s mate and a firemen were fined 5s each for being drunk off duty, and the fireman subsequently lost a further day’s pay for “insolence” to the 3rd Engineer. Even the 3rd Mate was fined, for calling the 2nd Mate “a damned liar”.

“It is not that shipowners are an exceptionally rapacious class of employers,” wrote the Guardian, “but that the seafaring trades are cosmopolitan … Apart from the great passenger steamers, which run between the same ports with the regularity of express trains, the world’s shipping trade is carried on by vessels ready to go anywhere, carry anything, and employ anyone, irrespective of race, who is able to fire a marine boiler or do a seaman’s work, and it inevitably follows that the standard of pay and comfort for the crews tends to fall to that of the world’s labour market rather than rise to that of prosperous countries like England and the United States.”

At the end of May 1911, the Southampton Times carried a report from the Lancet on the “crowded, damp, dark and dirty” living conditions on Britain’s merchant ships and the “crying need of sailors” for ventilation and proper washing facilities. Special interest attached to this, the newspaper explained, in view of the mounting industrial tension among seamen.

*(20 shillings to the £)

Read on: A sailor’s life – 11. For the record: ships logs

A sailor’s life – 9. Crossing the Line

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RMS Oruba crossing the line

Neptune and his court, RMS Oruba passengers crossing the line circa 1900, from jnvlieland.blogspot

“All the traditional ceremonies and good-natured horseplay were scrupulously adhered to, and some twenty schoolboys and five adults were duly dosed, lathered, shaved, hosed and then toppled backwards into a huge canvas tank of sea-waters,” wrote young Lord Frederic Spencer Hamilton, homeward bound from Cape Town aboard a Royal Mail Steam packet ship in 1910.

For hundreds of years sailors have marked a boy’s first crossing of “the Line” between the northern and southern oceans with a ritual ducking in the sea. Rope would be frayed for wigs, and lockers and stores raided for robes and crown. Then Neptune and his queen, a dame with large loose bosoms and ill-concealed stubble dabbed in flour, would appear over the side of the ship in mid ocean and advance on any so called “first trippers” to lather, dose and dunk them. At the end of their baptism, the new boys were presented with the right to sail the seven seas, and could look forward to being on the delivering end of the brutalities next trip.

Crossing the line ... cruise ship passengers anno 2009, still paying their respects to Neptune

Crossing the line ... cruise ship passengers anno 2009, still paying their respects to Neptune in style, from Johnhealds.blog

The tradition had flourished on passenger ships, because it broke the monotony of long idle days for strangers bored with each other and themselves and writing letters. The ghastly Lord Fred was obviously a hoot, recording riotous goings-on apparently initiated by choice spirits among the saloon crowd, with him playing Neptune “in an airy costume of fish-scales”. A star of the South African music hall had played the queen, he wrote, with a flow of risqué gags that had their audience in stitches.

“Just as we crossed the Line, the ship was hailed from the sea, her name and destination were ascertained, and she was peremptorily ordered to heave to, Neptune naturally imagining that he was still dealing with sailing ships. The engines were at once stopped, and Neptune, with his Queen, his Doctor, his Barber, his Sea Bears and the rest of his Court, all in their traditional get-up, made their appearance on the upper deck, to the abject terror of some of the little children, who howled dismally.

“The proceedings were terminated by Neptune and his entire Court following the neophytes into the tank, and I am afraid that we induced some half-dozen male spectators to accompany us into the tank rather against their will, one old German absolutely fuming with rage at the unprecedented liberty that was being taken with him.”

Read on: Below decks: RMS Nile, 1911
Previously: Rolling down to Rio

From: Here, There and Everywhere by Lord Frederic Hamilton

A sailor’s life – 8. Rolling down to Rio: RMS Nile, 1911

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RMS Nile leaving Southampton, postcard sent 1911

RMS Nile leaving Southampton, postcard sent 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.

St Vincent, Cape Verde - view of harbour and Bertie's 'X' where RMS Nile lay, 1911

St Vincent, Cape Verde - view of harbour and Bertie's 'X' where RMS Nile lay, 1911

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.

Read on: A sailor’s life – 9. Crossing the Line

A sailor’s life – 7. Cabin boy: RMS Oruba 1910

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RMS Oruba, September 1910, postcard

RMS Oruba, September 1910, postcard

One black-and-white postcard survives of Bertie Sivell’s first voyage in 1910, evidently sent ashore with the pilot in Southampton. It is a picture of the Royal Mail steam packet Oruba. “Enjoying myself so far. Plenty of animals aboard – but no tips,” reads the pencil scrawl.

Oruba was not one of the Royal Mail’s grand modern liners. Oruba was an old single-screw steamer built to carry masts and sails. On Bertie’s first trip she brought back 250 tons of frozen meat from Venezuela as part of a ten-week trial. She had none of the rakish looks of the new ships, but she was popular with passengers and carried 646 in three classes of accommodation over two decks, with baggage, children and servants “in proportion”, according to the RMSP official guide.

And they did not travel light, these early tourists. Lady Helen Boyle, Countess of Shannon, who notwithstanding the best efforts of the ship’s doctor died at sea aged forty that spring and was “buried with due ceremony” at sea off Lexicoes, Portugal, had so much baggage that the inventory took up two pages of the ship’s log. There was gold and diamond jewelry, a monogrammed cigarette case, and toiletries in tortoise shell, ivory and silver, all terribly Agatha Christie. There was a leather trunk, several crocodile-skin suitcases, a writing case and a hat box, with hats. Her footwear alone took up half a page, and she had small change from Mexico, Malacca and Ceylon.

The Spanish emigrant who died in his third class bunk below decks the same trip left two gold coins knotted in a hanky. Of him the captain recorded only that he was committed to the deep “with the usual rites of the Church of England”.

Postcard view of St Thomas, WI, marked with 'X' where boy's ship anchored, 1910

Postcard view of St Thomas, WI, marked with 'X' where boy's ship anchored, 1910

As well as her 646 passengers, Oruba carried 169 crew, including an army of pastry and vegetable cooks (“English and foreign”) producing four meals a day “on the most liberal scale,” the guide book said. Besides the stokers, seamen and electricians driving the ship, there were waiters (ordinary 1st, 2nd and 3rd class, and French), stewards and stewardesses, bandsmen, barmen, a barber and, as the ship pounded across the sparkling seas between the islands, a Marconi operator to send telegrams. Even the master and mates had their own personal servants.

Bert’s job in the bustle of this big floating hotel was to run messages, carry the drink “chits” from the deck chairs to the barman, and walk the lap dogs – and any other pets acquired during the voyage.

In each port of call little “bumboats” swarmed around, selling fruit and curios, including livestock. There was no quarantine, no worry about endangered species, and precious little concern for animal welfare. The Rev. Charles Kingsley (he of The Water-Babies) wrote of an alligator which the doctor on one steam packet housed in a tub in his cabin, and a tarantula that the chief engineer kept in an iron box. One night someone’s kinkajou escaped, to the consternation of a stewardess who mistook it for a cat and tried to stroke it. Most homeward passages featured wild parrots and monkeys being brought back as gifts. Some of the unfortunate creatures survived, but the more exotic ones usually died en route, either from starvation — like the anteater Kingsley describes brought from Panama without a supply of ants — or sheer cold, once their ship turned north beyond Tenerife.

The mail packets were more like a bus service than a cruise ship. They called at many places, but did not stop longer than it took to land the post bags and passengers and take on coal and fresh food and more mail and new passengers. Often enough they only dropped anchor in the bay. On 12s a month Bertie could not afford the price of the launch to the quay, but the hours in port were the crew’s busiest anyway and working men did not expect to go sightseeing. Besides what he could spy of the towns with a glass, Bert will have seen what was visible from the ship’s railing: the dark skinned boatmen who ferried out the coal, the laughing girls and women with their gay souvenirs, and the little boys who dived for silver thrown from the ship. It was a world away from small town Ryde and organ recitals at St James’s church.

It was December and freezing when Bert returned to England that first year, but he had seen Barbados lush and green, and Port of Spain, Trinidad, emerging from the mangrove swamps along the coast; he had sniffed craggy Jamaica “spice-scented in the hot black velvet night” and seen the water change from the blue seas of the Windward Isles to the foul bottle green of mainland South America, with the mighty Cordilleras in the distance. He had been to Colon and Havana, and glimpsed the Statue of Liberty in New York harbour through a heaving thicket of funnels and spars, and he still had £1 5s 8d jingling in his pocket.

Four days after arriving back in Southampton, Bertie Sivell was off out to sea again. He did not stay for Christmas.

Read on: A sailor’s life – 8. Rolling down to Rio: RMS Nile, 1911

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