Was It All Cricket?
Chapter 15 — To the Far East
To the Far East
Now came the time to say good-bye to London. My trunk did not take long to pack, and I was ready to proceed to Cardiff to join the Claverhill. Sailors will know that when a man goes to sea he takes the minimum amount of clothing. When he leaves his ship he has accumulated so much that he wonders whether it is all worth taking home. “Join a ship with a handbag, and leave it with a sea-bag,” is a saying at sea. Men, at any rate, are not much good at any time, but when at sea, especially visiting foreign ports, they have this and that palmed off on to them to a degree that is sometimes incredible.
I arrived at the Welsh capital in the late afternoon and, searching for my ship, my spirits went up and down as first I approached an attractive-looking vessel, then came to a real old tub. Which would it be? At last, after about half a dozen, my porter called, “There she is!” Yes, there was the Claverhill. My spirits went down to zero. Travelling as a passenger on steamers trading between Australia and New Zealand, the trip on the Peregrine to Queensland, and the voyage home on the Rimutaka had made me acquainted with modern passenger liners. Here was the good old British tramp. I steeled myself as I climbed the gangway, for I had the feeling that her accommodation would be in keeping with her outward appearance; I was not mistaken. She was just like thousands of others that sail the seas of the world, winning and holding trade that has made Britain the world's greatest maritime nation. I was later to learn, not without pride, the respect that is shown to the Union Jack in far-distant lands—even if flown from the masthead of a plain-looking and plainly-furnished cargo steamer.
The first man I met on board was the Chief Engineer, who was walking the deck awaiting my arrival, the owners having wired him the train by which I was to arrive. I received a pleasant reception from this sturdy Scot from Ardrossan. William McGill was his name, and of all the men I was at sea with, there was not one I came to hold in higher esteem.page 194
This was a lovely summer's evening and after dinner I went for a walk ashore with one of my new shipmates. I got a great thrill when we came across the famous Cutty Sark. She had come down in the world since her racing days, and was now owned by a Portuguese company and traded on the short run across the Bay of Biscay. It was rather pathetic to see this once world-renowned ship, bereft of her smart appearance of the good old days, and ranking as just a common cargo carrier. Oh for the days of tea and wool cargoes which left her so much more buoyant and able to make a fool of steamers when she was favoured with a fair wind! A little farther along the wharf we saw women stevedores loading a cargo of produce into a small coastal boat. I could hardly believe my eyes. The following day the watches were set, and this enabled me to go ashore for a few hours, for we were sailing that night, and it would be my only chance of seeing Cardiff.
At 9 p.m. we moved out into the Bristol Channel and were soon under way. The Fourth Engineer always takes the Chief's watch, which is from 8 to 12. As it was my first time in sole charge, the Chief stayed down with me for most of the time. One did not have long to wait to feel her lifting to the swell of the Atlantic, which was enough to test my sea-legs, and I just escaped the seasickness stage. It took us two days to cross the Bay of Biscay. Our first glimpse of Spain was Cape Finisterre and we were soon appreciating a warmer atmosphere and calmer seas. In two days' time we rounded Cape St. Vincent and headed for the Straits of Gibraltar.
I was keenly interested in being shown the scene of the Battle of Trafalgar. Mr. McGill, our Chief, loved hearing the story my father had told us at the fireside when I was a small boy. It was of a Scot who was in one of those slogging matches, with British and French ships close together, firing at point-blank range. With rifle in hand, crouching behind what turned out to be a barrel of salted butter, he was picking off his victims on the French frigate. Suddenly, one of the old-fashioned cannon balls fired from the French ship struck the barrel, covering the man from the Clyde with its contents. Immediately he was heard calling excitedly, “Fecht on boys! Fecht on, for it's naethin' but bootter they're firin'!”
Another day's run brought us abreast of Gibraltar—the Rock of Gibraltar—one of the outstanding places on the map, page 195 so far as a Britisher is concerned. On the starboard side was the coast of Northern Africa. The straits were narrower than I had expected and the opposite point near enough to suggest that, fortified, it would make for neutralizing the absolute control Gibraltar has always had over this narrow waterway. Soon we were in the Mediterranean, plugging along at our steady eight knots, the usual speed of tramp steamers in those days, i.e. less than two hundred miles per day. Six days from Cardiff to Gibraltar will show that we were not passing any ships on the run, except those going the other way! Several liners overhauled us, for we were now on the beaten track of all ships that trade to the Far East and to Australia, as well as those making for Italy, Greece and Turkey.
The Mediterranean lived up to its reputation as the bluest and calmest of all the seas. Not that it cannot be rough, but the smallness of the rise and fall of the tides, the limited depth and the locked-in nature of the sea, make it practically a huge lake. We had now been more than a week at sea, and long enough for me to gain a knowledge of the ship and the crew that manned her. The Claverhill, rated a good ship in her class of those days, was owned by the Hazelhurst Company of London, and one of a fleet of about six vessels, known as the Claver Line, all trading to the East. We were loaded with briquettes made from the slack of Welsh coal. It did not seem a very profitable cargo to carry so far, but tramp steamers do not get much of a look-in with the freighting of merchandise, which is so much better catered for by the regular services of the great P. & O., Orient and B.I. Companies. It is on the homeward journeys that the outsiders get a share of the seasonal cargoes that are always in excess of the carrying capacity of the liner companies' ships.
The old Claverhill, with engines that turned about eighty revolutions a minute, was typical of the ships designed to run at a minimum cost, with regard to coal consumption, and with the smallest number for a crew. I was impressed by the cosmopolitan nature of ours; Captain Urquart was from Glasgow, the First Mate from Liverpool, the Second from London, while the Chief Engineer was a Scot, the Second a Geordie from South Shields, the Third a real Cockney, and the Fourth a New Zealander; the Steward was a German, and our Cook hailed from Liverpool. Here were representatives from many page 196 parts. But what of the firemen? Two from London, two from Glasgow, one from Norway, and one from Germany. I was to learn later that our Chief selected his firemen in this way, for he wanted rivalry in the stokehold! Trade Unionism has since won many advantages for the men below and, in the process, has eliminated this competition between the men who handle the shovel, rake and slice on the ships that sail the oceans. The swing of the pendulum has now gone the other way, but nowadays there are not the hard steaming jobs there were then and, generally speaking, the firemen can easily give all the steam that is asked of them. But what of the pay? I received £8 a month as Fourth Engineer, and was able to save money! All other wages were proportionate, so it will be seen that she was a cheaply-run ship. But there was no discontent. We knew there were foreign ships competing with us, such as Norwegian, Swedish, German and Dutch, in fact, ships of all nations, and there is little doubt that this was the reason for the low scale of wages that prevailed. We engineers were a happy crowd; the Chief was full of subtle humour, the Second was a religious man and read his Bible every day, but the Third was the exact opposite and in any home would be the bad boy of the family. He had no ambition to get on and was quite content to be a Third Engineer all his life. He was full of fun, and had all the ways of the Cockney.
We soon settled down to the prosaic life experienced on a tramp steamer when at sea. One quickly gets to know a man's character when one lives with him, and we moved east with every confidence in a happy voyage. The warmth of the midsummer sun, and the calmness of the sea, made life pleasant indeed, although I had already found out the difference between a liner and a tramp steamer. On the former, the engineers have greasers on watch with them. The Americans call them oilers, which is a more appropriate name, for their duty is to oil the engines every hour and keep feeling by hand this and that bearing to make sure it is not getting hot. On a tramp steamer, the engineer on watch has to do all this himself and has also to look after the firemen in the stokehold. It was no white-collar job, this, and at the end of the watch the “Englishman's tub” in the engine-room could be compared with the shower bath at Melbourne, which, after hard cricket practice at the nets, was, perhaps, the most enjoyable part.page 197
The people of England and New Zealand speak of distances in hundreds of miles, but when it comes to traversing oceans or sailing alongside a continent it is a case of thousands. From Gibraltar to Suez is two thousand miles, and the run along the north coast of Africa reminded me of the trip up the coast of Australia on the Peregrine, just a year before. The only difference was that this time there were no ports of call. We had steamed nearly a thousand miles before temporarily losing sight of the African coast on the starboard bow, only to pick up Sicily on the port side and were next passing Malta. So this was Malta! Another of the places that demonstrate the foresight of our ancestors. It does not impress one as does the giant rocky face of Gibraltar, but nevertheless wins a proud place in the hearts of all Britishers. It is almost as vital as the Rock, and stands as a lonely sentinel in the middle of this great calm sea.
In those days there were no refrigerators on ships of the type of the Claverhill. Having long since finished off the stocks of fresh meat, green vegetables, milk, etc., we were down to far less palatable food; meat out of the brine tub, tinned milk, a few vegetables that would keep well and dried fruits, with plenty of rice for puddings. Generally speaking, we were back to the standard of a second-rate boarding house. At first my appetite rebelled, and I began to eat very little, but soon became so hungry that it mattered little whether it was brined or pickled meat, rice or dried fruits. It is amazing what one can get used to.
The weather became warmer as we approached the eastern end of the Mediterranean, and naturally the men below began to feel the heat before anyone else. I was all agog to see our approach to Port Said and, rising in the early morning, came on deck to see a light ahead. Soon we were abreast of the lighthouse on the headland at the Damietta mouth, one of the many outlets that carry the waters of the Nile to the Mediter-ranean. Another light hove in sight; it was the entrance to Port Said. Dawn came and the sun was up by the time we entered this busy port.
Of the first things that catch the eye one of the first is the splendid statue of De Lesseps, the great French engineer who built the Canal, and in doing so became world famous. Port Said, the greatest of all coaling stations, needs little description. page 198 It was an interesting sight to see so many ships bunkering. The great liners get preference, but it was not long before barges laden with coal were alongside the Claverhill. Soon the gangways were fixed from these lighters to our deck, and streams of natives began carrying up the baskets of coal, dumping the contents into the bunkers. At this time it was and, I suppose, still is the most efficient bunkering system in the world. It is a human chain that moves up as the natives trot to empty their baskets and return to the coal barges. Black faces and black bodies soon became blacker and shinier as the coal-dust adhered to their sweating skins. They chatted and chanted as they worked, until the whole ship was buzzing like a bee-hive.
But the “coalies” were not the only natives who climbed to our deck, for, as soon as the ship was passed by the Port doctor, there arrived numbers of pedlars, selling all sorts of articles, such as cigarettes, scent, lace, etc. Sometimes an Arab of doubtful-looking character would exhibit postcards, at first showing beautiful illustrations of Cairo and all its ancient surroundings, then, if he thought it was safe, would produce some of the most obscene pictures one could possibly imagine. With no passengers on our ship, we did not prove a good investment for these sellers of wares who seemed to love being called by nicknames. There was a Jock, a Sandy, a Mac, and Paddy, and so on. The first-named seemed to be the chief of the tribe; he wore a bit of tartan in an effort to live up to his name, and could talk and laugh in a way that made him a real entertainer. He had numerous articles made mainly of wood, which he insisted were made from a piece of the “True Cross.” This greatly amused us. After doing their rounds, this motley crew went down the gangway, boarded their bum-boat, and pulled away to another ship to repeat the performance.
We finished bunkering in the late afternoon, and our ship was covered in coal-dust, far worse than the Rimutaka had been at Montevideo a few months earlier, but she was soon hosed down. I was surprised to see searchlights being installed on our bow. It was explained that the traffic in the canal is unceasing, and at night the ships steam along with headlights focusing ahead. Our speed was necessarily slow to avoid a sidewash that would damage the walls of this wonderful page 199 waterway. At times we would stop and pull to one side to allow a ship to pass. In this way we went on throughout the night, keeping our watches as we did at sea. In the early morning we passed Ismailia, on the shore of the first of the lakes through which the canal passes. We steamed faster across this lake, but slowed up as the waterway narrowed again. By now the sun was shining, and it was a real thrill to see the Arabs in their flowing robes and to watch camels on the shore walking along in their own peculiar gait; it was all very fascinating. The country on either side was nothing but sand, sand…. The downright scepticism of our Cockney Third Engineer may be gathered from his caustic remark, “There's your land flowing with milk and honey!”
Had I been possessed of more Biblical knowledge I should have been able to piece together some of the stories of the Scriptures. Despite my early training, the one about Moses leading the Tribes of Israel out of Egypt was the only one I could remember, and was soon to be reminded of this epoch-making event. It was not long before we were steaming full speed across the Great Bitter Lakes. Another short length of canal and we emerged into the head of the Gulf of Suez, with Suez itself on the starboard side. The distance through the canal is ninety-eight miles, and it had taken us a whole day. We did not take long to drop the pilot and were soon speeding—if you could call eight knots speeding—for the Red Sea proper. As we steamed along, our incorrigible Third said, “That's where they rowed across.” He obviously did not believe the story of the miracle that resulted in the parting of the waters. Our religious Second quickly corrected him, and pointed out that originally the Red Sea extended beyond the Bitter Lakes, and that the crossing took place somewhere about Ismailia. Producing his Bible, with a map showing the route of the trek from out of the Valley of the Nile, he explained how the fleeing Israelites turned south to assemble at Mt. Sinai and from there marched round the northern end of the Gulf of Akaba into Arabia. I did not expect to find such Biblical knowledge in the engine-room of a tramp steamer.
By this time I knew intimately my fellow officers. The mess-room talk was often exhilarating and instructive, as may be gathered from this story of Moses. There were stories, of course, some clever and subtle, with the Third's always risqué. page 200 Mr. McGill, our Chief, was a sterling man, full of humour, but he always kept his team within bounds. I can still recall many of his humorous sayings: “There's only a week's difference between a good hair cut and a bad one!” On watch, in the tropics, I always wore a grey flannel shirt, but no singlet. One steaming hot day in the engine-room, when walking past me, he gave my shirt a little tug above the top of the trousers, and said, “Nothing gets a man's shirt out quicker than that.” Another of McGill's stories amused us. In the rows of tenement houses in Scotland, some occupants did not have enough money to buy all the utensils necessary for housekeeping. The result was that in one house they would own a broom, a scrubbing-brush and a pair of bellows; in another, say, a frying-pan, a bucket, a blue-bag or cloth, and a big pot. McGill told of a child who, sent next door to borrow the bellows, said to the neighbour, “If ye gie ma mither a blaw o' the bellows, she'll gie ye a squeeze o' the blue cloot!” If anyone was in pensive or serious mood, the Chief would say, “What are you laughing at?”
We were now finding it increasingly trying as we steamed south, each day getting hotter. I had felt the heat of Melbourne on those excessively hot days when the north wind from off the continent proved so oppressive. Sydney, while not registering such a high temperature, was even harder to bear, but the Red Sea, either on deck or in one's cabin, let alone down in the engine-room, was something hotter than I had ever experienced. Fortunately, the sea was as calm as a millpond, so that as evening came round conditions were more pleasant. It took us more than a week to pass through the Red Sea, for it is 1,400 miles from Suez to Aden, and our firemen found the temperature in the stokehold so overbearing that there was often not a full head of steam. We were all looking forward to getting into the Indian Ocean, for the Red Sea narrowed again as we approached and passed Perim, where it was hotter than ever. Steaming into the Gulf of Aden, we at once got relief, but it was not the relief for which we had been looking. We were rid of the heat, but the glass had fallen and the weather looked ominous. The Chief said that it was lower than he had seen it for a long time. “Monsoon!” said the Captain.
When abreast of the Island of Socotra, all on board knew page 201 what we were in for. From the glorious blue of the Mediterranean, here was the grey-green of the Indian Ocean when the sky is overcast. Each wave looked more ugly than its predecessor as it tossed our bow into the air, running past us, only to be followed by seas more menacing. The crash of foaming water over the bows, as our heavily loaded ship plunged into the trough of the sea and failed to clear the crest of the next wave, was at first a frightening experience. Everything was battened down, for it was so rough we could not move about on deck. There was some anxiety as the sailors and firemen walked backwards and forwards to their quarters in the fo'c'sle. A rope was stretched from the deck-houses amidships, to give the crew something to hold on to.
Fifteen hundred miles of this, from Socotra to Colombo, were not pleasant to anticipate. I hung on like grim death as I gripped the polished hand-rails and climbed round those engines on my watch. I sometimes had to pinch myself to make quite sure I was the same young man who had so recently played at Lord's with W. G. Grace. I wonder what the “Old Man” would have said could he have seen me. Had Murdoch been with him, they would just have looked at one another and roared with laughter. But I was not laughing, for I had to keep my watch, seasick or not. I was missing half my meals; even those our Steward brought to my cabin I could not always eat. My loss of weight in the heat of the Red Sea and of appetite in the Indian Ocean was making me feel miserable. My weight was always a little under twelve stone, but by now I must have been well under eleven.
I have already referred to a “father of a hiding”—well, we got one this time. Instead of reaching Colombo in a little under a week from the Gulf of Aden, we took a fortnight! I don't wish to experience a monsoon again. The sea gradually subsided during the last two days and, as we passed well to the south of the most southerly point of India, was fairly moderate. Long before we came in sight of land we saw catamarans, those quaint Indian craft that have the equivalent of a canoe as an out-rigger braced to one side. When the outrigger is on the weather side, a man goes out and sits there to prevent the craft heeling over, and with a stronger wind another man joins him. This is the origin of the Indians' saying of a “one-man breeze” or a “two-man breeze.” These page 202 catamarans were skilfully handled, but we marvelled at their being so far out.
As we approached the entrance to Colombo harbour, we could see the heavy swell dashing against the breakwater, throwing up tremendous clouds of spray. We did not stay long at this, the principal port of Ceylon, and passing round Point Galle were soon out into the Sea of Bengal. By the following morning we were bowling along over the calmest of seas. Looking at the map, one would imagine that it is just a short hop from Colombo to Sumatra, yet the distance is a thousand miles. In this hot, calm weather we envied the deck officers in their white duck uniforms while we were sweltering below. As we approached Sumatra at sunset, there was a thick haze over the sea. It was not sufficient to slow us down, as does a fog, but was nevertheless not very helpful for picking up land. At about eleven o'clock that night I received one of the shocks of my life when the telegraph rang violently “Full Speed Astern.” It is always the Second's duty to take a steamer in and out of port. Usually, the junior engineer stands by the telegraph and answers back the rings that come from the bridge. At both Cardiff and Port Said I had been given some practice in reversing the engines from “Slow Ahead” to “Slow Astern” as we were warming the cylinders preparatory to sailing, so despite the suddenness of this ring and my lack of experience I remembered to open the drain cocks of the little reversing engine, and had the main engines running on the astern motion when Mr. McGill, hurrying down in his pyjamas, called out, “We've run ashore!” Until the Second arrived the Chief took the reversing engine and I stood by the telegraph. Next it rang “Stop,” then “Slow Astern,” “Half Astern” and “Full Astern” in quick succession, then “Stop” again, and there were no further rings for some time. At last the Chief went up and conferred with the Captain. The Second then went through the same performance, but even at “Full Astern” she would not budge. Luckily we had run on to a soft, muddy shore at the northernmost point of Sumatra; we were equally fortunate in having grounded on a rising tide. It was decided to wait an hour or so, and try again.
The Chief stayed down below, but sent me up on deck occasionally to see how they were getting on. It was always the same story; heaving the lead and taking soundings. At last page 203 Captain Urquart sent for Mr. McGill and, after a consultation, it was decided to get up plenty of steam in order to obtain the maximum kick out of the engines. This time we succeeded, and gradually she pulled away. What a relief to all on board! There was no perceptible bump as the ship ran on to this gently sloping mud-bank, although one could tell, when it was pointed out by the Chief, that the smooth running of the engines had been converted into a hard, tugging motion caused by the propeller being called upon to drive a stationary ship. It was dark when we slid off, but as dawn was near we soon saw the outline of the shore. Not wishing to risk further mishap, the Captain laid a course that took us well clear by daylight. I had a few hours' sleep before going on watch again. It was an exciting experience, but one that was fraught with possible danger. The telegraph's terrifying clang in the middle of the night remains one of my most vivid recollections.
A glorious morning followed and when steaming down the Malacca Straits one realized the fascination of the tropics. Across the Indian Ocean, while the monsoon raged, the clouds overhead had given the sea an ugly greenness. Across the Bay of Bengal and in the Straits, the cloudless sky was reflected in a sea that, while not such a deep blue as the Mediterranean, was, nevertheless, beautiful.
All my shipmates had been out East before, and they were ever ready to point out this and that place of interest. It was the Chief, however, who proved my most valued mentor. Right from the first he had shown a kindly interest in me. He liked asking me questions about New Zealand and Australia, to which parts he had never been. The earliest years of his seafaring career had been on steamers trading between Glasgow and Canada, and he made us laugh when he told of how he came to get married. While still a young engineer, he found that on arrival at their home port of Glasgow all his shipmates used to go to their respective homes, so thought that he, too, had better get a wife. He was soon to transfer to tramp steamers trading East on voyages that often took twelve months. At the time I speak of, he was the father of five children. In his inimitable way, he told us that when he returned home he would think, on finding an extra youngster at the table, that it was a young friend who had been invited in to a meal, page 204 only to learn that another little McGill had arrived! He was always seeking information about the Antipodes and his enthusiasm for the Empire fired me to see as much of it as I could.
We were shortly abreast of Penang, an important British outpost, but too far away to see more than its outline on the horizon. Our thoughts at this time were of Singapore, where we were to bunker for the last time before making our final run up to Hong Kong. On the days following our grounding, the Captain and Chief Engineer were often in serious conversation. We learnt that they were discussing the question of the advisability of calling at Singapore, and wondering at the same time whether we could make Hong Kong on the remaining bunkers. Having touched bottom the Captain would have had to report to the authorities at once, and this might mean discharging our cargo and going into dry dock. It is not hard to see that this was a serious position. As we had another two days' steaming before reaching Singapore there was no hurry for a decision to be made. Next afternoon the Chief took me with him into the bunkers and we carefully measured how much coal was left. I had not previously seen the weight of coal calculated by its cubic measurement. Finally, the Chief advised the Captain that he was prepared to give it a go, much to the relief of the “Old Man.” To me it was a disappointment, for I had set my heart on seeing Singapore.
It was daylight when we passed, and even these few hours in which we were in the vicinity were sufficient for me to gain some idea of its importance as a shipping port. Many more ships were now seen, for Singapore, the nerve centre of the East, is a half-way house to China and Japan, and a centre of trading for the whole of the Malay peninsula, as well as Java and other islands of the Dutch East Indies. The forceful competition of the Dutch of a hundred years ago and more, as told in The Surgeon's Log, is instructive to anyone interested in Britain's acquisition of her widely separated Colonies and Dominions.
We were now heading due north for the China Sea. Earlier, I have told how, in the race on the Australian coast, Chief Engineer McPherson had “opened out” his engines, but here we had another canny Scot reversing the process and “shutting in.” Opening out marine engines, while increasing speed, page 205 means eating up coal, but shutting in makes more use of the expansion of the steam in the cylinders and, in turn, saves fuel. The smoke from a ship's funnel is indicative whether the men on watch are experts or not. We had a good team in the stokehold, and the Chief was confident we would win through. There is no doubt that our cargo being coal briquettes must have influenced the Captain and our Chief in taking this risk, for broaching the cargo would prove less costly than discharging and docking at Singapore.
This final part of our journey must have caused our Captain and Chief Engineer no little anxiety. I will ever remember the care that was taken. The firemen nursed their fires, and very little superintending was required. The Chief watched the bunkers so that nothing was left to chance. On the bridge, the Captain watched the barometer; to have struck rough weather would have been disastrous. The monsoon in the Indian Ocean was bad enough, but a typhoon, the most devastating of all cyclonic storms, would have found us struggling to make the nearest port. Although the glass did begin to fall, the weather remained fine, and the sea calm.
Lagging behind all other traffic on the route, we kept plugging away to cross the Gulf of Siam and steam along off the coast of French Indio-China, about half-way on this run north. Checking up on the coal position, the Chief told us we should just make it if the weather held. At last, to the great joy of all, it was announced that we would be at Hong Kong in the morning. I was up at daylight to witness our entry into the harbour of this great British possession. Here was the real East! The peculiar smell in the air as we approached our anchorage was something that can be experienced only in ports of the Far East.
Thus ended the excitement of our great run of 1,600 miles since passing Singapore. Instead of eight days, it had taken ten. It was a great co-operative effort, with most of the honours going to the firemen. I have an idea that the Captain or the Chief gave them more than a pat on the back, for there was merriment and song in the fo'c'sle that night.
They were a grand lot, these rugged men, some of them as rough as bags, but all made of the right stuff for a crisis. When leaving port there would often be several so drunk they could not do their firing. The engineer on the first watch at page 206 sea naturally gets the worst of it, but a few hours' sleep soon puts the intoxicated firemen on their feet again. In my first experience of this sort I was fortunate in having my good Chief with me. He was a short, sturdy man and had a square jaw that betokened real determination. The men knew he meant what he said. If he could not lead them, he had the power and personality to drive them. I did not see a fireman attempt to defy him. On occasions like these, it is sometimes necessary for the engineer on watch to take hold of the shovel himself to get some coal into the furnaces.
It will thus be appreciated that an engineer's life on a tramp steamer is not merely a matter of walking the engine-room floor during his four-hour watches, especially when it is added that in fine weather the Third and Fourth have to work an extra two hours each day, overhauling the winches on deck.
We were now anchored in the harbour, and the sampans swarmed around us. Lighters came alongside, and as soon as the gangways and rope ladders were put over the side there was a wild scramble aboard. I naturally wondered what all this haste was about. The reason was soon evident. It was like the race for position that I had seen in Geraldton, Australia, when the Chinaman wanted to get his bananas loaded first. In Hong Kong it was also first come, first served. Working down in the hold is no joke in the tropics, hence the race for deck positions.
Chutes were hauled on board to enable the briquettes to be pushed along from man to man. They all showed a first preference for a position between the hatch-combing and the ship's side. The beaming smile of the Chinaman who won one of these positions recorded his satisfaction as he flopped down an old Panama hat to mark his place. It was amusing to hear them chattering in their own tongue, when, in these moments before unloading began, the winners of deck positions appeared to be chuckling over their good fortune. As with the coal bunkering at Port Said, so this hand-to-hand discharging was the human chain over again, with an efficiency that often compared favourably with mechanical appliances.
It was great fun to watch the sampans alongside. The father would be working on our ship with mother and family in their house-boat below, going about their work without the slightest concern for anyone. They cooked the meal on deck—it was page 207 always rice; they washed clothes and hung them on the line; they sometimes sewed and sometimes mended. The families were of all ages down to the baby in arms—there was always a baby in arms!
On the second day the Third and I went ashore for the day. We took one of the passenger sampans that were always waiting alongside. At that time, out of a population of 400,000 there were only about 15,000 white people. Hong Kong is a very much bigger city to-day.
It was interesting to watch the Chinese at different classes of work. I had been used to seeing only Chinese market gardeners and fruiterers in my own country, and was inclined to judge them accordingly. Here we saw the tradesman of China who is very deft with tools, and we stood for some time watching carpenters at work. On the foreshore we watched a shipwright rip-sawing a beam. One end was on the ground and the other on a trestle; he was using a saw very like the saws used by bushmen in New Zealand when cross-cutting a log. We noticed that the Chinaman made the saw cut on the up-stroke. On a downward cut the saw must be of sufficient thickness not to buckle, whereas, on a pull stroke, the thinnest of saws could be used, and less physical effort required. This may be the Chinaman's reason for using a draw-saw with the teeth the opposite way to ours, or it may be just a thousand-year-old custom.
We were about a week in discharging, but before completing were to learn how wise the Captain and Chief Engineer had been in steaming on past Singapore, for the Claverhill was ordered into dock for survey! Our Captain may have been vexed about the delay, but the junior officers were not perturbed at the expense to the owners, with the prospect of an extra week at Hong Kong! When the dock was pumped dry, sure enough there was the evidence of our having been ashore; a bad dent on the bottom of the starboard side of the bow. We had made very little water since backing off the shore at Sumatra, and could easily have withstood the trip back to England, but the surveyors insisted on a number of plates being taken off and the frames put back into their original shape.
Now we were to see the Chinaman in the workshop. Although the work was supervised by Britishers, mostly Scots, the Chinaman was the blacksmith, the boiler-maker, the ship-wright page 208 and the engineer-fitter. It was something of an eye-opener to me. I saw a young left-handed Chinese fitter fasten a piece of steel plate in the vice and cut off its edge a steel shaving the full length of the plate. It was the best piece of hammer and chisel work I had ever seen.
As the days in port, when discharging, had enabled the engines to be gone over in readiness for the homeward voyage, the Chief was generous in allowing us to take turn about in having an afternoon and sometimes a day off. One now had time to see the city in a more leisurely way than the rush ashore of the tourists, who race here, there and everywhere. I took much interest in studying the people.
The merchant and the lady of position looked picturesque in their ornamental dress, and the sedan chair seemed to lift them, socially, above the rickshaw passengers and the pedestrians. When I saw the Chinaman of the higher classes, I could not believe he was of the same people as the laundry-man and market gardener whom I had seen in Australia and New Zealand. The Chinaman we see in our country is always an under-sized person, the reason being that practically all have migrated from the Canton area. The continuously oppressive heat in this low-lying part of China stunts the growth of the people, as it does in many parts of India; this does not mean that a well-fed Cantonese cannot be a sturdy little chap. In Hong Kong I saw some fine, big men and was told they came from the highlands of North China, where the extremes of heat and cold toughen the fibre. It is interesting to note that Frenchmen of Canada are bigger men than the Frenchmen of France. In Scotland, the Highlander is a bigger man than the Lowlander!
There is a story told of King George V, then Duke of York, when he visited New Zealand in 1901, which will illustrate the effect an imposing figure has upon the rank and file of a native race. Our late beloved King was a man below the average height. He visited Rotorua accompanied by Mr. Richard J. Seddon, Premier of New Zealand, and received a great Maori welcome. As the King and Mr. Seddon, a huge man, walked among the Maoris, one old veteran of the Maori wars was heard to say, “Awe, he no the fella for the King— kapai Dick Seddon, he the fella for the King!”
The first time I had the whole day off, I went for a trip to page 209 the mountain-top, known as “The Peak,” the summit of which is reached by cable-cars, somewhat similar to those that operate up the hills to the suburbs of Dunedin in New Zealand, although the wire rope arrangement is not the same. A Rack railway it was called due, I think, to the special safety brakes that could grip the track and prevent a serious accident in the event of the rope breaking.
From the highest point of “The Peak” one gets a magnificent panoramic view. Looking east, the view is out over the China Sea, with always a ship in sight. To the west and north-west one looks upon the China that claims the oldest civilization in the world—the China with her teeming millions. The view looking down on Hong Kong, with its harbour sheltered by a dozen or more islands, was inconceivably beautiful. Lantao, the most western island, is bigger than Hong Kong itself, and stands like a sentinel at the mouth of the great estuary into which the Canton River flows. To the north lies the mainland portion of the British concession, with Kowloon its chief city, although it is always spoken of as part of the Colony of Hong Kong. I should like to have gone as far as Canton, a hundred miles up river, but this would have meant a day each way by steamer and, apart from having already been treated so generously about leave during our long stay in port, I had to remember my pay was that of a Fourth Engineer. The view from “The Peak” I have never forgotten.
One Saturday afternoon I took a rickshaw and was pulled out to Happy Valley, where I saw a cricket match. The teams were from the Army and Navy, and young men from the offices of banks and merchant houses. I watched the game for some time, saw some fairly good cricket with plenty of evidence of English public school coaching, then “drove” off to see more of the country.
One evening my Chief took me to dinner at the Hong Kong hotel; needless to say, it was like living for a moment in luxury. It was a very hot night, and afterwards we sat and smoked on the balcony; I had just begun to smoke and, considering I was then twenty-four years of age, it may be said I was of abstemious habits, especially when it is added that up till then I had not drunk more than “gin and ginger beer,” which was a popular drink in hot weather at the Melbourne Cricket Club's pavilion bar.page 210
At this fine old hotel in the East, I was to see, for the first time, an old-fashioned punka circulating the air in the large dining-room. It was certainly fascinating to watch a Chinese youth, who appeared to be asleep, standing in a corner, carrying out his monotonous task of pulling the cord that worked short curtains reaching from one side of the room to the other. They were spaced about eight feet apart for the full length of the ceiling. I can still picture that young Chinaman pulling the cord as one rings a church bell, so deliberately and so slowly that we could almost believe the story they told us that these boys do actually fall asleep as they stand and pull, pull, pull….
The time was now approaching for our departure, yet no word had been received of our destination. The demand for tonnage must have slackened, for masters of ships usually receive instructions on arrival at the port of discharge. Just before we came out of dock, our agents told us they thought it would be Kobe. Some were thrilled, for we wanted to go to Japan, and Kobe was right in the heart of that country. Next day the order came to proceed to Manila to load copra!
All the time in port we had been continually pressed by persistent pedlars to purchase all sorts of goods and trinkets, just as we were at Port Said. The Chinaman, however, had better wares to sell and he was much more pleasant to deal with. This man of the Orient is a born dealer, from the merchant down to the humblest occupant of the sampan. His reputation for honesty helps him tremendously in transactions with the outside world, although we struck one or two who did not live up to this standard. By way of contrast, the Japanese, and there were many of them in Hong Kong, were not trusted in the same way as the Chinese. As a matter of fact, in the Japanese Bank at Hong Kong, Chinese tellers were employed! We were told they were considered more trustworthy. I have since heard it said that the Japanese are not quick at figures, but, leaving all else aside, the Jap is not such a pleasant fellow to meet as the Chinaman. Cheeky and arrogant, he was at this time standing up to Russia and using language much the same as an American boxer uses to his opponent prior to entering the ring.
We certainly had some fun on the decks of the old Claverhill during the last hours of our stay in Hong Kong. We had swung page 211 in the harbour to test compass after docking. The Captain had gone ashore again, so the sampans hung on to the ship's side and the pedlars swarmed the decks. I was always amazed at the latitude given them, but of course everyone on board was interested. Sailors become experienced dealers and learn to do their principal buying only when the ship is about to sail. The increased energy shown by the sellers is to be compared with the efforts of an auctioneer striving to raise the bids. The babble and laughter, the “No, no's” and “Yes, Yes's” were not as amusing as the broken English of “Me no savvy,” “You likee?”, “Plenty cheap,” and “Changee for changee.” This latter phrase particularly interested me. It expressed, as perhaps no other words could, the outlook of the Chinaman towards trading. We understand buying and selling as representing money paid for goods purchased. The Chinaman will offer to exchange something for something else that he thinks of equivalent value, and he knows values better than do sailors. Some of them were looking for old clothes—they wanted coats, waistcoats or trousers—for which they would offer in exchange something attractive-looking, but of little value. Few men know values in new clothes, let alone old clothes, so one may be sure that if drawn into an exchange of this sort, it would be two for the Chinaman and one for you. But “changee for changee” extends far beyond the bartering scenes on the decks of steamers. Chinese merchants will make big deals in this way. Out in the Pacific, as far as Tahiti and Suva, one finds the Oriental trader exchanging stores for bananas, copra and all the products of the islands. Yes, “changee for changee” is illustrative of the alertness of mind and accommodating methods of this pleasant trader of the Orient.
An illustration of the Chinaman's cunning is to be found in his always addressing the Second as “Mr. No. 1 Engineer,” the Third as “Mr. No. 2,” and so on. It was the same subtle flattery that I heard referred to in Christchurch a few months earlier, when Charlie Bannerman made us laugh with the remark, “If ever you get into trouble with a policeman, always call him sergeant!”
These pedlars aboard the Claverhill persisted up to the moment of sailing. I bought a number of small things to post home to New Zealand. Strange to say, most of the fun at the page 212 finish was over canaries. Out East there is a great traffic in these birds, and several dealers were on board. Some members of every ship's crew buy songsters to sell at the next port; others want a pet or a companion. Our Second Mate, a cheery soul, had told us he had a sweetheart in Norwich, which is famous for canaries, as well as for its Cathedral and Insurance Company. One old Chinaman had a wonderful bird that sang in the sunshine, no matter how many people were about. We all urged our love-sick Mate to take this bird home to out-sing the birds of Norwich. After much hesitation he finally fell for it. But the broken old cage was not good enough for a present, so he wanted “this” bird in “that” cage. The Chinaman agreed and transferred the canary. This all sounds very simple, but our Chinaman friend was too quick for the Mate. From Hong Kong to Manila no song—from Manila to Colombo no song—in fact no more song and the Mate did not take it past Port Said. The Chinaman's old cage, tied here and there with string, was the medium that suggested to the mind of the buyer that he wanted a better cage. Of course he did not get the same bird! This was the cause of much amusement on board, and the clever sleight-of-hand trick by the Chinaman proved a standing joke, but it was not in keeping with the reputation for honest trading that I have already referred to.
Steaming away from Hong Kong on a sunny afternoon, we had a fine view of this famous island. The sight of “The Peak,” the close, then distant, view from far out on the China Sea, was something to remember.
After three and a half days' run we steamed into Manila Bay in the early morning. Only a few years before, the great naval battle of Manila, in the Spanish-American War, had taken place at this very spot. When passing through the entrance, my Chief showed me where the American battleships had stood off and shot to pieces the Spanish fleet that had taken refuge in the Bay. It was amazing to learn that in a battle that began at dawn there was not one Spanish ship afloat by noon. Many hundreds of Spaniards were killed, while the Americans, although receiving several direct hits, suffered no loss of life. Neither in ships nor crews were the Spaniards a match for the alert and efficient men of the United States.
All this information added greatly to my interest in the page 213 place, and the recent happening of these events made it all seem so much nearer than the tales told of the great battle off Cape Trafalgar. There could not, of course, be any comparison between the two events, for the one is an immortal epic of the sea, while, at Manila, it was just plain murder.
We anchored off-shore, and when the loaded lighters came alongside it was at once clear that we were to load at our anchorage and would not see as much of this city as we did of Hong Kong. A fairly wide river runs through the city and, as there were no bridges near the mouth where it enters the Bay, there was much boat traffic from one side to the other. It was astonishing to see so much life on these boats on the waterfront. It was a repetition of Hong Kong, where there appeared to be literally thousands of sampans. I had heard in Australia that in the centre of the continent one could meet children who had never seen rain, but it was still harder to believe the Hong Kong story that there were to be found old men who had spent all their lives in a sampan!
The Filipinos are a more coppery colour than the Chinese and Japanese. The Chinese are generally considered the originals of the term the Yellow Races. The men of the Philippines are small in stature—more like the Malays. They are good workers and as there were also Chinamen among them, loading the ship, our holds soon filled.
It was on the Sunday morning that we were to have our greatest excitement. On one of the large barges lying alongside the Claverhill, there gathered a crowd of Filipinos and Chinamen. They had organized a cock-fighting competition. I had often seen two roosters going at it in the fiercest combat with beaks and spurs. However, to see two trained fighting-cocks, with combs cut off, harnessed with steel spurs pointed as sharp as needles, was something different. It was a deadly-serious contest. We were told they bet heavily on these fights, and this, no doubt, accounted for the intense look on the faces of the Chinamen as the fight went on and the cocks flew violently at each other. When I saw one bird get an eye torn out and the other have him at his mercy I was nearly sick, but the coloured men didn't blink an eyelash. Fight after fight took place. An owner, awaiting his cock's turn, would keep the bird tucked under his arm, with a short rope tied to one of its legs. He would stroke away at it, and at times offer page 214 words of encouragement, but, in the main, he remained dumb. Everyone seemed to own a fighting-cock. I saw a river boat come out from Manila and all round the deck were cocks tied to the stanchions. This all seemed very foreign to me, for I had been used to British games, and there did not appear to be much sport in these contests.
In Manila I saw, for the first time, the American temporarily in charge of a Colony which, in these days, would be termed a Mandated Territory. Some of the port officers and officials were young Americans and their pleasant, droll voices were in sharp contrast to the harsh, nasal accent of some tourists I had heard in London. Although the Americans had not the experience of the British in colonization, they appeared to be very efficient in their control of the Philippines. The people were undoubtedly happier than they had been under Spanish rule. One saw a few Spaniards whose business interests had kept them in Manila, but they no longer dominated the docile Filipino.
Copra loaded in bulk looked less enticing than the kernel of the coconut that schoolboys love to eat. To see this cargo shovelled into the hold in the same way as coal is handled would have taken the edge off the appetite of any boy who looks upon eating a coconut as a treat. During loading operations we were continually pestered by swarms of flies, which were just as annoying as those experienced in Australia.
We now learned that our destination was Marseilles. While most of the crew would have preferred to be making direct for a British port, and their homes, the opportunity of seeing another foreign country appealed to me, for I was far from my homeland and bent on seeing the world.