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Was It All Cricket?

Chapter 16 — The Return Voyage

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Chapter 16
The Return Voyage

Once outside Manila Bay I was surprised to see the same catamarans we had encountered when approaching Colombo. The Filipino handled them just as dexterously as the Indians, and their speed, even in a light breeze, was surprising. We had a straight run of 1,500 miles in a south-westerly direction across the China Sea, and continued to enjoy the warm and delightful weather we had experienced for many weeks. We were now approaching the tropics and it got hotter and hotter, for Singapore is but a few degrees north of the Equator. Our cabins became so unbearable at night that some of us slung hammocks under the awning on the poop deck. I was now to learn why the old hands did not rush to sleep out on deck. At sea, in the early hours of the morning, even in the tropics, the temperature drops so quickly that it is soon too cold to be sleeping outside. In the tropics, a chill in the back can be accompanied by more serious complications than in countries with a lower temperature. This was very different from being on land in Australia, where it remains hot throughout the night.

This was my first glimpse of the part played by the islands of the Netherlands East Indies in the oil supply of the world. The British and Dutch were wise to join forces in developing and marketing the valuable oil products of these eastern islands of the two nations; the Anglo-Dutch Shell Oil Company is world-famous. We passed quite close to one island and could plainly see the oil tanks on the shore.

Passing Singapore, I looked with longing eyes on this famous place. It was bad luck our not calling either on the outward or homeward voyage. Remaining uncomfortably hot all the way through the Straits of Malacca, there was little relief, even after turning west to cross the Gulf of Bengal. This time we passed the most northern point of Sumatra in daylight and our old skipper stood for a long time with his field glasses focused on the point where we had run ashore on the outward journey.

At Colombo we had the same short stay as on the way out. One of our firemen became very ill and he was put ashore here, page 216 a hefty Greek signing on in his stead. He was a lazy devil and as he was on my watch I was soon in trouble for steam. The Indian Ocean was on its best behaviour this time, but though it had been hot on the run from Colombo, we were hardly prepared for the heat experienced after passing Aden and entering the Red Sea, when it became even more unbearable than on the outward journey. I had never experienced anything like it. Ventilators to the stokehold and to the engine-room did not help much. It was bad enough on deck, but down below the heat was suffocating, and I remember how the poor firemen struggled to keep her moving; they were all triers, except the Greek. One forenoon watch, when we had dropped down to a few knots per hour, the Chief came down, went into the stokehold and was back in a few minutes with a glint in his eye. Going to the store-room he cut off a short piece of “Tuck's” packing, which is the equivalent of garden hose, only solid, and said, “Come with me.” When we went into the stokehold there was this big fireman of Piraeus sitting in the tub under the ashcock, letting the water trickle on his head and bared shoulders. Mr. McGill, like the British Navy, believed in attack, and attack he did! With one bound he went after the lazy stoker like a schoolmaster of fifty years ago dealing with an erring boy. The Greek uttered no word, showed no sign of resistance, picked up his shovel and, quite unconcerned, went on with his work. Our Chief was nearly a foot shorter than the fireman, but he made up for this physical disparity with a stockiness of build and a fighting spirit which, when aroused, put the fear of God into an unwilling worker. I have never seen a more complete victory of mind over muscle than in this achievement of getting the Greek to do his job.

We were all worn out in this sweltering heat. It was so hot in the engine room that the hand-rails felt as if they had been heated over a fire.

When we reached Suez and dropped anchor, we were startled to see units of the Russian Navy pass out of the canal, one after the other, on their way to the Far East. There were light cruisers, destroyers and torpedo-boats—all spick and span—with their decks lined with sailors dressed in white uniforms, ready for the heat of the Red Sea we had just passed through. So the talk of war we had heard in Hong Kong was not merely comment on a threatening situation! This surely meant that page 217 Russia intended to fight. We were later to learn of the movements of the Russian battleships under Admiral Rodjesvensky when they fired on English fishing boats on the Dogger Bank, in the North Sea. The Russians must have been in a state of nervous tension if they thought the Japanese would be waiting for them in the dark off the east coast of England! Little did anyone think, at the time, that the ships we saw coming out of the Suez Canal were proceeding to their doom, for the Japanese Navy annihilated them all in their first engagement.

Our passage through the canal was a repetition of the outward journey. On arrival at Port Said there came the same rush of the occupants of the bum-boats. Again came the same story from “Jock,” when he repeated the tale about the “True Cross.” The Egyptians and Arabs are not alone in telling the “story” and producing materials or relics of the past. Many years after the renovation of the Victory, one could buy in England trinkets in oak and copper—always from the Victory! In Brussels, later, I was offered a sword dug up from the battlefield of Waterloo. It was certainly dug up, but it had been buried to be unearthed! At any rate, I bought a piece of the “True Cross” in the form of a blotting pad.

At the end of a long run such as we had just had, engineers are always busy in the engine-room, tightening this and adjusting that. The following will illustrate our Chief's dry humour, which was always in evidence. He told the Second Engineer about some work he wanted done; the Third of his job; then turned to tell me about a leaking joint on the boiler top, and said quietly, “And I'll hae a fou' o' the pipe—then we'll a' be daein' somethin'!”

After being so long away, it was but natural that the members of the crew wished to see English newspapers, and newsagents were not slow to fill the wants of homeward bound crews. Racing and football were the principal columns scanned, and it was amusing to hear a Geordie, a Scot, or a Cockney chaffing and barracking one another about this or that match when their side had won. Mainly, it was the huge headlines that arrested the attention of our Captain and Chief Engineer. “Mr. Joseph Chamberlain Advocates Change in Fiscal Policy”—then followed a verbatim report of his famous speech at Glasgow. His proposals split parties and divided families in England, but I don't suppose Chamberlain page 218 himself ever thought he would start arguments on the humble tramp steamers of Britain!

Our Chief was a thoughtful man and, although not what one would call well read, had good judgment and was sound in most of his opinions. He could talk on many subjects and understood the tariff question. He was firm in his belief that Britain had to build some sort of a fence to protect her own industries. The Second and Third Engineers did not know much about these matters, and were chiefly concerned in being able to buy cheap bread, cheap tobacco and cheap everything. Mr. McGill was pleased to learn that my views were much the same as his. I had not known much about tariffs when I first left New Zealand. In Melbourne, however, I had heard Sir George Reid in his advocacy of Free Trade, when he toured the country attempting to persuade the other States to follow New South Wales. I had seen Victoria prosper under Protection and the Federal Government adopt Victoria's policy as the policy of Australia.

I read the full report of Mr. Chamberlain's speech. There were leading articles and comments in the different papers, for the Freetraders and Protectionists fought like the cock-fighters of Manila. There could be no rail-sitting; you had to be on one side or the other. Mr. Chamberlain was most convincing, and I can remember his arguments as if it were yesterday. He started from the days of Cobden and Bright, showing how industrial supremacy in those days enabled Britain to succeed, and how Free Trade was more or less Free Trade when other countries' tariffs were but a nominal charge on imports. He traced how foreign countries' tariff walls grew higher and higher, behind which they developed their own industries and then began to shoot back at England's own open market. Not content with ordinary methods of trading, they began to dump goods in the British market. He quoted tin plate being sold cheaper than the price at which Cornwall could produce it, and how steel plates were being dealt with in the same way. He told of how razors were forged in Sheffield and sent to Germany to be ground; of ships' crank-shafts being forged in Newcastle and sent to be turned in the lathes of Germany; how Belgium competition had closed down the glass factories in the North of England, and how the French had undercut and closed English glove factories. The gem of the evening was when he told his page 219 audience that some of the small parts of one of Britain's most famous rifles were “made in Germany”! Could anything be more damning! Lastly, he disclosed that the German government was subsidizing certain industries. Is it any wonder the Kaiser arranged for a verbatim report of Mr. Chamberlain's speech to be telegraphed direct to him that night?

We argued all the way to Marseilles, with the Captain and Mates joining in the debate, and must have resembled the old-fashioned family and party divisions in the days of the Whigs and Tories. It always amazed me how, generally speaking, the working man of Britain was a Free Trader, even though it was he who first felt the shock of this new form of foreign competition and who suffered low wages and unemployment. When the British workman became converted the final decision was easily reached.

The Mediterranean! Again it was beautifully calm, and we all enjoyed the pleasant weather. This time it was daylight as we steamed past the Nile delta and we were soon in the vicinity of the scene of another great naval battle, for it was but a few years before Trafalgar that Nelson, ever seeking contact with the French fleet, swooped down on the Mediterranean section of it, anchored near Alexandra, and literally annihilated it.

In five days we had steamed the thousand miles to the Straits of Messina. As we approached Sicily, the first glimpse of land was Mt. Etna, snow-capped and standing out majestically like some of our mountains in New Zealand. It was quite exciting to steam nearer and nearer, with no sign of any opening between Sicily and the mainland of Italy. Then, over went our helm, and we were steaming north in the middle of the Straits. I remember Reggio on the Italian side, and Messina nearly opposite in Sicily. I saw the spot where Shelly swam the Straits; this is always pointed out to passengers. Once out of the Straits, and turning to the north-west, the Lipari Islands could be seen in the distance, but all our attention was on Stromboli, “The Lighthouse of the Mediterranean,” for this famous volcano was in action. Although I came from a country noted for volcanic activities, I had not previously seen smoke and steam pouring forth from a mountain top. This island volcano is less than fifty miles from the northern end of the Straits and, steering a course that took us between the Islands of Panaria and Stromboli, we had a splendid view. Next day we were off Naples. page 220 Vesuvius could be faintly seen, just as we saw Mt. Sinai from the Gulf of Suez. On the following day we were abreast of Rome, but this, too, meant little more than being given the direction in which lay the capital city of Italy. It is always interesting to pass through narrow waters. We were now approaching the Straits of Bonifacio, between Sardinia and Corsica, and here again I experienced the unfailing kindness of my Chief. He knew it was my first trip, while he had spent nearly a lifetime on this Eastern run; if we happened to be passing any particular place of interest, while I was keeping my watch below, he would invariably come down and say, “We are passing Malta,” or, “We're passing Perim; I'll keep watch while you have a look.” Thus I saw practically all that any passenger would have seen from the deck of a liner.

Two days later we were nosing our way into Marseilles. I was fortunate in seeing so many countries and so many nationalities on this trip. Here, it was the voluble, gesticulating people of the South of France. There was noise and good humour in plenty as we berthed, and the sellers of wares were soon pestering officers, engineers and other members of the crew to buy the many beautiful things produced by these industrious people of France. Silk shawls, silk handkerchiefs—no silk stockings then—pictures, scents, postcards, and a hundred and one other things. The people selling were a better class than those I have described at Port Said and Hong Kong, but some of the men looked real roués, while dark-complexioned, black-haired, black-eyed women, old and young, did not look exactly like Sunday School teachers! What an enormous industry this selling of wares on the decks of ships must be when all the ports of the world are taken into account. The postcard man was most persistent and just as daring as the Arab, who, if he scented a chance, would pull out of his pocket some of the obscene pictures that are plied for sale at all Continental ports.

There was one postcard that made us all laugh. No people in the world possess the sense of humour of the British, and the farther north they come from the more subtle their jokes. This one was not bad for the French, whose jokes are not always subtle. It was a serial postcard of about half a dozen pictures in booklet form. The first showed the bridal couple at the altar, the second their coming out of church, then the wedding breakfast, the going away and the arrival at their hotel. The page 221 final picture showed the young couple standing in fond embrace in the centre of their private room. In the passage adjoining was shown a maid looking through the keyhole, two waiters on their knees trying to look under the door, and the page boy, standing on the shoulders of a porter, was looking through the fan-light above the door. The bride's exclamation to her husband was the title of the final picture: “At last we are alone!” Thus, to such phrases as “Changee for changee,” “A piece of the ‘True Cross,’” and other oft-repeated sayings aboard our ship, was added this phrase of the climax to the wedding postcard.

Marseilles is picturesquely tucked away in the north-west corner of the Mediterranean. It is the greatest port of France, and handles an enormous amount of traffic. I had already learned of the small amount of rise and fall of the tide in the Mediterranean. With a usual rise of six feet in ordinary tides and eight feet in spring tides in New Zealand and Australia, I had become used to the height of the wharves and to foreshore roads built accordingly. Here it was necessary to provide for a rise of eight inches only. It was strange to see pleasure boats and other small craft moored along the waterfront, appearing to be almost level with the road.

We were four days in Marseilles. The first evening, the Chief said to me, “What are you doing to-night, Mr. Reese? Would you like to come ashore with me?” I was naturally delighted to be asked by him, and of course went. He had been to this port many times and knew the places of interest to show me. The next two evenings I was on duty, but on the final night Mr. McGill again took me ashore. It was long afterwards before I realized the full significance of the kindly attention of this splendid Chief; he knew that I was a young man visiting a Continental port for the first time—and a French one at that; he knew the dangers that beset sailors the world over when they arrive in port where they know no one; he knew that young men would be sought after in the cabarets and on the boulevards. I look back with appreciation that there were, and still are, such leaders of men in the Mercantile Marine who care for the welfare and safety of their staffs.

Joe Darling, the famous Australian, was always regarded as Australia's finest captain—off the field. He looked after his young men as Mr. McGill looked after me. Many years afterwards page 222 I was to be treated by members of my team with the same respect that I had felt for my Chief. After a cricket Test Match in New Zealand, one of the younger members of my team found, when he got out into the fresh air, that he had had too much drink. When two of his chums were getting him back to the hotel, he whispered in a plaintive voice, “Don't let old Dan see me like this.”

The highlight of our stay in Marseilles was a bullfight on Sunday afternoon. One always associated this sport with Spain, so it was a surprise to learn that Matador and Toreador versus the Bulls was a regular feature in some parts of the South of France.

When we reached the ground an enormous crowd had assembled. There prevailed the same bubbling excitement as is to be seen just prior to the start of an International football match. The people chatted and barracked in French, which we could not understand, but it was obviously good-humoured talk. The ground itself resembled a cricket ground, but the fence round the arena was of wood, about five feet high. All the way round the inside were steps, the purpose of which we were to learn in due course.

The bulls came into the ring from the opposite side of the ground from where we sat. Leaving a darkened stall, a bull dashed into the ring. The bright light of day seemed to dazzle him as he rushed out to the centre, where the Toreador, on horseback, awaited him. There were a number of attendants in the ring, each carrying a red flag, and all were dressed in yellow, blue and other bright colours that have no attraction for the bull. To start with, they all gave the bull plenty of the ring to himself. The poor horse, with a shield over one eye, was held so that he could not see the approaching danger. He was also harnessed with belly-shield that extended between his forelegs to protect him from the bull's horns. It was most exciting to watch this great animal bearing down on the horse and man. As he got near he lowered his head and one feared the worst. But the mounted Toreador held in his right hand a sharp steel-pointed rod, with a small disc on it, near the tip, to act as a stopper and thus limit the depth of insertion. When the bull, with his head down, came within striking distance, the Toreador thrust his spear into the nape of the neck of the bull. The disc stopped the spear going in too far, but the pain was page 223 sufficient to check the ferocious animal, for he stopped suddenly and pulled away. Before he had time to make another sudden attack, one of the attendants attracted the bull with his flag, and off went the maddened beast after him. It made one shudder to see a bull racing at a man who had only a flag in his hand. But these men had nerves of steel. They held the flag to one side, fairly close to the ground and the bull tore into it, as if to toss it over his head. The momentum given by his speed and weight carried him well past the man, when a second attendant drew him off in another direction. This diversion always enabled the man on the horse to get into position again, with the blinded eye of the horse towards the charging animal. Soon the bull was again bearing down on the horse, but once again he was forced to stop and pull away.

Then came the Banderillero, an important man in the events of the afternoon, his attractive costume distinguishing him from the attendants in the ring; he walked proudly to the centre of the arena to carry out his part of the performance, which was to insert darts into the shoulders of the bull. These darts were much like the arrows used by the American Indians, but decorated with ribbons instead of feathers. The business-end of the sharp arrows apparently had the same barb as a fish-hook to make them stay put. With red flag in one hand and dart in the other, he approached the bull. Soon there was the same wild rush, for by now the great beast was raging mad. The flag, placed over to one side, attracted the bull and, as he dropped his head and bore in to toss the target, the Banderillero dug one of these darts into his neck or shoulders. Away went the attacker with the arrow dangling and no doubt hurting this brave but now vicious animal. This was repeated several times, with the crowd cheering every time a dart found its mark. The attendants were ever ready to attract the bull away, but the Banderillero, unlike the man on the horse, could always turn quickly and be ready for a fresh attack. It will be easily understood that while the bull, with each fresh torment, became more and more maddened—and by this time he was frothing at the mouth—he was also tiring under the terrific pace of the contest. It was like a slogging match in the boxing ring with relays of opponents against one fighter, for he was given no rest.

Now came the time to kill; the climax to this contest between brave and skilful men, and a wild, roaring bull, so enraged that page 224 even if he had any thinking powers he was given no chance of using them. A roar of voices round the entrance-gate heralded the arrival of the Matador. Soon the noise swelled into cheering as this handsome, immaculately dressed Spaniard—the performers were all Spanish—strutted proudly to the centre of the arena with a gait that seemed to betoken his idea of his own importance. His costume put in the shade the silks and satins of jockeys' colours on the racecourse. He was the cynosure of every eye, and the attendants made a smaller ring for this single combat between man and beast. It was not long before the bull, who was never allowed to rest, was attracted in the direction of the Matador waiting with sword in hand. There was a tenseness of feeling, and a hush of death-like silence fell upon the spectators, as the bull, sighting its quarry, wasted no time in making its wild rush at him. I had never previously experienced such a thrill—such tense feelings as possessed me when the bull charged. One shuddered to think what would happen if a colour-blind bull was ever let loose in the ring! These Spaniards were brave fellows. The Matador stood square-on, facing the approaching beast. The flag was in his left hand, held across, then lowered close to the ground so that the bull's dropped head would be in direct line with his right arm. Down went the bull's head and, at the precise moment, the sword was driven in at the fatal spot. The shining blade sank in up to the hilt. The poor beast halted the moment the sharp point touched the nape of his neck and when the thrust was driven home he rolled over and was dead.

The pent-up feelings of the crowd were let loose and they cheered wildly. The Matador, acknowledging the plaudits, bowed as profusely as an actor at the end of a play. For myself I could not cheer. I was dumbfounded and depressed. I had read of bullfighting and had pictured it as a single combat between man and beast. Here I had seen the animal so tormented, maddened and tired out that this Spanish sport gave another view to my young mind. Before the cheering had died down, one saw a pair of horses pulling a sledge into the ring. In a moment the dead body was hauled off the field.

The deck was now clear for another fight. After a short interval out came the second bull, to go through the same performance and to meet the same fate; and then another and another. It was organized much on the same lines as a race page 225 meeting in England or the Dominions. It was now late in the afternoon, with only one more fight to finish the programme.

Everyone was watching the entrance door to see the animal dash into the ring. “Here he comes! Hullo, this bull is different; he is smaller and has more speed!”—this must have been the thought of all present. We had previously been watching heavily built, heavy-footed animals, comparable in football parlance with the forwards of a Rugby side. This must be a half-back or a three-quarter; he can run; he can turn quickly; one could almost imagine he could dodge! At any rate, we were not long left in doubt as to whether he was of another class—he was no “Ferdinand”! He tore down the field, and was soon making straight for the horse and rider. A rod with a spike in its end was not going to stop him; his speed caused the rider to miscalculate, for, in a moment, the bull ripped into the horse, and over went both man and his steed. It was a sickening sight. I had to lower my eyes, fearing both of them would be ripped to pieces. Seeing red is always irresistible to a bull, and a flash of the flag, even at this critical moment when he had them both at his mercy, was too much for him, and next moment he was chasing the crimson flags of the attendants. He dashed past several of them and it was soon obvious there was consternation on the field; the attendants edged their way towards the fence. Presently the bull chased two of them right in front of where I sat; they turned and hurriedly clambered up the steps, getting over the fence with little time to spare. It was no use putting the Toreador on another horse to face this bull, or have the Banderillero try to put darts into him, so apparently it was decided to finish him off at once. The attendants, with their flags, managed to keep him racing about until the Matador appeared. The last-mentioned was not as confident on this occasion, nor was his job as easy as with some of the other bulls, for this one passed him the first time and a second; there were hoots from the crowd. Then an amazing thing happened—one would have thought this bull had human intelligence; instead of rushing in a third time, he came creeping up towards the Matador, stopped, and putting his two front legs out, looked for all the world as if he was going to spring at him. When he was in this position the Matador moved up as though to spear him, but the crowd yelled their disapproval, hooting so much that he desisted. However, they page 226 soon got the bull moving about again and this time it was head down at full speed and all was over! Not the same cheering by the spectators, nor bowing by the Matador, followed this bout. The crowd surged out around and over the arena, yelling to one another excitedly, just as at the end of a close finish of a Rugby game. As we left, I was astonished to see a butcher's shop inside the gates of the ground, where they were selling the beef from the animals so recently killed.

This experience of seeing a bullfight was to enable me, many years afterwards, to enjoy to the full an incident worth relating, Maer, the well-known Spanish tennis player, visited Australia to take part in International matches being played there. The visitors were given a luncheon in Melbourne and in the afternoon were the guests of the M.C.C. at the Melbourne Cricket ground, where an important cricket match was in progress. They were all sitting in the members' stand and after watching two batsmen play slow and tedious cricket the Spaniard turned to Warwick Armstrong and said, “Do you mean to tell me that 50,000 people will come and watch this for five days?”

“Yes,” said Warwick good-humouredly, and added, “As a matter of fact, the record attendance here for a cricket match is 65,000.”

The incredulous Maer then said, “Well, Mr. Armstrong, all I can say is that they have never seen a bullfight!”

Two days later we steamed out of Marseilles, our destination being La Garucha, a small seaport on the Mediterranean coast of Spain, where we were to load a cargo of iron ore. I remember our Chief said that cargoes must be getting scarce when we were left only iron ore to pick up. The morning after leaving the French port it was discovered that we had a stowaway on board. The Captain decided it was too late to turn back, despite the fact that he knew there would be no chance of landing him at a Spanish port. The man turned out to be a French engineer, so he was signed on and made to work overhauling the winches and doing any odd jobs that could be found for him.

La Garucha proved to be a quaint little port, more like an open bay. It does not take long to load iron ore, and two days later we began our run for Home. It was real Home to most of my shipmates, but Britain is also Home for all the peoples of the Empire, and I was no less excited than my comrades at the page 227 prospect of soon being back in England. We had a splendid close-up view of Gibraltar, for skirting the coast of Spain brought us much nearer than we had been on the outward journey.

The Bay of Biscay was again settling down after storms in the Atlantic. The iron-ore cargo took us down to our Plimsoll marks, even though the holds were not half full. This lowering of the centre of stability made the Claverhill roll a good deal.

We were now approaching the beloved Homeland. When I saw the different lights and headlands, I, too, became sentimental. Picking up The Lizard, the most southern part of Cornwall, we passed points, lighthouses, and headlands along the south coast. I was fortunate on this occasion to pass in daylight those parts of the coast we had passed at night when arriving from New Zealand by the Rimutaka more than nine months earlier. On passing the South then the North Foreland, and the several lightships that provide extra protection to ships' Masters in thick weather, we were now steaming due north across the mouth of the Thames Estuary, for our destination was South Shields at the mouth of the Tyne. Our Cockney Third Engineer looked longingly towards his beloved London, but the Second, whose home was at Shields, chuckled with glee and counted the hours when he would join his wife and family.

England's coastline still attracted me. We steamed along the coast of Suffolk and Norfolk, passing Lowestoft and Yarmouth, famous as fishing ports, then following a straight course, to pass far out from The Wash and the mouth of the Humber. Soon we were abreast of and close to Flamborough Head. Next came Scarborough, famous in my mind for its cricket week at the end of the season. The last seacoast town we were to pass close to was Whitby, although Hartlepool could be seen in the distance on our port beam.

I had found the east coast of England almost as fascinating as the Channel coastline, and when we came abreast of Sunderland, knew there was but ten miles steaming to reach our destination.