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Was It All Cricket?

Chapter 18 — The West Indies

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Chapter 18
The West Indies

In two days we were steaming down the Thames, thrilled with the knowledge that we were to call at Madeira. The traffic on the river was again enormous. Even after we passed Gravesend there were ships and more ships, both inward and outward bound. One could appreciate the Cockney fireman's saying, “Gor'-blimey, it's like Epsom Road on Derby Day!” It must be remembered, however, that this volume of traffic that one sees on the Thames, when passing up or down the river, is in part due to so many ships' passing, simultaneously, in and out of the docks, which are opened a little before, and closed a little after, the turn of the tide.

The weather was cold and miserable, and we tossed about in the Channel. At daylight on the second morning out we called at Dartmouth, situated on a lovely Sound on the south coast of Devon. Devonshire cream is what one associates with this famous southern county, and on the slopes of this picturesque Sound the cattle grazed peacefully. We stayed for less than half an hour and were again in the Channel, plugging steadily along into a heavy sea which was running before a westerly gale. At last I was to see the Bay of Biscay in all its fury. Each wave seemed bigger than its predecessor, and we were soon in the throes of a raging storm. The Savan had more powerful engines than the Claverhill, but could make only slow headway against such a sea. As Madeira was our first port of call, we were on a south-westerly course, and met the full force of the storm. The fact that it took us nine days to steam about 1,200 miles is surely sufficient proof of the heavy weather encountered.

By this time I had become more intimately acquainted with my shipmates. Again I found the same different characters, representative of the various parts of Britain; the Chief was a Scot, the Second a Londoner, the Third a New Zealander, and the Fourth a merry Welshman from Cardigan. It is not generally understood why the Scot predominates in the marine engineering world. In addition to his natural genius for engineering, the young man of the north has many more page 235 opportunities of going to sea than the average Britisher. Clyde-side being Britain's greatest ship-building centre, every new ship built there has to be manned. The owners usually have their own Chief and Second Engineers to put into a new ship, but the juniors are often provided by the ship-building firms. In this way, lads just out of their apprenticeship are given the opportunity of becoming marine engineers.

Before the Tyneside and Northern Ireland became serious rivals to the Clyde, the position was even more marked than it is to-day. They told me a story out East of a man who made a substantial bet that he could go aboard any steamer in the port of Singapore and get an answer in the affirmative if he called down into the engine-room, “Are you down there, Mac?” His wager was duly taken and away they went to settle this unusual bet. Going to a ship selected at random, the “positive” man, standing on the engine-room grating above, called out, “Are you down there, Mac?”

Back came the answer, “No, but Sandy is!”

As we got nearer Madeira the temperature rose and the sea became calmer. I do not remember a more perfect day than the one on which we reached this beautiful Portuguese island. Funchal, the chief town, is on the south coast, and the morning sun shining on the white houses made the place look most attractive as we approached the port.

I must have been a “white-haired boy” with Chiefs at this time, for I was given the day off. It seemed strange to see the streets paved with cobble-stones and sledges and carts being hauled by mules. The mules looked much better animals than the donkeys I used to ride as a boy on holidays on the beach at Sumner, a seaside town near Christchurch. My chief excitement of the day in Funchal was a ride down the mountainside overlooking the port. I do not remember the height of this mountain, but, after climbing nearly to the top and sampling the national beverage in a wine shop there, I took the opportunity of having a ride down in a sledge. The track was no more than three or four feet wide—like a narrow footpath. It was paved with cobble-stones, the path being hollow-shaped. A single-seater sledge was the conveyance used for this exciting run. The Portuguese boys who plied for hire stood on a platform at the back of their sledges and, when they gathered too much speed, jumped off and held them back with a rope, just page 236 like pulling up a horse with the reins. They always asked whether you wanted a fast or slow trip. When my Portuguese lad put the question to me, I replied, “Oh, just let her go as usual.” Off we went. It was soon evident that the only part of my answer that he understood was “… let her go …!” The good old switchback at the fair was not in it with this “scooter” on the mountainside at Madeira! At the bends the path was always banked like a bicycle track, but, approaching the first one, one would bet “a guinea to a gooseberry” that the sledge would fly into space at the corner. Presently one heard the pit-a-pat of bare feet on the cobbles; the boy had jumped off to steer his “charging steed” round the bend and, quick as lightning, was on his little platform again. Now we came to a straight, then to an easy, bend, then another corner, but it made little difference to the boy, who was always master of his little runner-carriage. Presently he stopped, but what for? There it is—the little wine shop on the roadside. Of course, one must have a drink. Here were Portuguese maidens in picturesque native dress and, well, you have a glass of wine. Off we go again. More straights, with the little rises at the finish to slow up the sledge before another straight or bend. On we go, to stop once more. “Whaffor?” as the Chinaman would say. Another wine shop, more village maidens, and more wine. “One more, mister?” I have only to see “Madeira” printed on the label of a wine bottle and my mind returns to that thrilling ride down the cobblestone track at Funchal.

It was a delightful experience to spend even but one day on this famous island which is the resort of tourists seeking warmth and pleasure during the months of extreme cold experienced in Britain and Northern Europe.

Next day we were steaming due west, and the lovely weather and calm sea made life on board pleasant indeed. I had become used to hopping off on a 2,000-mile run; this one was to be through seas as smooth as the Mediterranean. I had by now got to know more about my fellow engineers. The first tit-bit I heard was that my Chief was a woman-hater. He would often make caustic comment on the fair sex, but I had not interpreted this as real antagonism. Mr Reid, a tall, lean man, was about sixty years of age, with a short, grey beard. He could be stern, yet was kindly in his ways. In his young days he had been an engineer in the P. & O. Company, sailing page 237 out East, but was always a good spender and, on becoming engaged to be married, found himself unable to save enough money to set up house. It was arranged that his sweetheart should draw his half-pay while he was away and bank it for “The Day.” This arrangement worked well and the account grew bigger and bigger. One more trip and he would have saved enough. On his return the maid, and the money, had flown. She had got to like someone else better, and had no scruples about taking Reid's little nest-egg. Our old Chief did eventually marry, but was early left a widower. “Although he had a grown-up daughter in London, of whom he was very proud, his general attitude to the weaker sex was one of hostility. The Second Engineer, a Londoner, joined the Savan the same time as I did. He had just been installed in a Masonic Lodge, and one day brought out his little apron to show us. I did not know the ritual of the Craft, but when the Chief—also a Mason—came on the scene, he tore into the Second with a torrent of angry words. But the Second's worst offence was to occur one steaming-hot Sunday morning when we were lying in harbour at Trinidad; he came to the mess-room in his pyjamas! This made “Old Jock” again fly off the handle. Mr. Reid, with his P. & O. training, was not only a strict disciplinarian, but insisted on the routine etiquette and decorum of good British ships. Williams, the Fourth Engineer, was a grand little chap. Like all Welshmen, he was fond of music and played the guitar very well. He and I became great chums.

This gives a thumb-nail sketch of the company on our side of the ship. It will also enable the reader to picture us in the mess-room, chatting and arguing on all sorts of subjects. Mr. Reid was a well-informed man and, like Mr. McGill on the Claverhill, held sound opinions on many subjects.

We were now approaching the delightful islands of the West Indies, one of the oldest colonies of the Motherland. The weather was very warm, for we were now in the tropics. Our first call was at the island of St. Lucia of the Windward Group. Steaming into the beautiful harbour at Castries in the early morning, I saw the same green vegetation as is to be seen on the coast of Northern Queensland, and in the Far East. There was a British warship at anchor, and the men of this man-of-war were over the side having their morning swim. As the Savan moved slowly to her berthage, a number of small boats page 238 swarmed round the ship. They each had some small native boys on board, and it was not until I saw them diving overboard and disappearing from view that I discovered some of our passengers were throwing coins, and the little black fellows were diving for them. When they came to the surface they would have the coins in their mouths and broad grins on their faces. It is worth recording that they would not dive for pennies—they had to be silver coins! While the bodies of these boys were as black as the ace of spades, the soles of their feet were a light yellow colour—almost white—and it was intriguing to watch them dive and in a moment find that all one could see under the water was a pair of white soles paddling hard, as the boy swam down to head off the coin. A coin, when thrown into the water, does not go straight to the bottom on its edge, but oscillates from side to side, so the boys are able quickly to overhaul it as it descends in this way. Even after dozens of coins had been thrown in, the lads did not tire and hung about long after the passengers had had enough. The town of Castries, at the head of the harbour, was right on the foreshore and the arrival of a steamer always proved exciting to the natives, who were soon in evidence.

Being now on the twelve to four watch, I was able to go ashore for the whole morning. The happy, laughing natives, with their flashing white teeth, were a pleasant people. I was to see natives of a better type than I had expected. Since then I have met their young men on the cricket field, and know how well-behaved they are. A walk in the gardens enabled me to see not only beautiful shrubs and flowers, but also the fascinating little humming birds. These birds, with their beaks into a flower and their wings buzzing like those of bees, as they poised to suck from a bloom, made an interesting study. I stood and gazed at them at their work, for work it was. The coco-nut palms were also a joy to see. I gave one of the black boys a silver coin to climb one. He was up the trunk in a twinkling and with his little hatchet was soon hacking away at the nuts and throwing them down. It was refreshing, on a hot day, to drink the milk from the nut the moment it came off the tree. It was a different experience and had a different taste from the milk of the coco-nuts that are sold in the fruit shops in New Zealand. On my first day in the West Indies I was to see enthusiastic little black fellows playing cricket. It page 239 reminded me of Australia, where boys play on every possible occasion.

Leaving St. Lucia in the evening, and steaming past the island of St. Vincent, we arrived at Grenada at daylight the following morning. These early morning arrivals were always a practice followed as we moved from island to island. Attractive as the harbour of St. Lucia had been, Grenada's port was to prove one of the most charming harbours I had ever been in. It was an entrancing scene as we steamed slowly towards St. George, the chief seaport town of the island. Bush right down to the water's edge, with palms as plentiful as are ferns in the native forests of New Zealand, and hills in the background, one of which, if in Australia or England, was high enough to be called a mountain, completed a scene of extraordinary beauty. In the evening we were off again. St. Lucia and Grenada are but tiny dots on the map of the world, and are of lesser historical interest than Trinidad, the island at which we next called.

My excitement quickened as we steamed towards the entrance of the Gulf of Paria which is an inland sea similar to Port Philip at Melbourne and about the same size. Port of Spain, the capital of Trinidad, lies tucked away in the northeast corner of the Gulf and again the early morning sun shone on the town and the tropical vegetation. Before leaving London? I had purchased an enlarged map of the West Indies, and my experienced Chief, who had been many times to these parts, was kindly and helpful in explaining both the historical and geographical features of the different islands. Here I was to learn for the first time that in this very harbour Columbus had anchored his ships more than four hundred years before. The advent of this great pioneer explorer put Spain in the lead in “first-footing” this part of the world, for it was many years before the English and the French began to cast covetous eyes on these rich and beautiful islands. When the ships of these two nations did appear on the scene, the Spaniards fought them each in turn, but Spain was already on the decline as a great power, and, apparently satisfied to be left in possession of the great island of Cuba, allowed England and France to fight it out for possession of the Leeward and Windward Groups of islands; and fight they did, for there was intense rivalry between the two greatest naval powers of page 240 those days. The fact that we were now approaching the capital of one of the most prized of British possessions, and that on the map of the West Indies so many of the islands referred to are “painted red,” tells who was victorious.

Port of Spain is an interesting town, with many fine old buildings, the architecture of which varies according to the period of their erection, and whether designed by Spaniards, Frenchmen or Englishmen. To cricketers, it is interesting to note that both Lord Harris and Sir Pelham Warner were born here. With the West Indies being a Crown Colony, many noted Englishmen have taken part in its administration; Lord Harris's father once being Governor. During this, my first trip to these islands, the M.C.C. English cricket team of 1904 was playing a series of Test Matches in Australia, with P. F. Warner captain of the touring side. On my first day at Trinidad, I hired an old-fashioned open brougham-cab, and went for a drive round to see the place. An old native was the driver, and I asked him to take me to see the cricket ground. As soon as I mentioned cricket, the old man said, “Mr. Warner, he born here!” When I said I had played against Warner, he gave his old horse a crack with a whip and said, “I show you where Mr. Warner live.” Round a few blocks and there was a fine old home, with a garden which set off the tropical vegetation of these parts. One did not expect to find that in far-off Trinidad mention of the English captain's name would kindle such interest in cricket matches in Australia.

When an attempt was first made to get down to an exact definition of the qualifications required of a player for International cricket. Lord Harris insisted that birth only should be the guiding principle. “He must be born in the country he plays for,” said his lordship.

Warner turned, and said neatly, “My Lord, under such a rule, rigidly adhered to, neither you nor I could have played for England!” It would also have debarred Ranjitsinhji, and as Charlie Bannerman, the great Australian, was born in England, one can see the implications that would arise from such cast-iron rules!

After discharging more general cargo, we left Port of Spain for Georgetown, British Guiana, about 300 miles along the north coast of South America in an easterly direction. Passing page 241 the mouth of the great Orinoco River, we steamed along the coast and in this latitude close to the Equator naturally felt the heat. Georgetown is usually referred to as Demerara, for this is the name of the river on which the town is situated. Demerara sugar was recognized as the best of all the sugars of the world, and brought the best price on the London market.

To complete discharging and begin loading outward cargo, we stayed several days in this port. One of our passengers was the attractive daughter of the owner of a sugar mill and plantation on the outskirts of the town. On board ship, deck officers have plenty of opportunity to make the acquaintance of passengers, for part of their duties is to assist in their entertainment. There must have been some dark horses on the Savan for, when it came to Sunday, it was the Third and Fourth Engineers who were invited to dinner at the home of the plantation owner! We were afterwards shown over the sugar mill, which I thought less up-to-date than the one I had seen in Northern Queensland.

During the day—in fact every day when I was there— Georgetown experienced a stifling heat, similar to the heat of Sydney on a hot day. The residents, however, received compensation when, late in the afternoon, a gentle breeze blew in from the sea. In Melbourne, it had been a popular custom between four and five to walk the “Block”; this was a famous stretch of wide footpath in Collins Street, between Swanston and Elizabeth Streets. In Georgetown, it was the fashion and practice to drive or walk along the foreshore during the last hour before dusk. In this way one saw all the leading white people of the place, and was able to appreciate how this change of temperature lifted Demerara from being a place in which it was unbearable to live.

I naturally went to see the cricket ground, for, with little black fellows playing wherever they could, it revived one's thoughts of the game. I have never seen grass as green as that of the Demerara oval! Situated as it was in the unique setting of surrounding tropical trees and vegetation, it made a picture that rivalled Cheshunt in England. I was fascinated with the enthusiasm of these native boys. On one open space, where the ground had a definite slope, I saw a group of boys playing away to their heart's content. Sticks for wickets, the crudest of page 242 hand-made bats, no pads, and a very old ball. In a stationer's shop I saw a picture postcard of this scene and sent it to W. G. Grace, who laughed heartily over it, for the little chaps were attired in nothing but little short shirts. Some of the shirts were too short, but these wee black boys could not be expected to foresee that “covering the wicket” would be resorted to and become a fetish with cricket authorities in Australia!

The interest of the Chief Engineer of the S.S. Claverhill in the kind of cargoes carried no doubt awakened my own interest in the cargo now being stowed in the holds of the Savan. The briquettes, copra, and iron ore on the Claverhill had certainly been far less profitable freights than the sugar, rum, and cocoa beans—to mention only three of the important exports from these prolific islands. Leaving Georgetown, we retraced our steps to the islands previously called at, besides visiting several others. Our last port of call was Antigua, and the Savan was nicely down to her marks when we set sail for London. The announcement that we were to call at Le Havre, to discharge part of our cocoa cargo, added interest to the return voyage.

The calm of the tropics was again with us, and we had a splendid run most of the way. After passing the Azores the wind changed, and we crossed the Bay of Biscay in squally weather. This time we were on the French side of the English Channel. We came abreast of Ushant Island, famous for its lighthouse opposite Land's End. Next appeared Brest in the distance on our starboard bow. The mention of this naval base on the extreme west corner of France raised for discussion the question of the Siege of Brest. It always surprised me how much seafaring men knew of incidents in historic naval actions of the past. This was especially so with experienced captains and chief engineers. As we approached this western naval base of France, I was able to appreciate more than I had at school the magnificent performance of the first Lord Hawke and his gallant men in keeping the French fleet bottled up in Brest at a time when England was threatened with invasion. It was in weather such as we were now experiencing that this famous Admiral maintained the blockade throughout the winter months, and frustrated the French plan to attack the shores of England. During a raging storm, and in thick weather, the French fleet managed to slip out of port, but Hawke, who, page 243 owing to the weather conditions had been standing well out to sea, sailed in to bring them to action off Quiberon in the Bay of Biscay and gain a smashing victory. This feat of endurance during the long weary months of the blockade, followed by the annihilation of the French squadron, ranks as one of the great actions in our naval history. We are all apt to credit Nelson with originating the traditional Royal Navy policy of “attack—attack under any circumstances,” yet here we have Hawke, nearly fifty years before Trafalgar, practising the very tactics that made Nelson so famous. Cricketers have reason to revere the memory of the Lord Hawke of the early part of this century, but the greatest of his ancestors, Admiral Lord Hawke of Quiberon, leaves a record of service to his country that entitles him to be ranked among the great Admirals of the past.

After passing Brest, it was not long before we were steaming between the islands of the Channel group. Guernsey and Alderney were both passed close by and, rounding Cape Hague, we were soon abreast of Cherbourg. When passing this French port the Chief Engineer told us that it was here, in the 'nineties, where experiments with the first submarine were carried out. The little submarine used to submerge in Cherbourg harbour and come to the surface outside of the breastwork protecting the port, while crowds waited anxiously on the pier for the small craft to reappear. There was no periscope in the submarine at this time.

We were now in the estuary of the Seine, approaching Le Havre, situated at the tip of a peninsula that juts out into the Channel. One wondered why this great seaport was not built in a more sheltered part of the estuary of the Seine. That this was not possible will be seen from the following: When the tide is receding, the waters of the Seine flow serenely on into the Channel, but, when the tide turns, there begins a contest between the river and the sea, resulting in the building up of a wall of sand right across the estuary, just above Le Havre. At first this halts the flow of the on-coming tide, until the sea-level rises above that of the river; suddenly, the sea breaks through and over the sand bar, and at the peak of spring tides this tidal wave reaches menacing proportions, sometimes up to six or seven feet high, and does not spend itself until after passing Rouen, more than fifty miles up this page 244 winding river. This phenomenon of the sea is known as the Bore—feared by the Masters of all ships that trade up the Seine. Strong coir rope mooring lines, which stretch like elastic, are made ready to meet this sudden thrust from the sea. The danger to shipping is all over in a moment, but, throughout the year, at spring tides in particular, this tidal wave repeats its surge far up the river.

On arrival at Le Havre, the scenes on the wharf, and on our ship, were similar to those at Marseilles, when the Claverhill arrived at that port, except that the people were not as dark-complexioned, nor as excitable as were those of the South of France.

In British and American ports, seafaring men who go ashore to the theatre usually patronize those of the music hall or variety type. On the Continent, and in France in particular, entertainments of a similar kind are usually what one might call a little more daring. Every French city of note has its “Folies Bergères.” In the show we went to all the songs were in French, so at first it was the music, bare shoulders and dancing eyes of the female performers that held our attention. We were prepared for bare shoulders and the lower yokes of their dresses, but when the curtain rose on one scene, where a bevy of girls—practically nude—stood lined up and began to dance, well …! I, at any rate, was dumbfounded. So here were the naughty young women Chief Engineer McGill had shielded me from at Marseilles! The girls were all so young, so good-looking, and were so beautifully formed that one's first shock of amazement and surprise was gradually changed to impersonal admiration, for they were the perfect figures that sculptors and the great masters have hewn and painted from time immemorial. An elderly American lady once said to me, “If a woman has a beautiful figure, why shouldn't she show it off?” These were to prove prophetic words for, in these modern times, the more perfect the figure, the lower the bodice of the evening gown, the smaller the bathing costume, and the shorter the shorts on the tennis court. Certainly the young men of to-day cannot get the same shock that I got when these nymphs of France danced on the stage at Le Havre. Forty years ago it was considered immodest if a little bit of white petticoat was showing! There would have been consternation had a modern flapper walked into a drawing-room page 245 and sat with her legs crossed, showing ankle, calf and knee. She would certainly not have been invited again to that home, especially if her hostess were a Presbyterian!

As illustrating the excessive modesty of the Victorian era, and carried over into this century by the older generations of that period, I must relate a happening in Christchurch nearly twenty years after my visit to Le Havre. Harry Lauder had already won a world-wide reputation prior to 1914. During the Great World War he rendered splendid service entertaining the soldiers behind the lines—even after his only son had been killed in the trenches. When the war was over, a tour of the Empire was eagerly sought after by the Dominions, and when he eventually came, received an enthusiastic reception. He stirred the hearts of the men and women from Scotland as they had not been stirred since they left their “land o' the heather.” He revived their broad Scotch which had not been heard for many years. My mother did not go to the theatre, but, of course, she must see and hear the famous Lauder. Although his concert was given in the only theatre in Christchurch, this was different from a theatrical company, for he was an entertainer, not an actor, although acting was undoubtedly his long suit. We finally persuaded mother to come with us. She was then over seventy years of age, so it was somewhat difficult for her to make up her mind, and she was naturally excited as we made our way to a good position in the stalls. Lauder had a few vaudeville artists in his party, and the first item on the programme was a trapeze act by two young women. When these girls came on to the stage, dressed in tights displaying their shapely figures, my mother gave one look of horror and with an exclamation of “Oooh!” dropped her face into her hands for a moment, and would not again look up until the girls had left the stage. How we laughed! She was able to laugh with us afterwards, but insisted on calling them “bold hussies.” What would my mother have said of the performance at Le Havre?

The young engineers and officers of the steamer Savan did not drop their faces into their hands when confronted with the sight of these ballet dancers in their “Garden of Eden” costumes, nor were they as indifferent as was the American traveller visiting Coventry on the day Lady Godiva rode through the streets of the city. When called to the window of page 246 the hotel to witness the ride past, he jumped up quickly and said, “I guess I will, for I haven't seen a white horse for years!”

Leaving Le Havre the following day, we were soon passing through the Straits of Dover, and next day were in London. So ended my first voyage to the West Indies.