British Empire Article

by P. B. Sweeney
Tilbury to Mombasa Via the Suez Canal: The life and
times of a Customs Officer
Union-Castle Line
Today when air travel has replaced the comfortable, leisurely and romantic sea voyages of bygone days, I am reminded of one such voyage, in December 1952.

The "Dunnottar Castle" provided a comfortable four-berth cabin for the eighteen-day voyage to Mombasa. We sailed down the Thames Estuary, passed close to the popular Kent seaside resorts of Margate and Ramsgate and the White Cliffs of Dover before heading through the English Channel for the Atlantic Ocean and the dreaded Bay of Biscay en route to Gibraltar, the first port of call.

Initially the attitude of some of the passengers was that they were demeaned at being in tourist-class. However, soon after every person had received a copy of the passenger list and it was observed that not all the tourist passengers were from the lower rungs of the Civil Service and commercial houses, small groups began to form and meet for pre-lunch and pre-dinner drinks. The Chief Steward was approached to alter the prearranged seating at meals. An atmosphere of bon camaraderie soon developed.

Tilbury to Mombasa Via the Suez Canal: The life and
times of a Customs Officer
Dunnottar Castle
Browsing through the passenger list, I recognised names of people I had met in Mombasa and when I played in the East v West cricket match at Dar-es-Salaam. A closer look at the list revealed that there were sixteen clergymen aboard. We felt assured that the voyage would be relatively free of any major disaster. Even the Bay of Biscay failed to live up to its foul reputation and we sailed comfortably through calm waters to anchor off Gibraltar.

Gibraltar, a British colony, situated at the western entrance to the Mediterranean Sea, is connected to Spain by a long sandy isthmus. Over many decades Spain has relentlessly laid claim to the Rock. There is a legend that if ever the apes which inhabit the Rock leave, then British sovereignty would end and control of this important and strategic port and naval base would be lost. Fortunately, the apes are still resident and are well fed by tourists. During a visit to the Rock, HRH the Duke of Edinburgh was handed a bag of peanuts to cast to the apes; instead of feeding the apes, HRH turned and offered them to the pressmen covering his tour. This gesture drew adverse coverage from irate pressmen, but made more people aware of the apes and the legend.

A young, fresh-faced, good-looking man set himself up as an unofficial Master of Ceremonies. He was talented, witty, an accomplished pianist, with organising ability and discreetly flirtatious. He introduced himself as Charles. Without knowing his surname we were unable to identify him on the passenger list. Speculation was rife as to who he might be. It appeared certain that he couldn't be one of the sixteen clergymen. They were easily distinguishable by either a "dog collar", the cross, or crucifix. He remained incognito.

Passenger ships, other than the one-class, have notice boards displayed at all entrances to the first-class section prohibiting entrance to the sacrosanct area. There is no official instruction in reverse. It soon became evident that the social activities and the happy-go-lucky atmosphere "downstairs" were attracting fun-seeking passengers from "upstairs". No objection was raised to this influx, which increased each night. Because of this trend the first-class, perhaps unkindly, was referred to as the "geriatric class".

Tilbury to Mombasa Via the Suez Canal: The life and
times of a Customs Officer
Fine Dining
Passengers were not permitted ashore at Gibraltar but had a full day at Marseilles. We went on an enjoyable conducted sight-seeing tour of the city, which had a population of almost one million. We still have the souvenirs bought at the cathedral , and in some of the attractive arcades. After lunch we returned to the ship late in the afternoon in good time to watch all the preparations for the short voyage to Genoa.

My sons, Brian and Michael, now older and more confident, used initiative to obtain more spending money than the amount we allowed them for the voyage. They jointly approached the steward in charge of the lounge, the swimming pool and the promenade deck and offered their group's services to help in arranging chairs for functions, re-arranging them on the completion of social activities, cleaning ashtrays, dusting furniture, sweeping the floor and any odd job that required doing. Their offer to work was accepted, but their negotiations for cash payment failed. Instead, they were rewarded with free drinks, packets of chips and nuts and occasionally, entrance to a cinema show out-of-bounds for children. The work by the gang usually commenced when the adults were at meals. The results of their efforts were soon obvious and it was not uncommon for some benevolent passengers to show their appreciation by presenting members of the "volunteer work force" with a shilling or two.

We docked at Genoa, Italy's largest and busiest sea-port, at about 5 o'clock on a cold and blustery evening. No organised tours were arranged, as we were scheduled to sail at 10 o'clock that night. However, passengers were informed that they could go ashore provided they returned by 9 o'clock. We went ashore all rugged-up and walked along the streets nearest the docks and spent most of the time window-shopping. Babs bought a mohair coat at a very reasonable price. It lasted for over twenty years. What we do remember vividly was paying the equivalent of three pounds sterling for two cups of tea and two squashes in an Italian cafe. At that time of the evening we should have ordered a carafe of wine, which would have been one-fifth the price. Nine years later when we were on the "Oriana" and called at Naples, we did the right thing.

Tilbury to Mombasa Via the Suez Canal: The life and
times of a Customs Officer
Stromboli
At dinner the night after our departure from Genoa the Captain announced that at about 3 o'clock in the morning we would be passing close to Stromboli, an island volcano off the south west coast of Italy in the Tyrrhenian Sea. Stromboli, one of the world's known active volcanoes, erupted fairly frequently and an Ingrid Bergman film about the island had been released just prior in 1950. The Captain's announcement created interest and excitement and most of the passengers wished to see molten lava hurled hundreds of metres high and then watch flaming rivers flow down the mountain sides into the sea. In the hope that the volcano would erupt at the appropriate time, a suggestion was made that the sixteen clergymen aboard be asked to offer a prayer for a minor miracle.

The next decision was whether to stay awake until 3 o'clock in the morning or to go to bed early and set the alarm. A young spinster had her own method and probably a motive when she gave Charles, our unofficial Master of Ceremonies, her cabin number and asked that he call her when the ship was nearing the volcano. We decided to set our alarm for 2.30, as we wanted Brian and Michael to see a volcano erupt. It could well be the only time in our lives that we would see such a spectacle.

Whether it was communal prayer or sheer coincidence, the passengers and crew of the "Dunnottar Castle" watched with amazement, awe and delight the unforgettable sight of a volcanic eruption. Stromboli continued to belch molten lava high into the night sky for well over twenty minutes.

To ensure that every passenger would witness this rare spectacle, the ship's siren sounded, announcements were made over the public address system and the speed reduced to a mere crawl. No television view of volcanic eruptions could ever equal the sight we were fortunate to see just four kilometres away from the deck of an ocean liner. The topic of the eruption continued unabated until we reached Port Said.

Brian and Michael had had lectures on the dangers of the indiscriminate lighting of matches and the improper use of the telephone. Now I was obliged to explain the dangers of careless talk and unfounded rumours. One evening when we were dressing for dinner the boys ran into the cabin and told us that a light aeroplane had crashed into the Mediterranean Sea and our ship had turned back in an attempt to locate the wreckage and, if possible, rescue the pilot. They were positive of this news, as they had been assisting the crew to prepare and stock a life-boat with medical supplies, food, blankets, hot-water bottles and checking the life-jackets. I explained that it could be just a routine training exercise and the crew, now their good friends, were pulling their legs. They were positive of the authenticity of the unfortunate incident. I was proved wrong. Later that night the Chief officer gave the identical news. The search was unsuccessful, as neither the wreckage nor the pilot was traced.

Tilbury to Mombasa Via the Suez Canal: The life and
times of a Customs Officer
Simon Arzt
The ship tied up to a floating pontoon at Port Said, Egypt's largest and most important refuelling port, situated at the northern end of the Suez Canal. Ours was one of many passenger and cargo ships and oil tankers anchored in the harbour. We walked on a floating gangway to reach the shore and then, with hundreds of passengers and crew, made a beeline to the famous Simon Arts (Arzt) shopping complex. It was tantamount to sacrilege if anyone passing through Port Said did not, at least once, shop at Simon Arts. The three hundred metre walk along the waterfront was as interesting as it was annoying. The annoying part was that one was pestered, even gently mauled, by touts peddling obscene books, pictures, post-cards and erotic carvings; money changers offering ridiculous exchange rates for foreign currency; and pimps willing to supply the best girls in town at low rates. The amusing side was that the Egyptian waterside trader, tout, money changer and pimp considered every tourist to have Scottish ancestry. We were hailed as the McKenzies.

The Suez Canal, a man-made waterway 169 kilometres long, 150 metres wide and 13 metres deep, connects the Mediterranean and the Red Seas. The construction of the canal, which took over eleven years, employed thousands of workmen and cost many millions of pounds, was the result of an idea of Ferdinand de Lesseps, a French diplomat, when he was serving in Egypt in the 1830s. The canal was opened to ocean-going vessels on the 17th November 1869. Details regarding the formation of the Suez Canal Company, the management and construction, the economic effects and the political status, over the past one hundred and eighteen years, are of immense interest, but space does not permit inclusion here.

Tilbury to Mombasa Via the Suez Canal: The life and
times of a Customs Officer
Kenya Castle
We commenced the fourteen-hour voyage in the early hours of the morning. After a hurried breakfast, we moved alternatively from the port to the starboard railings to ensure that we saw every kilometre of this engineering wonder. The "Dunnottar Castle" was in the middle of a convoy of fifteen ships, all sailing at the statutory speed of seven knots an hour, strictly in single file and a clear two hundred metres between bow and stern. Each ship had an experienced pilot aboard. And to maintain maximum safety for the many thousands of ships using the canal each year, elaborate communication and control systems with control-cum-check stations were installed at regular intervals along the full length of the canal.

As ships could pass each other at certain points only, the north-bound and south-bound convoys were in constant touch with the control stations. We were in the south-bound convoy and it was not until we reached Al Ballah, fifty kilometres from Port Said, that a loop or by-pass in the construction of the canal permitted the north-bound convey to proceed to Port Said.

A further twenty kilometres south we sailed past Ismailia, a city resembling a seaside resort in the south of France. There was, of course, a dominant French influence in Egypt due to the presence of Napoleon Bonaparte and his army in the late 1790s.

Tilbury to Mombasa Via the Suez Canal: The life and
times of a Customs Officer
The Suez Canal
In the late afternoon we reached the Great and Little Bitter Lakes. They are fairly large expanses of water. The two convoys usually regroup here with the faster passenger ships given preference in the line-up over cargo vessels and oil tankers, for a quick getaway at the end of the canal. Just after dusk we passed the port of Suez and Port Taufiq, at the southern end of the canal and then entered the Gulf of Suez and the Red Sea. It was a most enlightening, interesting and enjoyable experience.

The night before we were due to dock at Port Sudan, we were advised to close the porthole and lock the cabin door when we left, as the "Fuzzy Wuzzys", the colloquial name given to the local tribe, were notorious thieves, and many of them worked as dock labourers.

It was a hot and sticky morning when the ship tied up at* the quay. After obeying the instructions, we went ashore. The main tourist attraction, in fact the only attraction, was a cruise in a glass-bottomed boat to view myriads of varieties of tropical fish.

The weather was now warm enough for the swimming pool to be opened for use by the passengers. But with no definite hours set for swimming and with no restrictions on its use by children, the pool and poolside were invariably overcrowded and dangerous and bedlam reigned throughout the day and for half the night. This unsatisfactory state of affairs led to complaints to the Purser by some adults. An order was soon passed prohibiting children under the age of fourteen from using the pool between two and four in the afternoon and after six in the evening, even if accompanied by parents. Soon after the order was published and strictly enforced, we saw about twenty children, led by Brian, heading towards the Purser's office. We were told that the children under fourteen years of age were staging a protest march against the Purser's unfair order. The protest had no effect and the ban remained in force. As a reprisal the "volunteer work force" withdrew its services. I am certain that it was Brian's one and only "union" action. Years later he described it as a "minors'" strike, with the pun intended.

The official itinerary showed Aden as the next port of call and, according to the passenger list, six passengers were to disembark there. It was a surprise when the ship anchored in the outer harbour and the passengers and their baggage were ferried ashore in the shipping company's motor launch. Many of the passengers and crew were disappointed at being deprived of the opportunity of going ashore at one of Britain's interesting colonies and forfeiting a shopping spree. The reason given for not entering Aden harbour was that there were sufficient quantities of food, fuel and water aboard to last until the ship reached Mombasa. By not entering the inner harbour the company would saved hundreds of pounds in port dues.

While we were watching the Aden-bound passengers transfer to the launch, a fellow passenger who had lived in Aden for a few years, gave us some interesting information on the colony and some idea of life there. With the end of the voyage just three sailing-days away, the carefree holiday mood began to wane. Our thoughts turned to a fresh life in yet another country, the fourth; the possibilities of Babs getting a teaching job; the prospects of a suitable school for Brian and Michael; my concern at the inevitable frustrations and the challenge of opening a new Customs House, the first in an inland town in Uganda.

The Gala Ball was held on the night before we were due to dock at Mombasa. Charles, unchallenged, unrivalled and still incognito, organised and entertained in his usual efficient and nonchalant manner.

The Ramblings of a Wicked Colonialist
Mombasa Harbour
It was a warm, sunny morning when the "Dunnottar Castle" entered Mombasa Harbour. The last hour on board was one of farewells and goodbyes. Many of the tourist-class passengers searched frantically to find their popular, charming and likeable Master of Ceremonies. They wished to show their appreciation for all that he did to make the voyage enjoyable; the men to shake his hand and the ladies to hug and kiss him.

Charles very cleverly concealed and disguised his true identity until the very last half hour before disembarkation. It was a shock to a few, a great surprise to many and a big disappointment to the adoring females - married, single, young and old, my wife Babs included - when he was spotted among the other clergy, immaculate in his ecclesiastical robes. To this day, much to our amusement, Babs refers to him as "That Brute".

map of Nigeria
Suez Canal Map
Colony Profile
Egypt
Kenya
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