The British Empire Library

Passage East

by Ian Marshall

Courtesy of OSPA

Review by K J Barnes (Nigeria, Nyasaland 1954-72)
The Passage East tells the story of passenger sea travel between Britain and her eastern possessions between 1837 and 1970. The superb reproductions of 45 watercolour paintings, 7 watercolour sketches and 33 photographs (not to mention innumerable line drawings) are its outstanding features and it is to these that one's attention is first drawn.

Here are the ships and ports at which they called, beginning with HEICoS Berenice, which inaugurated the scheduled steamer service between Bombay and Suez, and finishing with the departure of SS Chusan from Bombay on 8 February 1970 (the last scheduled passenger liner sailing). In between come the names and pictures of the great ships that carried the soldiers, the civil servants and business men (and in increasing numbers, their wives and children) who ruled and worked in the Indian Empire, Malaya and Hong Kong. (I was particularly pleased to see a picture of RMS Viceroy of India in which, as a ten year old, I travelled from Liverpool to Singapore in 1940, an exciting 7? week wartime voyage). Here too are the ports, Gibraltar, Malta, Port Said with its distinctive lighthouse tower, the barren aridity of Aden, Bombay, an early picture of the Mount Lavinia Hotel in Ceylon (I remember a splendid curry with turbaned waiters and enormous silver dishes), Calcutta, Singapore, Hong Kong and 1921 Shanghai.

In addition to the very full notes accompanying these plates, passenger life on board ship is described in extracts from the diaries and letters of a score and more of travellers. These make clear that, however rosy and romantic in retrospect, sea voyages had their problems. These may have ranged from unsuitable cabin companions (and the cabins themselves were small, often airless, and poorly furnished), to unappetising food and wine (though this changed enormously after the Great War); throughout the period, however, there was in every voyage the hatefulness of the journey through the Red Sea. Coaling at Aden, where the dust and grime encroached into every comer of the ship and onto every item of clothing, was an appropriate ending of a seventy-two hour nightmare.

This is a splendid book, which is already on its second printing. I would have liked more, on the smaller passenger ships (less formal, cheaper and in my mother's view more suitable for children), on the stewardesses who were so important to the women passengers, on lots of other things. But I must not cavil. This is a book to rekindle the memories on anyone who went out East and to interest all.

British Empire Book
Ian Marshall
Howell Press


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