Advance Australia! Chapter 2

The Voyage (continued)

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The voyage continues, stopping at Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) and Singapore. Finch-Hatton transferred to another ship, the Somerset, for the rest of the voyage to Australia. Seasickness, Singapore, The Somerset, the voyage, man overboard.

Seasickness was particularly hard on the married couples on board:

Among the passengers on board, there were several newly-married couples, and their behaviour was sometimes rather interesting. Of all places to spend a honeymoon, I can conceive none more discouraging than the sea. We all know that some of the gilt must come off the gingerbread sooner or later, but there are many ways of removing it, and it is just as well to take care that the more solid material beneath it is not injured during the process.

It would be interesting to a psychologist who was also a good sailor, to study the appalling effects of sea-sickness upon the soul, no less remarkable in the case of a subject who does not actually suffer, but is merely compelled to witness the misery of others. Cervantes, we are told, smiled away the chivalry of Spain. ...

... Sea-sickness is, of all iconoclasts, the most terrible, and before its fell advances chivalry withers more quickly and more surely than ever it did before the smile of Cervantes, and it withers to anything but the tune of a smile. If it were only for this reason alone, life at sea would present matrimony under the most unfavourable aspect it is possible to imagine. Can anything be more terrible than to watch a countenance in which you take the deepest interest, transfigured by sea-sickness into the ghastly semblance of a frost-bitten turnip, and every atom of self-respect crushed by this most levelling malady.

But there are other annoyances besides. Careful and comparative observation leads me to believe that a woman whose digestive organs have so far rallied from sea-sickness as to allow her to eat, but whose appearance still forbids her to leave her cabin, is the most transcendently selfish of all God's creatures. Under such circumstances I have seen offices of vicarious selfishness thrust upon the unfortunate husband, which the veriest egotist would shrink from negotiating for himself. ...

One day the vessel was rolling rather heavily, and though most of the passengers had got their sea-legs, some few remained below. Among the latter was the wife of a man whom I noticed staggering up the companion one morning, with the watery eye and uncertain gait of one just recovering from violent sickness. He reached the deck safely, however, and with a considerable slue to port, brought himself up in a deck-chair. I saw him scatter a glance round, possibly to discover the whereabouts of his better half. Finding himself quite alone, his eye brightened, and he blew his nose in that triumphant manner which a man never adopts except when he is quite at ease. He even pulled out his cigar-case and looked at it, but discretion overcame valour, and he put it back in his pocket, and prepared for perfect repose. He was not destined to enjoy it long. In a few minutes a whey-faced domestic appeared at the door of the companion, shepherding two of the most disagreeable-looking children I ever saw. They had faces like badly-baked buns, and were dressed as outrageously as only the offspring of British parents of a certain class ever are. Their legs and feet were like hockey-sticks, and looked so utterly incapable of supporting the distended waistcoats above them, that their prudent mother had attached a long red ribbon to each of their arms, to act as a sort of reins. These were now entrusted to the hands of paterfamilias, with instructions to drive his progeny up and down the deck for exercise. Of course he did so, and very ridiculous he looked; but there was a pathetic side to the picture as well. In his eye there was a piteous glance of retrospection, which seemed to recall the time when he could take his ease or his exercise, as the spirit moved him, without being required to make a greater fool of himself than Nature intended him to be.


Five days after leaving Galle [in Sri Lanka] we got to Singapore, and had to wait there a week, which was a nuisance, as there is only one hotel in the place fit to live in, and even that one is certainly one of the vilest in the world. The food is simply filthy, and not much of it, the attendance wretched, and the manager gratuitously insulting to everyone. While I was there he was knocked down and shut up in his own coal-cellar by a resident in the town, to whom he had been impertinent, to the intense delight of everyone else in the place.

Singapore itself is a lovely place, with rather a disagreeable climate. The thermometer never varies above a few degrees, and stands at about 85° day and night, all the year round. The wealthier class of inhabitants live in bungalows scattered about over the ridges in the neighbourhood of the town, most of them surrounded by beautiful gardens. They all seem utterly depressed by the enervating climate, and do not aspire to any higher interest in life than a generous rivalry in the concoction of marvellous curries. An old resident of Singapore takes as much interest and pride in his curries as an Englishman does in his racehorses or his hunters, and he always speaks of a rival connoisseur with deep feeling and respect. Both men and women look very faded and washed-out, and the only colour in their faces is yellow from a prolonged course of curry. I used to walk all round the place for miles every day, in the heat of the day, and never felt anything but better for it.

The Somerset was not the most luxurious of ships:

A week's loafing around Singapore produced a wild longing to leave it, but I must say that I was not exhilarated by the sight of the boat that was to carry me to Australia. She was called the Somerset, and was the property of the Eastern and Australian Company, and was about as depressing an old tub as I ever travelled in. In the best of weather she was not good for more than eight knots, and if it came on to blow ahead she went astern.

... Anything like the horrors of that voyage I never remember. The smell of bilge-water and cockroaches in the saloon was so overpowering that it was almost impossible to stay down long enough to swallow a meal. There were 320 Chinese emigrants forward, who not only smelt horribly themselves, but spent their whole time in cooking nauseous oily messes, the stench from which was wafted aft in a continuous stream from one day's end to another. For days at a time there was not a breath of air, and the heat was so intense that the pitch used to melt and bubble up in the seams of the deck.

The voyage was not without its problems:

Three days after leaving Singapore the weather got very squally, and the rain came down in such torrents that, when standing on the bridge, it was sometimes impossible to see the foremast. After dark it grew worse, and the captain, who had been blowing an infernal fog-whistle at intervals of five minutes all through the day, informed the passengers that he had no idea where he was, but about three in the morning he ought to go through a winding passage two miles long and three-quarters of a mile wide, between two sunken reefs. After which, he turned the fog-whistle permanently on, and retired into his cabin.

... Fortunately, when we got to the Arafura Sea we dropped in for a gale of wind. This, as Robinson Crusoe observed, was an amusement the other way. It delayed us three days, but I have not a doubt it saved some of our lives. In the middle of the night, when the gale was at its height, the boiler of the old Somerset burst. The manhole plate flew clean off, and every particle of steam, of course, escaped. It took seventeen hours to repair it, during which time we lay like a log in the trough of the sea, with the waves breaking over us fore and aft. It cleaned us a little, though, which was very healthy.

Sea travel was not without its dangers, and not only for those on the ship:

Two nights afterwards we ran down a native boat, and drowned everyone in it. How many men there were in her I do not know, but we never picked up one. The next day we lost a man overboard ourselves. He was on the jibboom, where he had no business to have been sent, as there was a heavy sea on at the time. The old Somerset put her nose right into a wave, and, of course, the man was washed away. In spite of the sea that was running, he swam like a duck for about twenty minutes, during which time the captain was busily engaged in turning his old craft round to pick him up. I believe naval authorities are divided as to the advisability of going astern or turning the ship round to pick up a man overboard; but in the case of the Somerset I should certainly have preferred the former process, as she had at all times a natural inclination to go astern instead of ahead. However, the captain turned round, and I thought we should have got the poor fellow on board again all right. He was swimming beautifully, keeping his head and shoulders right out of the water, when suddenly he threw up his arms, rose half out of the water, and then sank like a stone. I expect a shark must have got him, as one had been prowling after us for some time. This incident brought the captain's ill-humour to a climax, and next day, when he found me throwing little pieces of stick over the side to see which way the vessel was going, he became quite uncivil.

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