The Mailships to the Tropics

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By the early 19th century Britain had achieved the commercial supremacy it had pursued over the previous century; and it no longer needed to protect its trade in the same way. The doctrine of laissez-faire, based on “The Wealth of Nations” of 1776 by Scottish economist Adam Smith and widely adopted by politicians suggested that government interference should be kept to a minimum and free trade would encourage competition, to the benefit of all. The Navigation Acts, which had regulated British trade since the 1650s, were largely abolished in 1849, and the requirement to have British crews on British merchant ships ended in 1854. At almost the same time, the government felt it necessary to legislate to ensure that there were qualified officers on each ship, and to pass various regulations for safety at sea. The monopoly of the chartered companies was no longer acceptable, and the East India Company’s monopoly was abolished in 1833. Shipping routes were fully opened to competition.

The British government opened the Post Office packet service, the world’s largest mail service, to private enterprise (the term “packet” is derived from packets of mail”). A mail contract demanded a regular service in good time. It guaranteed a certain amount of revenue on a shipping route, which could be supplemented by carrying passengers and freight, but penalties for late delivery were severe. In 1839, Samuel Cunard , who had won the transatlantic contract, agreed to pay £500 for every 12 hours his ships were late. In 1837 Arthur Anderson set up a steamship service between Falmouth and the ports of Spain and Portugal. His Peninsular & Oriental Steam Navigation Company (P&O) was founded in 1840 and soon extended its services to India, with passengers travelling overland across the Isthmus of Suez, which separated the Mediterranean Sea from the Red Sea and the Indian Ocean beyond.

In a separate development, shipowners began to use special flags, their house flags, to identify their ships. This began at the Lloyds station near Liverpool in 1771, which would hoist a signal to alert an owner that his ship was about to arrive in port, and house flags became common during the Napoleonic Wars. They were virtually universal by the mid 19th century, and in 1882 Lloyds issued the first edition of its “Book of House Flags”. The design and colours of the house flag had even more relevance to steamship lines when they began to apply it to their funnels, and the funnel attained great symbolism by the end of the 19th century. Alfred Holt & Company, based in Liverpool, was commonly known as the Blue Funnel Line and had one of the strongest identities of any cargo shipping company. The distinctive red funnels with black bands of Cunard Line became a favourite marketing tool in the company’s advertisements.

By the second half of the 19th century, the British steam shipping lines had lost some of their dominance. The largest German line, Hamburg Amerika, started in the transatlantic trade in 1847, and by the 1880s it was building some of the largest ships in the world. The other great German company, Norddeutscher Lloyd, began in 1856 with operations from Germany to Hull and London. In the 1860s and 1870s, it expanded with services to the USA. The Dutch line Holland America was founded in 1873 under a different name. By its 25th anniversary, it had carried 90,000 cabin and 400,000 steerage passengers to the USA, as well as five million tons of cargo, mostly the traditional Dutch exports of flower bulbs, gin and herring. The French Messageries Maritime grew out of the state postal service in 1835 and took the form of a major shipping line, sponsored by Emperor Napoleon III, in 1853. Its horizons expanded in 1857, when it took on the main services from Bordeaux to Brazil and the River Plate. By 1900 it had 60 ships and was the sixth largest in the world.

The opening of the Suez Canal in 1869 had an immediate effect on world shipping. It shortened the distance from London to Bombay by 7,125km (4,425 miles). It made a steamship voyage to the east much more practicable, for it was largely in the sheltered waters of the Mediterranean and Red Seas. The same waters, especially those of the Red Sea, had unreliable winds and were unsuitable for sailing ships. As much as any technological innovation, the Suez Canal ensured the dominance of the steamship on long distance routes.

Although Britain was not involved in building the canal, the country’s interests in India and Australia meant that it could not afford to ignore its effect on trade routes. Soon two-thirds of the shipping passing through the canal was British. In 1875, as the Egyptian monarchy faced bankruptcy, the British government, led by the Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli, bought seven-sixteenths of the shares. The canal became a major factor in the trade, colonial, and foreign policies of Britain and France over the century after its construction. In 1882, the British occupied Egypt, largely to secure the canal, and it remained a British protectorate until 1922.

If the Blue Riband liners of the North Atlantic captured the imagination and made the headlines, the ocean liner was equally important on the long distance “mail” routes linking Britain and Europe with their colonies, dominions and overseas possessions.  Indeed the steamship entrepreneurs such as British India Line’s MacKinnon, Castle Line’s Currie and others played vital roles as empire builders. In many cases the Red Duster preceded both the Union Flag and the White Ensign. Little wonder that the mailship assumed great symbolic importance. They also gave the English language a new word – posh – which came from the initials on tickets POSH meaning the traveller was entitled to that most coveted cabin location in the era before air conditioning “Port Out (to India and the Far East) Starboard Home” i.e. the shady side of the steamer.

The colonial mailship was a rather different vessel from her North Atlantic cousins. Most ran on heavily subsidised mail routes operating under fixed government contracts and plied by one or two shipping lines rendering them indelibly associated with their destinations.

The nature of these routes discouraged adoption of technical innovations. British India Line’s Amra, Aronda and Aska completed in 1938 for the Calcutta to Burma route were coal fired and reciprocating engined, whilst the England to Cape Town record won by the Scot in 1893 lasted for 35 years. But these colonial steamers had their own quirky characteristics, reflecting the need to carry four or more classes of passenger, often “native” deck passengers and troops, mails, cargo, livestock, railway locomotives and generators. And even more than the big transatlantic liners, they figured prominently in the lives of generations of expats taking children off to school in England or bringing a new family car or gramophone or the first export crop of maize from Kenya. The P&O liners summed up the British Empire in their dignified “stone and black” livery. Even curry on the menus reflected their route. Rotterdam Lloyd’s Indonesian stewards were barefoot and wore the Dutch interpretation of “native” attire.

Mailships were floating microcosms of colonial social hierarchy and the ethnic and religious differences that characterised many colonies. First Class was the preserve of the burra sahibs, the top echelon of colonial administrators, governments, military and the clergy. Second Class was favoured by the lower status civil servants and missionaries. “Natives” travelled deck class, squatting, sleeping and eating around their bundles of possessions in the “tween decks”. On the British India Line ships, Muslims were berthed forward and Hindus aft with separate galleys and diets for each faith.

The colonial mail routes networked into a complex web of interconnecting lines, a precursor of today’s airline hubs. Passengers arriving in a British India Line or Union Castle Line steamer at Durban could change ships to services to the smallest East African ports, Seychelles Islands or Bombay. From there the aptly named “Gateway to India”, there were services to the Persian Gulf and, of course, the doyen of all mailship routes P&O Line’s Bombay Mail to England. Where ships could not go, dozens of special “boat trains” met arriving steamers at the port, for example at Mombasa to travel up country in Kenya. Or at Beira for Rhodesia, and most notably at Cape Town for travel on the Union Express or Union Limited to Johannesburg and Pretoria. Most experienced travellers going East via Suez could avoid the rough and time consuming Bay of Biscay passage, by taking special express boat trains to Marseille to embark on the waiting mailship.

In the early 1900s, ships began to be fitted with wireless telegraphs, the invention of Guglielmo Marconi. On 24th January 1909, the wireless proved its worth to shipping when the Italian steamer Florida collided with the White Star liner Republic in a thick fog about 275 km (170 miles) east of New York. The Republic’s Marconi wireless operator Jack Binns sent the distress signal CQD (“come quick, danger”) which was received by the White Star liner Baltic. The Republic sank, but 1,700 lives were saved. Marconi enjoyed further success in July 1910, when the captain of the westward bound Montrose asked his Marconi operator to telegraph Scotland Yard with the message that he suspected that the London cellar murderer Dr Hawley Harvey Crippen was among the saloon passengers onboard. Crippen and his accomplice were arrested by a detective when the Montrose docked in Montreal.

The late 1920s and 30s witnessed a new generation of larger and more technically advanced ships. Many were exemplars of the best in naval architecture and engineering of the day including the Viceroy of India (1928), England’s first turbo-electric liner, Dominion Monarch (1939), the largest British built motor ship, and Capetown Castle (1938), the fastest British motor ship. If Nieuw Amsterdam of 1938 was Holland’s largest transatlantic liner, Nederland Line’s Oranje and Rotterdam Lloyd Line’s Willem Ruys of 1947 were no less noteworthy Dutch liners. America’s Panama class trio of 1939 was just as pace setting although built for the prosaic Panama Canal supply route from the USA. To suit these warm weather routes the tropical mail ships were the first in the world to feature air conditioning, first introduced at sea in 1931 by the Italian liner Victoria on the Italy to Egypt and later Orient route. Many American liners of the period featured air conditioning starting with Matson Line’s Mariposa, Monterey and Lurline on Hawaiian and Australian routes. Sadly the Second World War stopped the growth of empire.

After the Second World War the great liners returned to their peacetime trades soon after 1945, and for a time they boomed.

The Second World War stopped the global empires but the tropical liners adapted to the new postwar age. Indeed, they found their most dynamic expression in the 1950s and 60s as emigration expanded well beyond the Old World – New World axis. Many shipping lines, especially P&O-Orient, expanded their routes to intricate round the world services catering for migration to Australasia, South Africa and elsewhere. This was the heyday of the ocean liner as millions of displaced persons from war torn Europe started new lives in far away continents. With few fixed mail contracts, the new liners reflected the traditional economics of shipbuilding, build the largest and fastest possible ship for the route that could take the place of two or more smaller ships.

Heralding this new era were such ships as Rotterdam Lloyd Line’s stylish and streamlined Willem Ruys (1947) on the Indonesian and later round the world route. Her novel profile was achieved by placing the lifeboats very low in the superstructure and two very squat funnels. Most radical of all was Shaw Savill & Albion Line’s Southern Cross (1955) which daringly redefined the tropical ocean liner. She carried only one class, no cargo and, to provide maximum passenger space, had her machinery placed aft.

The 1960s was the brilliant but brief heyday of the large express ocean liners on the non-transatlantic routes. Ships such as P&O Line’s Canberra (1961), Orient Line’s Oriana (1960), Lloyd Triestino Line’s Galileo Galilei and Gugliemo Marconi (1963) and Costa Line’s Eugenio C. (1966) rank as among the fastest and largest ocean liners to serve on their respective routes and were in no way inferior to their transatlantic cousins. Indeed, far more large express ocean liners were built for non-transatlantic routes in the postwar era, and they were far more innovative. No British designed transatlantic liner represented such a daring synthesis of modern concepts as Canberra. None of her hallmarks – court cabins, radial designed forward staterooms, turbo-electric machinery and twin funnel uptakes – were novel, but for the first and only time they were incorporated to great effect in a single 45,000grt vessel, the largest ever built for a non transatlantic ocean liner route. She is best remembered as Britain’s most popular cruise ship.

The ocean liner figured much longer on the non transatlantic routes and operation continued well into the 1960s on routes initially unaffected by aeroplane competition. If one could cross the North Atlantic in a dozen or so hours by piston-engined airliner, it was a rather more protracted affair to get to Asia or Africa. And sometimes it was impossible by air. As late as 1974 the Seychelles Islands had no airport and British India Line’s Karanja (1948) continued to maintain a principal link along her Bombay to Durban route. The same shipping line’s Dwarka served on the Bombay to the Persian Gulf route until withdrawn in May 1982. Another remnant of such services was Shipping Corporation of India’s Chidambaram which sailed regularly from Madras to Singapore. Even she had a past, being the last Messageries Maritimes liner, Pasteur. Passenger vessels continued to play and important role in the annual Haj to Mecca required of every Muslim.

The age of the overseas mail ocean liner can be said to have ended in 1977 with the almost simultaneous withdrawal of Lloyd Triestino’s round the world, Africa and Asia services, those of Chandris Lines’ Australaris (formerly known as America) and, most poignantly, Union Castle Line’s fabled Cape Mail route.

When the RMS Windsor Castle sailed from Cape Town for the final time in September 1977, she was bringing to a close a most distinguished era in the story of the ocean liner – the era of the colonial mailships linking Britain and Europe with their colonies, dominions and territories overseas.

Ironically, the England to Cape Town route is still plied by the very last of her kind, RMS St Helena (II) which links the remote South Atlantic island of St Helena (which has no airport) with Ascension Island, Cape Town and Britain. Like the first of the colonial mailships and her other predecessors, she is very much a lifeline and today offers one of the most rewarding ocean voyages available.   Sadly on the 7th September 2004 this last vestige of the ocean liner era will fade forever as the RMS St Helena will leave Portland in the UK on her final voyage via St Helena, Ascension Island and thence to Cape Town. After this date she will no longer sail on the traditional route from the UK on a regular basis and instead will only sail on a much truncated route from Cape Town to Ascension Island and St Helena calling at Luderitz and Walvis Bay with cargo from the UK being trans-shipped through Cape Town. However she still continues to make occasional voyages from the UK. So the mailship legacy lingers on yet. 

        (c) The AJN Transport Britain Collection 2008                                                                                                                                                                                 A Edward Elliott