Copyright G J Wright 2018
1965 BRITISH INDIA STEAM NAVIGATION COMPANY
In the autumn of 1964 after I returned from Ireland for my sister’s wedding, I was in London for some months and whilst there I signed on with the Colonial Office resettlement bureau. One of the officers at the bureau, a former Assistant Commissioner of Police in West Africa, was intent on getting me into the Metropolitan Police. I had an interview at the recruitment office in Borough High Street and was sent away to have a medical which included an eyesight test. I persuaded the optician to rate me below the required standard and that was the end of that. I had no interest in joining the Met, although in hindsight that’s perhaps what I should have done.
Early in 1965 I saw an advertisement on the resettlement office notice board for security officers to serve in ships of the British India Steam Navigation Company running between Bombay and Basra. I applied and was accepted.
The three British India ships on the route carried anything from 1000 to 1500 deck passengers each way, each voyage. On the morning of April 8th 1961 one of the ships, the MS Dara, was lost near Dubai when a bomb exploded in the tween deck and the ship burned with the loss of 238 lives. The Dara capsized and sank off Dubai three days later. The fire was caused by allowing passengers on deck to cook their own food. The primus stoves and charcoal braziers were scattered by the explosion and set fire to the tinder dry interior woodwork in the cabin accommodation above. Doubtless using these cooking devices was a custom that had been accepted in more temperate times and no-one had given it a moment’s thought to the possible hazard.
Evidence suggested that the bomb was set by elements of the Omani Rebels who were at that time waging an armed insurrection in the Dhofar Province against the Sultan of Oman. The rebels were supported by the pan-Arab socialist political party, the Ba’ath, which had then recently formed a government in Iraq.
Before departure I had a briefing at an MI5 office in central London where I went up five stories in a non-stop lift and then having passed security at a desk on the fifth floor was allowed to walk down stairs to fourth. Had I been in the Kenya Police Special Branch, they enquired. I had not.
Later I was taken by a Squadron Leader Morton to one of the forts in Portsmouth Harbour which was used as an explosives and sabotage training school. I spent a morning with two army warrant officers (who did not know who I was or what I was doing) making homemade explosives with the sort of ingredients found in the average kitchen or local hardware store. They were quite blasé about what they were doing and among other tricks I remember was heating petrol over a gauze on a primus stove and dissolving soap flakes to make an incendiary medium! I recall another product which was placed in an ordinary pottery plant pot and when initiated would create an intense flame from the hole in the bottom which would burn through a 5mm of steel — ideal for fuel tanks on trucks or planes. I still have the recipe!
After lunch, we went to a large hanger like building which was lined with expanded metal, there to set off the concoctions we had made in the morning. It seems that hitherto the devices had been exploded in the open, but when large chunks of metal landed in peoples’ back yards on shore it was decreed that in future everything would be done in the protection of the hanger. One of the rules was that after initiating a device one would walk calmly away to a bunker, rather than run and risk tripping. The pièce de résistance was to take a two gallon can and after filling it with petrol and wedging a detonator under the handle with a piece of fuse, to set it off outside the fort in the moat. The resulting explosion was spectacular. They told me that a 40-gallon drum was used for this demonstration when they were instructing large groups.
The object of all this was that I should be able to recognise homemade explosives and incendiary devices — though at that time I doubt that the Arabs were into that sort of thing and were more likely to use ‘off the shelf’ items. I was provided with a file with photographs of the kind of ‘off the shelf’ items that I might expect to find, and how to deal with them. I never saw any — at least not in a BI ship.
After a further briefing at the Foreign Office in Whitehall, where I had tea in front of a coal fire with one of the Middle East experts, I flew out to Bahrain and joined the MS Dumra before breakfast one morning.
Taken to his cabin just below the bridge, the chap I was to relieve, Charles Stuart, invited me to help myself. When I looked puzzled he pointed to a small ice box which was packed with cans of beer and said “breakfast”! Well it was damned hot so I did help myself. I later learned that the iceboxes in all the cabin was stocked daily with a large block of ice and that beer and spirits could be obtained from the Chief Steward on request — on payment of course, but at duty free prices!
After presenting me with my badge of office, a pick handle loaded with lead at the business end and assembled by the ship’s engineers, my predecessor, another former Colonial Policeman, left the ship to take up a position with the Bahrain State Police and I was thus thrown in at the deep end. The same afternoon we sailed for Kuwait.
I had six sets of white shorts and shirts, bought in the UK, and which the company deemed to be sufficient to last the length of each voyage of twenty-one days. Leaving Bombay, we called at Karachi, Gwador, Muscat, Dubai, and Umm Said in Qatar, Mina Sulman in Bahrain, Kuwait, Khoramshar and Basra, the last two ports in the Shatt al Arab. At each port, we loaded and unloaded freight and passengers. The return journey followed the same route.
Although the ship’s deck officers were all British, most of the cadets were Indian or Goanese, although I remember one Australian lad, Ken Whitehead, from Warrnambool in Victoria and an English boy whose name now escapes me. The doctor, purser, and stewards were also Indian or Goanese, and the deck crew or kalasies were Indian, all from the same fishing village on the Indian coast, led by their headman who served as the serang or bosun.
On each voyage, outward and inward, the ship carried up to 1000 deck passengers of a range of ethnicity and nationalities. There were Indian and Pakistani labourers seeking better pay in the gulf, Muslim pilgrims heading for the sacred Shia sites in Iraq and thence to Mecca, with or without their families. Then Sunnis from the tribal areas of North West Pakistan and others from Afghanistan, all in their traditional flat, peakless, caps and shalwar khamis.
After the loss of the Dara in 1961, the company prohibited the use of primus and charcoal in the tween decks and passengers were obliged to buy food from the Indian caterer or vishy wallah, who was contracted by the company. Families and affinity groups staked claims to areas in the tween decks, the main deck and on the hatch covers, erecting screens and awnings and setting out bedding. All very untidy and impossible to control.
On my first voyage, we arrived at Kuwait to find a small ship capsized at the wharf apparently destabilised by unpenned livestock which had rushed to the landward side as the ship berthed. The ship was just beginning to stink!
I learned that although male Europeans were allowed to travel as deck passengers, females were obliged to book into the cabin accommodation. The cabin decks were separated from the main deck by iron barred doors which were kept locked, although there was access to the accommodation through the deck passengers’ galley.
With the connivance of the Chief Officer, an area of the tween decks was set aside for a number of shop keepers who boarded at Dubai and left the ship at Kuwait, leaving their trunks of goods locked up on board. The shop keepers reboarded when the ship passed through Kuwait on the return voyage and left the ship at Dubai.
I was allocated an assistant who was known as a ‘gunner’. The title originated from the days when BI sailed to Shanghai and Hong Kong and carried a light gun as a defence against pirates.
On the second inward voyage in Dumra at Kuwait, the Captain, Peter Mills, decided to do a full check of boarding passengers over two gangways, one forward and one aft. I was at the forward gangway with the gunner, and the second mate with a cadet on the aft gangway. After the Dara, deck passengers were separated from their heavy baggage which was consigned to the holds and allowed to board only with a bedroll and items needed on the voyage. This check proved to be an almost impossible task and to the best of my knowledge was never tried again.
After the austerity of India and Pakistan, the Persian Gulf was a cornucopia of consumer goods and the gear loaded into the hold covered just about everything one could imagine. Among other things, I saw television sets taken to India before there was even had a television service there.
At the completion of the voyage, the ship spent ten days alongside at Alexandra Dock in Bombay, or at anchor in the stream. Some of the officers had their families living in Bombay and there was a BI Club in the central city. British residents, including officers with families, tended to live out at Breach Candy where there was a beach, exclusive clubs, a swimming pool and a liquor store which people holding foreign passports could use.
Whilst in Bombay, I spent some time with a family who hailed from St Ives, my hometown. Philip Parish who had worked at Enderby’s Mill in St Ives, managed a packaging firm in Bombay. Philip’s ten-year-old son would come off to the ship in the stream where he soon struck a friendship with the son of Harry Chambers, the mate, who was the same age.
Philip’s wife was on a committee of British women who made it their task to rescue girls who had married Indians or Pakistanis in Britain but had not foreseen the conditions in which they would be expected to live on the sub-continent. They had safe houses in Bombay where they could hide the girls whilst arranging passage back to the UK. I remember one particular case in which an English girl had arrived at Karachi by sea bringing with her a wardrobe of clothes including riding and tennis gear, sporting equipment and cosmetics. On the wharf were her husband’s entire family with all the women in purdah and she then learned that she too would be expected to adopt the custom and be obedient to her mother-in-law. She wisely elected to stay on the ship to Bombay and then return to the UK.
In the 1960s, Bombay was an austere, poverty-stricken place with Raj era buildings falling into disrepair. Streets, public buildings and parks were occupied by the homeless and beggars were endemic — even the platforms of the main railway station, the Victoria Terminus, in Central Bombay had become a camp ground.
In central Bombay, apart from the Taj Mahal Hotel by the Gateway to India, there were a couple of decent eating places. At Purahit’s in Church Gate, a Hindu vegetarian place, they served a silver thali, a large circular tray containing a circle of small pots with a variety of dishes with chapatti and sambals in the centre. Another favoured spot, The Sizzler, was above the entrance to a cinema, where they served buffalo steaks which arrived still sizzling on a very hot cast iron plate resting on a solid wooden base. Cows being sacred, beef was off the menu and so Buffalo served. Although available from carts on the street, common sense dictated that iced limbu pani, or lime water, a really refreshing drink was taken only at the Taj.
For the most part the deck passengers, who were in a strange alien environment, were well behaved, even docile, but there were incidents. At first, I was puzzled by flare ups in the tween decks among Afghanis or tribal Pakistanis, but it didn’t take long to work out the cause. For many of these men, from strict Muslim areas, this was the first time that they had been out from under the thumb of the Mullahs and, inevitably, they were not slow to take advantage of their freedom. But from where were they obtaining alcohol. It was unlikely that they would have brought it on board with them, since they had no access ashore — so it had to have been sourced on board.
One evening the gunner reported a fracas in the tween deck. On the way below, I called on the purser, Mr Shah Nawaz, and after explaining the problem, invited him to come with me to help sort it out. He demurred, but I insisted. Matters had cooled somewhat by the time we arrived, but the evidence was there. Several of the gentlemen were very much the worse for wear and one had a bad slash on his arm. Language was a problem, making it difficult to get the bottom of things, but there were always one or two among the passengers who had a smattering of English or one of the Indian languages. As far as I could gather, the man with the cut on his arm had reprimanded the others for drinking alcohol and had been slashed for his trouble. The knife, a small stainless-steel army type, was eventually produced and confiscated — I had to accept that that was indeed the knife, but there could have been others. I still have the knife!
Back on the main deck I asked Shar Nawaz where he thought that the men had obtained their alcohol. He was a picture of innocence and said that he had no idea. I then invited him to come with me to the Captain’s cabin where I would produce conclusive evidence on the origin of the booze. At that, he said that he had supplied some alcohol to several kalasies (seamen) but had no idea that they were on selling it. When I named the men to who he had supplied the alcohol and that they had confirmed that he had received the proceeds, he agreed. I then suggested that in future the gunner should report such incidents to him and that he could sort then out. He truculently said that this was not his job. I replied that if there were any more incidents in the tween decks involving alcohol, then I would talk with the Captain to ensure that Shah Nawaz would be made responsible for the consequences.
I later found that one way of calming things in the tween decks was to patrol carrying the loaded pick handle, clasped horizontally behind my back. I never had to use it, but it certainly produced the desired effect.
We often encountered large swells in the North Arabian Sea before entering the gulf, the ship would roll through twenty or more degrees either way. The sea would discommode many of the passengers who were mostly land folk and the tween decks tended to become rather unsavoury. I customarily did a patrol late in the evening and at those times found it sensible to fortify myself with a large scotch before venturing below!
Naturally I had access to all areas of the ship and would sometimes walk through the engine room and down the propeller shaft tunnel as far as the stern glands, before emerging through the tiller flat onto the poop. It was interesting to see the two large propeller shafts lazily revolving.
On each voyage, there were several deaths from natural causes or accident, mainly of old people and babies, which were dealt with by an entry into the ship’s log and then the bodies were committed off the poop. It seemed that the way the passengers slept huddled together on the hatches and on the deck, was the cause of the infant deaths where it was easy to unwittingly roll onto and suffocate them. But, since the ship was usually outside of any jurisdiction, that’s where the matter rested.
Stowaways were a persistent problem and often not revealed until they tried to get ashore at one or other of the gulf ports. On the instructions of the local immigration authorities, stowaways were supposed to be locked in a cell, but in practise were briefed to ‘disappear’ before the ship tied up. Always males, the stowaways were invariably from southern India and spoke obscure languages. At Bombay, unless they had proof of that they were originally from India, immigration often refused to accept them and some travelled back and forth for several voyages before they managed to sneak ashore in the Gulf. At sea, they worked under the supervision of the bosun.
At Mina Salman, Bahrain, on my first voyage in Sirdhana I was visited by two gentlemen from HMS Jufair, a Royal Navy shore station situated just outside the port. They presented me with copies of the London Times and the Telegraph, made small talk, and eventually got down to the purpose of their visit. Would I keep my eyes open in the Shatt al Arab and note anything that could be of interest, changes, construction and vessels of the Iranian and Iraqi navies? They were particularly interested in the number and location of Russian Komar class boats which were being delivered to Basra as deck cargo in Russian ships. They would visit me on the inward voyage. These visits became a regular event.
At Kuwait the ship was alongside for about eight hours which allowed time to visit the shopping area of the city. Even back then, 1965, the shops offered consumer goods, such as electronics, fashion, photographic gear and quality watches at unbelievably low prices. On one visit an all transistor radio receiver caught my eye, an American Zenith Trans-Oceanic which I had seen frequently advertised in the National Geographic magazine. I had priced this radio in London at over £200 and was surprised to find it in Kuwait at £50 and so I bought one (I still have it beside my bed). Back at the ship in my cabin, I switched it on with the telescopic antenna extended only to be greeted by static noise — the steel hull and superstructure were screening radio waves from the interior. The ship’s Marconi radio operators came to the rescue, running a length of wire up the front of bridge to the compass platform and I was soon listening to BBC overseas service from London.
The ship’s VHF hand held ‘walkie-talkies’ presented the same problem and to communicate with the bridge it was necessary to ensure that the aerial was clear of the hull, through a scuttle or gangway door. A few years later on a course with HM Customs in the Port of London I found that they used UHF radios which overcame this problem.
On one voyage, I broke the glass of my watch and on arrival in Kuwait visited the local Omega agent where I found a young Swiss watchmaker who had a complete modern workshop. I told him that I would pick up the watch on the inward voyage in about three days but, to my surprise he offered to deliver it to the ship the same afternoon. He appeared shortly before we sailed and when I asked the cost of the repair he replied “It’s free to you, if you can let him have a bottle of whisky”. I asked how he would get it past the Kuwaiti customs on the gangway, he grinned and said “no problem”. So, I gave him two bottles of Johnny Walker Black Label and told him that if he was caught, then I knew nothing about the transaction. I heard nothing more from him.
Although all liquor was locked up and sealed whilst we were in port, Mr Fernandez, the Chief Steward, always kept a ready use supply for the officers and uninvited guests. At that time, duty free, spirits were about seven shillings a bottle. A feature of many of the ports we served, but especially the Muslim Ports, was that customs, immigration, agriculture and others, would expect to be wined and dined, often with their families. At Kuwait, they demanded a cabin and a plentiful selection of alcohol. The company turned a blind eye and, in fact had no choice, and presumably regarded this, and other bribes, as the price of doing business in that part of the world.
Often, Graham Kendall, the first radio officer, a Yorkshireman, who was a bit of a humourist, would stand on the boat deck and yell something along the lines; “Come on lads, curry’s up and the bar’s open — bring granny, mum and the kids.” He was a talented cartoonist and on one trip, just before Bombay, he pinned a cartoon on the accommodation notice board entitled “Shastri Cap” which depicted the then Prime Minster of India, Lal Bahadur Shastri, in a dhoti with Andy Cap headgear. It was really well done. All was well until the Captain saw it!
At Fao, two Iraqi river pilots boarded the ship for the journey up the Shat al Arab to Basra. From Fao to just south if Basra, the thalweg of the river served as the international boundary between Iraq and Iran.
At Khoramshar in the Shatt al Arab, the ship anchored in the stream and all business with the shore was by launch and lighter. Here, two amiable young gentlemen from the Iranian secret service, the Savak, would pay me a visit for, as far as I could see, no particular reason. I suspect that the title ‘Security Officer’ carried somewhat different connotations for them, something along the lines of a commissar or political officer, which made them feel that I was playing for the same team! Less Islamic, whatever their real motives, they showed a great interest in the contents of my ice box. Their interest in a cold beer, or two, was justified as, by this time of the year, May/June, the temperature in the river during the day would exceed 40° Fahrenheit. This, of course, was before the days of the Iranian Islamic Republic.
Some trips, the same two Savak guys would arrive bearing gifts in the form a small sealed tins of Caspian caviar. The containers were about the same size as a shoe polish tin, perhaps a little deeper. By Iraqi regulation, the ship’s radio would be shut down in the river and so I would invite the two Marconi operators, Graham Kendall and Ian Ryder, and anyone else who happened by, to an evening caviar party. The galley would produce a pile of thin toast and a bottle or two of chilled white wine would help the delicacy down. One evening, Graham suggested that I might like to take a look in a mirror, whereat I found that I had taken on an all over deep red hue. The ship’s doctor, Doc Roy, took one look and said “have you been eating fish?”
British registered ships carrying more than one hundred passengers were required to carry a doctor. In the BI ships, these were usually elderly retired Indian practitioners of varied competency and often had limited English. One I recall would sit down at the breakfast table, listen briefly to the conversation and with monotonous regularity would question; “What happened Mr Kendall, what happened?” He never had a sensible answer from Graham who would set out to confuse, the reply being something along the lines; “The bloody dog stole the joint, Doc”. Doc would nod his head knowingly, “Ah, I see”.
My cabin was just below the bridge looking forward, but when the ship was moored, or at anchor, there was no breeze. The only air-conditioning on the ship was the in the Captain’s cabin and the saloon, the latter not very efficient.
I had experienced sandstorms in Aden, but nothing like the one that engulfed the ship whilst at anchored in the river at Khoramshar. It appeared on the northern horizon as a dense rolling grey cloud extending upwards to several thousand feet and moving quite fast. I shot its approach on my cine camera and as soon as the forecastle disappeared slammed my cabin windows shut — in vain, the sand penetrated everywhere and everything.
Under the hand washbasin in my cabin was small plumbing hole in the wall which opened into the Chief Officer’s cabin next door. Harry Chambers had a Linguaphone course in French and I would be woken most mornings hearing “leçon un, premier leçon” as Harry tried to come to grips with this difficult phrase. He did progress, but I’m not sure that he ever learned to speak French.
It soon became clear that six sets of whites were nowhere near enough for a twenty-one-day voyage and so I order additional sets from a tailor in Bombay. By the end of my brief spell with BI I had accumulated forty sets. Dirty washing would be collected in Bombay by a dhobi wallah who would take the lot away wrapped in a bed sheet and return it, sparkling white, lightly starched and pressed, in a couple of days — all for a song.
Turn around in Bombay extended to ten days during which time, I was free of any duties. We would visit the European Club at Breach Candy which had an excellent pool and where several of the officers had company houses for their families. India was under the thrall of prohibition back then, but foreign passports holders could buy liquor and there was a grog shop at Breach Candy for their exclusive use. The BI club offered a refuge and a cold drink in the central city on Hornby Road. There was also an excellent, large, air conditioned, and much-frequented cinema. I recall there seeing the film “Those Magnificent Men in their Flying Machines” and the roar of laughter that greeted the scene where an aeroplane was forced to land in the driveway of a stately home and a portly figure in a motor car told the pilot “You frightened the memsahib, sir!”
Of course, prohibition did not prevent enterprising local from producing their own brands of alcohol. Palm toddy was endemic along the coast and elsewhere brews were concocted of other fruit and vegetables. There were frequent reports of large numbers of deaths from alcohol poisoning of people who had imbibed a locally produce spirit known as ‘Kill-me-quick’. It seems that they made error of distilling methanol rather than ethanol. I recall being offered a legitimate Indian whisky at the BI club, but I found it too sweet and any resemblance to real whisky was coincidental. I believe that it was distilled in Kashmir.
Alongside in Karachi on one voyage I found a rather disreputable character wandering around the ship who could offer no explanation for his presence. I took him to the gangway and put him off. Sometime later, I was in my cabin when the door crashed open and several equally disreputable looking gentlemen entered, announced themselves as police officers and said that they intended to search my cabin. They could give me no explanation as to what they were looking for and it soon became clear that they were just intent on being bloody minded. In the wardrobe, they found my .22 Rifle which they insisted on calling a “Short gun”; after examining it meticulously, to my surprise they put it back into the wardrobe and shut the door! Meanwhile one of them was going through my bookshelf and in triumph he found an Indian 50 rupee note in the map sleeve of a book.
It seemed that ‘hiding’ this undeclared note, which then had a value of about £3 15s, amounted to a heinous crime for which I was likely to be imprisoned. My explanation that I had put it there as a safeguard against theft and had forgotten about it, cut no ice. After lengthy and argumentative discussion, in Urdu, they decreed that I should make a statement. I declined to say anything apart from my reasonable explanation, indeed there was nothing more that I could add. At that we repaired to Captain Windle’s cabin where we again went through what had happened. Asked by Windle as to why they were searching my cabin, they said that it was because I had removed their ‘informer’ from the ship. So, I was to be penalised for doing my job!
The Captain, affectionately known by all as “Windy” Windle asked that if I made a statement would that be the end of the matter. He provided a piece of paper on which I wrote; “The policemen came to my cabin and found a 50 rupee note” I signed it and they all trooped off the ship. I suspect that the informer was freelancing and using his police connections as protection, otherwise he would have had a plausible cover story.
When I left the Kenya Police I became eligible for a small pension which at that time was paid quarterly. But to qualify I had to submit a ‘Life Certificate’ each year in April with my signature witnessed by any one from a list of specified people. On the list was ’an officer of the court’ in any Commonwealth country. So, one morning in Bombay I went to the High Court building which was, I think, on Hornby Road (since renamed) near the Crawford Market. I was chased up the large flight of stone steps at the front of the court by literally dozens of men, who I took to be indigents seeking a handout. They followed me into an office where I learned that they were advocates, or lawyers, looking for work. The gentleman in the dusty office whose desk was laden with files tied with red tape — a Dickensian scene —I told him that I wanted a signature witnessed. Seventy-five rupees, he said shaking his head from side to side in the Indian fashion, and I left, document not witnessed, closely followed by the jabbering advocates!
Ten days later in Basra I went to the British Consulate, was greeted by a young lady at the door who told me that the consulate was not open, as it was Friday. But are you going to the British Club, she asked, bring your papers to the club and the consul would be pleased to witness your signature. Later, at the club, I met the consul by the pool, he signed on the dotted line and then bought me a gin and tonic!
On one voyage, I found two gentlemen taking coffee on the promenade deck and they introduced themselves as Hugh Boustead and Tug Wilson on their way for their annual holiday in Kashmir. We talked and when Hugh found that I’d been in Kenya he asked if knew some friends of his who lived near Malindi — it happened that I did. By chance I discovered that Hugh was Colonel Sir Hugh Boustead KBE CMG DSO MC who I had heard of, but never thought that I would meet. He was by then retired and looking after the stables of the ruler of Abu Dhabi. Major Tug Wilson was a serving officer with the TOS, the Trucial Oman Scouts.
At the beginning of WWI, Hugh Boustead was serving as a midshipman in HMS Hyacinth on the Cape Station. He jumped ship, travelled a 1000 miles into the Transvaal and, underage, joined the South African Scottish Rifles. Posted to Salisbury Plain he was discovered by his parents after a tip-off. He was permitted to stay in the Army and served, and was wounded, on the Western Front. In 1919, in Southern Russia he served as a British Liaison Officer. Whilst in Russia he received a Royal pardon for his desertion from the Royal Navy at the instigation of King George V — a royal pardon. Later he commanded the Camel Corp in the Sudan, served as a political officer in Darfur, and in the Aden Protectorate and Oman. He died in 2002 leaving an interesting autobiography; “The Wind of the Morning”.
On another voyage, the ship carried Sheikh Sultan, the son of the ruler of Abu Dhabi, his entourage, and a large American motor car, all returning from a holiday in India. At Abu Dhabi he invited us ashore for coffee. Harry Chambers, Mike Davidson, myself and others went ashore, inspected his stables and then went to his rooms in the large old white fort. Sure, we were offered coffee, but once we had settled down, a servant came in with a trolley laden with beer and spirits — “thought you might like something stronger”, said the Sheikh! I recorded the visit on cine camera, but have no still photographs.
I asked Sheikh Sultan what had become of Wilfred Thesiger’s companions Salim bin Kabina and Salim bin Ghabaisha. After his second crossing of the Empty Quarter, as a Nasrani (Christian), Thesiger had been banned from entering Oman and had fetched up in Abu Dhabi with the two boys who had accompanied him on both journeys. Sultan laughed, “Oh, you mean Mubarak Bin London” (the Blessing from London). He said that with the rifles that Thesiger had given them, they became bandits and bin Ghabaisha was eventually killed.
One morning at anchor off Dubai the gunner reported that there was a “General sahib” at the gangway asking for me. The gunner could be forgiven for mistaking the rank of the visitor who turned out to be Vic Aubrey who was divisional superintendent at Kisumu during my time there, 1955 to 1958. Vic, in a decorative and resplendent uniform, was now with the Dubai Police and thoroughly enjoying his new position.
The Marconi radio officer, Ian Ryder, and I would take day trips into the country by rail and on one occasion we went to Kalyan which is north of Bombay and just inside the neighbouring State of Gujarat. We walked a lot and somehow found our way to the beach where we saw large fish drying racks, part of the process for making Bombay duck, a delicacy eaten with curry. The stench was indescribable and enough to make anyone think twice before eating Bombay duck again — but it was nice when finished and so I did eat it again. On the way to the beach we found an extensive walled area, said to be part of an old Portuguese factory, or trading community. When we saw it, it was occupied by what appeared to be a Catholic boys’ school.
On another trip, we walked north until we came to road and railway bridges across a river. Ian was busy taking photographs when we were approached by two gentlemen who told us that they were local Home Guard and said that it was illegal to photograph the bridge. Ian, being a forthright North countryman, said “Do I look like a bloody Paki spy?” This was at a time of heightened tension between India and Pakistan and probably not the wisest remark. The Home Guard then insisted that we go with them to the police station. Along the way, we gathered quite a crowd of onlookers and things started to look ugly, especially when we suggested that we should go to the railway station and return to Bombay.
At the police station the onlookers all crowded into the report office to watch the sport and it was difficult to tell who was who. I said that we had nothing to say until all the onlookers left and we could talk to an officer. One of the police staff said that he wanted to see the photographs that Ian had taken and incredibly couldn’t grasp that he could see nothing until the film was processed. In the end, I suggested to Ian that he extract the film cassette and pull the film out and give it to them. He was reluctant, but in the end agreed.
Finally, a Sikh superintendent arrived who spoke perfect English. The mob was expelled from the office and the police station yard. He said that technically the Home Guard were right, but it was quite obvious to him that we were who we said we were and that we were free to go. I asked for an escort to the railway station and he agreed. Lesson learned, leave the camera at home!
Back in Bombay, the 2nd Engineer asked if I would agree to make up a foursome to go out to dinner. He said that he was taking his fiancé out, but that she insisted on taking a friend. I couldn’t understand this, but all soon became clear. I reluctantly agreed. The gooseberry turned out to be a rather glamorous Air India hostess who had been a school friend of the fiancé. We went to dinner, but as far as the ladies were concerned we might just as well have not been there. They chattered together incessantly, at times in Hindi. Not a very successful evening. But it was through this connection that I met Commander Roy of the Indian Navy, whose hospitality I enjoyed several times — he liked to throw navy style cocktail parties. Interestingly, in spite of prohibition, he too had access to copious supplies of gin.
A few months later the bickering between India and Pakistan turned to shooting and tanks and troop movements could be observed on the railway — moving toward the frontier. One bright morning in October the ack-ack opened a heavy barrage aimed at a high-flying Canberra aircraft that appeared over Bombay. The Canberra continued on its way unperturbed by the bursts, which were detonating a long way beneath it anyway.
My contract with BI was for two years, but by this time I had concluded that my position was mainly decorative and probably established at the insistence of the company’s insurers. The job description was not very specific and the only mandatory requirement was to furnish a monthly security report to the ship’s master and the company. Because of the numbers involved and the scrum when passengers were boarding, the job was virtually impossible anyway. It is interesting that back then there was no technology, no bomb sniffers, no metal detectors, just eyeball mark one! During my few months with the company I had seen nothing resembling an explosive device, not anything to suggest that anyone had designs against the ship. In submitting my last report, I added a letter requesting to be released from the contract, commenting that it seemed to me that the position was wasting their money and my time. They agreed to both the termination and my request for a passage to Sydney, Australia in one the company’s ships on the Persian Gulf route.
It’s interesting that almost all of the British officers I met were intent on leaving the sea and getting land-based jobs, especially those who had married and were starting families. The dream of many was a job with Trinity House in the UK.
At the height of the Indo Pakistani war of 1965, I flew from Bombay to Karachi on a Japan Airlines Flight. The captain apologised for the added flight time, but said that he was obliged to fly 500 miles out into the North Arabian Sea before turning to head for Karachi. When leaving the ship with my gear, I saw the man from the agents, McKinnon McKenzie, hand the customs man at the dock gates an envelope. I asked him about this and he rolled his eyes and said that it was the only way to leave the docks without long delays and complete baggage inspection.
At Karachi I joined the Chakdina, a general cargo vessel at that time plying between the Persian Gulf, Australia and New Zealand, which also had accommodation for twelve passengers. I joined as a supernumerary for the voyage to Sydney. The captain, George McKay, was of the old school and close to retirement and had recently bought a property near Cape Leeuwin on the southernmost tip of west Australia.
Among the passengers were two English boys, both under twenty, who had driven an old Landrover as far as Karachi, where they sold the truck to fund the trip to Australia. Another was an American girl called Elaine Sue Meyer from Florida who purported to be an architect.
The non-stop voyage to Sydney was uneventful and save for some enormous swells in the Australian Bight, the weather was good all the way. One morning, about 5.30am, a steward came to my cabin and said that the Captain wanted to see me on the bridge. We were off Cape Leeuwin and George wanted to point out to me the property that he had bought and intended to retire to — a speck in the distance, even though the powerful bridge binoculars! The swells in the Bight were under the stern causing the ship to roll ponderously. We were followed by several albatross almost all the way across. At a more civilized time of the day, George called me to the bridge again to see Wilson Promontory which is the southernmost point of the Australian continent. The next day we took on the pilot and entered Sydney Harbour, passing under the bridge and berthing at Balmain. When I went to say goodbye, George said that he hadn’t realized that I was supernumerary or he would have put me to work for the voyage!
The Chief Officer John Hunkin was familiar with Sydney and recommended a fairly cheap hotel in Kings Cross. I took a room there with Elaine Sue Meyer next door — I quite liked her, but she proved to be a chain smoker and, as it transpired, hard to shake off. The two English boys also moved in, but had to find work fairly quickly. I went to an immigration office and had no difficulty getting a visa to stay in Australia.
For some years, Hunkin had been on BI’s Japan run and had somehow, miraculously, learned Japanese. He invited me to join him on a visit to what he described as the only authentic Japanese restaurant in Sydney. The staff and décor certainly had the ring of authenticity and one had the choice of sitting at a counter and watching the chefs prepare the food you had ordered or, more formally, sitting on the floor with legs in a pit and the table at floor level in the centre. We were kept supplied with ‘Saki’, a rice spirit, which had been warmed and came in a small pottery carafe and was taken from a thimble sized cup. I had no idea of most of what we were eating, but it was quite good and I went there several times with him.
Copyright G J Wright 2018