Authors: Eric Newby
TO WANDA – AS ALWAYS
MY FIRST CAMERA
was a pretty feeble affair. This much was obvious, even to me, when I received it as a present on my seventh birthday. It came from some far-off place I had never heard of up until then. I think it was Lithuania, but there were lots of places I had never heard of at that time. This camera took pictures the size of the smaller sort of Lithuanian postage stamp – that is, when it took any at all – with ludicrous results. It came in a carrying case made of cardboard, together with three rolls of film, and when these were used up the only way to get more was to buy a return ticket to Lithuania.
My next camera was a No. 2 Box Brownie, an Easter present from my parents when I was about ten, bought from a Mr Powell who had a photographic business on the seafront at Swanage, Dorset. I was mad about birds in those days, and it was with a copy of
British Birds and How to Identify Them
(or some such title) and this camera, which had a fixed exposure of approximately 1/25th at
/11 (the shutter sounded like a portcullis falling), that I attempted to photograph them. As a result, I had, until recently, a large collection of negatives and prints, 3¼ × 2¼ ins, of the boughs of windswept trees and Purbeck drystone walls from which the birds I was trying to photograph had already flown away. Nevertheless, I loved my No. 2 Box Brownie.
My first precision camera, and one of the best cameras I have ever possessed, was a Zeiss Super Ikonta; a tiny, folding, bellows camera with an F.3.5 Tessar lens, a Compur shutter and a coupled rangefinder which took 16 pictures on 3¼ × 2¼ in roll film. This was the camera I took with me in 1938 on a
round-the-world voyage. I didn’t have an exposure meter, but by using something known as a Burroughs Wellcome Exposure Calculator, which came in the back of a diary, I got some surprisingly good results, considering how little I knew then, and know now for that matter, about photography. I tried very hard with my sea pictures because I knew that war was imminent, and I had a premonition that it would mean the end of the big sailing ships engaged in the Australian grain trade, and the way of life of the men and boys who sailed them, and I was right. During the war, I took a lot of photographs on the coast of Syria, where life was still very primitive, but when I was captured the authorities in Malta went through my baggage before sending it on to my next-of-kin, and so I never saw these pictures or my Super Ikonta again.
My next chance to take pictures in outlandish places came in 1956 when I travelled through the Hindu Kush. Photographically, the expedition was a disaster. In the course of it an Afghan tribesman who was in charge of the pack horses allowed the one which was carrying all my exposed film to enter a lake and swim across it. As a result, when the film was developed, the negatives looked as if they had been processed in some sort of thin soup.
This is the problem with photography. It is inimical to travellers and to travel. It takes ages to do it properly. You can wait days, months, even years for a crescent moon to appear over the Taj Mahal, and then the camera goes wrong. If a modern one, the nearest place it can be repaired is Hokkaido, Japan. Even there they probably won’t repair it. They will simply ‘replace the unit’, and to do so will take at least six months, for a large part of which it will be stuck in customs. If the camera doesn’t go wrong of its own accord, you yourself will inevitably drop it. Now that the exposure meter forms an integral part of the camera (only the most sophisticated photographers have separate meters any more), you score
double by breaking both. Having done this, the only thing to do is to drop the remains in a deep river and tell the insurance company that someone stole it, otherwise your claim will never be settled. If any of these things happen to you, and you are relying on your camera to take photographs suitable for publication, it can seriously endanger your peace of mind. You therefore need several cameras, just like the professionals. Amateurs almost always have only the one.
After this photographic débâcle in the Hindu Kush, nothing happened photographically until 1962 when Wanda and I descended the Ganges in various sorts of boats. On this journey we both took pictures for the book I was going to write, if we survived, sharing (what folly!) a single Pentax between us, a Weston exposure meter, and using what was then a new colour transparency film called Kodachrome X. Kodak were so pleased with the results – surprised would be more accurate – that they put on an exhibition of our photographs in Kingsway.
One of the further troubles with having a camera is the lengths to which you must go to avoid pictures entirely devoid of human beings. You always have to run on ahead. In the Hindu Kush, it was in order to photograph the caravan approaching, at around 16,000 feet, that I was left at such a height, feeling utterly lifeless. On the Ganges, for the simple purpose of photographing the boat, Wanda and the boatman, I disembarked, only to find I was in danger of being left alone in the middle of Hindu India as the boat sped away down some rapid. But if you don’t run on ahead or go ashore on such journeys, you will end up with pictures of endless mountain ranges and endless reaches of water, and never a person in sight.
Much more important to me than cameras, either on the Hindu Kush or on the Ganges, were my journals; because all that I have ever really needed to record what I needed to record has been a notebook, and one of those Staedtler pencils
with a long lead and a sharpener at one end which I always have to be careful not to lose. A pencil is better than a pen because when the paper gets wet the ink runs and the writing becomes illegible. On the Ganges, which was pretty wet, I used as a log book a Gujarati account book with a red linen cover and yellow paper bought in Chandi Chowk, Old Delhi. This I filled with such monumental observations as ‘9.50 a.m. Left Bank. Saw a tree’, and some miles further on, ‘10.45 a.m. Right Bank. Saw a cow’. From such modest beginnings it soon became a tome stuffed with information, some of it curious, a lot of it useless, but something without which I knew that I would never be able to write whichever book I was planning to write. Just as I had kept a log book in the sailing ship without which I could not have written
The Last Grain Race
sixteen years later.
Even the thought of losing the Gujarati account book filled me with apprehension, and then, one day, I did lose it. Waking up in what had been a church hall in Bihar in the middle of the night, plagued by rats, I realized that I had left it on the platform at a railway junction, miles away. Arriving there by cycle rickshaw in what was by then the early hours of the next morning, I found that there had been no cause for alarm. ‘Sir,’ said the ticket clerk, when he handed it over to me, ‘it is only a book of writing, of no value to anyone at all.’
The following year, in 1963, I went to work for the
as Travel Editor, and a large number of the pictures in this book were taken during that period, one of the happiest periods of my life, which lasted ten years. As a result,
What the Traveller Saw
essentially commemorates the past, and, in many cases, a world that has changed beyond all recognition.
form part of a large collection taken while I was serving in the four-masted Finnish barque
of Mariehamn in 1938/9, when she was engaged in the Australian grain trade.
As an apprentice in
I was bound by the Conditions for the Acceptance of Apprentices in Finnish Sailing Vessels. You had to be not less than sixteen years old and of strong constitution. Two doctors’ certificates were required, and one from a clergyman testifying that the applicant was of good moral character. My father had to pay the owner of the ship, Gustav Erikson, a premium of £50 for a year or a round voyage, whichever was the shorter. If I died, he was told, he would get a pro-rata repayment. The apprentice had to supply his own gear and was paid 150 Finmarks a month (about 10s. or 50p), but only at the end of the voyage, and less any deductions (I dropped a hammer overboard in Belfast before we sailed, and the cost was deducted from my pay). An able-bodied seaman got about 650 Finmarks, the sailmaker (because he was exceptionally experienced) about 1400 Finmarks, the steward about 2000, the mates from 1200 to 3000, and the captain about 4000 Finmarks (£20) a month. Not much for such a lonely position of responsibility. He was in his thirties. The oldest member of the crew was the sailmaker, who was nearly sixty.
Being an apprentice, I took nearly all the photographs during my free watch; many of them when I was done-in after long hours on deck, at the wheel, or up in the rigging. If I wanted to record the other watch working in rough weather,
it required an effort of will not to fall asleep as soon as I went below, but to turn out again with my camera. Similarly uninviting was the prospect of keeping my daily log of the voyage up to date, which I did for some eight months, without missing a day.
What induced budding sailors to sail in Erikson ships in the 1930s, apart from a few inquisitive English speakers such as myself? The Finns were obliged to because they had to spend three years in square sail before going to navigation school in order to sit for a second mate’s ticket in their merchant marine. Numbers of Germans had to do the same in order to get in the time required by their government, until Hitler came to power when they had to serve their time in German ships. A great blow to the Germans was the loss of the Hamburg-Amerika Line’s
, a four-masted barque sold to them by Erikson, which went missing in the Southern Ocean on her way to the Horn from South Australia with the loss of all 68 hands, including 40 cadets, in 1938 – the same year I joined the
Norway, Sweden and Denmark had similar arrangements for their sailors, some of whom sailed in Finnish ships.
By the 1930s the grain trade from South Australia to Europe was the last enterprise in which the remaining square-riggers (by 1938 there was still only one ship equipped with an auxiliary engine) could engage with any real hope of profit, and then only if the owner exercised the strictest economy and at the same time maintained the utmost efficiency.
The only contender for such a role by the time I joined his fleet was Gustav Erikson from Mariehamn, the capital of the Aland Islands in the Baltic, off the coast of Sweden, the owner of ten ocean-going square-rigged sailing ships. He employed no PROs to improve his image. One of the things that warmed me to him was that he was completely indifferent as to whether anyone liked him or not. It would have been as reasonable to expect anyone to ‘like’ the Prime Minister or the
Inspector of Taxes as to like ‘Ploddy Gustav’, as he was known. He was only interested in his crews in so far as they were necessary to sail his ships efficiently (the majority who sailed in them had to whether they wanted to or not), and for that reason he ensured that crews were adequately and decently fed by sailing-ship standards (which meant that we were permanently ravenous and dreamt of nothing but food), and that the ships, which were rated 100 A1 at Lloyd’s but not insured (only the cargoes were insured), were supplied with enough rope, canvas, paint and other necessary materials to enable them to be thoroughly seaworthy.
He certainly knew about sailing ships. At the age of nine he was shipped aboard a vessel engaged in the North Sea trade. At nineteen he got his first command, and from 1902 to 1913, after having spent the six previous years in deep-water sail as a mate, he was master of a number of square-rigged vessels before becoming an owner.
Ships engaged in the grain trade would normally sail from Europe at the end of September or early in October in ballast, pick up the trade winds in the North and South Atlantic and, when south of Tristan da Cunha – more or less half way between South America and Africa – run before the westerlies in 40°S or higher latitudes, according to the time of year, across the southern Indian Ocean. The first landfall of the entire 15,000-nautical-mile voyage might well be the lighthouse on the South Neptune Islands at the entrance to the shark-infested Spencer Gulf in the Great Australian Bight, where the wheat was brought down to the little ports on its shores for loading. A good passage outward bound in ballast was around 80 days – we were 82 days in 1939 but
was only 78.
It could be weeks or months before a freight was fixed. No pay was issued by the captain for fear that we might run away. As soon as freight was arranged, the ship would sail to the loading port; but first, miles offshore, the crew had to get
rid of the ballast, shovelling it into baskets in the hold where the temperature was up in the hundreds fahrenheit, hoisting them out and emptying them over the side. It was not possible to jettison all the ballast at once, so one or more trips had to be made to the ballast grounds in the intervals of loading the cargo, which was frequently interrupted by the strong winds that blew in the Gulf. Except in one or two places where there were jetties, the ships had to lie offshore and load the sacks of grain into their holds from lightering ketches. A 3000-ton barque such as
could carry 59,000 sacks of grain, 4875 tons of it, which was what we loaded in 1939.
Even after waiting sometimes months for a freight, and then loading, which could take another six weeks, Erikson could still make a profit after a round voyage of 30,000 sea miles, 15,000 of them in ballast, even if it took some of his smaller barques 120 days or more to make the homeward voyage. The charterers were not worried; providing it was kept dry, grain was not a perishable cargo, and whoever happened to own it at any particular time on the voyage, for it often changed hands several times in the course of it, was getting free warehousing for his cargo.
The normal time of departure for Europe was between the last week in February and the end of March. A good passage home was 100 days, anything less was very good.
We sailed from Port Victoria, where we had loaded in company with the last great concourse of square-rigged merchant ships ever to come together, on 2 March 1939, bound for Queenstown (now Cobh) in Southern Ireland.
was 30 days to the Horn, well over 6000 miles’ sailing, and on 24 March, in 50°S, 170°W, she ran 296 miles in 23½ hours with the wind WSW (a day noon to noon in these high latitudes is only about 23½ hours).
She was only 55 days to the Equator from Spencer Gulf, and it seemed possible then that, having accomplished this feat of
sailing, she might beat
great 83-day passage from Port Victoria to Falmouth in 1933. In fact she suffered a succession of baffling calms in the North Atlantic and was eventually 91 days to Queenstown, nevertheless making the fastest passage of the year in what was to prove to be the last great Grain Race. The slowest passage that year was 140 days by
, a very old Erikson barque.
was the biggest sailing ship afloat. Built in 1904 at Port Glasgow for the German nitrate trade as
(she had a twin called
), she was also probably the strongest. She was 3116 gross tons and 335 feet long between perpendiculars. Her hull, standing rigging, and most of her masts and yards were steel. The three square-rigged masts towered 198 feet above the keel, higher than Nelson’s Column. Each of these masts crossed six yards, to which six sails were bent, a total of eighteen square sails; there were also seventeen fore-and-aft sails including five headsails. With all this canvas set, which was rare – we never set royal staysails –
carried 45,000 square feet of sail. The biggest sails, set on yards which were 95 feet long, were made from No. 1 canvas and each weighed more than a ton, much more when wet.
could carry sail when a lesser ship would have had to heave to. In 51°S, 158°W on the way to the Horn, with the wind WSW, force 11, she was still carrying a foresail. Three hundred lines were belayed to pins on the pin rails on deck, or else were led to cleats or bitts. You had to know the name of each one in Swedish – the official language in which orders were given in the Erikson fleet – and be able to find the right one, even on a pitch-black night with seas coming aboard.
Half the foremast hands in
the year I sailed in her were first voyagers – the total complement was 32 – and although many of them were country boys with strong constitutions, all of them, including myself, found the work hard at first. An American wooden clipper of the 1850s, Donald McKay’s
Sovereign of the Seas
, 2421 tons, had a crew of 106. The
work of handling the great acreage of sail, even with the aid of brace and halliard winches, was very heavy. Thirty-four days out from Port Victoria, two days after we passed the Falkland Islands on the way home, we started changing sails, bending a complete suit of old, patched fair-weather canvas for the tropics in order to save wear-and-tear on the strong stuff, first unbending the storm canvas and lowering it down to the deck on gantlines before stowing it away below deck. This was always done when entering and leaving the trade winds in the North and South Atlantic, four times in all on a round voyage.
While we were engaged in this work, it started to blow hard from the southeast; then it went to the south, blowing force 9 and then 10 from the south-southwest, when the mizzen lower topsail, a heavy canvas storm sail, blew out. This was followed by a flat calm and torrential rain. In the middle of the following night a
, a terrible wind that comes off the east coast of South America, hit the ship when it was almost in full sail, but because the Captain knew his job we only lost one sail.
In these twenty-four hours the port and starboard watches, eight boys in each, took in, re-set, took in and re-set again, twenty-eight sails – a total of 112 operations – bent two new sails and wore the ship on to a new tack twice, an operation which required all hands, including the
(the cook), to perform it.
I was in the port watch. The starboard watch were very unlucky – everyone was unlucky some of the time; they spent eleven consecutive hours on deck, or in the rigging.
Strangely enough, I look back on the time I spent in
with the greatest pleasure, and would not swap it for the highest honours of the land.