Monday, August 29, 2016

By Train to Marseilles, By Steamship Via Suez

Annamaria on Monday

My credentials as possessor of a riotously romantic heart are well-established among frequent readers of this blog.   A passionate aria, an antique map, an image of the clock tower of San Marco in Venice.   The strains of a tango.   The sight of a lone giraffe standing under an acacia tree. They all take my breath away.  A list of images and sounds that provoke longing in me could easily fill up this page.

Today’s post—about how people traveled from Britain to East Africa in the 19-teens—needed a good title.    Something that would stir a sense of adventure in you.  Once I typed out the words above, it took me ten minutes to settle down to work.  I was high on the visions they evoked, floating a hundred feet up, watching my long-ago-and-far-away characters travel from London to Mombasa: their clothes, their conveyances, the scenery as their Victorian-style train click-clacks through France, the ship, the luggage.  They call at Naples.  I know that bay well.  Vesuvius.  Ischia.  Capri.  The deep dark blue of the Mediterranean.  And on to the south past Stromboli, spouting fire in the night.

I took this photo of the Mediterranean on a trip from
Livorno to Catania.  The deep blue sea is really blue there.
Not so the Atlantic Ocean I played in as a child

If I wanted to set a scene in Suez, I would have to research what it looked like.  One day perhaps I will go and see it for myself, but it won’t look as it did a hundred years ago.

My head already holds a composite historic picture of East Africa’s major port.  From photos I know its landscape, its buildings.  From many eyewitness accounts I know the colors, the bustle, the emotional impact it had on arriving passengers.

By the time the second book in my African series came along, I also knew quite a bit about how people traveled from Europe to British East Africa—and to German East Africa and South Africa for that matter.

The facts were easy to come by, from the Handbook of British East Africa, 1912, a copy of which is in the New York Public Library.   Just recently, I found a reprint I could afford (originals run in the thousands of dollars—if you can find one!).     For people of the time, the book had invaluable advice.  Today, it is a complete guide for this historical novelist.  How else would I discover details like: The quickest and most comfortable, therefore the preferred route, from London was by train to Marseilles and then steamer to Mombasa via Suez.  The handbook also has ads telling which companies offered passage, their schedules, and the price of various levels of accommodation.

The Idol of Mombasa, my upcoming book, begins with Vera and Justin Tolliver coming home to Africa after a honeymoon in Yorkshire, Glasgow, and Italy in January 1912.  I chose for them the steamship Galacian of the Union-Castle Line.

Founded in 1853, Union-Castle operated cargo and passenger ships serving this route from 1900 till 1977, when it went out of business.  The Galacian, built in Belfast, was turned into a hospital ship during World War I.  In March of 1917, it was damaged by UC-65, a German submarine.  A year later another German submarine torpedoed and sank it.

This is a poster printed on metal.  It sits on a shelf over my computer.
I found it on a rack outside a fancy stationary store on an elegant
street between Piazza Navona and the Ponte Sant'Angelo in Rome!!!

In my story, arriving at the same time as Vera and Tolliver, is the Grand Mufti of Egypt, a character whose presence plays a pivotal role in the action.  He comes on a different line:  Deutsche Ost-Afrika Linne, which was established in 1890, to compete with the British ships, which dominated the market.

 In the last scene of the book, the Egyptian clergyman leaves Mombasa, this time sailing on a French steamer of the Compagnie des Messageries Maritime (Certainly the most romantic name for a shipping company.   How it sings to me!)  This one even had nicknames—“MesMar” and “MM.”  It was privatized in 1996, and now operates under the totally prosaic name of CMA CGM.  UGH!

The British-India Steam Navigation Company, founded in 1856, sailed mainly between the British Isles and India, but since there was a great deal of interplay between India and British East Africa, this line also served Mombasa.     

I have always said, romantic as I am and with a soul overtaken by historical fiction, I would not want to have lived in a time when there was no deodorant, hot showers, or painless dentistry.  But I would put up with a great deal of discomfort for the experience of steaming through Suez on one of those ships of yore.  As long as I could come back to the present—horrifying as it often is these days.

Oh, for a time machine!



  1. Oy, the call of the heart... T'is wondrous, indeed! Thanks, AmA, for sharing with us a ride on your incredible time machine.

    1. Thank you so much for coming along, EvKa. There will be time machines aplenty in Portland next June when eh Historical Novel Society arrives.

  2. If you find the keys to that time machine, Annamaria, sign me up for your first trip! After all, you'll need someone handy to carry your bags ...

    A friend who writes historical fiction highly recommends old Pathé newsreel footage and back copies of National Geographic for getting a feel for a time in a place. But, of course, a personal research trip is vital!

    1. Zoe, Old copies of National Geographic. Why didn't I think of that? I happened across the Pathe' Newsreels on youTube when I was researching for Blood Tango. The film of Evita's funeral is astonishing.
      We MUST plan a trip. And before I get so old I can't carry my own luggage. :)

  3. As a child I travelled with my parents from Cape Town to London on the Union Castle line. I'm afraid I was too young to appreciate it.I enjoyed Neptune inducting us as we crossed the equator, but Suez came and went. I remember it all seemed very long and boring for a small boy.

    1. Michael, It occurs to me, since Vera is about to give birth to William Tolliver, that I may one-day have her travel back to England with a little boy. If that happens, I now know--THANKS to you--how he will feel. I hope I have a reason to include the Neptune induction. You will have to describe it to me one day.
      David and I were inducted on a small passenger boat in Galapagos. We were two of only thee on board who were crossing the equator for the first time. The captain, emptied a buckets of seawater on us and recited a prayer to Poseidon. The champagne was the best part.

    2. That's pretty close. It all took place at the swimming pool and I think that was the water used. The MC was dressed as Neptune - very impressive to an eight year old. If there was champagne, the kids didn't get any!

  4. I notice you left both EvKa and me out of the list of things in your first paragraph. I'm devastated, Sis. Dare I even ask to be included in your time travel excursions ... roundtrip booking, please.

    1. Bro, there are no people in that list. I have listed people in the Acknowledgements in the book. The MIE writers and readers are there, which includes you and EvKa, among the folks my life as a writer cannot do without.

    2. Wow, I'm honored just to know I'm considered a "people," though EvKa may not feel as complimented, what with his animalistic basic instincts.

    3. Careful there, my friend, you don't want anyone going all Basic Instinct on you...

  5. Replies
    1. So happy you liked it. I find a kindred soul in you.