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!