Sailing (or Avoiding) The Exile’s Line to India

Today’s post comes to you courtesy of Dr. Laurence Miller, retired director of libraries at Florida International University and life-long ocean liner aficionado and collector. In 2008, Dr. Miller donated more than twenty-five thousand printed items (ranging from menus, advertising brochures, deck plans, etc.) to The Wolfsonian–FIU library, and he has been equally generous with his time and expertise, having continued to volunteer to help us catalog, digitize, and make accessible those materials. Having recently returned from a cruise of the Caribbean aboard Norwegian Cruise Line’s Pearl, I was curious to hear Dr. Miller’s take on the older steamship companies and their voyages to the colonies and other more exotic ports and destinations on the other side of the world. Here is Dr. Miller’s report.

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Novels such as E. M. Forster’s Passage to India, and more recently, the Masterpiece Theatre presentation of “Indian Summers” on PBS, have brought the British colonial period to life in vivid color.  Sometimes the picture painted was realistic and brutal; at other times it presented in great detail the colorful life of those who chose to serve the empire in the British colonial service. Depictions often ranged between the extremes, with the colonizers motivated by a genuine desire to help the native populations improve their quality of life, or alternatively, by mere boredom and insensitivity.

Both of these positive and negative images have their counterparts in the colonial maritime services of other countries, especially those created by the French and Dutch.

The weeks spent getting between the home country and colonial destination are most often given casual treatment, sometimes deservedly so in view of the mundane experience provided by lines providing this essential service. Transportation, rather than the sea experience, was primary. Especially on the P&O and Orient Line, passengers often found the social hierarchies applied to the social interactions on board. This drove many British passengers to lines such as Messageries Maritimes (serving French colonies), Lloyd Triestino, and Dutch companies.

In Rudyard Kipling’s poem “The Exiles’ Line” (1890), the poet panned the seagoing experience of P&O.

“Twelve knots an hour, be they more or less,

Oh slothful mother of much idleness

Whom neither rivals spur nor contracts speed!”

In the days before air conditioning, the P&O ships with their stone-colored superstructures and black hulls must have felt like ovens during the passage through the Red Sea in summer.

Leaving aside the social atmosphere on board, in the 1930s the seagoing experience became much better. As Noel Coward observed during a post WWI voyage in the Orient, even P&O had “Pulled up their socks.”  The Wolfsonian–FIU museum and research center has a rich collection of promotional materials about the British, French, Italian, and Dutch colonial liners.

Some of the characters in “Indian Summers” might have reached their destinations in the brand-new Orcades of Orient Lines which in the 1930s set new standards in décor and accommodation for British colonial liners. Leading the way was Orient Line, which became a subsidiary of P&O after the First World War.

Below one can see the forward superstructure of the new Orcades, unfortunately sunk by a German U-boat off South Africa during the Second World War in 1942.

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The Wolfsonian–FIU, Mitchell Wolfson, Jr. Collection

The ship’s décor featured an absence of dark wood paneling. Instead, interiors were intended to provide a light an airy atmosphere, good cross-ventilation with, on higher decks, windows that opened.

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The Wolfsonian–FIU, Mitchell Wolfson, Jr. Collection

Many of these vessels, upgraded and equipped with air-conditioning, survived to be used as cruise ships during the fifties and sixties.

At about the same time, Harold Nicolson chose a Dutch colonial liner, Willem Ruys, for what was probably the first ocean voyage he had ever taken for pleasure rather than business. Friends had advanced funds to send Nicolson and his wife, Vita Sackville-West, on an extended ocean voyage via the Royal Rotterdam Lloyd.

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The Wolfsonian–FIU, Laurence Miller Collection

Willem Ruys, which had lain incomplete in the shipyard throughout World War II, was one of the most beautiful and elegant colonial liners ever built. In the shipyard, snipers fought occasional battles with the occupiers around the hull which was miraculously almost undamaged during this period.

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The Wolfsonian–FIU, Laurence Miller Collection

Willem Ruys exemplified Dutch contemporary elegance of the late 1930s.

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The Wolfsonian–FIU, Laurence Miller Collection

Our Masterpiece Theatre characters might have elected to go further afield to choose the Lloyd Triestino’s Victoria–more fashionable and, perhaps beautiful, than any of the competition. She linked Italy with the Asia, including, of course, stops in India.

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The Wolfsonian–FIU, Mitchell Wolfson, Jr. Collection

Possibly the most beautiful of all the colonial liners was the motorship Victoria, the design masterpiece of Gustavo Pulitzer Finali.

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The Wolfsonian–FIU, Mitchell Wolfson, Jr. Collection

Unfortunately, she too was a World War II submarine victim while carrying Italian troops to North Africa.  But during the thirties, she was a favorite of many Europeans sailing to the Orient.

The French company Messageries Maritimes sought to reflect its colonial destination in the interiors of its vessels sailing to and from French Indo-China, and Japan. The Felix Roussell, dating from 1930, is typical of the ships that maintained the maritime links between France, Indo-China, and other destinations in Asia.

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The Wolfsonian–FIU, Laurence Miller Collection

Like many other vessels in colonial service, the ship had an afterlife as a cruise and transatlantic ship. She carried with her to the last the lovely wooden paneling and Oriental carving illustrated both in the Messageries illustrations above, and in the brochure of the Arosa Line, below.

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The Wolfsonian–FIU, Laurence Miller Collection

Here is the Arosa Sun in her afterlife as a transatlantic liner and cruise ship.

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The Wolfsonian–FIU, Laurence Miller Collection

Throughout her days as a transatlantic liner, cruise, and emigrant ship, she retained the interior decorative detail more appropriate to an Indo-Chinese setting while helping to meet the demand for low-cost transportation from Europe to Canada.

~ by "The Chief" on January 28, 2016.

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