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THURSDAY, JUNE 3, 1926
ON THE WAY TO ITALY
FROM FREMANTLE TO LEGHORN
By Kennedy Allen
The run from Fremantle to Colombo was the least interesting section of our voyage. It took us eleven days though the Otranto, which left two days later with the Australian cricketers on board did it in nine and arrived before us. Then the heat of the tropics, which in the cabins was intolerable, kept some of us in continual perspiration, so that the summer of 1925-26, both in Australia and on the Indian Ocean , is not likely to be soon forgotten. However, the discomfort of the weather did not prevent us from celebrating the crossing of the line. This event one of the Italian passengers announced in due form by ascending the stairs into the smoking-room elaborately disguised as Father Neptune, with flowing robes and flowing locks, gold coronet and gold trident all complete. Without preliminaries he proceeded at once to initiate such of the passengers as had not previously passed over the equator. He called their names one by one. Each in turn came forward, knelt at his feet, and so remained, submitting himself to hearing a formula of baptism recited in Latin. This ritual he completed by offering a spoonful of salt, which he thrust into the mouth of each postulant – pretending that it was sugar – and by sprinkling each head copiously with a mixture of water and champagne. After that he delivered a brief oration in English, in which he expressed the hope that his newly received subjects would prove loyal to him. Champagne followed, with a toast to the affable commander, who had provided it. In due course each of the victims was presented with a certificate of baptism ingrossed in Latin and adorned with a representation of Neptune from the brush of Mr. Lionel Lindsay. We celebrated the event finally the following night, at a choice equatorial dinner served on deck and attended by the captain and officers.
At Colombo we spent a day and a half. The heat ashore was excessive, Rockhampton is cool by comparison. Here we shipped a large quantity of copra, of which we had already taken some at Sydney . This is all consigned to Italy , where it is to be employed in the manufacture both of soap and of an article less inedible – margarine. We caught a glimpse of some of the social life of the place – European women lolling in restaurants and lounges smoking cigarettes and laying up for themselves a fat old age; native women working as builders' labourers, and, of course, native peddlers of many kinds of articles. These traffickers almost invariably accept, after much bargaining, about a fifth of what they originally demand. One lad, who followed a party of our folk into a hotel, exhausted all his powers of persuasion in many attempts to sell one of them a fountain-pen. In the end he offered to spin a coin to decide whether the young Australian should pay eighteen pence or sixpence for it. He lost. The pen changed hands at sixpence.
The intense heat continued until Easter Sunday. By that time we were at the entrance to the Red Sea , which, by the way looked particularly blue. Easter is a festival highly popular with Italians. It was duly celebrated on board. In the third class the firemen, stokers, and sailors provided a concert in the open air. Two of them played mandolins, others sang, and a few male couples danced. The first-class passengers looked on from the upper deck and envied the singers their fine voices, the instrumentalists their tuneful accompaniment, and the dancers their wonderful energy and nerve, which made light of the discomfort of singlets – of many colours – soaked in sweat. At night we dined sumptuously, but less interestingly.
In the Red Sea it was cold enough to wear an overcoat. We were delighted to reach Suez , and, after seven hours of delay, to navigate with the aid of a pilot, the celebrated canal, which we accomplished in 13½ hours. Egypt is the home of the immortals; De Lesseps is one of them. If you seek his monument, look around.
Port Said is one of the great ports of the world. The shipping is immense, boats of every nationality are there. The town itself is lacking in character in all events of domestic architecture. Not so the inhabitants. They have all vices and few of the virtues of the trader. From the boatman who rows you ashore to the shopkeeper who sells you an article, they are born cheats. If you want postage stamps for some post cards you will be offered stamps of a higher denomination than is necessary. If you buy a tin of cigarettes you will find upon opening it later that you have received less than the number stipulated; if you change money you will have some false coins fobbed off on you. The number of counterfeit pieces of silver available for foreign visitors must be incredible. The only remedy, the only revenge, is to pass yours on before you embark. The national motto of Egypt appears to be Tennyson's rhetorical question –
“Who but a fool would have faith in a tradesman's ware or his world?”
On the other hand, no trader believes anyone else. Before putting money into his till he rings every coin.
Alexandria is a much less undesirable town. It bears the impress of the Genius of France. The non-Arab quarters suggest a provincial French city. But it is one of the most cosmopolitan aggregations of human beings in the world. Indeed, it always has been since its foundation by the great captain of Macedonia , whose name it commemorates; he, too, is one of the immortals. The linguistic abilities of the inhabitants, many of whom are Levantines, fill the visitor with astonishment. At the banks, for example, the ordinary clerks spear four languages at least – French, English, Italian, and Arabic; they pass a qualifying examination before being admitted. One of the head clerks, with whom I did business, spoke eight.
“Ye fearful saints, fresh courage take.”
Many of the clerks and professional men receive their secondary education at the college conducted by the De La Salle Brothers. This is one of the centres from which France radiates her language, her culture, and her civilisation. The thousand pupils, of whom 250 are boarders, include boys of nearly all the Mediterranean nationalities, and some are from that blessed land, Mesopotamia . French is the ordinary vehicle of instruction. Then there is the establishment of the Sisters of St. Vincent De Paul, another French religious order, who have charge of about a thousand orphans. And now a “neutral” French school, a state institution in which the name of God does not appear, is about to be erected.
As a shipping centre, Alexandria is one of the great ports of the Mediterranean . Its breakwaters are immense; they form many inner harbours of great capaciousness. Here our liner discharged 13,000 bags of Australian flour, of which 11,000 came from Fremantle and the remainder from Melbourne . The waterside workers were all Arabs. The must be prodigiously strong. The toiled long hours, each sack of 150 lb being carried on the back of a man from a floating pontoon to a dump on the wharf, some yards away. No trucks were used, except to remove the few bales of wool that we discharged. The remuneration is 2s. a day. How these men work in the month of Ramadan, the fasting month of the Mohammedans, which coincides partly with our April, it is hard to understand.
The sapphire blue of the Tranquil Mediterranean soothed us all. The first land we saw, 26 hours from Alexandria , was the snow-capped Mount Ida of Crete, that early home of European civilisation, so famous in legend and history. We were more fortunate than Saint Paul , who on his voyage of appeal to Caesar, touched at Fair Havens, near Lasea, which is not far from Mount Ida , is situated about the middle of the southern coastline. Two days later, at dawn, we confronted the rocky and austere coast of Calabria , having the delicately silhouetted snows of Mount Etna on our left. In the course of the forenoon, avoiding both Scylla and Charvbdis, we swung into the Tyrrhenian Sea .
Well, here at Leghorn , four days from Alexandria and 44 from Sydney , we are beginning to disperse. Mr Lindsay is going immediately to Sicily , where he hopes to find many themes for brush and pencil. His wife and daughter will accompany him. I am going to Rome , after seeing Pisa ; in the summer I mean to spend some time in Siena and Florence .
Dr Cattaneo, the Apostolic Delegate, will continue his voyage to Genoa tonight, and, after seeing his brother, will visit Rome , where he will remain until the end of May. He should reach Australia about September.
Leghorn , April 15, 1926.
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