24 03 2010

Sometime in the early 1970s Murray McGregor gave this talk to the KAFFRARIAN HISTORICAL SOCIETY in King William’s Town.

The first steam-driven mailship was the Bosphorus, a fully-rigged vessel of 500 tons (smaller than our harbour tugs of today!) which came out in January 1851 after a passage of 40 days. To us this seems a very long time, but then it was easily the record for the Cape run; the sailing-ships of those days used to take three months or more on the trip. The famous Cape artist Bowler painted a water-colour of the arrival of the Bosphorus in Table Bay.

Probably the finest ship of the ‘General Screw Steamship Company’, owners of the pioneer mail-steamer, was the Lady Jocelyn, called after wife of one of the directors of the firm. She was also a full-rigged ship, of 1 750 tons. It must be remembered that in those days all steamers were driven by a single screw-propellor activated by one engine, so that if anything happened to cause an engine break-down or the loss of the screw the ship would then have to complete her voyage under sail. Those old-fashioned engines were very uneconomical and used tremendous quantities of coal, which meant that sometimes all the fuel would be exhausted before the ship arrived at her destination and, again, she would be forced to depend on her sails.

The Lady Jocelyn in 1853 brought from England to the Cape the constitution for the Colony, under which its first parliament was elected some months later. A painting of the ship was later hung in the Cape Parliament House, and was still there when he last visited the House some fifteen years ago.

The evening of the 18th November 1857 was a noteworthy one. This was during the period of the Indian Mutiny, when ships were being rushed from England via the Cape to India, all laden with troops and stores. Amongst the sixty-four ships anchored in Table Bay were the two largest ships in the world, Brunel’s famous Great Britain of 3 400 tons, and the former P. & O. mailship, then an Admiralty transport, Himalaya, of 3 500 tons. (The former of these ships is still in existence in Bristol, carefully preserved in the dock in which she was built, 1839 – 43; the second remained an Admiralty store-ship until 1940, when she was sunk by German aerial bombs!). To have these famous ships there together was a unique occurrence; but more noteworthy still was the presence at anchor near them of a ship of only 530 tons, the Dane. This ship was the pioneer mail-steamer of the ‘Union Steamship Company’, a firm founded at Southampton in 1853 and the senior partner in what later became the ‘Union-Castle Mail Steamship Company’, so well known to most of us.

The ships of the Union Line were called after nations or tribes. The Dane was joined by others such as Briton, Saxon, Roman and Cambrian (this last the first Cape mailship with a tonnage greater than 1 000!). Later they used South African names for their coasting fleet and ‘intermediate’ steamers, such as Kafir, Zulu, Basuto, Gaika, Galeka.

In 1872 the Scottish shipowner Donald Currie, well-known in South Africa for his gift of several gold ‘Currie Cups’ for inter-provincial sport, introduced his ‘floating castles’ on to the Cape run. The discovery of diamonds a few years before had brought such an upsurge of trade with the Cape that a new line could easily be profitable. So soon ships like the Conway Castle, Taymouth Castle, Balmoral Castle, Windsor Castle (first of the name) became well-known in the Cape and elsewhere. For some time they out-did the senior company, so that in 1876 the government divided the mail-contract between them, an event commemorated last year by the issue of a special stamp showing one of the early Castle mail-steamers. Under this contract the lines dispatched mailships on alternate weeks. So for the first time a weekly mail-service between Britain and the Cape was run. Apart from dislocations caused by the two world wars this has been maintained ever since.

The next twenty years were marked by intense and extremely interesting (and sometimes amusing!) competition between the rival companies. The mailships grew bigger, faster and more powerful. The decade 1890 – 1899 was especially exciting, when the Transvaal gold-rush saw many fine mailships built, most of them later well-known to me. Then in February, 1900, the two rivals at last agreed to unite and form that great company whose mail – and passenger – service has just ended.