My 1951 Sea Voyage

Text and Images: Elisabeth Anderson

As with Barbara Wall, (read Barbara’s story here) the Corona Virus pandemic of 2019-2020 and the saga of the cruise ships have brought to mind for me a long-ago sea voyage. Mine was with my mother and three siblings, immigrating to Australia in 1951. And it was not just the tedium of that seeming endlessness of our journey.

Elisabeth aged 11(right) with two of her siblings Frank and Rose and their mother Maria van der Sommen, onboard the MV Sibajak.

Days before we were due to depart on 9th May 1951, there was an outbreak of the deadly Small Pox disease in my Dutch homeland. I was eleven years old and was promptly dispatched to a general practitioner in the town for a vaccination. It was a booster and the only ill effect I recall was a sore arm.

An aunt who lived in Tilburg in the same province of North Brabant, where the viral outbreak had begun, could only bid us farewell by telephone.

Once we were on board the ship the MS Sibajak in Rotterdam passengers were advised that vaccination was compulsory for all, and this included my older sister Gonny who had initially been spared the needle due to the possibility of a severe reaction. It left her very ill for a time which was of grave concern to our mother, but she recovered. I recall seeing many red swollen arms among the passengers on deck.

For me, on the other hand, the weeks of motion sickness were more unsettling as we travelled ever eastwards via the English Channel, the stormy Bay of Biscay and the Straits of Gibraltar where I photographed the Rock with my new Box Brownie camera, the Suez Canal, the sweltering Red Sea, the Indian Ocean and the Great Australian Bight. Our ports of call were Port Said (with a welcome on-land side trip to Cairo), Aden, Colombo, Fremantle and finally Melbourne.

At the equator we watched the arrival on board of King Neptune and the unceremonious covering with what looked to me like soft green soap of some who were crossing for the first time. It was an entertaining distraction and so was, at other times, the occasional sighting of flying fish above the surface of the water. On 1st June an Asian crew member went missing overboard. His sandals were found by the railings in the morning. The ship retraced its course in a futile search and eventually left behind a life buoy with a bright white light before moving on.

I had rarely eaten more than the occasional bread roll by the time we were met by our Dad at the Melbourne Docks nearly five weeks later on 14th June and, being somewhat poorly, I was spared a further road journey of 500km to the South East of South Australia to experience my first air trip, which was of course with Ansett Airways. Our destination was Mount Gambier.

An interesting souvenir of our sea voyage is a printed journal which chronicles the daily bulletins that had been broadcast through loudspeakers on deck by The Nautical Information Service. I recall that each broadcast was preceded by Stars and Stripes Forever – a tune that would be permanently imprinted in my memory.

The journal was made available to passengers on arrival in Australia.  It was only a few years after World War II and the proceeds were to aid the widows and orphaned families of the thousands of Dutchmen who had lost their lives at sea whilst serving in the Dutch Merchant Navy. The 24-year-old Sibajak itself had also been a war ship and its company, Rotterdamsche Lloyd, alone had lost 400 personnel among its seafarers.

It was many years later that I actually read this journal with its reminders quite early in our voyage of those terrible war years. The minefields in the English Channel had not then been cleared; the sighting of Normandy brought back memories of the D Day invasion of 6th June 1944 and there was mention of the tragic sinking, only a month before our voyage, of the British submarine the Affray. Attention was also drawn to British war ships off Gibraltar and to Malta’s capital La Valetta, rising from its war ruins. Off Greece the Gulf of Nauplia was the resting place of the ship Slamat, a pre-war sister ship of the Sibajak that had been sunk in 1941.

The sea voyage was one that many migrants made in the years following the War. But like Barbara I vowed not to make such journey again, realising that sea travel was not for me. Yet in fact I did so about twelve years later in order to revisit my old homeland and travel the Continent and the UK. It was just something one had to do and it was to be sometime before air travel became the norm.

NOTE: I have read that on 8th May 1980, the 33rd World Health Assembly officially declared the world to be free of smallpox and that the eradication was considered at that time to be the biggest achievement in international public health.

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