previous
next

I

To residents of Ireland in the eighties and nineties of the last century, Australia was an extremely remote land. To me as a boy it was associated with sunshine, sport and adventure. What I had heard and read about it was confined to gold digging experiences, fights with bushrangers and deeds of exploration. The knowledge that my elder brother and I had of it was vague, but what ideas we had were favourable, and we hoped some day to go and see for ourselves. Our father's landed property was heavily mortgaged, and when, as the result of the Land League movement, tenants refused to pay rent and the mortgagees foreclosed, the family suffered heavily financially. Eventually my elder brother went to Australia. Letters that came from him indicated that he was well pleased with the change. A year or so later my father died, and my brother suggested that my unmarried sister and myself should join him. This we arranged to do.

My first experience of a long sea voyage was from Tilbury to Brisbane, where my brother was living. Of


  ― 2 ―
the many times I later travelled between England and Australia that early voyage remains clearest in my memory. I was scarcely twenty years of age, and felt deeply sensible of my responsibilities. I had my sister, Lydia, to look after. She was a mere girl several years younger than I. We brought with us an old and faithful family servant, Bab, a typical Irish peasant woman, unable to read or write, and about forty, honest and reliable in all ways. When she first came to the family as a young girl she spoke Irish and knew but little English. She was not as bright and quick-witted as most of the Irish peasantry: a patient soul that we loved, kind-hearted but heavy, placid, non-observant, a slow thinker and speaker. She had never been to a large town. In London she was mentally numbed by the noise, bustle and unaccustomed sights. At Tilbury, from which we sailed, as the Orient Company's liner was slowly casting off the ropes and getting free, my young sister and I were watching the distance widening between the wharf and the ship that was to take us to our new home. Bab, who was close to me, seemed mentally to wake up, and remarked, “Masthur Jack, I think she's moving.”

The voyage from the Thames to Queensland occupied six weeks. To-day, after some forty-seven years, mail steamers between England and Australia do not travel any faster than they did then. That the speed of the vessels has not been accelerated in that time is extraordinary. Certainly the steamers have increased considerably in size, passengers have more comforts, wireless keeps them in touch with the outside world and oil fuel has obviated the unpleasantness of coaling; but otherwise the experience of passengers on mail


  ― 3 ―
steamers via the Suez Canal does not differ much today from what it was half a century ago.

The ports called at are mostly unchanged, although Naples is decidedly cleaner now than it was when we called there.

To-day, as then, the scum of three continents meet at Port Said, even if there is a better observance of law and order and it is safer to go ashore.

The Suez Canal has been deepened and widened.

Colombo is decidedly less Eastern and less attractive. It has become more Europeanised; the natives are sophisticated, and the different races are less distinctive in their dresses and head-gear. In those days the harbour had more old-fashioned craft—catamarans, dhows and junks, curious, lumbering, leaky vessels that as they sailed seemed to be rotting away and liable any second to come to pieces through decrepitude. The streets were more colourful. Rickshaws were common. There were no motor-cars. Unlike the motor roads of to-day, the roads were bright red and showed up brilliantly between the deep green of the luxuriant tropical growth.

A friend brought us to see a notable man who was detained a prisoner in Ceylon, Arabi Pasha, the leader of the military insurrection in Egypt in 1882. One time he was Egyptian Secretary for War, but he did not long retain the office. The country got into financial difficulties; debts pressed heavily; the military were not paid and became discontented. Open rebellion began, and the army chose Arabi as its leader. The rebels wished to free the country from Europeans and European influences. There were some 37,000 Europeans in Egypt. They were mobbed, attacked and


  ― 4 ―
insulted. Arabi erected forts at Alexandria. When asked to desist, he refused, and his forts were bombarded by British warships. He released the convicts imprisoned at Alexandria, set fire to the city, abandoned it and proclaimed a “jehad,” or holy war against Christians, many of whom were massacred. France had refused to join Britain in restoring order. Some 30,000 troops from the British Isles and India fought and defeated Arabi's forces at the battle of Tel-el-Kebir. That suppressed the insurrection.

Arabi was brought to trial, pleaded guilty, and was sentenced to death. Later the sentence was commuted, and, with some of his followers, he was exiled to Ceylon.

He shook hands with us. We met him in the grounds of the house in which he lived.

We were told he was always ready to meet British visitors, and was deeply grateful to the British, who had saved his life. The Khedive and other influential Egyptians made no secret that if they had had their way he would have been executed.

In Ceylon he was well treated, but was a pathetic figure. A man of humble origin, he had risen to eminence and seemed to have had a brilliant career ahead of him. He fell, and was broken and dispirited. When we saw him he had been many years in exile. Those of his Egyptian colleagues who were exiled with him were living in the neighbourhood. Had they wished to escape they would have had little difficulty in getting away. They had more sense. They lived quietly amidst the delightful surroundings of Ceylon for a couple of decades, when they were allowed to retire to Egypt.

previous
next