Swansea and Port Talbot Docks History

An Unbelievable Amazon Adventure!

‘The Sea and the Jungle’ by H. M. Tomlinson

In the early part of 2009 we received a very interesting enquiry from Audrey and Anton Skillman – an enquiry that would lead to a considerable amount of detective work to find the truth behind a best-selling book published in 1912. The book in question was ‘The Sea and the Jungle’ by H M Tomlinson.

Front and back covers of Tomlinson's book

Anton’s grandmother had always maintained that her father, Captain William Reath Bennett, was the Master of the tramp steamer ‘Capella’, the ship that allegedly carried Tomlinson on his voyage from Swansea to Porto Velho in Brazil – the voyage upon which the book was based.

According to Tomlinson, who had signed on the ship as Purser at a nominal wage of one shilling per month, the s.s. ‘Capella’ sailed from Swansea Docks in the December of 1909, bound for Brazil. After crossing the Atlantic to Pará, and steaming a further 2,000 miles up the rivers Amazon and Madeira, she finally reached her destination - Porto Velho – where her cargo of coal and machinery was discharged.

The cargo was destined for the Madeira-Mamoré Railway project. Between 1912 and 1972 this railway would link Porto Velho with Guajará-Mirim, a distance of 366 km. through the Amazonian jungle in what is today the State of Rondônia in northern Brazil. (see Martin Cooper’s fascinating railway website www.efmm.net)

Understandably, Audrey and Anton wanted to trace the ‘Capella’, and to establish once and for all whether Anton’s great grandfather had in fact been the Master of the ship during the voyage that carried Tomlinson from Swansea to Brazil and into the heart of the Amazon. Was Captain William Reath Bennett really the anonymous ‘Skipper’ of Tomlinson’s book?

To begin with, we bought a copy of ‘The Sea and the Jungle’ – a 1953 Penguin paperback edition for 99p on eBay – to familiarise ourselves with the details of the voyage. Then the hunt for Tomlinson’s ‘Capella’ was on, and a suitable candidate was soon identified. It was T J Harrison’s s.s. ‘Capella’, a 3,193 ton steamer built in 1890, sold in 1910 and renamed ‘Asturian’.

Unfortunately our bubble burst when Audrey and Anton’s search of Lloyd’s Captains’ Register revealed that Captain Bennett had never commanded a ship by the name of ‘Capella’, and so it seemed that any chance of verifying Anton’s grandmother’s story was over almost before it had begun. But, as Ivor always says, there is usually a small grain of truth in every family legend.

With the help of the Maritime History Archive of the Memorial University of Newfoundland, Canada, Audrey and Anton began to investigate the various voyages that Captain Bennett had undertaken as Master. They discovered that he had at one time been Master of the s.s. ‘Holland’, owned by Fred Drughorn Ltd., and that the ‘Holland’ had made a voyage to Porto Velho in 1910 but not under Captain Bennett’s command. So there lay the first tenuous link between Bennett and the Amazonian jungle.

We began to think more about Tomlinson’s story and noticed that he had avoided documenting the names of the Captain and crew of the ‘Capella’, and wondered if this had been done deliberately to obscure their identities for some reason or another. If this were the case, logic would dictate that he would also have had to change the name of the ship to ensure that their identities remained concealed.

With this in mind, Audrey and Anton began to investigate all of Captain Bennett’s transatlantic voyages in search of the elusive Tomlinson – but to no avail. Then, as all hope of resolving this old family tale was fading fast, a last-chance investigation into a voyage erroneously marked ‘M’ for Mediterranean uncovered something that none of us had dared hope for – Captain William Reath Bennett commanding the Fred Drughorn ship s.s. ‘England’ on a voyage from Rotterdam via Swansea to Porto Velho in Brazil, with Mr. H M Tomlinson signed on as Purser, and with the voyage dates almost exactly corresponding to those in Tomlinson’s book!

So Anton’s grandmother was vindicated at long last by this overwhelming evidence which clearly demonstrated that the fictional ‘Capella’ was, in fact, the s.s. ‘England’, aboard which great grandfather Bennett carried Tomlinson on the epic voyage which he would later describe in his best-selling book - ‘The Sea and the Jungle’. (She always maintained that Welsh steam coal was the only fuel good enough to raise steam at the altitude at which the Madeira-Mamoré Railway operated!)

Voyage of the s.s. ‘England’ 1909/1910

On the 30th November 1909 the s.s. ‘England’, captained by William Reath Bennett, signed on a new crew at Rotterdam and set sail for Swansea to load coal and patent fuel for Porto Velho, Brazil. On the 16th of December at Swansea, Henry Major Tomlinson and the ship’s surgeon joined the crew. Tomlinson was signed on at a shilling a month and given the status of purser. The chief officer signed off at Swansea and a new chief office joined the vessel. The 3rd deck officer failed to join, and when she finished loading at Swansea she set sail for Porto Velho, Brazil without a 3rd deck officer. 

The s.s. ‘England’ steamed up-river to Porto Velho after calling at Belém to pick up cattle as deck cargo, but the actual date of her arrival there is not recorded. However, the ship's articles show that, on the 25th February, an American from Texas was signed on at Porto Velho as a fireman at a shilling a month, possibly to work his passage back to the USA. Having discharged all her cargo she made her way to Barbados, calling at Pará on the 3rd March to sign off the doctor by mutual consent. There the captain signed on seven seamen who had been left stranded - 4 sailors, 2 firemen and an assistant steward - all signed on at one shilling per month. The s.s. ‘England’ arrived at Barbados on the 9th March, where one of the fireman and the assistant steward were signed off.

At Barbados she received new orders to proceed to Tampa Florida to load a cargo of phosphate for Hamburg. We don’t know if she loaded any cargo at Barbados - perhaps she just picked up bunkers. She arrived at Tampa on the 17th March where the remaining five crew members who had been picked up at Para were signed off, and where the American fireman who had signed on at Porto Velho deserted. Henry Tomlinson also signed off at Tampa by mutual consent to make his own way home by train to New York and then by passenger liner to Portsmouth.

On completion of loading at Tampa she made her way to Pensacola, arriving on the 22nd March, after which she set sail for Hamburg, arriving there on the 24th April 1910. On arrival at Hamburg two of the firemen were hospitalised with malaria. With the exception of Tomlinson and the ship’s surgeon, all members of the original crew completed the voyage.

ss England in Porto Velho . ( Date of photo 1909 ) This was the first large cargo ship to navigate the Amazon to Porto Velho

All the above dates are taken from the ship’s articles, and some of the dates in Tomlinson’s book don’t exactly match with these, as shown below:-

Tomlinson’s date for leaving Porto Velho is the 10th March, but the ship’s articles show that the s.s. ‘England’ arrived at Barbados on the 9th March, so she must have left Porto Velho prior to that date.

Tomlinson states that the doctor signed off at Pará on the 16th of March, whereas the ship’s articles show that this occurred on the 3rd March.

Further investigations into the activities of Captain Bennett reveal that he had completed a similar voyage in the s.s. 'England' the previous year, leaving Rotterdam on the 22nd November 1908 to call at Swansea before sailing to Pará, and then Porto Velho. On this voyage the s.s. 'England' was the very first ocean-going vessel to navigate the Amazon and Madeira rivers to Porto Velho, followed some time later by the s.s. 'Holland'. From Porto Velho, the s.s. 'England' sailed to Mobile, Alabama, and returned to Hamburg on the 22nd April 1909