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‘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.

 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’.
 

 NOTE
 

 s.s. ‘England’ (3,798 g.r.t.) was built by the Northumberland Shipbuilding Company in 1906.

She was lost to enemy action on 23rd May 1917 – sunk by the German submarine U65 commanded by Hermann von Fischel while carrying a cargo of coal from Cardiff to Malta.
 

Ordered 17 May 1915  Laid down 4 Jun 1915 
Launched 21 Mar 1916  Commissioned 11 May 1916 
Successes 48 ships sunk for a total of 76,774 tons.
2 ships damaged for a total of 7,860 tons. 
Fate 28 Oct 1918 - Scuttled at Pola in position 44.52N, 13.50E during the evacuation from there. .  

P.S. Anton’s grandmother maintained that Welsh steam coal was the only fuel good enough to raise steam at the altitude at which the Madeira-Mamoré Railway operated.

 

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