P&O Cruises’ Aurora will call at Malta after she leaves Southampton on January 9 for a circumnavigation of the globe. The cruise, which has been described as having been 180 years in the making, will celebrate the foundation of P&O in 1837. Aurora will steam 21,643 nautical miles and visit 35 destinations in 21 countries. The Grand Harbour will be her first port of call.

On September 1, 1837, the Peninsular Steam Navigation Company, as it was originally known, inaugurated a mail and passenger service between London and Falmouth, ports in the Iberian Peninsula, and Gibraltar. Her Majesty’s packets took over from Gibraltar to Malta, Corfu and Alexandria. The previous year, the company chartered the Manchester to carry four giraffes from Malta for the Zoological Society in London.

P&O originally traded to Spain and Portugal; this explains the ‘Peninsular’ in the official name. Its assistance to the Spanish and Portuguese Crowns during the civil wars of the 1830s earned it the right to fly the countries’ national colours on its pennant: red and gold (P&O used yellow) of the Spanish Bourbons, and blue and white of the Portuguese House of Braganza. These colours were subsequently quartered on the house flag, which is one of the oldest still in use, and worn Blue to the mast, Red to the fly, Yellow to the deck, White on high.

On December 31, 1840, the company was incorporated by Royal Charter as the Peninsular and Oriental Steam Navigation Company – P&O. With incorporation came armorial bearings depicting: a rising sun and, on the quarters, a lion, a dragon, an elephant and a kangaroo, symbolising the countries served by the company: England, India, China and Australia. P&O took its motto Quis Nos Separabit, meaning ‘who shall separate us’, from its determination to serve the far corners of the earth, despite the, as yet, canal-less Isthmus of Suez and the dearth of facilities for steamships. After 180 unbroken years, the motto could well apply to its connection with Malta.

Malta was now served by a direct service from Falmouth and Gibraltar. Mails and passengers were carried on to India via the overland caravan route from Alexandria to Suez. Passengers chose their travel companions in the desert by drawing lots during the voyage between Malta and Alexandria. The overland route was uncomfortable, to say the least. From Alexandria there was a link with the Nile via the Mahmoudieh Canal. One of the attractions on reaching Grand Cairo was the slave market with its nude, chained unfortunates from the heart of darkest Africa.

From Cairo, caravans crossed 84 miles of desert to Suez, stopping along the way at dirty, rundown, flea infested inns. Mail, baggage and cargo were carried (they travelled at a faster rate than the passengers) by up to 4,000 camels. The discomfort was later mitigated by the construction of a railway in 1859, and was completely eliminated after the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869.

P&O Sutlej entering Marsamxett Harbour.P&O Sutlej entering Marsamxett Harbour.

By the 1850s the mail service had been extended to Singapore, China and Sydney. Passengers and mail journeyed from London by train for Marseilles, where they boarded the ships for Malta and beyond. After the opening of the Mont Cenis railway tunnel the company also diverted mails to Brindisi direct for Alexandria.

In 2017 Aurora will follow in the wake of several famous P&O liners, as will her passengers, who will share the epic voyages of Empire builders, administrators, soldiers, sailors, settlers, explorers, botanists, scientists, the girls of the ‘fishing fleet’, who came out in search of prospective husbands, and illustrious personalities from William Makepeace Thackeray to Florence Nightingale, Giuseppe Garibaldi and Rudyard Kipling.

Florence Nightingale, the ‘Lady with the lamp’, called aboard Vectis after a voyage from Marseilles to Scutari to set up nursing facilities during the Crimean War. She was seasick throughout the voyage and did not come ashore at Malta though her nurses were feted by officers from the army. Giuseppe Garibaldi also arrived aboard the Vectis on his way to England; he sailed for Southampton on Ripon, arriving on  April 3, 1864.

P&O activities at Marsamxett made that harbour extremely busy, the turnaround surpassing that of the Lazzaretto

In 1844 P&O offered William Makepeace Thackeray (1811-1863) a free voyage to the Mediterranean and the Levant, visiting Gibraltar, Malta, Athens, Smyrna, Jerusalem (via Jaffa), and Cairo (Via Alexandria). It was advertised as a Grand Tour; with this voyage P&O is traditionally taken to have invented cruising, albeit not in the modern sense of the word. Thackeray sailed on three different P&O ships employed on scheduled liner service carrying mails, passengers and cargo.

Writing under the pseudonym Michael Angelo Titmarsh, the writer described the cruise in Notes on a Journey from Cornhill to Grand Cairo by Way of Lisbon, Athens, Constantinople, and Jerusalem. He also recorded the earliest preserved P&O menu. In his time Thackeray was ranked second to Charles Dickens as a writer, but is now best remembered for his social satire Vanity Fair.

Thackeray arrived in Malta on September 5, 1844 by way of Lisbon and Gibraltar on P&O Lady Mary Wood. His description of Grand Harbour and Valletta are typical of most visitors’ observations: busy, bustling, noisy, quaint, the London shops a reminder of home, and the squads of priests, habited after the fashion of Don Basilio in the opera. He toured the sights and was made honorary member of the Union Club in Strada Reale, then called Queensway, now Republic Street. Thackeray was not spared quarantine at the Lazzaretto, and he had to go through the process again on his return from Egypt.

Malta and its harbours have a special place in the 180-year-old history of the company. In The Story of Malta (1893) the American publisher and travel writer Maturin Murray Ballou described Malta as ‘the half-way station, as it were, of the P&O Line between London and Bombay’. As to the benefits, ‘it is computed that the passage by each P&O steamer that stopped at the port on its way East or West, leave an average of 500 to 600 dollars distributed among the fancy goods merchants, and we should say this is a very moderated estimate’.

The beggars at Nix Mangiari Steps, at right, developed mendicancy to a fine art.The beggars at Nix Mangiari Steps, at right, developed mendicancy to a fine art.

‘The arrival of a P&O steamship in the harbour of Malta with a goodly number of passengers bound either east or west, is a harvest time for the beggars, who know very well how to challenge the generosity of strangers. They have made a careful study of the business: they have elevated it, as De Quincey says, to the status of a fine art. The Nix Mangiari Steps of Valletta are the congregating place of an army of mendicants of every species, men, women, and children, who exhibit all manner of deformities, both real and artificial, as well as every grade of dirt and squalor. In landing and making one’s way up to the main thoroughfare of the city, it is necessary to run the gauntlet of this poverty-stricken people’.

Quintessentially P&O: the rising sun and the colours of Spain and Portugal.Quintessentially P&O: the rising sun and the colours of Spain and Portugal.

Marsamxett Harbour was for several years partly the exclusive domain of the company and was popularly referred to as the P&O Harbour. P&O set up facilities at Marsamxett soon after incorporation by Royal Charter. At Malta, as at many other ports thereafter, the company started from scratch, building coal and goods stores as well as a customs verandah for passengers. Part of the harbour could have been given over to the company (as far as is known this arrangement applied solely to P&O) to facilitate quarantine at the adjacent Lazzaretto. Inside this huge complex of buildings, passengers and merchandise were screened against insidious shipborne diseases such as the plague and cholera. P&O ran services to the Levant and the Orient; the dangers of infection from countries in these regions were never underestimated.

P&O activities at Marsamxett made that harbour extremely busy, the turnaround surpassing that of the Lazzaretto. The McCarthy Report (1908) on the Customs Department considered that that the maintenance of permanent staff for P&O and the Lazzaretto was wasteful, considering the intermittent nature of the work. When the ships were in, Customs guards were in attendance at the P&O sheds, one of which was for cargo and passenger baggage subject to duty. The men also attended the verandah where passengers were landed, which incidentally, is the only extant reminder of the company’s activities in Malta.

Some days were busier than others. On September 12, 1910, there were three P&O ships in harbour – Sicilia, Namur and Vectis. Sicilia also served as a troopship. When she sailed out of Marsamxett earlier in 1906, it was not goodbye but au revoir for five men from the Rifle Brigade who had got engaged to Maltese girls. Vectis was in harbour for 14 hours with 200 cruise passengers.

Marsamxett came alive when P&O ships called. The ships were surrounded by dghajsas (Eng. dyso), the local passenger boats, water barges, coal lighters, bumboats and boys who dove for coins thrown by passengers who remained aboard.

Malta’s main harbours.Malta’s main harbours.

In 1890 P&O commissioned the artist W.W. Lloyd to draw scenes of the company’s activities.

These were published as P&O Pencillings. The Malta drawing portrays events surrounding the ship at Marsamxett: Valletta in the background; a Maltese dghajsa – Me Very Poor Man; boys diving for coins and the service launch Notabile.

Lloyd generously left out the unpleasant part of the ship’s visit – the process of coaling ship. This description of the coaling of the Pekin at Marsamxett in 1875 gives some idea of the work involved and the contrast with the other activities taking place around the ship’s hull:

Aurora at Valletta Cruise Port.Aurora at Valletta Cruise Port.

“One of the disagreeables attending a sea voyage in a steamer is the necessity of taking in huge quantities of coal at certain stations, of which in the Mediterranean Malta is one of the principal, being, in fact, a species of half-way house. As soon as the vessel is fairly anchored she is apparently taken over by a horde of black pirates, grimy barges are hauled alongside, and then commencing the work of bringing the coal on board, and shooting it into the coal bunkers below. Crowds of dust arise, blackening everybody and everything in the vicinity, and if a breeze is blowing at the time nothing is safe from the grime.

“We must say a word, however, for the Maltese coalheavers, (according to Ballou, they were paid half a dollar a day) who, Mr W.C. Horsley, tells us, work with double the energy and rapidity that the Spaniards display at Gibraltar. To turn to the more pleasant visitors, there are boats filled with the most luscious fruits, blood-red oranges, and excellent prickly pears, while it is worth the expenditure of the shilling-worth of coppers to witness the diving feats of the Maltese youths, who will fetch a penny from the bottom of the muddy harbour with far greater speed and ease then our old friend at the Polytechnic used to bring sixpence from his tank. The second barge alongside contains fresh water, which is being pumped into the tanks of the steamer. The vessel – the P&O steamer Pekin – is lying in the Quarantine harbour and in the background is a steamer in quarantine on account of a case of cholera on board”.

(To be concluded)

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