The VVT Thonies and Their Mastery of the Oceans Past

Somasiri Devendra, in Island, 13 July 2019, with this title “VVT, Tahiti, and the ghost of the Bounty. The ship from Valvettithurai which sailed the seven seas” and this dedication “Dedicated to the late Mr. Kumaraswamy of Oxonia Institute, Colombo, proud son of Valvettithurai, with whom I was to co-author a work on our northern nautical culture. On him, be Peace.”

article_imageA traditional Thoni showing the backward-coiling Surul and nailed-on occulus.

The story begins …

In 1937 an adventurous ‘Yankee’ sailed a small yacht round the world – the smallest to do so, at that time – stopping awhile in Ceylon. After many adventures, he returned to Ceylon in search of a Jaffna-built ship whose elegant lines had caught his eye. He found her, bought and refitted her in Colombo and sailed for Boston, with an all-Jaffna crew. Boston was as overwhelmed by the vision of this ‘ghost’ of the legendary Bounty, as by its dusky crew and of the voyage itself. But a couple of months later she was sailed again, this time with an all-American delivery crew, to Tahiti. And then, like the Bounty, she disappears.

This fascinating story reached me in dribs and drabs over very many years and I hoarded them. It is not complete, but “Time’s wingéd chariot” tells me that the time has come to tell it. I am no more than the teller of the tale: of a first tale told by others full of sound, fury and significance. I was seeking stories of old Sri Lankan ships when I came across a grainy photograph in an old “Veerakesari” newspaper, a bows-on shot of a fully-rigged ship with a pronounced bowsprit. But, from the archaic Tamil in which the account was written, I could only gather that the ship was the “Annapooranymal” in the Suez Canal.

I knew of Jaffna Thonis of course, from James Hornell’s writings, but this ship did not look like one. Trawling the net I came across a site devoted to Velvettithurai, and there, reproduced without comment, was a contemporary account of her arrival in Boston from the “Boston Globe”. I sought more information, but none was forthcoming. I next located a blogsite, LankaNewspapers.com where a senior member identified as “jacob99” had repeated and added to the account. Again, I wrote in for more information but again I got no answers. Still, the story was worth telling and the story I tell has been carefully woven together from the words of many writers, including those of “jacob99” who had gone to Boston in search of clues to the ship and its voyage. Peace be unto him for his labour of love.

The ship was the Annapooranyamal, and the “Connecticut Yankee” was William A. Robinson. “jacob99″ had found newspaper reports of the ship’s arrival at Gloucester, in Boston, but nothing more of her after that. Strangely, both he and I independently stumbled upon her second voyage, from Boston to Tahiti. Reading the reports of that voyage in the book Tahiti Bound by Donald J. Langley, Sr. and Holly J. Blake (I have a copy signed by Blake) I was impressed by the larger-than-life persons who had sailed her in her life: William A.Robinson, Kanagaratnam Thampipillai, Capt. Duncan A. MacCuish, and Sterling Hayden. So I decided to tell the story of this ship, and them.

Part 1- Sailing ” Florence” home….

A ship by any other name

The story begins with the ship itself. Starting life as Annapooranyamal she underwent a name-change. “Inasmuch as one could not go sailing round the world with a name like that, I named it after my wife, Florence C. Robinson” says Robinson (in his”To the great southern sea”). It is under that name that she entered Lloyd’s register. But both names are too long for me to keep typing at age and I will be referring to her, in this narrative, as Florence C.

She was one of the last sailing vessels built in Valvettithurai, commonly called “VVT” in Sri Lanka. Vessels based there and at Pt. Pedro were built by traditional shipwrights and operated by sailors from there, but the ship owners were Chetty families: many from Tamil Nadu but some by the Chetty traders who had long settled in Valvettithurai. All were sailing ships which carried cargo largely in the Bay of Bengal region: Vizhakapatnam, Cochin (occasionally even Calcutta), Rangoon, Akyab, Galle and Colombo and, occasionally Calcutta and Aden. Theirs’ was an Asian trade and they carried cargoes of rice, spices, roof tiles, timber (teak, sandalwood, etc), palmyra products, dried fish, tobacco products, etc. They were all descended from the traditional Thonis and, though not wedded to any particular model or design, were distinctly Asian.

Florence C. was definitely different. Who decided on her lines: her Tamilnadu owner or her VVT shipwright, Sundara mestriyar ? We do not know. But she was built as a scaled-down replica of 19th century British frigates noted for speed and maneuverability. Built in 1930, she was a schooner-rigged two-master, 89’on deck, with a 33’ jib boom which gave her an overall length of 122’. She had a beam of 19’ and a draught of only 8’. She was built entirely of teak and margosa wood and Robinson would boast “She is built to last 100 years, if not longer, if not longer.” She was said to resemble Capt. Bligh’s “Bounty” of The Mutiny on the Bounty fame. [Note: “Bounty” was of almost the length on deck but had a greater beam and draft, and was fully rigged: and she was not a Frigate but a converted Collier]. Florence C. was fitted with an auxiliary (50 HP Belinda Marine) engine and her inboard arrangements were certainly not those of a British warship but of a cargo ship sailed by Asians: cooking was conducted on deck and there was the usual “thunder box” over the side for the crew.

She was not the largest of the ships but was a much-loved one. In 1938, she was chosen to lead other sailing vessels in the parade of ships at the annual Muthu-mariamman Kovil’s “theerthath thiruvizha” festival. This was, however, to be her “last hurrah” in VVT because, soon after that, Robinson tracked her down at Kayts. Her Tamilnadu owner (named “Pi.Ku.Na. Shop”) parted with her for a “handsome price”. How much would that have been? “In the years 1935–1940…a ship which could carry 8000 bundles of sacks had three sails (and) was priced rupees one hundred thousand” says one source: but “Florence C.” was only a two-master. Robinson is more definite: he says “I had paid 25,000 rupees –a little over $9000”, so we do know the price. The sale completed, the vessel was sailed to Colombo with its VVT crew of four under Thundayal (sailing master/chief of crew) Kanagaratnam Thampipillai.

Refit and a change of name

In Colombo, Robinson started refitting the ship. Married by now, to his first wife (he was to have three), Florence (nee Crane) he intended sailing home with her in Florence C.. There was no accommodation suitable for them and so the ship was handed over to Walkers’ to build a cabin amidships. A toilet (a proper “head”) was also built for themselves and a galley, both of which could only be accessed from the cabin. The galley had a small sink and an oven “of decent size…..an oil burning British pot-stove…. Which vented through the top of the deck house” (Langley and Blake: “Tahiti Bound”). These facilities were for the Robinsons, not the crew.

A more important change was effected. Florence C had been schooner-rigged: that is, she has fore-and-aft sails on both Fore and Main masts. Robinson, no mean sailor, decided that the foremast should be square rigged while the mainmast would carry fore-and-aft sails: this made her of a rather mixed breed referred to as “a Hermaphrodite brigantine”. “The unique qualities of the square rig, including that of being able to sail backward while maneuvering in crowded waters, were noted by Robbie” says Don Holm in his Chapter in “The Connecticut Yankee” in his book “The Cicumnavigators”). Under full sail she carried “an outer jib, an inner jib and a jumbo, a fores’l, a tops’l, and a t’gallant, upper and lower stays’ls and a gaff rigged main” (in the words of Langley and Blake). The hull was painted black with white trim and the sails were of hemp and not canvas: the hemp stretched and shrank under the influence of weather. As a cargo ship readying to sail without a cargo, she was heavily ballasted with sandbags which had to be painfully removed by her next crew as many had split and the sand spilt!

Finally, she was re-named “Florence C.Robinson” and registered under that name with Lloyds of London. Robinson had faith in himself, the vessel and the crew from VVT:

Kanagaratnam Thampipillai (Master) (48),

Sinathamby Sithamparapillai(Mate) (28),

Thamotharampillai Sabaratnam (28),

Aiyadurai Ratnasamy (24) and

Pooranavelupillai Subramaniam (Cook)(29) – recruited in Colombo.

And so she set sail. On 3rd March 1937, says one source.

Robinson and Thampipillai

Robinson may have been registered as the Captain but it was Thampipillai who handled the crew. He was fluent in English and the rest of the crew – all of whom had served on the ship since she had been launched – could also converse in English. The “Boston Globe” reported that “one of the Ceylonese, Sabaratnam, who with two others in the native crew speaks English fluently ” saying that “We were a painted brigantine on a painted ocean”. It also said of the crew: “They appeared to have one boss, a husky-bearded sailor who answered to the name of Pullai. He speaks English and of course, more fluently, his native tongue, Tamil in which he would relay the skippers orders to the crew. Proud of his esteem, he saw to it that the other boys promptly obeyed orders. A rigid discipline could easily be observed aboard yesterday.”

Who was Robinson? It was easy to find him on the internet: a truly remarkable man. Combining excerpts from his book (“10000 leagues over the sea” and “To the great southern sea”) with those of the Chapter by Don Holm, I came up with this summary of the man and the ship:

“On June 23, 1928, Robinson, a 25-year-old ex-engineer, preparing to fulfil his personal dream, left New York in the 32-foot Alden ketch Svaap as an entry in the Bermuda Race of that year. His crew had no idea that he planned to continue on from Bermuda around the world in the smallest yacht ever to attempt it. He did, and succeeded.

“On that voyage he had spent a week in Ceylon. He remarks on the perfumed land breeze, the sea full of red and brown-sails of fishing craft en route to the fishing banks and of a waterspout off Barberyn. ‘It is a beautiful country and its history and legends are enchanting. But its people were nothing but a race of beggars whose persistence is so appalling that it ruins your visit’. After the voyage was over, he sailed again and the next part of the story must be told in Don Holm’s own words:

‘Two years later, with his bride, Florence, ….. Robbie sailed again in Svaap. After more adventures…they…. headed for the Galapagos Islands. The purpose … was… mainly…some scientific research, and to make a movie of penguins ….. Just as they began filming, Robbie, …came down with appendicitis, which ruptured on the second day and peritonitis set in. A thousand miles from help… with a maximum of three days… before death would come, there appeared miraculously …in the cove an American tuna clipper…with a long-range radio. Next … the U.S. Navy at Panama dispatched a destroyer with complete operating facilities and a flight of Army planes to assist in the rescue….He was taken aboard the destroyer for an emergency operation, then taken to Gorgas Hospital in Balboa for further treatment and more operations by …the world’s finest surgeons.

If Robbie had been famous before, now he was a superstar…. While he was recuperating, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt passed through the Canal Zone bound for Hawaii. Robinson was invited to meet with the President and had an opportunity to thank him for the assistance of the Army and Navy’

Later, Florence and he sailed to Tahiti and built their home there. He made contacts with many people, one of whom was Henri Grand, a local entrepreneur, who later became a business partner. In 1937, the Robinsons returned to Ipswich, on the Connecticut River, where Robbie turned to designing and building sailing beautiful vessels such as Baltimore clippers. But his wanderlust re-surfaced and, he says:

‘the sea urge got too strong again I took time off from the shipyard…and a few weeks later was bending sail in the little port of Kaits, between Ceylon and southern India, aboard a 90 ft teakwood trading vessel……..For years I had remembered this beautiful Ceylon built brigantine which I had seen on the first voyage of Svaap and after combing the coast from Colombo to Madras I had found her in Kaits just back from a voyage to Burma.’

Says Don Holm, it was

‘a beautiful full-rigged ship and (he) had it brought to Gloucester as a model for designing and restoring classic old vessels.’ ”

Across the Arabian and Red Seas:

And so the the duo of Robinson and Thampipillai set out to conquer new fields. First leg – Colombo to Cyprus. Little actual information exists but it seems to have been a leisurely sail blessed with fair winds. Robinson says that they were “exploring around the islands in the Indian Ocean followed by the Red Sea and the Mediterranean”. The “Boston Globe” reported that “Her crew of Hindus have manned her from Ceylon to Burma, and to ports of India since her launching. She had dodged all manner of monsoons and stood the strong winds of those water.” The crew was familiar with ship and the waters of the Indian Ocean and they must have touched at islands in the Maldive and Laccadive chains and at Aden.

Robinson took her leisurely through the Indian Ocean and the Red Sea as far as Crete and seems to have later asserted that he had reached a speed of 18 knots one day, but the ship does not seems to have matched that anywhere else after that. Florence C. transited the Suez Canal and we have the grainy picture of her there from the “Virakesari”. But we have no record of the other ports she called at. The first leg of the voyage ended at Crete.

A change of Command

At Crete there was a change of command and the Robinsons ended their personal cruise on Florence C. there. Apparently it was necessary that an experienced Captain should sail her across the Atlantic. The “Boston Globe” says: “In March, Capt. Donald. A. MacCuish, of 5, Lookout St, one of Gloucester’s saltiest and best-known skippers, went over to Crete to bring her across the Atlantic” (that would be March, 1937) and “Capt. MacCuish left here by steamer for the island port to get the craft and bring her here.” There was neither a need for both Robinson and MacCuish to be on board nor accommodation for both. There was no accommodation for MacCuish if the Robinsons remained in the lone cabin. Robinson then handed over command to MacCuish and took passage to America on another vessel.

Sailing in the Meditteranean

MacCuish, sailed from Candia, Crete, on May 3, and was 31 days at sea before touching at Gibraltar. MacCuish was very much in command and the crew members were in unfamiliar waters. Thampipillai must have been of great help as the new Captain was had to “work up” a new ship and understand the non-English crew. There is not much information of this month-long leg of the voyage, but MacCuish soon realized the capabilities of his crew. The auxiliary engine had packed up six months previously (Robinson must have been aware of that) and the voyage (from Colombo to Boston) was entirely under sail. They had hardly left Crete when they ran into rough weather:

” ‘I’ve had 42 years at sea, man and boy, but that storm we hit in the Mediterranean, just after we cleared Candia( in Crete) was one of the worst I’ve ever pulled through.,” Capt. Dan said today….. She’s a tidy little vessel, built of honest workmanship and good hard- wood, or we’d not be here to tell the tale. There we were, running under bare poles, with the seas breaking white over the bow and the day inky black like night.’ We were driven 250 miles off our course”

The “Globe” report continues, giving MacCuish’ considered opinion of the crew:

“Capt. has had many experiences afloat in his long day….. So when he says the Hindus made him a first-rate crew, they must have been capable. None of the five ever bothered about shoes or stockings, making the run of the ship in bare feet, even to climbing the rigging into the cross-trees of the top masts. The skin between their toes had become hardened, yet flexible. None ever heard of oilskins or “sou’westers,” and content themselves with their native turbans as head-gear and “shorts” or pants with sweaters.”

They reached Gibraltar around 3rd June for water and provisioning and here they took on an extra helper, Alexis Doster, Jr., of Litchfield, Connecticut, 20 years old Alexis Doster, Jr., a typical young adventurer who had been involved in the Spanish Civil War,

“who had just completed a first-hand course in European politics, of two years…..had rubbed elbows with Nazi conquerors of Austria, had met self-assured fascists of Italy,…swapped bullets with the Spanish Communists to the point that he was wearied of the whole mess and saw the wisdom in returning home….. At the instigation of the American consul, Capt. Dan signed young Doster as a workaway.” (Globe).

  **** ****
This is a super article based on intelligent archival work, Somasiri …. Michael
A NOTE from Michael Roberts, 13 July 2019
As I have noted in one of my essays one factor which enabled Prabhakaran and the LTTE to overshadow and dominate the other militant Tamil groups in the 1980s was the seafaring background and skills of the Karaiyar of VVT and Prabhakaran’s intelligence in deciding that (a) he needed to be independent of India and RAW for arms supplies and (B) that the LTTE required good telecom capacities and (C) a naval logistics arm — which  latter task was entrusted to KP Pathmanathan and one “Captain David”. By way of contrast note the tale about PLOTE: when they desired to get some of their trained militants in India back to the Eastern :Province, they approached one of their leaders Sivaram (aka Taraki). He may have been an Easterner and an intellectual,  but he was part of the landed aristocracy and would have known bugger-all about navigation and identifying coastline markers.
Of course, Prabhakaran’s ruthlessness and killer instinct was the central factor behind the LTTE’s decimation and whittling down of the other Taamil Eelamist outfits.

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Filed under arab regimes, centre-periphery relations, commoditification, cultural transmission, economic processes, historical interpretation, Indian Ocean politics, island economy, landscape wondrous, life stories, modernity & modernization, Portuguese in Indian Ocean, sri lankan society, the imaginary and the real, transport and communications, unusual people, world events & processes

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