Review of Som jungman på en Ostindienfarare (1939)

Reinhold Ekberg (writer).

Read in 2019.

A 110-page summary of a 1937 round trip from Gothenburg, Sweden, to what is now Yangon, Myanmar (then Rangoon, British Burma). The author is a deckhand among a crew of 39 and the book is based on his diary.

Written when Sweden was known for Greta Garbo and Ivar Kreuger. The foreword was finished in the autumn of 1939, perhaps within weeks of the declaration of war. Burma would be invaded by the Japanese, already in an undeclared war with China. In 1951, the first container ships would begin operating in Denmark. Diesel replaced coal and sail. Just a couple of decades on, deckhands after Ekberg would have a very different experience, for the better. Ekberg is clearly an amateur writer, but as a first-hand account preserving something that was fairly common at the time and now lost, the book has aged well.

The author’s attitudes seem typical: He decries the Italian invasion of Ethiopia (“Abessinien”), resisting an Italian’s moronic conspiracy theory that well-armed Ethiopians placed their snipers in the medics’ tents, as an excuse for why the invaders fired on ambulances. Passing Spain, he is alarmed to realize that he can actually hear the guns of the civil war (“Arma Spanien!”). Coming home through Germany, after falling ill on the way back and getting off the boat in Algiers at the time of Pépé le Moko (1937), he’s suspected of being a foreign volunteer for the Spanish anti-fascists. The build-up to WW2 is visible everywhere. At the same time, the author expresses rote racist attitudes: The Indians as a people are stingy, false and mysterious, and when his Polish buddy suddenly punches a cab driver for answering refusal of service with a rude gesture, the two fleeing Europeans are grateful for the aid of a group of German sailors who help them beat up the irate driver and his colleagues to the point of these Indians begging for mercy.

The most colourful episode occurs in Yangon, where the author, on one of his solitary wanderings, visits an unnamed Buddhist “pagoda”. Without ill intent, he forgets to take off his shoes and is surrounded by angry worshippers. He flees through an inner sanctum, wades across a pool and climbs the creepers up a four-metre rear wall, which does not appease his pursuers. His visits to zoological and botanical gardens bring him more pleasure.

non-fiction text