Fleeming Jenkin accounts of the voyges of the Elba

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In the spring of 1855 Jenkin was fitting out the SS Elba, at Birkenhead, for his first telegraph cruise. It appears that in 1855 Henry Brett attempted to lay a cable across the Mediterranean between Cape Spartivento, in the south of Sardinia, and a point near Bona, on the coast of Algeria. It was a gutta-percha cable of six wires or conductors, and manufactured by Glass & Elliott--a firm which afterwards combined with the Gutta-Percha Company, and became the Telegraph Construction and Maintenance Company. Brett laid the cable from the Result, a sailing ship in tow, instead of a more manageable steamer; and, meeting with 600 fathoms of water when twenty-five miles from land, the cable ran out so fast that a tangled skein came up out of the hold, and the line had to be severed. Having only 150 miles on board to span the whole distance of 140 miles, he grappled the lost cable near the shore, raised it, and 'under-run' or passed it over the ship, for some twenty miles, then cut it, leaving the seaward end on the bottom. He then spliced the ship's cable to the shoreward end and resumed paying-out; but after seventy miles in all were laid, another rapid rush of cable took place, and Brett was obliged to cut and abandon the line.

Another attempt was made the following year, but with no better success. Brett then tried to lay a three-wire cable from the steamer Dutchman, but owing to the deep water--in some places 1500 fathoms -- when he came to a few miles from Galita, his destination on the Algerian coast, he had not enough cable to reach the land. He telegraphed to London for more cable to be made and sent out, while the ship remained there holding the end. After five days the cable parted, perhaps as a result of rubbing on the bottom.

It was to recover the lost cable of these expeditions that the Elba was got ready for sea. Jenkin had fitted her out the year before for laying the Cagliari to Malta and Corfu cables; but on this occasion she was better equipped. She had a new machine for picking up the cable, and a sheave or pulley at the bows for it to run over, both designed by Jenkin, together with a variety of wooden buoys, ropes, and chains. Liddell, assisted by Mr. F. C. Webb and Fleeming Jenkin, was in charge of the expedition. Jenkin had nothing to do with the electrical work, his care being the deck machinery for raising the cable; but it was a responsible job.

'I own I like responsibility,' he wrote to Miss Austin, while fitting up the vessel; 'it flatters one; and then, your father might say, I have more to gain than lose. Moreover, I do like this bloodless, painless combat with wood and iron, forcing the stubborn rascals to do my will, licking the clumsy cubs into an active shape, seeing the child of today's thought working to-morrow in full vigour at his appointed task.'

Another letter, dated May 17, gives a picture of the start. 'Not a sailor will join us till the last moment; and then, just as the ship forges ahead through the narrow pass, beds and baggage fly on board, the men, half tipsy, clutch at the rigging, the captain swears, the women scream and sob, the crowd cheer and laugh, while one or two pretty little girls stand still and cry outright, regardless of all eyes.'

The Elba arrived at Bona on June 3, and Jenkin landed at Fort Genova, on Cape Hamrah, where some Arabs were building a land line. 'It was a strange scene,' he writes, 'far more novel than I had imagined; the high, steep bank covered with rich, spicy vegetation, of which I hardly knew one plant. The dwarf palm, with fan-like leaves, growing about two feet high, forms the staple verdure.' After dining in Fort Genova, he had nothing to do but watch the sailors ordering the Arabs about under the 'generic term "Johnny." ' He began to tire of the scene, although, as he confesses, he had willingly paid more money for less strange and lovely sights. Jenkin was not a dreamer; he disliked being idle, and if he had had a pencil he would have amused himself in sketching what he saw. That his eyes were busy is evident from the particulars given in his letter, where he notes the yellow thistles and 'Scotch-looking gowans' which grow there, along with the cistus and the fig-tree.

They left Bona on June 5, and, after calling at Cagliari and Chia, arrived at Cape Spartivento on the morning of June 8. The coast here is a low range of heathy hills, with brilliant green bushes and marshy pools. Mr. Webb remarks that its reputation for fever was so bad as to cause Italian men-of-war to sheer off in passing by. Jenkin suffered a little from malaria, but of a different origin. 'A number of the Saturday Review here,' he writes; 'it reads so hot and feverish, so tomb-like and unhealthy, in the midst of dear Nature's hills and sea, with good wholesome work to do.'

There were several pieces of submerged cable to lift, two with their ends on shore, and one or two lying out at sea. Next day operations were begun on the shore end, which had become buried under the sand, and could not be raised without grappling. After attempts to free the cable from the sand in small boats, the Elba came up to help, and anchored in shallow water about sunset. Curiously enough, the anchor happened to hook, and so discover the cable, which was thereupon grappled, cut, and the sea end brought on board over the bow sheave. After being passed six times round the picking-up drum it was led into the hold, and the Elba slowly forged ahead, hauling in the cable from the bottom as she proceeded. At half-past nine she anchored for the night some distance from the shore, and at three next morning resumed her picking up. 'With a small delay for one or two improvements I had seen to be necessary last night,' writes Jenkin, 'the engine started, and since that time I do not think there has been half an hour's stoppage. A rope to splice, a block to change, a wheel to oil, an old rusted anchor to disengage from the cable, which brought it up-- these have been our only obstructions. Sixty, seventy, eighty, a hundred, a hundred and twenty revolutions at last my little engine tears away. The even black rope comes straight out of the blue, heaving water, passes slowly round an open-hearted, good-tempered-looking pulley, five feet in diameter, aft past a vicious nipper, to bring all up should anything go wrong, through a gentle guide on to a huge bluff drum, who wraps him round his body, and says, " Come you must," as plain as drum can speak; the chattering pauls say, "I've got him, I've got him; he can't come back," whilst black cable, much slacker and easier in mind and body, is taken by a slim V-pulley and passed down into the huge hold, where half a dozen men put him comfortably to bed after his exertion in rising from his long bath.

'I am very glad I am here, for my machines are my own children, and I look on their little failings with a parent's eye, and lead them into the path of duty with gentleness and firmness. I am naturally in good spirits, but keep very quiet, for misfortunes may arise at any instant; moreover, to-morrow my paying-out apparatus will be wanted should all go well, and that will be another nervous operation. Fifteen miles are safely in, but no one knows better than I do that nothing is done till all is done.'

JUNE 11.--'It would amuse you to see how cool (in head) and jolly everybody is. A testy word now and then shows the nerves are strained a little, but every one laughs and makes his little jokes as if it were all in fun....I enjoy it very much.'

JUNE 13, SUNDAY.--'It now (at 10.30) blows a pretty stiff gale, and the sea has also risen, and the Elba's bows rise and fall about nine feet. We make twelve pitches to the minute, and the poor cable must feel very sea-sick by this time. We are quite unable to do anything, and continue riding at anchor in one thousand fathoms, the engines going constantly, so as to keep the ship's bows close up to the cable, which by this means hangs nearly vertical, and sustains no strain but that caused by its own weight and the pitching of the vessel. We were all up at four, but the weather entirely forbade work for to-day; so some went to bed, and most lay down, making up our lee-way, as we nautically term our loss of sleep. I must say Liddell is a fine fellow, and keeps his patience and his temper wonderfully; and yet how he does fret and fume about trifles at home!'

JUNE 16.--'By some odd chance a Times of June 7 has found its way on board through the agency of a wretched old peasant who watches the end of the line here. A long account of breakages in the Atlantic trial trip. To-night we grapple for the heavy cable, eight tons to the mile. I long to have a tug at him; he may puzzle me; and though misfortunes, or rather difficulties, are a bore at the time, life, when working with cables, is tame without them.--2 p.m. Hurrah! he is hooked--the big fellow--almost at the first cast. He hangs under our bows, looking so huge and imposing that I could find it in my heart to be afraid of him.'

JUNE 17.--'We went to a little bay called Chia, where a fresh-water stream falls into the sea, and took in water. This is rather a long operation, so I went up the valley with Mr. Liddell. The coast here consists of rocky mountains 800 to 1000 feet high, covered with shrubs of a brilliant green. On landing, our first amusement was watching the hundreds of large fish who lazily swam in shoals about the river. The big canes on the further side hold numberless tortoises, we are told, but see none, for just now they prefer taking a siesta. A little further on, and what is this with large pink flowers in such abundance?- -the oleander in full flower! At first I fear to pluck them, thinking they must be cultivated and valuable; but soon the banks show a long line of thick tall shrubs, one mass of glorious pink and green, set there in a little valley, whose rocks gleam out blue and purple colours, such as pre-Raphaelites only dare attempt, shining out hard and weird- like amongst the clumps of castor-oil plants, cistus, arbor-vitae, and many other evergreens, whose names, alas! I know not; the cistus is brown now, the rest all deep and brilliant green. Large herds of cattle browse on the baked deposit at the foot of these large crags. One or two half-savage herdsmen in sheepskin kilts, etc., ask for cigars; partridges whirr up on either side of us; pigeons coo and nightingales sing amongst the blooming oleander. We get six sheep, and many fowls too, from the priest of the small village, and then run back to Spartivento and make preparations for the morning.'

JUNE 18.--'The short length (of the big-cable) we have picked up was covered at places with beautiful sprays of coral, twisted and twined with shells of those small fairy animals we saw in the aquarium at home. Poor little things! they died at once, with their little bells and delicate bright tints.'

JUNE 19.--'Hour after hour I stand on the fore-castle-head picking off little specimens of polypi and coral, or lie on the saloon deck reading back numbers of the TIMES, till something hitches, and then all is hurly-burly once more. There are awnings all along the ship, and a most ancient and fish-like smell (from the decaying polypi) beneath.'

JUNE 22.--'Yesterday the cable was often a lovely sight, coming out of the water one large incrustation of delicate net-like corals and long white curling shells. No portion of the dirty black wire was visible; instead we had a garland of soft pink, with little scarlet sprays and white enamel intermixed. All was fragile, however, and could hardly be secured in safety; and inexorable iron crushed the tender leaves to atoms.'

JUNE 24.--'The whole day spent in dredging, without success. This operation consists in allowing the ship to drift slowly across the line where you expect the cable to be, while at the end of a long rope, fast either to the bow or stern, a grapnel drags along the ground. The grapnel is a small anchor, made like four pot-hooks tied back to back. When the rope gets taut the ship is stopped and the grapnel hauled up to the surface in the hopes of finding the cable on its prongs. I am much discontented with myself for idly lounging about and reading WESTWARD HO! for the second time instead of taking to electricity or picking up nautical information.'

During the summer of 1860, he took another telegraph cruise in the Mediterranean, a sea which for its classical memories, its lovely climate, and diversified scenes, is by far the most interesting in the world. This time the Elba was to lay a cable from the Greek islands of Syra and Candia to Egypt. Cable-laying is a pleasant mode of travel. Many of those on board the ship are friends and comrades in former expeditions, and all are engaged in the same venture. Some have seen a good deal of the world, both in and out of the beaten track ; they have curious 'yarns to spin,' and useful hints or scraps of worldly wisdom to bestow. The voyage out is like a holiday excursion, for it is only the laying that is arduous, and even that is lightened by excitement. Glimpses are got of hide-away spots, where the cable is landed, perhaps. on the verge of the primeval forest or near the port of a modern city, or by the site of some ruined monument of the past. The very magic of the craft and its benefit to the world are a source of pleasure to the engineer, who is generally made much of in the distant parts he has come to join. No doubt there are hardships to be borne, sea-sickness, broken rest, and anxiety about the work--for cables are apt suddenly to fail, and the ocean is treacherous; but with all its drawbacks this happy mixture of changing travel and profitable labour is very attractive, especially to a young man.

The following extracts from letters to his wife will illustrate the nature of the work, and also give an idea of Jenkin's clear and graphic style of correspondence :-

May 14.--'Syra is semi-eastern. The pavement, huge shapeless blocks sloping to a central gutter; from this base two-storeyed houses, sometimes plaster, many-coloured, sometimes rough-hewn marble, rise, dirty and ill-finished, to straight, plain, flat roofs; shops guiltless of windows, with signs in Greek letters; dogs, Greeks in blue, baggy, Zouave breeches and a fez, a few narghilehs, and a sprinkling of the ordinary continental shop-boys. In the evening I tried one more walk in Syra with A----, but in vain endeavoured to amuse myself or to spend money, the first effort resulting in singing DOODAH to a passing Greek

or two, the second in spending--no, in making A---- spend--threepence on coffee for three.'

Canea Bay, in Candia (or Crete), which they reached on May 16, appeared to Jenkin one of the loveliest sights that man could witness.

May 23.--'I spent the day at the little station where the cable was landed, which has apparently been first a Venetian monastery and then a Turkish mosque. At any rate the big dome is very cool, and the little ones hold batteries capitally. A handsome young Bashi-Bazouk guards it, and a still handsomer mountaineer is the servant; so I draw them and the monastery and the hill till I'm black in the face with heat, and come on board to hear the Canea cable is still bad.'

May 23.--'We arrived in the morning at the east end of Candia, and had a glorious scramble over the mountains, which seem built of adamant. Time has worn away the softer portions of the rock, only leaving sharp, jagged edges of steel; sea eagles soaring above our heads--old tanks, ruins, and desolation at our feet. The ancient Arsinoe stood here: a few blocks of marble with the cross attest the presence of Venetian Christians; but now--the desolation of desolations. Mr. Liddell and I separated from the rest, and when we had found a sure bay for the cable, had a tremendous lively scramble back to the boat. These are the bits of our life which I enjoy; which have some poetry, some grandeur in them.

May 29.-'Yesterday we ran round to the new harbour (of Alexandria), landed the shore end of the cable close to Cleopatra's Bath, and made a very satisfactory start about one in the afternoon. We had scarcely gone 200 yards when I noticed that the cable ceased to run out, and I wondered why the ship had stopped.'

The Elba had run her nose on a sandbank. After trying to force her over it, an anchor was put out astern and the rope wound by a steam winch, while the engines were backed; but all in vain. At length a small Turkish steamer, the consort of the Elba, came to her assistance, and by means of a hawser helped to tug her off: The pilot again ran her aground soon after, but she was delivered by the same means without much damage. When two-thirds of this cable was laid the line snapped in deep water, and had to be recovered. On Saturday, June 4, they arrived at Syra, where they had to perform four days' quarantine, during which, however, they started repairing the Canea cable.

Bad weather coming on, they took shelter in Siphano, of which Jenkin writes: 'These isles of Greece are sad, interesting places. They are not really barren all over, but they are quite destitute of verdure; and tufts of thyme, wild mastic, or mint, though they sound well, are not nearly so pretty as grass. Many little churches, glittering white, dot the islands; most of them, I believe, abandoned during the whole year with the exception of one day sacred to their patron saint. The villages are mean; but the inhabitants do not look wretched, and the men are capital sailors. There is something in this Greek race yet; they will become a powerful Levantine nation in the course of time.'