Down the Malay Barrier 5.

Many different threads of history knot in the case of the steamship “Jeddah.”

First, there is geography.  On the one hand, trade between the Far East and anywhere to the West (the Indian Ocean, the Middle East, East Africa, Europe) must pass through one of two narrow gates: the Sunda Strait (between Sumatra and Java) or the Malacca Straits (between the Malay Peninsula and Sumatra).  On the other hand, the southern edge of the Arabian peninsula, on the northern shore of the Indian Ocean, is a poor land called the Hadramaut.  It grows frankincense and not much else.  Then the River Clyde runs through southwestern Scotland.  Along its banks many shipyards grew up in the 19th Century.[1]  Clydeside became the heart of British ship-building.

Second, there is demography.  The Dutch held the Sunda Strait for centuries; in 1818, the English got the island and harbor of Singapore in the Malacca Straits.  They emphasized attracting Arab merchants already familiar with local people and trade.  It quickly became the hub of East-West trade.  At the same time, Hadhrami (people from Hadramaut) began emigrating to places all around the Indian Ocean.  Usually, they became merchants and sailors.  “Blood is thicker than water”: family networks were vital to success in long-distance trade.

Third, among the “pillars” of Islam, one is “Hajj”: the obligation to make a pilgrimage to Mecca, the birth-place of Islam.  In Britain’s “Indian Empire” (today India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh), in Indonesia, and in the Philippines, there were many Muslims.  Many of them made the “hajj.” Sea voyages offered the least inconvenient route, but the small sailing ships commonly used for the journey were uncomfortable, slow, and sometimes dangerous.  A second “pillar” is “Zakat”: the obligation to give charity to the poor.

These threads came together when Syed Abdul Rahman Alsagoff, a Hadhrami, arrived in Singapore in 1824.[2]  He went into the spice trade, where he prospered.  His son and grandson followed the trade.  The grandson, Syed Mahomed Alsagoff, possessed great wealth and engaged in generous philanthropy.  In 1870, Alsagoff ordered construction of a steam-powered passenger ship to carry Muslim pilgrims to and from Jeddah, the port-of-entry on the Red Sea for Mecca in the interior.  The ship was to be named the “Jeddah.”

Fourth, British ships and British sea captains were the best in the world.  In 1872 a Clydeside shipyard[3] launched the “Jeddah.”   Alsagoff hired British officers to command the ship.  For eight years it plied its trade between Singapore and Jeddah.

On 17 July 1880, the “Jeddah” sailed from Singapore with 953 pilgrims aboard.  By 3 August the ship was approaching the Red Sea.  Then a terrible hurricane blew up.  The ship began to leak, lost most of its power, and began to list to one side.  On 7 August, believing the ship would sink, most of the officers abandoned the ship—and the passengers—in a lifeboat.  They survived and reported the ship sunk.  But the “Jeddah” did not sink.  The remaining officers and the passengers worked to save the ship, then were rescued by a French ship.

Fifth, Authority and Responsibility cannot be separated without disaster following.  It is an unwritten law of the sea that captains remain aboard until everyone else has been saved, or go down with their ship.  The officers had betrayed this duty and became outcasts.  Joseph Conrad’s Lord Jim (1900) imagines the terrible fate of one of these men.

[1] Also a great many distilleries, although you shouldn’t combine the “twa”—boat-building and booze.

[2] The term “Syed” indicates that he was a descendant of one of the Prophet Muhammad and was, thus, of high status among all Muslims.

[3] David Byrne grew up there.  See: