‘The Sea and the Jungle’ by
H. M. Tomlinson
the early part of 2009 we received a very interesting
enquiry from Audrey and Anton Skillman – an enquiry that
would lead to a considerable amount of detective work to
find the truth behind a best-selling book published in 1912.
The book in question was ‘The Sea and the Jungle’ by H M
Anton’s grandmother had always
maintained that her father, Captain William Reath Bennett,
was the Master of the tramp steamer ‘Capella’, the ship that
allegedly carried Tomlinson on his voyage from Swansea to
Porto Velho in Brazil – the voyage upon which the book was
According to Tomlinson, who had
signed on the ship as Purser at a nominal wage of one
shilling per month, the s.s. ‘Capella’ sailed from Swansea
Docks in the December of 1909, bound for Brazil. After
crossing the Atlantic to Pará, and steaming a further 2,000
miles up the rivers Amazon and Madeira, she finally reached
her destination - Porto Velho – where her cargo of coal and
machinery was discharged.
cargo was destined for the
Madeira-Mamoré Railway project. Between 1912 and 1972 this
railway would link Porto Velho with Guajará-Mirim, a
distance of 366 km. through the Amazonian jungle in what is
today the State of Rondônia in northern Brazil. (see Martin
Cooper’s fascinating railway website
Audrey and Anton wanted to trace the ‘Capella’, and to
establish once and for all whether Anton’s great grandfather
had in fact been the Master of the ship during the voyage
that carried Tomlinson from Swansea to Brazil and into the
heart of the Amazon. Was Captain William Reath Bennett
really the anonymous ‘Skipper’ of Tomlinson’s book?
To begin with, we bought a copy
of ‘The Sea and the Jungle’ – a 1953 Penguin paperback
edition for 99p on eBay – to familiarise ourselves with the
details of the voyage. Then the hunt for Tomlinson’s
‘Capella’ was on, and a suitable candidate was soon
identified. It was T J Harrison’s s.s. ‘Capella’, a 3,193
ton steamer built in 1890, sold in 1910 and renamed ‘Asturian’.
our bubble burst when Audrey and Anton’s search of Lloyd’s
Captains’ Register revealed that Captain Bennett had never
commanded a ship by the name of ‘Capella’, and so it seemed
that any chance of verifying Anton’s grandmother’s story was
over almost before it had begun. But, as Ivor always says,
there is usually a small grain of truth in every family
With the help of the Maritime
History Archive of the Memorial University of Newfoundland,
Canada, Audrey and Anton began to investigate the various
voyages that Captain Bennett had undertaken as Master. They
discovered that he had at one time been Master of the s.s.
‘Holland’, owned by Fred Drughorn Ltd., and that the
‘Holland’ had made a voyage to Porto Velho in 1910 but not
under Captain Bennett’s command. So there lay the first
tenuous link between Bennett and the Amazonian jungle.
We began to
think more about Tomlinson’s story and noticed that he had
avoided documenting the names of the Captain and crew of the
‘Capella’, and wondered if this had been done deliberately
to obscure their identities for some reason or another. If
this were the case, logic would dictate that he would also
have had to change the name of the ship to ensure that their
identities remained concealed.
this in mind, Audrey and Anton began to investigate all of
Captain Bennett’s transatlantic voyages in search of the
elusive Tomlinson – but to no avail. Then, as all hope of
resolving this old family tale was fading fast, a
last-chance investigation into a voyage erroneously marked
‘M’ for Mediterranean uncovered something that none of us
had dared hope for – Captain William Reath Bennett
commanding the Fred Drughorn ship s.s. ‘England’ on a voyage
from Rotterdam via Swansea to Porto Velho in Brazil, with
Mr. H M Tomlinson signed on as Purser, and with the voyage
dates almost exactly corresponding to those in Tomlinson’s
So Anton’s grandmother was
vindicated at long last by this overwhelming evidence which
clearly demonstrated that the fictional ‘Capella’ was, in
fact, the s.s. ‘England’, aboard which great grandfather
Bennett carried Tomlinson on the epic voyage which he would
later describe in his best-selling book - ‘The Sea and the
‘England’ (3,798 g.r.t.) was built by the Northumberland
Shipbuilding Company in 1906.
She was lost
to enemy action on 23rd May 1917 – sunk by the
German submarine U65 commanded by Hermann von Fischel while
carrying a cargo of coal from Cardiff to Malta.
||17 May 1915
||4 Jun 1915
||21 Mar 1916
||11 May 1916
||48 ships sunk for a total
of 76,774 tons.
2 ships damaged for a total of 7,860 tons.
||28 Oct 1918 -
Scuttled at Pola in position 44.52N, 13.50E during the
evacuation from there. .
Anton’s grandmother maintained that Welsh steam coal was the
only fuel good enough to raise steam at the altitude at
which the Madeira-Mamoré Railway operated.