When I began reading this book, my first thought was that Swami Vivekananda himself would enjoy reading it. All his life the swami was a terrific student. On Vivekananda’s first voyage, aboard the SS Peninsular, he wrote to his Madras disciples (July 10, 1893) describing in detail what he was seeing: Colombo, Penang, Hong Kong, Nagasaki, Tokyo and so on. Always striving to broaden their outlook, he provided vivid culture notes for each area. He especially applauded the match factories of Japan and commented that the Japanese were ‘bent on making everything they need in their own country’. He concluded that letter with the behest: ‘Come out of your narrow holes and takes a look aboard!’ He also appreciated the captain of that ship who showed him all around the vessel and explained the working of the engine.
Somenath Mukherjee has given detailed history of each of the eleven ships that carried Swami Vivekananda over the seas between 1893 and 1900. In addition, he gives specifications for each vessel: length, width, and tonnage, and a vivid description of the engines, and capability of speed in knots. Also provided are the capacity of first class, second class, and steerage, the number and size of the decks, saloons, dining rooms, and other particulars. One can visualize the space and conditions of shipboard life for Vivekananda. The author’s meticulous research also reveals the influence of competition in ship travel, especially on the transatlantic route which carried wealthy Americans to the Old World and immigrants to the New World, with the length of travel time constantly decreasing.
I appreciate the detailed information provided by the author. For example, in April 1896, the swami sailed on the SS Germanic from New York to London. The information given shows that elaborate design planning had gone into preventing and extinguished fires above and below deck. So many other behind-the-scenes show what efforts were made by ship-builders to keep passengers safe.
The author has provided an additional link to Vivekananda. We have had his letters, lectures, and writings, and detailed information on the places where he stayed. Now in this book we have the all-important settings for the swami’s life aboard ship. For instance, for the second leg of this first trip to America, he boarded the RMS Empress of India. It was here that he had a very important conversation with a business magnate from Bombay, Jamsetji Tata. Vivekananda asked him why he imported matches from Japan to sell in India. If he set up a factory in India, Vivekananda told him, it would employ many people and prevent a drain on national wealth. Five years later Tata made a public offer of an endowment to set up an institute for scientific research to be run by Indians for Indians. British authorities did not like this proposal at all. Tata appealed to Vivekananda to help with promoting the idea, and in April 1899 a notice supporting Tata’s Research Scheme appeared in Prabuddha Bhararta. Sister Nivedita worked behind the scenes to convince British authorities of the worth of a scientific institute, enlisting the support of celebrated people, including Hardvard professor of philosophy William James. In March 1902 the Government of India approved the plan, and the Tata Institute of Science opened in July 1911. Today, the Indian Institute of Science provides post-graduate degrees in science and engineering.
The author has very nicely woven into the narrative of these ships the life of the swami between sailings, including letters he wrote, incidents that took place, and the work he did in spreading the message of Vedanta.
To devotees of Vivekananda, all information about him is treasured. In this book we have the backdrops for many of his letters, writings, and conversations aboard ship. For forty-two days in the summer of 1899, the swami, Swami Turiyananda, and Sister Nivedita were aboard the SS Golconda, sailing from Calcutta to London. Sister Nivedita wrote to Josephine MacLeod, July 19: “I wish you [knew] what a blessing that Bengali magazine [Udbodhan] is! He [Vivekananda] spends hours concocting a huge letter to it – full of jokes – observations, and the shrill scream of prophesy. His whole heart is going into it …the love and hope for the masses – his burning love for his Master – shrewd observation of life around him - and over and above all this, a deliberate maltreatment of the Bengali language …which is purposed to serve certain tremendous ends!!!”
We are grateful to know about the master shipbuilders who built vessels for safe passage, and the experienced captains and crew who saw to the comfort and well being of their passengers, thus enabling Swami Vivekananda to carry India’s spiritual wisdom to the West. And we are grateful to Somenath Mukherjee for his meticulous research, concentration, and meditation on Swami Vivekananda’s Seafaring Vessels.
When Swami Vivekananda Left Bombay for his first West-bound voyage on 31 May 1893, Indian history was utterly unaware that this incident would open its vistas to unprecedented episodes. He was waved off by two people: Munshi Jagmohanlal, the private secretary of an Indian raja, and Alasinga Perumal, a South Indian school teacher. The latter, one of his earliest ardent disciples, was instrumental in making the voyage a reality. Both the men accompanied the swami up the gangway and remained on board till the hour came, when they prostrated themselves at the feet of their beloved swami in final salutation and disembarked with moist eyes. The ship chugged out of the port with a monk who, barring those having interacted with him sporadically around the country, was almost unknown in the subcontinent he always referred to as ‘my India’. Around twenty years from this date his biography would include the following lines:
The swami stood on deck and gazed towards land until it faded from sight, sending his blessing to those who loved him and those whom he loved. His eyes were filled with tears, his heart over-whelmed with emotion. He thought of the Master, of the Holy Mother, of his brother-disciples. He thought of India and her culture, of her greatness and her suffering, of the Rishis and of the Sanatana Dhrama. His heart was bursting with love for his native land. … The ship moved on its way southward to Ceylon, while the Swami remained alone with his thoughts and the vastness of the sea.1
The following nine gruelling years had tested every ounce of his physical and mental stamina. But he kept the prophecy he made a few years before while leaving Banaras: [I] shall not return until I have burst on society like a bomb-shell’ (1.248). Posterity raised him to immortality for his spiritual abundance and, more so, for what he gave humankind during those nine exhausting years. But before leaving the earth he knew that what he gave would never wane.
We shall, instead of dwelling upon the trials and triumphs of those demanding phase in the swami’s life, pick out an interesting aspect from it to enlarge his already fascinating history: we will direct our efforts to bring out the story of the steamships that took him around the seven seas of the world. But we must justify beforehand what such facts have to do with Vivekananda’s history.
Firstly, it has in its background the inspiring words of Marie Louise Burke, the leading Vivekananda researcher, who wrote:
Even a small scrap of paper or a shred of cloth that he left behind becomes an object to enshrine and worship. Whatever he touched became charged with his own vibrant holiness and can impart to us some aura of himself. There is no detail of his action too small to record, no whiff of his thought too inconsequential to ponder over, perhaps to write tomes about it. If he spoke to some fortunate man or woman for five minutes, we want to know the biography of that person; of he entered a building, we want to know its architecture and its history.2
Secondly, so captivating is the account of those early steamships that it deserves a link with Viveknanand’s history. To prove our point and to add a relevant backdrop to what we are going narrate, we prefer to quote how passenger shipping began to flourish:
On July 4, 1840, Britannia, the first ship under the Cunard name [Cunard Line], left Liverpool with a cow on board to supply fresh milk to the passengers on the 14-day transatlantic crossing. The advent of pleasure cruises is linked to the year 1844, and a new industry began.
During the 1850s and 1860s there was a dramatic improvement in the quality of the voyage for passengers. Ship began to cater solely to passengers, rather than to cargo or mail contracts, and added luxuries like electric lights, more deck space, and entertainment. … The endorsement of sea voyages for curative purposed by the British Medical Journal in the 1880s further encouraged the public to take leisurely pleasure cruises as well as transatlantic travel.3 Besides,
The steamship, by virtue of its regularity even more than speed, revolutionised world-wide mail communications and there was no prouder vessel than [the one] bearing the imposing prefix ‘R.M.S.’, Royal Mail Steamship, ‘conveying the Mails and Dispatches, under contract with her Majesty’s Government.’ … For the traveller, taking passage in an R.M.S. meant safety and speed, and promised the Victorian virtues of seasoned British officers, stout seamen, whether from Bristol or Bengal, a plentiful bill of fare and an irreproachable dignity derived from sailing with the English Mails.
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