- Captain Albert's Blog -

Stories from the Sea, Past and Present

Around the world at Seventeen

As mentioned in another article, the first world cruise was made in 1922 on board the RMS Laconia of the Cunard Line. Barely four years later a floating university did the same thing by going around the world in eight months using the ss Rijndam of the Holland America Line. This was a completely new concept for both the teaching world as well for the shipping Industry.

This particular world cruise started on 17 September 1926 with the gathering of 500 students and their parents in the Waldorf Astoria Hotel in New York for a bon voyage party. The whole plan had been proposed by the Dean of the University of New York and many universities country wide country had picked up on it, so the students came from all over the USA. The next morning they all joined the ss Rijndam, sailing westbound around the world and returning home in June of 1927, eight months later. All cabins were occupied and some of the well-to-do-students were rather shocked when they saw that they would have to live in a 3rd class cabin in the bowels of the ship. First class accommodation was of course taken up by the teachers and managing staff.

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The ss Rijndam with the big white letters on her side proclaiming her newfound position as a floating university.

The ss Rijndam was one of three ships built for the Holland America Line in 1901.
Originally constructed for 286 in First, 196 in second and with a large steerage class for emigrants (1800 beds), the ship had after the First World War been reconfigured to Cabin, Tourist and 3rd class. By 1926 it had reached the end of its career and the company saw a nice little earner in this university cruise. She was to be scrapped two years later. The ship had a size of 12.500 tons and a length of 175 meters. A crew of around 270 looked after the well being of the guests on board. The ship was under command of Captain Lieuwen. The Rijndam had quite an eventful First World War, although Holland was neutral during that war. The ship hit a mine in 1916 and the explosion killed three crew. She made safely into port, only to be drafted by the USA in 1917 as a troopship. Between March 1918 and October 1919 she carried 17.319 persons involved in the war effort. After that she was returned to her owners and to her original service of Rotterdam to New York.

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The faculty members looking after the students. Among them some of the Ships complement.

The first few days out were mainly spent by everybody being sea sick, the ship riding the aftermath of a heavy storm near Cape Hatteras, while on the way to Cuba. Throughout the world trip the students were organized in three groups and all activities were conducted in this system. The first test came already in Havana, where one group encountered a Beer garden, where the beer was free. Group C & A suddenly merged into group B. Then it went onwards west via the Panama Canal, where all on board experienced the pleasure of re-coaling the ship. The Rijndam still burned coal and the fine dust, blowing over the ship while the coals was dumped into chutes in the side, settled in the beds and clothing and gave the whole ship including its occupants a nice dark grey shade. Next stop Los Angeles, where the new fangled art of flying was studied. Then the crossing followed. During this long crossing the American students got time to interact with that most unfamiliar of species, the Dutch crewmember. The captain was found to be brusque; he did not approve of smoking and gambling and objected to being called a Steward. However he did give navigation lessons and taught everybody that the shortest route over the world’s globe is not a straight line but a Great circle line. The stewards had a hard time dealing with the American slang spoken and did not approve of the “American directness” of the young Americans. After Hawaii the ship crossed over to Yokohama and an unpleasant crossing it was, with an average cabin temperature around a 100oF. The ship had been built for the North Atlantic and everything was designed to keep the warmth inside the ship to help against the cold winter winds. Air-conditioning was still two decades away. On the way, the ship crossed the International Date Line and thus lost a day. Everybody was glad that the lost day was not a Saturday or Sunday, as no classes were giving on those days, but as it was midweek day, the students “lost” a full day of tutorials. In Yokohama the ship arrived in the afternoon but shore leave was only granted for the next morning. So during the night 65 students made their way ashore by means of abseiling along the ships side. One of the important experiences gained here was rickshaw riding. If you are a tall or big western person, you have to lean forward in your chair, otherwise you lift the pulling rickshaw man straight off his feet. Time was spent by touring Tokyo, sleeping in traditional Japanese Hotels and bemoaning the lack of the availability of American cigarettes. Many historical sites where visited including the Diabutsu.

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The Diabutsu Buddha.

This is the largest Buddha statue in Japan. It is made of bronze and weighs 450 tons, being sculpted in 1252. The ship stayed over a week in Japan before it crossed to Hong Kong. Here the main event was partying. The USA being under prohibition and the ship also being dry (at least for the students) British hospitality was tested to the limit. This included introducing to the Colony the American novelty of tag dancing. E.G. pinching a girl from somebody during the dance. The British were aghast at such lack of manners. Next port of call was Manilla in the Filipinnes and it was not under prohibition either. Classes resumed during the next spell at sea, but sailing in the tropics North of the Dutch East Indies, created temperatures, that made for rather listless learning.

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The audience with Rama the VII, King of Thailand.

The Rijndam called at Bangkok and King Rama the VII had decided that the whole ship would be his personal guests; he sent a special train to the port to pick them up and convey them to Bangkok. However where 3 to 4 Thai can sit on one bench, only two Caucasians can, so the journey was a cramped affair. It was enlivened however with experiencing a real monsoon downpour. After Singapore the ship crossed the equator and King Neptune duly boarded in order to hold court over a shipload full of Pollywogs. The ship stayed for four days in Batavia (Now Djakarta) giving ample time to explore the Dutch colonies. On to the way to Colombo the ship sailed past the Volcano Krakatau, which caused the biggest volcano eruption ever in 1883, resulting in the instant death of over 36000 people. Christmas was now fast approaching and gloom settled over the ship. They had missed the Christmas mail from home in Batavia and the tropical heat somehow took the edge of this mid winter feast. Temperatures on board still hovered around 100oF. But the Christmas dinner was nice and the entertainment afterwards well received. Highlight of Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) was a special train ride to Kandy, to visit the temple of the Tooth. New Year was celebrated with a vaudeville performance by a group of Students on board.

Next call India. Entering the country through the Gate of India at Bombay was followed by lunch at the Taj Mahal hotel. Great interest was taken in the burial rituals of the local peoples. Hindu burnings and the Parsi with their Towers of silence. Highlight of this stop was the visit to the Taj Mahal at Agra. The journey of 1000 miles from Bombay was accomplished by train. Five days later the ship approached Egypt, with the Golf of Suez generating ever-warmer temperatures than the Indian Ocean had done before. However at Cairo, all left the ship, as quarters had been secured for the stay at the most luxurious hotels. From there trips where made to the pyramids and up and down the Nile. The treasures of King Tut Ank Amon had just been discovered and were on display in the Egyptian museum. The students here were impressed with the hospitality of the Egyptians and the local universities send their best students out, to make sure that all visitors had a great time. It came as a shock too many of the guests, that the Egyptians spoke perfect English and knew nearly everything about American culture and history. The challenge was now to get the American students up to par with Egyptian Culture. They had three days to accomplish that before the ship set sail for the Holy Land, anchoring at Haifa. Again all the students disembarked and were put up in hotels around Bethlehem. Here the group suffered from the cold as the Bethlehem fields with a Northerly wind can be quite testy, especially as you just have spend 3 months on a ship with average temperatures of around a 100oF. From their hotel trips were made to Nazareth, Jerusalem and other biblical places. After the holy Land, the ship called at Constantinople for the Mosque and a basketball game between the guests and Turkish students of the local university. Piraeus formed the access port to Athens and the Acropolis. The students visited all this places with mixed feelings, yes they were very interested in seeing the sights, but days before each new port, classes were held to learn about what was to be expected, and when at an interesting location, one of the teachers was bound to appear to give another impromptu lesson, which might last an hour or more. After a scenic stop at Ragusa, the cruise took them to Venice. Everybody was eager to get ashore, only to be found that the ship was put in quarantine as three crewmembers had caught a disease transmitted by rat fleas. Only after an in-depth inspection of each crew member’s health the all clear was given the next morning. Three days were spend to take in all the sights here and to be tutored at great length, about who was what, when. More history was soaked up in Trieste, Valetta on Malta, Naples and Rome.

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Do we recognize Mussolini ? Just look at the pose of one of the Gentlemen.

As the port of Rome, Civittavechia, is a considerable distance from the eternal city; all were put up once again in hotels. This stay had a special treat from them in store, namely an audience with Mussolini, the undisputed dictator of his country. Monte Carlo, eagerly looked forward to, was found to be a disappointment by many. The prices were too high, the people in the casino looked bored and the old ladies employed gigolo’s to dance with. In Malaga the party met the Queen of Spain, who listened to the students orchestra called the Globe Trotters, while two lady students showed the Charleston dance. This is pleased her majesty so much, that orchestra and the two dancers were engaged by her to travel for a week through Spain to show the dance in various cities. Those not on the dance tour had to make do with the Alhambra. After a short stop in Gibraltar, the ship arrived in Le Havre and the ships complement headed for Paris and was put up in hotels there. Five days were set aside for the stay there and a great time was had by all. Especially as there was “Sams Place” and “Harry’s New York Bar”, both so utterly American that the French language was not allowed inside in the door. The Metro took care of transport and the American Express office took care of those who ran out of money, as most did. One can only hope that the parents did not run out of theirs, while covering the expenditures of their globetrotting child. From Paris the tour went overland and Belgium was inspected in a mere 48 hours. The battlefields of Waterloo were visited and Bruxelles was declared to be the best city on earth to live in, that is outside of Kentucky of course. While the students travelled by train, the Rijndam had sailed to Rotterdam and would be ready for them when their overland trip was finished. By now all students had been deeply indoctrinated by the Dutch crew about their home country. Thus there were no surprises merely great appreciation. Especially as everybody in Rotterdam and Amsterdam spoke English. The final leg of the cruise took the ship to Copenhagen, Goteborg, Oslo and Edinburgh. Students went from there by train overland to London, via Chester and Stratford upon Avon. The latter was added to get a whiff of Shakespeare. In London the Rijndam was waiting once again for the final stretch home.

220 days after departure, the world cruisers returned to New York, signalling the end of a most successful outing. The students enjoyed it and the organisers thought it was also an educational success. For Holland America it was a great success and as a result organised summer Students Tours on their ships until the late sixties. The company even hada special organisation for this, called The student third cabin Association Later Third cabin was replaced with Toursit class.The next Ryndam built for the company made two similar world cruises in 1968 and 1969. Up to the current day, there are still study cruises organised for students and just recently an new effort was announced in the form of “The Scholar Ship” which should be operational by the end of 2007.

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Well, how do we know all about this cruise. One of the students called Charles F.C. Ladd Jr. wrote a 310-page book about it. It is called: Around the world at seventeen. In the book he details his impressions about the various ports and sights encountered. The book was dedicated to his father, an understandable gesture, as daddy had to pay all the expenses. I could not find out what happened to the author since. An Internet search came up with a same name as Real Estate Agent in the late 30’s somewhere in the mid west, which would fit the age group, but that was all. A copy of the book, published in 1928, is in the library of yours truly.

4 Comments

  1. Dear Captain Albert,

    My grandfather, Ellwood Griscom III, was on the Floating University on board the Rijndam. His father, Ellwood Griscom, Jr., was a professor of public speaking who taught on the faculty during the trip. My grandfather was eight years old at the time, and I believe he was the only child on the cruise. I have his journal from that trip and am currently transcribing it. Where could I get some more information about the cruise? I’m especially interested in more photos.

    Sincerely,

    Daniel Dykes
    Connecticut, USA

  2. When the Rijndam (aka Ryndam) returned to Hoboken, Time Magazine published a brief but very interesting review of the trip, “Floaters Home”, which is available on this page: http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,736711-2,00.html ) By the way, I feel very lucky to have been part of the inaugural voyages of the floating university experiment that Captain Albert mentions, that is, The Scholar Ship (TSS), which sailed around the world from September 2007 to April 2008. For financial reasons, TSS won’t continue operating, but fortunately, the TSS voyages are well documented in websites, blogs and innumerable facebook entries!

  3. Dear Captain Albert,

    I contacted you some months ago about my grandfather, Ellwood Griscom, III, who was the only child passenger on the “Floating University” aboard the SS Rijndam in 1926. You asked me to send you a reminder later.

    Any further information or photos you have, especially if there are photos of a little boy about age 8, would be very helpful to me, as I’m trying to transcribe and publish my grandfather’s journal from that cruise.

    Respectfully yours,

    Daniel Dykes
    Connecticut, USA

  4. Dear mister Dykes,

    I know it is almost 10 years after your reply, but I have a question for you. I’m working on a bachelor thesis on the University World Cruise. Therefore, I need al the information about this cruise that I can put my hands on. It would be very helpful if I could use the diary of your grandfather (if that’s not to private.) I hope you receive this message.

    Davy Baas

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