Around The World in 1920 – Tales From A Traveller

Around The World in 1920 – Tales From A Traveller

​At about 4 p.m. on July 9, 1920, Ben Albert and his companions, Mr. Gill and Mr. Searles, made their way back to the ship in Singapore Harbor. At the last minute, two ambulances skidded to a halt on the concrete pier, moist from the spray of the sea. Two Malaysian guards with holstered sidearms hopped out and immediately conscripted six dockworkers to unload the ambulances. The dockworkers helped fifteen people, each of whom had filthy rags draped over what was left of his or her body, from the vehicles and up the gangplank onto the ship.Ben asked a crew member what was going on.

“Lepers. We take Pulau Jerejak, leper island,” he casually noted, as if transporting fifteen lepers was an everyday occurrence (maybe for him it was),
“What? You no see leper before?”
Ben told him he had not, and he noted to himself that he could have lived a very full life without ever seeing one. Now, here he was, about to spend two days and two nights on a ship with fifteen of them.

Almost unnoticed, a solitary man walked solemnly behind them. He was a tall, thin, extremely dark Indian dressed in a Western‐style black suit. The crew member identified him as the doctor who would care for them until they were deposited at the leper colony on the outskirts of Penang. The ship’s steward approached Searles and advised him that, because he had a suite with an extra bedroom that was not in use, he would have to share his suite with the doctor who had a first class ticket.
“I will not share my accommodations with a colored,” Searles indignantly replied.
Ben sensed the steward, who likewise was “colored”, was about to make an angry retort when Gill stepped in, hoping to defuse the tension.
“I can move in with Mr. Searles and the doctor can have my room.”
Searles glared at Gill; he did not want to room with anyone, regardless of their color. The doctor, whom they had not noticed return, spoke up.
“It is quite all right. I will sleep with my charges. If you could please have a cot and blankets brought down, I would most appreciate it. I shall be quite comfortable.”
With that he turned and left. It was clear the steward wanted to respond to Searles, but since the physician had resolved the situation, he let it drop.

A half hour after the lepers boarded, the ship was towed out of the quay by a tug. Ben and Gill were at the ship’s railing, enjoying the sights of the harbor, when they heard a soft voice behind them.
“Thank you.”
They turned around and there was the doctor.
“Thank you for your attempts to assist me.”
In response, Gill simply nodded. He had previously confided to Ben that his gesture had nothing to do with the doctor; rather, he was simply trying to shut Searles up. If allowed to continue, Searles was fully capable of embarrassing himself, all of them and Langdan Textiles. The doctor continued.
“I was educated at Oxford. I have a thriving practice and teach medicine at the University of Singapore. I have a beautiful wife and two beautiful children. I spend a week every two months working with the lepers, giving them a little comfort. Yet in one simple sentence, your friend reduces me to one thing: colored. In the end, it turned out well. I am with people I know and care about, not with him.”
He said no more, but gazed out on the water, his sharp features silhouetted against the reddening sky. They didn’t know how to respond so Ben asked him a question most on his mind.
“Do lepers know any happiness in their lives?”
The doctor turned to them and smiled.
“They are people, just people. Their problem is that the only function society gives them is for them to die, preferably out of sight and mind. Unfortunately, there is not much happiness in this endeavor. I shall tell them that you were asking. It will please them that someone inquired about them in this manner.”
Ben looked in his face for irony, to see if the doctor was mocking him and his question. There was no irony, only sincerity. He truly felt they would appreciate the inquiry.
The doctor bid them good night, shook their hands and said goodbye. Ben and Gill went to their cabins; the doctor went to his charges.
From the novel Journey of an American Son by John Hazen (

This excerpt is a fictionalized adaptation of an actual incident experienced by my grandfather, Stuart J. Hayes, on a business trip he took from Boston to Calcutta (now known as Kolkata), India in 1920. Hayes had served in the Army in the Great War after which he earned his Masters degree in biochemistry from MIT. He subsequently became a research chemist with Ludlow Manufacturing Associates, a textile manufacturer in the Boston area. In 1920, the company sent the 24-year old to Calcutta to do research on the jute, an often-used component of burlap, grown in the Calcutta region.
Today, one can get on a flight from Boston’s Logan Airport and, twenty-one hours later, the plane will be landing at Kolkata’s Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose International Airport. In 1920—seven years before Charles Lindbergh made his historic transatlantic flight—the situation was quite different.

Hayes first took a trolley to North Station in Boston where he boarded a steam locomotive train (diesel trains were not yet in wide use) that would take him up through New Hampshire to Montreal. The next morning he boarded a TransCanadian Limited train for a four-day trip across Canada to Vancouver. Along the way he would see the flat plains, the majestic soaring Rockies, and tepees of Indian reservations.

In Vancouver, after a night in the luxurious Hotel Vancouver, he boarded a Canadian Pacific steamship for an eleven-day sail across the northern rim of the Pacific. The trip was relatively calm with a few whale sightings near the Aleutian Islands. On board was a popular silent film star of the day, Elsie Ferguson, who was known as “The Aristocrat of the Silent Screen”. The boat ultimately made its way into Yokohama harbor. Hayes and his colleagues spent a few days in Tokyo/Yokohama, seeing the sights (including a geisha house), getting around mostly by rickshaw and water taxis.

From there they took a packed train to Kyoto and then to Kobe, seeing the temples and other sights along the way. In Kobe they boarded another steamer to start the next leg of their journey. They made one last stop in Japan, the Port of Nagasaki. It is interesting to note that Hayes, in his diary of the trip, observed about how impressive the Japanese Imperial Navy was and even speculated that the Japanese may look to put this navy to use in the future. Little did he know that his prescient comments were predicting World War II over a decade before it started!

After crossing the Yellow Sea, two days later he found himself in Shanghai, China. After a day of sightseeing and trinket purchases, he was back on ship again. He sailed along the eastern coast of Taiwan (known at the time as Formosa). Two days later, the ship sailed into Manila Bay and past the U.S. Army base, Fort William McKinley (after World War II, this base was turned over to the Philippine government.)

From there, the ship headed back north for Hong Kong. There, he boarded a different ship the Kwai Sang, a small 3000-ton freighter, which would take Hayes and his companions from Hong Kong to Calcutta. This portion of the trip would take nearly three weeks, including brief lay-overs in Singapore and Penang (encountering, as noted above, a group of lepers who were to be taken to a leper island near Penang).

Hayes would spend a month in Calcutta, doing his research and experiments. When it came time to leave, he traveled a far different route than the one that got him there. He took a train west, across the subcontinent of India to Bombay (now called Mumbai). He noted in his diary that he shared the train ride with a “non-cooperation agitator” who at the time was well known in India but was not as famous worldwide as his previous traveling companion, screen starlet Elsie Ferguson. Of course, it would not take too much longer for this man, Mahatma Gandhi, to far eclipse Ms. Ferguson in fame.

In Mumbai, he boarded a steamer to traverse the Arabian Sea and then the length of the Red Sea to the Suez Canal. Once through the canal, he steamed across the Mediterranean to Marseilles, France, where he took a train up through Paris for a little sightseeing.
From Paris, he hopped on another train that would bring him up to the port of Boulogne-sur-mer on the English Channel. From the windows of this train, especially as he went through the city of Amiens, he could still see the devastation wrought by World War I, a full two years after the Great War ended.

He boarded another steamer to Folkestone, England. He would sightsee in London and take a train up to Scotland to visit with some distant relatives. Finally, he traveled back south to Plymouth where he boarded a steamship to sail back to Boston. He arrived in Boston on December 1, 1920, six months and four days after he left on his journey. In total, he traveled over 24,000 miles and visited eleven countries.

Today, someone would be able to get to Calcutta and conduct research with a minimum of downtime and then return immediately after the work was done. Perhaps, that person would be able to build in a little time to sight see and enjoy the culture, possibly stretching the trip to a month.

But Stuart Hayes’ experiences in 1920 – staying in the top hotels in Canada, Japan, The Philippines, Hong Kong, Singapore, etc. and sampling numerous different cultures – are priceless. They can never be forgotten and were luckily preserved in his journal. He visited 1,000 year-old Buddhist and Shinto shrines, got a guided tour of a cloisonné vase factory, saw centuries old lighthouses and recent battlefields. Along the way, he encountered national icons, silent film stars, geisha girls, rickshaw drivers, peddlers of all sorts and yes, even lepers.

I will leave it to the reader to determine whether where we are now versus that of 1920 constitutes “progress.”

John and his wife, Lynn, split their time between New Jersey and Florida, although they really consider Paris to be their second home. John has published three novels (Journey of an American Son, Fava and Dear Dad) with a fourth due out in April (Aceldama). You can find out more about John and his books on his website, Check it out you know you want to!

Having read that incredible story do you have anything you need to share? Comment below!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

%d bloggers like this: