The Captain’s Table

Paddle steamer Nepaul near Mandalay by J C Burnie

Guest Post 15.  Captain Ernest Hyatt was a seafarer, master mariner and adventurer who also served in what was then the Royal North-West Mounted Police and had roughed it in the tropic, temperate and arctic zones and fought in the First War. To him it was “all in the day’s work”. His autobiography, “All Over The Place”, now very rare and published in 1935, contains a series of extraordinary anecdotes, but little or nothing about his private life. He began his book:

Where to begin? Where shall I commence this story of my adventures, ranging as they do from those of a blue-water-sailor-man on all the seven seas to those of a gun-boat captain on the Tigris and Euphrates; from adventuring variously in Australia and Nigeria to chasing Esquimo murderers in the Canadian North-West…

At some time during the reign of King Edward VII, although Hyatt does not give the years, Ernest Hyatt was Captain of a paddle steamer sailing on the Irrawaddy River on what was then called Burma and was part of the British Empire.

Come you back to Mandalay,
Where the old Flotilla lay:
Can’t you ‘ear their paddles chunkin’ from Rangoon to Mandalay?
On the road to Mandalay,
Where the flyin’-fishes play,
An’ the dawn comes up like thunder outer China ‘crost the Bay!

Kipling’s poem is very well known and some who read this may even be reminded of the once-famous song version. The “old Flotilla” was the Irrawaddy Flotilla, which contained magnificent vessels which could carry close to 2000 tons on board and on two connected barges, or “flats”. The spacious double decks were licensed to carry 4200 deck passengers, including 16 first-class and 24 second-class passengers with every comfort. They could make the 600 mile journey from Rangoon to Mandalay in five days. This was an immense fleet, with the ships mainly manufactured in Glasgow, and employed up to 200 British officers and engineers.¹ Because of the shallow Irrawaddy, these were special shallow-draught paddle steamers designed for those conditions.

Many first-class passengers were government officials, but there was a very busy and profitable trade up and down the river. As with any ship of substantial size, status decided who should sit at the captain’s table for meals. One day Captain Hyatt was surprised by the appearance of a man sat at his right-hand:

He was a little sharp-faced fellow with small eyes and a scrubby ginger moustache. He was rather loudly dressed and wore a cloth cap. I looked at him in amazement. A man who came into breakfast wearing a cap was unusual, to say the least; but in addition to this, the person in question was occupying the seat which had been reserved for a new passenger, the Right Honourable Edward A. Casey. I had found the Honourable Casey’s name in the passenger-list handed me by the shore people at the last station, and, as befitted his title, had allotted him the best cabin in the ship and the best place at table. This of course was an intolerable situation for the Captain.

The rat-faced little fellow nodded at me perkily as I took my place at the table.

“Morning, Skipper!”

“Good Morning,” I said. “You’ll excuse me, but I’m afraid there’s been a mistake somewhere.”

He gave me a quick glance out of his shrewd eyes.

“Ow’s that,Skipper?”

“You’re in somebody else’s seat. The place where you’re sitting is reserved for the Right Honourable Edward Casey.”

He gave a laugh.

“Well then, Skipper,there hasn’t been any mistake. I’m the Right Honourable Casey himself.”

“You are?” I asked in astonishment.

He gave a brisk nod. “My name’s Casey, all right; but when I was booking my passage I stuck the words ‘Right Honourable’ in front of it. It’s a good idea, Skipper, and if you go travellin’ as a passenger at any time, you ought to try it. Gives you the best place and the best cabins as easy as winkin’. I’ve been travellin’ the East a good bit now, and they all fall for it.”

“I’m travellin’ in the canned provisions line,” my informant ran on; and whipping a price list out of his pocket, he leaned over to me and ran his finger down the items. “There y’are – corn’ beef, roast beef, boiled mutton, roast mutton, pigs’ trotters, sheeps’ tongues, all in one-pound tins, at prices you couldn’t beat nowhere…” ²

The situation was, of course, intolerable, especially as the man sat at the other side of the salesman was a Judge. Later in the day the Captain found a solution. He got into conversation with Casey.

“Quite comfortable in that cabin of yours, Mr. Casey?” I asked.

The other nodded. “Most, Skipper! It’s a damn fine cabin.”

“I’m glad to hear it.” I said, and then lowered my voice. “Between ourselves, there’s not many people who’d like to travel in that cabin. But of course, you’ve knocked around a good deal and -“

“Why, what’s the matter with it?”

“Oh, nothing; so long as you’re satisfied it’s all right.”

I made to turn away, but the little man followed me.

“What’s the mystery, Skipper? Something wrong with that cabin?”

For some moments I pretended to consider the matter gravely.

“I’m sorry I said anything about it.” I answered at last. “But as you insist – well, the fact is that the last man who had that cabin suffered from leprosy.”

My companion gave a gasp.

“Leprosy!” he echoed, his face suddenly grey.

And with a grave nod, I took my departure.

The result was that Casey promptly surrendered his cabin, and transferred to a much inferior one. Moreover, this giving up of the best cabin seemed to take the heat out of him, and he yielded also his place at my right hand, taking a seat with someone he had made friends with at the other end of the saloon. Actually, though, he was not nearly so clever a person as he thought he was. If he had stopped to think a moment, he would have known that lepers are not carried in first-class cabins. ³

Nowadays it would just be a case of looking up “The Right Honourable” Mr. Casey on Google!

Paddle steamer Nepaul near Mandalay by J C Burnie

¹ Alister McRae & Alan Prentice “Irrawaddy Flotilla” (James Paton Ltd., 1978) p. 123-125
² Captain Ernest Hyatt “All Over the Place” (Hurst & Blackett, 1935) p. 115-116
³ “All Over the Place”, p.117-118


Grateful thanks are due to James Franks, University Records Archivist, University of Alberta for allowing access to Hyatt’s autobiography in their reserve stock of rare books, and to Stephen “Sticks” Gallard of Edmonton, Alberta, for carrying out the initial research.

The guest post article above has been kindly contributed by Geoffrey A. Pocock, author of The Frontiers of Truth, Outrider of Empire: The Life and Adventures of Roger Pocock (University of Alberta Press) and One Hundred Years of the Legion of Frontiersmen (currently out of print).

About Roger Pocock

Co-writer on Author of Editor of
This entry was posted in 20th Century, Autobiographies, Books, Guest Posts, History, Humor, Humour, Travel and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s