Apart from a dwindling number of containerships and the MSC cruise ship making her summer coastal passages, South African shipspotters see few Italian-flagged vessels these days.
The main pool of Italian ships that came to South African ports belonged to Trieste-based Lloyd Triestino whose antecedent company, Navigazione Libera Triestina, sent its first ship, Risano, this way in 1925 to inaugurate the company’s Round-Africa service, steaming outward via Suez. Other ships followed, and, by 1930, advertisements announced that the service would operate in both directions around Africa.
With the depression years waning and more people wishing to travel or seeking new pastures away from the dreary climate and troubles of Europe, Lloyd Triestino brought out a magnificent pair of fast quadruple-screw liners, Duilio and Giulio Cesare. Built in 1922 and 1923, the 197-metre liners were chartered initially from Italia Line for the South African service and formally transferred to Lloyd Triestino in 1936.
Their 19.5-knot cruising speed allowed them to challenge the supremacy of Union-Castle on the passenger service from South Africa where, although the fastest mailships of the time – Carnarvon Castle and her two sisterships – could work up to 18 knots, the older vessels trundled along at about 16 knots. The South African government once threatened to move the mail contract to the Italian ships unless Union-Castle could match their speed. It was an idle threat as the British company had already planned to re-engine five existing mailships and had ordered three larger vessels that could reach 21 knots.
As war clouds gathered over Europe, the Lloyd Triestino service stopped and the two ships were laid up in Italian ports until they were chartered briefly by the Red Cross to effect prisoner-of-war exchanges. However, during an Allied aerial attack in July 1944, Duilio was bombed in the Bay of Muggia near Trieste and sunk, and her sistership suffered the same fate while anchored off Vallone di Zaule, Trieste. In 1948, the wreck of Duilio was raised and scrapped, 1949; during the following year, Giulio Cesare that had capsized onto a sandbank was refloated and scrapped at San Rocco di Muggia.
As the company had lost 68 ships and over 1000 officers and crew during the war, it had to embark on a major rebuilding programme that included orders for seven 160-metre passengerships whose sleek design was ahead of its time. Victoria and Asia ran from Venice to Hong Kong, while Neptunia, Australia and Oceania operated beween Italy and Australia, carrying nearly 800 passengers, mostly immigrants.
With a passenger complement of 484 and cargo capacity of about 7000 tons, Africa and Europa were built for the company’s South African service via Suez.
For South African passengers, the service – like that of Union-Castle’s intermediate ships – presented the opportunity to experience the delights of East Africa and, while the ships passed through Suez, some passengers took a hasty bus trip to Cairo and the pyramids. Others remained on board to enjoy the Suez transit.
For the 26-day voyage from Cape Town to Trieste during which the ships called at 13 ports, one could travel in the first class suites for less than R2000.
A dinner menu from Africa’s first class saloon shows eight choices of hors d’ouvres; four soups; lobster, pheasant, or steak with a range of vegetables for the main course; a selection of eight cold meats and salads, and four desserts, including two different types of ice cream. If a passenger had gastronomic room to spare after devouring such bounty, fruit in season and strong Italian coffee rounded off the marathon meal.
Poorer Italians and youngsters traveling to Europe down in the euphemistically labeled “Tourist Class” would not have dined so lavishly. After all, they were paying a mere R260 for the voyage!
When the canal was closed in 1967, the pair sailed via Gibraltar to southern Africa, turning at Beira.
Perhaps because the vessels’ naval architects were more accustomed to Mediterranean conditions, a latent design fault became apparent when, in wild weather off the Cape, the ships experienced rather frightening rolling and sharper pitching than was the case in other slightly bigger ships. Seasoned mariners believed that the ships should have been about 30 metres longer and should have had a wider beam with which the pre-war pair had been endowed.
To augment the company’s cargo capacity to meet the growing demand in East Africa and southern Africa for Italian cars, machinery – notably powerstation equipment – and household goods, Lloyd Triestino introduced a freighter quartet. All these ships – Sebastiano Cabato, Amerigo Vespucci, Antoniotto Usodimare and Ugolino Vivaldi – had been passenger-carrying units of Italia Line before their conversion to cargoships in the early-1960s. To prevent her from falling into Allied hands, the Germans had scuttled Amerigo Vespucci (then called Giuseppe Majorana) in Genoa in 1944, but soon thereafter, she was refloated and refitted. On their return passage to the Mediterranean, the ships were usually down to their marks with parcels of southern African minerals, including blister copper and pig iron.
As the containerisation of the South Africa-Europe service loomed, Lloyd Triestino sold their freighters and passengerships. Renamed Protea, Africa was scrapped in Taiwan; Saudi Arabian interests bought Europa to carry Muslim pilgrims from Indonesia to Jeddah. Before her first trip under her new owners, she was destroyed by fire.
When the larger Guglielmo Marconi and Galileo Galilei came onto the Italy-Australia service in 1963, the original trio built fo r that service – Australia, Neptunia and Oceania – were sold to Italia Line. As air travel became more popular and began to supplant passenger ships from the blue-water services, Asia and Victoria were withdrawn from the Hong Kong trade, the former becoming a Lebanese sheep carrier in 1975 and Victoria went to Adriatica Line.
During the 1967-1975 closure of the Suez Canal, Capetonians saw Guglielmo Marconi and Galileo Galilei regularly as the liners called for bunkers and stores, while their passenger department capitalised on the Cape Town call to book passengers from Europe to Cape Town or from Cape Town to Australia. The Master of one of the ships – I forget which one – always gave his passengers a really close-up view of the Cape Peninsula’s mountain chain, setting a course only a mile or two off the coast as his ship sped along the Atlantic seaboard.
An American Christian organisation bought Victoria in 1978. Another group, Mercy Ships, took her over four years later, fitted her out as a floating hospital for Christian medical missionary work, as well as a book centre, and renamed her Anastassis.
In ports on the West African bulge, volunteer plastic surgeons used the ship’s operating theatres to undertake major reconstructive surgery on numerous patients suffering from a grotesque form of facial deformity. Eye specialists attended to hundreds with ocular disorders, while teams from the ship helped locals to build clinics, classrooms, churches or even to lay water pipelines. Similar laudable work was done elsewhere.
Replaced by a former Irish Sea ferry now called African Mercy, the 54-year-old Anastassis passed her scrap-by date, and when she sailed from Cape Town in July 2007, the last of that class of Lloyd Triestino ships headed for a ships’ graveyard in India to be ignominiously run up on a beach and systematically cut up by hordes of acetylene torch-bearing workers.
As part of the South Africa-Mediterranean Conference, Lloyd Triestino was to operate two of the three 208-metre containerships on the South African trade; Safmarine would operate the third vessel. The companies ordered similar ships from the Italcantieri yard in Genoa, and, like the Lloyd Triestino passenger ships, the unusual design of the containerships Africa and Europa and Safmarine’s SA Langeberg (later Langeberg) drew interest along the Mediterranean and South African waterfronts.
To stow the so-called con-air refrigerated containers of fruit cargoes from South Africa to Europe, the trio sported a large structure abaft the accommodation. These steam turbine, twin-screw ships were expensive to operate, and within 16 years, all had been sold. Africa and Europa went to MSC who renamed them MSC Daniela and MSC Federica respectively, while Safmarine sold Langeberg to Indian breakers. However, MSC were keen to add another vessel of this class to the eight they already had purchased from other Italian operators. In 1992, they bought Langeberg from the breakers and, under the name Eber, sailed her into Durban with her white hull, much to the annoyance of Safmarine. Renamed MSC Jade, she traded for a further seven years before being scrapped.
The smart geared containerships Nuova Africa and Nuova Europa came on the South Africa-Mediterranean trade until the company experienced financial difficulties during the shipping downturn late last century. Although MSC dearly wanted to buy the struggling Italian company, the Taiwanese containership company Evergreen must have produced a better offer to secure the Lloyd Triestino operations – including the company’s South African service – and has become Italia Marittima SpA, although since May 2007, the brand Evergreen Line has been used for its international marketing purposes.
Although the old name has dipped below the horizon, among many South Africans, memories still abound of leisurely days aboard the passenger liners Africa or Europa, while shipping buffs still recall that unique class of ship.