South African Military History Society

Tel (+27)(11) 648-2087 Fax (+27)(11) 648-2085


The August meeting was opened at the usual time by the Chairman Flip Hoorweg, who commenced by welcoming all present. He then asked all present to rise in one minutes silence for two of our members who had passed away during the last month, Chris McCanlis from Port Elizabeth and Brigadier S J P du Toit of Silverton. This was followed by the usual monthly notice of forthcoming events. Flip then introduced our curtain-raising speaker. This was none other than your scribe, Ivor Little, an ex-Merchant Navy and SA Navy Captain with an interest in maritime history. The subject of his talk was "The 'San' Boats at War", an account of incidents of personal courage displayed by the oil tanker crews of the Eagle Oil and Shipping Company during World War II.

Backed up by Colin Dean in charge of the Powerpoint display, Ivor commenced with a brief description of the oil trade, as it existed in the 1930s with small, slow tankers shuttling vast quantities of refined products from the oil-producing countries of the time to the consumer countries. He then described the growth of Eagle Oil in Mexico and its nationalisation, resulting in its ships being placed under the British flag as part of the Shell Group. This Eagle Oil fleet of 24 ships, whose names all began with the Spanish word San or Saint, played a dramatic part in the subsequent Battle of the Atlantic when oil was the lifeblood of the Allied fighting forces and tankers were the prime target in any convoy. Eagle Oil lost two-thirds of its fleet and suffered 314 casualties among its officers and men. However, these same crews garnered more than 100 decorations for bravery, gallantry and devotion to duty, including the only two George Crosses (the British civilian equivalent of the Victoria Cross) awarded to the British Merchant navy in World War II.

Ivor then gave three particular examples of how some of these awards were gained. The first was in the salvaging of the San Demetrio. This ship had the misfortune of being part of convoy HX 84 from Halifax to the United Kingdom, when the convoy was intercepted by the German raider Admiral Scheer. The convoy's sole escort was the armed merchant cruiser Jervis Bay, which was rapidly disposed of by the Admiral Scheer, who then turned her attention to the scattered merchant ships. The San Demetrio was shelled, hit repeatedly and set on fire. Her crew abandoned ship, re-boarded her at a later stage, extinguished the petrol fires and brought her into the Clyde with the aid of a school atlas. There they triumphantly discharged 11 000 tons of the original 11 200 ton cargo. This episode was subsequently the subject of a book, "The Saga of the San Demetrio" and the film "San Demetrio - London".

The second episode concerned the San Emilio, torpedoed in the North Atlantic by U-155 in 1942 where most of the crew perished immediately in the subsequent blaze but one lifeboat got away through the burning oil. Among the survivors in the boat was a 17-year old Apprentice Officer named Donald Clarke who, although horribly burnt, displayed incredible bravery and was posthumously awarded the George Cross, the civilian equivalent of the Victoria Cross.

The final incident was that of the Ohio, which as part of Operation Pedastal fought her way through to Malta in a voyage of unsurpassed bravery and has been immortalised for it in the film "Malta Story" and many books. For this outstanding act of courage under fire her Master, Captain Dudley Mason, was awarded the George Cross. Notwithstanding its proud record, Eagle Oil was absorbed into the greater Shell organisation in 1963 and the "San" names were slowly phased out as the ships were disposed of.

Flip thanked Ivor for his presentation and then introduced our Main Speaker for the evening. This was Colin Dean, a well-known member of our Society and a former National Chairman. Using a brilliant Powerpoint display, Colin launched into "The Spice Wars", a series of events that lasted nearly 400 years. Colin commenced by giving a history of "the Spice Trade" and the uses for the various types of valued spices. This led up to the time when the Arabs were masters of this trade, buying spices from the East Indies, India and East Africa and selling them on to Egypt. The Egyptians, in turn, sold them on to Venice and Genoa which became the European centres of this trade in which, each time the spices were sold on, each trader took a cut. Spices thus became incredibly expensive and sought after. The Arabs kept the source of these spices secret from the Europeans but in 1271 Marco Polo did his famous journey to the East and revealed, through his subsequent writings, the location of the Spice Islands in the East Indies.

This led the Portuguese to think about a cheaper sea route to India and beyond, so Portuguese sailors explored their way around Africa, culminating in May 1498 with Vasco Da Gama's arrival in Calicut in India after the longest sea voyage in European history. His return to Portugal in August 1499, with a valuable cargo of precious stones and spices inspired King Manuel of Portugal to react quickly and in March 1500 he sent out an expedition to India, under command of Pedro Cabral. By now the Portuguese had fixed the extremity of Africa on their charts and, instead of coasting south, Cabral took advantage of the prevailing trade winds and slanted south-westwards across the Atlantic towards the Equator before swinging south-east to the Cape. In the process he discovered Brazil.

Slowly but surely the Portuguese built up their sea borne trade with India, establishing outposts and way-stations along the way, in a series of vicious and barbaric attacks, to emphasise their superiority over the native populations and to intimidate them into trading with Portugal. The overland route was now redundant and when Portugal reached the East Indian islands beyond India, it fell away almost completely. It had taken Portugal just 40 years to break a 400-year old monopoly. In 1511 their carracks and caravals reached Moluccas which produced pepper, nutmeg, cloves and mace.

With the discovery of the West Indies by Columbus, who was attempting to find the Spice Islands by travelling west, Spain then entered the lists and this led to the voyage by Ferdinand Magellan in 1519, which led west across the Pacific Ocean and thus to the East Indies. Magellan's voyage was a financial success and was followed up by Spanish colonisation of the Philippines. However, the long haul westward was an expensive one compared to the riches to be gained from Spain's South American colonies and King Charles of Spain sold his territory in the Spice Islands to his cousin King John III of Portugal who thus remained the masters of the trade, from which Spain withdrew.

By 1511 the Portuguese had defeated the Muslim spice traders in a number of small but bloody sea battles and consolidated their eastern empire in a most brutal fashion. Slavery had been introduced, Ceylon subjugated and the Spice Islands turned into rich colonies. As Portugal grew rich so also the Dutch prospered from this trade by providing ships and crews in a cross trade between Holland and Portugal. Eventually they sent ships out to the East Indies to their own account and between 1605 and 1621 drove the Portuguese out of the Spice Islands. To the dismay of the local inhabitants, the Dutch proved every bit as repressive as the Portuguese and proved adept at ensuring a healthy monopoly for themselves. At the same time English merchants, who had for decades been trading to the Levant (Eastern Mediterranean), saw their own profits fall with the demise of the overland route and attempted to muscle in on the Dutch trade. There were a number of skirmishes at sea and a lot of military action on both sides. The English would invoke a treaty with a native tribe, plant a settlement, the Dutch would undermine this, and thousands of locals and combatants died in a seesaw conflict. Much of this conflict centred on the Banda Islands, the world's only source of nutmeg and mace, and in particular around the microscopic island of Run.

This island had been the scene of an English shipwreck in 1603. The crew had struck up a friendship with the locals and formed the only English outpost in the Banda Islands, a fact whish bothered the Dutch and led to a series of actions in which Run changed hands on a regular basis. From 1616 until 1620 the small English garrison held out, under the command of Nathaniel Courthope, against continual Dutch aggression until it eventually succumbed to a large Dutch force. The Dutch also established a trading post at Amboyna that was strongly fortified by a large and well-armed garrison and where was also a small and motley group of 18 Englishmen. The local commander uncovered "a conspiracy" to take over the post on the part of these 18, had them brutally tortured and executed for treason. This created a tremendous outcry in England and brought the two countries to the brink of war and the demand that Run be handed back to England in compensation for the "massacre" at Amboyna. This led to years of negotiation and futile clandestine attempts by the English to re-acquire Run, until the English Civil War intervened and Run was forgotten. In the meantime the Dutch empire prospered and became ever more the masters of the spice trade.

With the close of the Civil War, Oliver Cromwell re-constituted the English East India Company, which had fallen into decline, and this company now concentrated on India itself, losing interest in the Spice Islands. In 1654, with the close of the First Anglo-Dutch War, the English demanded the return of Run and 11 years later the island was in fact returned to England, only to be lost to the Dutch again during the Second Anglo-Dutch War in 1666. This particularly upset the Duke of York, King Charles II's brother, who in addition to attacking and taking the Dutch African colony of Cape Corso on the Gold Coast, also took New Amsterdam on the East Coast of America. In the subsequent Treaty of Breda in 1667, it was decided that the Dutch could keep Run in return for the English keeping New Amsterdam, modern day New York. This effectively brought the Spice Wars to an end. Hamish Paterson thanked Colin for an excellent and illuminating talk and then Flip adjourned the meeting for tea.

* * * * * * *

Mystery payments

Please could you check if yours was one of these direct payments made into the account earlier this year?
30 January reference "Northgate" amount R140
17 May Magtape reference "Sa Military Hi Tory Socie" amount R160

Contact Joan at the letterhead address so she can credit the persons who paid and post them their June Journals!

* * * * * * *


* * * * * * *

For KwaZulu-Natal details contact Mike Laing 031-205-1951 (
For Cape Town details contact Bob Buser (Sec'y/Treas) 021-689-1639 (
For Eastern Cape details contact Malcolm Kinghorn 041-373-4469 (

Ivor C Little (Scribe) 012-660-3243

* NOTE* Fast mirror and backup site      BOOKMARK FOR REFERENCE     Main site * NOTE*

South African Military History Society /