Family J. Henderson
Coming to Australia
When we left Rotterdam
It was March 17 when the MS Sibajak left the Lloydkade in Rotterdam. She had recently been sold for scrap and made her last but one voyage with emigrants heading for Australia.
It was a sad ending for a magnificent ship that was built in 1928 and served as passenger liner between Java and Rotterdam. In 1941 the Sibajak was converted for the transport of World War II personnel, after which, in 1946, she was handed back to the Dutch Government and used to transport Dutch troops to Indonesia. In 1952 she was rebuilt by N.V. Rotterdamsche Droogdok Maatschappij, Rotterdam to a complete one class emigrant ship.
On board this trip was the family Henderson; Jan and Dora with their three children Hans, Rob and Dick. I was Hans (now John) and was then only 8 years old. This story has been written by myself with the help of the memories of my family members and other passengers.
The gangway was hauled up with much ado; the anchor was raised; the mooring ropes were loosened and we slowly drifted away from the quay. With 1500 men and women on board we left the harbour and sailed out to sea. The journey had started, a voyage that would take all of six weeks. The old girl rattled on all sides and with a strong wind you could feel pieces of rust flying around your face. Our mother had a four-berth cabin with the children and dad slept with other men in a dormitory style cabin.
Our first stop was Southampton, where we took on English emigrants. We were not allowed to disembark and I was happy to see we were on the open ocean when I woke up the next morning.
Life on board such a large ship was just wonderful, there was always something to do or something to see. Almost six days passed before we would see land again.
Our second stop was Willemstad on what was then the Dutch island of Curaçao. It was in the evening when we arrived and my youngest brother Dick remembers the large boat bridge that opened so our ship could enter the harbour.
The Queen Emma Bridge is a pontoon bridge that connects the Punda and Otrobanda quarters of the capital city, Willemstad. The Emma Bridge was built in 1888 and is 168 meters long and the only floating wooden swing bridge in the world. The bridge is hinged and opens regularly to enable the passage of oceangoing vessels. On the opposite end from the hinge is a small shelter where an operator controls two diesel engines turning propellers. The propellers are mounted perpendicular to the length of the bridge and allow it to swing parallel to the shore.
Looking at some of the houses you could tell you were in a city where Dutch people lived. This was the first time we were given shore leave and could stretch our weary sea legs along the dock. It was very warm and quite humid seeing as we were moving closer to the equator.
Next stop was San Cristobal - where mum told us a Dutch couple was waiting on the dock to invite us back to their home for lunch. It was apparently a tradition to seek out Dutch boats to obtain first hand news from Holland. You must remember that news travelled oh so slowly in those days. Dick still remembers getting cold drinks in metal beakers. Something he has never forgotten. We were taken back to our ship by car that evening. All up a very enjoyable day.
Sailing through the Panama Canal left such an impression on me. A system of locks allows ships to ascend and descend in steps, like a staircase, keeping them perfectly level at all times. There are three upward steps and three downward steps. When this system was built in 1914, it was one of the greatest works of engineering in history. It is still seen as one of the Seven Wonders of the Modern World.
Feeling the ship being lifted up and later dropped was an unbelievable sensation. Sometimes we were so close to the edge of the canal that you could pluck the oranges straight off the trees. But what impressed me most were the small trains that pulled our ship through the locks. I believe that was my first experience with trains and it left me with a lifetime hobby. It took all up about 12 hours to pass through the Panama Canal and before we knew it, we were back on the open ocean. We had now moved from the Atlantic to the Pacific Ocean.
It was definitely not a luxurious trip; our passage was paid for by the state after all. We ate below deck, actually well below sea level, on long tables. Only those passengers that had paid for the voyage ate somewhere else on separate tables. Although the Sibajak was converted to a "one class" migrant ship there was still definitely a class distinction on board between migrants and paying passengers. My father was often found in one of the large lounges above deck where he would down a few from time to time.
It wasn’t long before we passed the equator and all passengers who had not experienced this before were symbolically baptised by Neptune, God of the Sea. We all received a certificate to attest we had been baptised.
Next stop was Pape’ete, Tahiti, where we arrived early in the morning. What a beautiful island. It was amazing the way our ship was docked. Once we walked down the gangway and onto the dock you could walk straight down the main street. We were all given flowers by beautiful girls in grass skirts, something my dad has never forgotten.
Mum had purchased sunglasses and thongs for all of us as we all slowly adjusted to the tropical climate. It was market day and Mum was in her element, we shuffled from one stand to the next. Plus, there was someone hammering all day so it was very noisy as well.
Our ship didn’t leave until eleven that night so we all stayed on shore as long as we could.
And on we sailed on this endless journey, surrounded by flying fish that came up for the scraps that were thrown overboard. Now and again we would see seagulls circling above us, a sign that land was close by. Sometimes we sailed for more than two weeks before seeing any land ourselves.
Our final stop before Sydney was Wellington, New Zealand, where we took a bus trip up the hills. From here we could see the harbour and the Sibajak, on which my mother commented that nature was much prettier in the southern hemisphere.
Three days before we were to dock in Australia, we entered an enormous storm front. The old ship was in great peril as she shook and shuddered. Everything that was loose, but also what had been secured, went flying through the air. The Moluccan crew started to panic and even my mother screamed when all our baggage was hurtled through the cabin.
The ship had become almost rudderless. Hundreds of plates and glasses flew out of the cupboards and shattered on the floor. The noise of it all had become quite frightening. I looked at it all like one big adventure without realising how close we all were to drowning that night. It wasn’t until much later that we heard of the danger we had been in. The Australian newspapers reported of many ships in peril during that storm.
Luckily the storm died down and after almost six long weeks on board, waiting and looking into the distance we reached the coast of Australia and entered Sydney Harbour one of the most picturesque harbours in the world. We had arrived…...
Some souveniers and trinkets from the MS Sibajak.
1928 Deck Plan
Menu cards with drawings by Anton Pieck.
Don’t think we got any of these. They were surely meant for the paying passengers.
Very interesting though.
Migration documents from our arrival into Australia.