Transport to Another World: HMS Tamar and the Sinews of Empire

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Mementoes of HMS Tamar abound in Hong Kong, but what is really known about this troopship and her role in the maintenance of British imperial rule? Using logbooks, newspapers, and numerous other sources, this book pieces together the multifaceted and largely unknown history of the Tamar . From her launch into service to her roles as a hospital, theatre stage, and transport for military personnel, the Tamar carried not just people, but also their mundane dreams and ambitions— for friends, families, and staying alive. Any ideas or concerns about sustaining the empire seldom featured in their minds at all, but it was this empire that the Tamar served for seventy-nine years, steaming the equivalent of thirty-two times around the Earth and transporting tens of thousands of people to what would seem to them another world.

In this engaging narrative, the Tamar’s exploits and the experiences of her crew and passengers parallel those of the British Empire and its subjects, bringing to life the realities of imperial life on land and at sea. As mud continues to settle over the Tamar’s forgotten remains in Hong Kong’s Victoria Harbour, Transport to Another World will appeal to historians and readers interested in maritime history and colonial Hong Kong in general, and makes a case for conserving the memory of a past some would prefer to forget.
Pub. Date
May 1, 2022
530 pages
139 x 216 mm

The life and times of Her Majesty’s Ship Tamar, a troopship that was latterly the Royal Navy’s nominal depot ship in British Hong Kong, covered the apogee and then decline of Britain’s empire. Depending on one’s perspective, there is a sad, near symmetry, or a meting out of just deserts, in the story of that life and times. During the thirty-two years of the Tamar’s service as a troopship, the empire reached the tipping point noted in Kipling’s Recessional (written for Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee in 1897, the year the Tamar became a Victoria Harbour familiar). Over the next forty-four years, this decline began inexorably to accelerate until, with the Tamar’s scuttling in 1941, the empire met its doom: the Old English word for a judgment and condemnation.

The Tamar’s wreck was thought to have been cleared in 1947, and for fifty years after that, her name was kept for the Royal Navy’s base in Hong Kong. But sixteen years after the British flag was lowered in Hong Kong, it was discovered that the old Tamar had never entirely disappeared. In 2013, while helping to clear the seabed off the old Wan Chai Ferry Pier for the Central-Wan Chai Bypass, a dredger found a large chunk of the old Tamar covered by five or so metres of odoriferous Pearl River Delta mud. Since then, Hong Kong’s government has been pretending that whatever was found, it was not the Tamar.

When I was a boy at preparatory school, after spending two of the first five years of my life living in one of the seven (or possibly eleven) incarnations of the Tamar, Britain’s empire still existed —just. The end was approaching and the stampede for the exit would be complete by the end of the 1970s, with the exceptions of one or two remnants like Hong Kong. However, when I started formal geography lessons from “Jim” Woodhouse and informal ones in the Latin classes of Major C.L. Tireman in 1954,6 most existing or once-British domains were still red or shades of red in my Philips Modern School Atlas of Physical, Political and Commercial Geography — a battered, fittingly red covered, 28th edition from 1936, with the crossed out names of many of my preparatory school predecessors inside the cover.

In fact, blobs and patches of red were everywhere. They covered Africa like the consuming rash they had been, and thanks to the distortions of the prevailing Mercator projection, a whopping one, Canada, topped North America. Blobs, spots, and specks bespattered the Caribbean. A chain of small blobs and sparse red underlinings led around that remarkably red Africa — either through the Mediterranean or around the Cape — to reach the splurged red of India. The spots continued onwards via Ceylon and past Burma to the tapered red appendix of the Straits Settlements and Singapore, and then across the top of Sarawak and British North Borneo. The huge mass of red that was Australia led the eye via New Zealand north and eastwards to a flurry of dots and red underlinings scattered across the South Pacific as well as north and westwards to the red splashes of the Solomons and New Guinea. Above and beyond them, isolated on the coast of China, just two words underlined with a red line because it was too small to be even a speck that could be coloured: Hong Kong. The other world that looms large in the Tamar’s — and my — stories.

Stephen Davies
Lamma Island, Hong Kong Island,
Chester, and Corneilla de la Rivière

All Valiant Dust that Builds on Dust

Part I
Far-called, Our Navies

Part II
Drunk with Sight of Power

Part III
On Dune and Headland Sinks the Fire

Part IV
Still Stands Thine Ancient Sacrifice

All Our Pomp of Yesterday

Stephen Davies is an honorary research fellow at the Hong Kong Institute for the Humanities and Social Sciences and Adjunct Professor in the Department of Real Estate and Construction, University of Hong Kong. He previously served as an officer in Her Majesty’s senior service and in the Royal Marines and was the first director of the Hong Kong Maritime Museum, which he headed for seven years. He has written more than 1,600 articles and several books, most of them dedicated to historical and maritime topics, including Strong to Save: Maritime Mission in Hong Kong from Whampoa Reach to the Mariners’ Club.