Of all the dreadful stories that fill the news daily, the death of those thirty-nine young Vietnamese folk found in a trailer in the south of England recently, has stuck in my mind. Call them refugees, illegal immigrants, whatever, they were just seeking a better life.
It calls to mind an incident forty years ago in which I became involved and many years later inspired me to create a significant character for my second novel, Dark Ocean.
On 22 May 1979 the British ship Riverbank (renamed the Sibonga by her Danish charterers), rescued two boatloads of Vietnamese in the South China Sea and, under the command of Captain Healey Martin, headed for an uncertain reception in Hong Kong where I was working as a ships agent.
1,002 were counted as safely rescued by the time the ship arrived off the then British territory. Others, including babies, children and the elderly, had died during the perilous transfer from their leaking craft to the ship, which took place in heavy swells way out in the South China Sea.
The Hong Kong authorities ordered the ship to wait in international waters some miles from the harbour while it was decided what to do. Hong Kong was already hosting some 800,000 Vietnamese “boat people” and was not keen to take more.
As agents, that first day we organised a water barge, provisions, medical supplies and Red Cross doctors and nurses to attend along with two of our boarding clerks and myself.
The scene that greeted us on boarding was one I won’t forget. Later, Captain Martin’s wife Mildred, fortuitously a qualified nurse who, along with the Second Officer’s wife, also a nurse, did so much to care for their unexpected passengers during the voyage, gave this graphic account to the Portadown News:
When they spotted the first boat with 600 people on board, Mrs Martin said that hundreds were packed in the bottom of the boat, “so tight that they hadn’t been able to move to relieve themselves – their limbs were intertwined and there was a terrible stench”.
There was panic, mayhem, while the refugees fought their way up the pilot ladders to climb onto the ship, children and old men couldn’t stand on weak legs but somehow the Captain, his wife, the Second Officer’s wife and the crew got them sorted out in a makeshift hospital and fed them.
‘“The deck outside our small ship’s hospital was crowded,” she said. “Children were vomiting, crying, doubled up with tummy pain; nursing mothers were indicating that they had no breast milk as they were dehydrated; old people were slumped, too weak to sit up.”
She also gave harrowing accounts of a woman who’d had a Caesarean section within the past few days and was in terrible agony, and of a baby who had fallen overboard into the sea and died.
The whole scenario was repeated when they spotted the second boat with 400 on board, and after more trauma, order was restored and they headed for Hong Kong.
By the time we boarded, it was clear they’d done a heroic job in handling this humanitarian crisis. But with the sun beating down on the steel deck, temperatures in the thirties, virtually no sanitary facilities for such numbers and very limited food and water, the situation was dire.
Over the coming days we established a system with regular convoys of supplies and medical staff in attendance. Some cases were hospitalised, others treated on board.
Back in London, Bank Line’s chairman, Lord Inverforth, used his influence to persuade Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher to accept some 800 of the refugees into Britain. The rest were accepted by America.
Over the years Mildred Martin received greetings cards from many of the grateful Vietnamese. Children were named Sibonga, Healey or Mildred after the ship and the captain and his wife. But Healey was still receiving hate mail for rescuing the boat people long after the event. Trolls were among us even then.
At the time many shipowners ordered their captains to steer a course well to the east of the Vietnam coast to avoid encountering these desperate people. This was not the policy of Bank Line or the Danish charterers.