H. M. Tomlinson’s “The Sea and the Jungle”

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Retroscope is a monthly series that mines the past for literary travel writing gems.

Vast liquid yellow highways, tropical chaffinches, tumuli, black doubt, Welsh coal, Zanzibarian cats, scented pink handkerchiefs, Brazil & the SS Capella.


On a dark, dreary winter day in 1909, H. M. Tomlinson decided to leave behind his humdrum life on Fleet Street, London’s newspaper and publishing hub, to voyage via tramp steamer across the Atlantic and up the Amazon. At the urging of his friend “the Skipper,” he signed on as purser aboard the SS Capella, a “modern three-thousand-tun freighter” carrying a cargo of Welsh coal to a railway construction project in the center of the South American continent intended to link the rich resources of landlocked Bolivia with international shipping.

The Sea and the Jungle, Tomlinson’s account of the adventure, published in book form three years later, was destined to become a classic of travel literature (despite initially being ignored). Anyone who has felt even a tinge of wanderlust will immediately recognize a kindred spirit in it.

They do not come to accord with your mood, but they come unaware to compel, and it is your own adverse and darkling atoms that are changed, at once dancing in accord with the rare incidence of that unreasonable and transcendent moment of your world, the rhythm of which you feel, as you would the beat of drums.

The ocean crossing began in a northwest gale that tossed the three-hundred-foot Capella about like a matchstick:

“‘I love the sea,’ a beautiful woman once said to me. (We, then, stood looking out over it from a height, and the sea was but the sediment of the still air, the blue precipitation of the sky, for it was that restful time, early October. I also loved it then.) I was thinking of this, when the concrete floor of the cabin nearly became a wall, and I fell absurd-wise, striking nearly every item in the cabin. Was this the way to greet a lover?”

A month and some four thousand miles later, in calmer waters, the Capella made landfall at Para, Brazil, the mouth of the Amazon. Another month and two thousand miles’ slow crawl upriver brought her to the new railhead at Porto Velho on the Madeira River, the Amazon’s largest tributary—the first oceangoing freighter to penetrate the interior so deeply.

One of the book’s particular pleasures is the transition, made clear in the title, in the nature of life’s horizons: the varying shades of monotonous shipboard days and nights as a speck in a seemingly boundless sea, giving way to a vast liquid yellow highway with distant green walls, exchanging seabirds and fish for an open-air menagerie of exotic insects impossible to escape.

Map of Brazil’s railroads, showing railroad (thin red line, lower left) connecting Bolivia to Amazon River system, presented in 1913 to His Excellency Colonel Theodore Roosevelt.

Along the way you will encounter much of what you might expect on such a journey—from epiphanies shaped by meditating vastness to shrunken heads and malarial nightmares—but elaborated by an engaging sensibility that expatiates and distills. “There was so much, wherever we went, to keep me on the magic side of time, and out of its shadow.”

Literary critics have claimed the influence of Shakespeare, Thoreau, Emerson, the King James Bible and even Homer in Tomlinson’s prose. Every page is refreshed by its clarity. He would go on to write more than two dozen books, in genres including travel, war reportage, biography and fiction. But his first, The Sea and the Jungle, published at age thirty-eight and reprinted many times, remains his best known.

The first passage excerpted below occurs following the gale, in gentler seas a quarter of the way across the Atlantic, as Tomlinson reflects on travel and writing about it. (“The Chief” referred to is the Capella’s chief engineer.) The second recounts the ship’s landfall and entrance into the Amazon.

Compass Rose


Thoreau, in one of his quaintly superior moods when speaking of travel, said, “It is not worth while going round the world to count the cats in Zanzibar.” In nearly every book of travel this is proved to be true. They show it was not worth the while, seeing it was either to shoot cats or to count degrees of latitude. (As for me, I have no reason whatever for being at sea.) Consider Arctic travel. I have read long rows of books on that, but recall few emotional moments. The finest passage in any book of Arctic travel is in Warburton Pikes’ “Barren Grounds,” where he quotes what the Indian said to the missionary who had been speaking of heaven. The Indian asked, “And is it like the land of the Musk-ox in summer, when the mist is on the lakes, and the loon cries very often?”

You feel at once that the country the Indian saw around him would be easily missed by us, even when in the midst of it. For taking the bearings of such a land, the sextant, and the miles already travelled, would not be factors to help much. Now the Indian knew nothing of artificial horizons and the aids to discovering where they are which strangers use. But in summer the mists of his lakes were but the vapour of his musings, the penumbra of the unfathomed deeps of his mind whereon he paddled his own canoe; and when the wild-fowl called, it was his memory heard; it was his thought become vocal then while he dreamed on. I myself learned that the treasures found in travel, the chance rewards of travel which make it worth while, cannot be accounted beforehand, and seldom are matters a listener would care to hear about afterwards; for they have no substance. They are no matter. They are untranslatable from their time and place; and like the man who unwittingly lies down to sleep on the tumulus where the little people dance on midsummer night, and dreams that in the place where man has never been his pockets were filled with fairy gold, waking to find pebbles there instead, so the traveller cannot prove the dreams he had, showing us only pebbles when he tries. Such fair things cannot be taken from the magic moment. They are but filmy, high in the ceiling of your thoughts then, rosy and sunlit by the chance of the light, transitory, melting as you watch. You come down to your lead again. These occasions are not on your itinerary. They are like the Indian’s lakes in summer. They have no names. They cannot be found on the best maps. Not you nor any other will ever discover them again. Nor do they fill the hunger which sent you travelling; they are not provender for notebooks. They do not come to accord with your mood, but they come unaware to compel, and it is your own adverse and darkling atoms that are changed, at once dancing in accord with the rare incidence of that unreasonable and transcendent moment of your world, the rhythm of which you feel, as you would the beat of drums.

The SS “Felixstowe,” built in 1918, served as a tramp steamer—a boat similar to the SS “Capella”—until the 1940s.

And what are these things?—but how can we tell? A strip of coral beach, as once I saw it, which was as all other coral beaches; but the ship passed close in, and by favour of the hour and the sun this strand did not glare, but was resplendent, and the colours of the sea, green, gold, and purple, were not its common virtues, but the emotional and passing attar of those hues. There was the long, slow labouring of our burdened tramp in the Atlantic storm. Or one April, and a wild cherry-tree in blossom by an English hedge, a white cloud tinctured with rose, and in it moving a dozen tropical chaffinches; the petals were on the grass.

And now, this is Christmas morning. I am in the Chief’s bunk, and he still sleeps on the settee. We fell asleep where we lay yarning on our backs after midnight. I wake at the right moment, opening my eyes with the serene and secure conviction that things are very well. The slow rocking of the ship is perfect rest. There is no sound but the faint tap-tap of something loose on the desk and responding to the ship’s movements. The cabin is strangely illuminated to its deepest corner by an extraordinary light, as though the intense glow of a rare dawn had penetrated even our ironwork. On the white top of the cabin a bright moon quivers about, the shine from live waters sent up through the round of our port. When we lean over, the port shows first the roof of the alleyway dappled with bright reflections; then a circle of sky, which the horizon soon halves; and then the dazzling white and blue of the near waves; we reverse.

This is life. This is what I have come for. I do not repose merely in a bunk. I am prone and easy in the deepest assurance of good. This conviction has penetrated even the unconsciousness of the Chief; he snores in profound luxury. If in a ship you are brought sometimes too cruelly close to the scrutiny of the terms of your narrow tenure, expecting momentarily to see the document torn across by invisible fingers, yet nowhere else do you feel those terms to be so suddenly expanded in the sun. And nowhere else is got such release, secure and absolute, from the nudging of insistent trifles. There is nothing between your eyes and the confines of your own place. Empty day is all round. In the entire circle there is not the farthest impertinent interruption—through all the degrees there is not one fool standing in the light; and you yourself are on nobody’s horizon. No history stains that place. There is not a black doubt anywhere. It is the first day again, and no need yet for a rubbish heap.

Compass Rose

It was not easy to make out, before sunrise, what it was we had come to. I saw a phantom and indeterminate country; but as though we guessed it was suspicious and observant, and its stillness a device, we moved forward slowly and noiselessly, as a thief at an entrance. Low level cliffs were near to either beam. The cliffs might have been the dense residuum of the night. The night had been precipitated from the sky, which was clearing and brightening. Our steamer was between banks of these iron shades.

Suddenly the sunrise ran a long band of glowing saffron over the shadow to port, and the vague summit became remarkable with a parapet of black filigree, crowns and fronds of palms and strange trees showing in rigid patterns of ebony. A faint air then moved from off shore as though under the impulse of the pouring light. It was heated and humid, and bore a curious odour, at once foreign and familiar, the smell of damp earth, but not of the earth I knew, and of vegetation, but of vegetation exotic and wild. For a time it puzzled me that I knew the smell; and then I remembered where we had met before. It was in the palm house at Kew Gardens. At Kew that odour once made a deeper impression on me than the extraordinary vegetation itself, for as a boy I thought that I inhaled the very spirit of the tropics of which it was born. After the first minute on the Para River that smell went, and I never noticed it again.

“The Capella on the Rio Madeira,” by H. M. Tomlinson

Full day came quickly to show me the reality of one of my early visions, and I suppose I may not expect many more such minutes as I spent when watching from the “Capella’s” bridge the forest of the Amazon take shape. It was soon over. The morning light brimmed at the forest top, and spilled into the river. The channel filled with sunshine. There it was then. In the northern cliff I could see even the boughs and trunks; they were veins of silver in a mass of solid chrysolite. This forest had not the rounded and dull verdure of our own woods in midsummer, with deep bays of shadow. It was a sheer front, uniform, shadowless, and astonishingly vivid. I thought then the appearance of the forest was but a local feature, and so gazed at it for what it would show me next. It had nothing else to show me. Clumps of palms threw their fronds above the forest roof in some places, or a giant exogen raised a dome; but that was all. Those strong characters in the growth were seen only in passing. They did not change the outlook ahead of converging lines of level green heights rising directly from a brownish flood.

Occasionally the river narrowed, or we passed close to one wall, and then we could see the texture of the forest surface, the microstructure of the cliff, though we could never look into it for more than a few yards, except where, in some places, habitations were thrust into the base of the woods, as in lower caverns. An exuberant wealth of forms built up that forest which was so featureless from a little distance. The numerous palms gave grace and life to the façade, for their plumes flung in noble arcs from tall and slender columns, or sprayed directly from the ground in emerald fountains. The rest was inextricable confusion. Vines looped across the front of green, binding the forest with cordage, and the roots of epiphytes dropped from upper boughs, like hanks of twine.

In some places the river widened into lagoons, and we seemed to be in a maze of islands. Canoes shot across the waterways, and river schooners, shaped very like junks, with high poops and blue and red sails, were diminished beneath the verdure, betraying the great height of the woods. Because of its longitudinal extension, fining down to a point in the distance, the elevation of the forest, when uncontrasted, looked much less than it really was. The scene was so luminous, still, and voiceless, it was so like a radiant mirage, or a vivid remembrance of an emotional dream got from books read and read again, that only the unquestionable verity of our iron steamer, present with her smoke and prosaic gear, convinced me that what was outside us was there. Across a hatch a large butterfly hovered and flickered like a flame. Dragon flies were suspended invisibly over our awning, jewels in shimmering enamels.

From “The Andes and the Amazon: or Across the Continent of South America,” by James Orton

We anchored just before breakfast, and a small launch flying a large Brazilian flag was soon fussing at our gangway. The Brazilian customs men boarded us, and the official who was left in charge to overlook the “Capella” while we remained was a tall and majestic Latin with dark eyes of such nobility and brooding melancholy that it never occurred to me that our doctor, who has travelled much, was other than a fellow with a dull Anglo-Saxon mind when he removed some loose property to his cabin and locked his door, before he went ashore. So I left my field glasses on the ice-chest; and that was the last I saw of them. Yet that fellow had such lovely hair, as the ladies would say, and his smile and his courtesy were fit for kings. He carried a scented pink handkerchief and wore patent leather boots. Our surgeon had but a faint laugh when these explanations were made to him, taking my hand fondly, and saying he loved little children.

Alan Bernheimer’s latest collection of poetry is From Nature. Born and raised in Manhattan, he has lived in the Bay Area since the 1970s. He produces a portrait gallery of poets reading on flickr. His translation of Philippe Soupault’s memoir, Lost Profiles: Memoirs of Cubism, Dada, and Surrealism, was published by City Lights in 2016.

Lead image: Pawel Janiak

Excerpt and “The Capella on the Rio Madeira”: Adapted from The Sea and the Jungle, by H. M. Tomlinson (E. P. Dutton & Company, New York 1920). The full text of The Sea and the Jungle is readily available in various formats at the Internet Archive and Project Gutenberg.

Map: Library of Congress public domain

“Palms on the Middle Amazon”: Adapted from The Andes and the Amazon: or Across the Continent of South America, by James Orton (Harper & Brothers, New York 1870)

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