Sunday, 12 August 2012

S.S. Achilles (3)

Achilles (3) was built in 1920 by Scotts' Shipbuilding & Engineering Co. at Greenock with a tonnage of 11426grt, a length of 507ft 4in, a beam of 63ft 2in and a service speed of 12 knots. Laid down in 1916 on the slipway vacated by the Tyndareus she was eventually launched on 8th January 1920 for the Ocean Steam Ship Co. at a cost of £545,000 and placed on the Far East to U. S. A. service. In December 1926 she was requisitioned and used to transport 1000 horses and men during the 'China Affair' steaming at full speed directly to Shanghai. She was sold to the Admiralty in August 1940 and converted into a destroyer depot ship. As there was already an HMS Achilles, a cruiser which came to prominence during the Battle of the River Plate, she was renamed HMS Blenheim. After the war, in 1948, she was sold for breaking up at Barrow-in-Furness.

Lowry refers to the Achilles in the 1940 Under the Volcano when Hugh talks about his time on a ship sailing past Sokotra; "It was an English ship, the Helen. Before that, out of Frisco over to Japan I'd been on its sister ship, that was the Achilles. When I was on the Achilles I one saw the Helen coming out of Kelung, Formosa, with the Menelaus after her. The Minnylaws, as the limeys call her."(Pgs. 60-61). Lowry refers to 2 other Blue Funnel Line ships accurately but for the sake of symmetry changes the name of Helenus to Helen which was a name not used by the Blue Funnel Line.

Lowry never sailed on any of the ships nor is it possible to ascertain whether 3 Blue Funnel Line ships would all be in Keelung at the same time though Lowry did sail to the port on board the Pyrrhus in 1927. The symmetry of the 3 ships appears to fit in with Lowry playing with characters from Homer's Odyssey to underpin the drama of the novel.

Later in  the 1940 Under the Volcano, Lowry refers again to the Achilles;  "I was on two ships, " he said, "Helen and Achilles. Blue-pipers. Sweatrags and hard work..." (Pg. 62-63).

Lowry also makes mention of Achilles in Under The Volcano; "The Consul was talking, like Sir Thomas Browne, of Archimedes, Moses, Achilles, Methuselah, Charles V and Pontius Pilate." Chris Ackerley has identified that the Consul's list is from Sir Thomas Browne's Hydriotaphia, or Urne Burial (1658) Chapter 5, which is a profound and moving meditation upon the power of death and time to obliviate all fame.

Achilles - son of Peleus and Thetis, the bravest of the Greeks during the Trojan war. In his infancy he had been dipped in the Styx and was invulnerable except for his heel. To prevent his going to Troy, Thetis disguised him in female dress, but Odysseus found him out and brought him to Troy. Achilles, disputing with Agamemnon retired to his tent, and remained there until the death of Patroclus recalled him to action, whereupon he slew Hector. He was later wounded in the heel by Paris and died. Browne comments, in context of "the necessity of oblivion": "What Song the Syrens sang, or what name Achilles assumed when he hid himself among women, though puzling Questions, are not beyond all Conjecture." Malcolm Lowry Project 307.14

We must assume that Hugh's reference to S.S. Achilles is linked in Lowry's mind to Sir Thomas Browne's meditation and the legend of the Achilles.


  1. Interesting association. Just one look at the list of proper-names mentioned alerts one to the possibility that Browne's Urn-Burial's is being referenced. Browne also often uses proper-names as highly-original psychological symbols, little other than archetypes.

  2. It looks like this ship Achilles III (Achilles II was sunked in 1916)

  3. Cheers Red Hummer - checked Red Duster site - error on the 1920 ship should read Achilles 3 as you have stated. Thanks for dropping by.