I was reading this journal that I mentioned below, the Du học bao, that was published by an organization in the late 1920s and early 1930s that sent Vietnamese students to France to study. In one of the early issues, one of the students, Phạm Đình Ái, has article about part of the journey by ship from Vietnam to France.
The ship that Phạm Đình Ái traveled on was called the Amazone and was operated by the Messageries Maritimes Company. It looks to me like this must be the ship. This ship was also known as the Laos, and it appears to have replaced an earlier ship that was called the Amazone, and perhaps because of that reason, it was also known as the Amazone.
In 1927, as he headed to France to study, Phạm Đình Ái purchased a third-class ticket on the Amazone. However, for some reason he was allowed to sleep in a first-class cabin. The conditions there were much nicer, as nine people had to share each third-class cabin, whereas in the first-class cabins there were only three beds.
What is more, there was a “boy” from Martinique who served the passengers in first class.
Not long after setting off on the journey, Phạm Đình Ái and his traveling companion asked this boy to go get them some water to wash with, but the boy refused, saying that he only served first-class passengers. The boy obviously understood that even though Phạm Đình Ái and his friend were sleeping in a first-class cabin, they were in all other ways third-class passengers.
Phạm Đình Ái and his friend kept asking, but the boy kept refusing. Eventually Phạm Đình Ái decided to pay the boy some money, and from that point onward the boy did whatever they asked him to do.
Phạm Đình Ái then has a line in quotes that he concluded from this episode that “When black blood smells cash, it also gets excited/infatuated” (máu đen mà thấy hơi đồng cũng mê).
While reading a line like that today might sound a bit racist to us, I find the information in this brief passage to be fascinating for the light that it shines on a little known aspect of the past.
People have long talked about how significant it was for colonized peoples to spend time in the metropole. Much, therefore, has been written about José Rizal’s time in Madrid or Saloth Sar’s (i.e., Pol Pot’s) time in Paris, etc. However, many of these people also spent a lot of time on boats in between the colony and the metropole, and boats were unique spaces, where as Phạm Đình Ái’s experience shows, “first class” and “third class” could interact in unexpected ways.
So what kind of experiences did people actually have while they were traveling? Did those experiences in any way affect the way that they thought? Or can those experiences show us anything about the way people thought at that time?
This brief passage suggests to me that this would be a fascinating subject to research – the sociability of colonial-era passenger ships.