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Friday, August 23, 2019
Tantalus

I was very interested to read Frank Pickering’s recent account of the Eastern Ranger’s adventures in Shanghai (April 2016 issue of Sea Breezes) as my father; Captain Ronald Brett had an unpleasant encounter with the Red Guards when he took the SS Tantalus into Shanghai on 8 September 1967.

Tantalus was possibly the first British ship into Shanghai after the British embassy had been burnt down and the staff beaten and humiliated by Red Guards on 22 August. On arrival in port, Red Guards came aboard the ship, smothered it in revolutionary posters and subjected my father to a long, shouted, harangue in his cabin. Remarkably he kept his cooI, despite having ‘little red books’ thrust in his face and being called an Imperialist running dog! There was also some issue with supplying the ship with water. I was only 10 at the time so never knew the full details, but I know from my mother it rather shook my father up, but I benefitted from getting a copy of Mao’s famous red book and a little collection of Mao badges! I have in my possession three letters to him, one from Mr Brian Glasier, another from Sir John Nicholson (chairman of Ocean Fleets) and Mr George Holt all expressing thanks for his handling of a very difficult situation. My father had supplied Ocean with a full account of the event. Unfortunately I do not have a copy of this, but it would make interesting reading. The following is a transcript of the letter from George Holt and gives an idea of the times. It is interesting to see that almost 50 years later the “competitively neutral level” of trading is very much a hot potato when it comes to China!

Dear Captain Brett, When I sent you recently a rather terse message to take Tantalus into Shanghai, you were, I think, the first or almost the first British flag ship to be asked to enter a Chinese port after the burning of the British embassy and consequent exchange of diplomatic courtesies. I was conscious that there was an element of risk in what you were being asked to do and it was only after a thorough examination of what we could see of the situation and a good deal of heart searching that I endorsed the decision to send you in.

I would like to have said a good deal more in my message and to have added a few words of encouragement but I was aware that the message could have been picked up by the Chinese, and therefore thought it best to avoid anything which might have been regarded as a departure from the normal.

I was much relieved to hear that you had cleared Shanghai and had no particularly unpleasant experiences there. I would like to thank you and your ships Company for the ready way in which you accepted and successfully carried out this assignment. I hope the Tantalus experience means that we can go on trading with China on a competitively neutral level without being much affected by political and diplomatic vicissitudes.

I hope the rest of your voyage goes off equally well.

With kind regards
Yours Sincerely
George Holt

Apologies if this is somewhat long but I think it adds to the whole story, also to add further interest I have attached a great photo of Tantalus off Penang (my father was on the bridge), you won’t find this photo in any of the Blue Funnel books so readers may be interested.

MARK BRETT
E-Mail: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

For more letters, see the latest edition of Sea Breezes Magazine
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