SS Raffaele Rubattino

The Navigazone Generale Italiana (NGI)

A book entitled Italian Foreign Policy — 1870–1940 writes: ‘Italian involvement in the Red Sea started with the acquisition of the trading post of Assab in 1882. This had a dual origin. The Rubattino steamship company had run a government-subsidised monthly service from Genoa to Bombay since 1873, and was interested in Assab as a coaling station.’ The SS Rubattino belonged to the Navigazione Generale Italiana. The company too offers an interesting past: ‘The two companies, Florio of Palermo and Rubattino of Genoa, that dominated Italian Mediterranean shipping, merged in 1881 to form the Navigazone Generale Italiana (NGI), which then held a virtual shipping monopoly. … In 1893 NGI contracted with the state for the lines for Sicily, Malta, Sardinia, Tripoli, Tunisia, Egypt, the Red Sea, and India.’ Record has it that, ‘At the time of its foundation, NGI owned a huge fleet of 81 steamers of which 43 had formerly belonged to Florio.’


The Man Behind the Company

Raffael Rubattino (1810–81), the man behind the Navigazone Generale Italiana (NGI), obviously added extra dimension to the company’s history. In his Italy: A Reference Guide from the Renaissance to the Present Roland Sarti, referring to Rubattino as the ‘shipping industry pioneer, patriot, and advocate of colonial expansion’, writes: ‘Rubattino was born in Genoa to a well-off-merchant family. He…joined Mazinni’s YOUNG ITALLY, and started several business ventures that also served his political interests. His interest in maritime commerce began as an insurer in 1837. He founded his own shipping company in 1838, and in 1841 started a transportation business between Genoa and Milan. In addition to moving people and goods, Rubattino also smuggled propaganda and political suspects. He was the first Italian ship owner to commit his company to steam navigation. After expanding his activities in the Mediterranean until 1848, Rubattino looked to the Atlantic trade. With the help of Cavour [Camillo Benso, Count of Cavour (1810–1861)] and financial subsidies from the Piedmontese government, in 1852 Rubattinio launched the Transatlantic Shipping Company. The merger of Rubattiono’s company with the shipping business run by the Florio family of Sicily resulted in the formation of Navigazone Generale Italiana (1881), Italy’s largest shipping organization.’ With this initial information about the man and his shipping ventures, the book now focuses on a particular area: ‘Rubattino never separated his business from his political interests. One of his ship transported CARLO PISACANE’S ill-fated expedition to Naples, and two of his ships transported GUISEPPE GARIBALDI’S THOUSAND on their luckier venture to Sicily in 1860. Rubattino’s degree of complicity in these ventures is still the subject of debate. In 1869 Rubattino purchased the Bay of Assab concession in the Red Sea that, when acquired by the Government in 1882, served as the point of penetration for Italian COLONIALISM.’​


The Ship

But despite such illustrious history about the man and his company that owned the ship, nothing substantial is available on SS Raffaele Rubattino except some scanty information. It is learned that this 4337 tons ship was built in 1882 by the Palmer’s Shipbuilding & Iron Company Ltd, Jarrow (1865–1933) in North-East England. In 1910 the Rubattino was transferred to SNSM (Societa Nationale del Servizi Marittimi). But these rudimentary information is more than compensated by facts concerning the Rubattino which are of great historical import.​


Anecdotes of Historical Value

On 16 May 1900 Victor G. Heiser, Assistant Surgeon, U. S. Marine Hospital Service, Writes from Naples to his superior Surgeon General: ‘Sir, I have the honor to report that for the week ended May 16, 1900, the following ships were inspected.’ Thereby the letter listed the names of the ships along with respective dates on which those inspections were carried out, as well as the relevant findings. At one point the letter reads: ‘On April 18, I stated that the Italian steamship Raffaele Rubattino was suspected of having some cases of plague on board. I have now to add that 1 [one] of the fireman, a native of India, who was embarked at Bombay, March 29, was stricken with the plague after the steamer left Aden, which was on April 4. The victim was removed from the vessel about April 9, and placed in a lazaretto which is situated between Suez and Port Said, on the Suez Canal. When the vessel came to Messina, the first Italian port reached, she was remanded to Asinara for thorough disinfection. Just what this disinfection consists of I have been unable to learn up to the present time. The vessel was detained at the quarantine station at Asinara for two days, arriving at Genoa on April 21, 1900.’
A similar letter of a week before, the addressee and the writer remaining the same, had this information: ‘Since the outbreak of plague at Port Said, Italy has proclaimed seven days’ quarantine against all vessels from that port. The time spent on the voyage is included in this period. After the completion of the quarantine the vessel is disinfected, the whole process being usually completed in an hour. Vessels which have only coaled while in quarantine at Port Said do not have to undergo the above mentioned detention.’
No less interesting was the procedure for such disinfection. Rupert Blue, another Assistant Surgeon, U.S.M.H.S., writes from Genoa to his superior on 23 April 1900: ‘The importance given here to the disinfection of vessels from plague-infected places, has led to the employment of a very cheap and efficient method for the destruction of rats and other vermin aboard. This method, which is original with Dr Antonio De Ferrari, the quarantine officer of the port of Genoa, consists in burning charcoal, being ignited by aid of kerosene. After carefully sealing all the openings, 6 kilos of charcoal for each hundred cubic meters of space are consumed. An exposure of eight hours duration is considered sufficient for all practical purposes. It is claimed by Dr De Ferrari that this practical utility of this method depends upon the lightness and greater diffusion of the gases liberated; that SO, is much heavier, and soon gravitates, on cooling, to the lower portion of the space, leaving animals alive in the nooks and crannies of the upper section.’



With Swami Vivekananda on board the SS Rubattino finally came to Bombay on 3 December 1900. Harvey Reeves Calkins (1866–1941), an American on his way to India for missionary assignment, was also aboard the ship which he had boarded from Naples. Incidentally, Harvey Calkins was a Methodist minister who graduated from Northwestern University in the Chicago area, before becoming a representative of the Pentecostal League and American editor of 'Tongues of Fire'. the League's monthly publication based in London, England, which was part of the Wesleyan Holiness Movement during the 1890s. Calkins served for ten years as pastor of Grant Road Church in Bombay, In 1910 he went back to the United States. He authored several books too.

Calkins knew about the Swami beforehand, but initially he was not interested in him. He writes : ‘I think it was his lordly manner that disturbed, somewhat, my American sense of democracy. He did not argue that he was a superior person, he admitted it.’ But as the ship progressed towards her destination, closeness between the monk and the missionary grew. And on the last night before the Rubattino touched the shores of Bombay, both of them stood on the forward deck looking afar to where darkness of night and the vastness of dark-blue ocean mingled in mystery. Calkins writes about his experience : ‘Vivekananda was smoking a short sweet-briar pipe — the one “English vice”, he said, which he was fond of. The wash of the sea and the unknown life which would begin on the morrow invited quietness. For a long time no word was spoken. Then ... he said, “they may talk about their Buddhas, their Krishnas, and their Christs, but we understand, you and I; we are segments of the All-One.” His hand remained upon my shoulder. It was such a friendly hand, I could not rudely remove it. Then he withdrew it himself, and I offered him my own.’​

SS Raffaele Rubattino of the Italian Line (NGI)

SS Raffaele Rubattino

Raffael Rubattino (1810–81)

Raffael Rubattino (1810–81)

Palmer's Shipbuilding and Iron Company in Jarrow, a  Survey Map for 1897

Palmer's Shipbuilding and Iron Company Limited in Jarrow, a Section from the Ordnance Survey Map for 1897

Poster of the Italian Line 

Poster of the Italian Line 

An Italian Line (NGI) Memento

An NGI Memento

Bombay Victoria Harbour in 1900

Bombay Victoria Port in 1900

Harvey Reeves Calkins

Harvey Reeves Calkins

© : Somenath Mukherjee (See MORE )​