THE NAKED CITY: ALL ABOARD THE POOR MAN’S TITANIC

THE NAKED CITY: ALL ABOARD THE POOR MAN’S TITANIC

When it comes to scoring political points, winning votes and appealing to the xenophobic nothing seems to work better than slogans such as ‘Stop The Boats’. John Howard, Tony Abbott and Scott Morrison are all testament to that. During their reign anybody arriving unannounced by boat in Australia was essentially demonised, whether they were a legitimate refugee on not. With a number of recent boat arrivals off the Western Australian coast, the Albanese government has continued the inhuman process of offshore detention, sending so called illegals to Pacific hell holes like Nauru.

There was however a time when many new settlers to this country arrived by boat, admittedly with the Government’s blessing but not without some public resentment. From 1945 until the early 1970s, some 1.6 million Britons were lured to Australia through the so called ‘ten pound pom’ scheme which made boat passage almost free. Arriving in Australia they weren’t always treated the best, many ending up in migrant camps and perceived by sections of the population as interlopers and bludgers.

After WWII many Greeks, Italians and southern Europeans migrated to Australia and they too faced hostility from the majority of Anglocentric Australians. A common factor amongst both the ‘poms’ and the unfortunately labelled ‘wogs’ were the boats that brought them here and perhaps the most notable of them all was the infamous Achille Lauro. Of modest proportions compared to the floating Disneylands of today’s cruise liner leviathans it was a familiar sight in Sydney Harbour and other Australian ports in the 60s and early 70s.

Like the Titanic it eventually ended up on the bottom of the ocean but beforehand it had a much more interesting history. It began life way back in 1947 as the Willem Ruys but In 1965 Italian businessman Achille Lauro bought the ship, had it converted into a cruise ship, and renamed it after himself. After a successful cruising career its greatest notoriety came in 1985 when it was hijacked off Egypt by four members of the Palestine Liberation Front.

Bargaining for the release of 50 Palestinian prisoners in Israel they held passengers and crew hostage, forcing the vessel to Tartus in Syria. They killed only one passenger, a disabled Jewish American who was thrown overboard. After a protracted diplomatic battle for their capture between multiple countries including the US, they eventually ended up in an Italian prison.

From shipspotting.com. Credit: Tony Martin

After decades of service the aging ship, then renamed the StarLauro came to an inglorious end in 1994 when she caught fire in the engine room off the coast of Somalia en route to South Africa, with 979 passengers and crew aboard. It was not the only inferno it had suffered with both fires and explosions in 1965, 1972 and 1981. It had also been involved in two serious collisions, in 1953 with the Oranje and in 1975 with the cargo ship Youseff.

This time however there would be no reprieve as the fire burned out of control, despite the efforts of both passengers and crew dousing it with water from the swimming pool. Remarkably only two died and eight were injured during the somewhat chaotic evacuation and transfer to rescue ships. Unlike the ongoing interest in the Titanic, its sunken wreck has not been located since.

Judging from the amount of memorabilia regarding the Achille on eBay, including a lifebuoy bottle opener and some rather raunchy old photographs, there is still enormous affection for the old girl. There’s no doubt she played an important role in post war Australian immigration and there would be many current Australians of multi ethnicities who remember her fondly. Some kind of plaque would not go astray close to Circular Quay honouring the legacy of the ship and the many new settlers she brought to this country.

As a somewhat bizarre footnote the name of the ill-fated ship has lived on in the shape of Italian rapper Achille Lauro. Originally christened Lauro he latched onto the Achille surname in recognition of the ocean liner’s owner Achille Lauro, also a well known Italian politician.. After listening to a couple of his tracks online all I can say is I hope his musical career parallels the eventual fate of the ship itself.

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