Traversing the Port of Colombo: ‘Fridaying’ and All That

David Sansoni **

Despite my pedagogic heritage, I never considered teaching as a career. I was surprised to receive a message (verbal, or a note… don’t remember…nor from whom…) to teach ‘Citizenship’ to an Upper IV class (12 year olds) at S. Thomas’, whence I had just graduated. Term 1, 1972. Jackson Karunaratne Esq did the Sinhala speakers, next door. He was a great help. He gave me a copy of a compilation – a ‘Civics/Social Studies equivalent of Literature’s “Choice Reading”. Just two subjects remain in my memory. A piece about the importance of History, and Gandhi. It was a fun time… a fun term…for me! I can but hope it was for the shishyas.


Had I been more mature and diligent, I might have made something of those months, for my students. I must have been ok – in the estimation of certain people – for I recall Mrs. Manel Tampoe (the Adavanced Level English Teacher) singing my pedagogic praises to a Staff Room, of my convincing exhortation apropos History’s high place in learning. Most gratifying.



The ‘job’ allowed me much leisure and was undemanding. And so, I indulged in all my favourite pastimes. Sea-swimming, music (including a brief stint with Saybhan Samat at La Langousterie and with Cecil Rodrigo at the Mt. Lavinia), acting and generally having a good time. The Staff ‘Box’ at the Royal-Thomian was a particular pleasure. Mohan Abeynaike and I (he was there on Orville’s pass) repaired to a ‘Chinese’ for a hearty lunch – with Lion Lager and Bristol Cigarette – and returned to Wanathamulla (the Colombo Oval) in time to see Duleep Mendis returning to the dressing room, having accomplished a record-breaker.

In that time, I responded to an advertisement of Reckitt & Colman, who sought a Clerk in their Ratmalana rooms. Nought came of it.

My Aunt Mavis’ (Mil Sansoni’s elder sister) husband, Bryan Jonklaas, was mortified! “Damn nonsense! I’ll place you as a ‘Creeper’ on an Estate, where you’ll do a year’s apprenticeship etc…etc…all the way up to P.D., in the fullness of time.

My parents were very unhappy. They had visions of ‘Car keys in a common jar’ and heaven only knows what all!  That was that.

Dad (.M. Customs, since the late 1930s) had a call from Michael Lloyd Mack, Director, Aitken Spence. (MLM, 1st cousin of Barbara…hence a family connection). He was looking for “…a good, Burgher boy, son…” to join the Travel/Passage Department, managed by Vernon Boteju, an old Trinitian.

The Chairman and the Board were greatly impressed by my STC Leaving certificate. I commenced, what was to be a 15-year career with Aitken Spence, on 1st June 1972. At the conclusion of that first work-day, I attended the A.G.M. of the C.A.D.C., who I had ‘played’ with the previous year. (Cmdr. Ted de la Mare had a heart attack, and I stepped in on public dress rehearsal night. Inspector Colquhoun in Agatha Christie’s “The Hollow”. Don’t know what she’d done with Poirot for that one!?).

I felt no “Sales” pressure in the job and concentrated on providing a service. This ncluded:
… walking to Immigration at Galle Buck…3 to 4 times a week (Passports, Exit Permits etc…) — bus to Food Control, on Alexandra Place in Cinnamon Gardens (surrendering Rice Ration Books of travellers, for the duration they’d be overseas…then retrieving them for return to the hungry travellers on their return) …. walking from Food Control to the Australian High Commission (visas) …………- walking to the Central Bank for Exchange Control clearances ………..- walking all over the Fort, to businesses and Airline offices…………………- Banks and banking ……….Inside the office; Migrant Applications, simple calculations/accounts and a bit of letter-writing …

Some of our travellers, on account of their domicile, had their Rice Accounts at the Nugegoda branch of Food Control. That was a ‘day trip’. Being young and male and not having my own clients, I was “Man Friday”.

My ‘Crusoes’ were Vernon Boteju, Wendy Molligoda nèe Witham, Cheryl Winter and the Directors. I had a ball!! Had it paid a living wage, for self and – later- family, I’d have ‘Friday-ed’ forever!

No ………… not really… I spent 6 months ‘Friday-ing’.

In January 1973, I was transferred to the Shipping Department.I had a good grasp of Harbour affairs, having done the rounds (literally) with Dad. My familiarity with ‘Queen Elizabeth Quay’, ‘DELFT’ (later ‘Bandaranaike quay’), Guide Pier, the grain silos on Prince Vijaya Quay, motor launches, geography…these all worked in my favour.

I had no telephone at home. As such, changes to ETAs etc were a challenge, especially on weekends. I had to occasionally go up to the Galle Road Call Box and phone Maralande for the latest. I travelled everywhere by bus. Alternative transport (if there was) was never discussed. I oft ‘handled’ two ships at a time. One at QEQ the other at Guide Pier, Mutwal. I walked the mile and more, from one berth to the other. And when the long nights ended, I would make my way to the Pettah for the long-haul express buses that stopped at the Mt. Lavinia Junction. On the 6:30 a.m. Fort-bound bus the next morning, to make the Shippers’ and Lines’ meeting in the Port Cargo Corporation Manager’s office. Cargo instructions were given there. Shippers were advised the lines of cargo to be sent down for pre-warehousing and/or direct loading. Similar instructions to importers, for receiving merchandise at Ship’s hook. Back to the office for round after round of phone calls, firming up export bookings and pressing importers to collect their good from over-crowded warehouses. Approving invoices for settlement of Harbour dues and sundries. Compiling export bookings’ summaries for impatient ships’ command, eager to plan stowage meticulously, for the long and hazardous voyages, particularly via the Bay of Biscay!

Cargo-handling evolved ‘tween 1973 and 1980. Tea chests and Fibre bales (in net slings) were positioned on Pallets and, in the next phase, the pallets were ‘stuffed’ into Shipping Containers. I participated in the vanning and loading of Aitken Spence’s first container – a 9 footer. Standard 20′ and 40′ long containers were soon a common sight.

Much learning was achieved in those early days. My teachers were the Directors (who’d been in the game since 1953), the experienced Manager, a senior colleague, but chiefly, J.N. Fernando, the Cargo Supervisor. A rough diamond from Kotahena. He cycled everywhere and, when ships had to be tended, was on the job “24/7”. His son Robert was a worthy apprentice – from around 1980 – and his successor from the mid-1980s.


** David resides now in Sydney … but finds the time to assist an old Aloysian wih his website photographs and computer hassles.

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