Voices from the Deep

Sean Kingsley’s new book is a gem of an archaeological story. The Battle of the Atlantic was in its second year when the British India steamer, SS Gairsoppa, was torpedoed by U-101 on 16 February 1941 off Ireland. Only the 2nd Mate, Richard Ayres survived.

Voices from the Deep

The steamer normally plied between Indian ports and Rangoon but was requisitioned to carry cargo to Britain. This included three million ounces of silver as well as hundreds of letters sent from troops and others to family and friends back home. Thanks to an intrepid excavation by Odyssey Marine Exploration the contents of this ship were recovered from a 4,700 metre deep blackness known as the Porcupine Abyssal Plain. Kingsley describes the boat, following an underwater survey, and in a series of chapters illustrates its extraordinary cargo.

The cargo of silver bars and their story is perceptive window onto the world of precious commodity trading in imperial times. A chapter on the bottles speaks to a world of colonial beer-drinking, and is no less affecting. But it is the cargo of 700 letters that deservedly command pride of place in this book.

From the cargo of mail

Bundled up for immediate distribution around Britain, the letters have been miraculously conserved (by AOC Archaeology in Edinburgh), opened as if by magic, put on display (in London’s Postal Museum) and in his inimitably elegant prose, given an essential new life by Kingsley. An understandable colonial fear for all suffering the blitz in Britain is a central theme: ‘it seems as if no place in England is safe’, to quote one letter. Taken together, these priceless texts tell of love, life, faith and business in Britain’s darkest hour. Vividly illustrated, this post from the deep gives a voice to those who ultimately triumphed in WWII.

Sean A. Kingsley (ed.) Voices from the Deep. The British Raj & Battle of the Atlantic in World War II, London, The Undertow Press, 2018

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