On the Shores of the Great Sea - M. B. Synge

The First Merchant Fleet

"They that go down to the sea in ships,

that do business in great waters."

—PSALM cvii. 23.

Now, it has been said that the waters of the Great Sea, washed the shores of the land of Canaan, into which, the Israelites had just entered. Let us see what this Great Sea is, and how the people who lived on the coast of Canaan, found out, how to sail on its calm surface. Seeing branches of trees and leaves floating down the river, they first got the idea of floating down themselves on a log.

Then followed the notion of guiding themselves by means of a pole or paddle. Sometimes the log was hollowed out, sometimes covered by an inflated skin. By-and-by a number of logs, placed together, suggested the idea of a raft, for carrying a number of persons or animals across a river. These were the rude beginnings of shipbuilding, in the olden days. They soon added the idea of oars for propelling the rafts, using them in the same way, that a duck uses its legs to swim.

Then they found that sometimes the wind helped them, so they made sails—that is to say, they spread sheets of linen to catch the wind, and blow the ship forwards. They were ever thinking of something fresh, until at last they gathered up enough courage to trust themselves on the sea itself.

The Egyptians first tried the Red Sea, which washes the east coast of Africa. It was a narrow arm of the sea, more like a very broad river, save that it was salt, and there were no large waves.

While the Israelites were yet groaning under their bondage in the land of Egypt, there reigned a queen called Hatasu, or "Queen of the South and North," as she was more often called. She caused a great fleet to be built on the shores of the Red Sea. Each ship was built with oars and sails, each capable of holding sixty passengers. Of these, thirty were the rowers, who were to plough the waves and bring the ships to land whether the wind were favourable or not.

The object of the expedition was to trade with another part of East Africa, that could not well be reached by land. There were men-at-arms in each ship, in case hostile tribes hindered them in their trade dealings.

Away started the ships,—five of them,—and favourable winds bore them southwards to the land of Punt, or Somaliland, as we call that tract of country to-day. The voyagers were well received by natives, who were trustful people. The Egyptians soon found the chief of the country. He had a dwarf wife, who was very distressing to behold; but the royal couple proved very friendly; they were charmed with the presents from Egypt, and allowed the new-comers to trade freely.

They had leave to enter the forests, cut down the trees, and carry them to the ships. They dug up thirty-one of these trees, and placed them on the ships' decks, screening them from the sun's rays by an awning. Other things were brought to the beach by the natives, who were ready to exchange gold, silver, ivory, ebony, and other woods for the gifts brought to them from Egypt. Monkeys, dogs, leopard-skins, and slaves, were also put on board, and the Queen of Punt herself insisted on accompanying the ships back to Egypt.

The Egyptians seem to have been much amused by the antics of the monkeys on the voyage home, as they sprang about the sails and rigging of the ships. While the ships returned to the harbour in the Red Sea from which they had sailed, some of the cargo, including the trees, were taken across the desert, shipped on Nile boats, and so carried to Thebes. The day of the return of the expedition was kept as a gala day in the city of Thebes. A large number of the townspeople came out to meet the returning travellers, and the poor little Queen of Punt, did homage to the Queen of Egypt.

The complete success which had attended this first sea-adventure pleased Hatasu immensely, and she celebrated the event by building a new temple at Thebes, on the walls of which were painted the chief scenes of the expedition.

Here may be seen, even to-day, the most ancient pictures of sea-going ships that the world contains—pictures of the Queen of Punt and the chiefs, the crews of the ships, the arrival of the expedition at Thebes in twelve large Nile boats, and the grand festival held in honour of the safe return of the fleet.