On The Most Famous Ship You’ve Never Heard Of

It bears repeating that we take intercontinental travel for granted. In the days before long-haul commercial aviation, people and goods traveled by ship for millennia. It’s only been the last 80-ish years or so that flying from London to New York became almost routine, replacing days, weeks, and sometimes months of travel with mere hours. And that doesn’t even take into account the centuries of naval combat in wars across the vast stretches of oceans and seas.

And even though the thought of traveling by boat is not on our agendas these days, the list of famous ships that most people recognize is still fairly long: The Mayflower, the Titanic, the Lusitania, the USS Enterprise, the USS Missouri, the HMS Beagle, the HMS Victory, the USS Maine, and so forth. But there’s one ship that you probably don’t recognize, and that’s a shame, because it broke a lot of “firsts” for a ship that’s relatively unknown. The name of this famously unknown ship is the USS Princess Matoika.

And the ship made history in a relatively short lifespan. She was built in 1900 in Hamburg, Germany, and christened the SS Kiautschou before being scrapped in China by 1933. She went through several name changes over the course of her lifespan, including bearing the monikers the President Arthur, the City of Honolulu, and the Princess Alice among others.

Let’s start by saying that she was built initially to take mail to the Far East in the days before airplanes much less airmail were commonplace. Then, she became a passenger liner in the days before World War 1. That’s when life became interesting. When the Americans entered the war, the ship was in United States territory (the Philippines), and, even though it was a German ship, the Americans claimed the ship as sort of a war prize.

Then, rechristened as the Princess Matoika (one of the names of the native girl Pocahontas), the US used it to transport American troops to Europe in 1918 to fight against the Germans. That alone is fairly interesting. When the war ended, the ship brought back many of the same soldiers she took over to Europe along with many of the bodies of the boys and even the coffins of some of the female nurses who gave their lives in the war to end all wars.

In 1920, her days of hauling soldiers over, the ship was pressed into service to take the United States Olympic Team to Belgium for the Antwerp Summer Olympics that year. But there was a problem on the voyage over to Belgium. Seems that the ship was still pretty much fitted out for carrying the rank and file of the typical American doughboy and not the sort of gentleman athlete of the post-war era. The Olympic Team lodged a formal protest about the living conditions on the ship and some even threatened to not compete because of how basic the ship’s accommodations were. In what became known as the Mutiny of the Matoika, 150 of the athletes signed and then presented a list of grievances and demands to the US Olympic Committee, and the list included the poor food and the fact that most of the male team was put in the hold of the ship with inadequate ventilation and space. However, after much cajoling by the Committee and appealing to patriotism and in the spirit of the first Olympics since 1912, a boycott was averted. Barely.

Things quieted down after that for a bit. The ship was upgraded significantly and returned to passenger service (but not returned to Germany, significantly) during the 1920s. But the sharp decrease in travel from Europe in the 20s and the increasing isolationism of the United States saw the ship fall upon hard times. Interestingly, on one of her transatlantic crossings, the ship hit an iceberg. The passengers, only a little more than a decade removed from the Titanic disaster, panicked, but no substantial damage was done and the lifeboats were not deployed.

The final chapter of the ship began when she was sold to a company that ran a route from New York to Naples to what was then Palestine. The company was owned by a consortium of Jewish businessmen. Renamed the President Arthur, the ship became the first on the seas to fly what is today the Star of David national flag of the State of Israel, even though Israel wouldn’t become a nation for another two decades.

And, in one more in a remarkable series of “firsts,” the open-minded company that ran the route into Palestine did something no other ship had done in history up to that point.

In 1922, the SS President Arthur became the first vessel that had women to serve as officers on a ship at sea.


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