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Compassion for poor children is something that Swedish proletarian writer Harry Martinson developed very early. Born in 1904 in a Sweden that was anything but the welfare state and “humanitarian superpower” that it is now, Martinson witnessed childhood deprivation and suffering at a young age. By the time he was six, his father had died, and his mother had abandoned him and his six sisters and moved to the United States. For the next 10 years, Martinson would live in the southern Swedish countryside under foster care. Describing his childhood in his semi-autobiographical novel Nässlorna blomma (Flowering Nettle), Martinson wrote, “I grew cold at my childhood hearth.” He attempted to run away several times from foster homes and schools before finally succeeding at the age of 16 to work on ships as a deckhand, stoker, coaltrimmer and labourer.
In January 1924, Martinson was hired to work on the SS Fernmoor, a 5,810-tonne steamship that sailed across the Atlantic Ocean to Cape Town and Port Sudan. He worked as a stoker, shovelling coal into the boiler’s firebox to power the engine of the ship. Bombay was also a port of call for the Fernmoor.
His book Kap farväl (Cape Farewell, 1933) has an entire chapter dedicated to India.