Exploring the Rich History of the M.S. Columbia

The Royal Dutch Steamboat Company, “Koninklijke Nederlandsche Stoomboot Maatschappij”, was a company active from 1856-1981. This company had over seventy-five active vessels at one point, but over half of those were lost in World War II. One of those ships was the M.S. Columbia which was active as a passenger ship in Europe from 1930 until 1940, when it was used as a war ship. In 1943, this ship with massive amounts of history sank off the coast of East London, Africa. Menus, artists, and food all worked together to make this ship a celebration of Dutch culture. The origin of the ship traces back to a Dutch yard called Smit P. Jnr. This was one of the first ship builders in the Netherlands that could specialize in steamed engines. The M.S. Columbia was Smit P. Jnr.’s first passenger boat, as before that they made boats for the government. This ship had been active for ten years, carrying passengers to and from many different places, before it was requisitioned by the Dutch Navy to act as a submarine tender during World War II. In 1943, the ship was on its way to East London in South Africa when it saw its last sail. A German ship fired three torpedoes at the M.S. Columbia, sinking it in 10 minutes and killing eight men. There were about 480 survivors from the crash.

A list of passengers is available for purchase  on Ebay which lists prominent first class passengers such as Mr. and Mrs. Hill, Mr. and Mrs. Fletcher, and Mrs. Barret accompanied by her son. This pamphlet on Ebay also includes the route of the ship. Noted on the pamphlet is the name “Jean Walther”, a prominent artist who designed the image on the front of the brochure. It is interesting to note that he is French, not Dutch, but he designed many other posters for the Koninklijke Nederlandsche Stoomboot Maatschappij. 

Pictured is a “list of passengers” from the M.S. Columbia available for purchase on Ebay

Before the war, the M.S. Columbia  contained many dining options, although they were not too fancy. One menu that was found has no official title of the restaurant, but the menu is labeled as such: “Koninklijke Nederlandsche Stoomboot Maatschappij”, translating to “Royal Dutch Steamboat Company”, which is the name of the line of ships. On the front of the menu, a Johannes Vermeer painting was used. This is substantial as Vermeer was a prominent Dutch painter. In fact, many other Vermeer paintings from the same set were used in menus on the ship. According to this listing of menus from the M.S. Columbia on Ebay, there were at least seven other (eight total) of Vermeer paintings used for menus on this ship. It can be assumed that the ship chose to place these paintings on their menus as a way of celebrating national pride. In addition to using famous Dutch artists, the M.S. Columbia ship flew a Dutch flag at the front of the boat, as well as many other European country flags. 

A menu from the M.S. Columbia in 1940.
A menu from the M.S. Columbia in 1940.

In addition to flags and art, this ship celebrated its heritage in the food that was served. There were simple selections such as strawberry ice cream, grapes, Gouda cheese, and different types of potatoes. These selections were common among most menus at the time, as they offered some consistency for dinner guests who may not want to have a full meal. Unique to this menu were dishes such as stewed lettuce, epigram of venison espagnole, plaice a la meuniere and fricandeau of Pork Nivernaise.Plaice a la meuniere is a typical Dutch dish, highlighting the Plaice fish, which is traditionally very important to the Dutch. These fish are very prominent in the North Sea, right off the coast of the Netherlands. Many Dutch fisheries rely on plaice fish to make a profit, as they are common and popular in the Low Countries. Typically, plaice are found in muddy waters, burrowing themselves in the sand in an attempt to hide from predators. Plaice are gray (sometimes brown) with red dots, and have a smooth coat. This fish has a very distinct taste, many identifying it as “umami-like”. Because the taste is so distinct, the fish is often served on a plate by itself, with grilled vegetables on the side. To dissect the other part of this dish, “a la meuniere” means “dusted lightly with flour and sautéed in butter”. A la Meunière is a traditional European dish that dates back to the seventeenth century. This is still an important dish for the Dutch and is eaten all over the world.

Another important Dutch dish that can be found on the menu is Fricandeau of Pork Nivernaise. While this dish originated in France, it became popular in the Netherlands. This dish consisted of pork being prepared in the style of fricandeau (thinly sliced meat with vegetables and white wine) and carrots and onions in the style of nivernaise (nerves) . This dish is no longer prevalent in Dutch society, but it was very popular in the early 1900’s. In conclusion, it is evident that this is a very Dutch ship, complete with plenty of Dutch culture. What makes this ship so unique is its combination of food, art, and historical significance in regards to World War II. The food on the M.S. Columbia menu is a very important part of the Dutch displaying a pride for their culture to passengers.


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