There are literally thousands of waterways in the sprawling vastness of the Niger delta.Thousands of people live in the mangroove swamps and along the river banks. There are few roads and the only way to get around is by the use of canoes.The above image is typical of a canoe factory near Sapele Nigeria in the early 1960's. Many canoes were simply paddled but the bigger ones had outboard motors fitted. Many had the famous "African Ensigns" fitted at the stern of the boat. These were for the longer journeys!.
West Africa exports thousands of tons of high quality timber to various parts of the world. Above is a typical scene of logs being loaded aboard as deck cargo for the journey north to Europe or America. Note the size of these logs as compared with the deck stevedores in the picture.
Anyone who has sailed on the West African trade will have memories of "going up the creeks". Literally going by ship up some of the main creeks of the delta to such places as Port Harcourt, Sapele, Burutu and Warri. Everyone will have stories about their adventures and the near misses, crashing into trees, mud banks etc. I have numerous such tales in my old head. The atmosphere and the unique smells of the mangroove swamps sailed through. One can recall ending up literally putting a rope around a shoreside tree and swinging the ship around using it as an anchor point etc etc. the list is endless.
Because of the shortage of harbour facilites and poor roads in the West Africa of the 1960's use had to be made of "surf ports" which were as close as possible to where the produce eg cocoa was produced. Use was made of large surf boats such as shown above. Crewed by about six men they brought for example several slings of cocoa out to the ship each trip and took general cargo back. The ship simply anchored about a mile off shore in the swell. This was a very dangerous existence for the men who manned the surf boats and many were killed or severely injured. To hitch a ride ashore on one of these boats was an experience never to be forgotten as you were powered through the water by six or seven Ghananian boatmen who would make some of the modern athlets looks like small chickens. However their life expectancy was short in such a dangerous environment.
A bustling Apapa wharf at Lagos in the mid 1960's . This site would have been very well known to the hundreds of Elder Dempster crews who visited Lagos in those times, one of Nigeria's best decades immediately after Indepedence.
Anyone who sailed on some of the less than modern ships will have memories of the old steam winches. These were a marvel of Victorian technology using steam as their power source. They were the original clanking monsters and with 10 or 11 of them in full flow the noise was horrific especially for any poor engineer who had to work sea watches when in port.
Always at Las Palmas and sometimes at Freetown some singers or dancing groups or performers would be brought on board to entertain the passengers.This chap's act was to do cartwheels with a glass of water sitting on a plate. His rotational speed was amazing and the forces exerted on the plate and glass were so big they stayed as one. I like in particular the dress sense of the gentleman on the immediate left of the picture. A good use for an old Burton suit for travelling on the Mersey ferry to work on a hot sticky afternoon. On this theme I recall playing a cricket match against a "mixed team". No not Protestants and Catholics but a European and Nigerian team from the "European Club" at Port Harcourt. The Nigerian gentlemen chose to wear their "protection" outside their trousers. We lost by numerous runs but the ladies from the Club went home very happy that their team had won handsomely but their husbands had a distinctly worried look. I never could understand why.
This photo taken looking down from the Kingsway store on the road running towards the Bar Beach on the Lagos side of Lagos Lagoon.
Numerous canoes like the one above travelled all around the harbours of the West African ports selling all sorts of things from matches to bananas to ships crews, log gangs etc."Chop" was the local name for food. "Chop time" was eating time. After a few voyages to the West Coast most European crews became very good at talking the West African pidgin dialect, indeed is was the common language aboard ship except when things went wrong eg if there was overcarried cargo,scraped paintwork etc a much less formal language was used as blame was apportioned. Perhaps the worst scenario to be witnessed was a passenger waking up in the Bay of Biscay to discover his baggage had gone back from Liverpool to London on the boat train.This caused great variety of plain speaking between the deck officers and the pursers on board as just to who was to blame. However this was generally sorted out by blaming the dockers back at Liverpool. In order to cover such emergencies a whip round amongst the crew for some spare clothes would help a lot though many Public School chaps from the Home Counties and better class families did not really relish having to wear a pair of our bosun's spare underpants.
View of two sailing ferries sailing towards the main jetty at Freetown. These would be typical of the numerous ferries sometimes called creek taxis along the waterways of the West African coast.The two in the images above were on short journeys as no African ensigns are fitted.
Some crew members on the pool deck of the Dunkwa getting excited on
learning that the ship was
destined for the States. Photo taken in Lagos Nigeria
in early 1960's. These trips usually lasted about
six months but at times there were "double headers" ie going to the
States twice from West Africa prior returning to the UK. Guaranteed to
create "Dear John" letters!.
Talking of "Dear John" letters I am reminded of some of the dreadful things that happened some old sailing friends who took the contents of some of these letters very very badly. Many were distraught and were noted as slipping off the ship just after dinner saying that they were "slipping off up to the Mission to buy airmail envelopes, toothpaste etc". Many never did return until sunrise the next day worse off for drink, highlife dancing etc. I have observed on returning aboard many young engineers being sent "down below" to "help the 2nd" to do crankcase inspections or a young deck officer being sent to the foredeck of perhaps the Patani with her clonking steam winches to oversee the loading of timber in the blazing heat and humidity of Takoradi harbour.
I listened to many of their cries for help and excuses and descriptions of how they felt. However I will leave it to the Irish writer Samuel Beckett who by coincidence describes the feeling of a young man recovering from a Coastal hangover. This is perhaps how he truly thought.
"Perhaps my best years are gone, but I wouldn't want them back, not with the fire in me now"
The above photo taken in the aft smoke room of the Dunkwa at a small celebration party held at the invation of the Nigerian crew on the occasion of Nigerian Independence in Oct.1960. Photo taken at Takoradi Ghana. From distant memory the European crew from the left were the Ch. Stewart, Ch. Engineer, Ship Capt, Unknown, 1st Officer and Radio Officer.
The above map will bring back many memories of "The Coast" and just where the various ports were. These west African countries rich in many resources were colonised by the major European powers from the 16th century onwards. All were at one time colonies of France Britain Portugal Belgium and Germany until they were given their independence or changed hands as the power between European powers changed. Eg Cameroun part of which was a former German colony. These are the countries that formed part of the old "Slave Triangle" and from where thousands upon thousands of the ancestors of the Afro people of North and South America and the Carribbean came.
West Africa I will never forget you. Odabo Oremi.