Chapter 21: Sea Dogs

Author's Sons (4th right & babe in arms) 5th Birthday Party, Jos, 1971

Extract from The Up-Country Man

[…]Clambering down the hatch ladder complete with suitcase and flight bag was not too difficult a task. However, as I slowly descended into the hold my senses began to detect a rapid rise in humidity and temperature. By the time I had reached the steel floor plates at the bottom, some forty or so feet below the deck level, the atmosphere could have been sliced with a knife. Not only was the hold uncomfortably hot, but also quite gloomy, despite the hatch cover being wide open. After a few minutes my eyes became accustomed to the dark and I soon began to search for somewhere suitable to park my bags.
The hold was surprisingly dry and comparatively clean. The steel floor and sides were quite brightly polished and therefore it was not unreasonable to assume that the ship had been used for the carriage of dry cargoes for some considerable time. There was no trace of damp or congealed dirt as might be expected for a general cargo ship. Of course, this was pure speculation on my part. Having never been in the hold of a ship before, all ships’ holds could be as clean and tidy as this one for all I knew.
Having found a bright spot directly beneath the hatch opening, I promptly claimed my two square metres of deck space. Moving about and arranging my things caused me to sweat profusely as the heat and humidity extracted their toll. I shuddered to think how unbearable it would be when, according to my information sheet, the full allocation of 150 adults was packed into the comparatively small hold area. It would not be wise, I thought, to spend too much time in the bowels of the ship if it could possibly be avoided. Undoubtedly, this would be the goal of every evacuee on board and therefore it was not unreasonable to assume that the open decks would be severely overcrowded for the duration of the journey to Lagos.
David Haslam and one or two of my other friends from Enugu had also been allocated to hold number two. After welcoming them to the “black hole” as our accommodation had been so aptly named, we occupied ourselves trying to make the best of our combined space allocation. Having seen to our welfare, we turned our attention to assisting the elderly and less able people to negotiate the hold ladder. We also helped them to find a suitable space and stow their belongings. It was very pleasing to note that everyone had been very sensible about luggage. There were no great sea chests or masses of household goods being loaded. Each person was bringing on board only one, or possibly two, suitcases.
Whilst waiting at the top of the ladder for more people to show themselves, I struck up conversation with a man who, it was later revealed, originally hailed from the Portsmouth area of the UK. My discussions with this ex-sailor brought home to me the full extent of the personal losses that some people had sustained due to the evacuation.
The man had been working in Port Harcourt for over ten years running a small marine engine repair shop for a Lebanese businessman. The terms of his contract had been such that the employer provided a rented house at the going rate and the employee was expected to provide his own household furniture, soft furnishings and fittings. Because of the recent political instability and the beginning of the police action, the company suffered a downturn in business. As a result, the ex-sailor’s contract of employment was eventually terminated and he had to use some of his accumulated capital to finance his day-to-day existence because he was unable to return to the UK. Now, with the evacuation of most expatriates, the poor man had been forced to leave everything he owned. Notwithstanding the precious little time he had been given to sell up, who in their right mind would buy anything of value with the threat of civil war and invasion hanging over the town? Even if he had been able to liquidate his assets, the authorities would have prevented him from taking his money out of Biafra, as we all discovered to our cost in the customs hall.
The man also told me that he had given his car to his steward for safe keeping and had asked the houseboy to look after his two dogs. He must have loved his animals very much since he appeared to be more upset over having to leave the dogs than over the loss of his money and chattels.
He had smiled ruefully when pointing out that all he had to show for ten years of very hard work were two small suitcases full of clothes, his passport and some loose change in his pocket. It shocked me to the core when he revealed that he had been forced to leave over ten thousand pounds in his bank account with absolutely no idea of how, or when he was going to lay his hands on it again.
The conversation with this man made me realise just how lucky I was in not having too many personal effects or household furniture to leave behind. Thank goodness it was the Company’s policy to provide its managers with fully furnished houses on a rent-free basis. True, it had been necessary to leave my personal allocation of linen, my radio and a second-hand set of golf clubs, but none of these items were of sufficient value to bankrupt me. My account at the bank in Enugu had been abandoned of course, but since it contained only a few pounds it was no great loss. Talking with the ex-sailor really shocked me and I wondered how many others among us were similarly affected.
It must have been about three o’clock in the afternoon when the last of the refugees began to board the Isonzo. Those of us who had already embarked had been requested to stay in our allotted places in the holds until the ship was under way. However, it was impossible to comply with this request because of the searing heat of the afternoon sun. Many people, on discovering how hot and stuffy the holds really were, simply dumped their baggage and promptly returned to the upper decks. Because of this mutinous behaviour, the decks were crammed with people enjoying the cooling effects of a slight breeze that had manifested itself during the early afternoon.
David Haslam and I spent some considerable time leaning on the ship’s rail overlooking the quay, talking and smoking as we watched the last of the refugees struggle on board. Each time we thought we had witnessed the final batch of people, yet another group would file out of the customs hall and make for the gangway. There were a surprisingly large number of European women and children among the last of the stragglers and only after close scrutiny of the children did it dawn on me as to why they were so late arriving at the ship. It was reasonable to conclude that the women were married to Biafrans since every child in their care was of mixed race. This raised several thoughts in my mind and had me wondering what sort of nonsense these women had been subjected to because of their choice of marriage partner. It was a sure bet that the authorities would have gone out of their way to ensure that their processing was made as difficult and unpleasant as possible. Indeed, we learned later that the officials had claimed that the women were trying to kidnap the Biafran children. This sort of treatment and the inevitable delay while suitable “arrangements” were agreed would certainly have accounted for them being the last to board the ship.
My discussions with David included a consideration of how much dash had been necessary to allow the children to accompany their mothers, and we concluded that the price would have been very high indeed.
As it was for everyone, the Isonzo was the only way out of Biafra for these unfortunate women and children. Had the authorities not permitted them to board they would have been stranded. Locked inside what was to become a besieged and doomed Ibo enclave until its collapse and surrender some thirty months after our departure.
Before the women and children were permitted to embark we noticed that several African men had been escorted from a nearby shed by armed police and were now milling about amongst the women at the foot of the gangway. It was clear from their actions that they were the unfortunate husbands.
David and I assumed that since the new republic was involved in a bitter struggle for its very existence, the husbands would eventually be required to take up arms in its defence. This was probably the reason for the men being physically restrained from boarding the ship by the heavily armed detachment of police. Because the men were being prevented from accompanying their loved ones, they were forced to say their farewells on the quayside in full view of everyone on board.
Saddened and bitter at a regime that could cause so much pain and misery for its people, I watched the pitiful sight with a growing feeling of helpless anger as the men, women and children enacted the time honoured ritual of saying goodbye to each other.
From my position on the ship’s rail high above the quay, I could hear the sobbing and crying as the police began to pull the men away from their families. It was hard to imagine a more heart-breaking scene. Particularly since I knew that the people involved may never see each other again. Even the most cynical of observers must have been moved at the sight of those unhappy families hugging and kissing each other, possibly for the last time in their lives. Many of us were so shocked and upset at seeing the children being wrenched from their father’s last embrace by over-zealous policemen, that we began to shout and scream at the officers to let the men on board. Alas, our efforts were wasted. The police continued with their unpleasant duty and began to escort the men back to the shed at rifle point. That final, forced departure of the men-folk must have been sheer torture for the families involved[…]

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3 Responses to “Chapter 21: Sea Dogs”

  1. Dear mr Ryeland,
    I am the last white man who boarded the Isonzo in august 1967 in the harbour of Port Harcourt. Though being Dutch as managing director I was in charge of a Jos Hansen & Soehne, a German company representing Mannesmann, Bayer Chemicals, tyres, tools, etc.
    Being a civil war it was not against us “whites” and I had decided to stay. I had good contacts with some of Ojukwu´s senior officers. However, at the day of the departure I saw many others leaving who also intended to stay. As if I was going to be deserted, left behind on my own on a strange sensation was felt in my somach. In the church behind Kinsway was only one man left of the evacuation committee. He said: “Kees, you can still leave, but make up your mind now”. Than I changed my mind and got number 601. From the English Club I went as only passenger by bus escorted like the others by police or army to the harbour.
    Around 5 pm I climbed the gangway of the Isonzo under the supervision of all passengers hanging over the railing, wondering what they were waitng for. I carried a box of beer given to me by one of the seven men who stayed behind for his collegues of BWA. With one arm for the box of beer I saluted with my right free hand to the passengers as if I was the commander who finally boarded the ship.

    A friendly peacecorps girl gave me a cup in which many different alcoholic drinks were poored by friends and complete strangers in the course of the night. Lying in the hold of the ship it felt to be in heavy weather though there was no storm. Upon arrival in Lagos after about 24 hours I was very sick. Now at the age of 77 I can state that I have never been that sick anymore.

    I heard that the seven staying behind had a difficult time. Two of them, Germans? went by canoo through the vast mangroove Niger delta region to the Cameroons under difficult circumstances. An other englishman, Blakeney ?, reached the front page of the Time where I saw his picture . He was suspected of being a mercenary.He was just saved from hanging by the federal troops from Lagos when they occupied PH, two and a half years later.

  2. K. C. Ryeland Says:

    Dear Mr Koetsier
    How nice of you to contact me. Can you believe you are the first of all the 800 or so people on the Isonzo to have ever contacted me (outside my group of friends of course) I think you were very wise to get out of Biafra, white men were not particularly well treated after the main evacuation. I hope you experienced just a little excitement on reading the excerpt on my blog. Obviously the whole story is recorded in my book “The Up-Country Man”. Incidentally I worked for BEWAC the company selling and servicing Land-Rovers, Leylands, Albions and Massey Ferguson tractors. In the book I refer to it as The Company. I enjoyed my timein Nigeria and went on to work in other parts of Africa too. South Africa, Rhodesia, Malawi etc. Thankyou for the contact.

  3. Dear Mr Ryeland,

    I am equally pleased by your response. I had a slight hope that you could remember how the last man boarded the Isonzo. When the subject comes up I tell my friends proudly that I am the last white man who left Biafra.

    Through Amazon.co.uk I just ordered “The Up-Country Man”. It should arrive in a week´s time. I arrived in Ibadan in 1960 for the SCOA (french) and joined Jos Hansen & Soehne in 1962. I think that the stories in the period you reviewed will ring many bells.

    In 1967, I concluded 14 years overseas service for a Dutch, French and German company, followed by extensive travel in the larger parts of Europe and the Middle East as export manager. In 1974 I was stationed in Indonesia to run Unilever Export where I retired early in 1988 after an almost fatal medical failure in the Netherlands.

    Recently I became involved in providing “memories” for a tragic KLM plane crash I witnessed in 1957 in Dutch New Guinea. I got the idea of googeling the Isonzo and consequently hit on the extract of your book.
    Since you had little direct response to your book chances that this friendly American peacecorp girl who gave me that cup enabeling me to get very drunk would come forward is infinitesimal small.

    Has your book been announced on any Peace Corps site?

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