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Chapter 21: Sea Dogs

Posted in Extracts with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on 24/12/2008 by Kenneth C. Ryeland

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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The Up-Country Man: The Story Behind the Story

Posted in Synopses with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on 23/11/2008 by Kenneth C. Ryeland

The Evacuation Ship: MV Isonzo

When the “Winds of Change” began to blow through the African colonies in the late fifties and early sixties, the author began to take a deep interest in these vast territories. Even after leaving school, he nurtured his secret desire to live and work in the ex-colonies of Africa. His ambition was eventually fulfilled shortly after his 25th birthday.

Having finished his engineering apprenticeship and obtained the necessary academic qualifications, the author joined a British company with commercial interests in the West African state of Nigeria. In the six and a half years since independence in October 1960, the people of this ex-British colony had already experienced civil unrest and two military coups. Now the country was on the brink of three long years of civil war, primarily because of an argument over oil revenues between the Federal Military Government and the Governor of the Eastern Region. The author arrived in Nigeria in April 1967, just as the Biafran crisis was about to enter its final and most devastating stage.

This book records his personal views and experiences of the events leading up to and beyond the act of rebellion that created the short-lived Republic of Biafra. The work concentrates on the author’s arrival in the territory and the first one hundred days following secession when he was resident in Enugu, the capital of Biafra. His job as a manager with one of the most important companies in the region gave him a particular insight into the bid for independence and the consequences arising from many of the policies adopted by the Biafran Government thereafter.

The narrative deals with the culture shock that everyone experiences when they arrive in a country where the lifestyle, customs and climate are vastly different to their own. It also looks closely at the relationship between the Africans and the Europeans who lived and worked in Nigeria, reflecting the reality of post colonial Africa in the nineteen-sixties in a sensitive and honest way. Though there is cognisance of the wider political machinations in Biafra, Nigeria and the UK during the period of the crisis, the work is really a personal reflection of the day-to-day difficulties and problems encountered by both Africans and Europeans as Nigeria raced headlong into civil war.

Despite being resident in Biafra for only a short time, this work captures the mood and relates some of the incidents that occurred during the build up to all out war in July 1967. These include the close surveillance of all foreigners by the Biafran secret police (an activity that caused many problems for the author); the difficulty he experienced with the Biafran military when the company driver was beaten close to death by drunken soldiers; the illegal and barbaric activity of the police and army personnel who manned the hundreds of road blocks; and the effect that all this chaos had on the lives of the people and the economy of Biafra. The work also reflects the feeling of vulnerability that pervaded the author’s daily life as the Federal Nigerian Army penetrated the northern and western sectors of the new republic and began to advance inexorably towards Enugu, the seat of power of the rebel regime.

However, it is not all gloom and misfortune. Many passages touch on the humour and grit of the ordinary citizens trying to cope with the chaos around them. The sections of dialogue written in the style of spoken Pidgin English will provide the reader with an intriguing insight into the use of English as a means of communication in a country where 250 languages are in daily use. The work is presented from the viewpoint of a young Briton, seemingly abandoned by his company, stranded in a rebel enclave, threatened by war and separated from his wife and child.

The climax of the book describes the author’s evacuation by road from Enugu to Port Harcourt. During the journey the civil defence volunteers manning the roadblocks subjected the author and the other Europeans in the vehicle convoy to many threats, and there is an account of the evacuees being dragged from their vehicles and lined up at the side of the road ready for a firing squad.

The author, together with over 800 other expatriates, was eventually evacuated from Port Harcourt to Lagos by sea on the MV Isonzo, a small, 7,500-ton Italian freighter. This was the last vessel to leave rebel held Port Harcourt and required a special agreement between the warring parties for its safe passage. Even at this late stage, however, the Biafran military continued to harass the evacuees as the ship steamed down the river Bonny on its way to the open sea.

The work will satisfy a wide spectrum of readers ranging from those interested in British post-colonial African history to the many who simply enjoy a good, true life adventure story. Though the outline for the book was written twenty-five years after the events, this does not dilute the impact of the story. Contemporaneous diary notes, a sharp memory, reflection and hindsight give the work an unusual strength and character.

This book will provide the reader with a detailed insight into the traumatic conditions that prevailed in Nigeria as the country embarked upon a bloody and cruel civil war. It was a war fuelled on both sides by the Western Powers because of the importance of Nigerian oil. No other British author has written an account of the misfortunes and sufferings of ordinary individuals caught up in the power politics and lust for oil revenues that broke the uneasy peace in Nigeria during the late sixties.