by Ian McCall


My principal in Port Harcourt, John Brown, was as well known for his silences as were his native Lammermuir Hills; in fact some of his contemporaries called him ‘Noisy’ Brown. That sobriquet was not deserved, I always felt, but the fact remains that John did not say anything unless it was worth saying. So when he started to tell me about things that went on when he came to Nigeria in the late 1920’s in that compelling, quiet voice of his, I listened. He told stories of how he had seen bottles of human blood for sale in Aba market, of when he was made a special constable on the spot to help contain a local inter-tribal war, of when there was a plague of locusts that left not a single blade of grass on Lagos racecourse and how on one occasion he was in a bush rest house when stationed in Yandev when it was struck by lightning. He was accompanied in the last instance by his wife May who had been a missionary, knew the country and was no mean exponent herself of the art of bush living. He felt a shock in his arm and found he couldn’t move it. Not wanting to worry his wife he lay quietly for an hour or so until he felt the feeling begin to come back into his arm and he went back to sleep and told his wife about it in the morning. After all this he let out that in a corner of the rest house had been a drum of petrol which he had brought in for security reasons from his kitcar.

John would tell his tale as he saw it with the beginning of a smile at the corner of his mouth and in his eyes which occasionally culminated in a full smile that transformed his features and reminded me of Gary Cooper as did his rangy gait. He preferred to tell his tale over a whisky. He had completed his Associateship of the Imperial College of Tropical Agriculture in Trinidad, a far step from his native hills. He took his whisky with Angostura bitters which he had come to enjoy while he was there, that aromatic accompaniment to drinks derived from the bark of certain trees found along the Orinoco River in Venezuela. I have never met anyone else with that particular predilection. Bitters are usually taken with gin and constitute the pink element of a pink gin. Of the tales I listened to avidly, none were more fascinating than how some of our countrymen involved in various commercial activities behaved. John suspected all entrepreneurs, certainly expatriate ones, of dishonest or at best self-serving motives and I have no doubt of his sincerity in what he related. He considered himself an expert by experience or at second hand (he had been too late for their heyday) of the Palm Oil Barons as they came to be referred to by many. He preferred the term ‘palm oil ruffians’ believing them to be completely undeserving of capital letters equated at this time with God and Bank Rate. I think he viewed them as remittance men or men finding escape from the long arm of the law or who had done something they were ashamed of with good reason. As far as he was concerned they were moral castrati. ‘Chancers’ was a word that sprang easily to his lips when talking about them. They had little, he maintained, to contribute to the benefit of Nigeria.

The palm oil ruffians were men who came to the coast to work with companies that had been set up to buy produce in demand in Europe and to sell what was in demand locally, European technology having largely snuffed out local manufacture by traditional methods and established a market for European exports as a result. The original companies were merchant adventurers motivated by a consuming desire to make a good living in a place where they saw opportunity. One of the companies still referred to its individual operations on the Coast as ‘ventures’ each of which had to create its own profitability - ‘every tub on its own bottom’ as the business slang of the day had it. They operated at a time when men of action were needed and long before control was exercised by accountants. These men were called ‘agents’ and were paid on commission related to the profits generated by the venture. Some of these agents were no doubt highly principled. Many, according to John, were crooks, very different from the well educated and professional managers of today. Government officers had to be circumspect, in the view of John and his departmental contemporaries, in the friends they made in trade, particularly those whose work brought them into contact with the traders.

John recalled being told of one of these men who was responsible for the purchase of large amounts of palm oil that had been poled down the river. The oil was contained in large casks bound together with sticks from the calamas palm or bamboos and lashed with lianas to form large rafts and brought down from Lake Oguta to the delta buying stations at least two weeks away. The crews erected temporary dwellings on the rafts and roofed them with a thatch of palm fronds, a practice that was still being followed but was slowly being phased out with the replacement of casks with steel drums and the development of road transport. The wives cooked and performed household chores while the men did the poling and steering. When they arrived at the beach and had agreed a price to be paid for the palm oil, their casks of palm oil were winched one by one on to the landing. This particular individual in John’s tale would never leave his desk. He refused to let his winch be oiled. His control was to write down £5 every time it creaked to indicate that another cask had been hove-to. That was alleged to be his own cut of the proceeds, no doubt a form of insurance against the contingency of a poverty-stricken old age. To be fair, the man might just have been keeping a running total of his commission or perhaps he was bored with a very limited existence and was whiling away the time.

One governor pointed out to the Foreign Office in London just before the First World War that the practice of paying agents by commission on profits resulted in these men never looking beyond the short term and, indeed, that they were likely to oppose any measures in the future that might impose a temporary handicap on trade. The ‘palm oil ruffians’ about whom Mary Kingsley, the intrepid traveller, had been warned prior to her journeys in West Africa in the late 1890’s, were warmly praised by her as the true servants of their country. At a time when the British saw themselves as having a civilising mission in Africa and as being privileged in this duty, Kingsley saw it as pure commerce which would aid imperial expansion. These traders had, she maintained, a vested interest in the country far beyond that of any colonial officials. She despised missionaries with an equal fervour - an account of her meeting with Mary Slessor would have been interesting but no unbiased fly on the wall has recorded what actually passed between them when they met. It has to be said, however, that Mary Kingsley, apart from defending polygamy for which a strong argument could be produced, also defended the use of slaves which had cogent economic arguments in support but no moral ones. She went close to condoning ritual murder, voicing the arguments of those chiefs who saw their positions and traditions threatened by the missionaries as well as their economic well-being. But she had her point. These men chose to work in conditions where they were often alone, exposed to disease, were required to undertake long hours of work, enjoyed little recreation save that which they could themselves make, and lived in the knowledge that some of their countrymen saw them as a lesser breed. What Mary Kingsley did not do was to bring to the light of day the failure of some of these people to act in a way that reflected the higher moral spirit ascribed to these times.

The common view of the Bight of Benin as a place not to go at that time was mirrored in the words of the shipping agents for West Africa who cheerfully informed prospective travellers that they did not issue return tickets. This view was compounded by reports that it was not unusual to see a flag flying at half-mast over the ‘factories’ where the palm oil was bought as another palm oil ruffian succumbed to yellow fever or other disease, to be buried almost immediately in the most basic of graves to prevent the cadaver from putrefying and further hazarding the health of the afflicted community.

These men were good traders. They had competitors who were equally astute. They were not averse to doing each other in the eye if a particular advantage was to be gained. In the evenings they would meet over drinks and a meal and exhibit all the characteristics of bonhomie. If their world was in any way threatened they would band together in mutual defence. It was said in Port Harcourt when I was there that in Abonnema on the New Calabar River (Abonnema had at one time been called ‘New Calabar’) a trading town just across the watery divide form the government station of Degema, there was a headstone erected in memory of one of these men which bore his name and carried the simple inscription Friends have done their worst. I was intrigued and had meant to search for it on the only occasion I went there but I had to change my plans as a result of hearing of the death of King George the Sixth early in the morning of the 6th of February 1952, the twenty-seventh anniversary of my birth. I was informed by the clerk of the native authority in Degema that a ‘public holiday has been declared’ subsequent to the demise of the king in the night. I grieved all the way back to Port Harcourt as the crew of the launch proceeded there with all speed to enjoy what little remained of the day.

The stress on traders who had built up the palm oil export trade in that period, particularly on those who could not bear their own company for very long, was considerable. It was one of the reasons Mary Kingsley admired them so much. One tale of the trading assistants, the apprentices to the palm oil trade, comes from Opobo. The trading beaches lay near the mouth of the Imo River in south-east Nigeria and were close to the spot where Jaja built a township and set himself up as king. It was a place from which the produce of the area was shipped but had a sandbar which made access to the sea difficult and the channel had to be dredged on a regular basis. Ships’ masters talked about ‘bouncing’ their vessels across the bar. In my day it was dying as a port due not so much to the silting up of the bar as the development of a road to Port Harcourt that made Opobo less attractive commercially as a place to trade from, if not redundant. Yet at one time it had a reputation and notoriety that matched its considerable commercial importance.

I have been long addicted to the scanning of gravestones as stimulants to the imagination and aids to the history of a place. I was motivated to visit the graveyard in Opobo as a result of yet another tale told me by the same John Brown whose memories of such matters went back as far as 1929. What is incontestable is that there are gravestones of three very young European men whose deaths all occurred within a period of a few days. Their story sheds light on the harshness and loneliness of life for the traders of the day. To tell it requires a look at the background against which it all happened. The ‘beaches’ on which the produce of the countryside was bought and stored until it was shipped, were owned by companies with names above the factories like MacIvor’s and Miller’s, but in reality part of the Niger Company empire and the African and Eastern Trading Company, both shortly to be amalgamated within the United Africa Company. There was also a Cooperative Wholesale Society factory and one belonging to one of the French companies less than a half hour’s trip by water from these beaches and possibly a few others I am unable to recall. Each beach was overlooked by a house owned by the company in which lived all its expatriate employees. Typically it was built on stilts and the accommodation was characteristically divided into two. One half was occupied by the manager or ‘agent’. The other half was shared by up to three or four assistants. Work went on in all the daylight hours from Monday to Friday by which time everybody was ready to do something different.

While abstemiousness was enforced on the assistants through the week by a rationing of strong drink and lengthy hours of work, weekends tended to develop into drinking sessions which began on Friday evenings and ended after lunch on Sunday when the effects of a palm oil stew on top of a skinful of schnapps combined to see the actors in this tale sleep until sober. It was considered improper to turn up for work on a Monday morning showing signs of the weekend’s excesses, not for any moral reason but because of the possible adverse effect on profits. The agent, whose income depended on these profits, had the power to ensure anyone not meeting this norm might not return from leave.

Towards the end of one such weekend, an assistant in one of these houses challenged another to a game of Russian roulette. The challenge was accepted and the acceptor blew his brains out. The man who had made the challenge was so overcome with remorse when he came to that he took his own life. A third man, travelling by motor cycle to the funeral of the second, hit a pothole just short of his destination and broke his neck. No doubt their relatives thousands of miles away were informed of a tragic accident to their dear ones. There were other gravestones in Opobo where people had died within a short time of each other but that was usually the effect of an epidemic like yellow fever that did not discriminate by age or sex.

The agent who had the other half of the house on stilts collected brass objects similar in appearance to widened horse shoes in shape, and called manillas. People used them as money in the south-east of the country. The name appears to derive from the Portuguese word for ‘bracelet’. Their origin is the source of speculation but the favoured theory is that they were copied from the metal rings and bracelets used as a currency by Phoenician sailors reputed to have explored the coast of West Africa in the 5th century BC. They had acquired value in the intervening years. In the many years of Portuguese dominance of the West African trade they were worn by Portuguese as anklets and often exchanged for slaves. They appear on a Nigerian stamp of the early 1950’s. They had a currency just as cowrie shells had in other places like the neighbouring Western Delta, and like all money, varied in value; they were worth more in the height of the palm oil season than in the off-season. If the value of the manilla was low, the agent would buy them at the going rate and store them in sealed casks under his house until they rose in value when they would be released on to the market for sale. This was a kind of extra-mural activity possibly intended as a further insurance to supplement the retirement pension in Akeld, Dollar, Falmouth, Maiden Bradley or wherever. The manilla was abolished as a currency in 1949.

What would John have thought of the dealers in the City today and the financiers who shift their money around the world to extract the maximum gain from changes in the exchange rate or interest rates? A difference of kind or a difference of degree from the palm oil ruffians?

Ian Mcall Auchencrow
Berwickshire, Scotland July 2003