by Ian McCall


There is an island in the Warri area in the middle of one of the branches of the mighty River Niger as it fans out to make its lazy way through the delta. It is reached by canoe from the lush green banks at the river’s edge and is insignificant in relation to the brooding forest just inland on either bank. There is an endless swell lapping lightly on its shoreline. It is an undistinguished place. When I visited it for the first time, a somewhat rusty shed of corrugated iron where produce was bought and graded, some scrub and some bits of old metal were all that met the casual eye. The island was uninhabited except for the clerk in charge of the buying station and two labourers who paddled a canoe across to it each morning. Other than the men and women who brought their palm oil and kernels there by canoe to sell them, only the UAC manager responsible for operations on that part of the river for shipment to ocean vessel and Produce Inspection staff visited the place. But look further. These bits of metal lying around reveal, with assistance from the imagination, the outline of a ship with the boss at the end of a drive shaft sticking out on either side where paddles had once driven the vessel through the waves of the ocean on its voyage out from Britain to carry cargoes up and down the river and along its many creeks.

It was in the 1870s to the 1890s that the paddle steamer had its heyday on the river. Steam-driven vessels had slowly been taking over from sailing ships. But paddles were cumbersome in some of the creeks and these boats were succeeded by sternwheelers or screw-driven ships which were more manoeuvrable in the snagged waters and more suited to towing barges, most easily accomplished in the creeks of the Niger delta by lashing them to the side of the vessel. When it came time to retire this particular paddle steamer, someone in authority thought it would be a good idea to drive it on to a sandbank where it caught the silt as it came downriver in the rainy season and gradually built up into an island which the locals called Gana Gana. It was a one-off variation of the hulks which littered the Delta and which were marked on the ordnance survey maps of the day. Gana Gana provided an outlet to palm oil and kernel traders who would otherwise have had to go much further to sell their produce and it was a convenient spot to load bags of kernels and drums of palm oil on to boats going to Warri and Burutu.

Originally the sailing ships were ships that arrived on the coast with a cargo of general merchandise from Europe. The captain, who was probably a shareholder in the venture and a trader himself, or a nominated commercial manager or ‘supercargo’, bartered its contents for palm oil, returning to his home port when all the merchandise had been disposed of and the cargo of palm oil for which the goods were exchanged was all loaded. This was acceptable as long as profits were high but the advent of competition from other companies both British and foreign, with the establishment of the Niger as an international waterway, showed this activity to be ineffective in cost terms. The hulks were these obsolescent old sailing ships or equally out-of-date relics from the early era of steam which had had their day and were put to work in their new identities of trading posts. The trading companies placed agents on the hulks which doubled as house and warehouse. In this capacity they brought the benefits of basic tools which rendered locally made tools redundant, gunpowder, gin and cloth to the locals, and acted as a store for crocodile skins, castor seed and elephant tusks as well as vegetable ivory - the fruit of the raffia palm much in demand in the latter part of the 19th century for making into shirt buttons. Larger items for sale and purchase like brass neptunes (large basins used mostly in the production of palm oil) and casks of palm oil were kept in premises leased on shore and enabled ships coming out from the United Kingdom to be unloaded of their imports and loaded with their exports, usually palm oil, without having to wait for all the goods they had brought to be sold. The hulks were easily distinguished from ships visiting the coast by the roofs erected on them made of palm fronds or grass, to give protection from the sun. The ships taking imports up the Niger, bringing down the produce from the upper reaches of the river and from the Benue, also carried passengers as the waterways were the easiest and sometimes the only form of transportation, probably to and from the ancient port of Forcados, a natural anchorage near the mouth of the delta and serving the upper reaches of the Niger and the Benue. Forcados remained the principal port until the bar at Lagos was dredged just before the First World War when Forcados went into decline as the fortunes of Lagos took off.

It was in a small corner of the small island I came across it. A simple stone bearing the inscription Tom Lycett, L.G.R. lies here. Died 23rd May 1911

From the companionship and community of a small Dorset town, for that was the only place I had had previous contact with the name, Gana Gana seemed an awful place to lie buried. Alone in an expanse of water fringed by oil palms whose fronds reached up into a sky in which a blazing sun stoked up an already humid air. Dead, the unbeliever might say, with no people from his own place to exchange the time of day with or argue the toss about some long gone happening not susceptible of proof. Dead with nothing but the letters L.G.R. to tell us something about him. What manner of man had he been, this fellow human being I presumed to have been a West Countryman, whose bones would have been stripped of their flesh by alien grubs and had been left here in this distant land to moulder and never to be grieved over by friends or family?

L.G.R. stood for Lagos Government Railway. Nigerian Railways had not yet been established for the very good reason that in 1911 there was as yet no Nigeria. That was to happen three years later when the Protectorate of Northern Nigeria and the Protectorate and Colony of Southern Nigeria would be joined. The name was coined and the unification urged by Flora Shaw, the journalist and colonial correspondent on The Times who was eventually to marry Sir Frederick, later Lord Lugard, the adventurer turned colonial administrator. The Lagos government built the railway with a view to developing the interior of the country and establishing the ascendancy of the new port with its recently dredged bar and its deep-water facilities. This official entrepreneurship stemmed from the knowledge that in such a recently acquired colony there were too many contentious issues associated with land rights and labour problems to leave the building of the railway to private contractors. Tribal rights in rural land were, and still are, often so complex that land was an unsatisfactory security for loans. Indeed, private investors were not exactly rushing to invest in West African projects nor were contractors rushing to build railways there when they could see wider and more substantial opportunities in South America, Russia and Asia. The colonial government therefore built them with public capital which would require a return on its investment from the benefits conferred by the much improved infrastructure. That return was necessary to pay for the administration of the territory as the government in London was not at that time prepared or able to subsidise its overseas possessions and had dealt a blow to public finances by forbidding the import of ‘trade spirits’ (cheap gin and rum from Germany and Holland used for barter by the trading companies) into Nigeria, the duty on which had provided a large part of the government`s revenue. The British government was eventually to have a change of heart and would provide substantial subsidies on an ad hoc basis from the 1920s when loans and outright grants were made to the colonies. This was extended to a regular annual commitment of millions by the passing of the Colonial Development and Welfare Act in 1946. A year later the Colonial Development Corporation came into being, publicly funded and given the responsibility for the creation of public utilities in the colonies.

Before these subsidies were given effect, the Northern part of what is now Nigeria was the only region of the colony unable to finance its own administration. Without an outlet to the sea for its produce, principally groundnuts, it would be struggling to survive economically. It was for this reason that the railway was built first to Kaduna and then on to Kano. It was later extended from Kano to Nguru and to Gusau and beyond with spurs along the way to places like Jos. Not only would this give a fillip to the production of produce, it would also stimulate a greater demand for imports on which custom duties could be exacted to pay for the normal expenses of government. The terrain it had to cross, especially in the south of the country, meant it had to qualify as one of the great feats of engineering construction when you consider earth was moved by headpan before the days of the bulldozer in country where workers were exposed to all kinds of tropical illnesses which were often terminal.

It is unlikely Tom was a high official. Latter day managers even in Tom’s time would have received a proper burial in the cemetery of the nearest town where a decent send-off could be guaranteed to join others of like background who had died at an early age. He was probably a skilled worker who had learnt his trade with one of the British railway companies. Here he was, even in death, separated from others by a class distinction then at the height of its observance. He was probably helping to build the railway and was presumably returning downriver from his labours suffering from some disease. Had he caught malaria through the attentions of that awful variety of mosquito, the anopheles, which carried the disease, the parasitic infestation it carries and recycles producing such life-threatening consequences as congestion of blood cells in the brain or kidney collapse? Or maybe it was yellow fever or blackwater fever that had done for him and had induced his fellow travellers to leave him here. Perhaps he hadn’t been suited to the life and had found solace in alcohol, an excess of which can kill off the liver. Or perhaps it was something more violent. It is odds-on he died on board a river steamer. It would have needed a three puncheon canoe and a couple of pullers to move such an awkward cargo decently from the ship on to the island shore.

Did the captain of the ship read the funeral service? What kind of message did the railway send to his mother or next of kin? Did he lie in a wooden coffin or was his winding sheet a piece of canvas stitched up by some old man of the river? Presumably, because he was in a place which was a Niger Company trading station (a forerunner of the United Africa Company and given the benefit of the doubt to do the decent thing in such circumstances), he would have avoided the ultimate indignity that befell many an honest artisan as well as palm oil ruffians. This was to have a ‘gun case and top hat funeral’ where empty wooden cases that had contained dane guns were used as coffins and if the deceased was too tall, the end of the case was removed so that his head could stick out and be covered by a top hat nailed to the ends before body was lowered into his final resting place. Will Tom ever know the results of his labours - of how the railway some forty-odd years later was able to move upwards of 800,000 tons of groundnuts in a year on the single track from furthest Kano nearly 800 miles to the north to the ports of Lagos and Port Harcourt, thanks to his efforts and those of unsung workers like him? What in the name of God induced him to come to this far country?

Poor Tom’s a-cold. Is there a world of ghosts for him to move among and feel himself the shadow of a dream?

Ian Mcall Auchencrow
Berwickshire, Scotland July 2003