Shimmering water slurped on the edge of the footpath as the sun beat down on the Marina. Oni’s sandaled feet shuffled in the hot weather as he stared at the ships on the other side of the docks. The vessels included tramp steamers, oil barges and even the ferries that carried people from Apapa across the lagoon onto LagosIsland. The ships carried tin, cotton, groundnuts and ivory to places worldwide.
This is 1938 and twenty eight year old Oni moved to Lagos from Abeokuta. There were no intercity roads and he had made the three week journey on foot with one pound and two shillings in his pocket. This was money his family had mustered to help him seek fame and fortune in the big city. He found a hostel in Yaba and each day like many others sauntered forth to look for work. A carpenter, he found work as daily paid artisan helping to build new docks whilst his faith instilled by his family prompted him to pray daily at the local church. Well, not inside as that was reserved for Europeans only so he made do by standing outside the huge stained windows listening on occasion to the only African allowed in, the renowned Organist Fela Sowande. As an alternative, he also listened to the local juju dance music as performed by Tunde King.
On the days when he had no work, he walked his little wiry thin frame around Lagos Island crossing the Carter Bridge which connected the mainland. He looked at the grand houses of Portuguese architecture as Lagos had been a slave port until the early 1800s and indeed many of these fine houses were owned by descendants and families of ex slave migrants from Sierra Leone, Brazil and regions like the British West Indies.
The Oba had his residence at Iga Iduganran and Oni stared intently at the complex. He was a small town man in a big city and having heard tales of Lagos all his life, to actually live in the place was a huge ego boost. He didn’t drink alcohol but he had found bars where sailors of every colour and nationality under the sun seemed to be in. Listening to their tales of lands far away and in particular England, he sought out a library, his first ever, where he began to read up everything about England.
Gradually, Oni changed his original idea of staying in Lagos to moving to London, the King’s London but how would he go about this? He didn’t have any money and his daily wage of one shilling and six pence saved up would not be enough to buy passage to England by sea, and definitely not by air. He and huge crowds saw Shorts flying boats land in the lagoon which for many people was their first sight of an aeroplane. The flying boats were part of Imperial Airways, forerunner of British Overseas Airways Cooperation (BOAC) flights which stopped over in Lagos on its way to South Africa but this was really for the super rich of those times.
The Tropicana was the shanty bar he hung around in to listen to tales from sailors who talked about the beautiful women of Brazil, the Scandinavian beauties of Northern Europe, the cold of Britain and the threats of war from Germany. The desire all this created in his belly made him conclude his future was anywhere but Nigeria and was in all these far flung exotic sounding places.
His new friends, the sailors sailed in and out of Lagos and he mentioned his wish to go to Britain with some. Some told him to sign on as a merchant seaman but he didn’t have a card for this role. Arthur, a cockney, was a friend who also had a gambling habit came up with a solution. He, Arthur would smuggle Oni on board his vessel, get him food daily and then sneak him off at Tilbury Docks. His fee for this would be the huge sum of five pounds.
Oni on his part wasn’t sure about this and told Arthur he would think about it. That fellow informed him he had better think about it quickly as the next sailing was in less then a fortnight’s time when the ship finished loading.
The vessel was the Abosso, an 11,000 gross ton ship of the Elder Dempster line. Carrying both a cargo of oil palm for the soap industries run by Unilever and 55 passengers, it would take fourteen days to arrive at Tilbury. Oni sent a telegram to his hometown of Abeokuta asking his parents for a loan.
He prayed that his folks could come up with the cash and proven right he was when the money transfer arrived a week later for the five pounds, along with a missive stating that the money sent was the sale of their crops of rice for this year and half of the next.
Once paid, Arthur told Oni to pack as small a luggage as possible and that he would be hidden in a very small room where the steam engines were.
‘Can you handle the heat for 14 days? I’ll bring you some bread and water every day and when its night, I’ll try to bring you out to toilet over the rail. Ok? ‘
Oni nodded, ever so excited that he might be on the way to England.
However doubts began to creep into his mind that he had been scammed when Arthur no longer frequented the Tropicana. In turn, Oni began hanging around the moored Abosso on the lookout for the man. Derricks were loading the ship amid a hive of activity.
He kept an eye on the sailing list for the time of cast off and this was noon on Thursday February 17th 1938. Suddenly he saw a winking Arthur rushing down the gangway who him to grab some sacks of food shouting at him as is he were a slave ‘Apes Obey’, a common refrain amongst Europeans towards Black African labourers at the time. Toto quickly cottoned on and followed the sailor up the gangway onto the ship, through the myriad of passages, corridors and steps down into the innards of the Abosso. Past the heaps of coal for the steam engines and sweaty men in vests, Oni followed Arthur until they got to a locked door which the latter had a key for.
‘It’s the ammunition room which I’m in charge off. The only other person with a key is the skipper so you’ll be safe here. Did you buy some bread and sardines like I asked you to?’
‘Yes, Arthur and I have a bottle of sweet juice and some mangoes’
‘Good. I will bring you water every evening and as I told you earlier, try to take you up deck for some sea breeze. Use that bucket for your toilet and for God’s sake be quiet’ said he pointing to the object in a corner.
Oni entered the windowless room with just three vents staring around as the door shut after him. There were blankets about which he made into a bed, put his valise next to him on the floor and looked at the rifles locked by chains above him. Noises from pipes, engines, pistons and conversation were overhead. This was new for this uncomplicated man from a small town with very limited knowledge of machinery. He fell on his knees and began to pray for his safe passage and non discovery by other crew members.
He couldn’t tell what time it was as he did not possess a watch but after many hours noted vibration changes from the steam engines not more than 150 feet away from him and sounds of sea rushing below telling him they were on the move. He ate some bread and eventually the excitement and constant refrain from the engines lulled him to sleep. There were no visits from Arthur over the next three days as he started to starve and the heat from the engines increasing his thirst levels. The room also stank as his bucket was full of his body waste.
Day four passed by as he conserved his energy by just sleeping all the time when he heard a key in the door.
‘Hello Oni ’ Arthur asked.
‘Yes, I am here.’
‘Where else would you be, you daft darkie bugger? Here‘s some water and biscuits. Phew..what a smell. Lets have you out of here lad. Bring your toilet bucket and let’s go up top as it seems all clear.’
Walking out and blinking as his eyes became accustomed to the lights of the engine room, Oni staggered out of the dank room. In a reverse of the situation when he boarded, the walk up the stairs began and when he finally came out onto the deck, he had never felt so better. An intense tropical downpour was about as they both came out on deck and Oni took off all his clothes and taking soap from Arthur began to wash naked behind a lifeboat. He seemed to be there for ages but it was only a few minutes.
‘You can sleep in this lifeboat overnight and during the day. When it’s dark again tomorrow, I’ll come take you back into the ammo room. Is that ok?. There are often passengers around and you must also avoid them too’
‘Oh yes, thank you Arthur for being my friend’ Climbing into the lifeboat on the starboard side and pulling the canvas over his body.
‘See you tomorrow fella’ said Arthur as he disappeared.
Oni settled down on the wood bottom and munched on a biscuit as he stared at the stars through a side of the canvas covering. The air was moist from the rain which soon stopped as he dozed off dreaming of a land he left behind and one to which he was heading.
‘Stowaway, first mate!’ went the shout as the canvas above his head was wrenched away. The high sun blazed away at his face as he was grabbed roughly by the back of the head out of the lifeboat and dumped unceremoniously onto the deck.
‘Bloody hell’ said the first mate Mr Jones ‘We seem to have one of these nigger stowaways on every trip. This will not please the captain. How did you get aboard you scum? Do you speak English you bloody heathen?
Shaken and scared Oni stammered a reply ‘My name is Michael’ using his Christian name ‘and I can speak English’.
‘I said again ‘ shouted the first mate ‘how did you get onboard?’
Looking at crowd which now included passengers and Arthur who put a finger to his lips, Oni replied ‘I climbed aboard with a rope in Lagos and then in here. Please don’t throw me overboard’ falling down on his knees in supplication.
‘Come with me up to the bridge…now.’
He was dragged up the stairs where in baggy shorts and white shirt was the captain, bearded stereotypically.
‘Captain, an uninvited guest in the forward starboard lifeboat’ The first mate said.
The captain stared at Oni ‘I hope you speak English because I wish I didn’t have passengers on board who must have seen you otherwise you would be food for the sharks’
Oni was shaking and frightened ‘Please captain’ he kept repeating
‘What can you do for us, can you stoke?’
‘I don’t know what stoke is. I’m a carpenter’
‘Ok. First mate, take him below and make him a stoker and then throw him off the boat when we get to Tilbury’
‘Sir’ affirmed the first mate.
For the next two weeks, Oni worked 16 hour days shovelling coal into the giant steam engines but he was also given three meals a day and slept in a hammock in the engine room.
March the third saw the Abosso dock in Tilbury with passengers disembarking and Oni waited to be kicked off as well. He waited on deck with his few belongings and Arthur whose role in him being onboard was still unknown came to say goodbye to him.
‘It was worked out well for you darkie didn’t it?’
‘Yes, I am in the Kings Land but it is so cold. Tell me what to do now, please Arthur’
‘I don’t know but you can come with me to a mission or doss house to sleep tonight, maybe they will give you a blanket and an old coat’
Oni nodded and as he turned to follow the man, the first mate came towards him.
‘Michael, you have impressed with the way you work over the last two weeks. If you can go to get your merchant seaman card, I want you to come back to us for our next trip in nine days time. Ask Arthur here to show you what to do’
Nodding with joy, Oni thanked the man profusely and walked off the Abosso shivering in the cold and snow.
At the little immigration and customs post, he was asked for his papers none of which he possessed. His response was that he knew a war was in the offing based on what he understood from the other coal hands in the engine room and thus he had come to fight for the King. Oni was allowed into the United Kingdom.
Over the next week, he did indeed get his card but still couldn’t get used to the cold so spent most of the time back on the vessel next to the steam engines which were not shut down. Once again, he sailed on the Abosso, this time as a crew member. He slowed down his speech like many from that part of the world to enable his colleagues to understand him. Oni grew in confidence as he sharpened his skills.
The next years saw him sailing on tramp steamers worldwide including Nigeria where he went back inland to see his folks in his home town repaying the money that had been sent to him as well taking a gramophone he had bought used and repaired to his father.
He did five trips to Russia during the war running a gauntlet of U boats and enemy fire. Training as a ship’s engineer, he helped run the engines and in 1955, he left the sea for the last time and became a plumber.
A variety of land roles followed which included working for council and the church. He kept his faith and practised his religion in spite of the debauchery he often encountered on his sea voyages.
Marriage and children followed as well as many decades of living in London. His Egba accent was still as strong as ever when he died at the age of 94. He often walked to the London Docks staring at the sea, remembering his homeland, the marvels of the world he saw, the complexities of societies globally and how he remained true to his background. A proud Yoruba man who had travelled and excelled.