SS Scapa Flow

Last Voyage of the Quien Sabe (Scapa Flow) Chapter 6

  C H A P T E R   S I X  


During the approximately two months that the Scapa Flow stayed on the
West African coast, a combination of circumstances caused the crew of
the ship to grow steadily more rebellious against the shipping company
and its official representative on shipboard, our captain. Foremost
among our grievances was the food, which deteriorated in quality and
diminished in quantity. Second was the outbreak of malaria on shipboard,
caused in part by the lack of screens on the doors and ports to the
messroom and bunkrooms. The treatment of those who came down with
malaria was casual and amateurish. Shore doctors were not called in to
care for the sick, and a couple of men almost died from malaria. Even
when it was obvious that they were dangerously sick they were not taken
to a hospital. Of third importance in the list of grievances was the
denial of shore leave in, our second port of call on the West African
coast, where the balance of our cargo for the return journey to the
United States was taken on. Fourth among our grievances was the sanitary
condition of our ship. The sanitary pumps for the toilets got out of
order, and, when the engineers of the ship were unable to fix them, no
shore mechanics were brought in to help. The grievances culminated
eventually in an organized movement of the crew which sent three
representatives to travel a hundred miles in Liberia to call upon the
United States minister to that country with a petition for the redress
of our grievances--a move which had to be taken in outright defiance of
the captain's orders. 

[ 152 ]

As demonstrated by the supply lists in the hands of our steward, only
two months' food supply was put aboard the Scapa Flow in New York as the
ship was preparing for the voyage to West Africa. There were a few cans
of corned beef left on the ship from its previous voyage, and these
provided the only margin for error for the next trip. Our steward was
only partly at fault for not instigating a vigorous protest to get on
more food, for he had just signed on the Scapa Flow. Although he knew
the vessel was going to the West African coast, he had never made this
trip before. So he accepted the decisions of the port steward in
provisioning the Scapa Flow. The ship should have been supplied with
various nonperishable staples, such as sacks of rice and good quantities
of tinned fruits, meats and vegetables. These could be used should the
trip be extended beyond the official calculation of two months.

The Scapa Flow's food supply was pretty well exhausted during the two
months it required for the vessel to get to West Africa. From here on,
during the long stays in the four West African ports and the trip home,
food for the ship had to be gathered where it could be found. It was not
always easy to find. There was very little spare food on the coast; as I
have already said, the natives were in a chronic state of semistarvation
because their livestock had long since been requisitioned by the British
to help feed the armies in various parts of Africa. There was con-
siderable food in South Africa but, for all the good it did to West
Africa, South Africa might just as well have been on another continent,
because all food from there had to be brought in by ship. Oranges,
bananas, wild rice and native yams could be obtained at our first port,
the one on the Gold Coast. But these were not enough to give the crew of
the Scapa Flow either the food to which they had been accustomed or the
food to which they were entitled by their contracts with the shipping
company. Food is part of a seaman's wage.

During our three-week stay at our first port, there was considerable
grumbling in the fo'c'sle over the food. But at this port the grumbling
was tempered with a good deal of tolerance. Although it was agreed that
the shipping company had been


wrong in not provisioning the Scapa Flow properly, the crew realized
that the officers and the gunners on the ship were forced to eat the
same food as crewmen including wild rice, native yams, and bread made
from weevil-studded flour. They also acknowledged that little could be
done to remedy the situation in this first port, as conditions ashore
were obviously poor for supplying food. In any case, they were willing
to make a sacrifice so long as the officers, and particularly the
captain, had to make the same sacrifice, The Scapa Flow took on a
half-cargo of manganese ore at the port on the Gold Coast and then
traveled up the coast to Liberia to a port where the balance of the
cargo--2,500 tons of rubber was to be taken on. Food conditions for the
natives in Liberia were not appreciably better than they had been in
the British colony of the Gold Coast. But there was potential relief for
the crew on the Scapa Flow, because there were considerable forces of
American soldiers in Liberia, and they had been supplied with good
stores of food from home. The Scapa Flow required about three weeks to
load the rubber from Liberia, and the captain let it be known that
during this period he thought he would be able to get some food from the
Army and from the Firestone Company to help us out. As time passed no
food was forthcoming, and the crew, rightly or wrongly, began to think
that the captain was deliberately neglectlng us. He was ashore most of
the time, he and the lieutenant of gunners. They were living in style in
a beach house. The rest of the men on the Scapa Flow--crewmen, officers
and gunners were forced to stay on the ship, which was anchored miles
off-shore, and forced to continue to eat the bad bread, wild rice and
yams which had been taken on in our port on the Gold Coast. The officers
and gunners soon began to grumble about the food as much as the crew
did, but it was the members of the common crew who eventually were to
organize and do something about the situation,   


As I mentioned previously, when we signed on the Scapa Flow in New York,
the vessel had already made one wartime voyage 

[154 ]

to West Africa. The captain and the first mate, as well as a few others
on board, had made the voyage and knew what the health conditions were
on the West African coast. Nevertheless, few special provisions were
made in New York to safeguard the health of the men who were to make the
next trip. Screen doors should have been provided for the ship, and also
screens for the portholes, as protection against the mosquitoes in West
Africa. These would have been mandatory on a union ship which had the
same destination; the union men would have seen to it that they got this
protection before the ship was allowed to sail. However, the Scapa Flow
was not a solid union ship, and the shipping company did not provide
what nobody was forcing it to provide. In West Africa, the
malaria-carrying mosquitoes had easy entrance to all the cabins, mess
and bunkrooms on the ship during the hours when these mosquitoes are
most dangerous: in the early evening. The Scapa Flow had been at our
first West African port for about two weeks when the men began to come
down with malaria. About a dozen men were affected in the first wave of
sickness: a couple of officers, a couple of the gunners, and the rest
members of the crew in the fo'c'sle. The ship was moored to a dock and
was to be there for a week longer, but the sick men were not removed to
a good hospital, which was only a couple of miles away. That would have
made it necessary for the shipping company to pay for hospitalization;
and apparently the company's representative, the captain, was not
willing for this to be done. Even doctors from shore were not summoned
to the Scapa Flow; all the sick men were administered to by the first
mate. He was willing, but no real doctor, and his inevitable
prescription was heavy doses of quinine. He took it for granted that all
the men with fevers had malaria, and he probably was right, although
blackwater fever was not uncommon on this coast. None of the men was
isolated. The ship's hospital was never used, although it could have
been, for it was now empty of the smuggled articles which the captain
and the first mate had brought from the States to sell in West Africa.
Some of the men in the fo'c'sle were dangerously sick. Temperatures
ran very high. One of the coal passers, a boy from South Chicago, ran a
temperature of 107. His was the highest, 

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but the temperatures of some of the other sick men, including my own,
touched 104. The coal passer very nearly died. He was out of his head
for a couple of days, and it was two or three weeks before he could
resume work. He lost about thirty pounds during his illness. Later on,
in the next wave of illness, the English A.B. had almost as serious an
attack as the coal passer, and was delirious for a while. But for all
the men, those who had only a mild touch of fever and those who were
seriously ill, the prescription of the first mate was the same: thirty
grains of quinine a day until temperature was reduced to normal, and
then ten grains a day for the next ten days, followed by five grains a
day for the next month. These terrific doses of quinine may have been
necessary for some of the men, but surely not for all, and those of the
men who had mild cases of malaria suffered as much from the effects of
the quinine as they did from the malaria itself. The quinine caused
indigestion, nausea and temporary deafness. In spite of this, once the
ship was at sea, moving up the coast, the men had to work. The abysmal
quality of the food began to impair seriously the efficiency of many of
the men who were spared attacks of malaria. Rashes or boils broke out on
more than half of all the men aboard the Scapa Flow. A few of the men
developed painful infections from crude and unsanitary lancing of their
boils. The second wave of malaria and the most widespread outbreak of
rashes and boils overtook the Scapa Flow during the time the vessel was
loading rubber off the Liberian coast. Here again, week after week,
nothing was done for the fever-ridden except to dose them heavily with
quinine, although there was a good hospital ashore for the employees of
the Firestone Company, and other hospitals under the control of the
United States Army. Nothing at all was done by the captain for those who
were suffering from boils and rashes, either in the way of
ministration to the outbreaks or by improvement in diet. 


During the three weeks required to load rubber from Liberia, the men
were denied shore leave. The ship was anchored in the open sea, several
miles from the delta of a small river. Lighters-- 

[ 156 ]

small barges of shallow draft, equipped with two gasoline motors--came
down the river from the Firestone plantation, each loaded with about
twenty-five tons of rubber, either baled rubber or drums filled with
liquid rubber. When a lighter would reach the mouth of the river it
would bounce over a sand bar and then come out into the ocean to the
Scapa Flow. Such a method of loading was slow, vastly inefficient, and
oftentimes dangerous, but it was the only way in which the precious
rubber could reach the ships which would in turn take it to the United
States. As the Scapa Flow loaded rubber, the United States had been in
the war for more than nine nonths; we had lost most of our sources of
natural rubber supply and did not yet have even a small percentage of
the plants necessary to make artificial rubber; we had lost tanker after
tanker and hundreds of seamen in transporting oil. But there had been no
nation-wide rationing of gasoline and no nation-wide curtailment of
pleasure driving.

There, are no genuine harbors in all of Liberia, and few on the entire
west coast of Africa. On the days when the sea was rough the lighters
which loaded the Scapa Flow could not be used and loading had to be
suspended, as the lighters would capsize in the high waves over the sand
bar. The lighters could not be used on the days that were too calm,
either, as then the little craft would stick on the sand bar, and not be
able to get out on the ocean or back up the river until the sea grew
rougher. The Scapa Flow's hatches had to be covered and loading
suspended whenever it was raining, in order to prevent water from
falling into the hatches--and Liberia has more than two hundred inches
of rainfall every year.

During all the dreary days that the Scapa Flow waited for the
agonizingly slow loading of the rubber, the ship was anchored in the
open ocean, a sitting duck for a U-boat. A small British launch, armed
only with depth charges, was assigned for our protection, but a U-boat
could have surfaced out of range of the Scapa Flow's deck gun and
shelled both ship and launch with a superior gun, thus not even wasting

On the very first day of the rubber loading, the captain and the
lieutenant went ashore, and, except for a couple of two-hour visits to
the ship, they remained ashore in a beach house, supplied with tall
cool drinks and good food, all during the three

[157 ]

weeks required to get the rubber on board. The gunners simply were left
in the lurch by the desertion of their lieutenant; they had no
instructions, and therefore would not have tried to fight in the remote
event that they might have been of some use in protecting the Scapa
Flow. But as they were members of the Navy, there was nothing they could
do to get shore leave for themselves, and no one to whom they could turn
to force their lieutenant to come back to the ship. These gunners could
only be sympathetic to the later efforts of the crew to get relief from
the distressing conditions on shipboard. The crew members were
civilians, and, as relatively free men, had some slight degree of
control over their destiny. As it happened, it was fortunate that the
crew were civilians not only in fact, but in mind as well. Had they been
militarized and heavily indoctrinated with anti-unionism, conditions on
the Scapa Flow might have grown worse indefinitely without any
manifestation of backbone among the crew members. The revolt which
eventually was organized by our crew may have saved the lives of several
Navy gunners, as well as officers and members of the crew itself. As it
was, even after conditions were remedied somewhat by the revolt of the
crew, one of the Navy gunners had been so weakened by malaria and bad
food that, after the torpedoing, he died in the lifeboat in only four
days. During the loading of the rubber, the officers had to stand
watches to supervise the native longshoremen, but the loading did not
proceed at night, and the officers were idle after supper. The Navy
gunners had nothing to do. The crew members of the Scapa Flow had little
to do, because here too trained natives came on board from canoes and
lighters and took over most of their work--painting, chipping rust,
red-leading, and the like--for the standard wage of a pack of cigarettes
a day. It seemed senseless to maroon idle men on the ship. 


During the run up the West African coast from the Gold Coast colony to
Liberia, the sanitary pumps--those which flushed the automatic toilets
in the fo'c'sle got seriously out of order, Some of the engineers
attempted to fix the pumps while the ship 

[ 158 ]

was at sea, but the attempts were unsuccessful. The pumps didn't break
down entirely; perhaps it would have been better if they had, for the
toilets could have been flushed by buckets of sea water. But as it was,
the pumps wouldn't work for a period, then they would spurt into violent
activity and blow ordure all over the fo'c'sle bathrooms, and sometimes
send ordure into the bunkrooms. The sick men in their bunks were
helpless against such inundations, although their shipmates could, and
did, clean up the decks and bulkheads in the bathrooms and bunkrooms.

Protests were carried almost continually to the officers over this
filth. The first mate sent ashore a note to the captain, requesting the
aid of mechanics to help our engineers fix the pumps, but no mechanics
came. The pumps could not be shut off entirely, for this would have
stopped the water to the toilets of the officers and the gunners,
amidships and aft. These toilets were not automatic, and therefore the
officers and gunners were spared the explosions of ordure that were
common in the fo'c'sle. The whole fo'c'sle began to stink like an
unclean toilet. 


The grumbling over conditions on the Scapa Flow continued for two weeks
without any protest in the form of organized action. Most of the
conversations in the fo'c'sle revolved around the inexhaustible topics
of the poor and insufficient food, the poorly attended illness, the ban
on shore leave, and the unsanitary condition of the fo'c'sle. But a few
new factors formed additional fuel for the grumbling and helped to bring
on the time when the Crewmen would do something positive about their
distress. The first of these new factors was the favorable atmosphere
for agitation in the fo'c'sle. The men had little to do but sit around
and talk. There was plenty of time to overcome the barriers of language
in the exchange of views. A Portuguese could be found spending a whole
afternoon exchanging a handful of ideas with an Egyptian, neither of
whom understood the other's language, or more than a couple of dozen
words in English. Both men had ample time to explain themselves by the
use of signs, facial expressions, grunts, and a few nautical and profane
words and phrases in English. There were three of us 

[ 159 ]

among the crew who were equipped to do some translating when absolutely
necessary--the Yugoslav stoker, the younger Puerto Rican A.B., and I. We
were kept fairly busy, what with expressing our own opinions and
translating those of others, Some members of the crew were ill, and
stayed in their bunks.  But they were kept posted on the stream of
protest, as they were visited constantly by their fo'c'sle mates, who
cleaned the decks of the bunkrooms of ordure, brought meals, comfort and
verbal indignation over our common plight at various times during the
day. At night, all the men of the fo'c'sle, sick or well, were in the
bunkrooms together, and discussions would sometimes carry over until
the early hours of the morning. Although conversation was the amusement
we most often reverted to, it was not the only one. Some men played
cards, and a few read. But the games and the reading were interrupted
every few minutes for more talk about our conditions. Some of the sick
men knew how to read, though only slowly, but there was insufficient
light in the bunkrooms, both during the day and at night, and thus even
those who were able to read could not do so. Often I was petitioned by
the sick men to read to them, and well men would come into the bunkrooms
to listen. In the daylight hours I would sit in the doorway to the
well deck. And, during the blacked-out night, in a corner of a bunkroom,
I would use a flashlight to illumine the pages of my book. The men
were most outspoken in their tastes. I would start a book and, if one
man didn't like it he would declare almost instantly that I was reading
bull---- . There would follow a solemn discussion among the other men as to
whether or not I was reading bull---- . If several thought I was, and others
were only lukewarm in the book's favor, I would abandon it for another.
There were many books to choose from, both in the ship's library and in
my personal one. Books full of sexual innuendo, such as the novels of
Tiffany Thayer and Donald Henderson Clarke, were popular, and so were
realistic novels of social protest. Gone With the Wind was flatly
rejected. But the men liked John Steinbeck's In Dubious Battle very much
and also Upton Sinclair's Oil! I had an anthology of poetry aboard, and
on rare occasions, very rare, I would read a poem which the men would
not castigate as bull---- . One poem caused a sensation; the men went wild


it. It was taken from Shakespeare's The Tempest: "The master, the
swabber, the boatswain, and I,/The gunner, and his mate,/ Loved Mall,
Meg, and Marian, and Margery,/ But none of us cared for Kate;/For she
had a tongue with a tang,/Would cry to a sailor, Go Hang!/She loved not
the savour of tar nor of pitch;/ Yet a tailor might scratch her where'er
she did itch./ Then, to sea, boys, and let her go hangl" Each of the
listening seamen seemed to feel that he was getting something right
down\ his alley. For three or four days running I was asked to reread
this poem, until some knew it by heart. After the poem gained enduring
popularity, at least three seamen buttonholed me with the same serious
evaluation: "You know, Professor, I always usta think this here
Shakespeare was bull----. " The references to sex and social protest in
the books I read to the men had the effect of making more pronounced
their grumbling against the ban on shore leave. The books had the
effect their authors intended: the sexual desires of the seamen were
inflamed, and so was their resentment against oppression. An adventure
by the Yugoslav stoker also added to the men's feeling of rebellion. One
night the Yugoslav went over the side into one of the lighters, and went
ashore with it. He was not observed by the mate on watch and got his
ride on the lighter by bribing one of the natives. The next morning the
Yugoslav appeared on the first lighter which came out with a load of
rubber for the Scapa Flow. His description of his time ashore was most
confusing, and perhaps for this reason became, more exciting to the
men, for it furnished a topic for almost endless debate. The Yugoslav
said that he had found a couple of bars where he had been able to buy
drinks, and moreover had later been accommodated in a whorehouse. These
happenings were, of course, of vital interest to most of the crew
marooned on the ship. But when pressed for further description and a
critical evaluation of the accommodations furnished ashore, the Yugoslav
muddied the issue by rambling on about politics. From what we could
gather, our stoker had run into another Yugoslav refugee, a man who had
made a fantastic trip from his homeland to this tiny, isolated river
mouth on the coast of Liberia. Our stoker, who had hitherto seen a
Gestapo man in every corner of his tortured imagination,  now was
execrating Soviet Russia, and his denunciations of Soviet 

[161 ]

policy were offered to the seamen instead of a fuller description of the
liquor and women ashore, In its futile attempts to appease Hitler in
1941, Russia had withdrawn recognition from the Yugoslav
government-in-exile--meantime, incidentally, doing the same for the
Norwegians and Belgians--in outright violation of the treaty signed
between Yugoslavia and Russia. This was in addition to increasing the
shipment of supplies from the Ukraine to Germany. Then the Axis powers
attacked, using while they did so the supplies which had so criminally
been sent them. Russia thereupon announced that the Russo-Yugoslav pact
was now in force again. This Russian on-again-off-again policy was
well-known in the United States, but the Yugoslav stoker had had to come
all the way to the coast of Africa to hear about it from the lips of a
fellow refugee. Our stoker was now overwhelmed with despair. He said he
had nothing to believe in for the salvation of his country. Germany
was its present master, and he could not for the life of him see where
Yugoslavia had a single champion. The United States and England he wrote
off contemptuously, maintaining that if Germany were defeated these two
countries would only use Yugoslavia as an object of economic
imperialism. Now it appeared to him that Russia was willing to play an
equally unsavory role even before the defeat of Hitler. His countryman
ashore had told him of cooperation between Communist and Nazi elements
in Yugoslavia against his beloved patriot Mikhailovich, and now it
seemed to the stoker that his country was doomed in perpetuity, The men
on the Scapa Flow had no deep concern for the problems of Yugoslavia,
but wishful thinking extracted from the stoker's ramblings the idea that
shore leave in this place would be a very fine thing. He had admitted
the availability of drinks and women, and the seamen said to each other
that the fact that the stoker had run into a countryman in this remote
place signified that there must be quite a few white people ashore. This
reasoning was in outright contradiction to the testimony of the
natives from shore, who said there were not half a dozen white people in
the little town near the river mouth. But their testimony was dis-
credited by the seamen, although it happened to be true, partly 

[ 162 ]

because they didn't want to believe it and partly because they knew the
natives wanted us to stay on the ship so they could be go-betweens in
getting drinks and food from shore, extracting a heavy commission for
these errands. Probably the spark which finally caused the crew to rebel
and organize a campaign against their conditions was the logging of the
Yugoslav stoker for his forbidden trip to shore. He had been warned
against going ashore. We all had. The captain had told us, in the same
breath that he had refused shore leave, that any man who went ashore
would be logged five days' pay. The actual punishment of the Yugoslav,
the recording of his offense in the ship's log, was done by the first
mate, as the captain was ashore. The first mate was a popular officer,
and the crew knew that the punishment of the Yugoslav was automatic.
Consequently, we didn't hold the logging against the first mate
personally. But the act of logging seemed intolerable to us. The
Yugoslav had caused no one harm by spending the night ashore. He had
left the ship after the day's work (what there was of it) was done, and
he had come back by turn-to time the next morning. Yet his trip cost him
five days' wages besides, of course, what he had spent ashore. There
didn't seem to us to be any real reason for the captain's ban on shore
leave. He had never given a reason, and never was to give one, and it
seemed to us that there was no reason beyond the captain's
arbitrariness. The men in the fo'c'sle told each other that things had
gone far enough. They chose a delegation of three men to call upon the
first mate, and once more' ask for shore leave, better food, a shore
doctor for the sick men, and shore mechanics to fix our sanitary
pumps. The three men chosen were Great Lakes, an oiler; Benny, an
ordinary seaman; and me.

We three saw the first mate and, as we expected, got no satisfaction.
He passed the buck to the captain, saying that he himself was
following the captain's orders, and could not do anything about our
requests on his own. We thereupon asked for permission to go ashore in
one of the lighters to see the captain. We didn't really expect this
permission, and it wasn't given. The three representatives reported back
to the crew. None of us, either the representatives or the represented,
was downhearted at the result of the interview with the first mate. We
had expected


an absolute turndown, but we wanted to have it on the record that we had
made one last effort to get action by petition to the man in charge of
the ship. I suggested now that we three representatives go ashore
against the first mate's orders, and travel to the capital of Liberia to
see the United States minister to that country. The trip would not be
easy to make. Not one of us knew anything about the lay of the country
beyond the fact that the capital was about a hundred miles away, and
that there was a road to it from the Firestone Company offices. There
was no assurance that the minister would be able to do anything for the
men on the Scapa Flow, even if we were able to reach him. The man was,
after all, a government employee, and we were on a ship belonging to
the United States Government. He might very well brush us off by saying
that our problem was out of his jurisdiction. But I told the crew that
this man was a long way from home, and it might just be possible that
this distance would give him enough feeling of freedom to act on his own
judgment. I pointed out that whereas all the members of the crew were
not American citizens, the three representatives were, and that even the
noncitizens could feel that they had a right to representation before a
member of the government which owned the ship upon which they were
employed. It took several hours to get over even these few ideas to the
crew. I had to speak in English, and then in Spanish, and after that
other men had to take up the job of getting the information understood
by all the Egyptians. It was agreed by the men that the three
representatives should try to get ashore and then make the trip to the
capital. Great Lakes suggested that we three should have some paper
signed by the crew to give to the minister. This suggestion was adopted.
I wrote a note stating that we three men were American citizens on an
American-owned ship, and that we had been chosen as representatives of
the crew of the ship to call upon the United States minister to Liberia
to petition for redress of our grievances. It took another hour or so to
get the note explained to all the men, and to get their signatures.
Every single member of the crew signed, whether in the deck, engine or
steward department, even if the signature was an X, as was the case with

[ 164 ]

Egyptians. The steward and bosun both signed, which we had not counted
on. News of what the crew was doing spread around the ship, and the
officers and gunners heard about it. Neither of these groups was asked
to sign the note. We didn't want the gunners to sign our statement,
though several offered to, and so we pointed out that they might get
into serious trouble with the Navy back home. The ones who offered to
sign said they didn't care, that the desertion of their lieutenant had
caused them to be thoroughly fed up. However, we didn't let them sign.
The fourth mate, a Dane, offered to sign, but we told him that this was
the crew's doing, and that we wanted to take sole responsibility for the
job. As the statement was circulated for signature, we counted on the
news reaching the first mate so we could have a showdown with him. It
seemed inconceivable that he shouldn't have heard what was up, but he
didn't contest us. We were to find out later that he had known what was
being planned. We were prepared to strike in case he tried to stop the
three representatives from going ashore. This would have stopped the
loading of the ship, for, although the work on deck might have been
dispensed with temporarily, the furnaces still had to be stoked and the
machinery oiled to furnish steam for the cargo winches. We had sounded
out the gunners, and had received assurance from them that they would
not follow orders to try to make us work at the point of a gun in case
we decided to strike. The gunners made it clear, however, that they
would not interfere should the officers attempt to apply gun coercion on
their own. The crew emptied its pockets to provide traveling money for
the three representatives. We had been able to draw no money since
leaving the Gold Coast colony, and there were only about nine dollars
among us. The coxswain of the gunners had a five dollar bill, and he
loaned it to us, so we had about fourteen dollars in all. Two dollars
were spent right away in getting ourselves a pilot from among the
natives. The man we hired was one of the natives who had come aboard the
ship to sell the crew goods from shore. He agreed to get us aboard a
lighter when it was unloaded and ready to return to shore, to get us
lodging for the 


night, and to get us on a lighter the next morning which went up the
river to the Firestone offices. From there we would be on our own. At
the end of the workday the three representatives--Great Lakes, Benny and
I--went over the side and down into a now empty lighter. We expected to
be challenged any moment by the first mate, as there was no secrecy
about our movements and the whole crew was lined up at the rail to see
us leave. But the mate did not put in an appearance. As the lighter
pulled away from the ship, the men called to us to do our best to carry
through the mission, and not to fear that the ship might leave without
us. The Egyptian stoker, whose back had been the first I rubbed with
liniment, called: "No worry, 'fessor. Ship no go. No give it steam." It
was several miles to shore. As the lighter moved toward the sand bar,
our guide bargained with the lighter captain for our passage up the
river in the morning. This native captain made it clear that it was
against Firestone regulations to take any passengers on his craft.
Inasmuch as we were already passengers this was an obvious hint that a
little bribe would take care of our passage. Our guide got him to
promise to take us up the river for a package of cigarettes apiece. We
paid, and were told that the lighter would start upstream at 5:30 the
next morning, Our guide was to take care of us during the night that was
just falling. We were almost to the sand bar when Benny shouted to Great
Lakes and me that the Scapa Flow was signaling to shore. None of the
three of us could read Morse, nor could any of the natives on the
lighter. But we were sure that the first mate was signaling with a Morse
lamp to try to get the captain to stop us. We learned later that this
was what happened, but that neither the captain nor the Navy lieutenant
saw the signaling. The lighter banged over the sand bar, a violent
activity which made me wonder how the natives were able to keep the
craft from swamping. As it was, we shipped a good deal of water and all
got drenched. It was nothing unusual. The natives set about pumping the
water out of'the lighter without comment, It took us only a few minutes
more to reach a primitive dock, where only shallow-draft boats like the
lighter could be moored. 

[ 166 ]

Our lighter, together with half a dozen others, was to stop the night
here and go up the river in the morning. The river did not lend itself
to after-dark navigation, as it was narrow and very winding. Our guide
seemed unbelievably cooperative. We credited his good cheer and
hospitality to his country's miraculous escape-technically, at
least--from the imperialist heel in Africa. But we reversed our surmise
when, after threading through trees for half an hour, he brought the
three of us unerringly into a Negro bordello, for which he was the star
pimp. The whores surged round us happily. Strewn about were glistening
white pallets, covered with sheets which had recently been stolen from
our ship. We remonstrated with our pilot: we had a different motive for
being ashore. We only wanted some sleep, and wanted it right away, as we
had to make an early start in the morning. "Well," said our guide,
reasonably, "you can sleep after." We explained that we didn't have
enough money to pay for women, even if we wanted them. He then came
through with the startling intelligence that we might as well take the
women as not, as the price for our beds would be the same anyway, three
dollars apiece for the night. We announced huffily that we wouldn't pay
such dough even if we could afford it, and would sleep on the beach
instead. Our guide then told us sweetly that unless we coughed up three
dollars apiece we would be arrested. To bolster his threat, he raised
his voice and a native policeman appeared. He explained that when we had
hired him on the Scapa Flow to pilot us and put us up for the night he
had sent word ashore by an earlier lighter and made arrangements for us
in this whorehouse. Apparently, as he interpreted the Liberian laws to
us, we had entered upon a contractual obligation and could be sued.
Unless we paid up, the policeman would arrest us, and then our guide
would represent the whorehouse in a suit against us which might not be
settled for days. We three white, Americans seemed to be victims of
Liberian revenge upon us for the sins of Americans of the past. Slavery
in America dates from 1502. Fifty Negroes were taken to the New World in
1510. Up to 1750 the yearly average was three thousand. In the early
nineteenth century, American philan-


thropists, so-called, started a movement of Negroes in the opposite
direction. Many of the Negroes sent back to Liberia perished from the
rigors of the unfamiliar bush, but not all. There are approximately
twelve thousand descendants of ex-American slaves now in Liberia. These
black Zionists have formed themselves into an extremely vain aristocracy
and have placed the two million permanent bushmen in virtual--of all
things--slavery. The aristocrats, of which our guide was one, are the
only ones who count, or count votes, in the government. But the
Firestone Company is the real ruler of Liberia, occupying the same posi-
tion in relation to the native government as the government occupies to
the two million bushmen, except that the corporation buys its way and
the government uses guns. Negro politicians allow the Firestone Company
to pay only eighteen cents a day to bushmen for labor on the rubber
plantations. To ensure the bushmen's working for this wage, the
government collects what is known as a hut tax, a tax on the dwelling of
the bushman, Thus, unless the bushman works for Firestone, he is not
permitted to have a roof between his family and two hundred inches of
rainfall a year. The government also permits, for a consideration,
usurious practices and tremendous profiteering by the small businessmen
of Liberia, who usually are Syrians. The government permits aristocrats
to put bushwomen into houses of prostitution. The women get little or no
money, and the government appropriates a heavy cut of the money taken in
by the aristocrats doubling as pimps. When our guide threatened to have
us locked up, and to sue us unless we coughed up three dollars apiece,
we tried first to bluff our way out. But he was firm. We were in an
extremely embarrassing spot. We couldn't pay, as this would flatten us
almost entirely, leaving us little for our journey. Getting ourselves
jailed and sued for allegedly bilking a pimp would hardly be a favorable
beginning for a trip designed to petition a United States minister. In
this crisis, I produced my Ingersoll watch. Our guide was converted
instantly. We three could stop the night for this watch, with or without
women. It's difficult to see why he went so hard for the Ingersoll. He
wasn't going anywhere and didn't 


need to know when not to start. Perhaps he would wear the watch as his
badge of aristocracy. We occupied three pallets, without partners, for
the night. Our guide woke us very early in the morning to sell us some
bananas and butter pears (sometimes called avocados in the States, or
alligator pears). We then said good-bye to him and went back to the dock
at the mouth of the river. The trip up the river in the lighter was
quite slow, as we had to buck the current. The dozen miles or so were
covered in about three hours. So far we had escaped apprehension by our
captain, although we knew that he must surely be aware of our presence
on land by this time. We told each other that we really would like to
run into him, that we would tell him what we thought of him, and so on,
but I think the other two were just as anxious as I to escape him, at
least until after we saw the minister. We ran into enormous good fortune
when we got to the headquarters of the Firestone Company. Despite our
long trip upstream, We still arrived fairly early in the morning, and
met a strawboss who had to work tough hours and who therefore probably
was more sympathetic to our position than one of the bigger shots.
Firestone ran everything in sight. Unless we got some cooperation from
somebody connected with this company, it would be almost impossible for
us to get transportation overland to Monrovia, the Liberian capital. The
man we found in charge of the dock at Firestone was an American who was
eager for the sight of a face and word from home. He took us into his
office, pressed smokes upon us, and listened to our story. He said he
knew our captain, and had seen him and the Navy lieutenant the previous
day. As it happened, he had met our captain years before, when the
captain had been only a second mate on a freighter in which the
Firestone man was coming to his job in Liberia. The then second mate had
insulted the Firestone man during a meal one day. Ever since then the
Firestone man had disliked our captain and caused him to be denied the
hospitality of the Firestone Company cottages, which were numerous and
often used by visitors. This man said he had again refused hospitality
to the captain on the previous day, and that, so far as he knew, the
captain and the Navy lieutenant 


had had to go back down to their beach house at the mouth of the river.
We told the Firestone strawboss all about our mission, and he said he
would rent us a car to make the trip to Monrovia and return, a round
trip of nearly two hundred miles. In a final burst of cooperation, he
said he would charge the rent on the car to our shipping company and
defer tendering the bill for a couple of months, until we had had a
chance to pay off the ship in the United States. We didn't want to
jeopardize ourselves more than we had already, so we asked him merely to
hand or send it to the captain, who could prorate it against the wages
of the entire crew. The bill was about thirty dollars, as I remember
it, and would have cost each man about a dollar. The Firestone man
agreed to do this, and drove us to the garage where we would get our
hired car. The only car available for us was being repaired, and it
would be a couple of hours before it was ready, so the Firestone man
went back to his work and left us to wait for the car. We walked around
a bit, looking over the company buildings, one of which was a commissary
where we bought a two-dozen box of nickel chocolate bars. We divided
them, and each of us promptly wolfed his eight bars. After a while we
drifted back to the garage and sat down in some easy chairs. Benny
suddenly raised his voice in a startled way. "Jesus" he said. "Here come
those two c----- s." Great Lakes and I looked up to see our captain and
Navy lieutenant striding toward us. They apparently had followed us up
the river on a later lighter. I suspect our guide informed on us, hoping
for a tip. We stood or, rather, sat our ground as the men approached.
Without comment, we three representatives seemed to agree instinctively
that we would take no nonsense from these men. We were civilians; we
were ashore on a legitimate mission to see our representative in a
foreign country; and we were representing a crew which had put its
confidence in us. The captain's first words to us were: "I understand
you men have been taking my name in vain." "Now the bastard thinks he's
God," said Great Lakes to Benny and me, loud enough for the captain to

[ 170 ]

We representatives remained seated during the argument which followed,
thereby presenting the paradoxical situation of top officials of our
ship standing like child penitents before seated grownups. "Are any of
my boys with you in this mutiny ?" the lieutenant wanted to know. The
captain was answered first. Benny told him that, since he had not
provided our ship with food, nor done anything to improve the other bad
conditions on the ship, the crew had chosen us to go to Monrovia to see
the United States minister. "I know all about that," said the captain.
"You must have lied to the Firestone people, telling them I was sending
you to Monrovia." "We didn't," I said. "We presented the matter just as
it is." "What do you think you're going to get out of the monster, he
asked. "We don't know," I answered. "But we can't lose anyhow. You don't
seem to be doing anything for us, and we might be able to get some
action from the minister." The lieutenant again wanted to know if his
boys were implicated in what he persisted in calling a mutiny. Great
Lakes told him that his gunners hadn't had anything to do with it, but
that they undoubtedly would profit equally with the crew if we were able
to get any more food on the ship. "I've been trying to get food," said
the captain. "I've got hunters out all over these hills. I've tried to
get food everywhere. Firestone hasn't any to spare, and the lieutenant
has tried the Army." "We've just been over to the commissary," I said.
"They may not have much there, but surely they can spare you something
for the ship." "I can't feed my ship on the few cans I could get from
Firestone," insisted the captain. "Whatever you could get would help," I
said. "You just don't seem to realize that about all we have to eat
these days on the ship are yams and wild rice." I went to see the Army
yesterday," declared the lieutenant. "They told me they couldn't spare
anything" "That seems likely," I said. "A Navy man would do damn


near anything before making a request for cooperation from the Army. I
have no doubt that the Army turned you down just because you're a Navy
officer." The captain asked: "What are you men going to do in case the
minister can't help you?" "The entire crew'll have to decide that," I
said. "I suppose you know," the captain went on, "that you men are going
to have to pay plenty for leaving the ship against orders." "We'll only
pay our part of it," said Great Lakes. "The men we represent will put up
the rest." Benny wanted to know: "Since when do you have a right to keep
us all penned up on the ship and let the lieutenant run around loose on
shore?" "That's my business," said the captain. "It's just as much our
business," I said. "This lieutenant is supposed to be commanding a gun
crew put on the ship to protect it. Granted that the possibility of
protection is pretty remote, don't you think it's our business when the
lieutenant desert's his men, not even leaving instructions with a
second-in-command? Deserts, because he won't take the food and living
conditions which all the rest of us have put up with so far ?" The
lieutenant's reply staggered us so much that we couldn't speak for a few
minutes. "Well," he said, "you wouldn't expect me to fire on a cruiser,
would you?" "Of course we wouldn't.  Of course we wouldn't expect you to
fire on a cruiser," said Benny, finally. "What cruiser?"

The captain commenced: "I can't keep you men from going to see the
minister--" "No, you can't," put in Great Lakes. "But," the captain
continued, "I can't guarantee that the ship will be waiting for you
when you get back. I may get orders to get out of here any time." "The
ship will be waiting," I said. "You can't leave without us." "I may
have something to say about that," said the lieutenant, Here, for the
first time, a difference of opinion developed between the captain and
the lieutenant. The captain said, as 

[ 172 ]

shortly as he had said anything to one of us: "I'll be giving all the
orders connected with my ship."  Great Lakes declared that it wouldn't
make any difference what the captain or the lieutenant wanted to do. The
men wouldn't sail the ship out unless their representatives were back on
board. And the gunners couldn't be made to use their guns on the crew.
"You're sure about that?" asked the captain. We three just nodded our
heads. The captain here took a new tack, and his tone of voice became
mollifying. He made the extraordinary statement that, as long as we were
determined to go through with this plan to see the minister, the
shipping company would pay for the car which would take us to and from
the capital. "No," said Great Lakes. "Charge the trip to the crew. You
think we might be able to get some action, and you're trying to horn in
on the credit." "Nothing of the kind," the captain snapped--so
vigorously that it was quite clear that he had meant everything of the
kind. The argument ended here. During its entire, course we three had
remained seated, with the captain and the Navy lieutenant standing
before us. With the remark that, if this was the way we felt about it,
we would have to pay for our own car, the captain motioned with his head
for the lieutenant to follow, and the two men left the garage. The three
representatives of course discussed this meeting at great length. We
felt pretty well. The captain hadn't been nearly so tough as we'd
expected he might, although in retrospect it's hard to see just how he
could have been any tougher. We learned later that he told the other
officers on the Scapa Flow he had thought it was possible we might get
something out of the minister, and that he was willing to accept help
for his ship from any quarter. Our car was ready for us about one
o'clock in the afternoon, and we took turns driving it to Monrovia. We
drove in a heavy rain along a dirt road which made good speed
impossible, so it took us the better part of four hours to get to the
capital. The residence and also the office---of the United States
minister was called the White House by the natives. The first one 

[ 173]

we asked for directions pointed it out to us. The house was white, all
right, and stood on a knoll overlooking the sea. The functionary who
answered our knock arranged an instant interview for us with the
minister, The minister was far kinder and far more cooperative than we
had hoped, and we were to learn later that his kindness and cooperation
were deeper than mere diplomacy. He took us into his office, ordered
drinks for us, and listened to our story. He then provided me with an
office and a typewriter. I wrote a long letter to the owners of our
ship, the Maritime Commission, in which I outlined the course of the
Scapa Flow's journey thus far, and told how the ship had come to be in
the state which had caused us, as representatives of the crew, to make
this journey to Monrovia to see the minister. We representatives had
decided on this letter during our trip to the capital, so that we would
have our case on the record under more or less official auspices in
case the captain tried to make trouble when we got back to the United
States. When I finished the letter I took it upstairs, where the min-
ister was entertaining Great Lakes and Benny. They all read the letter.
Then the three representatives signed it and gave it to the minister,
who had previously told us he would send it to the United States in his
diplomatic pouch. We had arrived about an hour before dinnertime, and
the minister asked us to be his guests at the meal. He was a bachelor,
so there were only four of us at table, upon which was spread the first
decent meal we'd had in several months. I can remember everything we
had: okra soup, creamed chicken, peas, potatoes, asparagus, rhubarb
pie, coffee, and then cognac. During the dinner the minister told us he
would see what could be done to get some food and a doctor sent to our
ship, that he would talk to the Firestone people and the Army, and also
try to get something done to remedy the sanitary condition of the Scapa
Flow. After dinner we talked with the minister until about eleven, and
then drove back to the Firestone headquarters. We turned in the car and
went to the dock, where we waited for the first morning lighter to go
down the river. One started down about six, with us aboard. It made good
speed downstream, and 

[ 174 ]

went directly to, and over, the sand bar, and then out to the Scapa
Flow. We had been gone about thirty-six hours. A crew meeting was held
in the fo'c'sle as soon as we were on board. We started to give a full
report of our trip, including the run-in with the captain and the Navy
lieutenant. They had not yet come back to the ship, even for a visit.
During the meeting, word came from the first mate that he wanted to see
the three representatives. We adjourned the meeting for a few minutes
while we answered the summons. The first mate was pretty hot under the
collar. He was sore because we had left the ship against his orders.
But, like the captain, he was really powerless to do much about it. We
told him of our meeting with the captain, and he said that, as long as
we had seen the captain, he would leave to him to determine what
disciplinary action would be taken against us. We went back to the
fo'c'sle, and finished our report to the crew. Although things were no
better for a couple of days, grumbling was held in abeyance. We all
wanted to see if the captain would come through with anything now that
we had gone over his head for help, and whether the minister would be
able to do anything for us. On the evening of the third day after our
return, we saw concrete evidence that the crew's organized agitation had
been successful. A lighter came out from shore, loaded not with rubber
but with food for our ship. All the food was in cans, but it was good:
potatoes, fruit, beef stew, butter, eggs, Vienna sausages. It came from
the United States Army. Also on the lighter was a doctor, who spent
several hours looking over and prescribing for the sick men on board.
The minister had got in touch with the Army, and ordered or asked them
to give us some help. Thus an organized effort by common crewmen had
achieved what an officer of the Navy had not been able to achieve. In
addition, the minister had reported the sanitary condition of the ship
to the Army, who informed the Captain of this message. The next day all
the engineers of the ship were working on the sanitary pumps, with the
assistance of a shore mechanic. These pumps gave us no more trouble. We
learned from the second mate that the bills to the shipping company for
this food and these services were very stiff, which was not unwelcome
news to the crew. 

[ 175 ]

The one point upon which we did not get satisfaction at this port was
shore leave, but the rubber loading was completed less than a week
after the three representatives returned to the ship, and the Scapa Flow
moved up the coast to another port. In this port we did get shore leave,
although again we were anchored miles offshore.

The three representatives of the crew were not discriminated against by
the captain or by the other officers during the rest of the voyage, nor
were we logged.

[ 176 ]

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