Research Snapshot: Yes We Have Bananas, and Stowaways Too!
Editorial Note: We would like to thank Stephen Poleon for writing this piece that is part of work actively under investigation. We encourage you to follow Stephen online as his subject develops through ongoing archival research. This article represents an extract of his research as it currently stands.
From the author: The primary aim of the historian is to interpret evidence in a quest to contribute to historical knowledge. Diligently sifting through a variety of sources enables stories from the past to emerge into the present. Yet, much remains in abeyance.
Lying scattered in a fragmented state, rich seams of evidence await investigation and analysis to be pieced together in a coherent fashion, bringing to life otherwise unknown aspects of human existence. This process is an extremely rewarding journey of discovery, especially when a neglected area of the past emerges.
One such instance is that of clandestine migration from the West Indies to Britain. The majority of migrants embarking on voyages to England were from Jamaica. However, in a two-year period between 1958 and 1960, a large number of stowaways made this perilous odyssey by taking advantage of the lax security surrounding banana boats sailing from Roseau, the capital of Dominica, to Preston in Lancashire.
This article is an introduction into the realm of those who hitched a 5000-mile journey hidden amongst tons of refrigerated banana stems.
In 1919, Mathew Wade, the self-styled Banana King in Preston, took out an advertisement in the Lancashire Evening Post to announce that he had received a shipment of bananas from the West Indies. Though a hiatus in the shipment of bananas to Preston from the Caribbean had lasted from 1939 to 1953, between 1953 and 1954, 24,000 tons of bananas were imported to England via Preston. Other produce imported from the Caribbean included coconuts, eggplants, limes, oranges and peppers. Amongst the produce, the occasional exotic insect also made the 4,000-mile journey from the Windward Islands to Preston dock. Bird- eating spiders, gecko lizards, rare tree frogs, opossums, cockroaches and a rare skink all unwittingly found new homes in England in the Zoological Gardens in London’s Regent Park. The same could not be said of the large number of West Indian stowaways who were reported to have landed in Preston.
Between 1958 and 1960, an estimated 250 stowaways landed in Preston. This waning mill town provided an abundance of housing stock for stowaways offered by other Dominican residents in the town. A lot of West Indians were employed here by Courtaulds in the manufacture of synthetic cotton. Rayon— or viscose as it is now called— was manufactured through a highly dangerous chemical process. Workers involved in this procedure did not have any protective clothing or equipment. They suffered terrible burns, loss of hearing, potential blindness, gastric complaints, and ran the risk of their lungs collapsing on a daily basis. Using bare hands, workers put acid on the thread which was sent to the spinning room for spinners to weave. Workers here could earn £15 a week plus overtime. In Preston, there was the potential to earn higher wages compared to life back home in the Caribbean. In pursuit of a new life in England, but unable to afford the £75-£80 fare, potential migrants took a chance and stowed away on banana boats, resulting in a lot of problems for shipping companies.
The Manchester Guardian’s Preston correspondent reported that moves were underway by shipping companies to halt the flow of stowaways from the Caribbean. Despite the efforts of Geest Industries, the shipping company that facilitated the fruit trade, it seemed almost impossible to halt the trade of people smuggling. Mr. A.C. Pilkington, shipping manager of Geest Industries Limited, claimed that a syndicate was involved in the movement of stowaways from the Windward Islands— the island group comprises Trinidad, St. Lucia, St Vincent’s, and the Grenadines and Dominica—to Preston. Geest Industries was somewhat complicit in this movement of people on their own and other fruit importers' banana boats.
Boats owned and operated by Geest Industries awaited their cargos a quarter of a mile offshore. The fruit was loaded by hand onto lighters that were then towed by launchers out to the boats. The Colonial Office in London thought that collusion between the dockworkers, the stevedores loading the bananas, and even the police, facilitated the stowaways in their endeavours. Between 1958 and 1960, Geest Industries declined to ask the police in Rosseau Dominica to check for stowaways before the boats left. This task was left to the ship's officer.
Dockworkers would not acquiesce in the search for illegal passengers. Dockers would refuse to load the bananas and would attack ship officers with knives and broken bottles. Police assistance, when it came, was often late, inadequate, and given grudgingly. The police in Dominica were for quite some time without a superintendent and were often demoralised. Therefore, it would seem a lawless vacuum had materialised giving the operation behind the stowaway movement a free hand in their enterprise.
Dockworkers in the Dominican capital, Roseau, made hideouts in the hold, camouflaged with banana stems. These hideouts were in the refrigerated hold, and would-be stowaways entered this space in tropical clothing and would remain undetected. Eventually, the extreme cold became too much, and they alerted the crew after one or two days, as any longer may have been fatal. In some instances, stowaways could travel in more tolerable temperatures in the holds regulated at a constant temperature of 54 degrees Fahrenheit.
Each shipment should have been thoroughly checked by the ships’ officer and local policemen before she left port. Any would-be stowaways found were meant to be arrested and brought before the magistrates. However, this was not the case, and as a result, the threat of discovery or arrest was not an effective deterrent to those leaving the island. Stowaways were able to leave relatively unencumbered until adequate legislation made stowing away on vessels leaving Dominica a criminal offence.
The enactment of this legislation, and more vigorous effort on the part of Rosseau police, had the desired effect of stemming the flow of banana boat stowaways to Preston. Stringent British immigration laws also served to curtail this passage from the Caribbean.
A file in the National Archives in Kew, relating to banana boat stowaways from the Windward Islands to the UK, suggests that the government was aware of this activity and stated that it was the responsibility of shipping companies to deal with this illicit travel. These archival sources, when combined with local newspaper articles, have the potential to enhance historical knowledge of this aspect of West Indian migration to Britain. Oral testimony from living banana boat stowaways can also add to this knowledge. Their story is relatively unknown, and preliminary investigations into this history indicate that this may be a complex journey. However, these complexities do not mean that this aspect of history should be disregarded. It deserves a place in the history of the Caribbean diaspora in Britain.
Stephen Poleon is currently undertaking archival research that explores the migration of West Indians to Preston in the mid-twentieth century. You can follow him on social media for ongoing updates on how this project is progressing.