A west African honeymoon, 1913

April 19, 2015 4 Comments
SS Mendi

SS Mendi

Our honeymoon (1980) was spent on two bicycles in north Norfolk. Laughable by today’s standards, but also, maybe, by those of a hundred years ago.

My brother recently gave me a copy of a family document I’d never seen before. It’s a four page leaflet, printed in 1938 ‘on the occasion of her Silver Wedding’, that reproduces a daily diary kept by our maternal grandmother, May Allan, née Kennedy. It describes part of her honeymoon, a sea voyage from England to Koko in southern Nigeria, in September 1913. Her husband was Robert Allan, also from Ayrshire, who worked in the family timber importing business, and the journey seems to have doubled up as a commercial trip.

The diary begins as their ship, the SS Mendi, sets out from Liverpool:

Mr Cowan and Mr M’Neil were on board and took goodbye with us. Mr Cowan warned me to take care of my husband. We set sail at 12.15, passed a vessel that had been collided with, was being broken up. Went for a walk round boat, and went down to lunch, and saw all our fellow-passengers. Sat next to a lady who is going out to Lagos. Opposite was another lady who seemed to be feeling very lonely. She also was going out to the Lagos part. Have only seen other five ladies; all the rest are the male sex. After lunch, went down and sorted up things a bit in cabin, and then went up on deck, where I am writing this. At present my dear hubby is sitting beside me, finding out mistakes, but will send him away for a walk next time.


British and African Steam Navigation Company plate

For the bride shipboard life is dominated by sleeping, eating, knitting, writing letters and walking on deck. In addition her husband Bob smokes, and plays cards and bridge. The Bay of Biscay brings its proverbial bad weather (‘both of us not feeling up to the mark’), but on the sixth day they reach Tenerife, where coal is taken on board and where two of them land briefly for a carriage ride. The heat increases as the ship passes Cape Verde (‘it has been very trying – I suppose about 90 degrees in the shade’) and two days later it reaches Sierra Leone. Going ashore is a shock, for a couple brought up in rural Scotland:

Arriving at the pier we found it alive with black people of both sexes dressed in their Sunday best. Any amount of little nigger boys wanted to guide us through the town, but we did not need them, as Mr Fyfe knew his way about. And we only wanted to the factory for helmets, as one dared not go without them between the hours of 8 a.m. and 4 p.m. What dirty streets they have; their red, dirty clay streets with the grass growing on the side. Sheep and Goats going about the streets. The only difference between them is that the sheep’s tails grow downwards, while the goats’ grow upwards. Some of the bigger buildings are of stone, such as churches, banks, and factories. But down in the town are the native quarters, as the Europeans mostly have their houses built up on a hill. We had quite a procession going through the streets, with half a dozen or more little boys all following us. Mr Fyfe turned round and told one that if he didn’t leave off he would kill them. And we heard one saying, “No allowed to kill man here.” Arrived at the factory, to find them stocktaking, but the English fellow in charge said he would stretch a point and give us the helmets. So we tried them on, with the admiring contingent of niggers at the door, where more had joined them. Sierra Leone gets the name of Freetown as well, as all kinds of nationalities may come here. The natives are very civilized, but everyone says that makes them more unbearable. It is a very unhealthy place, but it looks very pretty from the ship, standing out in the bay.

CWS visit to Sierra leone

CWS visit to Sierra Leone 1913

Back on the ship the couple are able to see more African people:

Getting back to the “Mendi”, we found the natives buying provisions from the stewards, but they did not get them anyway till they paid the money down for them. The poor fellows get spoken to very harshly sometimes, but they don’t seem to mind. Set sail about noon again. A black lady and little black girl are travelling with us from Sierre Leone – a doctor’s sister there – and, of course, a lot of niggers, too, but they are down in the lower part of the boat. Their clothes consist of a singlet and fancy-patterned pants. One of the black crew that went from Liverpool plays the melodeon very well. He has all the latest, from the rag-time ditties to Harry Lauder’s songs and “God Save the King”.

The boat sails eastwards, skirting the coastline, and calls at ‘Axine’ (modern Axim) in Ghana, where ‘some natives got on’:

They seemed to be very sick after coming over in the surf-boats, as they lay huddled up on mats on one of the lower decks. They wore very picturesque dresses of all shades, and big, high turbans. They carry their little children on their backs, wound round and secured to them with a piece of coloured cloth.


Seccondee 1913

The next stop in Ghana is ‘Seccundee’ (now Sekondi-Takoradi), where again the natives approach the ship in their surf-boats.

Then the pandemonium indeed began, natives being hauled on deck by the derricks with sort of wooden boxes, viz., manny chairs which hold four or five of them. Quite a number of the men scrambled up by ropes and rope ladders. While this was taking place, a big quantity of palm nuts in crates and cocoa nuts were also hoisted on deck, until there was a huddled mass of niggers, their belongings, and cargo out in the after hatch.

At Accra, more natives are to be observed:

The natives are so much alike – they just look as if the ones at the last place had followed us to this one. It was so amusing watching them paddling their surf-boats, four of them on either side sitting on the gunwale of the boat, diving their paddles in the water and singing a kind of “war song” all the time. Then no sooner do they come within talking or yelling distance of the boat than the row begins. And it is the men who make the most noise and do the most talking – just the same as in Scotland and Ayrshire. There were some of them diving for money, too. They seem to be as much at home in the water as out of it.

The next day the ship reaches Lagos in the ‘Colony and Protectorate of Southern Nigeria’, where it receives a visit by the Governor of Nigeria, Sir Frederick Lugard (‘he seems a very quiet, insignificant-looking man’), before leaving for Forcados and Bruton (Burutu?). Then the newly married couple leave the SS Mendi and transfer to a river boat for the journey up the Benin river to their destination, the town of Koko:

It is very flat here. See nothing but the mangroves dipping down to the water’s edge with their roots all twining round each other in a hopeless tangle. The only signs of habitation are little mud huts with roofs; fishing huts, I suppose. We are meeting many native boats. The canoes are very frail, looking just like a piece of wood scooped out like a shell, with a nigger sitting right at the back. You would think he was almost in the water, paddling away quite unconcernedly. There are at present two black boys on the same part of the boat as we are, steering, and they take quite an interest in anything we do. If the case is opened for anything we want they are all eyes, and they are watching the camera with great interest. We have come now on a fishing fleet, great long rows of nets. They catch catfish. One of our boys says he show us a net he is making. I may learn of him and make some bags. The same scenery all the way up till we came in sight of Koko, which lies at the bend in the river, and is quite nicely situated. And so ended our journey of eighteen day’s duration.

Mrs Robert Allan 01

It would be good to know what happened next, but no other diary seems to survive. My grandmother lived into her eighties, and for years we would go and stay with her each summer in her home in Corsehill Park, Ayr. I remember her as a formidable woman, who could recite many poems by Robert Burns from memory and who for some reason would tear the innards from the fresh bread rolls my father bought from McCalls the Bakers each morning before eating them.

My grandparents were not to know that within a year of their extraordinary honeymoon the world would be engulfed in war. The SS Mendi was contracted to the British Government for war service. It was used to transport Nigerians to Dar es Salaam to fight German forces in East Africa. On 21 February 1917 it was accidentally rammed by another boat, the mailship Darro, in thick fog off the Isle of Wight and sank almost immediately, with the loss of 650 men. They were black members of the South African Native Labour Corps, recruited to aid the war effort, and were on their way from Cape Town via Plymouth to France. It was the second worst disaster involving South African forces in the First World War.

granny 2

May Allan (née Kennedy)


Comments (4)

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  1. rita tait says:

    I really enjoyed reading this. So evocative of another world.

  2. Julia edwards says:

    A wonderful piece , thanks. This diary would have made a wonderful ‘contribution’ to a recent course I did about Empire & Colonialism .

  3. Gill Lewis says:

    What a wonderful journal.

  4. Chris Edwards says:

    Fascinating! I thought this line quite revealing: “The natives are very civilized, but everyone says that makes them more unbearable.”

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