14 November 2021

There’s a pile up at the Soo Locks. Seven cargo ships all wanting up or down. We are sixth in line and take the upper wall to wait beneath the Sault Sainte-Marie International Bridge. It’s 0330 and it will be hours before we get the lock and are underway again. They were calling for snow but we got rain. A steady drizzle which coats everything in an amniotic glaze.

When I was a kid, during the idle summer months, my mum would make me memorize a poem a week. I would flick through her battered blue copy of the Oxford Book of English Verse to select one. Usually something to do with animals. She had had the book since she was a child. Its pages were the thin, crinkly paper of old bibles.  I still remember many of the poems I learned all those summers ago.

One of them was ‘Cargoes’ by John Masefield, which, along with ‘Sea Fever’, first cultivated my fascination with ships and the sea. 

Quinquereme of Nineveh from distant Ophir,
Rowing home to haven in sunny Palestine,
With a cargo of ivory,
And apes and peacocks,
Sandalwood, cedarwood, and sweet white wine.

Stately Spanish galleon coming from the Isthmus,
Dipping through the Tropics by the palm-green shores,
With a cargo of diamonds,
Emeralds, amethysts,
Topazes, and cinnamon, and gold moidores.

Dirty British coaster with a salt-caked smoke-stack,
Butting through the Channel in the mad March days,
With a cargo of Tyne coal,
Road-rails, pig-lead,
Firewood, iron-ware, and cheap tin trays.

I loved the rhythm and alliteration. The imagery. The objects and place names, both Biblical and arcane, then juxtaposed with the mundane reality of British coastal cargo ships at the time it was written. Reading it today, I find it perhaps, overly romantic (much of Masefield was) but it is the list of cargoes that makes me prick up my ears and take notice.

In 1884, representatives from 14 European countries, chief among them – France, Germany, Great Britain and Portugal – gathered together at the Berlin Conference. Their purpose was to carve up the continent of Africa and divvy the portions between them. The transport and trade of slaves had been, for the most part, abolished by ‘civilized’ nations since the early 1800’s, but there was much else to despoil the continent of. This was the beginning of what became known as the ‘Scramble for Africa’. In all of this not one African was consulted. 

In 1960 Patrice Lumumba, was democratically elected the first president of a free Congo. He was tired of Africans being told what to do and having their shit taken by white people, and wanted to promote the idea of an Africa for Africans and to keep the country’s vast resources for Congolese. This was not a popular point of view internationally. He was dismissed as a communist and murdered in a coup sponsored by the Belgian and American governments. Eisenhauer himself sanctioned the hit (this is a fact, look it up). In his stead was placed a corrupt, puppet despot who would allow these foreign governments to maintain their interests i.e. continue taking all their shit, diamonds, gold, emeralds, copper and cobalt, while he profited obscenely and murdered anyone who opposed him. This is a simplistic rendering of a complex history and the Belgian Congo is just one sad example, but you will find similar stories in Nigeria, Burundi, Mozambique and Angola to name a few. The predation continues. The cargo still moves today.

I likely owe my place in the world to a convoy of cargo vessels, specifically the SS Ohio that arrived in Malta in 1942. The entire nation was starving and exhausted from the constant battery of the Axis forces in the second Siege of Malta (the first being the Ottoman invasion of 1565). The British had underestimated Malta’s strategic importance to the ally cause and realized that with the nation starving, without immediate aid, the island would be forced to capitulate to the Germans. At the 11th hour they dispatched the fleet. The SS Ohio was an American ship crewed by British sailors. It limped into the Grand Harbour, half sunk, flanked by two Royal Navy destroyers rafted at the hip to keep it afloat. Of 14 merchant ships only five made it. 500 sailors and airmen died attempting to bring these supplies to Malta. The ships brought much needed food to a starving nation and fuel for the machines needed to thwart the German advance and harass the Axis shipping routes supplying the North African conflict. For the second time in history the fate of Europe was directly linked to that of the small island nation from which my father hails. He would have been two at the time.

Since the first birch bark canoe troubled the surface of the Great Lakes there has been cargo on the move on these waters. Indigenous people traded between themselves furs, corn, dried fish, flint and the like, but when the Europeans arrived, they took what had mostly been subsistence trade and industrialized it. French trappers, ventured deep into the continent from Quebec in search of what were then considered exotic pelts and returned with canoes piled high with the furs of otter, beaver and fox (it seems the first act of colonialization, before the pillaging of resources and the decimation of indigenous peoples, begins with the annihilation of local fauna). They discovered many of the rivers and tributaries which we still navigate. Vast forests were razed to build naval and merchant ships. Where we sit and wait for the lock there was once a set of rapids and our cargoes today are not animal, but coal, iron ore, grain and potash. 

In World War II there was very credible intelligence of a one-way Nazi bombing mission from Norway to destroy these locks through which then passed iron ore vital for the American military machine.The locks were heavily defended by American and Canadian forces, and to this day are maintained by the US Army Corps of Engineers.

There is a shipping crisis occurring internationally. Some people are finding it hard to get the latest pair of Nikes. Last time I was home I was unable to find the pocket sized moleskein notebooks which I carry on my person at all times. Some friends of mine recently bought a new sofa and have been waiting four months for it to arrive from Germany. 

I read a collection of essays by American agrarian philosopher, poet and all-round nice guy Wendell Berry. In it he says that at some point in the early twentieth century, having just enough became not enough for most Americans. I am no different. With my Apple watch and iPhone, my laptop and expensive Japanese jeans. 

I am a merchant sailor. Not here for the heroics mind you, just the pay cheque thanks. A guy on a boat who, while waiting at the Soo locks one cold wet early morning in November, looked around at all the other ships and got to thinking about cargoes. About what we take with us and what we will leave behind. And about where we come from and where it is we could possibly be going.