A Dutch police official called the death of the unknown African stowaway a “unique case for our country,” but the old salts in the ports of Rotterdam and Amsterdam know differently. In return for a beer and a bit of priming, they will spin convincing tales of stowaways being thrown overboard or cast adrift to certain death from ships flying every flag on the high seas.
The incident that mobilized the Dutch authorities was the drowning of a stowaway, a Ghanaian of about 20 who had been tossed from the deck of the Dutch refrigerator ship Emmely near Port Harcourt, Nigeria, in November on the orders of the captain. The case did not come to light until the crew from the Emmely returned last month to their home port in Rotterdam and reported it to the Seafarers’ Union. Immediately the police arrested the captain, 36-year-old Thomas de Boor, and charged him with “compelling others to commit murder.”
But within days de Boor was out on bail after police had run into a stone wall in their bid to complete the case against him by identifying and questioning the seamen who had actually bundled the African over the side at his bidding. “Silence is a cardinal rule to seamen,” explained Johan Altena of the Seafarers’ Union. “They will talk in order to get rid of a bad captain but they’ll not say a word to incriminate their own kind.”
The authorities fear that unless some eyewitnesses agree to testify in court, de Boor could get off scot-free. Unpleasant as it may sound, his way of handling stowaways is by no means rare. Evidence is presently being gathered about the dire deeds of a Greek captain named Dimitri Balias who is alleged to have thrown two stowaways overboard and cast others adrift off the coasts of Asia and Africa.
Stowaways have always been bad news to shipping companies because they are bound by international law to provide keep for their unwelcome passengers until they are permitted to land somewhere. This can be a long time in the case of stowaways without papers (the most common type). In some instances stowaways have been doomed to roam the seas for years—today’s record is believed to be held by a stateless West African stowaway who has been sailing aimlessly aboard a Swedish boat for six
years at the company’s expense. In selfprotection, modern shipping lines have adopted harsh methods to flush out stowaways. “Before a captain leaves the ports where you find most stowaways— those in West Africa, for instance—he floods his empty holds with water and pumps tear gas into others to clear the ship,” says Andreas Van de Kerkhof of the Rotterdam Harbor Police. “Often he gets a dozen stowaways racing onto the deck.”
The stowaway commonly used to be a waif who had run away to sea or a storybook figure driven by poverty to seek a new life elsewhere. Today’s stowaway, though still dirt poor, is most often black, illiterate, disease-ridden and helpless. Sailors hate him like scurvy. Last year alone more than 100 stowaways who had succeeded in stealing aboard boats were marched into Van de Kerkhof’s office in Rotterdam, the world’s biggest port. Most were eventually fobbed off to the consular authorities of the countries from which they hailed. But more than 20 who were unable to establish their identity were put back aboard ship. “This can be nasty for them,” says an Antwerp harbor official. “Once the crew realizes they are stuck with a stowaway—who is prevented by the unions from working aboard ship for his keep—the man can very easily go over the side one night.”
But the bad treatment meted out to
stowaways would appear to stem more from racial prejudice among seamen than from the absence of a legal safety net or any reluctance to feed extra mouths. This could be deduced from the case of Jim Franz, a penniless white American student who stowed away in Sicily aboard the Greek freighter Aifanourious in late December. Once discovered, the 26-year-old Franz was hauled before the captain, chewed out and then, to his amazement, offered food, drink and an officer’s cabin with shower all the way to Rotterdam. “When I arrived on New Year’s Day there was this fellow from the shipping company on the wharf with money and a free air ticket to New York for me,” Franz said. “It took me a while to understand they were being so jolly because they feared the Dutch immigration would catch on that I was broke and prevent me from landing. If that had happened, I’d still be on that ship.”
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