There were eleven stowaways on board the Ormonde – all men who’d boarded the ship in the Caribbean, unnoticed, and hidden on board for the three week voyage. All were arrested in Liverpool and imprisoned. But their appearance in court was met with understanding from the judge who sympa thised with men “who wanted work and would go to such lengths to get it”. They were immediately released from custody.
That word “stowaway” has almost romantic connotations, but of course the reality of stowing-away is desperation. Modern day stories of stowaways include those who stash themselves in the undercarriages of planes and suffer hypothemia, often freezing to death or falling from the hatch when the compartment opens. In 2012 a young African man’s body was found on a leafy street in Mortlake – he had probably fallen from a plane on the way to Heathrow.
As for the stowaways travelling to Britain from the Caribbean in the late 40s and 50s, some of those that avoided detection during the voyage, jumped into the cold sea and swam to shore when land came into sight, in order to avoid the authorities.
The Evening Standard headline calls the Ormonde’s stowaways “willing” – a reference to their willingness to work, I assume. But the idea of willingness also resonates in regards to the “decisions” people make to leave their homes. I think about how much real freedom is held by people who have to weigh up the physical and punitive risk to themselves, with the opportunity for a better life, and what the poet Lawrence Sail calls “the danger of not leaving”.
Writing about those eleven stowaways, I kept thinking of a newspaper article I’d read about “La Bestia” or “El Tren de la Muerte” (the Train of Death) – the network of locomotives which thousands of Central American migrants board every year to travel the length of Mexico, bound for the US – willing to risk their lives to escape poverty and other threats. Many are killed or lose limbs making that treacherous journey.
Here’s Sail’s poem “Stowaways” that draws together these separate stories of border crossings – where stowaways, whether they make it to their destination or not, are “insistent phantoms”. Crossing a border is no guarantee to inclusion or belonging.
Blind passengers, reduced
to pure anxiety, their spirits
rise and fall with each lift
and plunge of the butting hull:
bracing themselves, they test
the strength of their old visions.
Some, discovered after food
has gone missing from the galley,
or given away by a whiff
of tobacco seeping through a bulkhead,
are simply tipped overboard
as if they were so much trash.
Others, airborne, are undone
by cold – cold which unpicks,
finger by numbed finger,
their hold on a strut, slides them,
helpless, out from the wheelbay
into a shroud of thin air.
Falling through cloud or water,
perhaps their last recall
is the iron taste of blood,
the danger of not leaving,
or the far horizon bright
and burnished as New Jerusalem.
What is certain becomes so
only late on, when the stowaways
re-emerge, insistent phantoms,
at the point where memory rounds
on experience, and well within sight
of the dark relief of land.