96. Kru or Crew

By Peter Fraenkel

Of course it caused confusion. Merran, my social anthropologist wife was studying a West African tribe called Kru, but what caused confusion was the work that most of these tribesmen were doing was as the crew – the stevedore crew of ships plying around West Africa. Some travelled on the cargo boats, others lived and worked in coastal towns loading and unloading cargo. Thus there were scattered Kru communities far away – at Swansea in Wales, for example, and New Orleans in Louisiana.

But there were other Kru who were less mobile known as “Bush Kru”. They lived inland in Liberia. They displayed the same tribal insignia – a tattoo that linked their left eyebrow with the right.

This had come about as a result of a – sort of – international agreement between the tribesmen and white American slavers. In the late 18th and early 19th century American slavers and their African allies conducted slave raids in the interior of West Africa. But transporting their captives – strapped into yokes – to ships bound for America they had to pass through the coastal territory of the so-called Coast Kru. There they might be attacked and deprived of their booty. The Americans were also accused of kidnaping Kru to supplement their numbers if a captive had managed to escape. Eventually the U.S slavers came to an agreement with the Coast Kru. In return for unhindered passage they agreed neither to capture nor to enslave any Kru tribesman….provided he was clearly identifiable. This tattoo linking eyebrows was the agreed identification mark.

By the 1950s some of the young Kru spoke English – having learnt the language at a mission school. Occasionally one even found an old Kru man who spoke it.  Once my wife, Merran, was surprised to be greeted in English by a very old Kru man. He was known jocularly as ‘Napoleon’. As a youngster he had been involved in tribal warfare and he loved telling blood-thirsty tales about those days. He greeted my wife with a friendly wave of the hand “Hi, Englishwoman!” She laughed “I’m not really English, you know. I come from a faraway group of islands – even further that Australia – called New Zealand.”

Old Napoleon chuckled: “Yes, m’dear, I’ve heard of it. You see – I was on that Sydney-Auckland run for some seven or eight years. Maybe even nine. But that must have been – oh – long before you were born.”

Merran and I had a sort of local mentor – a ‘big wig’ – called Oscar Norman. He and his wife were of Kru origin, though like many tribal children they had been brought up in the household of an Americo-Liberian – the local upper class.  At Christmas not long after our wedding, Oskar invited us to accompany him on a tour of some rubber estates that belonged to friends of his. Merran was only just recovering from a fierce bout of malaria but said she thought she was up to it.

We did not know what such a tour might involve. Our first host presented an unopened bottle of whisky to Oskar. He opened it but before poring drinks for us he performed a curious ritual.

“Merran”, he said, “you told me your father was dead, didn’t you? What was his name?”

“William,” she replied, “William McCulloch.”

Oskar poured a large tot on to the ground. The dry earth soaked it up rapidly. “This is for William McCulloch.”

Merran whispered to me: “Probably the first whisky he’s ever had…he was a teetotaller.”

Next Oskar poured stiff drinks for us, the living. Merran said that having only just recovered from malaria, she did not dare to drink. A coke was brought for her.

At the next estate, again, an unopened bottle was handed to Oskar, and so it went on, at estate after estate. I lost count of the number we visited.  “It’s our custom,” Oskar explained to me. “I’m a senior official. They’re showing they’re not trying to succeed to my job.”

“By poisoning you?”

He nodded.  I expressed surprise at such a lack of trust.  He reminded me that our European custom of shaking hands had similar origins. Once it had been to demonstrate one was not carrying a dagger.

I was driving and after the fourth or fifth estate that was becoming more difficult. After only a few weeks of married life I felt I still had to prove myself. However, it soon dawned on me that a responsible husband would not land his new wife in a ditch. “Merran,” I ventured eventually, “do you think you could drive?”

“Yes,” she replied, “I had been wondering how long it would take you to see sense!”

Were we becoming a crew?