Joe Bloggs:An Unlikely Hussar
By Jane Joseph
Based on a series of interviews with Edwin (Joe) Joseph
The year was 1950 and I was ten. Mum Munroe and I left Atkinson Airfield to fly to Trinidad a few days ahead of the rest of the Munroe family, who would have to travel by boat.
“You’re the first boy from Hopetown to fly in an aeroplane,” she told me.
She wasn’t really my mum, but I called her that because to everyone else in the family she was their mother. They took me along to look after her because she was quite elderly by now and needed someone to be always at her side. Her own children were grown up and had responsible jobs but she was an insulin-dependent diabetic, so I had to give her the injections she needed, do all her shopping and help her with chores she couldn’t do herself. I called my own mum “Taa” because that’s what everyone in the Munroe family called her when we lived at the Manse in Rodboro, Guyana, South America, where she was a servant when she got pregnant with me. I hardly saw Taa because she had work to do at the manse all day. I just remember that when I was about three, I seemed to spend all my time with Parson Munroe, the Congregational Minister for that part of West Coast Berbice. He was Parson of Hopetown Congregational Church where Taa and my father both lived.
I was so excited. The deafening noise from the Dakota aircraft engines and sheer size of the craft amazed me. How could such a heavy thing get up in the air? I who had experienced such difficulty getting my kite off the ground could only marvel at the thought of it. When we were airborne and hit a pocket of turbulence, I actually enjoyed the roller-coaster thrill of it while others around were busy being airsick. When we landed, I could have done it all over again.
We stayed in a hotel in Trinidad while awaiting the arrival of Leslie, Pat and Daphne. Mum’s brother lived in San Fernando, where he ran a watercress farm, so we visited him there. After a hectic day or two of visiting places, the day arrived when we had to embark the passenger liner, the S. S. Misere for England.
It was a French ship with an Egyptian captain. At the time we boarded, there were very few passengers besides us. We carried on our cases (mine was very light as I hardly owned any clothes) and were shown to our cabins. Mum and Daphne shared one, and Leslie, Pat and I shared the other. They were quite spacious, and no one else was on the same deck as us. This was to change, however, after a few days at sea. I was allowed to roam anywhere I wanted on the ship. I soon made friends with a lot of the crew even though I couldn’t speak their language. Since I was the only child on board, they took me all round the ship. They showed me round the engine decks and later, even into the captain’s cabin where he let me see photos of his wife and son, who was the same age as me. It made a huge impact on me and I will never forget the adults on board who went out of their way to show me things. Although for nearly five weeks I did not have any form of schooling, I felt that I learned more in five weeks than I would have done in a whole year back at my school.
I wondered why the tables and chairs were all clamped down to the deck. I was told that was to prevent movement during the voyage. I soon understood why. The food was plentiful in the clean, neat dining hall and I could eat as much as I wanted. It was a treat for me to take a warm shower and have nice clean towels provided.
Our next port of call was to be Barbados. Offshore, schools of porpoises and flying fish were leaping out of the waves around the boat as we approached the island. There was a great bustle of activity as we docked. From the officers’ deck, I was allowed to view it all and have my questions answered. Some of the passengers disembarked and there was much unloading and loading of luggage, machinery and materials. New luggage was brought aboard along with Tate and Lyle sacks, crates of bottles and massive cages packed with straw to protect their contents. These were all bound for Martinique, Guadeloupe, The Azores and England. These marvellous, colourful scenes of the quayside at Bridgetown entertained me for a couple of days while we were anchored in port. Then we left and arrived in Martinique after a couple of days.
Once again, the quayside was bristling with people bearing bundles on their heads. Cars, bicycles and carts were jostling for places. I was told people would be disembarking and embarking, so I looked forward to there being someone else with a boy of my age to be playmates with. At the end of a long day, and just before setting sail, a large contingent of French soldiers embarked with all their equipment. This really gave me a buzz. There were so many. They boarded their accommodation which thus far had been unoccupied. So these were the occupants that I had been told would fill the empty cabins I had asked about.
Late next day, we left for Guadeloupe. I really loved this place as we were met by a military band playing on the quayside and more black French soldiers lined up ready to come on board. There was much shouting and orders being given out by French mulatto officers and the black French soldiers bearing smart shiny uniforms marched on board and took over the lower decks. I wished I was one of them. I was told they were going to France, so I made up my mind to mix with them and find out more about them. That night couldn’t pass quickly enough so I could do so.
We would stop at the Azores next. This would mean many days of travelling before the excitement of another stop, so I asked one of the crew members to get permission from the French soldiers for me to go below decks to see them. After a day or two, I was allowed to do so. One of the crew took me to a French soldier whom I followed down to their quarters. They were laughing and joking in French so I couldn’t understand anything, but they let me stay and hang around them. They were always cleaning their kit, singing their songs and playing cards, chess, draughts, dice games and dominoes. I watched them use wet cloths and brown paper to press their uniforms, and clean their buttons, belts and boots. They all had pen knives with six or seven blades, each for a different use. I had never seen anything like that before.
The soldiers ate at different times and in different places from the rest of us passengers. I liked their camaraderie and how they shared their tasks to get the work done quicker; how considerately they treated their sick colleagues; their sense of fun and relaxation. I had never experienced this kind of friendship before and it impressed me. Some of them showed me their family photos and their books. I was offered boiled sweets and occasionally an “ice apple”or other fruit. Using a mixture of sign language and a few words that they knew in English, I learned a lot about these men and their army life. They were all going to fight for France in Indo-China in Asia. I was full of wonder at how brave they were. None of them was angry or afraid about going to war. I realised that it was important not to fear death and to be prepared to fight for your country. Much later, I was to draw from their example.
During the voyage, the captain and a couple of his officers invited me to tour the officers’ quarters, the control deck, the engine room, the ship’s hospital and the communications room where coded telegraph messages were being sent out and received. I toured the kitchens and admired the men who produced this wonderful tasty food each day. I was told why they made so many stops. It was to take on water, fresh meat and vegetables. They showed me their machines (generators) that kept everything cool. I saw the walk-in refrigerators where they stored all the food and water. The noise and the clouds of vapour that billowed out when they opened the doors scared me a bit. I wondered how they put up with all that noise all the time. Many of the crew were Egyptian like the captain.
The ship’s entertainment was fun, especially when the captain asked me to throw the dice for the horseracing game at his table. I had to move the little wooden horses down the places on the track according to the dice throw, until we had a winner. Sometimes there were souvenir sales on deck, talent contests, jugglers, singers, story-tellers and comedians, a fire eater, French songs sung by some of the soldiers and others played solos on their instruments. These were no doubt welcome diversions from the monotony of the voyage for the adults, but for me they were my first unforgettable taste of a world of entertainment I had no idea existed until then.
The captain or an officer would often make announcements over the loudspeaker to draw our attention to natural phenomena we were approaching. One day, we were called to witness a spiralling, swirling, giant column of water rising up out of the sea into the sky by some forty or fifty feet. It was only thirty to forty yards away from the ship and they had to keep a safe distance from the whirlpool at its base. On other occasions we saw spouting whales and a school of sharks. Passengers took snapshots of it all. Every day there was some such excitement or even the passing of another ship. From my privileged vantage point up on the officers’ deck, they lent me binoculars to give me a better view of sights such as these. I can still see the crimson sunsets or raindrops the size of pennies falling from blackened skies. On such occasions we were forbidden to go out on deck in case the breeze blew us overboard.
As we approached the Azores, pretty red topped houses came into view and people with little boats came out to trade with the ship all day, bringing fresh water, fruit and vegetables. Then we continued northwards. As we approached the Bay of Biscay, there was an announcement that everything had to be battened down and all passengers off deck. Waves twenty to thirty feet high began to lash the ship, which had its stabilisers out. I got a round of applause when I turned up in the dining hall, as very few had the stomach for food at that point. Most people were being seasick in their cabins. I went to help the crew pick up fallen boxes of biscuits and the like. There were no health and safety rules then like there are now! I wasn’t seasick and I ate as much food as I wanted. The storm lasted a day and then there was total calm with the sea like a billiard table. People took a day or two to recover. The soldiers gave me a pen and uniform flashes as a reward for my “bravery”. Thereafter we were told that we would be in Plymouth harbour in a day or two. It was March 1950.
The freezing air in Plymouth was a rude awakening. “Why was everyone smoking?” I wondered. Then I realised I too was smoking, as condensation formed in my breath. It was sad to reflect on the new friends I had made as they went off to war. I wondered how many of them ever came back from there alive. There were the usual long waits for all the cargo and baggage to be unloaded before we could disembark, leaving the ship and soldiers to sail on to Le Havre.
When we finally made our way through immigration and customs in Plymouth, we were greeted with a friendly welcome. Mum had my passport, which was the only reason I had obtained a birth certificate just before we left British Guiana. We made our way to the train station and boarded a train for London. At Victoria Station, we took a taxi to Tooting which was to be our new home from now on.
……to find out why the Munroe family and Edwin migrated to England in 1950, and what happened to them all over the next few years… sign up to follow this blog over the coming weeks. If you do, as I add to it, you will automatically be sent an email to alert you to each new post I make……(just click on the pop-up “Follow” message near the bottom right hand corner of your screen to do this.
If you want to find out what happened in my later life when I returned to help develop my birth country Guyana in South America, then order “The ElDorado Affair” by Jane Joseph ISBN 978-0-9932409-0-4 published by Sapodilla Press available in paperback or Kindle format from Amazon.co.uk, order it through Waterstones or your local book store via Nielsens teledata or read it in Kindle format ISBN 978-0-9932409-1-1 available worldwide on Amazon.com
 This was just an ordinary eating apple, so called in the Caribbean because they were ice cold from having to be kept in a refrigerator to stop them rotting.