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CUSTOMS AND PRACTICE

When I was working in the British Merchant Navy in the 1960’s I was exposed to situations that ordinarily I would never have experienced had I stayed in the well known East Midlands Town that was my home at the time. Although combined into a single story, the incidents described below occurred at different times, on different ships and across several years.

Customs

No matter what port we visited, the one set of officials that created the greatest frisson of concern amongst the crew and officers on the ship were the local Customs Officials.

The approaches and attitudes of local officials varied according to the Country you visited. In Jeddah, Saudi Arabia the ship’s bond containing tobacco, cigarettes and alcoholic beverages was locked and sealed on arrival at the Port and the ship’s officers were expressly forbidden to consume alcohol in any form until after we departed.

However had fire broken out on board during the time we were unloading at Jeddah, many of the fire extinguishers in the ship’s accommodation areas would have been inoperable or if they did operate would be found to contain fire accelerants (Whisky, Gin or Rum) rather than retardants!

In Colombo during my time at sea, there was a lively black market in hard currency which meant that whilst the official rate of exchange was about ten Ceylonese rupees to the Pound Sterling, it was possible to exchange Sterling bank notes on the Black market for over three times the official rate. On arrival at the port we had to declare any hard currency of any Nationality or denomination that we possessed and place these into the safe keeping of the Purser/Chief Steward who would hold them in the ship’s safe until our departure from the Port. American Dollars and Sterling pound notes were the “must have currencies” on the Ceylonese Black market. Almost all of the small businesses operating in Colombo would give you the Black Market rate for your Pounds on any purchase made with Sterling Bank notes.

Safe practice was to draw around Fifty Ceylonese rupees ((£5 equivalent) from the ship on arrival at Colombo and never take more than that amount ashore with you at any one time. You had to be imaginative as to where you secreted any contraband Sterling notes about your person but it was extremely rare in my experience to be challenged by a Customs Official as you moved to and from the ship into the city of Colombo. The one exception to that rule that I know about is described later in this tale.

Possession of a few five pound notes or even better a single ten pound note changed on the Black market could provide you with sufficient local currency to have a good time ashore over many days with change to spare. The downside to this currency trading was that if you were caught carrying Sterling notes that you had not declared on arrival at the port or you possessed local currency in excess of the amount drawn from the ship, you could be heavily fined.

Fortunately that never happened to me but it did happen to a junior electrician shipmate of mine who had been ashore and was on his way back to the ship when he was caught.

The story he told afterwards to the intense enjoyment and considerable amusement of the rest of us on board was that having passed safely through the Customs Hall after a visit ashore and whilst waiting at the edge of the jetty for the launch to take him back to our ship, he decided that because of the considerable pressure on his bladder that he needed to take a comfort break. Unfortunately for him there were no facilities on the jetty side of the Customs Hall. His dilemma therefore was should he retrace his steps and walk back through the Customs Hall in order to find relief, or did he risk the real possibility that his bladder would leak profusely before he managed to get back to the ship.

He decided out of sheer necessity to throw caution to the winds and return back the way he had only recently come. Having obtained that blessed relief and in a state of utter contentment he then walked through the Customs Hall for the second time.

His movements through the Customs Hall had been observed by a vigilant Customs Officer who concluded that my shipmate was acting suspiciously. The result was that he was stopped and searched. The search revealed that he was in possession of both Sterling notes and local currency that were confiscated on the spot. He was required at a later date to explain how he came to be in possession of such currency when a Customs check revealed that he had not declared his possession of the Sterling on arrival at Colombo nor had he drawn any local currency from the ship.

The junior electrician hailed from Bury in Lancashire and his direct manner, Anglo Saxon expletives and broad Lancashire accent had us all in fits of laughter when he told the story especially as we all realised that his experience could have happened to any one of us.

To cut a long story short the decision on what action to take against him ultimately fell to Colombo’s most Senior Customs Officer who in the course of his vigorous criminal investigation found it necessary to make several visits to the ship where he was entertained lavishly by the Purser/Chief Steward.

As I understand it, the Senior Customs Officers official decision, not to take the matter beyond issuing a verbal warning was aided enormously by the large quantities of cigarettes and Scotch whisky he took away with him at the end of each visit. The junior Electrician, who was unable to hold back the tears of laughter that fell down his face, then told us that his punishment was not to laugh when he was summoned before the said Senior Customs Officer and lectured on the importance of honesty.

Even today when I pass through the Customs Green Channel (nothing to declare) at Airports or Ports, I feel apprehensive even though I know if I were unfortunate enough to be stopped I would have no problems whatsoever. I guess this stems from my experiences of over fifty years ago when the Officers and Rummage squads of Her Majesty’s Customs and Excise came on board. These Officers and squads came in numbers when our ships arrived back in the UK at the end of a deep sea voyage. I admit to stretching the rules back then on the amount of pipe tobacco allowed for personal use because it was incredible how much you could cram into a tobacco pouch particularly if it was the transparent plastic type that would stretch under pressure!

For larger or more expensive items such as perfume, jewellery, radios or binoculars I always found it easier to declare any items above the allowance and pay the duty or tax requested. I still have some of the pink slips that were issued on payment of the Duty.

The Senior Customs Officers with two stripes or above on their uniform jacket sleeves were always eminently reasonable in their dealings with me unlike their one stripe juniors in the Rummage squads who were like rabid dogs and took the view that we were all hiding vast amounts of contraband and therefore guilty until we could prove our innocence.

Maybe their career progression depended on their success rate in finding contraband goods but whatever it was, I found them universally unpleasant. They were particularly interested in the radio room equipment cabinets and I had several lively discussions pointing out to them that if they opened the equipment up they would be responsible for any damage caused. I guess the Law and Regulations were always on their side but it was rare for them to attempt to open up the equipment after our conversations.

The Rummage Teams were equipped with Torches and mirrors on the end of long metal poles and would poke these into the most obscure parts of the ship’s accommodation in their quest for undeclared items. Any drawers in your cabin or in the radio room would be taken out and the dark inner recesses of the furniture would be illuminated by the torch as the mirrors swept backward and forwards as they sought to discover any hidden items. The radio spares lockers as well as the emergency battery locker were always places of interest to them but they had to be careful not to burn acid holes in their uniforms if they brushed against the batteries!

Given the vigour and diligence of their searches on board ship in their quest to discover contraband items, I could never understand how the trading that took place on the Manchester Ship Canal fell below the radar of HM Customs and Excise.

When I went to sea for the first time I was paid around £60 a month all found which sounds a small amount in today’s terms but in fact was well paid at the time. On board ship a bottle of whiskey would cost five shillings (twenty five pence) and a box of two hundred cigarettes around ten shillings (fifty pence in today’s money). A case of 24 beers would set you back the grand total of one pound.

Although the crew could not buy alcohol on the ship, they could buy cigarettes and tobacco and these commodities became an additional source of income when they were sold ashore.

The Indian or Pakistani crews of Brocklebank ships transiting the Manchester Ship Canal would regularly sell cigarettes to people at the side of the canal, usually but not always the lock keepers employed by the Manchester Ship Canal Company. All this was done in broad daylight under the non seeing eyes of the ship’s navigating officers and the Manchester ship Canal Pilot, (remember the old saying that there are none so blind as those who do not wish to see?).

The way the transaction was carried out was beautifully simple. Firstly there would be the enquiry from the prospective purchaser (on the side of the canal), as to the availability of the wanted item(s). Then there would be the offer and the customary bargaining over price. If the price was agreed then a bucket would be lowered on the end of a rope over the side of the ship to the prospective purchaser who would place the agreed sum into the bucket.

The bucket would then be raised up the side of the ship, swung onboard and the money counted. Assuming the money was correct there would be calls from the crew member with the bucket to a compatriot on board who would hurry forward from their accommodation astern clutching a parcel under their outer coat. The concealed package would be placed in the bucket and rapidly swung out and lowered to the waiting purchaser. If the received goods were satisfactory then there were cheery waves and the ship carried on with its transit of the canal.

This and similar transactions would be repeated time and time again at all of the Locks on the way up and on the way down the canal.

I can only conclude that the Lock workers were incredibly heavy smokers or used the purchases as a means of supplementing their own income just like some people still do today when they return from Continental booze cruises.

Practice

At all the Ports in the United Kingdom that I ever visited there were revenue generating practices operated by the majority of the Dock Police.

When leaving your ship at the end of a voyage, it was necessary to obtain a luggage pass from the Mate (second in command to the Captain), in order to take your possessions out of the Port.

At the dock gates, in theory all you had to do was present the signed luggage pass to the police officer on duty to be allowed to leave the Port and commence your journey home. However the reality was somewhat different. Your local taxi driver who was taking you from the ship to the railway station would advise whether the police officers on the gate were amenable to a “gift” and if so whether they had a preference for money or cigarettes. The usual amount was two or three packets of cigarettes or a ten shilling note (50 Pence) enclosed within the folds of your luggage pass. If the Police Officer at the gate expected a “gift” and it was not forthcoming then failure to pay would result in you having to remove all of your luggage from the taxi and open it up onto the often wet and universally dirty dock road to allow the officer to ensure you were not acting dishonestly in trying to remove goods from the ship or port!

I suspect that some or all of the customs and practices mentioned in this tale continue to this day. One practice on board Brocklebank ships was the payment of “Baksheesh” (Gratuity or tip) to your cabin steward in recognition of the excellent service provided in looking after you. The use of the word excellent here is carefully chosen because in the main that was exactly what it was.

I forget how the amount to be paid was calculated but it was never a great deal of money even after a long voyage. It was always paid in cash either in India, or on return to the UK. I have also paid it in Jeddah Saudi Arabia because my steward who was a Muslim wished to attend the Hajj pilgrimage during the few days we were unloading at the port. On Brocklebank ships the payment of Baksheesh was both a custom and common practice.

copyright © John Leary