It was the dry season in Sierra Leone and Pat O'Dwyer was out on trek collecting tax. He received an urgent message to say that the iron ore miners at the Marampa Mines in Lunsar were on strike and that he must go there immediately.
This was tricky. He was in the middle of collecting several thousand pounds worth of tax. All the chiefdom had gathered for the purpose, as well as to have their complaints heard and it was embarrassing for Pat to leave them; besides which the DC was always personally responsible for any deficit in the tax or any other revenue. Nonetheless he decided that he must trust his accompanying clerk, with the help of the Court Messengers, to go on collecting the tax and to bring it in to the Headquarters at Port Loko when it was completed.
He set off with a couple of Court Messengers to the nearest road and there he hired a lorry to take him some several miles on to Lunsar. As he approached the mine a number of palm trees had been felled across the road to prevent any vehicle approaching.
There was a highly tense situation beyond the road block in the mine. Five thousand labourers were very angry; the considerable number of Europeans, mostly Scots, who worked at the Marampa Mines were forced to stay in their houses or they would have been attacked.
Road blocks in the bush are perilous places. The blockers have every advantage and the blocked are left stationary, pointing the wrong way and vulnerable. Nonetheless out climbed O'Dwyer from the lorry to parley. Despite his weak bargaining position, with two unarmed Court Messengers and a commercial lorry driver hired an hour or so earlier, it touched him that on recognising the blue band around his topi signifying that he was the DC, the strikers did not hesitate to accede to his request to remove the trees from across the road.
For several days Pat remained at the mine doing everything he could to persuade the men to go back to work and the company to negotiate. But the miners were adamant that unless they were given more money they would not pick up their shovels. Wages were indeed very low and partly paid in rice but the Company were equally adamant that it would not discuss wage levels under duress and the miners had to go back to work first.
Further pressure was put on Pat by the Provincial Commissioner in Freetown who ordered that the impasse must be broken and the men got back to work. Iron Ore was needed for national purposes: Britain was building up its armaments as World War II loomed.
As there was no way of persuading the Company to offer better wages until the men resumed work, something had to be done to bring this about, in both the miners' and the company's interests. Requesting another 70 Court Messengers from the Provincial Commissioner and a company of troops, Pat O'Dwyer devised a cunning plan which was going to be a long-shot at best. When the troops arrived the officer in charge was told that the soldiers were only in reserve in the event that the strikers went beserk and were to be well hidden from them. The somewhat gung-ho officer was disappointed but did as he was told and drew them up on the road about a mile from the mine well hidden in trees.
Having briefed the Court Messengers, O'Dwyer then sent a message out that it was very important to have as many of the miners as possible to attend a meeting on the football field. When they arrived he harangued them as he had done several times previously trying to persuade them to return to work, while the Court Messengers were scattered amongst the crowd. With the Company's approval, he told the men that if they did start work again they might stand a chance of higher wages.
When, as he expected, they refused once more to go, Pat gave a pre-arranged signal to the 70 Court Messengers who each grabbed the workman next to him and frog-marched him up the hill. "Damn me if the plan did not work." he wrote. Having seen that the game was up the others on the field meekly followed the seventy frog-marched men and walked to the mine.
I would like to conclude by saying that there was a happy ending with all parties satisfied by the outcome but history does not relate the sequel. What this story does illustrate though is that DCs often had to devise ingenious plans to avoid disaster and bloodshed which is, after all, one of the main reasons why they were there.
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