Incredible hulks

Photo of a hulk at Bonny, ca. 1890. J.H. Reading, The Ogowe Band (1890), p. 120

The second in a series of palm oil photos that didn’t make the cut for Oil Palm: a Global History. This is the clearest photo of a hulk I’ve been able to locate. Unfortunately it’s still pretty boring. But these “hulks” played a vital role in turning southeastern Nigeria into the world’s biggest exporter of palm oil in the second half of the nineteenth century.

Until the 1850s, most foreign traders bought palm oil while “coasting,” or in land-based “factories.” “Coasting” ships moved along the African shore, anchoring off towns and trading centers. (West Africa has relatively few natural deep-water harbors, forcing ships to wait beyond the sandbars.) A cannon-shot announced that business was open, and traders paddled out to the vessel in canoes with calabashes of palm oil to sell. More established companies used “factories,” not a place of manufacturing but rather a place for a “factor” or business agent to work. Factories had been widely used to buy ivory, gold, and slaves, and trading firms reused them for palm oil and established new ones at key trading centers.

In the Niger Delta, European traders found an alternative to the factory in the hulk. Land-based based factories were vulnerable to seizure or attack from local states, and many leaders wouldn’t turn over land to foreigners in the first place. On top of this, Europeans stationed at factories died at astounding rates from disease. (Many firms, like W.B. Hutton & Sons, employed Afro-European employees, sons and cousins of English traders in the case of the Hutton firm.)

Initially, ships trading in the Niger Delta would take down masts and stow sails, and build a temporary roof for the buying season. At the end of the season or when the hold was full of oil, the masts went back up and the ship returned to Europe. (See a great painting of this practice here:, featured in Pauline von Hellerman’s historical overview Red Gold. Or see another a sketch from the 1860s here, with a desription of trade.)

Firms with more capital wanted to trade year-round, to load cargoes of palm oil faster – after all, palm oil was available year-round, though there was a pronounced seasonality to oil production in most places. By towing an old ship to the river estuary, firms could get a permanent floating factory. Ships could unload trade goods at the hulk, load oil, and be on their way in a matter of weeks instead of months, leading to a faster turnaround of capital (and fewer dead sailors).

By the time this photo was taken in the 1890s, hulks were obsolete. Firms had acquired land-based factories and steam lighters to move cargo out to larger vessels. Quinine kept malaria at bay. More importantly, Britain had seized control of the region, using gunboats and marines to protect the interests of European firms. Bonny, where this hulk was located, fell under the Oil Rivers Protectorate in 1885 (merged in 1900 with the rest of Britain’s conquests in Southern Nigeria).

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