The need for raw materials has spawned a wide range of shipping companies in modern times.
When Australian steelmakers needed iron ore, BHP built ships and operated them to carry it. When Oetker, the millers of Hamburg needed grain, Hamburg Sud was born. The legendary paper & pulp empire of Bowaters built a dozen specialised ships to carry reels of newsprint. Even merchant traders such as John Holt of Liverpool had a small fleet of small ships to carry their own cargoes to and from West Africa. Economists define it as vertical integration – or securing and adding value to one’s means of supply. Another example was the procurement of vegetable oils in general, and palm oil in particular, for processing into a myriad of consumer goods. No one was more dominant in this category than Lever Brothers, nowadays of course Unilever.
Had William Lever (1851-1925) never lived, and a writer of fiction in the Forsyte Saga style created the character, his life’s story would be deemed highly improbable. The Lancastrian scion of a local grocer in Bolton, William Lever had, by the age of 34, started a revolution in making, marketing and distributing household soap. His business led to vast wealth, fame and a record of unrivalled philanthropy. The soap factory, at Port Sunlight on the Merseyside coast, had its own berths, at Bromborough Dock. There was no limit to the idiosyncratic enterprising initiatives that did not spring from William Lever’s mind. His wife, Elizabeth, complained that she never lived in a house that had been completed. They slept in the open air all the year round on a veranda on the roof of Thornton Manor.
The main raw material for Sunlight brand soap was palm oil – a product of Europe’s tropical empires. Frustrated by the price volatility of his raw materials, Lever decided, in 1906, to try to stabilise the cost of palm and coconut oil, by owning the source from which they came; even if this meant creating plantations, settlements and transport networks. Lever Brothers started by trying to establish the industry in the British Solomon Islands. Low productivity at the hands of hard-drinking managers, and indolent local workers, resulted in almost complete failure. Quickly recognising these problems, William Lever switched the target of his investments to West Africa, primarily the then Belgian Congo. This vast territory in equatorial Africa had been the personal fiefdom of King Leopold II of the Belgians (1835–1909) who had ruled with a system of human brutality matched only by Mao Tse-tung and Joseph Stalin. King Albert I, his nephew and successor, inherited the huge task of making amends for the genocide of the recent past. An enlightened man, he had surreptitiously made a visit to Port Sunlight in 1903 where he recognised William Lever as the man who, by establishing model oil palm plantations, brought conditions of hope and successful agricultural prosperity. Lever and Albert were a like-minded duo. In 1913, after only two years of planting the first palms, Societe Aonyme de Huileries overcame the challenging transport problems and exported the Congo’s first consignment of palm oil.
Initially transported in casks and drums, the quantities of palm oil soon reached the volume where it had to be moved in bulk, entailing the need to fit coiled heating pipes in the ships’ cargo tanks. A consistent temperature of 90°F (32°C) to 104°F (40°C) is required to maintain the quality of the palm oil. Tallow or lard need a higher temperature. At its worst, at the ambient, palm oil goes solid. Deep tanks were common in cargo ships. They were usually located half way along, adjacent to the engine room and, often above the double bottom up to the level of a ‘tween deck. They were accessed through a gap which was wide enough to handle general cargo or grain-in-bulk. A lid over the gap secured with nuts and bolts made the tanks liquid tight. Tramp ships often used deep tanks for water ballast to enhance stability and for sea-keeping performance. Ships built for cargo liner companies maximised revenue by having a range of deep tanks’ sizes – with great care, vegetable oils could be carried in tanks adjacent to latex (liquid rubber). Care of the steam heated pipe coils, and maintenance of the correct temperatures, were persistant headaches for the ship’s engineering staff.
The First World War (1914-1918) was a seismic chapter in Lever Brothers ever progressive history. The British government asked William Lever to supplement soap production with that of making margarine. Initially branded as “Plate”, it was infamously inedible. As the war effort demand for raw materials increased, the declining amount of cargo shipping drew Lever Brothers into buying out a Manchester shipping company with a fleet of elderly small ships. Concurrent with getting into transport by sea, the company purchased the Niger Company at an inflated price of £8 million. Worse still, and almost unbelievably that no due diligence was undertaken, after the takeover Lever found that the Niger Company had a £2 million overdraft which the banks wanted honouring.
The Niger Company had been operating since the 1860s in what, in 1900, was to become Nigeria. Here was an example of the flag following trade. The major trading company handling imported goods and exporting cocoa, timber and palm oil. In 1929, the corporation merged with the Royal Niger Company (also owned by Lever Brothers) forming a new trading enterprise, the United Africa Company Limited (UAC). With Eastern Trading came five general cargo ships all with the suffix “ian” added to West African place names. Another merger that year came with Lever Brothers and the Dutch Margarine Union which formed Unilever. Four years after William Lever’s death, in 1925, his original company had become an international conglomerate.
For the whole of their 137 year history, Elder Dempster was the dominant carrier of cargo to and from West Africa. Tactically they had even formed the Belgian national line with which to serve the Congo. Determined to defend their monopolies, Elder Dempster, and the Dutch and Germans, had formed a freight conference which lead to a bitter freight war with UAC. Right at the heart of the dispute was the rate charged for palm oil carried in bulk, for 60% of the commodity was controlled by UAC. Many of the problems that arose were caused by the clash of personalities between Sir Robert Waley Cohen, who had lead the formation of UAC, and Elder Dempster’s Owen Philipps who, as Viscount Kylsant, ran the world’s largest merchant shipping fleet of which Elder Dempster was part. In 1930-1931 the status quo changed dramatically.
Kylsant’s financial house of cards collapsed. At the same time, Procter & Gamble of the USA bought out a UK soap company which brought with it manufacturing facilities in London and Manchester. Lever Brothers faced a serious rival.
Among those appointed by the Bank of England to clear up the financial wreckage of the Kylsant crash was Richard (later Sir) Holt, the senior partner of Alfred Holt. His aim was to salvage Glen Line and combine it with Blue Funnel, but this was conditional on taking on and managing impoverished Elder Dempster. Richard Holt represented a new era of forceful constructive management that produced positive results. Both Holt and Waley-Cohen duly settled their differences. At last, Elder Dempster paid for and could use eight “Explorer” Class ships to which were added five newbuildings, dubbed the “S” Class. Meanwhile, UAC continued to carry only “in house” cargoes. In 1934, the company ordered seven newbuildings from a German yard; which was the only means by which Unilever could repatriate profits from its subsidiaries in Nazi Germany. The seventh ship, named Congonian, was a palm oil tanker, which UAC saw as an initial development of the northbound trade. A second tanker, the Matadian (the first), was commissioned at Swan Hunter in Newcastle. The Congonian became UAC’s first loss in the Second World War when, in November 1940, she was torpedoed near Freetown. So vital was palm oil to the war effort, an order was immediately placed with Swan Hunter for a repeat of the Matadian that they had built five years previously. In a utilitarian form, and confusingly named, the replacement tanker Congonian was launched in March 1942, and delivered in May. The Matadian survived until March 1944 when she was torpedoed in Nigerian coastal waters. Once again, a replacement palm oil tanker was ordered. With the relevant licence from the Admiralty with which to place the order, UAC was directed to have it built by James Laing & Sons of Sunderland. It was from their Wearside yard that the Matadian – the second - emerged in March 1948.