- Historic Sites
“That Hell-hole Of Yours”
In 1943 Franklin D. Roosevelt visited Britain’s poorest, most dismal African colony, and what he saw there fired him with a fervor that helped found the United Nations
October 1995 | Volume 46, Issue 6
The traveling came off without serious incident. Roosevelt slowed things now and then because of his penchant for sightseeing or his love of conversation. “He acted like a sixteen-year-old” when strapped into the plane, Hopkins wrote, occasionally instructing the pilot to deviate from the direct route and fly over such landmarks as the Citadel in Haiti so he could have a good look. At breakfast with military officers at the Magueripe Hotel in Trinidad, he acted as if he were on a “first class holiday” rather than on a mission to chart the course of a world war, lingering to tell what Hopkins remembered as “some of his old favorite stories” and appearing to be “in no hurry to get off tho the Secret Service were having fits.”
Weather probably slowed their travel more. Crossing the Atlantic, headwinds held steady at thirty knots, driving the clippers’ speed down to 105 knots. Cocktails before dinner, gin-rummy games, and detective novels helped pass the time, but the tedium (and the fact, as Hopkins put it, that “everyone was dog-tired”) caused people to turn in early. In the late afternoon of January 14, nineteen hours after taking off from Brazil, the pilots caught sight of the Gambia River and set their craft down near Bathurst. They taxied near two United States Navy ships; one of them, the light cruiser Memphis, would serve as Roosevelt’s overnight residence, because the party’s advance man, Michael Reilly, had judged Gambia’s capital “a disease-infected post with no suitable living accommodations.”
This was Roosevelt’s first—and for all he knew his only—visit to Africa, and he intended to make the most of it. Once lifted out of the plane and into a motorized whaleboat, he chose to take a reconnaissance of the port of Bathurst instead of going directly to the Memphis. Bathurst was not a pretty sight. It was an old city—never a healthy place—and was one of the first spots in the Empire the British would neglect when times were tight. According to Durno, the whaleboat tour of the harbor gave the President “his first good look at the incredibly squalid, disease-ridden town.” Durno went on: “In between the grimy docks were innumerable abandoned and rust-scaled barges and scows literally teeming with Negro children and their parents—the beached and docked boats apparently serving as homes for a portion of the waterfront population.” In the cool evening breeze, the river along downtown Bathurst smelled of rotten fish and sewage.
Following a quiet night on the Memphis, Roosevelt and his advisers awoke before sunrise, took the whaleboat to the Royal Air Force slipway in Bathurst, and then, in what Durno describes as a “heterogeneous collection of motor vehicles,” made their way through the town toward the airfield. Reilly called Roosevelt a “tireless landscape watcher”; he was forever focused on his surroundings. What he saw on this half-hour ride planted in his mind an image of the results of the worst colonial exploitation. Hopkins described Bathurst’s residents as “an ill-clothed, glum-looking lot” and wrote down the startling information on wages and life expectancy that Roosevelt conveyed to Elliott upon landing in Casablanca. In more detail Durno related the shock of intruding into an alien culture that the entire American party experienced on the way to the airstrip: “The route to Yundum, over a washboard road, wound through the smelly, primitive town of Bathurst. Native merchants were vending fish heads, apparently a local delicacy, along the roadside. Negro women in an odd assortment of clothing filed past balancing five-gallon jugs of palm wine on their heads. Huts and hovels of thatch, mat and adobe bulged with gangly, undernourished children.”
Even friendly visitors called the city an “open sore” and a “disgrace to the Colonial Empire.”
The party passed a notorious, swampy area that collected runoff from the town, fouled the air, and harbored malarial mosquitoes. They saw scores of people who had slept the night in the street. They drove by the nineteenth-century trading quarters on the town’s main road, named Wellington Street, and passed the whitewashed governor’s mansion. They bounced across Denton Bridge, which tied Bathurst to the mainland, and passed the turnoff for Cape St. Mary, the breezy and healthful location on the Atlantic where British officials kept their private residences. Everywhere they passed malnourished, sick people. Eventually they came to Yundum Field, a two thousand-by-fifty-yard strip of metal over graded red earth carved out of the trees and brush.
The members of the party were not made more comfortable by seeing inquisitive baboons standing about or by learning that the day before a leopard had emerged from the surrounding bush to lope up and down the runway. The party eagerly boarded one of the two C-54 transport planes that would fly them on the final leg to Casablanca; twelve days later they would return.
The Casablanca Conference fulfilled the President’s hopes. The military staffs agreed generally on war priorities, and Roosevelt and Churchill persuaded the French resistance leader Charles de Gaulle to sign a declaration of unity with Gen. Henri Giraud, the head of French forces in North Africa. At the final press conference the President got away with calling for the unconditional surrender of Germany, Italy, and Japan without Churchill’s having known for sure that he would spring their agreement on the public.