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Thursday, June 7, 2007

National Wog

Nobody attended his funeral and his grave was never marked with flowers, but few in a Yorkshire police force would ever forget the name of David Oluwale.

David Oluwale lived a largely anonymous life.

Like so many of his fellow Nigerians, he embarked on the journey from Lagos in 1949 with little more than the clothes on his back and dreams of a better future in Britain.

It wasn't to be. As the ship he had stowed away on docked in Hull, Oluwale was arrested and after spending his first days on foreign shores in Armley Prison, Leeds, for the next 20 years he would be passed between the prison service, the police and High Royds psychiatric hospital in Menston.

While a few would have recognised him as the man whose home was the shop doorways of Leeds city centre, when his body was recovered from the River Aire on May 4, 1969, it appeared to everyone concerned the end to what had been a pitifully lonely existence.

A few days later, when his remains were lowered into a common grave with nine others, it seemed he had lost his long struggle for recognition. But 18 months after his death his name became the focus of a court case which saw two Leeds City Police officers charged with his manslaughter and which shook the force to its foundations.

"At the time there were a lot of rumours about what had really happened to David Oluwale," says Kester Aspden, a former history of crime lecturer at the University of Leeds, who has spent the last two years trying to pull together the fragmented pieces of Oluwale's story.

"But if it hadn't been for a young police officer called Gary Galvin, who decided to report what he had heard to his senior officers, he would have been a forgotten victim of his generation and those who hounded him would have only ever had to answer to their conscience.

"People have described Galvin as a recruit who hadn't been broken in, who didn't understand that you put your colleagues before everything else, but having talked to his son, it seems that throughout his life he was a man of very strong principles."

On Galvin's testimony, a major investigation was launched which resulted in Insp Geoffery Ellerker and Sgt Kenneth Kitching being charged with manslaughter, perjury and grievous bodily harm. While the pair were eventually only convicted of a series of assaults on the vulnerable and mentally ill Oluwale, what emerged during the trial was a picture of a society struggling to adapt to the influx of immigrants whose papers of British citizenship meant very little in 1960s Leeds.

"It says something about how seriously the police took the allegations that Scotland Yard officers were called up to investigate the allegations," says Aspden, who was inspired to write Oluwale's story after discovering a charge sheet relating to the case in the National Archives where an unnamed officer had entered his nationality simply as "Wog".

"However, having gone through all the documents relating to the case, I'm not convinced justice was ever really done. While Ellerker was sentenced to three years and Kitchen was jailed for 27 months, the jury never got to see all the evidence. The idea the abuse may have been racially motivated was never addressed and I just felt that now I could maybe get closer to the truth than they had in 1971."

Oluwale died 12 months after Enoch Powell had delivered his now infamous "Rivers of Blood" speech. In Leeds, like Britain's other major cities, immigrants were widely looked on as second-class citizens and those like Oluwale who ended up on the streets were, says Aspden, regarded as little more than "human rubbish".

In the early 1960s, Oluwale emerged from an eight-year stint in High Royds psychiatric hospital where he had been sent after complaining of hallucinations during yet another spell in prison. Despite bearing the physical and psychological scars of electric shock treatment, he became one of the first guinea pigs of care in the community.

With no friends or relatives, he relied on hostels to provide a roof over his head. When they eventually turned him out following complaints by other residents, he was forced to find shelter in shop doorways, a move which brought him to the attention of Ellerker and Kitching.

"Traders were putting pressure on the police to rid the city of nuisances and Oluwale was one of them," says Kester. "It was a very parochial force and there were stories of how they used to bundle him into the back of the a patrol car and drop him off in the middle of the night in woods outside the city centre boundary.

"Some officers told of how Kitching had urinated on Oluwale while he slept and on the numerous times they arrested him they didn't spare any force.

"It was a case of clearing up their patch and they didn't care how it was done."

Unfortunately for Oluwale, he was always drawn back to the city. While details of his death are scant, what is known is that in the early hours of April 18, 1969, he was seen running away from two men towards the River Aire. The post-mortem revealed not only that he had died from drowning, but that shortly before his death he had received a wound to his head.

"It's hard to tell the story of someone who fell off society's radar," adds Aspden, whose book Nationality Wog: The Hounding of David Oluwale has just been published.

"At the time, no one went to his funeral. When Scotland Yard launched their investigation just seven people came forward to say they knew him and when Interpol tried to trace his family they drew a total blank.

"However, people were much less defensive than I thought they would be. What I wanted to do was show that what happened to Oluwale was part of a much wider social picture, it wasn't about raking up the past for the sake of it.

"Kitching died alone in 1996, but I did try to contact Geoff Ellerker in the hope of getting his side of the story. He didn't wish to speak and I know that he died not that long ago. What happened to Oluwale was horrific, but those officers were also a product of the society in which they lived. Leeds was a city which had zero tolerance policing before the phrase had even been coined.

"Ellerker had his life ahead of him when he was found guilty and the prison sentence finished his career. Even if you can't feel sympathy for him, I think you have to feel for his wife and the knock-on effect it had for his family.

"Despite some reservations, I knew I had to tell this story and I think what happened to Oluwale was symptomatic of a wider British belligerence to immigrants at the time.

"Leeds celebrates its 800th anniversary this year and understandably there will be much emphasis placed on how it has become a multicultural society, but it's worth remembering that it was a painful process and one which wasn't without victims."

While the case caused few ripples outside Yorkshire, it did cast a shadow over the Millgarth station. As the city surged forward into the 1970s, demolishing the back-to-back terraces and welcoming the motorway links to the south and west, many were happy for the fallout from the Oluwale case to be buried under the rubble.

"If the case happened today it would change society and David Oluwale's name would probably be being mentioned in the same breath as Stephen Lawrence," says Aspden.

"It's easy to see why people wanted to forget, but I think we have a duty to remember if only so we can make sure history doesn't repeat itself.

"What happened to Oluwale says a lot about how we deal with difference. Society may have changed, but there are still some groups who find themselves being made scapegoats and it would be a brave man to say something like this couldn't happen again."



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catwalq said...

Amazing story.
As a "non-immigrant" in another man's land I feel very blessed to not have to experience alot of the horrific things others do.
I have heard of stories of Nigerians (as well as other immigrant minorities) in Italy (and probably other parts of Europe) whose children died suddenly after they were taken to the hospital for a brief check up. Most Africans do not ask to see the bodies of their dead young and were thus unaware that many of these children were victims of organ theft.
Minorities have duped each other upon their arrival on foreign shores and soon find themselves destitute at the mercy of strangers, the law and the elements.
Very insightful post. When does the book hit shelves?

cinnamonqueen said...

I read his story in The Observer a few weeks back - God rest his soul in eternal peace.

Oracle said...

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