Four stowaways tried to hijack a container ship and threatened to kill the crew in a desperate bid to reach Britain, a court has heard.

The men, from Nigeria and Liberia, allegedly armed themselves with metal poles and lobbed faeces after they broke out of quarantine aboard the 78,000 tonne Grande Tema.

Special forces swooped on the ship in the Thames Estuary to rescue the sailors in December last year, a jury was told.

Samuel Jolumi, 27, Ishola Sunday, 28, Toheeb Popoola, 27, and Joberto McGee, 20, have denied attempting to hijack the ship, making threats to kill, and affray.

Opening their Old Bailey trial, prosecutor Tony Badenoch QC said the defendants had hidden themselves aboard the international merchant ship voyaging between West Africa and various European ports including Tilbury in Essex.

The Italian flagged Grande Tema weighs unladen some 78,000 tonnes, is 232 metres long, 32 metres wide and approximately 38 metres above the water line.

The container vessel operated by the Grimaldi Group is heavier than the UK’s largest aircraft carrier, and only slightly shorter in length than the Houses of Parliament, Mr Badenoch said.

He told jurors: “As you will no doubt be aware, migrants are leaving Africa and using all manner of different routes across land and sea to reach Europe and of course the UK here in Europe.”

He said the four defendants stowed away on the lower deck of the Grande Tema in Lagos, Nigeria, for many days of the voyage.

When the crew discovered them, they were placed into quarantine, jurors heard.

But Mr Badenoch said: “Five days later they broke free from the room in which they had been detained, and threatened to kill the crew members whilst making demands that the ship should make its way to the United Kingdom.

“In order to reinforce these demands the defendants armed themselves with metal poles, they threw urine and faeces, and in at least one defendant’s cases, they cut themselves.

“The crew believed that the reason for the cut was a form of threat, that they would pass on disease that they carried to the crew unless their demands were met.”

The incident was reported to British authorities and the ship was held off-shore in UK waters until the situation on board was resolved and the safety of the crew secured.

Mr Badenoch said: “That resolution was in the middle of the night at 10.55pm.

“That was done by the intervention of the special forces going to the Grande Tema to resolve the situation.

“Only once that had been done, with these four defendants detained, was the ship permitted to continue its voyage into Tilbury.

“The defendants were then brought ashore, spoken to by both police and immigration officers, before being charged with these serious offences.”

The Grande Tema set sail from Lagos on December 10 last year bound for Tilbury.

The defendants did not bring enough food for the voyage and were discovered six days later while the ship was in the North Atlantic, the court heard.

The captain found them on the lower deck ramp close to where the propellers are, with two hanging over the rails in dangerous waters, jurors were told.

He negotiated with them to come fully on board and to safety and offered them food, jurors were told.

Mr Badenoch said the fact the crew were seen smiling and helping the stowaways was relevant in the case.

He said the defendants later claimed the same people who helped, fed and clothed them went on to become the aggressors and attacked them.

During the negotiations, the defendants also claimed that there had been a fifth stowaway who had fallen overboard, the court heard.

When the stowaways managed to escape from quarantine they set about getting to Britain “at all costs”, jurors heard.

They made cut-throat gestures, waved bottles of urine and threatened to throw crew overboard, it was claimed.

The migrants demanded to be taken to the nearest coast so they could jump and swim to shore, jurors were told.

Thames Estuary stowaways
The Grimaldi Lines’ Grande Tema (Gareth Fuller/PA)

Meanwhile, most of the 27-strong crew had retreated to the bridge, leaving just three in the engine room.

During the stand-off, the threats continued with one note stating: “I swear to God big problem for the ship,” jurors heard.

The court was shown video footage of the alleged hijackers armed with metal poles, with one appearing to square up in a boxing pose.

On December 21, the ship’s captain alerted the coastguard “with some urgency”, Mr Badenoch said.

The lawyer said: “Put more simply, four days before Christmas, the middle of winter in the English Channel, with four armed men at sea free on the deck of this container ship, approaching the bridge and threatening to kill the crew for their own purposes.

“Those purposes were, to them at least, of far greater importance to anything else with which the Grande Tema was concerned. It was coming to shore for their purposes, at whatever cost.”

The ship’s captain told the coastguard the stowaways were “dangerous” and “very violent”.

While he kept the vessel under control, he was not able to drop anchor or allow a pilot aboard to guide the vessel into dock, the court heard.

During negotiations, McGee expressed his hope to come to the UK to play football, jurors heard.

As darkness fell, the captain was instructed to turn off the lights and special forces took back control, 14 hours after the crew took refuge on the bridge.

The jury has been told they will view the Grande Tema at Tilbury Docks on Friday.