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Desperate Mariners

Sailing down Haiti’s north coast one comes to the legendary isle of Tortuga, a series of green hills and beaches with protected anchorage behind extensive coral reefs.  The great haunt and harbor of the “buccaneers” in the 17th century, now it is the boatbuilding capitol of the country.  As we sailed close down the reef-fringed leeward coast, I was amazed to see more than 60 boats ranging in size from 20 to over 50 feet, from skeletal beginnings—a keel and a few frames—to shiny vessels ready for bottom paint, all lined up on the beach just beyond the high tide mark, their prows pointed towards the sea.

It’s no secret that these boats will be smuggling migrant Haitians to America—oft times to their deaths.  The problem is not the well-built boats but the desperation of Haitian life which fuels the floods of migrants seeking something better, at any cost.

Most everybody has seen the pictures, unbelievable photos of, say, a 30’ open boat stopped by the Coast Guard in calm water with maybe 60 people on board, no compass, scant fresh water and all of six inches of freeboard to get all the way to Florida.   It beggars the imagination how people can board such dangerously overloaded vessels.  It’s as though they’d rather die than go back to Haiti—and it turns out that’s exactly what it is.

I spoke to one young man of about 30 who said he’d tried three times to escape from Haiti.  Once, the boat hit a breaker (outlying rock) halfway up the Bahamas and washed ashore.  After a miserable ordeal they were discovered and sent to Nassau where they clogged the streets and were, after nine months, repatriated to Haiti.  On the second trip, he traveled with one of his aunts who had sold everything she owned to buy two places on a boat taking them to Florida.  That boat encountered strong winds and big seas in the passage between Haiti and Great Inagua, and sprang a plank.  It went down fairly close to land.  They clung to an old fender and his aunt began to hallucinate. When she came to her senses she asked him if they had reached Miami yet.  No, he replied, we’re still close to Haiti.  In despair, she slipped beneath the waves.

Nobody knows what percentage of these desperate people die on their way across the reef studded waters that lie between the promised land of skyscrapers and the unpaved purgatory they left, but the attrition rate may well exceed that of the infamous middle passage   The evidence of this ongoing disaster is all about. Having anchored off Castle Island, an uninhabited islet in the Bahamian Out Islands, I took myself and my dog ashore for a walk.  The lively little Schipperke was having a great time chasing lizards and putting wading birds to flight when he stopped and  worried  at something with his teeth.  I helped him extricate it from the sand and stones of the water’s edge—it looked like a woman’s blouse that had once been gaudy with color. I thought nothing of it, assuming a skinny-dipping yachtie had lost her top.

But then the dog found another piece of material, this time a pair of trousers.  As we progressed down the beach we found article after article of clothing half buried in the sand and coral. There must have been over a hundred panties, socks, dresses, shoes, belts, pants, dress shirts—all of it brightly colored and inexpensively made. Finally it dawned upon me that this was probably all that remained of a boatload of people who drowned somewhere nearby offshore. 

Such horrific tales were told of the migrant smuggling voyages!  When we were tied up to the long shipping dock in Port au Prince for six weeks, we got to know the crew of a large U.S. Coast Guard cutter, berthed at the very end of the pier, whose mission was to patrol Haitian waters and intercept illegal migrants.  The coasties would stop by after hours to help us drink our store of good Cuban rum—the excellent local Barbancourt being temporarily unavailable.

To a man they swore to two stories that I still have a hard time believing—then again, if I had been alive in 1940, I would have discounted stories about the Holocaust as farfetched propaganda run amuck.   I pass the following on in the tradition of Herodotus who reported what people told him and left it to his readers to believe or not.
One day on patrol they passed a Haitian sailboat filled with people—an apparent smuggler—but passed it up to stop another vessel first.  By the time they got back to the first sailboat all the people were gone.  The boat was empty save for three crew and forty suitcases filled with personal belongings. When asked about the luggage the crew baldly asserted it was theirs.  The Coast Guard was sure they had knocked their passengers in the head and dumped them overboard, but could find no bodies.

The other incident involved a boat that took on its desperate cargo in Cap Haitien on the North coast and set sail for Miami.  Once away from shore, the crew murdered all the passengers, decapitating them so there might be no recognizable corpses floating back to shore.  The boat went to the Bahamas, stayed for a week then headed back to Cap Haitian.  However they hadn’t reckoned on decomposition in the brain cavity creating gases that floated the heads back to the surface and eventually onto the shore where people recognized their loved ones. When the boat docked in Cap Haitien the crew was met by an enraged mob that dragged them off their vessel and, literally, tore them limb from limb.  Is this true?  When it comes to man’s brutality anything is possible.  And it does sound like Haiti.   What Herodotus realized is that the fact that certain stories are being circulated and believed says something about the reality level there.   These stories aren’t being told about the Staten Island ferry.

At any rate the Haitian migration is the latest chapter being played out in our time.   Previous eras saw worse, for instance the slave trade in the original inhabitants of the Bahamas, to Hispaniola.  It was said (circa 1500) that a ship could navigate from the Bahamas to Hispaniola by following the trail of floating corpses.  That trade only lasted till the Lucayans were extinct. Then the second chapter opened and lasted a couple of centuries—African slavery. The irony is that today’s trade is voluntary, people desperate to leave Haiti.

It’s lucky that Great Inagua and the Turk are just across the 90-mile channel from Haiti.  A common scam among the smugglers was to drop people off at Molasses Bay, in Great Inagua, just out of sight of Matthewtown, point to the beach saying—Miami is just a two mile walk down that path.  Seasick, scared, the people want to believe it and walk off with their sacks on their heads.    By the time they come over the low rise and see the sandy streets and single story buildings of Matthewtown, set amidst the cactus, the boat is gone.  As a result, the town of Grand Turk, when we were there, was overflowing with Haitians, sitting on the sidewalks, under shade trees, looking for work or just looking.  People living there said that now was the time to build a house or a fence or anything—skilled labor was dirt-cheap and unskilled laborers would work for a plate of rice and beans.

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