Greetings from the Caribbean!
I’m here in the sand and sun in the spanking new Republic of Haiti. I’ve got a glass of rum in my hand and my hat off and the tropical breeze is ruffling the page I write this letter on. I’m trying to get a little sun in my hair as I write, but Penny keeps pushing the hat back on me, the dear girl. But she’s stealing so many surreptitious glances at Captain Frye that her efforts at saving my complexion are kind of half-hearted. (For the record: she’d be sunburned by now if our positions were reversed.)
We’re docked for the sennight at Môle Saint-Nicolas, known in the eighteenth century as the Gibraltar of the Antilles. It’s a really impressive spot: a port on a strait between Cuba and Haiti through which ships must pass in order to sail to Central America. The peninsula is marvelously fortified, and right beyond it is a huge crescent bay in which you could hide an entire fleet (if you had a fleet to hide, which of course Britain did in this era, including the HMS Victory, former command of the hero of the first book in my new Prince Catchers series, I Married the Duke, Luc Westfall, whom you lovelies helped create!)
Later in the 19th century, some years after Lady B’s time [it's hard to imagine, I know!], Haiti was a globally strategic location for another reason. Every place else in the Caribbean except Haiti and the Dominican Republic were European colonies. Now, once everybody started using steamships [fools, all of them! didn't they know how wonderful tall ships were?!], vessels passing from North America to trade in Central America needed coal stations for refueling. So the U.S. started looking for spots to do that everywhere on the route, and they chose Môle Saint-Nicolas. The U.S. tried to pressure Haiti into leasing it to them, going so far as to send the great African-American abolitionist Frederick Douglas to negotiate terms.
The Haitians were amenable; they were savvy businessmen like everybody else on the high seas back then. But just to be sure, the U.S. demanded that Haiti promise not to lease any other part of their island to any other country.
Well, the Haitians didn’t like that. Not one little bit. Some years back, the slaves of the French colony Saint-Domingue had risen up in arms, and in the only successful slave revolt in history those revolutionaries created a nation. So, you see, the descendents of those folks weren’t too keen on letting another nation dictate what they could or couldn’t do with even a square foot of their land. It violated their sovereign rights.
So the U.S. sent over a handful of big old warships to sit in the harbor and put a bit of pressure on the Haitians to agree to their terms.
But the Haitian ambassador in Washington had been carefully analyzing the situation. He sent the Foreign Minister on the island a secret message telling him not to worry about the warships, that the Americans were bluffing. The Foreign Minister turned down the U.S. offer, and the warships turned around and disappeared. It came to be known famously as the only time in history that one man’s signature had defeated an entire navy.
The U.S. was still desperate for a coal stopover on the way to Central America, though. So it invaded Cuba instead, snatched up Guantanamo Bay, and secured it with a perpetual lease. We’ve had it ever since.
And there you have it, a little inspiring history about my first stop on my journey around the world!
Oh, if you’re wondering how I know this nifty history, I have beside me on my beach blanket two great reads. Paul Clammer is an English adventure-travel guide writer and his brand new Bradt Travel Guide: Haiti is the first travel guide written about this nation in twenty-five years. The other book [commence bragging] is my own handsome and brilliant husband’s Haiti: The Aftershocks of History, which just so happens to have been on the top of the New York Times Book Review’s recommended paperbacks list last Sunday.
Years ago my dh wrote another book on Haiti, specifically about the Revolution, which of course was especially inspiring to me. Who knows, maybe this great nation will find its way into my Prince Catchers series. We shall see!
Okay, wait just a second. Penny is now at the water’s edge lifting her petticoats to dip her feet into the waves. And I think I just spied Captain Frye ogling her ankles.
This is getting interesting . . .
See you all on my next stop. Happy sailing, lovelies!
What little known tidbit of history do you especially love to tell?