We don’t know the full story yet of course but the horrifyingly large numbers of people killed in the Haiti earthquake goes beyond immediate imagining. People predict tens of thousands of deaths in this the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere.
It will be a long time before we know the final list of casualties but already Haiti is haunting those with consciences to haunt.
I was shocked to hear the news last night and then I remembered that I had my own reasons to remember Haiti. More of that in a moment.
So near to the great United States of America, and once so interesting for its gold to the Spaniards and then to the succeeding invaders, the French. It has been fought over and ignored by the rich nations of the World and then left to rot in its own brand of poverty at the very bottom of the pile in the Western World.
The earthquake had nothing to do with colonialism or poverty but maybe the poorly built capital city of Port au Prince owes its destruction to its history of exploitation and corruption. It is time anyway for the World to wake up to the plight of this tiny island with his history of bad luck, ill-rule and misery.
But you will read about this tragedy elsewhere today I hope. Let’s go back now to the Summer of 1992.
I was a television producer in those days and I was given the job of making a two-hour live television programme about the Tall Ships Race which had just been held as part of the 500th Anniversary Celebrations of Christopher Columbus’ “discovery” of America.
These beautiful sailing ships had raced from Boston to Liverpool and on Sunday 16th. August 1992, they were to take part in a “Parade of Sail” out of the Liverpool Docks and out to sea on their way home to twenty different nations around the World.
Boats are boats as far as I am concerned, pretty yes, inspiring too at times and I could see how important they are to maritime ports like Liverpool where the age of sail is a sacred memory of the city’s former greatness.
So celebrating sailing boats was just fine as far as I could see.
Celebrating the birth of America too – I can see why we should honour a country which has been a symbol of hope to many even if it’s history, like our own, is to say the least, chequered.
Celebrating Christopher Columbus and the Spanish conquest of the Americas – now this is where things starting sticking in my gullet.
So I did a deal with my bosses, I would make the programme…all terrifyingly exposed 120 minutes of live broadcasting as long as I could put forward an alternative view to these “celebrations.” It was agreed with a few raised eye-brows that I would invite over to Liverpool for this event the recently exiled President of Haiti whose nation had reason enough to regret Senor Columbus’ footfall.
And so we went into action…..the cameras rolled, sailing pundits enthused about the boats, choirs sang sea shanties and the boats floated passed our camera positions on the docks, on other boats and from a helicopter in the sky and then off they went, out to sea.
There was a strong wind that day and before you could say Jack Tar, most of these much loved ships had, well, gone.
We carried on of course – well it was live television and we survived with a show that may have had less ships in it than you could possibly imagine but which will always be memorable to me for its star guest.
Up there on the roof of our Liverpool TV studios, stood President Jean-Bertrand Aristide of Haiti. Behind him, if only briefly, were those tall ships, beneath him the sounds of a European city in celebration and then he said “What is there to celebrate?”
Just under a year earlier he had been ousted from power by a military coup and two years later President Clinton manages his return to power which, sadly in my opinion, came to an untimely end before his second enforced exile to, where he is still living, South Africa.
Jean-Bertrand Aristide was originally a humble parish priest from a Port au Prince slum parish, his theology, so unpopular with the last Pope, was known as Liberation Theology and he lost his place in the Roman Catholic Church as a consequence. In spite of the almost certainly politically inspired accusations of corruption, he was and, as far as I can see, still is, a champion of his people and a spokesmen for the poor under-belly of his the poorest of nations. I hope that he will return one day especially as the current President of Haiti was one of his supporters.
Anyway, on that day, he did his bit for his people, an isolated figure amongst Liverpool’s civic celebrations. He did his duty and reminded us that it was Christopher Columbus, that first European, who first set foot on Haiti, on 5th. December 1492. It then became a Spanish colony, gold was discovered and practically the entire indigenous population, almost all of them enslaved by the Spanish, was wiped out by European diseases. This loss of their valuable stock of slaves let the Spanish to import the new better known brand of African slave and the rest, as they say, is History.
Later that night, in August 1992, Liverpool put on a gala opera concert on the Albert Dock….the bill was topped by two great Spanish opera stars, Montserrat Caballe and Alfredo Kraus and the guests of honour were the king and queen of Spain. It was called Fanfare For A New World.
I was invited to go along but I refused even though I had long been a fan of Madame Caballe and even more so of the great and under-estimated lyric tenor Alfredo Kraus. I could not have sat there in all conscience with Jean-Bertrand Aristide’s words still ringing in my ears.
The next morning when I got into work, the switchboards were jammed with the most complaints Granada Television had ever had up until that day. Liverpudlians in their hundreds had decided to stay in and watch the ships on television instead of going down to the docks themselves and were really upset that the whole programme was not just, well, ships. Sorry Liverpool but tough. Get over it. I am proud to say that my bosses stood by me too.
My heart still bleeds for you Haiti.