Havana Sleeping shortlisted for CWA Historical Dagger Award

Havana Sleeping by Martin Davies

Martin Davies has been shortlisted for the prestigious CWA Historical Dagger Award for his novel, Havana Sleeping, an espionage thriller based on the true experiences of a British civil servant.

Posted on May 22, 2015 in Guest Author
Tags: CWA Historical Dagger Award, Historical Crime, Martin Davies

Barak Obama is not the first US President to take an interest in Cuba….

It is over 50 years since the disastrous Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba by US-based forces, but for many people it is still the defining event in US-Cuban relations. John F Kennedy was the president caught in the spotlight then, but had he been a student of history he would have taken consolation from the fact that he was not the first US president to find himself in the same predicament. Students of nineteenth century history knew that the Bay of Pigs fiasco was by no means the first of its kind.

My novel Havana Sleeping is an espionage thriller based on the true experiences of a minor British civil servant, George Backhouse, who was posted to Cuba in the 1850s, a time of extraordinary instability in the island’s history. His role was to assist British efforts to stamp out the slave trade. By permission of the Spanish authorities – a permission forced out of the Spanish government by determined British diplomatic pressure – the Royal Navy was conducting patrols in Cuban waters, arresting and escorting into Havana any vessels thought guilty of illegal slaving operations. But these British initiatives were far from popular with Cuba’s great landowners, whose plantations depended upon slave labour. Many wealthy Cubans found themselves looking across the water to America, where slavery and the slave trade were legal and where the southern plantations were flourishing.

This flirtation was by no means one-sided. Both economically and strategically, Cuba was attractive to a rapidly expanding United States. As early as 1808, Thomas Jefferson was investigating the possibility of purchasing the island; the following year he wrote to James Madison to lay out the benefits of including Cuba in the union.

And it was not only the Jefferson and JFK administrations who found their eyes turning towards Havana. In 1828, John Quincy Adams considered it certain that annexation of the island would take place within the next 50 years. In what is now known as the “Ripe Fruit” approach (one that Obama would certainly recognise) he declared “There are laws of political as well as physical gravitation; and if an apple severed by its native tree cannot choose but fall to the ground, Cuba, forcibly disjoined from its own unnatural connection with Spain, and incapable of self-support, can gravitate only towards the North American union… There is no foreign territory of greater significance to the United States than the island of Cuba…  It has come to take on momentous importance for the political and commercial interests of our union.” 

The Spanish, unfortunately, had other ideas. But by the C19th they were no longer a major power, politically or militarily, and the ability of Spain to hold onto its Caribbean possession in the face of military force was about to be tested.

But not through a straightforward war. Like the CIA in 1961, like Russia in the Ukraine today, ways could be devised of seizing territory while avoiding the awkwardness of official government involvement. Enter the filibusters, military adventurers who in the nineteenth century took it upon themselves to grab territories without the sanction of the US government.

The 1850s was the great age of American filibustering. In 1855, for instance, William Walker, an American opportunist, seized control of the whole of Nicaragua, including its vital trans-isthmus crossing. There were many who favoured a similar approach in Cuba, from slave owners eager to add a new and staunch slaving state to the union, to idealists keen to “liberate” the island from its colonial yoke. The focus of these efforts was Narciso Lopez, a Venezuelan who had once served in Cuba as assistant to the island’s Captain-General.

After losing that post, Lopez drifted into the island’s anti-Spanish faction and, in 1843, fled to the United States where he set about building support for an army of invasion. He found fertile ground for his schemes, particularly in the American south. His first attempt at a filibuster raid was thwarted by Zachary Taylor, one of the shorter lived US presidents. But in 1850, with Taylor dead, Lopez and a force of around 600 men landed successfully in Cuba and seized the town of Cardenas. Local support was not forthcoming, however, and faced with a large and reasonably well organised Spanish force, Lopez burned Cardenas and retreated to the United States – where he was indicted for breach of the Neutrality Act, only to be acquitted by a sympathetic jury. The president of the time, Millard Fillmore – like JFK in 1961 – faced criticism both for allowing the invasion to take place and for allowing it to fail.

Lopez tried again in 1851, and this expedition certainly bears comparison with the Bay of Pigs invasion, as it too was a terrible military disaster. Having failed to land any significant blow upon the Spanish, he and most of his force was quickly captured. The majority of them, including Lopez, were swiftly executed.

But that was not an end to the story. US public opinion in both north and south was outraged by Spain’s brutality towards the defeated force and by the time George Backhouse, the leading character in Havana Sleeping, arrived in Cuba, yet another invasion force was gathering in the United States. This one was larger and under the command of a former governor of Mississippi, John A Quitman, who was encouraged in his ambitions by the new president, Franklin Pierce. The action of Havana Sleeping is played out against this backdrop of imminent invasion, and against the diplomatic conniving that accompanied it, with Great Britain desperate to prevent annexation by the US, and America equally determined to end European control of an island of such economic and strategic importance.

One event described in my novel is the unexplained sinking of the USS Albany in the Gulf of Mexico. That event remains a mystery. But when in 1898 war between Spain and the USA finally broke out (under president William McKinley), one of its causes was the sinking of another American battleship. As with the Albany, the direct cause of the sinking of the Maine is still not certain. The Americans blamed the Spanish; the Spanish denied everything. George Backhouse, had he still been alive, would have found the situation painfully familiar.

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