Over the course of the last few months, I’ve been increasingly horrified by all the accounts I’ve seen of mass drownings of migrants in the Mediterranean. Last week, a boat carrying as many as six hundred people capsized off the coast of Libya, while yesterday, I learned of the deaths of forty or more people in truly hideous circumstances, but the one that’s burned into my memory took place in late April of this year, when a boat carrying Syrian and Eritrean refugees disintegrated as it hit rocks off the coast of the Greek island of Rhodes.
The sinking of this boat resulted in the iconic image of army sergeant Antonis Deligiorgis rescuing Wegasi Nebiat from the crashing waves, while it provided the clearest possible demonstration of Greek people treating desperate migrants as fellow human beings, as you can learn from the above link if you’re not already familiar with the details of this story.
I found all this intensely moving, but the part that made the most profound impression on me was the testimony of a fisherman by the name of Babis Manias, when he gave his reaction to witnessing such horrors. This brave and compassionate man was quoted as saying “I’ve never seen anything like it, the terror that can haunt a human’s eyes” and I believe him.
Over the years, I’ve seen people reduced to trembling wrecks by dogs, cats, horses, wasps, daddy-long-legs, cattle, snakes, spiders, needles and the dark, but I’ve been spared the sight of someone drowning and I hope it’s something I never get to see. I have come close to drowning myself and while it might be self-evident that it’s absolutely terrifying to die in this way, I can assure anyone reading this that it is most certainly true, which is presumably why the dreadful sensation has been simulated in ‘enhanced interrogation techniques’ under the guise of waterboarding.
In the winter of 1971 or 1972, when I was at school at Monmouth, I’d been out walking with two friends one freezing Sunday when we found ourselves at a weir just outside the town. A knotted rope hung invitingly from a branch on a tree close to the weir, so we took it in turns to swing out over the churning pool beneath the weir gates to entertain ourselves for a while. It was such fun that for what turned out to be my final go on this plaything, I stepped back as far as I possibly could before launching myself into the air, but a combination of my weight, the centrifugal force and my numbed fingers on an icy rope meant that I lost my grip mid-swing and plunged into the cold, deep pool beneath me.
The freezing water made me gasp with shock and it sapped my strength from the moment I was immersed in it; I wasn’t a good swimmer anyway, so I immediately started to sink, dragged down by the currents and by the weight of my clothes. I realised I was drowning and it was petrifying, as a cold, invisible hand clutched at my throat and stopped me breathing, while the more I thrashed around in a desperate attempt to free myself from its pitiless grip, the more weakened and frightened I became and none of my struggles could prise the stranglehold from my neck.
My nasal passages were burning as if I’d had a mouthful of hot horseradish and the water in my mouth, throat and stomach made me want to vomit, but I don’t suppose I did. I have no idea how long my futile struggle lasted, but there came a point where I succumbed, because I didn’t have the strength to try to claw my way back to the surface. The mortal terror eventually left me, to be gradually replaced by a sensation that I can best describe as euphoria, a condition I presume was brought on by a lack of oxygen to the brain, and I found myself drifting in a silent world of complete darkness.
I’m able to write this brief and incomplete account over forty years later because a passing member of the town’s rowing club was alerted to my plight by the yells of my friends on the bank, so I’m forever grateful to this man for diving in and saving me. I don’t have a fear, let alone a phobia of water as a result of this accident, but it’s inevitable that when I learn of drownings, they’re tragedies that immediately remind me of the naked terror I felt when I once came close to being drowned all those years ago.
At some point in the mid-1970s, as a result of reading a book of the prophecies of Nostradamus and encountering Quatrain 33 from Century V, I learned of the Noyades de Nantes, or Drownings at Nantes in western France, in 1793 and 1794, in which four thousand or more people were murdered in the most horrendous fashion. I’m not aware that these mass executions by drowning are particularly well-known in the West, perhaps because a considerable percentage of people with access to the internet are more interested in the antics of cats than they are in their own history, but I would say it’s impossible to read of Jean-Baptiste Carrier’s sadistic innovations without shuddering.
Perhaps better-known are the rampages of the various witch finders, who employed the practise of ‘swimming’ witches to judge their innocence or guilt, although I suspect that precious few people are aware that this awful ordeal was inflicted on our fellow human beings here in Britain as late as 1864, or well over two centuries after Matthew Hopkins, the ‘Witchfinder General’, tormented those suspected of witchcraft by having them ‘swum’.
Even if a majority of people are unaware of these long-gone atrocities, I would have presumed that those of us who live in Britain, an island nation with its many lakes and rivers, would be perhaps more aware than most others of death by drowning, even if we confined our observations to the past century or so with the loss of life at sea in World War One and World War Two. More recently, we’ve suffered the Penlee Lifeboat Disaster in 1981, an event that took from us some of the bravest men this country has produced, while we still commemorate those lost in the Marchioness disaster on the Thames in 1989.
And yet, despite all this, the continued mass drownings in the Mediterranean have failed to strike a chord of any note in our national consciousness. Indeed, some people, such as the media personality Katie Hopkins, are happy to dismiss those going to a watery grave as “cockroaches” and “feral humans”, a callous view that was shared by her seventeenth century, witch-drowning namesake Matthew Hopkins.
It’s easy for me to understand calculated outbursts such as these in our age of the internet and reality television, when we have the grotesque spectacle of a woman claiming that she would abort her unborn child to increase her chances of appearing on a popular game show. What I find much harder to understand is the seeming apathy of the Christian West, which I think of primarily as Europe and North America, towards the ongoing mass drownings that are such a blight on our times.
There are some, such as myself, who are inclined to think that a youthful Jesus once made his way to these islands on a Phoenician galley from some port in the Middle East; this means that he would have had to brave the perils of the Mediterranean Sea on the way, but I appreciate that mine is a minority viewpoint and perhaps an obscure way of trying to elicit sympathy for those poor souls drowning in their hundreds. However, even if we dismiss this idea, then one of the miracles with which Christ is credited is that of the Calming of the Storm, as described in Mark 4:35-41, Luke 8:22-25 and Matthew 8:23-27.
These Biblical passages make clear the sheer terror of Christ’s disciples when they believed they were doomed to drown in the Sea of Galilee. Surely everyone who has had a Christian upbringing is immediately familiar with this story and with the sheer dread the disciples experienced? These men were spared drowning by the central figure in the Christian faith, but it seems to me that his example, which could not possibly be more relevant today, is one that every human being should seek to emulate, particularly so if they live in Christian countries, rather than treating our fellow human beings as cockroaches or the like.
However, the episode of the Calming of the Storm is either ignored, forgotten or for some reason simply fails to register in the consciousness of countless millions in the West as they watch news reports of their fellow human beings continually meeting a wretched end in the pitiless waters of the Sea at the Centre of the World.
“Can I see another’s woe,
And not be in sorrow too?
Can I see another’s grief,
And not seek for kind relief?”