Harbor Of Spies: A Novel Of Historic Havana

By Robin Lloyd

Excerpt from Robin Lloyd's book, Harbor of Spies: A Novel of Historic Havana. The influence of Spanish colonial rule remains a visible reminder of Cuban history — in the city of Havana in particular.

Harbor of Spies book cover

Days later, the winds did fill in, and the schooner began making good progress. Townsend estimated they were northwest of Mexico's Alacrán islands, standing as far north as 24 degrees latitude. This was a longer route, but he wanted to stay well clear of the Tortugas, where he knew Van Cortland and other patrolling ships would be waiting.

Unlike the two supercargoes who had kept mostly to themselves in their cabin, Stringfellow had spent most of the voyage talking to the men, learning about the schooner, and hearing about their wild sail to Mobile. During the watch that night, Stringfellow stood next to the captain at the helm. The moon was full and the skies were so light it was almost like daylight.

"Looking forward to Havana, are you?" Townsend asked.

"Indeed I am," the man replied.

"See there now, you better prepare yourself," Townsend told him. "Havana is its own animal, more wolf than dog. You best put your notions of American civilities aside."

"Boh, Havana. Don't I know," Stringfellow said. "I've been there. Back when I worked for the New York Daily Tribune. It was about eight years ago. Covered this murder. An English diplomat. Quite shocking."

Townsend and Hendricks looked at each other, both taken by surprise.

"Hulloa! You don't mean Judge George Backhouse, do you?" Townsend asked.

"Yeah, that's right. How did you know?" Stringfellow grabbed on to a stay to keep himself from falling. The boat lurched again, and Stringfellow pulled his slouch hat farther down on his head to keep it from blowing off.

Townsend shrugged. "Just hearsay, is all."

"Well. Like I said, it was a shocking story. English diplomat stabbed to death in his own home. Fellow was some kind of anti-slavery judge. It was all the talk in Havana. By the time I got there, the police had picked up several suspects. We all thought there would be a public execution—at least of two of the men. After all, the Spanish have been known to execute people for a simple robbery. But the mystery was nothing happened. The Spanish authorities released the men. Insufficient evidence, they said, or some such truck. I don't remember. None of us believed it."

"What do you think happened?"

"Hum! I don't rightly know. The case was closed. Nothing was ever recorded. We reporters were never given the names of the suspects. They just disappeared. But it was the limeys that caught my attention. We expected tensions to break out between the British and the Spanish governments. With no execution for me to write about, I tried to interview the British consul general."

"You mean Joseph Crawford."

"Yeah, that's him. Crawford. Silver hair and powdered white moustache?"

Townsend nodded.

"A cagey old fox, that one," Stringfellow said as he stroked his beard. "Slippery fellow. I almost laughed at the old diplomat when he told me the British government would be offering a two-hundred-pound reward for any new information about the murderers. Is that what Judge Backhouse's life was worth to the British Foreign Office? I asked him. Nothing more than two hundred pounds?"

"What was his reaction?" Townsend asked, raising his eyebrows.

"He lost his temper. I admit I might have been a little too brash, but I was looking for a dramatic quote. A scoop. My editor at the time loved any opportunity to tweak John Bull's nose. Crawford started shouting and shoved me out the door. I think he wanted to kick me down the stairs. That was the end of the interview."

"Who do you think did it?" Townsend asked as he tugged thoughtfully on his lower lip with his thumb.

"A deuce of a question, that one. There were a lot of rumors going on at the time. Everything from a simple burglary to a political assassination. The police wanted us to believe it was just a robbery. Some even claimed it was a ritual killing by Negro slaves on the docks. Some kind of secret society where the blacks have to kill a white person with a knife to become a member."


"Yeah, that's the name. I never believed that."

"Why not?"

"Because the intruders didn't kill the man who was with Judge Backhouse that night. Fellow by the name of Callaghan, another Britisher. They just tied him up. If it was a ritual killing, I think they would have stabbed him too."

"So who do you think did it then?"

"Only Callaghan saw everything, and he didn't see much. The two men who attacked them had covered their faces. There were suspicions about an employee, a former clerk at the Consulate. Backhouse had just fired him, a most disagreeable drunken scoundrel named Dalrymple, who was known as a gambler and a thief. He left the island not long after the murder. No one made any serious attempt to stop him. Heigh-ho! Just one more mystery." 

— Published: October/November 2018

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