Stockholm / Rome — The Mediterranean Sea is currently a sea of death. On the 20th of June every year, i.e. The World Refugee Day, an organization called UNITED for Intercultural Action publishes a "List of Deaths", summarising information on where, when and under which circumstances a named individual has died due to the "fatal policies of fortress Europa". The data are collected through information received from 550 network organisations in 48 countries and from local experts, journalists and researchers in the field of migration. The list issued in 2018 accounted for 27 000 deaths by drowning since 1993, often hundreds at a time when large embarkations capsize. These deaths account for 80 per cent of all the entries,1 there are probably thousands more dead, corpses that were never found and/or not accounted for.
While considering seas as a place of death and barriers to human interaction it might be opportune to be reminded of their role as means of communication and trade, as well as transfer of culture and innovation. For thousands of years, humans have used the sea to enrich themselves and their communities by interacting with people from other cultures.
The Mediterranean - Sea of seas, hope and doom, Venus cradle and Sappho´s tomb. Over its waters Greeks, Phoenicians, Egyptians, Romans, Berbers, Italians, French, Normans, Turks, Slavs, Jews, Christians and Muslims have carried their goods, music, inventions, food and ideas, creating a mighty cultural mix reaching down to the southern shores of Maghreb and Egypt, and beyond, as well as all the way up to the coasts of the North - and Baltic Seas, spreading Greek philosophy, Roman law, Arabic science, poetry, art and culture and much more that have benefitted humankind. Almost every sea in the world has been serving humankind in a similar manner, as a powerful blender of cultures, proving that human mobility benefits us all.
A rosy picture? Let us not forget the shadows. Seas have always been scenes of bloody battles, ruthless piracy and slave trade, the last activity is doubtless one of humanity´s worst crimes. Between 1650 and 1900, more than 10 million enslaved Africans arrived in the Americas, while many had died during the passage across the Atlantic Ocean. During the same period, 8 million East Africans were enslaved and sent across the Indian Ocean to the Middle East and Asia. It was not only Africans who were brought in chains across the seas. European nations like Great Britain, France and Spain sent political prisoners, "vagrants" and other "undesirables" to their colonies. Between 1788 and 1868 more than 160 000 convicts were transported from Britain to penal colonies in Australia. Barbary pirates operating from North African ports carried out razzias on European coastal towns, mainly to capture slaves for the Ottoman slave market. It has been calculated that between 1530 and 1780 the Barbary corsairs enslaved approximately 1 250 000 people.
After the British Empire ended slavery in 1833 indentured labour became the most common means to obtain cheap workforce for its colonies, a practice that soon was employed by other nations as well. This meant that immigrants would contract to work for an overseas employer, generally for seven years. The employer paid the sea passage, the indentured labourer did not receive any wages, but was provided with food and shelter. Millions of people were brought across the seas under such conditions, mainly Asians, but some Europeans as well.
Nationalist political parties often complain that most migrants do not provide any benefits for the receiving country, that the majority of them are poor and uneducated. However, this is nothing new. American immigrants have often been depicted as entrepreneurial, sturdy workers building up a wealthy nation. When the Scottish author Robert Louis Stevenson in 1879, on his way to California, in steerage crossed the Atlantic he was amazed to find that most emigrants were not any strong, adventurous men eager to make a living and gain success in America, but mainly desperate and tired people trying to escape European persecution, poverty and unemployment.
The more I saw of my fellow passengers, the less I was tempted to the lyric note. Comparatively few of the men were below thirty; many were married and encumbered with families; not a few were already up in years. Now those around me were for the most part quiet, orderly, obedient citizens, family men broken by adversity, elderly youths who had failed to place themselves in life, and people who had seen better days.2
In spite of the desperation and misery of their ancestors, descendants of slaves, criminals and desperate, poor migrants have contributed to the creation of wealthy nations and impressive cultures. Europeans complaining about the influx of poor, uneducated people from distant cultures easily forget that several of their own ancestors found themselves in a similar state of poverty and desperation and that it was human mobility that in the end provided a solution for them and their children.
Christopher Columbus dreamt he would find an utopian India, but instead he discovered a "New World", which in reality was a very old one and just like the Mediterranean, on which shore he was born, this world was dependent on another mighty, internal sea on which shores there lived people of different cultures - Arawaks, Tainos, Mayas, Aztecs and many more whose cultures eventually mixed with those of European conquerors, Africans slaves and indentured labourers from Europe and Asia.
In spite of immense suffering, wars and plagues a multifaceted mix of cultures developed, evident through a wide variety of food, religious beliefs and especially of music genres, like merengue, calypso, cumbia, rumba, reggae, son, salsa, gospel, jazz and blues. In modern times authors like García Márquez, Juan Rulfo, Miguel Angel Asturias, Marie Vieux Chauvet, Alejo Carpentier, Derek Walcott, Vidhiar Naipul, Jaques Romain, Zora Neale Hurston, Aimé Césaire, William Faulkner and other almost countless writers, story tellers, poets and singers bear witness about this unique blend of cultures created by Mexicans, Colombians, Haitians, Garifunas, West- and East Indians, Jamaicans, Pirates, Slaves, Maroons, Guanches, Turks, Andalusians, Jews, Gypsies, French, Dutch, Voodooists, Santeros, Muslims and Christians. What would the world have been without this blend of cultures along the shores of the Mediterranean - and the Caribbean Seas?
The same is true about the maritime trade, cultural and commercial exchange along the coasts of the Indian Ocean, beginning with the world´s earliest civilization in Mesopotamia, ancient Egypt and the Indian subcontinent. There ancient Romans, Arabs, Africans and people from Sri Lanka and India, and even Chinese, used the monsoon drifts and equatorial currents to connect with each other and spread their goods and cultures, creating culturally mixed, communicating societies along the coasts, like the African Bantu-Swahili culture, which spread its influence further inland.
South China Sea tells a similar story about human interaction across the waters and even if the Champas of Vietnam, the Chinese, the Japanese, the Malaysians, the Indonesians, the Dutch, the Portuguese and the Philippines have claimed superiority over that particular sea it has nevertheless carried goods, ideas, religions and inspiration between the different populations who inhabited and still inhabit its shores.
In the far north we find the North Sea, once ruled over by the Vikings with their superior longships; rading, trading and establishing colonies in Ireland, Iceland, England and on the northern coasts of France. In the Middle Ages and through the 15th century they were displaced by traders from Northern European coastal ports, the Hansa community, shipping grain, fish, timber, dyes, linen, salt, metals, wine, culture and art, following the old Viking, Finnish and Slav trade routes around the Baltic sea and down along the Russian rivers, even connecting with one of the most distant inland seas of them all - the White Sea, which linked the distant cultures of Finns, Sami people, Samoyeds and Russians, among other treasures giving birth to the stunning Karelian epic Kalevala, which like Homer´s Odyssey, among other things, is a tribute to the sea.
So, while we are probing the tragedy of the drowned refugees and migrants of the Mediterranean, let us not forget that the open seas of the world have not only served as routes for desperate migrants, asylum seekers, slavers, pirates and warriors, they have also been channels for civilization and friendship, providing vitality, strength and culture to the peoples of their shores. In spite of its shortcomings, mobility is part of human nature and cannot be blocked. Human interaction and communication is a blessing and instead of drowning people in their waves let us allow the seas to continue to bring cultures, inspiration and friendship between us all.
The list does not only account for deaths occurring at sea, but also in detention blocks, asylum units and town centres.
2 Robert Louis Stevenson, Travels with a Donkey in the Cévennes and The Amateur Migrant. London: Penguin Classics 2004, p. 107.
Jan Lundius holds a PhD. on History of Religion from Lund University and has served as a development expert, researcher and advisor at SIDA, UNESCO, FAO and other international organisations.