Thursday, March 16, 2023

Q&A with Robin Lloyd




Robin Lloyd is the author of the new historical novel Hidden Cargo. His other books include the novel Harbor of Spies. A former longtime NBC News correspondent, he lives in Chevy Chase, Maryland.


Q: What inspired you to write Hidden Cargo, and how did you create your character Everett Townsend?


A: I had previously written an historical novel set in Civil War Cuba, Harbor of Spies, featuring a young captain of a blockade running ship, Everett Townsend, who turns Union spy.


I decided that I wasn’t finished with Everett Townsend’s story. I wanted to write about the aftermath of the Civil War. The anger, the displacement, the loss that came with the end of that war seemed enormous.


In Hidden Cargo, Townsend is now a Navy lieutenant based in Key West and anxious to be discharged. The war has taken its toll, leaving him despondent and confused as to what he would do with himself.


Both his parents had died during the war years. The Cuban American woman he loved had left him and returned to Cuba.  Fate was pulling him to return to Cuba to the family sugar plantation, a place his mother had fled, vowing never to return.


I began researching Florida in 1865 and 1866 and discovered that it was indeed a fragile peace after the war. A type of cold war had emerged in the state. Army soldiers, many of them Colored regiments, were kept in place to keep the peace.


Resentments were building. Vigilante groups were already emerging to redraw the lines of control and dominance of whites over Blacks regarding voting rights and labor conditions. Slavery was over but the fight to define freedom and equal rights for all was just beginning. 


From the outset I knew the centerpiece of the book’s plot had to be about Townsend’s return to Cuba. The book had to be about Townsend coming face to face with his own family’s close connection with slavery.


He had fought to end slavery during the war as a Union Navy officer. But now I wanted him to struggle with thorny topics like retribution, loyalty, betrayal, and redemption. Like the country as a whole, he was searching for the meaning of four years of war.


Q: How did you research the novel, and did you learn anything that especially surprised you?


A: I enjoy doing research so I read extensively about post-Civil War Florida and also the plantation economy in Cuba.


Key West seemed like a natural place to start the novel. The town was basically southern but with a mix of Yankee merchants and sailors, freedmen and Cuban fishermen, not to mention Army soldiers and Navy sailors. Because of this diverse mixture of people, I thought it would be a good setting for a post-Civil War book.


And then I discovered that the town and the state of Florida were hit by a hurricane in October of 1865. That seemed symbolically like an appropriate metaphor to describe a country exhausted by the destruction and loss from so much fighting and bloodshed.


Besides background information, research gave me the thread for this story.


Several months after the war there were continuing reports from credible sources like judges and military officers that freedmen were being taken from plantations by boats and then disappearing. This was going on mostly in Louisiana and Florida.


The suspicion was that they were being kidnapped and taken to Cuba where they were being sold into slavery. These reports suggested that these were American boats captained and crewed by ex-Confederates.


I couldn’t believe what I was reading. How could something so heinous be happening so soon after the end of slavery?


I began to try to track down this story by looking into the Army’s records in the National Archives and State Department communications with Spanish authorities both in colonial Cuba and in Washington. It was clear that these reports of alleged kidnapping of freedmen were being taken seriously by the federal government.


The details of these disappearances could be found in the major newspapers and in letters between Army officers stationed in the Gulf area and their superiors in Washington. Concern was rising that a new form of slavery might possibly be starting.

By researching the American consular reports from Cuba for 1865-1866 I was able to find more firsthand suspicious information which led me to believe that at least some of these reports might be true.


There were mysterious landings of people on the north coast of Cuba. American consuls stationed in Cuba suspected that these were kidnapped American freedmen. Nothing was ever proven, however. The Spanish authorities in Cuba denied anything like this was going on. No serious investigation was ever done in Cuba.


It was an historical mystery that was unlikely to ever be solved, but it gave me the thread to write this novel. 


Q: How was the novel's title chosen, and what did it signify for you?


A: The title "Hidden Cargo" most obviously refers to the illegal smuggling and kidnapping of freedmen on American ships bound for Cuba. This was a secret that those involved in the United States and Cuba wanted desperately to keep hidden, and as there still are few details about the many reports and allegations, one would have to say that the story is still layered in mystery.


The title is also a reference to Townsend’s own internal struggle. He had fought on the Union side against slavery, but his family on his mother’s side had been slave owners for generations in Cuba and still were. The book is about the central character uncovering and facing the hard facts about his family history.


Hidden Cargo is an attempt to show how deeply rooted slavery was not only in the economy but also in the habits, customs and cultural fabric of the entire society, not only in the United States but in Cuba.


Q: Did you know how the story would end before you started writing it, or did you make many changes along the way?


A: I didn’t know how it would end, not until I was halfway through the book. Even then, I just had an outline.


When you have several separate threads going on in the same story sometimes it’s better to let the story evolve and see how those threads weave together. In effect you are juggling several balls in the air, and you’re not sure how or where they’re going to end up. 


The challenge in this book was to make the story move from Key West to Cuba. When I started writing I wasn’t sure how this would happen but again research helped me.


I discovered that William Seward, the secretary of state, in January 1866 made a formal diplomatic visit to Havana. I knew this was at a time when the federal government was putting pressure on the Spanish government to investigate these reports of human smuggling. This real historical event helped me create a way to turn my story from Key West to Cuba.


Once Townsend was in Cuba, I could then look at the kidnapping and smuggling reports from the Cuban perspective. At the same time, I could also begin to delve into Townsend’s own internal struggle and the troubling secrets he was finding out about his own family.


Q: What are you working on now?


A: I am still fascinated by the “Age of Sail” – all my novels have a sailing theme – and I am trying to find stories that combine that love with my love of history.


One future topic that does interest me is the Spanish-American War. It might be interesting to continue to follow Townsend and his offspring into that conflict to see how they fare.


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: Some people have asked me why slavery is a theme in all three of my books. A childhood in the Caribbean, I suppose, is the answer.


When I was growing up on the island of St. Croix in the 1950s, it was very much an agricultural island with dirt roads lined with centuries-old mahogany trees. Large sections of the island were still under sugar cane cultivation, a vestige of the old days of slave plantations. The stone ruins of 18th and 19th century sugar mills were scattered all across the hilltops, mostly abandoned.


For a young boy these were wonderful places to explore. The views of the ocean and the rolling land were spectacular. There was always a sense of mystery there in these isolated places. The names of the old estates were known, but the crumbling ruins of the mills were silent about what had gone on there in colonial times.


I suppose with this latest novel I’m continuing to explore the meaning of those ruins and the crumbling walls of those old stone windmills.


--Interview with Deborah Kalb

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