The Nerve Gas Controversy: An Emancipation-Like Event In The Commonwealth of the Bahamas [August, 15 – 18, 1970]
By Dr. Colin Archer
Aug 7, 2013 - 7:32:54 PM
An extraordinary thing happened to me personally, professionally and nationally, forty-three years ago, in the land of my birth, four days in August, 1970, ending on the 18th. Looking back reflectively, I now realize that something extraordinary happened too at the international level. It was an emancipation-like event.
Back then, I was a twentyish-year old Methodist minister, married with a young son - another child on the way - pastoring seven rural congregations in the parish of St Thomas, Jamaica; back home, in Nassau, on vacation.
On those days, I was engaged, with others, at a leadership level, alongside the then sometimes described militant youth group, Unicomm - of which I had been a member - in a protest against what was then widely referred to as the dumping of “nerve gas” in Bahamian waters, [some 150 miles north of the Island of Abaco]. Our motley group assembled at the Southern Recreation Grounds (Archdeacon William Thompson Park), Sunday and Monday evenings, before Tuesday 18th, to discuss procedural matters and assemble placards in preparation for the historic march. My friend, the late beloved Archdeacon William “Willie” Thompson, was also there.
My recall is Unicomm as the prime organizer of the protest. In remarks to an Annual General Meeting of The Bahamas Chamber of Commerce, (June 23, 2010), Mr. Franklyn R. Wilson, offered a brief history of Unicomm (University and Community students). It was a name that evolved from a group called Unicoll; a hybrid of university and college students attending various educational institutions abroad who had decided that during the summer months they would create a platform for the exchange of ideas important to the formulation of public policy for a better Bahamas. Some members of Unicol/Unicomm included Hon. Dr. Bernard Nottage, the founding president; Prime Minister, The Rt. Hon. Perry Christie; former Attorney General, Sean McWeeney, Q.C.; former Supreme Court Justice, Cheryl Albury and former Permanent Secretary Leila Greene. Mr. Wilson noted that all leaders of the now defunct, Vanguard Nationalist Socialist Party, which had come into existence as a direct result of a divergence in ideological views within Unicom, were originally members of Unicomm .
Nerve gas, agents of nerve gas and other such substances, are recognized as chemical and bacteriological weapons, developed for mass destruction of human beings. I wish to add that Investing in being human has been a constant theme and subject for pragmatic development in my life, ministry and writings over the years, so my involvement in the August 1970 episode was a natural and deeply personal expression of that commitment [see www.investinginbeinghuman.com].
August 18th, 1970 is a particularly auspicious date, as documents released by the U.S. Congress and the U.S. Department of Defense (DOD) indicate; for it officially marked the end of The United States Government release and dumping of toxic, lethal, chemical substances in waters and oceans around the world. More about this later.
Where to begin with the various interrelated events of that momentous period in August 1970? One could start with the United Nations 42-nation committee meeting on Tuesday, August 18th with the agenda: The Peaceful Uses of The Sea Bed. The U.N. Committee had been studying a draft resolution expressing concern and appealing to all governments to refrain from contaminating the seabed. But curiously, its work was postponed for two days, to Thursday of that week, after the infamous dumping off Abaco and Florida.
The U.S. Army had recently won court approval of its disposal plan when a suit to halt the dumping, sponsored by Florida Governor Claude Kirk and the Environmental Defense Fund, failed. The sinking of the obsolete Liberty Ship, SS Lebaron Russel Briggs, with its lethal cargo, began shortly before noon Tuesday, August 18th, 1970, in the Blake Bahama Basin, an undersea trench with a depth of some 16,000 feet. The disposal site is some 282 miles off Cape Kennedy and the east coast of Florida. (cba news clipping 3)
Commenting on discussions of the UN 42-nation committee meeting of August 18th, an Associated Press (AP) report reads: Defending the U.S. petition, the American chief delegate, Ambassador Christopher Philips said that within 10 days of contact with sea water, all the nerve agents will either be destroyed or so diluted that they will no longer have any toxic effect. The U.S. delegate repeated an American pledge that the government never again will dump chemical weapons in the ocean, because new equipment will make it possible to dispose of obsolete weapons on land (cba news clipping 7).
A meeting of high ranking Bahamian, United States and United Kingdom officials took place in Nassau on Saturday, August 15th. A local newspaper headlined the meeting: “GAS TALKS”. Attendees included: Sec. to The Cabinet, Sir Foley Newns; Acting Prime Minister, Arthur D.Hanna; Cecil Wallace-Whitfield; Dr. Doris Johnson; Milo B. Butler; Leon Flowers; Oris Russell; Joe Edwards; a Mr. Claxton; Kendrick Williams; Dr John Lunn; a Dr. Epetein (United States);and Mr. Dennis Marsh (United Kingdom). (cba news clipping 7).
A lengthy press report of the Bahamian led August 15th meeting, appeared under the caption: HANNA SAYS BRITAIN AND U.S. IGNORED BAHAMIAN INTERSTS, with this opening statement: Acting Prime Minister Arthur Hanna has blamed Britain for her failure to stop the United States dumping nerve gas close to the Bahamas and claims that, “the British Government gave the United States the green light to dump the gas near Bahamian waters without regard to the interests of the Bahamian people”. Mr. Hanna also said: “We have recorded our actions so that history will recall our valiant struggle in this most unhappy state of our colonial existence and the difficulties our people face as a colonial subject people when the interest of the colonial power must in their own interest prevail”. And this: “The British Government had also failed to take note of the claim by UN Secretary General U Thant that the U.S. action was ‘in violation of the Geneva Convention on the High Seas’ “. Mr. Hanna added: “If this incident teaches us anything, we will have learned that the destiny of the Bahamian people lies in the right to manage and govern their own affairs in their own best interests free from any foreign domination and free from the selfish interest of another foreign power”. (cba news clipping 7).
Bear in mind that during this period in time the Bahamas was yet shy three years of independent self-governing status. Politics of the day was exciting, and often unpredictable. We have on record a statement by then leader of The National Democratic Party (NDP) leader, Mr. Paul L. Adderley, beginning: “Neither Britain, [nor the] U.S. can Serve Our Interests”; and reinforced: “These events should leave no doubt in the minds of any Bahamian that our national interests cannot be served by the governments of the United States and the United Kingdom”. (cba news clipping 9).
Other concerned political voices and parties joined the fray. From United Bahamian Party (UBP) leader Geoffrey Johnstone in The Nassau Guardian of Wednesday, August 19th we have this: “United Bahamian Party leader Geoffrey Johnstone Tuesday (18th) blasted Acting Prime Minister Arthur Hanna’s ‘Britain let us down’ statement as political propaganda and exploitation of an international disagreement for the cause of Independence… He said that at the outset his party and the whole country was behind the government in its efforts to prevent the U.S. Army plan nerve gas dumping operation in waters close to the Bahamas because there may have been some very remote possibility of damage to us and marine life. ‘’ (cba news clipping 3).
Even the fledgling Commonwealth People’s Party (CPP) and its leader, Mr. Holland Smith, were a part of this iconic period in Bahamian history: A story in The Tribune of Thursday, August 20th, headlined: PLP ACCUSED OF USING CASE TO CLOAK ITS FAILURES. CPP CALLS GAS ISSUE ‘HANNA’S RED HERRING’. “The Commonwealth People’s Party today posed the question of whether the Acting Prime Minister’s action in ‘alienating and embarrassing’ the United States and Britain over the dumping of nerve gas was not a move to break off our good relations with them ‘and pave the way for another power to step into the breach’ “. The newly-formed opposition party (CPP) also claimed that the demonstration outside Government House and the US Counsulate on Bay Street on Tuesday was a government-organized demonstration to gain political acclaim and to attempt to build up a case for independence. (cba news clipping 8).
Back now to August 18th, 1970, and we listen now in somber tone to a prayer uttered in Tallahassee, by then Governor of Florida, Claude Kirk. The Governor, who recently gave up his court battle against the dumping of nerve gas off the Florida coast, opened Tuesday’s cabinet meeting with this earnest one sentence plea: That the pestilence about to be unleased in the deep be kept from menacing anything; this we ask in a most subservient way. (cba news clipping 9).
The feet-on-the-street demonstrations of August 18th, I helped plan and in which I participated, was comprised largely of teenagers and young adults; protesting outside the U.S. Consulate, situate then at offices on Bay Street in The Churchill Building, with simultaneous demonstrations outside Government House.
Here, in part, is journalist Larry Smith’s report in a The Nassau Guardian/ and Bahamas Observer headline story of Wednesday, August 19th, 1970: “As the United States Navy was sinking 2,700 tons of nerve gas in the ocean only 150 miles north of Abaco, members and supporters of the militant group Unicomm gathered outside Government House and the U.S. Consular office in the Churchill Building, Bay Street, to protest the dumping. The demonstration began at about 9:00am, lasted for an hour and recommenced outside the Churchill Building during the lunch hour at 1:00pm. Approximately 30 young people carried placards reading, ‘It killed 20,000 sheep in the U.S.; how many people will it kill in the Bahamas’. ‘Without Power there are no rights’. ‘If it’s safe, you keep it’ [my placard cba], and ‘Those waters are for the peoples of the world, not Nixon’. The picketers also paraded outside the west gate of Government House on Tuesday to protest U.S. nerve gas dumping…” Larry Smith’s news story also reported: “A spokesman for Unicomm explained the reason behind the demonstration: ‘The idea was not to prevent the dumping of the nerve gas since it was already on the way, but to register a protest against the U.S. Government so that there will be no repeat performance of this… It was also a protest against the British Government for poor and improper representation on our behalf…’ “. (cba news clipping 3).
At the age of twenty-eight, I was one of the oldest persons in the demonstrations and, therefore, I suppose, a kind of tangential ring leader. I must add though, that forty-three year old wood sculptor, Oscar Dean, also joined the protest. Rev. Fr. William Thompson was not present. Among those assembled and marching were Government High, Queens and St John’s College high school students, Unicomm members, University students, and other concerned citizens, many of them quite young; among them: Allison Thompson, 12; Allison Maynard 13; Robert M. Archer, 13; Sean McWeeny, 17; Stephen Nicolls, 18; Peter Maynard, 19; Campbell Clare, 19; Patrick Taylor, 20; Sherry Minnis, 25 [Sherry’s husband, Eddie, was, I believe, also a participant]; and, Lionel Carey, 27. Attending throughout, taking copious notes, was ZNS intrepid reporter, John Cash. Tribune and Guardian reporters, ever present, gave extensive coverage, as did several international journalists. (cba news clippings 1,2,3,4)
Reading through jealously guarded newspaper clippings, I now see that some of the most courageous, insightful comments came from the lips of our youngest: Allison Thompson, then a student at Government High School, asked: “Why didn’t the United States keep it in their waters instead of putting it in ours?” Allison Maynard, then a student in London, home on vacation, placard in hand, argued: “Because this gas killed 6,000 sheep in America, and it could kill the same number of Bahamians.” My youngest brother, Robert Archer, a Q.C. schoolboy, chimed in: “I’m objecting to the dumping of this gas in the Bahamas… If it isn’t really harmful, why not dump it somewhere else, like off New Jersey, where they dumped gas before?”
Needless to say, there was much discussion and debate in Bahamian life – civic, political, and religious – concerning the underlying motivation of the August 18th demonstrations. This fueled my decision to have newspaper editors publish a letter titled, “Personal Matter: This is to state publicly that I am not in any way linked or associated with a political, pressure or ideological group, movement or organization in the Bahamas or any other country. My protest against the dumping of nerve gas near the Bahamas arose out of a spontaneous personal conviction as a follower of Jesus Christ, a concerned citizen of the human race and as a Bahamian. In the event of a similar dumping anywhere, at any time, in any country in which I may be residing, I shall likewise make peaceful protest, either as an individual or corporately, against any country which intends to carry out such an act. Rev. Colin B. Archer, P.O.Box 313, Nassau, August 19th, 1970”. (cba news clipping 5).
Two of the most revealing documents in my possession are August. 19th news stories by the Associated Press (AP) and United Press International (UPI), which give detailed postmortem accounts of the August 18th nerve gas sinking.
Reporting from the USS Hartley, APs Howard Benedict reports seeing the creaking Liberty ship, Lebaron Russell Briggs, and its cargo of deadly nerve gas begin a slow descent to an open grave off the coast of Florida. Three hours later the ship appeared to be one-third sunk, with waves starting to cover the six-foot letters on the side spelling “EXPLOSIVES”. Stored in the bowels of the rusting World War 11 freighter were 418 concrete and steel vaults containing a total of 125,400 rockets [or pounds? cba] of obsolete GB nerve gas. There also was one coffin containing a land mine of highly toxic VX gas. The army said the nerve gas was already leaking in small amounts within its coffins. “Ship scuttled, heads for 16,000 ft. depth”, was the caption of this report. (cba news clippings 11).
The UPI eyewitness reports, “Navy Buries Gas Ship”, and reads, in part: The navy Tuesday committed a 67-ton cargo of concrete-shrouded nerve gas to burial at the bottom of the Atlantic, more than three miles deep. [It marks] the final stage of the controversial disposal operation 282 miles east of the Florida coast…. Perhaps, because of water pressure or the jolt of the impact, four water collection bottles for gas leak tests rose to the surface two hours too soon. Others were to be released automatically over eight hours. (cba news clippings 11).
In an editorial of Wednesday, August 19th, The New York Times called the dumping of 67 tons of nerve gas off the coast of Abaco by the United States Army, “one of the most extraordinary stories of human ignorance, arrogance and confused blundering”. These gases, continues the lead editorial, ought never to have been manufactured in the first place. The Times made special mention of the deadlier VX gas among the canisters, which should have been clearly marked. The editorial also excoriated the United Nations Committee on the Peaceful Uses of the Seabed, which “might have been expected to protest this threat to the ocean on behalf of the world community.” Instead, the editorial said, it postponed action till the day after the dumping. Tuesday’s garbage dumping operation, according to the prestigious New York paper, “dramatizes the ultimate folly of chemical and bacteriological weapons”.
We now know from a U.S. Congressional Research Service (CRS) Report of January 03, 2007 (Order Code RL33432), that in the case of the United States, the U.S. Armed Forces disposed of chemical weapons in the ocean from World War 1, through 1970 [August 18th].
In the late 1960s, the Department of Defense (DOD) first publicly acknowledged that the U.S. Armed Forces had routinely disposed of chemical weapons in the ocean since World War 1. Although the U.S. Army has disclosed more information than previously available, much remains unknown about the exact quantities, types, and present locations of chemical and conventional weapons that the U.S. Armed Forces dumped in the ocean.
In an extensive 2001 historical records report, the Army catalogued 74 instances of disposal in the ocean, of which 32 were off U.S. shores and 42 were off foreign shores. The first recorded instance was in 1918 at an unknown location in the Atlantic Ocean between the United States and England. The Army’s records did not note other instances of ocean disposal until 1941. Therefore, the extent to which ocean disposal may have occurred in between these years is unknown. Once again, according to the Army and the Congressional Research Service Report noted above, the last instance of disposal occurred in 1970, approximately 250 miles off the coast of Florida. [The Bahamas/Abaco/Florida nerve gas dumping of August 18th, I assume, as referenced in this paper cba].
The investigation, of my admittedly unscientifically trained eye, seems to suggest that many, if not most of the unceremonious chemical and bacteriological dumping over the years, have taken place in or around the Southern United States, off North and South Carolina, the Florida coasts and Northern Bahamas. In several instances, a single dumping activity may have spanned a period of days, even weeks. Such was the case in 1945, when for seventeen continuous days, October 17 – November 2, one such dumping took place in the Pacific Ocean, off Hawaii.
An October 2005 paper under the Department of Nuclear Engineering, University of California, Berkeley, with text by John M.R. Bull, estimates that at least 64 million pounds of mustard gas and nerve gas agent in 1-ton canisters were dumped into the sea, along with a minimum of 400,000 chemical-filled bombs, grenades, landmines and rockets – as well as radioactive waste. Over the decades, the Army has conducted environmental tests on only four of its dump sites – and none since 1975.
The scientific evidence is irrefutable that chemical weapons can have numerous - and as yet unknown - adverse effects on human beings. Depending on the particular chemical agent, these effects can include burns and sores to the skin, vomiting, respiratory dysfunction, mental impairment, damage to the immune and nervous system, infertility, and death. (ibid. CRS Report, above).
Public health advocates have questioned whether possible exposure to such substances in seawater from leaking weapons may contribute to various symptoms experienced by coastal residents, swimmers, divers, fishermen, and individuals who may have consumed contaminated fish or shellfish. Marine conservationists and environmental advocates have raised questions about the possible effects of chemical weapons agents on the marine environment, including the possible contribution to declines in populations of certain fish and marine life in and around areas where weapons were dumped in the ocean. (ibid. CRS Report, above).
Density is another critical factor. Chemical weapons agents, denser than seawater, tend to remain on the ocean floor, rather than float to shallower waters where they may present greater risk. For example, encrusted sulphur mustard is denser than seawater, making it unlikely to migrate off the ocean floor. However, ocean currents can disperse such substances along the seabed, spreading contamination beyond the location where the release occurred. In addition to contamination of seawater, there have been concerns among the public that chemical weapons could wash ashore, or that they could be retrieved accidentally during dredging operations or trawl fishing along the seabed. (ibid. CRS Report above).
Emancipation Day in The Commonwealth of The Bahamas, has long been celebrated on the first Monday of the month of August (August Monday), to mark the freedom of slaves, in 1834, from the British Empire. Following a four day celebration, mainly on the Island of New Providence (Nassau), the national festival or The Emancipation Day festivities to remember the sacrifice and struggle of our enslaved native ancestors, traditionally draws to a close on Fox Hill Day; in a small village so named.
Comparison is made describing events of the infamous four days of August 1970, culminating on the 18th, as emancipation-like, inasmuch as they represented for protesters, Bahamians and fellow travelers all – including myself, of course - a once-in-a-lifetime neo-colonial unshackling and liberating opportunity to dynamically participate in an enterprise to change for good – albeit in a small way - the course of our national, if not human history.
Who really knows what lurks beneath the deep? What are the short and long term adverse consequences for the human species of the thousands of extensive, foolhardy, reckless, ill-advised and onerous dumping events throughout our beloved country’s island archipelago and in God’s great, magnificent, sacred earth?
Nassau, Bahamas: July 18, 2013,
*[This paper is dedicated to the memory of and in salute to the heroic-like protest events demonstrated by conscientious, noble, courageous – mostly young – Bahamians, during the dog days of summer, August, 1970, described herein; and in celebration of Bahamian Emancipation Day past and future.]
About the author:
Dr Colin Archer is
an ordained Christian Minister and Psycho-theologian, who at an early
age he realized a keen sensitivity for the poor, homeless and
dispossessed in relation to church and society. He served as
Psychotherapist at a psychiatric hospital in Nassau, Bahamas for many
years. He is the founding president of The Bahamas
Council on Alcoholism, later establishing a half-way house for
recovering victims of alcohol abuse and a home for battered women
through Methodist Community & Church Ministries.
He is currently the Author of five (5)
books, due to launch his sixth book, Foundation 7 Formation, due to be
released in Spring of 2013. www.investinginbeinghuman.com
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