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By Ashleylister @ashleylister
On the night of 5th February 2004, just two weeks into the Chinese Year of the Monkey (which is meant to bring good fortune), 23 Chinese cockle-pickers were drowned in Morecambe Bay, trapped by rapidly rising waters and swept away by treacherous tides.
Cockle-picking has been a local industry in the Bay for generations. There is even a special three-pronged tool called a craam designed to pick mature cockles (three or more years old) one by one from the sand without culling juveniles. The cockles are best harvested at low tide from the sand flats; however it can be a dangerous undertaking without sound knowledge of the terrain and tidal patterns around Hest Bank and Warton Sands.
Cockling is a controlled and licensed activity but as investigations following the 2004 tragedy revealed, although the top line may all appear to be in order, beneath it there can be layers of activity that don't stand up to scrutiny - incompetence and illegality that resulted in 23 deaths in the most cynical and harrowing circumstances.
There were up to a hundred pickers working the Morecambe Bay sand flats that day, most of them local British cocklers, but there was also a gang of Chinese workers who had been hired by the Edens, a father and son team from the north of England who had a license to harvest in the Bay. The Edens were exploiting their Chinese workforce by paying them £5 per 25 kilos of cockles - far lower than the typical rate at the time.
The unscrupulous Edens had contracted to hire these workers via a Chinese gang-master through criminal Triad connections on Merseyside, for these workers were all illegal immigrants who had paid human traffickers to smuggle them into Liverpool on container ships so they could join the UK's gray economy and earn money to send back to China. They were hoping that by working in Britain they would be able to give their impoverished families a better life. Most of the group were in their twenties and thirties; there were both men and women; the majority had traveled 6,000 miles from the Fujian province of China. They could barely speak any English, they were untrained, inexperienced and were sadly complicit in their own exploitation - trapped effectively as unlawful residents and at the mercy of the criminal agents, the gang-master and the Edens.
It transpired later that some of the local cocklers had tried to warn the Chinese gang that cockling-time was over for the day, resorting to tapping their watches when confronted by the language barrier. That tactic failed as well. The leader of the Chinese group didn't heed the warning, had himself misunderstood the tide timetable and didn't possess the vital local knowledge about how quickly and powerfully the incoming waters sweep up the channels between the sandbanks in the Bay. The workers were instructed to go on cockling by lamplight into the cold February night.
Shortly after 9pm, as the waters swirled over the sandbanks, the workers began a frantic scrambling back to their trucks ready to beat a hasty retreat, except that within minutes the water was over the wheels and the vehicles wouldn't start. The gang was trapped, cut off by the incoming tide. In the cold and the dark it was every man and woman for themselves.
One man with a mobile phone called the emergency services. They asked who he was, where he was and all he could say in broken English was "Sinking water. Many many. Sinking water." There were survivors, but he wasn't among them. Fourteen of the thirty-eight somehow managed to make it back to the shore by discarding their wading-gear and swimming for their lives. Twenty three more were drowned in their trucks or were swept away by the formidable currents, succumbing to fatigue or hypothermia as the waters claimed them. By the time the rescue helicopter was scrambled, most of the gang had either made it to shore or had perished. The crew spotted just one man who, by good fortune, had been washed up onto one of the higher banks. He was waving frantically with all the strength he had left and was pulled from the sea.


The rescue helicopter's thermal image of the man who was pulled from the waves

The Chinese gang-master first tried to persuade the survivors to say they had been out picnicking in the bay! He was found guilty of the manslaughter of 21 people (two other bodies couldn't be recovered though the remains of one of the two was found in 2010); also of breaking immigration laws and conspiring to pervert the course of justice. He was sentenced to a total of 14 years in prison. The Edens were cleared of helping their Chinese workers break immigration law. The surviving workers were eventually repatriated, put on a plane to Xiamen and various English charities sent money to help the families back in Fujian province who had lost loved ones in the disaster.
The Morecambe Bay tragedy led to new legislation in the UK, the Gang-masters Licensing Act and the formation of the Gang-masters Licensing Authority - with obvious implications for the tackling of human trafficking and economic migration going way beyond the North West cockling industry.
Cockle-picking in the Bay was suspended for several years and when the practice resumed in 2016 it was much more tightly controlled by the North West Inshore Fisheries and Conservation Authority - the beds only to be harvested during daylight hours and when tides and other specific conditions pertain.
There have been several artistic responses to the tragic events of February 5th 2004; two films: 'Ghosts' by Nick Broomfield in 2006 and 'Ten Thousand Waves' by Isaac Julien in 2013; several songs: 'On Morecambe Bay' by Kevin Littlewood in 2007, 'The Bay' by Stereo Honey in 2017 and 'One Hundred Flowers Bloom' by The Fernweh in 2018; plus numerous poems. I am just adding to the long list of the latter...
Sinking Water
Beautiful but brutal Morecambe Bay
has been stealing lives for centuries,
a cockle-picker here, a tourist there
caught blindside by the notorious tide;
but nothing to compare with the tragedy
which unfolded on that February night.
Past watch-tapping time, by arc light
forty Chinese workers with no rights
on unfamiliar northern shores
six thousand miles from home,
their destinies mortgaged to the clan,
ran unknown risks
but had no option save press on,
at the urging
of their miscalculating hard gang-master;
no picnic this, harvesting a meagre income
from cold, back-breaking cockle-beds.
The danger swiftly massing in the dark
soon overtook them on those sand flats
which would prove their graveyard
Trapped by the rising flood,
Chinese whispers modulated into screams.
Sinking water. Many many.
Sinking water.
Abandoning their sacks
the forty fled the cockle-beds
one thought instinctual, to survive,
to plunge into the streaming tide
and battle forceful currents to the shore.
For twenty-three, the striving proved in vain.
On that inauspicious night,
bereft of monkey-luck
they surrendered to the abysmal K'an
and perished in the freezing bight,
sucked into a quite contrary hell
among a sprawl of foreign cockle shells.
Take a breath and then, to end on a slightly more upbeat note, as a musical bonus in tribute to the late Aretha Franklin I've included a link to her singing 'Save Me'. Hearing Julie Driscoll perform this song back in 1967 led me to the music of the incomparable Queen of Soul. Trapped? Just click: Save Me!
Thanks for reading. Stay safe, stay soulful. stay free. S ;-) Email ThisBlogThis!Share to TwitterShare to Facebook


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