Columbus Must Die, Part One
Columbus Must Die
An Alternate History
I awake suddenly in a state of panic and confusion with no idea why. The air is finally cool, with the red rays of dawn poking through the chinks in the shelter’s walls where the upright logs come together. It seems I had been asleep but minutes, even though I had fallen asleep the previous afternoon, and it takes a few moments to remember even where I am. The lay of the shelter and the sleeping forms of my companions bring it all back in a rush… I am in a new world, across the Atlantic from my home and family in Jerez, Spain. I strain my senses to determine what has awoken me. I believe I might have heard cutoff cries and perhaps even gunfire. I sit up quickly and listen intently, yet hear nothing but the crackle of a distant fire.
I had been sleeping fitfully since our arrival, awakening frequently during the nights from troubled dreams or from strange new noises in a strange new land.
I am vaguely, drowsily amazed that I had slept through the night, having intended just a few hours rest the previous afternoon. In my deep exhaustion following the past week of almost un-relieved effort and striving, I lie back down and start to drift off, and notice stupidly that the early light of dawn was shimmering red and gold. Only a dream…
Just before full sleep, my mind clicks on the fact that it is now utterly, unnaturally silent, as if the whole world is holding its breath. No birds, no buzz of insects… nothing but the fire that, even as I listen, gains in intensity. As my mind begins to clear the cobwebs of sleep away, I realize that the light was coming from the wrong direction to be dawn. I jump up with a start once again, much more alert this time, and pull my clothes to me. I pad quietly across the sand floor of towards the doorway, hoping to not awaken my companions, although they are beginning to stir some. Looking out on the Bay of Marie’n, on the Island of Hispaniola, I am stunned by what I see…
Like the pillar of fire that led the Israelites through the desert, a gigantic blaze from one of many ships in the shelter of the cove shoots hundreds of feet skyward, completely illuminating the frozen battle scene below.
Then pandemonium breaks loose.
Part One – Spain
Francisco de Las Casas - Spring 1493
I am Francisco de Las Casas, youngest son of Captain Hernan de Las Casas, a soldier of Spain. I am aide to Señor Columbus, newly made Admiral of the Ocean Sea. We sailed from Seville, in the Kingdom of Castile six weeks ago with 1200 men, 17 boats, horses, cattle, pigs and poultry. We return to the Indies to expand the settlement of Navidad, Hispaniola, where this past fall, Admiral Colon had left a cousin of his late wife, a Captain Martinez, in charge of the thirty nine men he had left behind. We would build a large settlement there, establish farms in the lush green valleys and hills, and bring Christ to the gentle natives. From there, we would find our way to Cathay (China), Cipango (Japan) and the Spice Islands.
As the youngest of three brothers, I had been slated to enter the Church, but my father, seeing my adventurous spirit (and eye for a pretty girl), helped me to secure a place with this grand journey of exploration, settlement, trade, and spread of the Church to a very friendly, generous and open people, if Admiral Colón was to be believed.
Only seven months earlier, I had sat with my father in our home in Jerez, Castile, Spain, south on the Guadalquivir River from Sevilla, talking quietly in the coolness of his salon, the large gathering room of the main residence. It was a hot, still afternoon. The windows were shuttered, letting in some light, but none of the heat of the afternoon sun. The spicy sweet scent of Jasmine and orange blossom, the constant background sizzle of the Cicada and the coolness of the room when it was so hot outside had a somnolent, hypnotic effect.
The fountain in the courtyard could be heard splashing quietly and a few sparrows braved the late afternoon heat, their soft calls to one another from the shade of the trees echoing in the stillness.
The runoff from the fountain poured into channels that ran into the house. I watched as the water lazily flowed in these cuts into the polished stone floor only a few inches deep and twice as wide that ran four feet in from the walls of the salon. Water constantly flowed in warmer months and cooled the room. The Romans had discovered long ago that the running water would seep into the rock and evaporate, cooling both the stone and the surrounding air. The quiet whisper of the water would add to the lull… and the day, the year, the world, would seem to stand still, intending to go on like this forever.
The sparrows continued their chirping, as they must have done for hundreds, or thousands upon thousands of years.
Our large home was Moorish in style. The thick stone walls had deep set windows in tall ceilinged rooms. Intricate woven tapestries adorned the walls. The furnishings were of heavy dark wood with thick comfortable cushions and pillows. The many niches in the walls held statues of St Francis and The Virgin Mary (my mother’s influence) and others with the souvenirs of my father’s military travels, perhaps a vase or ancient bust.
My family had enjoyed our mid-day dinner together, the main meal of the day, of roasted lamb along with a side of chickpeas and lentils in olive oil, a favorite. The lamb was complimented by a green parsley, mint and sage sauce, made with egg yolks, vinegar, walnuts and hazelnuts. A small amount of honey finished it off.
There would always be wine served with this meal, today's offering had been a young local vintage. Our wines were notoriously sweet, but my father always had some dryer varieties from Biscaya, the bay far to the north. As usual, this was followed by a period of rest or sleep for an hour or two, and then the family would slowly begin to re-emerge.
My father was expecting guests this day and, as usual I was the first up to join him. My indolent brothers would trudge down in another hour or so, undoubtedly in surly moods and grumbling requests for coffee or perhaps bread and olives.
Although they tormented me, I loved my brothers. We had grown up playing and fighting, as boys like to do and many grand adventures we had. But this hour or so alone with my father was the highlight of my day, and I was glad for their love of sleep. Listening in on his discussions of philosophy, geography or politics with his guests was an extra treat.
My father was my hero, my idol and somehow, my friend as well. My earliest memories were of times spent with him. When he was not off fighting and could spend time with us, we’d often walk through the gardens together. Our ‘Hacienda’ which literally means ‘Place Where Things are Made ’, was the original of the area, and my father thought it had been built over an even older Roman site, due to the pottery shards often found when the soil was tilled. “The Phoenicians, followed by the Greeks had been in this area thousands of years earlier” he had told me, “so it was impossible to tell exactly how old the most ancient walls are.
In earlier times our land comprised the whole of the village and was completely self-contained. Surrounded by a ten foot high, thick stone wall we had an enclosed ten acres.
There was a gushing artesian spring running into a beautiful pond that provided water for the gardens, orchards and the house. There were numerous picturesque stone outbuildings for the farm laborers, the smithy, groomsmen and dairy. There was remnant evidence that many other quite small buildings had once existed against the outer wall, it being assumed they had been homes of the many residents of the fortified village in ancient times.
I recall being a child of eight or so. As we walked about my father would be naming the various plants and their usage while I would be fighting dragons, jins or Moors with whatever stick, piece of trellis or tool that was to hand.
My father had picked an orange, mid-winter when they were at their ripest. I would follow his example as he first smells the fruit, filling his nostrils with its pungent odor, then felt the texture, pointing out the tiny oil bearing pores. He explained about the fruit’s origin in China, its travel to Egypt, perhaps by Alexander the Macedonian, then onto Rome and throughout its Mediterranean empire. “In China the peal is used for most any stomach upset or discomfort. It is why we make a tea from it when we over-indulge,” he adds.
Every walk, every conversation was an impromptu lesson in life, geography, history, mathematics or whatever knowledge could be gained or discussed. I never felt I was being lectured to, and he seemed to always have a fascinating story to go along with most any point.
His interactions with others in our village, his treatment of our workers and servants; each was a lesson in politics, judiciousness, statesmanship and leadership, all done without seeming effort. Perhaps it has been said countless times before, but I wanted to be just like him.
My father had recently participated in a great battle that had been fought in the Moorish Emirate of Granada. After a lengthy siege and much negotiation (and a spectacular payment in gold), Prince Boabdil had surrendered that great city and Caliphate to the Christian armies of Isabela and Ferdinand. This Muslim stronghold of Al-Andalus, the Alhambra, had been the last on the Iberian Peninsula (What is now Spain and Portugal).
The Moors, under Tariq ibn-Ziyad, a Berber from The North African Maghreb, had conquered most of the peninsula nearly 800 years before, pushing out the barbarian Germanic Visigoths who had earlier wrested it from Rome.
For many it was clear, Christians are obviously good and doing God’s work, Muslims are bad. The Christians prevailed, therefore all is well. But for others such as my father, who clearly had Berber Warrior blood, as most inhabitants of Iberia did, the departure of the last Calif was the inevitable but sad end of a glorious era.
My father spoke of the wonders of Cordoba, where there were universities, libraries, paved and lighted streets and nine hundred public baths for half a million people, while Paris, Brussels, and Milan wallowed in mud, squalor and ignorance.
“While most of us were living like animals, they were opening Universities and Hospitals. We followed superstitions while they studied and explored science and facts”, he added. “This end to the Caliphate was bound to happen, but we will all lose by their departure.”
But this was a change that had been three centuries in the making, since the end of the eleventh century and the time of ‘El Cid’ when Moorish Spain had reached its zenith. In much of Spain, despite the war, Moors, Jews and Christians had lived side by side in relative tolerance. The great expulsions or conversions and “The Inquisition” were just months in the future, but at this point there was a reasonable expectation for continued, peaceful co-existence. ‘Convivencia’ or ‘live and let live’ was the rule.
Although my father had spent most of his career in helping defeat the last Moorish stronghold, his closest friend and confidant, Fernan de Alcazar, was a converted Moor (who had given up none of his Islamic practices). Isaac Abrabanel, a Jew, and cousin to one of King Ferdinand’s trusted advisers and courtiers, often played chess, or perhaps cards, with both my father and Fernan in this very room. I grew up on their discussions of philosophy, religion, war and history. Often heated and angry, an outsider might think these three the most bitter of enemies. I learned much more from these debates than from any other source.
But now it was just my father and I, in the cool and quiet of the room. There was a clinking of ceramic from the next room as Arianna, the young daughter of our serving woman worked. The aroma of brewing coffee was soon layered onto the orange and jasmine, combining beautifully.
“There is to be a grand journey”, my father began in his quiet yet sonorous voice, “A journey by sea to the far eastern lands… by heading west of all things!” He let that comment hang there…
This brought to mind recent discussions these few recently of Admiral Colon’s (Columbus in Latin) voyage of this past fall, in late 1492. My father was a lover of History and Geography. He had many friends among the Moors of Spain, and many books, writings and even a few maps were lent, borrowed and discussed (among them) in our home. I had acquired a love of maps and a fair understanding of cartography and easily followed the talk of my father and his guests.
Fernan De Alcazar, always on edge and spoiling for an argument, had scoffed at the notion that Columbus had reached China in such a short distance and time…
“We know there is a great sea to the west of Gibraltar and past the Azores; we also know there is a great sea to the East of Japan. We know the circumference of the Earth is around 25,000 miles. Aryabhata of India taught that seven centuries ago, Eratosthenes, 200 years before Jesus Christ walked the earth. Therefore this ocean”, he continued, “must be at least 12,000 miles across. This Genoan buffoon runs into a few Islands merely 3000 miles to the west and claims to have made it to Cathay? And they are giving him more ships? God saves those who would travel with him.”
Portugal was within 60 miles of our home, and many of their ships traded in the Bay of Cadiz just a few miles down-river. The Portuguese were confident of a land far to the southeast of the Canary Islands. They spoke of coming in contact with large trading canoes that had left the coast of Africa heading west, those traders describing a beautiful, green, inhabited land.
“I am not sure which version is more preposterous. That he made it to the East or that he has ‘discovered’ a new land,” finished De Alcazar.
“I have met Señor Colon”, my father replied,“ and I found he was neither Saint nor Satan, and certainly no fool. He was very near and somewhat secretive with information of his voyage, and was excessively and irksomely over-impressed with himself and his accomplishments. Perhaps for the benefit of The Catholic Monarchs, and certainly for Father Juan Perez, who both he and the Monarchs are quite close to, he even throws in a biblical verse in here and there, as if Isaiah had foretold of his bringing Christ to a new land, new islands no less.”
After a full minute my father continued addressing De Alcazar, “No, No, …much like all of us, he is not ‘all’ anything. He has many shining qualities and many shabby ones. He is neither as splendid as he seems to believe he is nor as low as others claim, but somewhere in between.”
Now months later, my father’s voice brought my focus back to him. “Many ships are being readied and supplied, and Admiral Colon is looking for soldiers and craftsmen to join him.” He went on after a few moments contemplation. “He is promising great rewards.”
My heart sank. My father, having just returned from the wars a few months passed, would be off again on another adventure. He would leave me behind to be further stifled by my mother’s and brothers’ overbearing ‘protection’ and more language and religious training by the dour Jesuits. I was to be forever trapped in this village.
Perhaps all young men are the same. I worshipped my father like a god. The feats of my father in battle were legend in our village. All our land and wealth were rewards for his valor, wisdom and strength, directly given by Ferdinand himself. Although he spoke quietly and infrequently, all would stop to hear him speak. I had never heard anyone interrupt or over-speak him, even de-Alcazar, our haughty Moorish friend hanging on his words.
Although my father was gone much of the time, the armies of Ferdinand were seldom more than a week’s ride away. He was able to return home often and stay for several weeks at a time. The siege or war against Granada had lasted the past ten years, almost as long as I could remember, but was yearly put on hold during the winter months so he was generally with us for November through the beginning of March.
But this would be a voyage of years. The idea of being without my father for that long, trapped in this almost Monastic life, was too much to bear.
“I have secured you a post as scribe for Admiral Colón.” He went on, astonishing me. “We leave for Seville in a fort-night, where you will begin your duties. I have convinced him that your proficiency in languages, as well as your mathematical skills, will be invaluable to him.”
I sat in stunned amazement, my mouth opening and closing like a fish. Never one to speak overmuch, I was absolutely at a loss for words. I had longed for freedom from this almost monastic life of my sixteen year history, dreamed of the world and the great adventure just waiting for me outside of Jerez.
Now that the prison gate was to be sprung I did not know what I felt. Excitement? Certainly. Gratitude? No doubt. But there was also some other underlying, quite uncomfortable feeling. Was it fear?
My father leaned forward and patted my knee. With a friendly, amused smile he said, “Take your time, allow this to sink in for a few minutes.”
How had Colon even heard of me? Certainly I had proficiency in languages and mathematics, and loved to show up my brothers, spouting out Latin phrases at them and tutoring them in Algebra although they were older than I. I later learned that a large payment by my father directly to the Admiral had helped in the decision making, a small letdown to my ego.
Chapter 3) Preparing for Sevilla
I was large for my age and even at just shy of seventeen, seemed confident and serious enough to pull off a mature air. My very shyness and timidity seemed often to be confused with self-assurance and perhaps even aloofness. But in most ways I was merely an excited child, ready for adventure. Being overprotected, not only by my mother, but also my older siblings, and further isolated from the evils of the world by Padre Ignacio, the local priest preparing me for the church, a more naïve, and unworldly aid for Admiral Colón would be hard to find. Any bawdy talk, any hint of inappropriate behavior was quickly quashed by my protectors.
I had never been out in the world at all, and was thrilled beyond words at the prospect of Seville alone, never mind crossing the Atlantic Ocean to a new land. I had an idea of the excitement, wonder and beauty that awaited me but, for good or ill, I really had no notion of how horrible humans could be. I could not have been more ill-prepared for life among hundreds of crude and tough sailors. I would soon be introduced to some of the most unfair and heinous interactions between peoples imaginable, and was wholly ignorant of the existing brutality that I was soon to witness in my travels.
But for now, it was all excitement and anticipation. Fourteen days passed in a blur. Between tears and hugs and prayers my mother put together a trunk with what she felt would be appropriate clothing. My father would gently remind her of Admiral Colón’s simplicity on seeing some of her more outlandish creations. My mother had secured the help of several seamstresses, and had scoured Jerez for available cloth.
Holding up a pair of gaily colored pantaloons he chuckled. “He should appear both serious and studious, not like a court parakeet,” he gently chided. “But seeing the furious glare that only my mother possessed, and that this labor kept her busy, with less time for tears, he let her have her way.”
My brothers were quite put out on not being chosen for this honor, but a few minutes of challenging their Latin and Greek by my father, as well as putting their mathematical skills to the test brought them to at least grudging acceptance. My oldest brother, Hernan, presented me with what was a prized possession, a Toledo steel dagger with an intricately carved hilt of whale bone from Biscay. My middle brother Antonio presented me with boxed ears and a push into a thorny rose bush, as we were walking in to dinner.
My mother was … confusing. Angry with my father for letting such an innocent out into the big frightening world, disappointed in me for not wanting to continue my studies and enter the priesthood, thrilled for me and the opportunity I was given yet saddened by this definitive end of childhood. With me being the youngest, I suppose it was particularly hard on her.
“You will be seeing people and places unknown to most,” she said, adding after a few moments reflection while she worked, “But people are the same the world over.” At that point I was unsure if this was a warning or if it was said to comfort me.
I loved my mother dearly, and would have done anything for her, though just ‘talking’ with her was always taxing work for some reason. Perhaps I would even have given up this journey had she asked it.
But we spoke a different language. Certainly the words were the same, but I spent so much time deciphering what she was really trying to say that she would usually be onto another subject long before I could formulate an answer.
She was preparing a special meal for me, partridge in an almond and pomegranate sauce, a favorite of mine.
Dismissing the cook for the midday, she called me into our kitchen. Because it had been originally built to service thirty or more the kitchen was quite large. The bulk of the oven was out of doors, with only an opening of twenty by twenty inches facing into the kitchen. This would keep the area relatively cool. There were large walk through windows into the herb garden that was letting in the fresh cool morning air with a whiff of lavender or perhaps rosemary, as well as the pleasant sound of the courtyard fountain.
She had created a cloud of flour dust that hung and glittered in the slanting rays of the sun over her head as she hummed a very familiar Arabic tune that she had learned from her grandmother, something about springtime, desert flowers and love.
My mother was of average height, standing about five feet; with long hair so black it almost had a blue sheen, just recently beginning to show a silver strand here and there. Her almond shaped eyes and olive skin spoke of a strong Arabic heritage. She had a small gap between her front teeth adding an endearing, unique charm to her sweet face… sweet unless she was angered, which seemed surprisingly easy to do. Then you noticed nothing but the Damascus daggers shooting from her eyes.
Using the heavy stone pestle, she had ground several handfuls of almonds in the mortar into almost a flour consistency and was adding her dry spices into this, predominantly cinnamon and dried ginger, with a bit of marjoram and a taste of sage. The white almond flour soon took on a red/ brown hue.
“You have good instincts even though you have been sheltered here in Jerez “my mother correctly intoned. “There will be plenty who would take advantage of a young campesino (country boy) like yourself, so be careful who you associate with.”
She gazed out the window at a sparrow that had alighted on the fig tree, or perhaps gazed at a point a thousand miles or several years beyond that, and was quiet for a while in contemplation.
“Women will assume that, as an aide to Admiral Colon you are wealthy or at the least influential, and will try to take advantage of your heroic heart. You have been hopelessly in love three or four times in the past year alone. You are very susceptible to a woman’s charms you know?” she said with a soft smile, looking closely into my eyes to emphasize her words.
She added the dry mixture to a simmering cauldron of pomegranate, honey and water that had been stewing in a small pot over the coals of the fire, cooking it down to the consistency that she wanted. A portion of this would glaze the partridge while they cooked, with the balance warmed once again for each individual to pour over the broiled bird to their own taste.
“I realize you might feel I have been unfairly pushing you towards the priesthood, but I am hopeful that you can see that the education you have received, that your skill in languages and mathematics, have been worth the sacrifice, and will be useful to you on your new path.” she said as she rubbed the glaze into the birds.
Barely pausing for breath, she added,” When you were ten, eleven, twelve you spoke only of the priesthood. I should have seen when things changed but it took your father to open my eyes to it. Please God that you are not leaving with resentment in your heart,” she said looking at me, as a hope and a question.
I turned my mother towards me and hugged her near. Without thought, she embraced me with her arms and elbows while instinctively kept her sticky hands away. Some sort of inborn ability to keep things clean I suppose. My words were all caught up in my throat and my mother buried her face in my chest and let out long, heartbreaking sobs. I patted her head, as I would have comforted a child. We stood like this for what seemed a long time although I suppose it was but a minute. Once her weeping had subsided, I lifted her face to me and kissed her forehead then both cheeks, brushed a smudge of cinnamon that had somehow got on the end of her nose, and murmured my thanks and my love to her.
My mother had a very strong personality, and rarely showed emotion. I believe this was the only time I saw her weep.
Chapter 4) Sevilla
Suddenly I was in Seville, my mother and father left behind, my brothers retuning home after accompanying me on my trip upriver.
It had been a warm summer afternoon and the breeze off the Atlantic had pushed us quickly up the Guadalquivir River, sailing large with a billowing lateen sail. All three of us had been aware that this was the end of our childhood together and so were a bit nicer to each other. There was more comradery, less rivalry as we reminisced about our youth in Jerez.
Antoño imparted brotherly advice on women, and what to do with the ladies of Seville I would meet, Hernan with what to watch out for among the cutthroats and thieves I was sure to encounter.
My oldest brother left me with a bear like embrace and a kiss on each cheek, Antoño giving me the usual fist to my shoulder, but with a smile on his face, a glisten in his eye… none of the muscle numbing pounding I was used to.
All too soon I was on my own in the current capital residence of the Monarchs, Seville. In the seemingly endless Administration building, I was awestruck by the grandness of everything and the noise and hustle and bustle around me, and found myself nervously waiting with dozens of others to be presented to Colón.
After I had waited several hours, one of Colón’s men finally came out to grab me. He berated me for not making myself known, for not being more aggressive, not demanding enough and half led, half pushed me before the great man. I was nonplussed by this angry aggressive, rat of a clerk, and tried to compose myself as I sat before Colón.
Without looking up from a letter he was reading the great explorer spoke quietly with barely contained vexation, “To be any use to me you cannot wait on others, you must be able to push yourself forward, get my request and your task accomplished, and get back to me without wasting a moment.”
After a few moments of silence… that seemed a lifetime I answered,” Yes Admiral Colón, and what would you have me do now?”
Staring hard at me for several moments he nodded his head as he seemed to come to a decision. “Take this letter down to the Triana in the harbor, directly against the Mariagallante, give it to the captain and tell him that I requested you wait for a reply… IN WRITING”, he added forcefully! “Then come directly back here.” He finished, handing out the letter but no longer looking at me.
I quickly grabbed the letter and was out of the door and on my way like a musket shot, not having a clue what a Triana was or where to go. But calming, it became obvious to me that the harbor would mean boats or ships, and once there I would just ask directions. “Splendid! A year long voyage as aide to an angry jack-ass!” I thought to myself, my first impression of the great man.
I was completely at a loss to begin with, trying to determine what my place was, what was expected of me. After the rocky start however, Colón was quite patient and began by having me take notes on the various meetings and appointments. He would send me on various tasks at the dock sides and soon I had an idea on how to best serve the Admiral.
I had been present for many of the planning and investor meetings and had a chance to see some of the maps and charts I had heard so much about, as well as witness Colon’s force of character.
Just as in my father’s salon, there had been much argument and debate among scholars and cartographers back in Castile regarding the circumference of the earth and whether the Admiral had really travelled to the Far East or had instead, come across some unknown islands less than halfway there. To the earliest sailors, of course, the spherical shape of the earth was obvious, only the size of it in question. It has been said that earlier generations thought the earth flat, and that ships would fall off the edge if they travelled too far. Any child, on seeing a ship disappear over the horizon only to return later in the day, would know that to be preposterous. I had a hard time believing anyone ever had been that naïve. The world on the back of a tortoise, or Atlas for sooth!
My father spoke with me of diplomacy and the importance of advising, while not correcting my superiors. Colón may have strong motives for continuing to stand by his estimations of Earth’s size and distances, and my father made it very clear I was never to contradict or correct him in front of others. I soon noticed Colón’s own diplomacy at work.
For prospects that were convinced of the smaller sphere, he would speak of the riches of the Orient, the spices and silks that had enriched Venice and Genoa, now easily obtainable. For those sure of a larger globe, he would quickly steer away from the controversy and extol the riches of Hispaniola itself and all that would be gained by its settlement and exploitation.
The Admiral had lived in Portugal, and worked as a Cartographer for King John II there, and had even copied and (it was generally believed) kept some of those maps and charts for himself. He seemed quite convinced, or at least claimed to be convinced, that these islands he had travelled to were somewhere between Cipango (Japan) and Cathay (China), and that Cathay would be reached within a few days sailing to the southeast. Somehow he never allowed the distance question to become a point of contention however.
Colón was an astonishing and energetic leader with his hand in every aspect of the voyage. From choosing, or at least approving the captains for the 17 ships, provisioning them for a year long trip, and coordinating it all, he seemed ever present.
But his genius was in promoting the whole venture. Although Ferdinand and Isabella had given their approval and backing, they had only put up a fraction of the funds necessary for this grand voyage. They could exert a lot of pressure on the Nobility and merchants to invest, but much of it had to be raised through Colon’s own efforts and ability to convince and entice these men of wealth.
This was pure Mercantilism. Although Colon had shown that he could make the journey, his return to the investors on the first voyage had not been overwhelming. Yet all were aware, or made aware of the huge potential if Colón could crack the growing Portuguese monopoly of the spice trade.
It was, however, his remarkable ability to recreate in their minds the Island of Hispaniola, not merely in dry statistics, but as a verdant land, teaming with abundance and opportunity, which drew his audience in. Every valley was perfect for growing wheat or oats, with a river running through it to augment the frequent nurturing rains. The rivers were awash in gold from unknown and untapped deposits. All found in the setting of a perfect paradise.
Thousands of happy friendly Orientals, who were just looking for occupation, and thirsting for Christianity, were waiting there. In comparison to the dry rocky soil of much of Spain, and the frequent droughts and resulting crop failures, this was a beautiful picture.
His investors were imbued with a sense of both participating in a grand adventure, with an equally strong sense of certainty of a handsome return on their funds.
He seemed to sense just when to pull back, when to let the Noble or merchant’s own fear of loss of opportunity urge them on to insist that Colon allow them to invest.
As for me…
I started with excitement and enthusiasm for our mission. The Admiral’s vision of bringing Christianity to thousands seemed so much grander than anything I might accomplish as a parish priest. Claiming new lands for Castile and Aragon, for our Catholic Majesties Ferdinand and Isabella, not by war and conquest, but by being welcomed by its people, how grand it was to imagine. Replenishing the coffers of The Monarchs after its costly wars to remove the Moors from the peninsula; what an incredible thing to be a part of. There was even talk of a new Crusade, to once and for all push the invading Muslim from Jerusalem, to free the Holy Land!
While the Spain of Isabela and Ferdinand was euphoric on the removal of the last Moorish Caliphate from Granada, it had only been a dozen years since the Ottoman Saracen had invaded Otranto, one of Ferdinand’s holdings in Southern Italy, beheading 800, and enslaving or killing 12,000 Christian inhabitants. The Muslim threat was a driving consideration in all of Christianity in 1493.
Chapter 5) Slavery
That glowing excitement was sullied and tarnished by talk of the slave trade however. Many of the investors in this adventure seemed to be under the impression that they would be getting part of their return by trafficking in humans. Queen Isabella had been adamant that Castile and Aragon would not follow Portugal in this unholy practice, even insisting Colón return the few natives that had survived the trip to Castile and her court, back to their own homes and people on Hispaniola.
Colon had brought several dozen ‘Orientals’, people of the East, back with him from his first voyage. Although disease had broken out on the return, killing many of the ‘In Dios’ (Children of God Colón had named them) as well as killing or affecting a surprising number of his crew, there were a dozen or so left at the court of Queen Isabella. The youngest son as well as a niece of the Indio’s great leader, Guacanagari, were at court and were among her favorites.
Portugal has been providing African slaves to the Moors of Granada as house servants as well as galley slaves in the coastal areas, and some of the Hispanic wealthy had taken up this detestable practice. The Admiral had been less than clear when ‘selling’ his trade and settlement scheme to some of these investors, when I felt he should have been straightforward. But as a mere scribe, and a boy at that, and recalling my father’s admonishments, it was not my place to say anything.
I reflected on my own thoughts on this trade. There had been much discussion of slavery back home in my father’s salon. At one afternoon gathering, Fernan, the Moor, had pointed out how acceptable slavery was in both the Koran and our Christian Bible. The Jews had at one time owned many slaves and had, themselves, been enslaved in turn. It was the way of the world.
I recalled him taking our young serving girl, Ariana and placing her on his lap, asking, “How is even this child different from a slave? You treat her and her mother well, they never go hungry or without, but what option do they have but to keep working for you, their descendants doing the same for your descendants?”
“My own people,” Fernan went on, “while trading in the African interior, noticed the men of the defeated tribes were being rounded up and ritualistically slaughtered by the victor. A very wise Moor trader saved their lives by offering trade goods for these defeated warriors, taking them to the grain fields of Somalia and Persia to be used as workers. Were not these captives better off, were they not pleased to become enslaved rather than killed?”
I could not help but think that neither being enslaved nor killed would have pleased them. Ours was a cruel, vicious, mostly uncivilized world however, and even at sixteen years I understood that it was not a real world possibility at that time, that they be simply freed. Fernan’s arguments held some value, or at the least were worthy of consideration.
But even as I thought this, I contemplated how this “merciful” act of the Moorish trader, had started a whole new and horrible industry. No longer were the various tribes of Africa fighting for hunting areas, honor and prestige, but now hunted each other as human trade goods.
The Admiral assured others that the gold found easily in the rivers of these lands, as well as the trade for spices and cloth in Cathay and Saipan would make all wealthy. “I have left Navidad in the Capable hands of Captain Jesus Maria Martinez and Lieutenant Lliago des Champs”, flatly stated Colón. “Doubtless they have discovered the source of the gold and copper that adorns almost every Indio. They will have employed the willing natives to help with the mining, scouted out the best location for a larger settlement as well as pasture for the livestock we will be bringing.”
“The men are incredibly stout and well made, and look fierce when you meet them. As soon as they witness the superiority of the Catholic Monarchs and Hispania and learn of our desire to bring them under their protection however, they are all smiles and as pliable as children.” boasted the Admiral.
“Lieutenant Lliago des Champs, that most capable aide to Captain Martinez who governs our colony there, has already learned their language and will easily communicate our wishes to them. Because of the bounty of the land and lack of struggle for food, they are eager for any employment or diversion we might bring them”
“They helped with the construction of our first shelter and could work tirelessly all day without complaint. They spared no effort to please us. Gifts of fish, vegetables, fruits and the trinkets of gold and copper as I have shown you, were showered on us daily.” he added.
“In the midst of tens of thousands of their men, with as many women, and countless children, we were never in fear” he would continue.” Their religious leader, and even their King treated us with incredible deference and the people simply followed this example,” he claimed. “Further, their thirst for knowledge of The Kingdom of God is touching and awe inspiring. I would not be surprised to find that Father Alonzo has converted them all by our return, In Dios indeed!
Although Colon would never directly hint at slavery, he could not have chosen better words to describe the Indio’s suitability for that employment. If these investors believed that slavery was a backup plan, when obviously the Queen prohibited it, Colón seemed dis-inclined to correct them. I sensed the Admiral was being too sly by half!
But I reminded myself that Colón had the backing of Father Juan Perez, confessor to Queen Isabela, who was largely responsible for her support of the first and second voyages. Colón himself was a Franciscan Brother of the Third Order, which he would announce countless times to anyone who would listen. I was certain such a pious individual would not participate in anything as immoral as the slave trade.
A Third Order Friar was mostly an honorary lay position, but Colón took it quite seriously. He always wore brown, plain clothes which, although nicely made and of quality material, as well as always clean and orderly, was nothing like the foppish, colorful outfits, high heeled boots and finery of his contemporaries. (I once again mentally thank my father for insisting on the more dignified apparel I now wore.)
He spent much time in prayer and contemplation. He did not speak of it much, but he seemed to have a spiritual belief in his own destiny and place in the world. There were several obscure scriptures, from both Isaiah and John’s Revelations that he seemed focused on, and that bolstered his self-image as an instrument of God’s will.
John 10:16- “And other sheep I have, which are not of this fold: them also I must bring, and they shall hear my voice; and there shall be one fold, and one shepherd. ”
Isaiah 60:9- “For, the islands wait for me, and the ships of the sea in the beginning: that I may bring thy sons from afar, their silver and their gold with them, to the name of the Lord thy God.”
This piety, along with the help of Father Perez, had secured the support of the Monarchs, as well as the ships of the Pinzon brothers for his first voyage. Colon and my father, in fact, had met on the plains of Granada, where the Monarchs awaited the capitulation of the Last Moorish Leader in ‘The White Tent’ City’. It was here that my father had introduced the idea of his, that the brilliant son of Hernan De La Casa should accompany Colón on his second voyage.
There would always remain this love hate relationship between us. On a personal basis Colon and I had a very comfortable, even friendly relationship. We both of a retiring or shy disposition could discuss business and personal matters, even jest with the other without crossing that master/ subordinate line. He was painfully awkward with his social dealings with the nobility or merchants, but could then wax forcefully and convincingly on a subject he was truly interested in. After our first encounter, there was never that awkwardness.
As my father had observed months earlier, he was neither, “…saint nor Satan.”
Chapter 6 Colón
Colón stared out the window of his apartments by the Basilica, listening to the bells that called the monks to Compline, the final prayers of the day, around the twelfth hour (8 or 9pm). He had ushered the last of his guests, a minor nobleman and his wife from his salon. They had been imploring him to take their son, a sullen pock-faced youth of seventeen years, in any position that might be available. Colon wanted to suggest he be used as an anchor, but thought that might not be taken well. He had learned years ago, especially in his quest for funds on his first voyage that every nobleman was related to or at least was known to every other nobleman, that few appreciated levity, and none being told “no”.
He promised to, “…see what place might be found”, drank their health and sent them on their way.
He thought he might pray at Nocturnes, around midnight, after a small meal and rest. Although dreadfully tired, he knew that once again sleep would elude him this night. Praying in the Basilica was very calming and soothing to his troubled mind and soul. The repetition of well-known and loved psalms in Latin, the same he would have heard in Genoa, Lisbon or even Ireland, the drone of many voices in the cavernous space with the smell of incense as a few candles flickered and ineffectually probed the darkness…all familiar, all comforting. In his running conversation with God, it was here that he would attempt to justify his words and actions and ask forgiveness for the sins committed this day.
He gazed at his ships at anchor, the few lights from the far shore silhouetting them clearly. He could hear their creaking timbers, perhaps it was the dock, smell the wet surrounding the harbor, see the men at late work loading both his ships, and unloading produce from upriver.
He longed to be back on the open sea, truly he would rather go back to his beginning as cabin boy on his first trip to Iceland, than continue to have to beg, cajole, flatter, stretch the truth, or flat out lie to get these merchants and nobles to pry open the purse strings and support this voyage. He had great plans for Hispaniola, but could do nothing if he could not adequately fund the voyage.
He turned his mind to thoughts of Beatriz and his sons back in Cordoba as he poured himself a glass of Sherrez. His mind forgot the unending months, years of frustration while awaiting the Monarchs pleasure. He set aside his current woes as his mind drifted to the pleasure of his family, friends and life there. He recalled vividly when he met Beatriz…
“Wait for me” Colon shouted at his young son. Diego laughed and ran on.
He had stopped by the apothecary in Cordoba, about a mile from his apartments near the Monarch’s residence of Alcazar. Occasionally he would experience bouts of terrible swelling and pain in his knees, along with fever and chills, and felt an episode coming on.
“Rub the poultice deep into the flesh of your knees”, the herbalist, wife of the apothecary and midwife said as she messaged it in. “Then wrap more in a cloth bound around them when you get home and the heat will ease the pain and swelling.”
Next door to the apothecary was a wine shop owned by Diego de Arana who he had befriended. The two shops comprised the un-official meeting spot for Italians, especially those of Genoa, and Colón would spend hours visiting and gathering news, as well as discussing and purchasing wine. His son Diego usually accompanied him and was a favorite.
Gingerly, so as not to slip on the wet stones and further aggravate his knees, he stepped onto the glistening cobbles under a grey, gently weeping sky and exited the apothecary with his mandragora, radish poultice and willow bark for fever. His son, an energetic and gregarious six year old, broke from his grip and ran to the wine shop. Colón called after him, his pain causing him to be more strident than he had intended. As he stormily entered the wine shop he was shocked to hear Diego state in his unreserved manner to someone he could not see, “You are so beautiful!”
Colón recalled his amazement, embarrassment and loss of any form of propriety as he turned to the young woman who Diego had been addressing with the idea of apologizing. The words stuck in his throat however. He was struck dumb by her beauty himself and could only stutter out a few incoherent words and stare at her with what must have been a huge and stupid grin. She boldly stared back with somewhat annoyed black eyes and blacker hair for a few moments and wrinkled her nose slightly. Then shaking her head in bemusement turned in a pretty flounce, calling cheerily back to her uncle, “There is a mute radish at the door looking for wine. He has a handsome, gallant young gentleman with him.”
Colon’s son ran to Diego Arana and grasping his hand began to talk excitedly about the beautiful girl. “She must be a princess or perhaps an enchantress, like Morgana”, he said
Laughing Senior Arana said, “Why, she is my niece. Her name is Beatriz and surely is the princess of this wine shop.” And then he properly introduced her to both Colón and his son.
He recalled with a faint smile how his face burned with both embarrassment and pleasure at their first meeting. He and his son were, both of them in love…
From these pleasant memories he reluctantly returned to the present…
These unending compromises, these ridiculous guarantees he felt compelled to give weighed on his soul to an unsupportable degree.
It had started with the Pinzon brothers when preparing for his first voyage nearly a year ago. With the million maravedas from Isabela and Ferdinand and their mandate to the “People of Palos De La Frontera” a port on the Atlantic to provide two Caravels and sufficient crews to Colon, he had still run into difficulties. Having been offered the use of two worm eaten ships and barely the start of a meager undisciplined crew, Colon was near to despair. He felt his long sought for opportunity was slipping through his fingers. He doubted these ships could make the Canary Islands, let alone sail off into the unknown. The difficulties he was running into were perplexing and infinitely frustrating.
Almost suspiciously , the Pinzon family, wealthy traders and shipbuilders in La Fonterra came to the rescue of the endeavor, offering to not only supply the two ships and crews desired, but would add another ½ million maravedas for supplies and outfitting. They would do this all for just a 50 % share of the profits and share in any honors received from the expedition. In his despair Colon readily agreed. “And”, he admitted to himself now,” I am compounding the problem by doing the same thing again”.
The Pinzon brothers had been unmanageable from the start, treating Colon as a junior partner, rather than the leader of the expedition. To counter balance the situation, Colon used the Crown funds to secure the Santa Maria and its owner and master, Juan de la Cosa as his flag ship with the Pinzon’s Nina and Pinta as consorts.
Colon understood trade thoroughly, had been involved in maritime trade in one form or another for his whole life with moderate success. Ten years older, Martin Pinzon was on another level, a very ruthless, grasping level. Once he and Colon struck the agreement, Pinzon began to promote this voyage as his own venture, ostensibly to garner support from local seamen and merchants that knew of him and his success. The fierce character of the Santa Maria’s Captain and crew, mostly Basque and ready to fight at the least offence, kept the Pinzons somewhat in check.
The first confrontation was etched in Colon’s memory. In the cramped cabin of the Santa Maria, in the Harbor of Los Palos, he and his captains were going over final preparations. The sunlight streaming through the stern windows highlighted their faces that were growing red and pinched as an argument was coming to a head.
Colon was insisting they get underway with Aug 1st, 1492 as the departure date. The Pinzons were arguing for a date closer to the 15th, giving weak excuses and deflections, obviously trying to complete some scheme of their own before departure.
Martin stood to his feet, and with an air of finality and condescension stated, “Colón, we will leave on the 15th and that is that!” Juan La Casa, Captain of the Santa Maria, and Colón’s champion, slowly rose, grabbed the elder Pinzon by the lapels, backed him up and slammed him to the cabin wall. He said quietly, with a fierce gleam in his eye, “You will address him as “Admiral” Colón, and you will be ready to sail on the first or I will sink you and your boats right here in the harbor with you and your brother on them!” La Casa’s bosom, Lliago Des Champs was behind the younger Pinzon, holding him by a strong hand on his shoulder alone. When he had entered the cabin no one could say.
Although the Pinzons and their crew were not soft, the brutality and fierceness of the Santa Maria’s Basques had been demonstrated in port to a degree where the Pinzons would not force a confrontation.
Colón, caught between the conniving brothers and the possibly piratical Basques knew he had a lion by the tail, but felt he must carry on and sort out the details later if he were to sail before the winter storms.
Still in a sort of reverie in the past, he carried half of a cold chicken, along with some bread and cheese to a chair and table by the big window looking over the water, extinguishing all the candles and lamps along the way.
He angrily recalled how, once at sea, once the Canary Islands had sunk below the horizon, Pinzon would constantly race ahead in the much faster “Pinta”, and he would be compelled to follow. For the most part the currents and wind guided their direction, but a subtle change in the sail would alter their landing by several hundred miles. Pinzon had hinted at secret charts and a voyage of his own a few years earlier with the Frenchman Jean Cousin. He implied that they had come across a land across from the coast of Africa and Colón fully expected him to break away to the southwest somewhere along the journey.
In the end, it was only by the merest chance that Colón had received the credit he had for the voyage. With Colón’s ship held up in Azores after a terrible storm on the return trip, Pinzon raced ahead in the Pinta to Portugal to announce to all his marvelous discoveries, taking all credit for himself.
Martin Pinzon was intending on continuing to the Court of Isabella and Ferdinand with the news. Struck down ill however, he was delayed and unable to beat Colón to the Catholic Monarchs, who received the Admiral in honor. Martin Pinzon soon died from this ailment. Colon assumed it was the same disease that had been so devastating for the Indios as well as his own crew, but felt God himself might have been involved.
Sitting now, the moonlight streaming through his window, enjoying the warm summer’s night air and the complaining sounds of the ships in harbor, he contemplated his wine. He admitted to himself that, although he had not actually thanked God for Pinzon’s untimely death, deep down inside he was pleased with this outcome, yet shamed and confused for this very happiness. It felt quite wrong for a follower of Saint Francis.
Rather than one Pinzon however, he thought to himself, he was now beholding to numerous “Pinzons”, with no real hope of fulfilling all the promises he had made in the heat of the moment. None were as devious as Martin Pinzon he felt, but many had great influence with the Monarchs. His heart sank, and he could easily give in to despair. He knew however things always looked better in the morning, after a nights rest and prayer.
He thought back over all that had brought him to this point, as always, thinking of all he should have done differently, while thanking God for all his past and continued blessings, regardless of his current challenges. He was acutely aware that, especially when exhausted, he let himself be awed by these nobles and let himself be cowed into agreements with them that were not to his or the endeavor’s best interest. He asked in a silent prayer to God,” Give me the strength to be straight forward with these men! Help me to let the voyage succeed on its own merits.”
As he chewed on some chicken, along with a bit of hard cheese, a few olives and a bit of crusty bread he sipped some more wine and thought back to his father and Genoa where his story really began…
Chapter 7) Colón’s Past
He had learned trade and business at an early age in his father’s wool clothe factory in Genoa. He became adept at finding the best source for purchasing quality wool as well as locating the best markets for the family’s finished woolen products. With the Republic of Genoa being a major trading hub at that time, he soon became the trading agent for several wealthy Genovese families, eventually traveling by ship to many parts of the European trading world.
He recalled vividly as a small child, holding his father’s hand walking along the wharfs of home, the smell of fresh fish, just caught that morning, the salt air, infinitely refreshing, and his father’s pride as he pointed out the ship that would take their woolen goods to foreign, exotic lands. “One day you will be Captain of one of these ships, and sell our cloth throughout the world”, he had told young Colón.
It was an ideal life growing up. Surrounded by a loving father and doting mother, he had helped the family business thrive. While not exactly wealthy, they had gained affluence, security and respectability. He often reflected on that part of his life with longing.
Early in his career, he would often make the voyage from Genoa to Chios, a Genovese held island off the coast of Turkey. For generations the family and city’s wealth had come from trading their textiles for the spices that had come overland from the Orient. This trade had begun to dry up however due to interference from the Ottoman Empire and the resulting cost and danger involved in overland trade. The Venetians still had some viable trade in the north from the Silk Road of Marco Polo. To compete, both Genoa and Naples were trying to strengthen ties with Egypt and the Red Sea trading route, but they had left themselves in a tough position. All were aware that the Portuguese were just a few years from cornering that market with their sea route around Africa.
With these spices from the Orient to trade with, Colon had also travelled throughout the Mediterranean, the northeast Atlantic including England, Ireland and even Iceland once. In the North Sea he had traded as far as Flanders, as well as down the African coast to the Portuguese and Spanish held ports along the way. One year the Basque might have the best wool, and too much of it and he would buy from them. Perhaps Flanders would have a rough, cold season and he could command the best deal for his trade goods there. He had built a network of information by befriending port captains and traders along the sea routes. A bottle of wine here, a beautiful woven shawl for the wife of a merchant there, and he knew what was being traded in ports 1,000 miles away. It was rare, but he would trade for gold or silver whenever possible, but most of the family wealth consisted of trade goods.
He recalled sitting in Chios in the year 1479, in sweltering heat, the fetid sea in port seeming about to boil, as were his fellow traders. With holds full of textiles and no spices to be had at any price, Colon was at a loss. He had received word that morning that the caravan that had been traveling through Turkey with the goods he would trade for had been waylaid by the Ottomans and even now on its way to Constantinople. Watching the twelve vessels he was ultimately responsible for bob in the greasy grey water, floating in the filth and waste of the ships and the town, he knew that one season without trade would ruin his father as well as many of the other families involved in producing textiles.“It will also be my own ruin”, he said to his ship’s Captain and friend, Pasqual Finestere, over a dinner of roasted goat, with dates, pomegranate and almonds. “If I don’t come up with a plan soon no merchant will trust my judgement or acumen again”.
With the profits from this voyage he would have been in a position to purchase a small, fast caravel of his own, never again to be subject to the whim of the other merchants. “I have already committed to the purchase of that caravel”, he added. “We will have to come up with something quickly; De Padua would just as soon we were finished.”
He thought back with pride how he went about convincing the ship owner/ merchants to sail to on to Portugal. “I have contacts there (his younger brother, Bartholomew) that can help arrange to trade our products for the spices, sugar and gold of Africa”, he told the sweating, frustrated traders in a hot, dusty coffee house one afternoon after weeks of inactivity.” The Turkish coffee was as thick as mud and brutally strong… just the way he liked it. The fragrance permeated everything, even blocking out the stench of the tepid, motionless harbor just outside the door. “It will not be nearly so profitable as the trade had been in the past with the Arabs but it is the best option, certainly far better than returning to Genoa with our own cargo!” he said forcefully.
De Padua, a competitor of his fathers who often travelled with own ships along with Colón for mutual protection was furious. “Your luck is gone Cristobal, your information unreliable! We will no longer follow you blindly!” he said with exaggerated feeling.
Not wanting De Padua to drive a wedge between him and the other merchants, he said with all the assumed courtesy he could muster, “you will be missed”. In the end, seven other ships followed him to Portugal; the remaining five sailed south to Egypt in the hope of trade there.
After a successful, but not terribly profitable trade at Setubal, Portugal, just south of Lisbon, Colón was able to visit with his brother in Lisbon.” You should come back here after returning to Genoa,” Bartholomew urged him. “This is where your skills as a sailor will be honored and put to use. We will round Africa soon and meet with traders from the Orient. In just a few years we will be trading directly and quickly with the Far East and can completely eliminate Venice and Naples as trading competition. All that wealth will flow into Lisbon and we will be at the center! Imagine, in just a two year voyage we can trade directly with Cipango and return! In one trip with Father’s goods he can realize five times what he does now!”
They were sitting on Bartholomew’s veranda overlooking the Mar de Palha, the bay where Lisbon lay, drinking a thick fortified red wine from the north of Portugal. “Get us a bit o that cheese from Parma and some of that bread Maria!” he ordered his fiesty Portuguese bride in the coarse dialect of that country. “You finished the Parma off days ago!” she loudly, almost angrily bawled back over their laughing, wrestling young sons. We have a bit of that Sao Jorge what you brung from the islands and some of them sausages if you like?” Bartholomew rose, separated his sons and with a swat to their rears sent them giggling from the room. “Yes my love, at will be perfect!”
Seating himself again his brother continued, “There is a spot for you in the Kings Service brother. Your knowledge of the African coast, and your ability to Captain a ship can be employed immediately.” Bartholomew had been trying to tempt Colon into staying. “You are twice the Cartographer I am, and they believe me a genius!”
“I’ll be back in perhaps a month and I’ll visit with you then.” Barto had told him of the substantial profit to be made with the short run up to London and perhaps Flanders, only a month or five weeks added, with the spices they had just traded for selling for two and even three fold what they would garner in Genoa. From fighting for the few scraps of spices and silks that made it through to the eastern Mediterranean to now being at the hub of all future trade and exploration, Colón was more than tempted to join Bartholomew.
Most of the owners, quite unhappy with the meager profits they would be returning home with, decided to stay with Colón, at least as far as England, just a few weeks travel. True to Colón’s ‘source’, they were able to sell their cargoes at an astonishing profit; in fact they were far ahead of where they would have been had they been able to trade in Chios, though it was taking considerably longer.
Colón further was able to purchase a large quantity of a much higher quality of wool than he had ever come across. This he did on the black market as large guilds controlled the wool in England, strictly controlling the price. The premium Colon paid was a bargain for him and a much better deal for the farmers that were being shortchanged by the guild’s price controls. They quietly headed down the Thames and back out to sea with full holds and grateful hearts.
It was off the Coast of Portugal as they headed towards Lisbon that things went terribly wrong.
Their heavily laden ship continued to shoulder its way through the rough, grey seas, the bow heaving around at the last moment, cleaving through the frothed white tipped roller at ninety degrees to keep from capsizing, then slanting down into the trough at 45 degrees to make the most of the wind. Colón laughed aloud as the thick spray soaked him in a moment of in-attention. They were traveling as close to due west as possible from their sighting of the Northwest point of Galicia (now Spain). They needed close to one hundred miles of westing to catch the current that would carry them safely to Lisbon. This was the slowest part of the journey and quartering into the wind, it would be three days of breaking through rollers and continual trimming of the sails. It was tiresome, wet and dangerous sailing, and from the flashing smiles and occasional laugh while crashing through a massive wave by his Captain, Pasqual Finestere, Colón knew he loved it as much as he. It is how he would always remember his close friend.
As the seas calmed on the morning of the third day however, the dawn showed 15 French privateers bearing down on them from the west. Though each of his ships quickly turned about on their heels and ran before the wind with every sail aloft, they could not possibly compete with the speed of the unburdened pirates. The French had some small arms but mostly depended on superior numbers with enough men to handle their ship and more than enough to overrun the sparse crews of the merchant ships.
Colón’s ship, having been the lead, was now the first ship overtaken by the pirates, and Colón led the crew to meet the attack. In the first of the pirate vessels to reach them was a huge man who pointed a blunderbuss, a large-mouthed firearm that would blast out whatever fragments of metal, rock or glass available, at Colón’s group. He fell over backwards trying to avoid the blast as the gun was discharged in his direction. The gunpowder in the pan fizzled from the damp, and the gun discharged only after several seconds, the projectiles winging through his boat’s sail with only a few shards nicking Colón. For defense the merchant ships had fire bombs, jars of oil and pitch with a wick or fuse that would be thrown onto the deck of the attacking ship as it approached to board. At the last moment, several of the crew pitched these flaming jars at the pirate ship. Although they proved effective, the vessel, with sails ablaze, continued on course, their rigging becoming fouled with that of several of the merchant ships.
Four pirate vessels ended up burning, along with three merchant ships including the Bechalla, which carried a great part of Colon’s family’s wealth. As the fire and the fighting travelled from the French ship to the Bechalla, Captain Finestere was bore down by three attackers and mortally wounded. As Colón raced to his aid a shift in the wind created a blast of flame that forced him, his clothes in flames, overboard.
Although most of the crew were drowned Colon, a powerful swimmer, was able to make it to shore, clinging onto some flotsam from the ruined ships.
As Colón poured himself the last of the bottle he silently raised his glass to his lost friend Finestere, and thought back on how that swim ashore marked the end of one life and the beginning of another. It seemed a good evening for reflection and introspection. Rather than the walk to the Cathedral he chose to open another bottle, this one of a dry Sac from just down river.
Once he had made it back to Lisbon, quite an adventure in its own right, Colón had no reason to return to Genoa. He sent word to his father that the cargo and ship was lost and that he would be working in Lisbon for a few years and attempt to open other trading opportunities for the family.
Within a few years’ time, Colón was working with maps and charts with his brother, in the School founded by Henry the Navigator, had met and married a minor Portuguese noblewoman, fathered a son, and had presented his idea to King Alfonzo and his successor Prince John of Portugal, of traveling West across the Atlantic to get to the East.
His wife, Felipa Perestrelle e Moniz, was the daughter of a navigator, explorer and former governor of the Madeira Islands off the coast of Portugal in the Atlantic. Although her family had relatives at court, her father’s death had left Felipa and her mother with just enough to run the household on Madeira and pay for Felipa’s board at The Monastery of All Saints in Lisbon.
Although Felipa had intended on “taking the veil” and was in fact a novice or postulant for life as a Cloistered Nun, the couple was drawn together by their matching religious fervor. Even in her seemingly perpetual melancholia, she was quite pretty, and her relations in the Portuguese Court made her yet more attractive. The attentions of Colón were both surprising and flattering.
As her mother could no longer afford the ‘donation’ necessary to have Felipa stay with the Order of Santiago, the family quickly approved the match, especially as Colón required no dowry. Felipa at twenty five, with a serious, pious and melancholy countenance, was well passed marriageable prime and almost any match was welcomed. The couple moved to the family home in Porto Santo, Madeira Islands.
In his father in law’s study in their island home, Colón found many maps and charts, as well as a manuscript by Paolo Toscanelli dal Pozzo, an Italian geographer and teacher of math and science. He had suggested a western voyage to the Orient to King Afonzo of Portugal back in 1474, almost ten years earlier. Since all were aware of the spherical shape of the globe, the Orient obviously could not help but be reached heading west. The issue was coming up with a workable plan and the funds to do it. The astonishing amount of food and water to be carried for such a voyage was proven technologically impossible at that time. Colón was not alone in his vision, certainly not the first to contemplate it, but he was on fire to be the first to accomplish this feat. It was on Madeira that his plan of his own western voyage took final shape and the conviction of his call from God to bring Christ to the islands of the east took root and flourished.
The couple spent seven mostly contented years there on Madeira, and produced a son, Diego, the treasure of Colon’s world at that time. He and Felipa were good friends and were very supportive of each other’s religiosity, although there was no real passion. As an explorer’s daughter, Felipa understood Colon’s desire for exploration and religious conquest. She did not mind in the least his extended absences to the Portuguese Court as it left her in peace for prayer and fasting.
With no formal schooling, Colon had mastered Latin, Portuguese and Castilian Spanish and, with the help of his brother, was employed by the Portuguese to translate and compile maps, charts and writings collected from all over the known world. He had the ear of Prince John, heir to the Portuguese throne, but could never quite get him behind his westward scheme. John was concentrating on completing and expanding his African Trade Route, which, through gold and the slave trade, was bringing incredible wealth into the country. John was also fighting off intrigues against his rule in Portugal.
The idea of funding an expedition for a ten or twelve thousand mile journey into the unknown, while tempting could not compete with the realities of Africa. Further, the first part of the journey must go through area given to Spain by treaty and Papal Bull.
It was clear to Colón that he needed to present his idea to another power, perhaps the Genovese, or the French? Or perhaps the newly united Crowns of Isabella and Ferdinand, who had been sparring with Portugal off and on for three decades? Isabela had enough ancestral claim to the crown of Portugal to be a threat to John, who was merely regent. His father the King, tired of the unending intrigue of his Nobles, had suddenly retired to a monastery, leaving a power vacuum.
The home was airy and sunny with the sea close at hand. Although they were by no means wealthy, they led a happy comfortable life. He had an idea that he would transform some of the family pasture land to grapes and sugar cane, a way to increase revenues, but could never really get a good start at it. He ended up wasting much more wealth than he produced.
Although Colón and Felipe had a genuine affection for each other, they both realized that his passion for the sea and her religious fervor would always pull them in different directions. As time passed it was clear that returning to the cloistered life of the Monastery, with its emersion in prayer and peace for the balance of her days, was what she wanted more than anything. The amount of time spent in prayer and dedication, as well as her poor health left little time to be a proper mother. Although Colón was also fervent in his beliefs, she far outpaced him in her religious zeal. Her abiding melancholia was a huge burden for all three.
As much as he cared for her, leaving Felipa behind would be like casting loose an anchor for both Colón and his son. Given time, he was sure she would complete her novitiate and become a “Sister” of Christ, freeing them both.
(NEW CHAPTER?) He could still feel the incredible, almost surprising pain of their final parting. As they embraced for the last time the separation became very real, and he suddenly could not let go. A great welling of grief and loss came over him, almost as if she were leaving this life forever rather than entering the cloister. He had a strong premonition that they would not see each other again in this life.
It was 1484 and at thirty three, Colon was on his way to the court of Isabela and Ferdinand. He would travel by sea to La Ra’bida Friary in Huelva, on the southern coast of Castile, (a Franciscan monastery about 350 miles away), then up the Guadalquivir River to Sevilla.
Chapter 8) Colon
The writings of Marco Polo, his” Book of Marvels of the World” had a big impact on Colón starting at a very early age. Like his own, one of Polo’s great motivations was his Catholic religion. The Great Khan had asked his father, Nicolo Polo, to return with 100 missionaries to tell his people of this Christ. It was a dream that the younger Polo was not able to complete. Papal support had died with Clement the IV, and the two missionaries Polo was able to secure on his next journey turned back amidst the turmoil of battle between Mongols and Mameluke Muslims.
Colón had also grown up on stories of the Crusades. The last Holy Land Crusade was less than two centuries earlier. A failed Crusade of sorts, a war where a united force of Christian rulers attempted to stop the Ottoman incursions into Christian Europe had just occurred, with Muslim victories on the Italian Peninsula itself. With his strong Catholic beliefs and the recent successes of the Catholic Monarchs in ousting the Muslims from Iberia, he felt he had a destiny to stop the Muslim expansion and help spread Christianity and fulfill the Polo’s promise to bring Christianity to the East. Like all of us, he was the hero of his own life story. He felt himself an instrument of God.
In Ra’bida he found two strong allies, Father Juan Perez and Friar Antonio De Machena. A Franciscan like himself and the “Protector” or head of the Friary, Perez was also a confidant and confessor to Queen Isabela. Antonio De Marchena was a theologian and scientist and had many wealthy friends and associates. With the help of these two, Colón excited interest in his proposed voyage among men who had the wherewithal to fund such a venture. Without the support of the Queen however; he could get no firm commitments. All strongly felt that Isabella needed to be involved. Jealous of her power and authority she was quick to quell any usurpation.
An interview was finely arranged and Colón travelled to Cordova to await the Monarch’s return there in the spring of 1488. The Catholic Monarchs were intrigued and excited about the prospect of circumventing the Portuguese, but Isabela and Ferdinand were still in the midst of both securing their power base and expelling the Moors from Granada. They put Colon on a chain of sorts by giving him a place at court and a small living allowance, but no real answer.
It was here in late 1487, that he met Beatriz Arana. Colon’s thoughts had now come full circle, back to the beautiful, dark, then nineteen year old Basque who had been orphaned at four and was living with her aunt and uncle in Cordova and working in his wine shop.
Colón had convinced her to tutor his son in language and math. Diego had grown up speaking an odd mixture of Portuguese and the Genoan Dialect, and was picking up Castilian Spanish like a sponge as children tend to do. At seven years old he spoke it much better than his father. They would work until midday, when Beatriz would make the walk home to join her family for dinner, the primary meal of the day, around an hour after midday. Both wanting to prolong her company, Diego successfully urged his father to invite her for the mid-day meal.
“You should join us for dinner rather than having to walk so far back to your uncles for a meal!” Colón urged, “We would both enjoy your companionship. She laughed and shook her head negatively. “Not unless you allow me to cook. I have seen and smelled your meals and am not sure if they are edible,” she answered in her brusque, matter of fact manner. “Who cooks these disasters?” she added.
“Diego and I”, returned Colón a little testily. “We can’t seem to keep a cook,” He added chagrinned, but with a slight smile. She started as a teacher, then housekeeper and caretaker for young Diego and in time became mother to Colón’s second son, Ferdinand.
Colon supposed it grew out of their mutual love of Diego. So much more like a loving family should be, and with mutual attraction and esteem. While constantly in such close contact, attraction and mutual interests their love was inevitable.
Beatriz could both read and write, unusual for most women of the time, and had a wonderful and inquisitive mind. She could discuss religion, science and philosophy and was fascinated with Colón’s previous travels and future plans. Diego adored her and was a great student, also learning to read and write under her tutelage.
Colón had sent a letter to Lisbon, to the Monastery where Felipa was cloistered nearly a year before to see how she fared and if an annulment might be possible. This, with proper dispensations, would allow Felipa to join a holy order and Colón to marry Beatriz, providing a legal and loving mother for his son, as well as joy for himself.
Not realizing that Felipa had already passed by then, Colón waited for a response, which to date still not arrived. Life would not wait however and the situation followed its course to the inevitable conclusion. Regardless, neither had any intention of giving up the other, and Beatriz had no problem remaining Colón’s mistress if that’s what was needed for them to be together.
Preparing for bed in his lonely apartments in Sevilla, he pondered again sending for his family for these last few weeks. “By the time the message reaches them, they prepare for and then make the journey; the voyage may well have already begun.” He concluded to himself sadly.
Chapter 10) Preparations Continue
It was a maelstrom of activity in Seville, where lay Colon’s flagship, the Mariagallante. The Monarchs were currently in residence there, along with their court. Especially in the final weeks and days of preparation, it was a carnival atmosphere. Not only sailing crews, farmers and craftsman that would be participating in the adventure, but food-peddlers, musicians, interested residents, gypsy and many of the peasantry of the surrounding area desiring to witness and vicariously participate in this world changing event made up the throng.
My fingers burned a little as I picked some sizzling, greasy giblets of goat meat from a skewer I had purchased from one of the street vendors. I had been rushing non-stop all day, little more than a messenger boy during these last few days, running orders from Colon to the various Captains, herdsmen, and warehouse jefes, in an unending puzzle of getting the supplies delivered and loaded on the correct ships.
Just considering the drink of the sailors was astounding. Whether water, wine or beer, and usually a mixture, each sailor required a gallon a day. That’s 6,000 gallons of liquid on the Mariagallante, or 50,000 lbs. of liquid, including the water to desalt or de-brine the pickled or salted meats. There would be another 20,000 lbs. of food stuffs.
The wine would be mixed in a 1 to 4 ratio to water and for a longer voyage was premixed in the casks to keep the water “sweet” or drinkable. The beer had between one and three percent alcohol content and would often be further diluted with water. Being forced to drink just plain water was a sign of hardship and desperate times, and a sure recipe for a mutinous crew.
As I wandered through this forest of casks I wondered how it was possible that it could fit within the holds of these ships. Olives, olive oil, and vinegar were usually stored in earthenware jugs, with all else stored in large, theoretically water proof casks. Large amounts of beans, peas, lentils, chickpeas etc. were provided, along with hard unsalted, unleavened bread of a simple flour and water variety. The sailors would soften this up with their stew or soup. Since all the meats or fish were highly salted, even after soaking and rinsing, this plain bread would also help cut the salinity.
Typically there would also be great wheels of cheeses that would stand up to a long voyage, molasses, honey and some dries fruits such as dates, raisins and currants.
It took me three hours of arguing to convince both the Captain and the loading foreman that the grain and fodder must travel along with the proper animals, that transferring food while in transit was not realistic. This is a good example of how my day had gone. Very tedious and frustrating.
I sat in a plaza that opened to the port, wolfing down some of the partially burnt, mostly raw, goat that was not that wholesome to begin with, the overabundance of rosemary not successfully covering the overly aged flavor of the meat.
When I had first arrived, the reek of the city’s open sewers, animal dung and unwashed humans were nearly intolerable. But after several weeks I had grown accustomed to, or at least could ignore this. After a few tidbits from this skewer, I handed it off to a hungry looking street child who gobbled it straight down as a half dozen of his neighbors descended on him hoping for a share. Like a magician, he made the meal disappear before any reached him.
The port was directly before me as I washed my hands and face in one of the hundreds of fountains throughout the city. Started by the Romans and expanded by the Moors, these public water works were the source of water for most of Seville’s residents.
In our small town of Jerez, there was also running water everywhere. Bathing was frequent, and a series of sewer drains took sewage and rainwater away. There were no piles of trash and ruble piled on every corner as I was seeing here.
Recalling the burnt and sour goat meat I thought of what they must be eating at my home in Jerez. Each meal there was lovingly prepared with fresh ingredients from our fields, gardens and flocks or herds. My father, who truly loved good food, would seldom return from travel or fighting without a new recipe or new twist to an old one.
Only 60 miles away from my home, Seville was another world. Here 60,000 humans lived on top of each other like ants. I was initially overwhelmed with all the sounds, sights and smells but somehow I was now accustomed to it. In fact, I could almost say I enjoyed the chaos. After a few losses, I learned to avoid the cutpurses, gypsy and the small gangs of thieves that roamed the less patrolled areas of Seville and knew the safest and cleanest routes from the Government center to shipside.
It was an exciting time to be alive. Isabella and Ferdinand, after a rough start, had energized the people and the economy of their newly united Kingdoms. Roads were safe to travel on due to the local and state police forces they had implemented. The Monarchs had settled their disputes with Portugal and had strengthened their rule. Along with Ferdinand’s kingdoms of Naples and Sicily, they formed powerful trading block in the Mediterranean.
They reconfigured the government, where professionals now were used to run the various departments rather than favored nobles who had used their positions for wholesale theft in the past. They had reorganized the treasury and standardized the monetary system and minting.
With this thriving and safe environment merchants and investors were bringing their business to Hispania, with success breeding more success. Even with their earlier massive payout to Portugal to settle that dispute and the upcoming payment to the Moors in Granada to leave the peninsula, the treasury was quite full.
It was at the final capitulation of Boabdil in Granada, that the Catholic Monarchs gave Colon their final approval. He had been frustrated at the years of delay despite their continued interest and assurances that the time would be soon, and was actually heading to France to the Court of Charles VIII when he was called to the Catholic Monarch’s “City of the White Tents” at the gates of Granada.
And I was part of that grand venture…
From the plaza, I watched smaller craft with shallow drafts that were constantly arriving and departing to or from upriver, their lateen triangular sails adding a pretty touch to the scene. Friendly and sometimes not so friendly banter was passed between these boats as they danced around each other waiting for an open wharf and an opportunity to land their cargo. Most of the shore was lined with warehouses and trading houses while other areas were adorned with fabulous, ornate residences.
For all of its crowding and bustling activity, there were many abandoned buildings and rough areas of town. The population was roughly half what it had been during the Moorish heyday two centuries earlier. Looking at the retained beauty of these ruined buildings, courtyards and gardens, I could easily imagine the grandeur of what had been a Moorish metropolis.
Within my own memory was the last great plague to decimate the city, losing 10% of its population between 1485 and 1490. Although it had barely touched my town of Jerez, I had lost both an uncle and cousin to the disease. Between the exile of the Moors and frequent plague during the last few centuries, Seville was but a shell of its former glory.
Many sections of the city contained whole blocks of abandoned, decrepit, buildings, occupied by an occasional, poor family from the drought ridden countryside along with their animals. There were also quite busy areas inhabited by numerous gypsy families from all over.
Although these garish areas were starting to see a dramatic upswing in disease once again, the soldiers back from the war with Granada, the sailors of Colon’s voyage, as well as others, were drawn to these areas for nightly entertainment, cheap food and drink.
Part Two, Hispaniola Spring 1493
(Returning from his first voyage) He (Colón) left behind 39 crewmen, including a carpenter, a caulker, a physician, a gunner, a tailor and a cooper. He also left water casks and oils jars to collect gold. The men were told to trade with the Indians and collect as much gold as possible and hold it for his return. Columbus then instructed them to build a fort with a moat to impress the Indians and to use in case of danger. The crewmen did not follow these instructions, as the Indians seemed friendly.
Chapter 12) Lliago des Champs
Lieutenant Lliago, one of the first European settlers in America, and one of the crew from Colón’s first voyage, woke early again this morning. He would have several hours to himself to enjoy the quiet, without all the worries, doubts and anger of his situation breaking through the calm of the morning. This truly was a paradise if there was just the time to realize it.
It was an hour until sunrise. Looking north out of the mouth of the bay, there was plenty of light provided by the magenta, reds and pinks of the dawn off to the right, or East. As always, he began his walk in that direction. Cool puffs of breeze ruffled his pants legs, and rippled the water. He walked easily in bared feet up the packed sand, just above the receding tide. Once the blinding rays of the sun breached the surface of the sea he would turn back. The moon would just be setting then. There was a larger creek entering the ocean just outside the bay. It was here that he would go for a swim in the sea with a rinse of freshwater, letting the warm air dry him as he headed back.
The fishermen were already headed out, the clunk of the paddles on the side of the canoes, as well as the soft low voices traveling over the water, were the background for the occasional sizzle of a soft wave. Paradise! Even the infrequent cry of the seabirds acted to accentuate the peace and tranquility.
Lliago soon came to the shallow, but wide mouth, of the small river that drained the lush green valley to his right. There were hundreds, perhaps thousands of mounds, with an assortment of vegetables growing on each. The varieties were chosen so that at any time of year, as well as any weather conditions something would be maturing.
With seemingly little effort, a great bounty was produced by the Taino, the native inhabitants of this land. Corn, manioc, many types of tubers and aguacate, augmented by fish, iguana and crocodile meat, the food was far beyond sufficient for a population that must have been close to 100,000 souls. “How different from my home back in Bizkaia,” Lliago reflected.Growing up in a farming community located in the northeast region of the Iberian Peninsula, Lliago was used to poor, rocky soil, inadequate rainfall, and brutally hard work. Striving beside his kindly, hardworking father, the results ranged from poor to worse. Two out of three summers were doomed by drought. If not for his father’s resourcefulness and the ancient olive trees to sustain them, they might have starved. He had no recollection of ever having excess food, although he also never remembered having gone hungry.
Lliago spoke Basque, as well as Catalonian, and enough Castilian to get by. Although his family’s farm was situated in the middle of nowhere, it was where these different cultures overlapped. He had grown up working and trading with all three. Even at six and seven years of age, he would trade and translate for his father, who refused to speak anything but Basque, and even that but seldom. Who can say why some have an ear for language, but Lliago clearly did. Lliago clearly had an ear for language. (If I am not being unclear, I want the reader to recognize that some people, though not all, have a knack for languages.)
His father, Aika, rarely spoke at all, using mostly one word sentences and a series of meaningful grunts and mostly cheerful facial expressions to communicate. He always had a smile and a contented glint in his eye. Lliago felt comfortable and happy in his quiet presence.
After spending ten hours labor in his patchy, rocky field trying to prize food from stones, with not a spoken word between them all day, his father might turn him around to admire their work, and with a loving arm around his shoulder would simply say, “ona” or “good”. This was enough reward for Lliago.
Although he worked as hard as any two men, Aika was a pitiful farmer at the best of times. Fortunately, he was an incredible scrounger. In a year where he might harvest 30 scrawny beets from his own field, he would find many hundreds from the edge of the swamps where several meager creeks met. Wild onions and garlic could not escape his notice. He might trade a day’s labor for several bushels of apples.
Their small herd of goats was started with a few scraggly specimens they had earned from a month’s backbreaking work for a neighbor. Clearing his field of heavy stones then using these to a build a small canal to bring water from the creek to his crop had been traded for two pregnant does and an old billy.
Whenever the goat nannies were ready to breed, they would always manage to disappear from their pen, sometimes ending up miles away where a particularly healthy billy might be grazing. “I saw you leading your doe with a rope late last night”, a neighbor stated with a questioning, but friendly glint in his eye. My father would loquaciously say, nodding his head, “escaped”. “But you seemed to be headed the wrong direction?” the neighbor would add, with a knowing smile. “Lost”, my father might reply, and then stroll away before he would be forced to speak more.
So that there might be one less mouth to feed, Lliago left his home at the age of fifteen, going north to the ‘Great Bay’ to seek his fortune. His sisters and mother, whom he loved dearly, wept as this firstborn son left for parts unknown. His gentle father was nowhere to be seen, apparently unable to bear his departure. With a tear in his eye, Lliago promised to return in the fall, bringing both food and gifts. It would be four years before they would see him again, with many an adventure to speak of.
As he neared the oak forest north of the farm, trudging through the ankle deep dust of the parched and tormented land, his father angled towards him from across the field and was soon at his side. They walked along for several leagues in companionable silence, until they reached the top of the ridge that had been Lliago’s boundary as a child. After enjoying the view and a short rest, his father turned to him with a moist eye and hugged him tightly to his breast. He uttered one heart-wrenching sob and a sigh, then wordlessly released Lliago and headed back towards home.
The next several hours on the trail were a bit of a blur as Lliago reminisced about his home and childhood and love for his family. He dreamed of returning with wealth enough to free his parents from their unending toil.
Chapter 13) Lliago’s Biscay Adventure
Lliago was a tall, strongly knit young man who was obviously capable and used to hard work. With his strangely accented Basque, however, it was difficult to be accepted by the rough fishermen of the Bay of Biscay. A very tight community, the words stranger and enemy were synonymous. He started with odd jobs, the dirtiest that no one liked to do, in exchange for a meal here and there. He was able to show his worth through hard work, and putting his hand to any task for a bit of food. When a crew member was ill, drunk or otherwise unavailable, Lliago was always at hand. By working silently and diligently he soon gained a permanent spot on a fishing crew when one of their number suddenly disappeared in a mystery that seemed to involve a woman, her suitor and a knife. He never learned or cared about the details.
The Basque were wide ranging fishermen, hunting whale and fishing for both tuna, and the cod which, salted and dried, fed much of Europe. They would travel as far as the North Sea, the coasts of Ireland, Iceland and Greenland, even to the banks off Newfoundland, little knowing or caring that this would soon been seen as part of a larger “new found land”.
Although the days at sea could be brutally cold and the backbreaking work of hauling in nets and setlines interminable, Lliago looked back on those innocent days with joy for the freedom of soul and spirit he had felt. At the end of each voyage, he would receive his share of the catch, dreaming of one day owning his own fishing vessel.
Several times a year he was able to get money home. A trusted friend would make the journey for him and deliver a few ‘Maravedí’ or ‘Blancas’ to his family. His mother would always scribble a small note to him, and indicate the amount she received. She might say, “We now have seven billys and five doe in our goat herd.” indicating that she had received Seven Maravedi and five Blancas. She felt it was a very clever way for her to inform her son how much money she had actually received and he enjoyed even that small contact.
A Maravedi was worth about twenty dollars, or an average month’s wages on ship. There were 34 Maravedi in a Real. A Blanca was half a Maravedi and a Dinero a thirtieth. Although worth some in the cities, all had tremendous trading value in the countryside, where very few minted coins were available.
All that would change when at nineteen, his boat was captured by Tripolian pirates out of Algiers, as they were nearing harbor in what would soon be known as France. The fishing boats obviously carried little wealth, but the galleys out of Tripoli would capture these looking for replacement oarsmen to power their raiding vessels. These galleys would raid far and wide, sacking coastal villages as far away as England, before returning to the North coast of Africa.
He spent the next four months chained below deck, bending his back to the oars and the whip. Living in the filth and squalor of this most brutal form of slavery, even though it was of short duration, his abhorrence for any form of forced servitude was ground deep down into his soul. Thankfully, the pirates eventually attacked the wrong village. A large number of the rough and tumble Basque seamen were on shore, with several fishing vessels arriving shortly after the galley. The raiders became the captured, losing their craft and most of their lives.
Lliago had returned to fishing, when he heard of the need of sailors for the Crown’s voyage to the Far East. Now that would be an adventure!
Returning his thoughts to the present, Lliago stopped to admire the view from the point of the bay of his new home on Hispaniola. The ‘Fort’, the ugliest of stacked ship’s timbers, was thankfully, mostly hidden by trees. The Taino village, with its picturesque buildings of vertical logs and palm thatched roofs, were reflected in the mirror-still water of the Bay. He had no intention of ever leaving.
It had been several months since Admiral Colón had left for Sevilla, leaving thirty-nine sailors behind. Lliago was constantly amazed that this group still lived after Colón had betrayed the trust and friendship of Guacanagarí, the native leader that had made their very survival possible.
They had been exploring the coast of what Colón had assumed to be a peninsula of the Chinese Mainland though in actuality it was Cuba or “Juana”. Although they had found none of the large trading ports that Colón expected they did find beautiful fertile valleys, friendly inhabitants who supplied all their needs in exchange for trinkets or nothing at all, and only an occasional squall to break up day after day of very pleasant sailing weather.
Reaching the eastern tip of Cuba, with Hispaniola spotted in the distance, Colón had insisted they carry on in a southeasterly direction, and the Pinzon brothers, captains and owners of the Niña and Pinta Caravels reluctantly acquiesced. They had been recalcitrant subordinates to Colón and their contempt for him was quite obvious.
Lliago recalled his first introduction to the Pinzon duo, when, back in Los Palos his captain had confronted the pair in Colón’s cabin, demanding that the elder Pinzon show Colón proper respect, while Lliago kept the younger Pinzon from interfering.
There had been several short storms when traveling to the next island. The elder Pinzon brother, Martin, had contrived to get separated during one of these squalls.
Certainly Colón was the leader of this voyage, but the two brothers were here to trade and make a profit, their only income to be derived from this venture. Colón’s title of “Admiral of the Ocean Sea” was a bit of a joke to these merchants, as they were not part of any formal navy, although they were careful to call him Admiral Colón in either the presence of Captain la Casa or myself. Colón, for his part, was aware that the success of this voyage depended on his ability to balance asserting his authority while not alienating the Pinzon Captains. It was rumored that the elder brother had taken the Pinta to the north. The Pinzons had argued earlier, after talking to the Taino inhabitants of Juana and calculating their latitude, that the mainland of a much larger landmass lay in that direction.
While slowly exploring the northern shore of what would be named Hispaniola, awaiting the reappearance of the Pinta, another storm hit, this one tremendously powerful and destructive.
Juan De La Cosa was both master and owner of the Santa Maria. He and Lliago had been working desperately for the past night and all that day to keep his ship off the rocky shores of Hispaniola, where it was being driven by the storm. Darkness was at hand again, and the ship and its people silently groaned at the thought of another night of fighting the sea.
It was unclear who was at the tiller when, upon seeing a calm bay, the ship was steered towards it. They were now running with the wind and waves, and all was much calmer, though shouts were still barely audible above the driving rain and remaining wind. The captain could be heard bellowing to the tillersmen to “Full Port”, desiring to turn back into the wind, to bring the vessel to as much a stop as possible. When the ship did not turn, (it was later learned the tiller had broken), he ordered his men to take in the last scrap of sail to slow the vessel. Sullenly and soddenly, the sailors climbed to the spars once more, whipped about by the storm.
The singing in the rigging had died to almost nothing as the strain came off. Just as the last of the sail was lowered and it appeared as though they might smoothly cruise deep into the bay, the ship came to an abrupt halt with a wrenching crash, flinging two sailors crashing to the deck from the rigging and Captain La Cosa headlong into the mainmast. It took one more, large surge forward, settling solidly about two feet higher out of the water than usual, with the sound of breaking timbers and lighter wood from below deck.
On Christmas Eve, the Santa Maria ran aground on a reef a little over a mile from shore. The unconscious captain was rushed into Colón’s cabin, with Mateo, the ship’s physician, in attendance. With no time for recriminations or ascertaining fault, Lieutenant Lliago began shouting orders. The ship’s launches were quickly over the side and within minutes a desperate race to unload the cargo and lighten the Santa Maria was underway, in hopes to refloat her.
Unending hours of cold and wet, the night went on forever. Numb, blue fingers could scarcely hold onto anything, aching muscles, the adrenaline long gone, refusing to respond. After backbreaking efforts to save her, a fiery red dawn showed a clearing sky, lush green hillsides surrounding a calm bay… and the ships bottom torn out. She had settled firmly on the reef, her top decks now only inches above the sea.
As everyone was safely removed and landed on Hispaniola, a wet and bedraggled fiftythree men were soon surrounded by many thousands of curious natives … with ten men left aboard the Niña.
As he had often done in the past when encountering new indigenous groups, Colón had the Niña discharge a canon in an attempt to awe the inhabitants. The wet powder went off with a fizzle and a white blast of smoke, perhaps as load as a strong cough. Combined with the bedraggled sailors on shore looking like half drowned rats, exhausted and dispirited, the attempt at gaining a psychological strength-based advantage failed miserably. With a growing crowd, including many men armed with clubs and wicked wooden axes, the sailors felt they were in grave danger, and drew their own weapons.
Lliago had noticed, especially in his recent travels, that whenever two groups of strangers met, each side would invariably begin in a defensive manner that often looked hostile when it was, in fact, merely cautious and curious. With the Europeans appearing so weak, frightened, and overly defensive, and with no leadership coming from a dazed Colón, Lliago recognized that this could deteriorate quickly into a massacre should one of his compatriots strike out in fear. Lieutenant Lliago took the lead, shouting orders for the men to pull themselves together and sheath their swords and daggers.
With the Europeans desperate for leadership and direction, he was mostly successful. The arrival of Guacanagari, a local chieftain, and his entourage of fierce and massive warriors, thankfully changed the dynamics completely. Pulling himself together, Colón, re-asserting his authority, presented himself to the great chief with a show of returning confidence.
A highly ornamented, and apparently drunk or addled advisor or priest seemed to be advising the leader to welcome and apparently honor these new arrivals. At the urging of this Shaman or magi, the leader invited Colón to partake of food and refreshment. This quickly diffused what could have been the end of Colón and his remaining crew.
Lliago reflected on how giving Colón and his men shelter and food, Guacanagari began unselfishly to cater to the needs of these strangers. After a week of recovery, Colón, however, began the odd but all too human transition from the grateful saved to the demanding guest. Reluctantly, Guacanagari allowed the sailors to build a fort-like structure out of wood salvaged from the Santa Maria, even giving some of his own people over to help with the task. Guacanagari had no doubt been instrumental in their survival.
Astonishingly, Colón rewarded this deliverance with the kidnapping of thirty of Guacanagarí’s people, including his youngest son and a niece. Although Colón made a feeble effort to present this as an honor for these captives, a chance to see Castile and the Catholic Monarchs, it was clear to all that the two kinsmen were merely hostages to secure the safety of the thirty-nine men Colón was to leave behind. With the urging of the Shaman, however, Guacanagari acquiesced.
Along with the recuperating Juan de la Cosa, Owner/ Captain of the Santa Maria, who would be returning to Hispania, a large portion of the ship’s crew were Basque. These ‘foreign’ independent men, with their own language, religion and customs, were a constant thorn for Colón, and most of those left behind were of that group.
Although the Bizkaia, from the southern reaches of the Bay of Biscay, were nominally under the control of Navarre and King Ferdinand of Aragon, these Basques were quite independent. They had been building ships to ply the Atlantic for tuna and whale for four centuries. The Santa Maria, in fact, had been Basque built. Although they were known to be the best sailors anywhere at that time, Colón had a great intolerance for their barbaric and heathen ways, “even though I understand his wife to be Basque” thought Lliago.
Taking these thirty natives, (to be sold as slaves no doubt), did not set well with the thirty-nine men who were to be left behind. ‘Profit before their safety’ was the general feeling of these sailors, and giving up their return home for Colón’ pecuniary gain rankled.
Slavery, although not unknown in Europe, was particularly frowned upon by the Catholic rulers. Colón’s closeness to the Portuguese Crown however (and probable treasonous collusion with it in Lliago’s thinking) as well as the greed of the weak, deceitful Admiral, had led Colón to this travesty.
Sly merchant that he was, Colón convinced many of the soon to be abandoned sailors of the benefits in being left behind. Free to search for gold and explore, the honor to be gained as the first inhabitants in this new land, the hinted at but unspoken lure of the native women, he used all these to convince, and even enthuse, the men to remain behind.
“To make matters worse,” thought Lliago, “that worthless drunk, Martinez, is our leader”. A cousin of Columbus by marriage, Martinez had been made a captain, and put in charge of those left behind. Lazy, indecisive, dirty and lecherous, no one had any respect for him. The distaste and disgust of the Native Leader and his family towards Martinez was obvious to all but Martinez.
Lliago realized his peaceful walk had stopped, and he was angrily looking out to sea from the point of the bay. He began his return walk in a brown study, reflecting on the challenges he now faced.
Further crushing the sailors, a remorseless illness was now cutting a swathe through the remaining crew. Starting with black, ulcerous sores that would not close, then bone-breaking fever and chills, twelve of the crew were wasting away before their eyes, four others had already perished. Neither Mateo, the de facto physician of their party and close friend of Lliago’s, nor the healers of the Taino, were able to help, or had seen this malady before.
An ancient crone however, spoke of seeing this affliction five generations, one hundred years or so, before. “When she was a child, the Taino,” she said, “lived far to the south over the sea, in a beautiful stone city. Temples, aqueducts, palaces, food in plenty, slaves… they were masters of a huge area of land.”
The plague came out of nowhere and had annihilated the majority of the population, the remaining few stumbling around the city in shock and devastation. Everything collapsed. Food production ended, trade, and social structure no longer existed. Slave revolts, raids from former vassal states, burning of libraries…
Eventually a strong surviving chieftain organized those few remaining and took them down to the sea and the trading canoes. He brought these devastated survivors to Hispaniola, the first major island not in the grip of the deadly Carib Cannibals. The old woman was the last survivor of that massive migration. All Taino living, with the exception of the old healer, were descendants of those who had fled. The disease seemed not to have followed them… until now.
The healers suggested that the filth the sailors lived in and their lack of bathing was the cause. Burning all the bedding and everything in the shelter where they slept, and then beginning a daily bath in the sea with a rinse in the river, seems to have slowed further cases. A huge side benefit was that the stench of his compatriots was significantly lessened.
If only their lecherous souls could be cleansed as well. While the disease was at its’ worst, the spirit of the crew had shrunk from conquerors to men scared of their own shadows. Father Alonzo had used this fear to keep them repentant and in line. Worry of curses and retribution from God had made them behave, when nothing else could.
But as this fear subsided, their greed for gold, power and, most troublesome of all, women, again reared its ugly head. As sure as anything, Lliago knew that another assault or attempted rape would result in the death of all the remaining crew. Guacanagarí had personally killed the last malefactor, ritualistically clubbing him to death in the main courtyard in front of the remaining foreigners and a huge crowd of his own, cheering people. He would not suffer another of his people to be hurt in any way. Only Lliago’s intersession and close ties to Guacanagarí’s oldest son and daughter had saved them all from being sacrificed as yet.
He considered his own lecherous self. Allemande, daughter of Guacanagarí, occupied entirely too much of his thoughts, and not all of them as pure as he might wish. “My desire, however”, he thought,” is ultimately for her to be my wife, and to raise a fine family, on this island, my new land”.
He envisioned his future home, made of upright logs and a thatched roof in the Taino Style. He would have several aguacates close at hand (he felt he could easily live on these alone) and would have oranges, lemons, cumquats and pomegranates in his orchard brought from Cadiz. He would bring water into his home for cooking, drinking and bathing through a canal system.
There were smooth flat stones suitable for flooring and he would build a beautiful hearth for Allemande that would be the envy of all.
He saw his chubby round children running through the trees and playing in the water. Although he knew this as unrealistic, he envisioned his own parents looking on their grandchildren; free of the required toil to survive they had back in Europe.
Where his own childhood consisted of working, gathering, sweating and toil from sunup to sundown just to survive, children here had plenty of time to explore, play games, including Batey, a ball game with a surprisingly elastic ball, chasing and wrestling. Even their work seemed like good fun, collecting sea-creatures, and various fruits and berries throughout the countryside which comprised their backyard.
This bounty would also create time for instruction and learning. With his interaction with Allemande and her brother Cuan, heir apparent to Guacanagarí, as well as a herd of children that always seemed to hang about his heals, he found these Taino to be quite inquisitive and intelligent. Although in just a month he had become fairly conversant in their tongue, the speed in which the Taino, especially the children, picked up language and concepts was stunning.
His in depth conversations with Guacanagarí and his children on the subject of religious beliefs showed that, even though they had many gods and superstitions, the idea of one God overall, with his son sacrificing all for the good of man, was not anathematic to them.
He envisioned a peaceful cooperative society with a school, even a Cathedral where the Taino would flock for knowledge. There would be farms, trade, and wealth for all, each culture learning from the other and all to the glory of God.
Lliago stopped and looked to the bay for a moment, taking in a deep draught of the clean sea air and reveled in his sweet dream for a few minutes. As he began to walk again, as he neared the shelter where he and his fellow Basque lived, however, he brought to mind their seemingly limitless crudeness, greed, and brutality. “The Taino and Ari, the Taino word for foreigner, can never coexist in harmony.” He thought ruefully.
The goal of the invader would always involve subjugation and exploitation of the wealth and labor of these fine humans... And he was a part of this travesty! He glumly walked down to the fort.
Chapter 14) Father Alonzo
Padre Alonso was finding solace in drink. The natives made a “Pulque” like beverage that Alonso was aware he enjoyed quite a bit more than he should have. Laying in the shade of a small grove of plumaria in one of the Taino cotton nets or “hammock”, the trees choked with Alamanda vines and their flowers with bird of paradise below, he appeared like a fat, happy brown Buddha. A tiny rivulet at his feet, gurgled its’ short way down to the sea, almost disappearing in the sand as it spread thinner and thinner.
The little creek passed through a tiny shallow valley, perhaps only twenty yards across, which formed a small cove within the larger bay of the Taino. From his reclined position facing north, the priest had no view of the settlement and the priest he could imagine himself alone in this paradise for a short time.
He was struggling with his lack of any spiritual influence over his tiny remaining flock. He felt intense guilt at each instance of assault, abuse or even rudeness committed by the Ari, as if it were his own weakness that allowed it to happen. With grief, guilt and loathing, and no ideas on how to improve the situation he had turned to prayer, drink and solitude, the order of importance varying by the day.
Lliago however, still sought his guidance, and Mateo, the Moorish Physician, turned to them both as the only ones suitable for conversation and discussion. They had set out on a walk along the shore, and coming across the spot, joined the slightly pickled priest in his solitude, he indicating his bowl of pulque with a nod of his head, silently inviting them to partake, which they promptly did.
Three more dissimilar individuals would be hard to find. Alonzo, a Castilian and clergyman currently at a crisis of faith, Lliago, a Basque and, although a baptized Catholic, more closely attuned to his peoples pagan beliefs with some astonishing parallels to the Taino creed, and Mateo, a morisco Moor, converting to Catholicism for convenience sake with no real religion but an almost crushing ethic… Three completely differing points of view, engaging with one another, enjoying the process, and learning from each other; much would come from this nucleus.
From his higher perch on a low plumaria branch Lliago could see a group of young Taino girls and children splashing around in the waves a short distance away, while further off around the curve of the bay was seen the crew’s shelter, a few men lounging and laughing in its shade.
“This can only end badly”, began Lliago. “God help them,” obviously referring to the Taino. He and Mateo had been discussing the situation on their walk and continued it now. He plucked a pretty white alamanda bloom, studying its delicate, white beauty intently. “And God help us,” he added quietly after a few moments, distraught and looking off into the distance.
The pelicans were diving straight into a boiling patch of sea a few cables off (1,200 ft.), where a school of feeder fish broke the surface. The buzz of insects and sigh of the warm breeze through the foliage enhanced the quiet while bringing the overwhelming scent of plumaria. There were several minutes of silent contemplation. Perhaps the most rewarding aspect of this trio was the fact that they actually thought things through, only commenting when they had something worthwhile to say. There was no ‘love of their own voice’, no need to fill a void with any talk at all from fear of silence.
“The three of us can keep these louts in line,” rejoined Mateo several minutes later, tossing a small pebble into the rill, as if Lliago had just spoken. “Do not be so despondent my friend,” he added with a pained smile, pushing Lliago off balance and off the limb with a friendly shove to the shoulder.
Pulling his booted foot from the muck of the creek he had stepped into to keep from falling, Lliago glared at Mateo for a moment as if he might draw his sword and run him through.
“You are correct about these miscreants,” Lliago agreed, looking away and jutting his strong chin in the direction of the hut. “But it is the hoard of adventurers, fortune hunters, and soldiers that Colón will soon enough drag here that bring me near to despair.” Pausing for a moment as he swiped his boot through the tall wet grass to clean it off he added, “If he was willing to kidnap thirty Taino, with only a skeleton force, what criminality might he perform with several thousands at his back?”
From Lliago’s time as captive, chained as a galley slave in an Arab Xebec , he had an unmatched intolerance of slavery. Alonzo and Mateo had formed strong attachment to the gentle, giving Taino and felt a strong protectiveness towards them.
As the obvious truth of his words sunk into to his friends’ thinking, their gloom sank to match Lliago’s.
“His Portuguese masters are making fortunes from enslaving Africans, forcing them to work the mines for precious metals, selling others as galley slaves or household servants. Look at the rape of the Guanche of the Canary Islands. The same story is inevitable here”, stated Lliago.
“But her Catholic Majesty Isabella will never allow it!” Alonso almost shouted in his deep sonorous voice. “She has outlawed the practice of slavery in all of her Kingdom. Even the defeated Moors in Granada will be forced to give up their slaves if they wish to remain in her kingdom,” he continued with some heat, his face scarlet with agitation...and perhaps the liquor. After a minutes pause, “You worry for nothing,” he said weakly, with a dismissive impatient wave of his hand. It was obvious he did not believe his own words. He too, had witnessed the slave ships and galleys in the Canary and the debasement of her peoples, all ostensibly under the control of the Monarchs. They could not be everywhere he knew.
After a few minutes, Mateo volunteered, “If there is not market in the Catholic Monarchs kingdom, Colón will either go to the Portuguese or the Italians. Where there is a real, or even a maravedí to be made, the merchants will find a way to it. Columbus has demonstrated that he is willing to sink to any depth to secure his fortune and fame.” Mateo did not share the deep seated hatred of slavery held by his two companions, but had instead an almost Chivalric need to protect the seemingly weak and vulnerable Taino. He had quickly come to love these gentle people.
“Perhaps, God willing, he has sunk in a storm in the Atlantic and the problem is solved,” muttered Alonzo, despondently looking into the bottom of the now empty pulque jug.
They sat silent for a time, each concluding that all was said.
And as they sat and contemplated, slowly the beauty around them, the sky, the sea, the children’s laughing cries, the here and now, had its calming effect. For the moment, everything was well and good.
As despondent as they had been, Lliago could not help but grab the back of Mateo’s tunic as he jumped the stream for their return. Halting him in midflight, Mateo dropped solidly into the water having to drop a hand to keep from falling all the way in. Then, using Mateo’s shoulder Lliago vaulted the stream himself and trotted, laughing back down the beach, while Mateo, cursing, trudged behind in sodden boots.
“Our deep thinkers and future leaders,” Alonzo mused to himself. He started chuckling as he hoisted his bulk from the ground and trudged across the steam with no attempt to jump it. He was off to teach the Taino children the Castilian language and of Jesus.
Chapter 15) Allamanda
It started with contempt of course. The smell of these creatures, apparently incapable of bathing themselves, was particularly off putting. Combined with their animal like hairiness, they were a particularly disgusting specimen of men. Even the barbaric, cannibalistic Carib at least knew how to bath!
They had, for the most part, the same Aura of evil that hovered around the Carib, a thin blue smoke film that made them appear slightly blurred to my eye.
Colón and his close comrades had it to a striking degree, and my sense of danger from the man himself made me almost ill in his presence.
The Crone had compared them to the tiny forest dwellers from the land the Taino had come from. Mischievous thieving monkeys, whom the Taino fed, and allowed to roam around their cities at will. There was no way to control them. “These Ari will become much more than mere pests,” the crone had said. “You will see.” In my mind I had to agree.
Although I run around mostly naked, as all Taino men and woman do, and I never gave it a moment’s thought, until these disgusting animals, with no sense of propriety or self-control, began to let their eyes rove over all the other Taino females. The idea of looking at a host’s wife or daughter in un-disguised desire was… unheard of, unforgiveable, beast like. What mothers raised such abominations?
But there were a few that seemed able to control their base emotions and, although still pungent to the point that my eyes might water, apparently knew how to act around other humans. They had no evil aura.
Lliago, several inches taller than his fellows, was one such. He was capable of addressing the Casique and his wife equally, and communicates with other women with proper respect, as equals of importance and status, without making them uncomfortable or looked down upon. Although it was clear he was attracted to me (we often caught each other stealing glances at one another… like shy children), he looking away with an embarrassed smile. It was all done innocently enough. His looks of admiration I was used to, the slathering, hungry, dog like stares of the others were unacceptable. If one of these fetid, mangy dogs looks at me in such a manner I will surely skewer it with a thrusting lance to teach it manners and deference.
Through mostly gestures, and an uncanny ability to pick up words in our language, the tall, dark Ari quickly learned to communicate and became a favorite in our household, much to the annoyance of his own Casique, Colón’.
Within a few days of their arrival, Lliago and Cuan, my younger brother and next only to our parents and myself in prestige, had become as close as bothers. Although Lliago was kept busy during the day helping in the construction of Colón’s ridiculous shelter, they would always be together in the afternoons, speaking a strange child-like mixture of their two languages, with the aid of pictures drawn in the sand or through hand gestures.
Sometimes comically, but more often frustratingly, their conversations would break down to idiotic sentences like…”Me… hungry!”” Me…food…want! You… food… want?”… I sensed Lliago’s discomfiture and embarrassment for Cuan when I would strike the back of my brother’s head or berate him for speaking in such a low, uncouth manner, so I would save the most severe of my corrections for later.
Who spoke this way? Rather than help Lliago with his speech, Cuan was lowering his own speech to match Lliago’s! As with all nobility, Cuan’s language was usually very clear and concise, with none of the low slang of the Naboria. Yet, I must admit, they were making great progress.
As the daughter of the Casique of course, it was my duty to witness these exchanges and learn what I could of these strange men. I would often be within hearing, or glancing over their shoulders to see the drawings. This seemed not to bother Lliago in the least, and he would frequently try to draw me into the conversation. When they would stumble over a word or explanation, I would often surprise myself by uttering a word or two to help.
Concerning their construction? Never had I witnessed such heroic labor, so much time and effort wasted on such a comical endeavor. With their ropes, and interesting wheels and pulleys, with so many injuries and cursing, they were able to construct… a complete disaster. Somehow, it was able to capture the wind, creating a gale within from just a breeze, and yet still contain almost all the smoke of their cook’s fires. It would have been wise to burn it right along with its contents. Thankfully the smell of the smoke that permeated their clothes and skin, masked their natural stench, making them more tolerable.
They built this structure from the timbers of their destroyed ship. My father had commented wryly that they could have felled every tree on the island and built a village with the effort spent on retrieving these beams from miles out in the sea. “It keeps them busy and out of my way at least,” jested the Casique.
Often Father Alonzo would join our small discussions. He was the spiritual leader of the Ari, the foreigners. He was much like our shaman, although much more jovial and approachable. He would do much more listening than speaking, but then would come out with complete and correct phrases occasionally. Apparently, like me, he wanted to skip the baby steps and wait until he had some command of the new language before fully participating.
The spirituality of the Ari was both interesting and confusing, much like our own I suppose. He would seem to claim they worshiped but one God, but then would go on to describe four or five different entities quite similar to our own “zemi”.
Mary, the mother, was very similar to Kiskeya, our own earth mother who watched over and cared for us all. Easy enough to understand and picture. Jehovah, their father God seemed to be a combination of several of our more benevolent Zemi, similar to Atabey, who of course created herself, and her son, Yocahu, who populated the earth with all good things. They both, Yocahu and Jehovah could also be quite fierce at times.
They, Mary and Jehovah seemed to have two children, Jesus and Satan, who fought constantly, Satan constantly tricking man into doing evil.
More important than the language, both Pane’ and Lliago, as well as another of their close companions, Mateo, quickly adopted the idea of bathing, which somehow seemed to escape the others. Soon they began to smell almost human, and could even be tolerated indoors.
So as not to be unseemly, my cousin Maya would also join our group. Usually full of laughter and fun, she seemed struck mute by Mateo, and would spend most of the time, shyly stealing glances at him. It was clear that soon they were on intimate terms and began to spend a tremendous amount of time together on the shore or walking through the forests or elsewhere working on lessons of their own. Not much use, but she made my visits with this group acceptable.
That Lliago never approached me was both frustrating and confusing. Speaking with Father Alonzo, I learned that the custom in their culture was to have a formal union first before becoming intimate. As unnecessary as this was, it was clear I had to be patient. What nonsense!
At what point Lliago became more than a curiosity? Who can say? To my very practical mind, it made no difference.
Chapter 16) Sending off Martinez
As one of the Santa Maria’s officers as well as scribe, Lieutenant Lliago was second in command of those remaining few sailors. He had come up with a scheme to both fortify their shelter and keep the crew busy and working, with less time for getting into trouble. Although he completely sympathized with the Taino, he took his position, the lives of these sailors, and his own safety seriously, and would do what he could to keep those remaining, alive and out of conflict with their hosts.
He had convinced Captain Martinez of the necessity of the exploration of the vicinity being supervised by Martinez himself. This was accomplished by playing on the Captain’s fear for his own skin, as well as by playing on his pride by hinting at Colón’s pleasure when he returned to find a well-fortified, organized camp. The fact that Martinez would be spared of contributing to this backbreaking effort by going exploring was also tremendously helpful.
“We will need powder and shot for the guns and cannon”, explained Lliago. “Only you, Captain, and the two necessary workers, should know where we can get our materials. He convinced him that he should take Salvador and Astilla, the only Castilians remaining, along with a few friendly Taino, to secure the saltpeter, and sulfur needed for the gunpowder, as well as locate a source for lead.
Martinez was also convinced that he would also likely find gold…
The captain did not see himself as particularly mean, grasping or evil. In fact he had a hard time figuring why the men disliked him so much. He put it down to the fact that, as he was related to Colón by marriage, and had received this ‘honor’ of commanding the settlement due to this relationship, that a combination of their jealousy of his position and their distaste for Colón as he had deserted them in this jungle hell, was the driving force.
Back home on Madeira he had had everything he ever wanted. His family owned a beautiful home in Funchal, as well as a large upland plantation, growing bananas, fennel and grapes, a place to escape the summer heat of town.
His cousin, Felipa Moniz Perestrelo, a noblewoman by birth and related to King John of Portugal, was twenty five and well on her way to permanent convent life when introduced to Colón. She had no family money to speak of. Her title and her connections however, made her quite attractive to Colón, while Colon’s attention, his willingness to forgo a dowry, and their similar religious fervor made him a favorable match for her.
The uncle of Martinez, the leader of the family, accused him of growing fat and lazy on Madeira. He suggested that Martinez accompany Colón on this adventure to gain experience and discipline. As he had been fat and lazy from birth, Martinez failed to see the issue with continuing on in this manner. However, as this uncle held the families purse strings, the key to both his and his parents easy life, he simply had to go along.
Getting away from the settlement, from the disdainful looks of Lliago and his men, as well as the contempt that Guacanagari and his people showed him, the chance to stroll the lanes of the shades jungle, with porters to carry supplies, and cook for them sounded wonderful.
He had no real greed to speak of, but felt that if he were able to locate the source of the gold the islanders displayed, it would go a long way towards gaining Admiral Colón’s favor. He could return to Madeira a hero and live out his life in peace.
Salvador, a quiet taciturn gunners’ mate, seemed quite confident in his ability to reproduce the explosive powder from the ingredients available on the island. “It will take some experimentation to get the proper mix together”, he said with some pride,” but soon enough I’ll have success. Salvador, a family man who spoke no Basque did not get on with most of the crew, and was glad to be employed in something he knew. He looked forward to the time he’d have away from the others.
Astillo, the Santa Marias carpenter, had worked some in the smelters of Toledo where steel was produced and turned into swords, daggers and all manner of tools and weapons. He was less confident that he could even recognize lead in its’ natural form, let alone extract it for pistol and cannon ball, but was willing to give it a try. He too, was grateful to be employed in something useful, and to be away from the monotony and boredom of camp.
Accompanied by two young Taino guides, these three Ari headed into the island’s interior.
New Chapter 17) Canons, Juan and Lliago
“Because she is not a Christian she really doesn’t even have a soul,” stated Juan Grande. Even had I no wife back home, I could not marry her if I wanted to. After a few moments reflection he added, “…and am under no obligation to do so”, saying these words as if a truth handed him directly from God on high. The fact that he made these statements out of the blue seemed to show some guilt or shame in Lliago’s estimation.
This group spoke in “Euskara” or “Basque” as it was becoming known. Although Lliago’s family lived along the Ebro or Ager River, which was solidly under control of Navarre, (Ferdinand’s Kingdom), he grew up speaking Basque along with all his young friends and neighbors, learning Castilian as a second language from trading in the towns, as well as conversational Catalan.
In his time working the boats and docks on the Bay of Biscay he had learned the choicest of crude words and curses… and even knew what some of them meant. However, he had grown up with his mother’s quite proper speech reinforced by his father’s thunderous hand. He always spoke respectfully as well as properly, much to the annoyance of most of this crowd of rough and tumble sailors who felt he thought himself better than they.
“Etxekotasuna arrazen mespretxua !”... familiarity breeds contempt. Lliago was not trying to be their friend and was aware that proper speach set him apart and gave him some eminence above this group. He maintained his aloofness, proper and clear language as well as a commanding bearing.
His mother had been brought up in a convent in Cantabria and had been a favorite of a Basque Nun. Orphaned by the plague, her own mother had had the foresite to pay an endowment to a Convent for her care and instruction. She had been taught to read some in latin, most of the root words almost identical to Castillian, but she had reveled in the stories told by this pious and well edjucated woman in their native Basque.
How this vivacious and talkitive woman and his father who barely spoke, met and married was a mystery but she had passed on an appreciation of clear and proper speach. When asked about their story, his parents would look slyly at each other with knowing and somewhat embarrsed smiles and go silent. “Perhaps somethings were better left a mystery”, thought Lliago as they rowed out ito the bay.
Although half a league out to sea, at low tide, the Santa Maria sat at only a depth of 15 feet. The water was astonishingly clear above the reef and it appeared you could reach down and touch bottom. The swell couldn’t have been more than a foot, with a thousand foot plus interval, almost imperceptible but for the slight tug on the anchor every few minutes.
Mateo, with a few native boys, could be clearly seen as they struggled with the stiff ropes a few meters down, trying to secure them to the cannon is such a way that they would not slip off. Mateo could only stay down a short minute, while the boys would stay so long that Lliago was constantly nervous for their safety. It was clear they were trying to outdo each other.
Lliago was kicking at a knot in the rough decking, absently trying to worry it lose.
“I would have thought that any human creature created by God must have a soul,” Lliago returned, hiding his frustration and disdain for this ignorant miscreant behind a wide and friendly smile.
Juan’s pitiful attempt to justify his untenable position was almost too much to bear. However, if Lliago was going to steer this crew towards co-existence and harmony with their hosts, He could not ferociously attack every ignorant word uttered. No one, in any age, appreciates being dictated to. Example, logic and patience would be a much better way to bring someone over to his point of view.
He also thought it strange that Juan felt he must explain or justify his actions. Could it be that Juan himself was questioning his own actions and looking for approval from others?
He also had a desire to further cultivate this spirit of cooperation and friendliness that he had been enjoying since Captain Martinez had left camp. On their makeshift raft, two miles from shore, the remaining crew were enjoying the day with a festive air. The imbecilic and bullying Martinez, a proud Portuguese buffoon, was out of the way with the more relaxed Lieutenant Lliago, a fellow Basque, in charge. These professionals could use their expertise in ropes, knots, splices, blocks etc. without someone looking over their shoulder and second guessing every move. They had already scavenged all the useable wood so locating the cannon was not too difficult, although the sand would have covered them in just a few more weeks.
The men were packed fairly closely on the small raft, and when the canons or shot was brought on board there was much jostling and stubbed or stepped upon toes, as well as a sailor being knocked overboard to the amusement of all but himself. The horse hair ropes would burn and often leave slivers. But the physical activity and accomplishment along with other hard working men was its own reward.
As with every group of this sort there were natural leaders and natural followers. Juan Grande was a huge and potentially brutal man, and not a few of those remaining both feared him and looked to him for direction, even though Lliago was theoretically in charge. He could see they were hanging on every word of this conversation, both as a sort of entertainment, and as a way to see which direction the wind would blow.
Further, Lliago admitted to himself, he was unclear of his own feelings and position.
Philosophically he “knew” that every human had the same intrinsic value, that life of the galley slave was just as valuable as King Ferdinand’s. Yet every aspect of daily life contradicted this truth. The coxswain of a galley could literally beat a slave to death with no repercussions. A landowner could extract any amount of labor from any worker or servant, of any age, with no penalty. Female servants as well as boys, could be used monstrously, with no recourse. The hierarchy from King on down to slave, the “might makes right” reality was well entrenched.
Most any sailor in the Mediterranean was familiar with slavery. The trading galleys of the Arab world visited most ports and the horrible conditions of their galley slaves were there for all to see. Trapped beneath the main deck, living in their own waste and filth they were treated worse than any beast of burden. Even swine in their filthy sty would not be beaten as these creatures were. It was felt by many that these “brutes” were less than human.
Lliago’s own time as a galley slave however, thankfully short though it was, caused Lliago to especially eschew forced servitude.
In the homes of the nobles, the wealthy, and even many of those struggling by in the Hispania of the 15th century, were servants, maids and workers who lived a life just a rung above slavery. Relying completely on their masters for bread and shelter, with starvation and the road their only option, they were bound to that estate by chains as strong as iron. This forced servitude bred contempt, these sub-humans being treated little better than tools to be used.
It was clear that this same disdain would be bestowed on the natives of this new land. How was he, Lliago, one man, going to be able to convince his subordinates, let alone all of the coming Ari, to go against subjugation and exploitation, which was far and away the norm?
Further complicating the issue, far from being exploited, the consort of Juan seemed quite pleased with the arrangement.
“What has brought you to this conclusion Juan”, Lliago asked, in a tone that he hoped would appear as if he felt we were equals having an intelligent discussion.
The peace and the conversation was suddenly disrupted by a school of mackerel being herded by tuna and dove on by pelicans, erupting in the sea barely twenty yards off, disappearing just as quickly a minute later.
The weather of this March day was perfect, bright warm sunshine and the softest of cool breezes to keep the temperature down. The men worked in quiet and calm, different from their usual boisterous and bombastic manner. Even the two Juans, usually the most troublesome of those remaining, seemed relaxed and friendly. For the first time Lliago felt that this group could, in fact, get along with and, perhaps, live in peace among their hosts.
“The Church tells us that those un-baptized are little better than the beasts in the field.” returned Juan Grande. Lliago could not hope to argue intelligently, as the Church was fairly ambivalent on the point. Juan’s statement almost seemed a question, especially considering the searching, un-confrontational look in Juan’s eye.
There was quite a bit of down time between lifting each cannon. Mateo and the Tiani youths had to struggle mightily to get the stiff ropes to cooperate. There was the usual jocularity of rough men working together, Juan Chico the butt end of many of the jokes. He seemed to take it well.
As expected, it took several hours to perfect the method for securing the ropes lifting the cannon and swinging it onboard the raft. No one was in any kind of rush, talking, enjoying the sun, enjoying the holiday of sorts. A few of the Basques brought out hand lines and tried fishing for amusement. There was some excitement as a monstrous fish; twice the size of the Moor, with a huge, gaping mouth approached the swimmers. Mateo shot from the water like a cork from effervescent wine much to the amusement of the Taino youths. Their fit of laughter from the surface of the water, one of the boys choking on a bit of inhaled water in his mirth assured all that the massive intruder must be harmless. Once the first canon was successfully secured however, the remaining five came in relatively quickly.
The twin “two pounder” brass canon, with a 1” bore, had virtually no noticeable damage from their two month submersion, with sand and water pouring from the breach as they were swung on board. The four “seven pounders” which shot a fist sized ball, had some flaking and pitting, but would certainly be serviceable.
As we headed back in, helped by both the incoming breeze and swell, Juan sat down beside me and we both gazed towards the Taino village in silence for a while. “I almost wish we had never made it ashore… or they had just killed us outright!” flatly stated Juan, surprising me more with the profound look of sadness in his eye than even his words as we looked on the peaceful scene as the orange and sepia wash of the approaching sunset bathed the village.
“If Colon never returns and I can spend the rest of my days with Bizma and her two sons, build a little hut of our own just past that point of the bay, raise a few crops and catch a few fish…” Juan trailed off.
As the woman Juan Grande was involved with seemed quite satisfied with the arrangement, and as Lliago had no strong moral ground to stand on, and as it seemed to be having the effect of lessening some of the tension between the two groups, Lliago dropped the subject, now knowing that Juan’s bluster was just that. It was clear that the big man cared about these people and their future.
Next Chapter 18) Back to Franco
We eased down the Guadalquivir River in the Mariagallante, Admiral Colón’s flagship. With the grand sendoff, speeches, prayers, blessings etc., we didn’t get on the way until early afternoon. Using the rivers current, and an occasional pull of an oar for steerage, it would take a little over ten hours to reach Cadiz and the rest of the ships, half the time following a small lit boat when it was dark. We moved a little quicker than a fast walk on land.
Although I had been looking forward to this sightseeing cruise through the gentle green lowlands on the way to the coast, I ended up below taking down last minute messages and letters, as well as notes on the unending flow of meetings with the various merchants and nobles, investors in the voyage who had come along for the opportunity of a last minute meeting with the Admiral. Some would be rowed ashore as we passed a town, others going all the way to Cadiz to return to Seville later.
I did get a break when a certain merchant, speaking Spanish but with a heavy Portuguese accent began speaking with Admiral Colón about the transport of cargo on the return trip. They began to discuss the feasibility of using the animal transports to secure the cargo in, as the animals, horse, cattle, swine and goats, would be left behind in the new world. They were so excited and engrossed in this possibility that both forgot I was there, recording the gist of their conversation for Colón’s records.
Embarrassed when he realized my presence, Colón excused me, asking me to leave my notes behind. I was confused by his unease but so glad to finally be able to escape, to be on deck that I gave it little thought at the time.
I was surprised that it was only mid-afternoon. It had felt that I had been in Admiral Colón’s cabins for much longer. I was saddened to see that we had already passed my village of Jerez, just minutes before. Had I just missed seeing my family waving at the ship from the small port there? My young heart fairly ached to see them once more.
It was a beautiful late summer afternoon with cool, fresh breezes coming up the river from the coast clearing out the river smells and heat.
I had grabbed some bread and cheese from the steward who was still busy organizing his stores in a cabin of sorts below, and found a spot on the port side that was out of the way of the crew.
Strolling the ship were the two young lieutenants, the sons of nobles who had secured positions on the flagship. They were around my age but our social class differences would have made it inappropriate for me to introduce myself. I instead, made my way toward Ramon Pane’, a Catalan priest who I had met earlier. He was sitting on one of the barrels that had yet to be stored, at the stern, or rear of the ship, on the raised deck above Colón’s cabin.
“Greetings young Master Francisco, it appears the Admiral has finally set you free” said Pane’ in his oddly accented Castilian. Among the crew were many from Catalonia and Pane’ was one such. In the North East of the country now ruled by Isabel and Ferdinand, which collectively was Espania, or Hispania, depending on your accent, Catalonia had united with the rest of Spain upon the marriage of the Catholic Monarchs, Ferdinand and Isabela. To each other they spoke Catalan which, although had many similar words to Castilian, was generally unintelligible to me.
There were many Basque as well, from the Bay of Biscay, whose language had no relation to Castilian, Latin or Catalan.
“Good afternoon Father”, I said, with proper deference to his position. I had enjoyed many conversations with the Padre over the course of the past few weeks. He was closely attached to the voyage, acting as a liaison between the Church, the Monarchs and Colón. I had been the scribe at many of their meetings and, somehow had struck up a friendship.
We were both quite interested in the Indio’s, those that had come from Hispaniola on Colón’s return voyage this past spring. The youngest son of the great Cacique Leader of the Taino,( as the Indios called themselves), as well as one of the Cacique’s nieces, had become favorites of Isabella, and it was unclear if they were to be on this trip. The other ten remaining Taino were definitely returning, in fact they were on board the Niña, waiting in Cadiz.
Of the 30 Taino brought from Hispaniola, eighteen Taino had died either on the voyage or during their last few months in Seville. A terrible disease had befallen them along with most of the crew of the Niña. It had quickly spread to the physicians at court, as well as their families and the Sisters of St Francis who had cared for them, with incredible speed and devastating results. It still seemed to be spreading through the poorer inhabitants of Seville.
“Each of these poor souls has experienced some symptoms of the disease and all have lost a loved one.” answered Pane’ to my question of the well-being of the remaining Taino. “They are both terrified of the return journey and hopeful that they are putting this nightmare behind them.”
It was around the twelfth hour (6 pm) and the tide would be coming in soon. The dying breeze would shift, coming down the valley towards the sea as evening approached, and the jib (sail) will be let out giving us steerage way and a push the rest of the way down to the bay of Cadiz. A small pilot boat with a red lantern would guide the Mariagallante to the deep channels and keep it out of the shallow mud along the way.
For now we were just lazily drifting with the flow of the river. Unfortunately all the refuse and filth throw in upriver was floating down with us, along with its accompanying odor, vying with the freshness of the surrounding fields and late summer flowers blooming here and there along the shore.
As I contemplated a tangle of rope, vegetation and what may have been part of a chair in the brown-green water, I considered the crystal streams and rivers of Colón’s islands. He had described these new Hispanic lands in almost poetic tones, over and again to each of his potential investors. Lush exotic growth, overhanging crystal rivers and shading this pure water as it made its way down to white sands and the azure and turquois of an unspoiled sea. In each retelling, his eyes would grow distant, and even a little misty. Certainly he was convincing. Could this land really exist?
As my teenage mind went on to adding half naked island maidens frolicking in this water,( this fantasy fostered by Colón’s description of all natives wearing little or nothing) I quickly came back from my reverie, hoping Padre Pane’, who seemed to be looking at me intently, had not been able to follow my thoughts.
I coughed a little, as if I had said something inappropriate and wanted to pass over this coarseness quickly and asked, “What does The Church say about these Taino and their souls?”
New Chapter 19) Franco, Pane, Taino
Pane’ stared at me for what seemed like an hour, although it was certainly less than a minute. He seemed to be weighing our own past discussions, the question itself of course and his own beliefs. Almost flippantly asked as a diversion from thoughts of cavorting native girls, this question would form the backbone of all our future discussions, and could even be said, the backbone of this whole endeavor.
“My own soul and mind are heavy with this question”, he finally answered. “…but it is not a question I want to answer with just a few quips,” he added after yet another awkward pause.
It was a pause I would eventually get used to, and learn to use the time to attempt to fully listen and understand what was being said as my father had taught me.
“I wish to speak with you as a friend, as an equal”, he started”, not as a priest or someone with all the answers, but as two people simply discussing how things are, and perhaps how they should be. That way we both may learn something. I would also like our conversations of this matter kept between the two of us.” he almost demanded, his usually soft brown eyes now piercing and hard. “Not only through contemplation do we find answers but also in the free exchange of ideas between people.”
I readily agreed, torn between the honor being bestowed on me as a confidant to this holy man, but also greatly troubled that he did not have a ready answer for this seemingly simple question.
Further, I was often puzzled as to why mature, intelligent adults always seemed to want to confide in me, ask my opinion on matters far beyond my years and experience. A country rustic with just seventeen years of age and both Pane’ and Colón were trying out new, provocative proposals and ideas on me. Perhaps their own opinions were only half cooked? Out of fear of being thought a fool, it always took me a while to form an answer. I also had a slight stutter when hurried or nervous and always worked hard to control that, so my speech was always slow and deliberate. From their point of view I suppose, they knew I would listen without comment until they were ready for them and that I wouldn’t immediately attack their more outlandish suppositions until I had fully digested them.
“This is a discussion that will last the voyage,” he said, “…but I will state for now, they absolutely have souls and the Church will do all it can to protect them and bring them to a knowledge of the Christ”.
Nothing more of consequence was said at that time. I was still a novice in the world and had not the time or experience to have any firm position on the treatment of foreigners or their place in the grand scheme.
Chapter 20) On to The Canaries
It was clear now that I was a natural born sailor. Near a week on the open seas and I had experienced none of the sea sickness I had been cautioned about. Perhaps the day after day of perfect weather as we headed southwest, with very little swell, a following breeze that eased us a long with little feeling of movement, the good food and fresh air had something to do with it.
The two young noblemen, lieutenants on Colón’s flagship, had decided I was worthy of notice, once they heard who my father was and of his direct participation in the ouster of the Moors from Granada. They were both chatting in the shade of the sails on the starboard rail when I came up for breakfast, five days out from Cadiz.
“Saca!” they cried in unison, clapping me on the back in a familiarity that made me cringe a little. I had barely been introduced to these two and wasn’t entirely sure I liked them…, but it would be a long voyage and another of my father’s admonitions to make accommodation’s for the peculiarities of others that you would be in the extended company of came to mind. “It would be a hell of sorts, being stuck on a small ship with people you have a strong dislike for, for months at a time”, he warned.
“Saca” was the process used to age and fortify the sweet wines of my area. The resulting liquor was known as Sac, Sherry or Jerez depending on where you lived. Although my father was making some income from producing barrels of the syrupy sweet concoction, he would only serve or drink from barrels that had been aging for extended periods of time, and usually only in the evenings in winter. More often it, or a variety that was more like vinegar, was used for cooking. A loin of pork simmered in this vinegar with an abundance of rosemary comes to mind and makes my mouth water even now. I knew that Colón had a few barrels, gifts from my father, on board for his enjoyment.
For these two, alcohol and females seemed to dominate all of their thought and conversation, and they had instantly landed on “Saca” as my ‘nom de guerre’ for the voyage. While I admit the female dominates ninety percent of my thoughts, it rarely comes out in conversation. And growing up with wines and spirits readily available, and drunkenness despised, alcohol held no temptation for me. Saca seemed about as inappropriate as could be.
But conversation was easy as either one or both were constantly speaking and it wasn’t terribly important to them if I were attentive or even pretending to listen. I could daydream or think deep thoughts, my mind far from these two for extended periods without either taking offence or even noticing.
And they were always in good humor, with many a witty quip and laughter that seemed to help pass the time.
Coming out of a reverie at one point however, I realized I had agreed to go visit the “Girls” with them once we reached the Canaries. “Madonna Santa protect me!” I thought to myself.
Colón himself would stroll his deck several times a day as well, and would often share an anecdote from his past or impart some of his wisdom. I was quite comfortable with him by this time. The days passed pleasantly.
Chapter 21) Food
I had learned somewhere that Roman soldiers received a portion of their pay in the form of salt for their food, or salaria as it was called. This word “salaria” was used even in these modern times to signify the pay of a clerk or government official.
With that in mind, I was being paid a king’s ransom!
We dined mostly on pork or beef that had been brined for ages. No matter how long it soaked it tasted like hard leathery bits of salt floating in a cementitious mush of peas or grain of some sort that picked up the saltiness of the meat and amplified it. Only the salt-less hard biscuits and the watered down beer cut through this.
The food was cooked, or more precisely, boiled in a massive cauldron over a fire in a two foot by three foot firebox, the “fogon” just forward of the mainmast. This iron box sat on flat stones so as not to set the deck on fire. Wind screens were used as there was always a breeze from somewhere and great care taken so that sparks or embers wouldn’t fly into the hold through the hatchways. With dried stores and gunpowder below a burst of sparks provided excitement! Every sailor had a story of a boat going up in flames from just such a mishap, although they seemed to have a story of death and destruction for most any situation.
So far we had enjoyed only wonderful sunshine and following breezes, but I had heard that we might go days without a hot meal in inclement weather.
Out of boredom, I would regularly lend a hand to the ancient cook.
The meat was first soaked in sea water which removed much of the brine, then into a tub of freshwater for an hour or so. It would then be chunked up in thrown in whatever was the mash of the day. It would alternate between peas, chickpeas, barley and rice, no extra seasoning added. Hard tack biscuit would be crumbled in by the sailors as they ate to help cut the salinity.
Occasionally a fish or two would be caught over the side and our “Chef” would cook it up for a bit of it. The admiral would often be offered a steak of tuna, barracuda or the wonderfully oily mackerel. But, with seventy men on board, a few tuna would usually cause more problems than it was worth. “Non vale la pena!” Not worth the pain!
Although the food was universally miserable, I ate up every morsel, and was constantly hungry for more. Youth and fresh sea air I suppose.
The officers, Colón and I also had some private stores to augment the fine shipboard dining. The lieutenants had a goat which gave us all milk for the coffee. I had two chickens who were supposed to provide me with eggs but appeared would go in the pot instead. I also had a lamb, perhaps sheep would be more accurate, which would be butchered tomorrow and eaten grilled over the next several days by Colón and his party, including myself. No part would go to waste and on the fourth day, before it became too “ripe” the less savory parts would be added to the general mess, that is, added to the crew’s chickpeas as a special treat.
The animals were all cared for by a husbandry man, who could be seen escorting the menagerie around the deck at different parts of the day, including two ducks belonging to Colón that had become precious to me. Every morning I would join Colón in his cabin and write out any letters or messages he required, as well as making any important entries into the ships log where things like speed, direction, distances, encounters etc. were noted.
Invariably, his ship boy would enter with two beautiful bright yellow and extremely large duck’s eggs, with a thick slice of ham and grilled bread. Invariably, I would be offered some which I never refused. That would have been an insult!
Chapter 22) Colón’s Plan to Conquer Taino and Settle Hispaniola revealed.
Often Juan De la Cosa, the captain of the Mariagallante as well as an experienced soldier would join us. He had become a confidant of Colón’s and was often consulted in plans for the control of Hispaniola. Often in the fight to drive the Moors from Spain, a captured town of ten thousand inhabitants could be held and controlled by a very small garrison of soldiers. But it took planning discipline and not a small amount of tact to make this work. With cooperation from a few leading citizens it could be easy, anger the wrong set and it was impossible.
Colón anticipated no trouble bringing the islanders peacefully under Spanish control, but by knowing the island the typography and a bit about the current governance of the islands, La Cosa could help avoid pitfalls, and ensure their five hundred armed soldiers, with twenty cavalry, were sufficient for the job.
As I had yet to meet a Taino, and knew little of soldiering or strategy, I had nothing to contribute, but I dutifully recorded the salient points made by these two, as well as other captains that would join us from time to time. Similar to the strategy employed in the Canaries of using one tribe to help conquer another, Colón felt strongly that by securing a foothold in Guacanagari’s Cacicazgo, or sphere of control, they could then use the Cacique and his men to conquer the rest of the island. “There are always conflicts and discord between neighbors to exploit”, he reasoned in a chilling matter of fact manner. Once again, a phrase or sentiment completely at odds with the pious, Christian persona, threw me off.
It was similar to hearing of ancient Sparta however, where the infirm or mentally challenged, or God forgive, physically handicapped would be sacrificed, killed off to strengthen the Spartan core. Horrific of course, yet so remote, without ant personal relationship, it was mostly just words. The Guanche of the Canaries and the Taino of Hispaniola were just shadowy figures, so words like “exploit, conquer, slave, conflict had only conjured vague, disturbing emotions at this point. It was simply the way of the world. I had not yet developed the absolute and overwhelming abhorrence that was to come.
The days passed slowly with hours upon hours on deck with very little to do. I continued my visits and discussions with Pane’ and we each gained more respect and fondness for each other… and trust.
Looking for something solid to base my thoughts and conjectures on, I asked him one fine afternoon to expand on our previous discussion concerning the Taino, their place in God’s creation, and what exactly was the Church going to do to protect them, “…if one of their Third Order Franciscan Brothers, Colón, was going to set them about killing each other!” As the truth of my own words hit me, I became aware of how strongly the planning sessions a few days passed had affected me. I hoped that my anger and question did not clearly reach Colon in his cabin directly below my feet.
He began pacing, just three slow steps back and forth, gathering his thoughts I supposed but to a point to where I was about to throw him overboard in my frustration…
“When I was a young man,” began Pane’”, I assumed that all religious questions had clear concise answers, not open to debate, and clearly spelled out in the teachings of the bible”. Pane’ spoke with obvious difficulty and regret. “How could there be any question of the value of each human being, just using the words and examples of Our Lord Jesus Christ? How could politics have any bearing on this?” he asked, the breeze ruffling his sparse greying hair.
I mentally prepared myself for a discourse that had obviously been forming in his mind over the past week.
“I had also believed that when there was a change of Pontiffs, God would communicate his wishes with the Cardinals who would be fasting, praying, agonizing over such a momentous decision and, through his guidance elect ‘God’s’ choice. But in this last century we have had two and even three Popes simultaneously leading the church, each with their own faction supporting them. We’ve had the center of the church migrate to Avignon France then return to Rome. We’ve had riots in Rome, hoping to force the election of a Roman Pontiff over a foreigner.” He was warming to the topic, however, his voice grew more forceful yet quieter somehow.
He spoke to me of how half of the Cardinals are now descendants of previous Cardinals or Popes, most of the balance consist of those appointed by political rulers and kings, often members of their household. The last few are of the nobility of Italy. “To be elected Pope takes a master politician, one who can promise prominent and profitable positions to certain key Cardinals, and hint at favorable rulings or interpretations of scripture to convince rulers of countries to push their own Cardinals to vote the ‘correct’ way.” He said with distaste and disgust. “I am afraid God’s will is left out of the equation at this time.”
“It is essential to keep in mind”, he underscored, “this is not the ‘Church’ being evil, rather evil men, greedy for power or wealth using the Holy Church to further their own desires.”
“I suppose we should be grateful that our own Signore Borgio of Valencia, with the help of the Spanish Monarchs is now the newest leader of the Church. The Catholic Monarchs have pledged large financial and military support for the protection of the Papal States to secure that position for him.” He continued.
“In return Borgio, now known as Pope Alexander VI, has issued a Papal Bull giving Spain exclusive ownership, the exclusive right to explore and settle all the new western lands discovered by Colón to Spain.“ He ended.
I was not sure where Pane’ was going with all this, but it was certainly disturbing to hear that the representative of Christ here on earth was an appointee of the King and Queen of Spain. Slowly Pane’ was painting a picture of scheming and back door deals to secure the position of ‘Pope’ rather than the fasting, praying for guidance from God and the very sanctity of the Conclave held to elect a new Pope that I had imagined. Perhaps Colon was not alone in his ‘ abajo de aqua’ (secret)dealings.
“So…back to your question of how the “Church” views the Indios of this land we are traveling to…” Pane’ continued on after allowing me several minutes to digest his revelations of Papal politics to me. The more he spoke the more heated he became, and several times his voice now began to raise to a disturbing level and he would halt in mid-sentence, take a deep breath, and modulate his voice to a more confidential tone. I could sense that he somewhat regretted heading down this path with me, but could not leave me dangling. I also sensed some relief as he unburdened himself, finally feeling comfortable enough with someone to put his own doubts and misgivings into words.
“What does all this mean you may ask?” by this bringing his soliloquy back to a conversation. “Since Isabella is championing the Indios, Pope Alexander is doing the same. The ‘Indios’ these children of God are considered subjects of Spain and children of the church. My mission is to teach them, convert them, and bring them into the fold. In fairness to Pope Alexander, he is also providing a refuge for the Spanish Jews and Moors who are now beginning to be persecuted in Spain. Oddly enough the Monarchs complain that the Pope interferes with their efforts to convert the Jews and Moors. He has already shown a propensity to treat all races and creeds with Christian love, as he did when Archbishop of Valencia. Not surprisingly, the Popes enemies infer that it is because the Pope is in fact, a Jew…, astonishing!”
I hope and pray that this equality of all men espoused by His Holiness marks a new beginning for the church, getting back to concern for people’s souls and well-being, and away from the hunger for land, power, politics and the temporal, the unholy digression that has marked the last century or more of church leadership.
Unfortunately, as often happened, our discussion was interrupted by the Lieutenants. But this was a good point to wrap his dialog up. Besides, their mindless jocularity would give my thinking mind a rest.
Chapter 15.5) Colón, Franco, Stars
There is nothing to compare to the stars on a clear, moonless night in the center of a cold dark ocean. There seemed to be twice as many of them, and so close you might reach up and snatch a few, so bright they cast a shadow. Combined with the glow of their phosphorescent wake trailing the ship it made for an awesome spectacle.
Each ship appeared as a dark backlit shadow on the edge of the world, with its ghostly tail stretching to the horizon behind. Although each had a stern lantern, it was hard to distinguish from the stars reflected in the gently rolling sea. From a distant ship came the sounds of a guitara and a type of bagpipe playing a sad Basque melody.
Once again a following breeze and the ocean current gave the sense of stillness, even though we were traveling at three or four knots. The sails were filled, even though on deck it was almost still. Only the comfortable creaking of the ships beams and masts accompanied the distant music. Very peaceful.
Colon himself came on deck. After the usual deferential salutation on my part, and somewhat condescending reply by Colón, he acknowledged the beauty of the night sky and it’s reflection on the flat sea. We soon fell into a discussion of the stars, as used for navigation, Colón was always anxious to show his prodigious nautical acumen, even to an underling such as myself.
“If you follow from Polaris at the point of Ursa Minor, and follow it through Merak and Dubhe, the two end stars of the dipper in Ursa Major, and note where it points when your watch begins, and the envision a point 90 degrees to the right, you have created a six hour clock. A four hour watch is 2/3rds of that, or 60 degrees.
My father had explained all this to me when I was but eight, but I did not bother to interrupt him. I instead used these opportunities to further improve our relationship. I might ask him about his youth or of his early travels as a trader for the Genoese in the Mediterranean. For all his faults he enjoyed some amazing adventures and had seen far more of the world than most.
With the Basque, Colón had travelled to Bristol, as well as London, England, Ireland and even Iceland in the far north. With the Portuguese he had travelled along the west coast of Africa and the Portuguese’s trading centers.
As with most people, Colón enjoyed speaking of himself. As he had led a fascinating life, I quite enjoyed his stories, and so, was an attentive listener, which everyone appreciates. I had a sense that he somehow also wanted my esteem, that it helped relieve a deep insecurity. This was not an informed analysis, just a feeling.
This apparent need for approval humanized Colón somewhat in my eyes. He was just a man afterall.
Interestingly, Colón also had a strong spiritual belief in his own destiny and place in history. I was not familiar enough with the particular scriptures to which he might refer, to follow his logic, but his belief was quite evident.
In his defense and as Pane’ had pointed out to me, there was no clear leadership or “Holy Writ” by the church on the question of slavery or conquest; in fact, many of the wealthy leaders in the church, including Bishops, Archbishops and even recent Popes employed both household and galley slaves. I had no scripture to quote to support my position, in fact many biblical greats, including Abraham, David and Solomon, had both slaves and concubines.
Although I had never spoke directly to Colón of my objections to slavery, he was astute enough to sense it from my reactions or distaste I displayed any time the subject came up, reactions I had not bothered to mask. Between my own distaste, and that of Pane’, Colón, surprisingly, would bring the topic up for discussion with me at times, attempting to justify his intentions to himself I believe.
Chapter 23), Back with Lliago
There has been no sign of Captain Mendoza. He left Navidad, the tiny Ari settlement in the midst of thousands of Taino a, full month ago. No message of success or failure had reached Lliago.
“I probably should organize a party to go find him, but I am sure his absence has doubled our chance of survival,” Lliago reasoned. “Risking more lives, and weakening our position here, hoping to discover what happened to someone we are far better off without…? That would not be wise leadership,” he thought. Interestingly, none of his fellow Ari, nor the Taino ever brought up the three explorers. Their guides had long since returned, mentioning that Mendoza had travelled east, out of the Cacicazgos of Guacanagari, to explore further.
Although the initial encounter between these two groups had been tense, almost catastrophic, there now was a friendly, helpful existence between the two parties. Mendoza’s absence certainly was beneficial.
There was still an undertone of distrust on the part of the Taino. After all, Colón had basically kidnapped thirty of their family members. Lliago, Alonso and Mateo had been successful in mending much of the damage done by Colon, but they all three knew they had a long ways to go.
They were on their way to Cacique Guacanagari’s lodge now, to join him for the evening meal.
The sun was setting over the curve of the bay off to the left. The tall palms were backlit by an astonishing array of continuously changing colors, from deep burnt orange at the horizon on through to the pinks and violets climbing up the sky. Venus was just making her appearance.
The usually clear water of the bay had taken on a darker reflection of the sky above. “The wine dark sea Homer must have been referring to 2000 years ago”, thought Lliago.
Lliago and Mateo had taken to the Taino habit of bare feet, while Padre Alonzo still insisted on heavy boots. The warm sand felt good between the toes as Lliago sank into the softer sand away from the water line. He slowed, allowing his companions ahead a step. Walking across behind his two companions to the water’s edge where the sand was firmer, he caught them up.
“What horrible sin did you commit that you continue to punish yourself, with these wooden anchors on your feet”, asked Mateo of Alonzo. “Your penance has gone on long enough.” “….and the stench of your feet punishes us all”, he added.
I prefer to remain civilized returned Alonzo. “It helps maintain my moral superiority over the rest of you heathens.” He added gruffly.
They strolled along without further comment for a while, each lost in their own thoughts. The slow murmur of the waves, barely noticeable at high-tide added a soft background accompaniment to the swish of dry sand beneath Father Alonzo’s boots.
“Here is a moral dilemma for you oh wise one”, started Lliago. “How can we continue to insist to Guacanagari that things will be different when Colón returns?”
“Not one more Taino will be taken”, Guacanagari assured Lliago just the day before. “You must help me to convince Colón of this, at the peril of the Admiral and all his men”. Lliago could do nothing but agree to this, although he knew he would be powerless to stop Colón.
Colon’s quest to reach the trading capitals in China and Japan had obviously failed. Lliago knew however, that with the small amount of gold Colón was returning home with, as well as the captives, and considering the Admiral’s ability to convince, Colón was sure to return with three times the ships and four or five hundred men at least.
How could even these many thousands of warriors, with only their clubs and knives, possibly resist the guns and canon of the European invaders, even with their superior numbers?
Lliago imagined the proud Taino warriors, en-shackled in the hull of a trading scowl. These gentle woman and girls brutalized by the fierce ungodly sailors of Hispania. That brutality would be practiced even by his own small crew if not for his barely sufficient control over them. (Surprisingly, Juan Grande had become an ally there.) The disease, the tearing apart of families, the uprooting to foreign lands as slaves… this was all too much to bear.
He thought of his own strong, proud and yet gentle Allemanda. He considered the caring, just, noble and fatherly strength of her father, Guacanagari, to his people. The happy, healthy, squealing children… how could he, Lliago, stand by and let this happen?
Even as Juan Grande came over to a protective attitude towards the Taino, and Lliago began to feel the shift of many of the remaining sailors to his point of view, he knew all of his logic, rhetoric, and protestations would be no match for the greedy, lecherous hoard that would come from Hispania within the year.
Although a foot shorter and half the weight of Juan Grande, Bisma, the “mistress” of Juan Grande here on Hispaniola, had completely conquered Juan and ruled his life by none-to-subtle glances and scowls. To see this tiny woman smack the huge man on his ear and watch him cringe was astonishing. If anything, Juan was now the brutalized party.
He had become the champion of the Taino in less than a month and had replaced Guacanagari as the one most feared by those who would harm an islander. But even should all remaining sailors be brought to this way of thinking, the plight of the Taino still seemed hopeless.
“There seems nothing we can do to help these poor creatures,” Lliago stated flatly. “We will be forced to witness the same brutality that has befallen the African at the hands of the Portuguese and Arab. The Ari will be as relentless as the waves.
The three walked on in silence for several minutes, again lost in their dark thoughts.
“Are you sure”, Alonso began…”there is nothing we can do?
It was here the seed of an idea began to take shape, to keep history from following its usual course.
Chapter 24) - Back to Franco, at Canaries
We landed in the Canary Islands, the Islands of the Dogs, within a week, taking on water, more dried and fresh fish and making those repairs necessary at Las Palmas on Grande Canary.
Although fighting was still going on at Tenerife, an island just a handful of leagues to the West, Grande Canary stood firmly in the hands of Hispania.
Island by island the natives were being subjugated. These lands, maybe 100 miles off the coast of Africa, had a population of light skinned, blonde haired and blue eyed giants, some over six feet in height! Their origin was unknown, with guesses ranging from their being one of the Twelve Tribes of Israel to being the descendants of the remnant population of destroyed Atlantis.
They used no metal, all their implements, tools and weapons being of ingeniously crafted bone, wood and stone. Their success in repelling the Arab, the Portuguese and the Hispanics for the last several centuries was legendary.
Only by taking advantage of the inner tribal conflicts, supporting one Chieftain against another, by playing on the pride of a leader by inviting him to parlay then capturing or killing them, or by cutting off food supply, were the Hispanics able to conquer these warriors.
The giant, blonde haired, blue eyed “Guanche” natives were still in evidence, but only as servants or slaves, subjugated by the Spanish.
Isabella and Ferdinand had only united the two kingdoms of Castile and Aragorn twenty five years earlier and, between ending the Moorish occupation of southern Spain, (the “Reconquista), and keeping their Nobles in line, they had had no time or interest in the Canaries until recently. The nobles, the rich landowners of Spain with their small fiefdoms, had enjoyed nearly un-checked freedom in the conquest of the Islands, and the plunder of its resources, both natural and human.
A group of us were being rowed across the bay to the town quay. I had some messages to deliver for Admiral Colón. As we passed by a large Arab Corsair with its’ banks of oars, I had my first introduction to the cruelty and misery that is slavery. To see these recent captives, their obviously crushed pride, chained in filth and squalor, on their way to be sold in the markets of Portugal or Morocco, or as far away as India, was truly heartbreaking. I stared into the oily water of the bay.
We had discussed this at length in my father’s Salon back in Jerez. These “Arab” traders, out of Algiers, Tripoli and even Constantinople, were raiders of the worst kind. Capturing the vessels of Spain, France, Italy and, occasionally raiding further north in the Atlantic, they would appropriate the cargo of the ships, and then transport the crew or passengers back to their home base to be ransomed or sold into slavery.
Those that were relegated to the galleys would generally be chained on board for six months at a time then be imprisoned in the bagnios, Arab prisons with some of the worst of conditions, until put on another boat. Galley slaves of the Ottomans instead would serve for tens of years. Most slaves ended up in the Ottoman Empire, in Persia or as far away as India. The need for manual labor for the great grain producing areas of the Nile, the Fertile Crescent and the Indus seemed insatiable. The desire for concubines, house boys and servants created an equally profitable market.
And now the Spanish Nobles who had control of the Canaries were selling captives directly to these devils. What would keep Admiral Colón from doing the same with the islanders of Hispaniola? As I gazed on this heartbreaking sight, slavery became real, slavery now had a face.
While going about my business in Las Palmas, a part of me thought of the remaining Taino, kept as little better than livestock for their return to their home. I thought of those that had remained at Isabella’s court and finally, the fifteen that had died since being taken from their homes from disease or simple hopelessness
I pictured with close to despair, the very young Guanche girls that the two Lieutenants were drinking with even now, and imagined the girl’s parents, and the homes they had been ripped from. Young, yet already worn far beyond their years, what hopelessness must they feel looking towards their future? The meaning of what a “visit to the girls” entailed, the debasement and exploitation of these children, was brutally and shockingly brought home to me. We should be protecting them! The men of these families were either off fighting other Guanche, or had already been shipped off to the Arab slave markets. With no-one to protect them or provide for them, what choice, what future did they have?
How was it possible that humans, so called Christians, could do this to another human? My now seventeen years of sheltered, protected life had not prepared me for this, and I am ashamed to admit I was completely undone.
Suddenly all the secret meetings of Colón, the clearly evil nature and intentions of some of the men he had taken on as investors, the empty livestock pens to be used for cargo, it all added up to one thing. I was not part of a holy mission to bring the greatness of our society to Hispaniola. The “Admiral of The Ocean Sea”’ was merely a slave trader, and he had duped the Catholic Monarchs into backing his truly evil scheme.
Although the King and Queen clearly forbade slavery, if Colón was to sell his unholy cargo here in Canary, or perhaps in the Portuguese Azores or Madeira on the return voyage, the Monarchs would be none the wiser.
Chapter 25 Franco Trapped into Destiny-
I was trapped.
Standing at the taffrail, directly above Colón’s cabin at the Stern of the ship, I contemplated our wake, stretching as far as the eye could see, back towards Grande Canary and my innocence. My transformation had been instantaneous. One moment I was a boy vaguely disturbed by the idea of conquest and slavery, the next a human who abhorred both with a crushing desperation.
I had been returning towards the landing back in Canary, reflecting on all I had seen. I heard a laugh from one of the young girls, now sitting on the lap of one of the lieutenants in the wine shop overlooking the harbor. As I looked on she was in the act of turning her face away from the officer who was trying to kiss her, when her eyes beheld one of the galleys filled with defeated Guanche headed out to sea.
The look of utter despair and sadness, the desperation that came into her eyes would haunt me forever. Her family destroyed, her proud men enslaved and her life of squalor and worse than slavery stretching ahead, with no hope of deliverance. The loathing I now held for Colón, the Monarchs, The Church and most especially, for myself for allowing this to happen, was overwhelming.
At sea again I looked back at the several other vessels were in view, cleanly slicing through the amazingly calm sea. Although there were 102 men on board the flagship, as often as not I would have this area to myself. The young Lieutenants were aware that I had no interest in their company, which seemed to affect them not at all. The rear deck was reserved for the officers and officials, and would be cleared completely if Admiral Colón chose to walk there. Even though I was not an officer, both my own and Padre’s presence was never remarked upon, I suppose because of our assumed closeness to Colón and need to respond quickly if summoned.
The water was an amazingly deep blue and clean-looking, so different from the muddy grey murk we had encountered up until now. The sailors had remarked on its unusual color, and thought the depth of the water and continued calmness of the sea were the cause.
In the shade of the large ‘papahigo’ or mainsail, a gigantic rectangle of clothe on the main (Mizzen) mast, the ship sailing along with the breeze created a feel of calm freshness. I had always thought that the sails all remained perpendicular to the mast and ship, the rudder providing direction. Soon, of course, I learned that ropes attached to the cross beam from which the sail hung, as well as ropes to that sail’s lower corners would be pulled in on one side of the ship while let out on the other to bring the sail to most advantage, easy to do when calm, but nightmarish in a gale.
The afternoon sun in the southwest backlit the white sail with its emblazoned Cross. This once peaceful symbol of Christ’s sacrifice for us now seemed a bludgeon set to pummel the Taino.
But anger, loathing, indignation can only be focused on for so long, especially in the young. The perfect temperature, the soft sigh of the breeze, and my full belly from a pleasant dinner, conspired to lull me into a peaceful afternoon nap. I was sitting, my back to the rear mast, with my coat behind me watching the ships behind when I nodded off.
I had been dozing for about twenty minutes, when the creak of a complaining stair brought me awake with a start. Glancing around, I saw the form of Padre Panes’ huge posterior in an awkward retreat down from the upper deck where I sat.
“Padre, excuse me, please come join me,” I stammered out, getting to my feet, shaking the sleep from my head.
The Padre had become my confessor of sorts. Nothing official, we simply conversed of life, thoughts, feelings and fears, with some advice thrown in. Certainly not the same, but he had come to partially fill the void left by my father back in Jerez.
“Pardon me Franco, I did not mean to disturb your rest,” said Pane’. I half believed him, although days earlier I had caught him purposefully coughing to awaken me. Miraculously, his cough left him once I was fully awake. I suspect he enjoyed our afternoon talks as well as I.
He waddled back up and we made our way to the taffrail.
“It is telling that you are constantly looking backwards at the past, rather than at the bow facing your future,” stated Padre. Somehow he had managed to get out of breath just coming up the five steps to this deck. Although only 40 years old, Padre Pane’ seemed to inhabit a much older body. I don’t know if he could even bend his knees, he took steps in an awkward, painful looking waddle.
I felt this was a much deeper observation, or perhaps, question than it sounded on the surface, and wanted to weigh my words carefully.
“If this could only continue on forever, with the pestilence that we are, never reaching Hispaniola, I would be perfectly happy”, I said.
I reflected on my current situation. I could not have simply abandoned the voyage and Colón without risking dishonor for myself and my family, as tempting as that had been. Even if I had, how would I have returned to Jerez and my family? And shouldn’t I be doing something to change the course of doom we were embarked on?
To go on, to bear helping Colon seemed impossible as well, and a question suddenly occurred to me,” How is it you are able to participate in this voyage of conquest and enslavement?” I asked, not a small amount of resentment and condemnation in my voice, although the question started with no intention of wounding him.
Fortunately, my time with Colón was limited to several hours each morning to take down a few notes on our progress across the Atlantic, as well as comments on the various captains and their boats and crews performance. I could handle this short time with the fiend , then retreat to my post at the rear of the ship with an abundance of time to visit with Pane’ and to keep an eye on the trailing vessels.
With seventeen ships we were strung out over ten to as much as twenty miles of ocean, the last ships were often out of sight over the horizon. Like a gigantic inchworm, we would stretch out full length, then contract again until all were in sight, slowly then to stretch out again.
I glanced at Pane’, expecting a hurt or angry continence, but was surprised to see his usual, almost mocking smile, and a glint in his eye. “Let us imagine things are as desperate as you say, that Colón subdues the islands and enslaves every Taino. Can I do more to help the Taino as a hermit hiding in a cave back in Castile? Or perhaps, if I am able to comfort some of these people in their distress, help a few when they are ill, improve their conditions on the ships headed back to Europe, bring one or two to Christ? Perhaps even counseling one ship’s scribe might be better than sitting back in the comfort of a friary?” he proposed. “Some of us can change the course of history; others can only pick up the pieces.”
Splendid, now I could add the guilt of insulting this kind, thoughtful priest to my list of miseries…
I noticed the small, sleek, fast tender employed to run between the boats, headed towards the Niña. In rough weather the sails and masts of the tender could be brought down and it would bob behind the Mariagallante. We would get word of a leak sprung in a ship, and steps taken to address the problem. Or perhaps hear of an insubordination and resulting punishment on another, this fast messenger carrying news and orders throughout our little fleet.
Each ship was its own floating kingdom with the Captain of that ship, King. Each was self-sufficient to a large extent, with its own shipwright, woodworker purser and priest. But ultimately, they would have to report their actions to the Admiral.
It was soon clear that disease had once again broken out on the ill-fated Niña and numerous bodies had gone over her sides. It was rumored that two of the Taino had been transferred to our ship by the tender sometime during the night. There was much grumbling and furtive glances among the crew, who were obviously distressed at having these disease carriers on board. All the crew avoided the forward cabin where I assumed the new guests were now housed.
Day after day the fall weather remained perfect. Following the currents away from Grand Canary, and enjoying following breezes again, we couldn’t help but encounter the same islands of Colón’s first voyage. This pleasant cruise would certainly not last forever, in fact, the voyage’s end, and the results were rapidly approaching.
Although we could only estimate our travel distance West by keeping track of our speed from noon to noon, we could tell, with fair precision, where we stood North and South. Once we hit the latitude of Hispaniola, as recorded by Colón’s first voyage, we would head as directly West as possible and hit the Island. We were within a week of landfall.
My mind went back to an earlier, friendlier time with Colón, he explaining how we could tell, more or less, our position on the globe.
An astrolabe, a ridiculously complicated device that could give you locations of stars, planets, moons with incredible precision, could also be used to measure the height of the Sun at its highest point, mid-day. By knowing the height or angle, along with the date, we knew where we sat North and South on the earth. As an example, coming down from London, if the Sun was 45 degrees, or halfway up the sky, you would know you were about 130 miles north of Bilbao, on the Bay of Biscay. Navidad sat at 19 degrees north of the equator, Grand Canary at about 28. Not coincidently, the wind and currents were carrying us in a south west direction.
Father Pane’ remained patient and silent. He knew my pattern, and that I would respond when I had felt the question or problem sufficiently thought through.
Chapter 26, Pane’ and Franco Conspire
It had been easy, sitting back in my father’s salon, to imagine being the hero of every story. If I came across a princess in distress I, of course, would defend her with my sword and vanquish any enemy. If I came across an Arab pirate who had kidnapped Christians and enslaved them on his galley, I would easily set them free and bring the Arab to justice.
Being around hundreds of men who not only had no problem with fellow humans being sold into slavery, but who hoped to profit from it themselves, men who could easily destroy me, knife me and send me overboard with no pang of conscious, created a different set of circumstances than I had imagined as a youth.
Daily, there were brutal fights among the sailors, where getting off with an ear missing or an arm laid open by the razor sharp knives that every sailor carried was good fortune. Mortal wounds were just as frequent. Only the greater viciousness of the officers kept the sailors in check.
A flogging of 24 lashes, well laid by the captain of the guard, would rip a man’s back to a bloody pulp, with lacerations so deep I did not know how they survived. Cutting rations was, surprisingly, equally effective. It was a hard, tough and brutal world I had stepped into.
As we neared our destination, the idea that one innocent campesino, such as myself, somehow stopping the horror that would soon befall the unsuspecting natives of Hispaniola at the hands of these devils, seemed… foolish…unrealistic.
How could I put these thoughts into words that would be understood by the spiritual leader, without betraying my disloyalty, my desire to stop Colón at any cost?
“I only see disaster and misery when I look to the future” I said, sounding entirely too pessimistic even in my own ears.
“I apologize for my moroseness Padre’, it is unlike me,” I said quickly with a self-deprecating laugh. “It is just that I see no answer, no way forward”.
“These men about to be loosed on the Indios are little better than the most savage of animals.” I went on. “Colón’s description of the kind, friendly natives sounds like a flock of sheep headed to slaughter. We both agree that, without some unbelievable control of these sailors, this will be devastating to the Taino. In addition to this brutality, the Taino will be exploited in every conceivable way by Colón and his captains. The people will be enslaved, forced to work in mines, farm the fields for their Spanish Masters or, worse yet, be shipped off to foreign lands and sold to others.”
After a short reflection, I went on,” The huge, proud and ferocious warriors of the Canary were no match for these brutes. What chance for the Taino, what chance of averting this calamity?”
I had been pacing, but I now joined Pane’ at the rail, watching a few wisps of feathery cloud dissipate as quickly as they formed. I never tired of the line of sail formed by the following ships that now floated on a cobalt, almost impossibly blue sea, with an equally blue sky above making the exact horizon hard to distinguish… a truly picturesque vista.
With the ship traveling nearly at the speed of the following breeze, and the calm created at the rear of the ship, we were in an eerily silent bubble. Only a very load bellow of an officer shouting a command, or the guffaws of the sailors were occasionally noticeable.
“When the Israelites faced the vastly superior force of Philistines in their fight for the land of Judah,” Pane’ began,” King Saul faced a hopeless situation”. “If the Israelites were to lose this fight they would become subject to the King of Philistia, trading the yoke of Egypt they had recently fled for this new one”, he continued.
Pane’ let this statement hang in the air, as if it was obviously the only answer necessary to the coming dilemma.
I am afraid I was quite irritated with Pane’. My soul ached as I searched for an answer, and here this genius teacher was reciting a child’s bible lesson to me. As I fumed and fretted, I could not help but remember the story Pane’ began.
The Israelite position was hopeless, the vastly superior Philistine army poised to destroy them. For whatever reason however, the Philistines seemed unwilling to simply crush them. Perhaps they did not want to weaken their own army with the losses that surely would result from the battle, even with their assured victory. Perhaps they wanted to keep the soon to be enslaved Israelites healthy.
Instead they sent the giant warrior ‘Goliath’ to challenge any Israelite Champion to mortal combat to decide the issue. That story of the hopeless battle that would instead be decided by equally hopeless single combat did not seem helpful to me in our current situation.
But slowly the wisdom started to seep into my apparently thick skull. I did not have to conquer the 1,200 brutish sailors, only one brutish Admiral.
I looked up at Pane’, who was staring at me intently. I said, “The only weapons we have are your spiritual leadership and my paltry powers of persuasion. These against the stupendous greed, and thirst for power of Colón, and all the promises he has made to the investors and captains involved in this scheme.” I was awed, by the prospect, especially as I had no stones or a slingshot to hand.
“Easier than killing 1,200 sailors I suppose”, I said with a nervous laugh.
Chapter 27) Franco lays out the Problem
The challenge I faced was to show Colón a way to wealth and power that included working with the Taino. Rather than just plundering whatever wealth they possessed and selling them off as slaves, I had to show him a way to reach even greater renown, power and wealth by following the Catholic Monarch’s desire to convert these Indios into loyal subjects.
The hunger for gold would push Colón and his cronies to employing slave labor to work the mines. It would be easy to hide this transgression from the Monarch’s wishes, as the mines would be thousands of miles away. Could Colón be convinced that a cooperative arrangement with the Indios might be more beneficial for both sides?
What could I propose as an attractive option, what would convince the master merchant Colón to abandon his slavery scheme?
Perhaps the trees on the upper slopes of the island could be harvested and sold to the shipyards which seemed to be prospering, especially as the belief in Colon’s western route to the Orient gained strength.
Sailing vessels had been being produced on the Iberian Peninsula, (Spain and Portugal), since the time of the Phoenicians nearly 2000 years ago. Most of the forests had been depleted centuries before, and ship builders were now importing wood from as far away as Croatia or even the Caucuses, paying exorbitant prices. That may be a source of wealth.
A second might be the spices of the Orient that Colon still claimed were only a few days beyond Hispaniola. Although, from my tutelage in my Father’s home, I knew it to be at least three to four times as far, perhaps by continuing west, a viable route to the Orient and its’ wealth could be established. With a base in Hispaniola to take on water and food stuffs, a two or three month voyage further west would not be impossible.
Jaquez Coeur, a hero of the trader/ merchant class, and certainly of Colón, had risen from a sailor on a trading vessel, to a wealthy merchant, to French nobleman and finally, advisor to the King. His wealth was made on the spices of the Far East, and I would push this idea on Colón, over the ease of the slave trade. Coeur had in fact, died in Chios, where Colón had done much of his early trading.
Perhaps, if Colon were truthful in his description of the soil, water and climate of Hispaniola, an abundance of produce might go a ways towards replacing the imagined gains of mining operations.
Unfortunately, when there was insufficient food in Hispania for their subjects, the Monarchs in the past had no mechanism or funds to import food. The people simply went hungry. Although there was money in the salted cod, caught in the North Atlantic and imported by the Basques to Europe, would it be the same with the fish that could be pulled from the bountiful sea around Hispaniola? The majority of the populace of Iberia simply had no money to buy any foodstuffs that they could not produce themselves. Although this was beginning to change as the Monarch’s new policies began to bring wealth into the country, this would be a slow process.
An obvious exception was sugar.
As valuable as any Asian spice, Isabella and Ferdinand, with their re-conquest of Andalusia and Ferdinand’s control of Naples, Sicily and the Canary Islands, controlled all European production with the exception of Portuguese Madeira, and some Venetian holdings in Palestine and Cyprus. Northern Europe had developed an insatiable need for sugar in this last century, with fortunes being made in its production and trade.
And we had thousands of cane plants on board at this moment. With its heat and moisture, Hispaniola would be as productive as India, where cane had originated. If the current ruler of the island was like every other ruler Franco had ever heard of, he could be persuaded into putting his reportedly huge and idle workforce into the production of sugar and make both himself and his Spanish partners exceedingly wealthy and powerful.
And rather than the a onetime gain from the sale of an unwilling slave, Colón could be shown, in actual Reals and Pesos, the value of keeping the workforce intact on the island. This idea held genuine and provable promise, and I was suddenly excited to get this proposal down on paper.
I believed this, along with Padre Pane’s spiritual coaxing, might just garner the results we desired.
Chapter 28) Back to Lliago, Hispaniola, Going Native
Mendoza, Salvador and Astilla still had not returned. At nearly ten weeks gone, Lliago and his men assumed they were not returning. Perhaps they had been killed by the Carib that sometimes raided on Hispaniola.
With the timbers from the Santa Maria, Lliago and his men had built a small stockade on a rocky spit of land along the east side of the bay. With the range of the four 7lb cannons, they could hit any target within the bay and, perhaps, 300 yards out to sea accurately.
In addition, they had the two brass cannons that fired a one inch ball, four Espingarda hand held long guns, as well as four Espingarda pistols. They had been left with four barrels of gunpowder, and had salvaged fourty three, 7 lb shot, over one hundred, 1” balls and several hundreds of ½“ lead balls for the long guns and pistols.
Lliago had made Juan Grande his Lieutenant. Juan Espinosa, who had been a worry to me, appeared quite attached to the sister of Bizma, Juan Grande’s island wife. The way things now stood, there should be no more trouble between the remaining 19 Spaniards and their Taino hosts. Juan Grande had even started construction of his new family’s home and farm, with Guacanagari’s blessing, just to the east of the bay.
Runners had come from another tribe of Taino, the Cotui’, that lived far to the east in the Cacicazgos of Marien. They spoke of a large raiding party of the Caribe, cannibals from some of the islands to the east and south of Kiskeya. “Hundreds of Taino have been taken”. “Caunato’ (leader of the Cotui’), asks that we unite to stop this menace.”
The Caribe would paddle their gigantic trading canoes along the coast, raiding as they went. It was highly probable they would soon be raiding in Guacanagari’s Cacicazgos.
“These Caribe will make slaves of the Taino women after killing their men, and will keep their children in cages, fattening them up to eat later,” explained Guacanagari’s oldest son Cuan. “Will you stand with us and help defend against these animals?”
They sat in the shade of Guacanagari’s home, the large square structure that housed close to fifty members of Guacanagari’s family. Ten to twelve other similar structures surrounded the village square and were inhabited by what the Hispanic would describe as “Nobility”. From there, the structures and their families radiated out in a descending hierarchy of importance.
The first few islands the ships of Colon had encountered were rife with these cannibalistic fiends, Colon’s men having had several encounters with them. Working with the Taino for their mutual protection was something Lliago could agree to whole heartedly, along with all his men who rather enjoyed a good fight.
“Your warriors are fierce”, stated Lliago, a question in this statement. “With your large numbers and strength, how is it you are unable to fight these villains off, or even, defeat them once and for all?”
Cuan was stunned by Lliago’s question, and began to come angrily to his feet, Allemanda with a hand on his shoulder holding him back by her strength of character alone. Lliago saw that he had wounded his friend’s pride, the young man who would one day rule the Taino.
Lliago quickly explained that he only wanted to understand by what tricks these devils were able to capture members of the Great Taino. He reminded Cuan of the fear that his own Ari Basque had felt when surrounded by the Taino warriors when they had arrived three months before.
Cuan, who had become close to Lliago and Mateo, saw that Lliago was indeed trying to understand how best to help, and sat back down, a little chagrinned at his own reaction. Although Allemanda had not said a word, Lliago was once again reminded of the strong position all Taino women enjoyed in this society.
“I am sorry Lliago, for my anger”, began Cuan…Thinking of my family being at the hands of the Caribe is so unnerving, I forget myself.”
“Please do not give it another thought,” returned Lliago. “Let us come up with a strategy to stop them.”
Chapter 29) Alonzo’s solution
“As you know”, said Cuan, “we are spread out in smaller family groups throughout the area”. Clearly if all our warriors were gathered, we could drive off any force. The Caribe, however, attack these individual families in stealth, often murdering the men, and capturing the women and children and are off in their canoes before we can mount a response.
This was beyond the life experience of both Lliago and Mateo, so they all sat in silence for a minute or two.
Although back home, they sometimes went hungry, at that period it was relatively stable and safe in the various provinces, especially since Aragon and Castile had united under Isabel and Ferdinand.
“Back in our land”, began Father Alonzo, “in years past, there were many marauding bands that would go into an unprotected area and do the same. They would not eat the citizens of course, but would carry off all the food, belongings and, in some cases, the women and girls of a community in the same manner.” “The farmers would be out in the fields, or tending their herds.” “Even if they were close to home, what could one man do against a mounted group of fighters?” Often they would be renegade soldiers or mercenaries back from the Crusades, used to taking whatever their strength would allow.
“So the farmers began to congregate around a fortified larger hacienda. Someone would always be on lookout, and at the first sign of trouble the church bell would ring out. The farmers, their families, and in many cases their animals would run to the safety of the town.” said Alonzo.
“These rogue bands were interested in easy conquest and plunder and were used to very little or ineffective resistance. Still only armed with farming implements, but behind walls and united into a determined force, very few marauders would press the attack he explained. “Perhaps a modified idea could be implemented here?” he finished.
Lliago had been thinking this whole time, and, incorporating the ideas of Alonzo, and some of what he’d learned of feudal lords of centuries passed, he put forth the following plan…
“What is needed is a group of warriors always freed from labor to be both on the lookout and ready to respond at a moment’s notice to attack. The warriors could rotate so that their gardens and the fishing would not get neglected. Our men would comprise part of this contingent.” He began.
“Spaced out, within the sound of the conch shell, will be lookouts, ever vigilant for these invaders. By certain notes or signals we can be called to the area in danger and quickly arrive to thwart the attack.” He added.
“We will want to do some training together so that we will all know what to do in case of need”, finished Lliago.
“What weapons are used by the Caribe, and how many are in their raiding parties?” asked Mateo.
“Like us, they travel by canoe that can hold many men.” Some will hold up to 150 warriors, but a typical party would be 20-30 raiders”, said Cuan. “Also like us, they use the war club, the thrusting spear and the knife”.
The Taino war club came in as many shapes and descriptions as there were fighters, each one fashioned by its’ owner to his particular taste and strength. Cuan’s was made of hardwood, rounded and smooth at the grip then flattening out to a paddle shape. About 5 feet in length, the paddle end was 30 inches long and studded with sharks teeth along both its cutting edges. It could be used with one hand or two and could inflict an astonishing amount of damage.
Like the war club, the knives and spears were as varied as the men. Lliago had noticed the knives of the runners were of copper and intricately made. They would not hold an edge for more than a cut or two he knew, so were more decorative than useful. Lliago was more interested in the source of the copper, as it could be used as a substitute for lead for firearm projectiles. He would visit with Cuan later on this.
Many of the spears had wicked rear facing barbs that would inflict even more damage when pulled back.
“I would suggest”, said Mateo, a trained force of sixty Taino warriors, along with seven Ita’ with firearms, be always ready at a moment’s notice for battle.” “Do the Caribs raid at night?” he asked. Mateo had begun to use the Taino word for “Stranger” for the remaining crew.
“Very rarely”, replied Cuan,” they like the predawn or just as the sun is setting, although anytime will do when the opportunity presents itself.”
“It is mostly by stealth that they are successful,” added Allemanda; “Coming in quietly, having the sun at their backs so their victims must squint into the sun, and using the constant sounds of the jungle to mask the small noise they make. Sometimes whole families have disappeared with even a close neighbor being unaware.”
“So we must be prepared and on the alert from several hours before dawn until several hours after sunset. In addition, I think we should have watchers posted throughout the night. We will keep watch at the stockade at all hours should they be foolish enough to enter the bay at night”, suggested Mateo.
Lliago had been nodding his head in agreement as Mateo spoke. “Perhaps one of us should be on duty at any given time to keep things orchestrated?” added Lliago”, indicating himself, Mateo and Juan Grande. With three groups of sixty men, each group working every third day” said Lliago, “each of us and our six companions will have the opportunity to work and train with each group.”
The Taino also had some amazing bowmen. The bow itself was not terribly powerful, but the bowmen could hit about anything within fifty yards. They used several different poisons on the tip, including the extracted juice of the casaba, which could paralyze their prey yet leave it edible.
“We also have some heavier bows”, boasted Allemanda. “The warrior, on his back, will hold the bow against his upraised feet, pulling the string back with both arms. It will send a much heavier shaft three times as far,” she added, with obvious pride.
“These missiles would undoubtedly even punch through Spanish armor”, stated Mateo, speaking and looking at no one in particular.