During the Spanish Civil War a German anarchist and historian serving with the International Brigade discovered an account of how a Florentine nun led a mission to Hayti, Spain's first American colony, two decades after its 'discovery' by Christopher Columbus. But she also had a secret assignment - to find out if the passage through to Asia depicted on a world map published by the German cartographer Martin Waldseemüller actually existed.
During her investigations, she meets up with Fray Hugo de Montenegro, a Dominican monk who has been there for several years and has been collecting accounts of Spanish atrocities; and she comes into contact with Taíno freedom fighters and their allies, escaped African slaves who had been imported to work on the new sugar plantations, as well as to the attention of the brutal colonial authorities. The narrative unfolds against the background of the horrors of the Spanish Conquest of the Americas, the destruction of its original peoples, the commencement of the Atlantic slave trade and the beginnings of globalisation with the foundation of the Spanish Empire. But is it a factual account or the first work of fiction written in the Americas?
An Account of the Indian Countries Discovered by the Admiral Don Cristóbal Colón, in the Hand of Sor Lucrezia di Marchionni, a Sister of the Order of the Hieronymites, Santo Domingo, the Spanish Island.
Life abounds here. Never have I laid eyes upon such fecundity. It is what they call the rainy season now but every now and again the rain ceases and the grey clouds part and the sun appears – never for very long, but long enough to give one an impression of its reputed ferocity at these latitudes – and everything becomes suddenly bright and lustrous and glistens; and the world fleetingly appears as it perhaps appeared, newly created and glorious, to our first parents. And I look with a sort of childish wonder on it all: the verdant grass and palm trees in our nunnery garden, the flowers so delicate and colourful, the white mist enveloping the hills to the north of us, and the glittering surface of the sea in the bay.
It took twenty-eight days for our armada – six caravels, three large square-rigged carracks and a nao – to reach the Fortunate Isles, apparently longer than is usually the case. There, after picking up fresh water, wood and additional victuals, we were joined by another three vessels and in their company set off on the principal part of our journey, the longer crossing of the Oceanus Occidentalis. It took us another forty-four days, and nights, to reach the Antilles, to give these islands their proper and ancient name. The swiftest crossing ever achieved, I was told, is two and a half weeks. Officially, thirty to forty or so ships a year make the voyage now, usually in smaller armadas. How many make the voyage ‘unofficially’ it is impossible to know.
The sheer discomfort and tediousness of an ocean voyage is scarcely imaginable to those who only know solid land. Images in books and paintings give the impression that a ship is akin to a floating citadel. In fact, it is more akin to a floating farmyard, and smells like one. Our ship, The Valiant Crusader, a caravel, the swiftest type of vessel ever to sail upon the seas our captain assured us, was a hundred feet long and twenty or so feet wide at the middle, larger than usual for its type. And in this cramped space, above deck and below deck, all of the numerous and sundry items necessary for the sustenance of life, which we normally take for granted on land, needed to be carried: from cheese to thread to salt; and livestock, squealing pigs in our case; a flock of chickens had the run of the deck. No small number of passengers and seamen sickened on the voyage across.
We also carried a half-dozen neighing horses and a pack of war dogs. The former, lest they break their legs from the incessant rolling of the ship, were hung in slings from the timbers below deck for the entire duration of the voyage, though they were exercised on deck as regularly as weather permitted, which was often enough. Every morning their droppings were gathered up and cast overboard. Their fodder and water, needless to say, needed to be transported too. The war dogs, thirteen vicious Irish wolfhounds and mastiffs the size of half-grown heifers, were kept at the stern, as the rear of the vessel is called, in cages under the so-called quarterdeck. They were exercised on deck every day, straining at their leashes and muzzled. Once a week a squealing pig was slaughtered to provide them with the raw meat they needed. One of the bitches gave birth to a litter on the fourth week out.
However, a good captain attempts to keeps his ship clean, both above and below, inside and out; and one of the common sailor’s main tasks is to skivvy and scrub endlessly, forever heaving buckets of seawater up out of the ocean. This substance, poisonous to drink, is so different to fresh water that it barely deserves the name of water. Clothes washed in it slowly rot. Impregnated with salt, it coats and dries out one’s skin but one has no choice but to wash with it. The barrels of fresh water we were carrying – though after a week or so at sea to call it ‘fresh’ is somewhat of a misnomer – were far too precious to be wasted on ablutions.
The ship’s ‘kitchen’ – an iron pot hung over an open fire in a box filled with sand and surrounded by a screen to shelter it from the wind – was situated at the bow, as far away as possible from the gun powder and armaments stored at the stern. Our meals consisted of two hot, or rather warm pottages a day, served just after noon and at dusk. The principal nutrient these contained was either meat, salted bacon or beef for the main part, bony and gristly, or more commonly fish – we carried salted cod, and salted barrelled sardines – filled out with rice, chickpeas, lentils and other beans, and flavoured with garlic. Officers and passengers had the privilege of their own utensils. The crew helped themselves from a common wooden bowl. We ate this pottage with so-called ship’s bread, a sort of twice-baked biscuit; it is hard and unpalatable, and capable of lasting a year if kept dry, I was told, but was reasonably edible when dipped in the pottage. However, retaining cooked food in one’s stomach is a near impossibility in the early days of a sea voyage, even for not a small number of seasoned sailors, some of whom were wretchedly sick. During the calmish days we enjoyed, and there were many, the sailors managed to catch some fishes which, freshly cooked, were a welcome addition to our diet. The wine, despite strict rationing, lasted only four weeks. Needless to say, no small quantity of firewood, which had to be kept dry, was also part of our cargo. Fire aboard ship is every seaman’s nightmare; so when the weather was bad, which was not often, we had to do with cold fare, which, it must be said, was often superior to the hot. This consisted mainly of ship’s bread dipped in watered Jerez wine and meagre rations of almonds, a few olives, oil of the same, molasses, and honey and goat cheese which we’d picked up on the Fortunate Isles – a very superior cheese it must be said.
Officers and passengers were lodged beneath the quarterdeck in cubicles little bigger than a confessional. Only our captain had one room – or cabin, as seamen say – to himself; it was furnished with a miniature and roughly carpentered escritoire at which he kept his log, made his navigational calculations and noted discrepancies in his sea maps. These portolano charts, as they are called, show only coastlines, islands and ports, and are criss-crossed with compass-rose lines to indicate the relative positions of these to one another; all inland features such as cities, mountains and rivers are omitted. Two of these cubicles – or berths as the seaman calls them – were allocated to us. We slept in net beds, called ‘hamacas’, hung from the timbers of the deck above; these remain motionless while the ship rolls, and are thus effective against the nausea; during the day they are rolled up and stored. They are an Indian contrivance, and surprisingly comfortable when one gets used to them, so it was possible to sleep reasonably well – when the dogs directly below us in their cages suffered us to. At times the fearsome creatures whined and barked incessantly through the night, their chilling howls echoing over the ocean as we sailed otherwise silently through the starry darkness.