Into The Darkness

1
INTO THE SEA: FROM PALOS TO GUANAHANI,1492

The crew of the three vessels leaving Spain
looked like mourners, or maybe condemned victims
on their way to the scaffold; this despondency
was not shared by the buoyant, hope-inspired
chief commander, who for a score of years
had wandered, an idle, semi-crazed visionary,
an object of contempt for everybody.
On the main deck of the Santa Maria,
he stood, his hurts now about to be cured.
The prow pointed directly to the West.
No longer subject to the world's insults,
he was a dignified, powerful captain
at the service of European monarchs.
In the future he foresaw roseate views:
India, with its mighty Khan, shining gold-dust,
perfumes, spices, pearls, diamonds, and dyes.
He fancied the gorgeous streets of Cipango.
Proud honours would eventually be given him
in marble palaces by mighty potentates.
In his destiny he might find the domain
of Prester John, the mysterious king
whose faith, kingdom and subjects were all Christian.
Thus he dreamed and set hopes as boldly sailed
westward, plunging into unknown sea ways.
Fair weather, smooth waves and smiling skies promised
a successful and gratifying voyage.
The elements did not seem to oppose
his scope; but there were lurking dangers within,
not without the expeditionary vessels.
The very first trouble came from the failure
of Pinta's rudder; the Admiral suspected
that such damage had been arranged pre-emptively
by her own unhappy owners, the Crown.
The fleet ran into a Canary harbour,
a new rudder was arranged, and weeks later
the trip was resumed; in open sea, though,
beyond limits of the known navigation,
her occupants, losing sight of Canaries,
lost their heart as well: their known world was gone!
Sailors knew not whither the fleet was going.
They showed their grief in clamorous complaints.
Soon, the sight of a floating mast shocked them,
as an omen of the darkness beyond.
The Admiral tried to reassure them.
He disclosed visions of limitless wealth;
he appealed to their cupidity, passions,
and every other reconciling reason,
hiding, however, the number of leagues
so far navigated under false records.
In due time, trade winds and pacific waters
helped to create an atmosphere of peace.
A sea-bird of the kind that never sleeps
appeased them further: harbingers of good,
birds were as welcome as sung morning chants,
which kept the crew far from open rebellion.
The Admiral resourced to utmost patience
and watchfulness to prevent any outbreak.
The crew was happy when trade winds bore them
smoothly on; or else they feared no homecoming.
They were gratified upon meeting weeds
indicating the nearness of land, else
frightened when such weed masses were more dense;
they'd rather extricate themselves from that.
Any region where stagnant air might mean
rotting forever over windless sea
worried them, as they dreaded the calm ocean.
Placating sailors - what a stressful test!
A critical situation came up
as they convinced themselves that their commander
was but an unreliable adventurer,
imperilling their lives only to indulge
in his pointless personal purposes.
They decided therefore to fake an accident:
throw out the captain and return to Spain.
But, on the verge of being ruined by mutiny,
the expedition heard the thrilling cry
of 'Land! ' It was Martin Pinzon who shouted.
At once there was joy on board, but despair
replaced it overnight because such land
proved a deception; for a week, men mutineered.
Incredibly though they neither seized vessels
nor turned homeward; one night, there was some light
on the horizon; at two a.m. Pinta
roared her gun, giving the long-hoped signal.
It was the sailor Rodrigo Triana,
in the basket of the top sails, who cried,
pointed to the horizon and claimed afterwards
the reward to the first one to see land,
but the Admiral took it to himself.
His agreement with the Queen stipulated
10,000 maravedis to be bestowed
on whoever first announced the good news.
Whom should the reserved gratification
befit but the first one to see night lights?
Geophysics was about to be rewritten
on the by no means minor chess of History.
2
INTO THE UNKNOWN: MY STREAM OF PRE-AGONIC CONSCIOUSNESS
VALLADOLID,1506
You could say that I am tall, and dignified,
of irritable, though generous temperament;
courteous of behaviour; temperate of language.
My face is oblong; my complexion, fair;
my nose, aquiline; my cheeks, protuberant.
My countenance? Definitely authoritarian!
Trouble precociously turned my hair grey.
An inflamed speaker, and a moderate dieter,
I've shown affability towards strangers,
and suavity in domestic life.

Am I the son of a humble wool-comber?
Was mine really a family of labourers?
A wildcard name I've got: I am Columbus,
Cristobal Colon, Colombo, Colonus.
I was born about 1445,
in Genoa, the eldest of four children.
However, seven other Italian cities
- Placentia, Piedmont, Savona, Oneglia,
Cogoleto, Boggiasco, and Finale -
have once claimed to be the place of my birth.

At the age of fourteen, I went to sea,
Scarcely knowing the rudiments of geography.
I did get some knowledge of navigation,
astronomy, geometry and drawing.
Between sea travels, whenever ashore,
I used to work as a book and map peddler.
So, at a most immature of stages
I was at one time a student, a sailor
and a working teenager; in due time,
I'd go from poor tramp to wealthy viceroy,
from bare-footed vagrant to welcome guest
and bosom friend of European sovereigns.
From despise to a flood of adulation,
from ambitious heroism to decay,
from glorious fame to rusty chains of iron,
in short, from cradle to ultimate bed
I have been a man of uncertain qualities,
about whom not very much is spread out.
In 1470, I settled down
in Savona, where I opened a tavern.
Fortune, however, betrayed me as publican,
so I joined a Portuguese expedition
exploring the eastern African coasts.
Their maritime operations were legendary.
Meanwhile we landed at Madeira Island,
I married the daughter of the late governor
Perestrello, who gave birth to my Diego.
I already firmly believed the theory
of the earth's globular form; sailing westward,
one would certainly reach the shores of India.
Strangers from all parts resorted to Lisbon
to participate in those enterprises,
from learned scholars to curious adventurers.
I was a face in such a crowd of thousands.
In Iceland, in 1477,
I had had the chance of familiarizing
with the sagas and voyages of Vikings.
I was also convinced that Corte Real,
a Portuguese, and John Szkolny, a Pollack,
had managed to sail westward and land somewheres.
In Portugal, the legendary Prince Henry
(unfortunately he no longer lived)
had designed milestone hydrographic charts,
which captured the attention of the world.
Well, King John II granted me audience.
My proposal consisted in securing
a shorter route to Africa by striking
directly westward across the Atlantic.
The sovereign, though reluctant to indulge
in providing the necessary ships, men
and huge expenses, finally referred
the auspicious matter to a special junta
composed of cosmographers and a bishop,
who had been responsible for perfecting
the astronomers' tables and the astrolabe,
allowing to know the height of the sun,
the angle it formed above the horizon,
and the actual distance from the equator.
Vessels, thanks to the compass and the astrolabe
could henceforth venture into unknown waters,
no longer sailing parallel to land.
I gave the junta a plan of the voyage,
with all the documents in my possession,
but they treated my project as extravagant,
and, on the pretence of bearing provisions,
dispatched a caravel with instructions
to secretly follow my ascribed route.
While I waited, having had been asked for time,
a ship did check out the pointed direction
in order to test my theory's bases:
The vessel sailed west for several days
and saw but an immeasurable ocean
and stormy weather; my project was ridiculed.
I declined further business after learning
of such nerve, and such a blatant attempt.
I bore no grudges, though, against the Portuguese.
Somehow they ill treated me, nonetheless
the main cause of my precipitate exit
were my debts, proof of which is the fine letter
that King John II addressed to me:
'And why perchance would you have any fear
for our justice by virtue of anything
to which you are obliged, we through this letter
assure you for the coming and returning,
that you shall not be arrested, retained,
accused, cited or demanded for anything,
and by the same letter we send our justices
that it should be thus." Thus spoke Rei Dom João.
Whilst I went to Italy, I dispatched
my brother Bartholomew to Great Britain
to lay my scheme before Henry VII.
He brought no positive results, though, and
I thought of offering my services to Spain.
King Ferdinand of Aragon was loathsome
and duplicitous, treating me with scepticism,
but his wife, Queen Isabella of Castile
and Leon held the opposite behaviour
What was much helpful for me was the fact
that I'd been noted for my strict religiousness,
for my regular observation of
the Catholic church's liturgical ceremonies.
Allowing for a touch of superstition,
Nothing was more remarkable on me
than my piety and charity; yet
my ambition was eager, and ungovernable;
my bigotry sometimes displaced my gentleness.
There would be no priest in my expedition.
I did not disobey the Inquisition.
I was somewhat fanatically intolerant
in the conversion of the irreligious.

I'm bald, I'm nearly blind, I've just returned
from the Indies for the fourth and last time.
I am now living with two of my sons
and seven servants, in one of the houses
where the Kingdom lodges her eminent figures.
The maid's just rubbed my forehead with a towel.
A serial vertigo of live images
and phantasmagoria cross my mind.
My soul is defeated by profound melancholy.
My body suffers from physical weakness
as well as from cruel moral dejection.
As a deep silence overtakes the house,
Franciscan friars trace crosses and read,
in a mumbling tone, the Book of the Dead.
The Reign is gloomy; her future, uncertain.
May, the slowest of months, mourns the Queen's death.
My first-born son has just married the future
Duchess of the great Ducal House of Alba,
heiress Doña Maria de Toledo.
The recently widowed King and his Minister,
Cardinal Cisneros are less preoccupied
with granting my claims, which they deem untimely,
than curing the serious ills corroding
the social cement of Spain by and large.
Castile sounds like egotism, or ungratefulness.
I still suffer with the infinite patience
accompanying me like my very shadow.
Yet I trust that royal justice shall recognize
one day the greatness of my rendered services,
and restore my privileges, at least
- that's for me an absolute point of honour -
for my heirs - that's the treasury's commitment.
I cannot deny that I am acquainted
with the throne's burden caused by constant errors,
both political and administrative.
Embittering royal procrastination!
It makes me desperate, object of dishonour,
hatred, calumny, and a world of evils.
Castillian justice's but a slender thread!

I used to be allured by fables and
exaggerations about Marco Polo,
Cipango, Prester John, the Khan of Tartary,
creations of Munchausens, and romancers,
childhood fantasies with resplendent mandarins.
I've lived a Viceroy's agitated life,
along years of audacious ocean voyaging,
full of incredulous, devious courtesans,
juntas, commissions, derisions, and mockeries,
riots, enmity, contempt and lost titles,
not to mention shipyard shuttles and lathes.
Evasive hypocrisy caused my heartbreak.
I remember the pirates and revolts,
the chieftains and the parrots of the Indies,
the gold and the silver claimed by the Spanish,
the Te Deum tolled by Catalan bells
announcing my return with jubilation.
I've lived the twilight of chivalry principles,
the decline of the spirit of the crusades,
the new European era of capitalism.
the cherished face of Philippa Moniz
and the love of Beatriz in Gomera
counterbalanced my managerial flaws,
my inability to control men,
and the shortcomings of multiple conquests.
La Navidad, or instance, was an Eden
when I found it, sudden hell when I ruled it.
Pinzon ran off with a part of the fleet.
The colonies conspicuously decayed.
My men started to die like rotten sheep.
Once imprisoned, all my assets were seized;
my depression, heightened by my anxiety;
my constitution, weakened by the illnesses
my life flame, at long last ruined and aborted.
The simple gentle folk of Valladolid
has always looked at me with curiosity.
There's only the future to enlighten
the memory of feats hardly believable.

The approaching end had me make preparations
to leave businesses in shape for successors.
My first will was a military codicil,
because testamentary dispositions
of this kind are executed by soldiers
at their point of death, without the formalities
required by the Spanish civil law.
Now, I'm executing a final codicil,
bequeathing my estates with better judgement
My son Diego is heir to my titles,
honours, prerogatives and tenths; my bastard
son, Fernandico has also been cared for.
Bartholomew Fieschi, my third son, ditto.
All my successors should serve Christian kings.
Poor relatives and people in necessity
are hereby granted liberal allowances.
A chapel shall be built in Hispaniola,
where daily masses shall honour my soul
as well as those of my mother, and wife.
Small sums are to be paid at different points,
though where they'll came from I won't specify.
To keep the size and worth of these bequests
made by means of a testamentary codicil
written on a blank page of a prayer book
which Pope Alexander VI gave me,
all heirs are expected to do their best.
I leave this book to the Genoese public
and make Genoa the successor of
my privileges and dignities, in case
my mate line runs out. As regards Beatriz,
thus I've candidly spoken to Diego:
gPlease do so for the discharge of my conscience,
which weighs so heavily upon my soul! "
I've received in devotion the last sacrament.
God has always helped me through pain and glory.
My mission, if any, has been fulfilled.
Everything signed, I summon to my headboard
my legitimate son, and advise him
of his mainstream behaviour to observe:
he shall conduct the domestic accounts
so as to prevent ruin by all means!
Local bells toll the Ascension - it's Sunday,
May 20th - I hear God's call; I cry;
my lips murmur Christ's words: "In manus tuas,
Domine, commendo spiritum meum."
3
EPILOGUE
As sorrowful tears spilled onto the faces
of Fernandico and Bartolomeo Fieschi,
Don Diego Colón Moniz, the new Admiral
(Almirante de La Mar Oceana)
promptly ordered the funeral provisions
to be carried out in the parish of
Santa María de la Antígua.
His father had shown contradictory qualities,
but he was definitely deprived of vices
typical of his contemporary Spaniards,
such as greed and disregard for the properties,
rights and lives of the new continent's natives,
to whom he gave mainly love and respect
rather than burned huts, gashed bodies, and ruins,
everything that the fierce Conquistadors
substituted for peace, and implemented.
Oddly pertinacious in his rank rescuing,
he'd miserably failed to provide Castile
with the promised and coveted spices,
groceries, precious stones and metals; instead,
he'd sent them ships loaded with slaves to sell;
he had used such money to compensate
for the expenses of four troublesome journeys.
He did believe he found a shorter route
and, therefore, a different approach to India,
hence the name 'West Indies' given to hundreds
of new westward islands, which he discovered.
He sailed after absurd impossibilities,
by no means having in view a new world.
His project was not the scheme of a geographer,
but that of an ambitious navigator,
anxious to become rich by opening up
a permanent and lucrative position.
As a colonial, self-conceited governor,
he witnessed Cubans being mutilated;
during the years he governed the island,
Cacique Cahonaboa was treacherously
lured with gifts, then arrested, in Cibao.
One third of Hispaniola's population
ended most brutally exterminated.
Unable to prevent bloodsheds, he backed
conversion means including death and slavery.
To the end, he believed he had reached Asia.
He never heard at all the name America.

Not even his bones were allowed to rest.
There's no certainty as to where they're buried.
From Valladolid they went to Seville,
then to Haiti, and Cuba; it's not sure
that the remains exhumed at San Domingo
were his; the question is an open one.
After many centuries, graves and doubts
Genoa erected a stately statue,
yet the city failed to claim his ashes.
Shall history see in his stamina
an answer to the Portuguese rejection
and the indifference of the English King?
Neither conquered the honour of discovering
the very bravest of New Worlds, outsourcing
third hands, which pulled the chestnuts from the fire!
Let's only speculate, had John and Henry
favourably held Columbus' applications:
we would probably have been spared the bigotry,
horrors, butchery, atrocities, robberies,
cruelties, which the Inquisition triggered.
However chivalrous, Castile submitted him
to court judgement and two months in a dungeon.
Similar treatments befit common bandits,
but which common bandits commend their spirits
by murmuring "Onto Thy hands, O Domine,
spiritum meum commendo"? Not many.

by Jose Guilherme Correa

Comments (1)

Tip on how to read a good poem: read Mr. José Guilherme Correa. Congratulations.