Friday, August 27, 2010


Reading Christopher Columbus's own accounts of his travels through the Caribbean, I have trouble containing myself; I have this strong desire to physically cry out to him, as if there were some kind of magic megaphone you could use to contact the past, look! be more curious! He mentions seeing a million cormorants--a million--flying over the ocean south of Jamaica, and then huge clouds of butterflies darkening the skies. A local chieftain comes out to his ship to see what manner of man he is, and what these ships are doing there, and he is naked, his body painted, great plumes of feathers on his head, gold earrings hanging from his ears, and I want an artist to be on board, to paint him. He is the first European to describe a Caribbean coral reef, but the description is so sketchy: lots of fish of all shapes and sizes, all kinds of colors. Isn't it a marvel. He does not make you see it. It's frustrating, because it all vanished so soon after he was there. By the 1520s the population of Hispaniola, estimated to have numbered around 350,000 people, had shrunk to around 60,000. The splendor of the Taino caciques had been totally lost. A few decades later the Tainos had disappeared altogether. Slavery, European diseases, suicide. They must have known they were doomed. The only satisfaction they might have gained from the circumstances is that they did have a kind of revenge. Before Columbus and his crew sailed to the West Indies, there was no syphilis in Europe. By 1493 it was at large in the Old World, and it came from the Americas, there's little question about that. It proved devastating. It was called the French disease, but a pox upon that; it was an American disease, and it was the Spanish, who could not get enough of the native women, who brought it back to Europe.

But it's getting to be fun to write about all this, to track down the first elusive traces of my subject in his writings, and in Vespucci's Letters, and in the writings of Peter Martyr and Oviedo and Las Casas, the early Church Fathers of the Americas. So often the subject was gold. I have been studying the subject, and the vast majority of the gold that came out of the Spanish Main went to finance the wars of the Spanish Kings, and was wasted. In Spain itself the wiser sort knew what was happening; what was not spent on warfare was spent on trifles and luxuries. It was not used to build commerce or infrastructure, to improve roads, harbors, to make farmland more productive. It went, essentially, into the ephemeral satisfactions of the rich and powerful. By the seventeenth century Spain was already beginning its long decline.

There's something soothing about all this. History is a calming sort of study. Consumed by our own problems, we lose sight of how much worse it has been in the past and how consistent is human folly and short-sightedness. We seem to learn nothing, certainly not from history; we make the same mistakes over and over, enter wars equally as senseless as the Wars of the Roses or the Hundred Years War or Napoleon's disastrous invasion of Egypt, one of my favorites. What you learn from history, if you learn anything, is caution. Prudence. You learn something about the Law of Unintended Consequences, and its universal application in human affairs. We had a mayor here in Sag Harbor some years ago who did nothing, and he proved an excellent mayor in many ways, because doing nothing is often the best thing to do. I voted for his re-election, but he lost. The people always want action.

Anyway, it's Friday. No more Columbus tomorrow. I have bills to pay, errands to run, maybe a yarde sale to try out. Next week I'll finish this section of the book, and see how it holds together. In writing, it's always a question of length versus depth; and since this will be such a long book, I can't go too deep here. So be it. It will take careful editing on my part. Wish me luck.