Saturday, July 30, 2011

 "And you have no suspicions?" a darted whisper shot in the Pinta's hold.
      "Two weeks since we left... no, abandoned half the men on that strand? Many were your friends as well as mine!"
     De Triana sighed, "The 'establishment' of that camp doesn't bother me half as much as the executions. Today was the tenth in as many days."
     The foundation of the Spanish "fortress" had been hasty at best. The large ship had been run onto the river head and consummately disassembled by nightfall. By the next dawn, the Admiral's "builders" had been brought ashore to aid in construction of La Navidad to find that the Painted Ship and the Nina had raised anchor before the area could be properly cleared.
     A return had been promised, with supplies, slaves, seeds, and women, but few on the shore or even the sea trusted such praise. The remaining two caught the eastward-blowing wind and returned again to sea.
     "Every mutineer, or even suspected sympathizer is on that shore." Alonso urged. "You have been wise to be quiet-- he grows more suspicious by the day. This morning, that wiry Ifriqiya boy was run through by the drunkard for mis-tying a rigging. Rodo, he tied the wrong knot, and that Genoan swine called it an attempt on his life... some nonsense of getting caught in the ropes."
      "If these pace continues, I doubt that any on this ship will see Seville again. The journey across took nine weeks, and the winds were with us. There will not be enough to man a ship even this size by the next full moon!"
      He spoke too loudly, above decks, they heard boots stomping the too-think planks over their heads, as if they had woken a beast. The gamble was on the quality of the wine. None of the crew knew where Colon had hidden his personal stores, but since the beginning of the return voyage, it was never far from his hand. The subtlety and guile of a tradesmen fell to the raw violence which Colon only accessed in his fits of rage through the autumn. It was possible, now that the Genoan's mind had begun to unravel-- seeking-out plots against him, talking to spirits whom only he could see. The man had become a caged, feral beast.

Friday, July 29, 2011

La Navidad

      Two months' sailing in the Far East. Colon squatted riggedly in the boat as six of the rowers pulled the small craft to the shallows of another island. This one had looked larger than most-- the coastline extended beyond the horizon both to the east and the west (from which the Santa Maria was pushed during the storm), but it was likely as worthless, the Admiral supposed.
      He had been expanding the search since the first of December-- the edge of discovery and novelty of uncharted lands began to wane for both himself and the crews; at the end of the bargain, the Crown had entrusted that this voyage would pay for itself in trade with the lands of the Great Khan upon reaching Cathay. As both a trader and a sailor, Colon was strained thin as neither venture could sustain itself much longer.
       There was likely another mutiny in the works, since the desperation began this month, he had personally killed four uprising leaders--"this was the price for manning a fleet with thieves and Jews." he had noted in his personal journal. Beyond beaches, trees, and fish, there had been now gold, no spices, and no men of any kind-- only the cacophony of the birds both day and night. Internally, Colon despaired, questioning the Almighty's love for his endeavor, and his own wisdom of the seas, ashamed to return to port empty-handed.
      He hopped off of he skiff, feeling his age with the motion which should have belonged to a man half his years. Do not falter, Christopher. Once the animals in the crew see your weakness of body and heart, they will strike you down. Suppressing a groan as his left ankle rolled in the mud, he strode to the beach, his hands empty. For the first islands, he came to each new shore gallantly holding the queen's colors, armed with a sword and a letter from the court to the eastern princes whom he expected to meet. Every new beach-head was a victory for Christ and Spain, with the wonder of the edge of the Earth on the eyes of every man who waded through the clear waters of the new lands.0
He still carried a sword-- and a hidden dagger-- but these were not for the defense against eastern barbarians to his front, but the rank sailors to his back. They will cut you in your sleep.

      This landing was muddier than most, owing to the swift-moving river two furlongs away, which had piqued his interest from the deck of the slowly-sinking flagship. Despite careful study of his scriptures, he could not understand the meaning of such punishment-- a storm of such incredible ferocity struck the small fleet yesterday on Christmas Eve, tossing the vessels as if they were children's toys in a pond. At the end, both smaller ships was relatively untouched, but the Santa Maria was struck with a broken mast, a slow and unfindable leak in the hull, and nine men claimed by the sea. Limping along the shoreline since midnight, he stopped the small flotilla at the river's head in the hope of finding signs of humanity.

      There were none. Colon knew the men would grumble behind his back for this; he felt the mutineers staring at his neck, the scum pawing at his cabin once he was killed. They would make haste for Spain, claiming that their valiant captain was lost on the journey west, but they--they--  the mighty sailors have found new lands and new riches. They would claim his titles and his heirs.

      "We strike the ship!" he called the the men pulling the skiff ashore. They looked at him quizzically, uncertain if the failed journey had finally driven the Admiral mad (one or two hoped he did as this fulfilled their 10 real gamble).

      "God has seen fit for this riverhead to be our landing! This shall be our first trading post for the great powers of the East, and you, my men shall live as kings in this new city, this new citadel of Christ in the Far West!" His gift for speech and salesmanship as the best inheritance of the Venetian trade.

      "We begin this Christmas day, with the ruins of our holy flagship to build our city, La Navidad."

      The men leaned on their knees, wondering at the sudden turn of their sullen captain. Those whose bets on his sanity weighed in the balance wondered if this was madness, folly, wisdom, or divine providence. Most just shrugged and prepared to return to the ship and run her aground.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

"To his credit, the Admiral did choose the parallel of our course," Alonso defended while staring down the cross-staff. "I suppose that in the end, he would have taken the prize for himself anyway, Rodrigo."

Grumbling toward the islands the lookout kept his voice low, avoiding abandonment upon the Far Indies. "Colon is rotten to the core of his being-- and if we survive this journey, may God spit on him upon the return to Spain." Juan did not reply, carefully squinting at the sun's position through the apparatus.

They were now six weeks beyond the Canaries and four days after the night-time sighting of San Salvador. Since the landing the following morning, the Queen's colors were planted on the silent beachhead and brief explorations were made; San Salvador was an unsettling beauty of an island-- perhaps the pre-lapsarian Paradise of Genesis, but unexpectedly empty. Alonso himself had been on the first excursion and found little beyond the birds' calls and forest.

The island itself had been small-- all three ships had circled San Salvador twice before nightfall wherein the crews watched the shallow, blue sea rock the hazy horizon. The next five islands had been much of the same-- small, quiet, and devoid of man's touch. Nature's bounty was indeed overflowing in beast and bird and fish, but these sweltering Edens showed little to offer when the investors had been promised the wealth of Cipangu.

The curses to watching the big ship sink went unanswered. De Triana's hope had been to claim the King's prize to make the journey worthwhile. Much of the family had been lost in the purges of Seville, and the name had lost all but its noble history. Having shed the titles, this had been his only hope to retain the place of a Jew in the court, as had been their status under the now unspeakable Andalusian kingdom.

Alanso freed him from the self-pity "Did you notice that the birds now fly south? I think we ought to change course-- the rest of the Indias had ought to be a hundred miles or so that way."