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The river is still greasy with night, and slow. It is half an hour before sunrise. Pale in first light, the moon at its quarter climbs down the western sky. The mooring lines slip heavily from the bows and after a moment the current takes us. The riverbanks are wet with dew and the marshes brightening in the grey dawn. On the way out a fisherman hails us. We ghost by him, close enough to speak low, but there is nothing anyone can say or think of. In our dumb wake he throws the fine net with its margin of stones. It flashes a dark circle against the water. Then the ship’s boy sings.

Bendita sea la luz

Y la Santo Veracruz

Y el Señor de la Verdad

Y la Santo Trinidad

bendita sea el alma

Y el Señor que nos la munda;

bendito sea el dia

Y el Señor que nos to envia


By eight o’clock we take the tide up over the bar of Saltès and head out.

And you can see them now. Against a strong seabreeze they make their way forward, new rigging is tightened and retightened, the hills sink behind them. They stop at the Canaries and set out again, this time for the horizon only. But say, just say that the sceptics had been right all along, and that before them there was no real, no elemental sea, but only, after two, maybe three day’s sail due west, the threshold of their understanding. Beyond it, despite the familiar passage of the days and nights, and the flight of the stars, say they venture into the Sea of Allegory. Before them the moon at its quarter swings down the western sky, and its chaste goddess of the hunt, Roman Diana, with her bow and quiver of plagues, walks at the ship’s side, its bridle in her hand. Neptune with his trident and trinity of horses rides a Botticelli shell off to port, and scouts ahead. It is, after all, new territory for him as well. In the distance, are those islands, or clouds drifting up over the horizon into a false perspective? Sea sightings are often tricks of light, so close to the huge distorting lens of the bellied ocean. Except, yes, there they are again, just visible in the coat of arms that billows from the masthead. Sinister: anchors and a lion rampant; Dexter: a castle and the islands in the sea. That the ship is armed and cannon ready is no surprise, the sea pregnant with those shapes sea-monstrous, and there on deck is the coiled rope for binding and for bringing back. Close in to port, two lusty sea-centaurs blow a fanfare on their conch shells, while a pair of sirens off to starboard are promising a song. Columbus himself stands in the ship’s centre, fully armed, out-sized, one hand at his sword, in the other a staff and Christian banner. He looks westward. Is it those islands that hold his gaze, or the sirens singing, or the standard of the Cross obscuring all? He seems aloof. Does he, coursing into history, so disdain the graceful progeny of his mythic heritage to leave them in his wake? We’ve seen him in this state before, the fixed assertive look, the surety. And what is that—out in front? Unsteady on the bowsprit the eager dove, wings outstretched, articulates the wooden letter of the Cross and prepares to fly.

What you cannot see in this picture are the huge circling currents, the respiration of the whale, or the whale’s way turning and turning on itself, the great ease of oceans around continents. The feathered coral feels it, the sand banks sketch it, the seethe and drag of the tides knows it, but you cannot see it here. Nor can you see the round earth made strange by the helmsman’s good work, by the charged hull, the lodestone, the Genoese needles balanced on their axes, by the fine straight line (the course is true) growing westward, dividing, never turning back on itself, always moving westward.

Nor will you find here any of the icons of exploration, no instruments of observation or of record. The ship is ill-equipped, the islands are misty and remote. He is naked in that armour, the Discoverer. Where does he think he is going?


The way west is the way east. The way out is the way in. At five, maybe six miles per hour the knotted thread is unwound to the centre of the labyrinth of desire. The heart is eager, it is violent, it is empty. The winds have turned and carry him effortlessly forward.




Already at first light, Columbus is at his table in the gallery under the aft deck. The burnished vellum is spread out before him, pinned flat, and all around him arrayed in trays and cases are his pens and inks, raw pigments, sable brushes, bottles of fine absorbent sand, his mortar and pestle, dividers in a leather sheath, his rules and compasses. Yesterday he prepared a ground of gum arabic to coat the hide and let it dry in the east wind that swelled all afternoon behind them. Now, as they make their way in, the ship steadying when it finds the line of the island’s shelter and the ground swell suddenly subsides, he leans against the table and inscribes a figure for the journey itself, a kind of invocation, the compass rose.

It is clear that he has laboured over the stencil. Here, at the centre, are the petals of a flower in perpetual bloom, this circled by a band of gold leaf on which are set eight indigo diamonds, one for each of the world’s eight winds. Around these runs a horizon of plain black bordered by threads of cochineal. And from the rose’s centre he has drawn out thirty-two fine straight lines, black portolan lines, that emanate across the whole plain of the vellum like the rays of a darkened sun, a cloud drawn across its face. This process he repeats around the chart’s perimeter, each rose oriented to the others, their rays criss-crossing to form a loose net, weighted at the edges, for his observations. And here, leaning in from the margins, the faces of four wind gods animate the empty space between them, their cheeks straining, their hair caught back in invisible gusts.

Why are charts so wonderfully engaging? He works in a sort of rapture, does Columbus, despite the busy ship around him, now pauses to trim his pen, and now stoops again to the table, narrowing his gaze. And I must confess, I too have felt their beauty, their allure, and spent my share of hours bent over a broken-backed atlas tracing with my finger the road or river furthest north or south or east or west, or indeed, a mazy course among islands that open secretly onto other seas, into other worlds which I entered, following it. The language of charts is the visible in outline, the beach or cape or spit of land, the cliff face conspicuous from a coasting ship, the reef just breaking, the bright littoral that encloses every island translated to a black line by the flowing pen, the white foaming rock to a blackened star. This is their language, but it is not their subject: charts chart the numinous and are the textbooks for a certain kind of yearning.

But let us turn back to the Santa Maria’s low gallery where Columbus sits in the shadow of the deck and awaits our full attention, a soft tipped brush poised above the island of arrival. Behind the black apostrophe that marks the crescent of the beach, the bay the ships are sailing into, he lays down a preliminary wash of island green, vivid and translucent. And now, to show this first anchorage and its depth, uncoils with his pen a length of the lead and line. It is the small inshore lead, armed with tallow, so scrupulous in detail you can see the strips of leather at the two and three fathom marks, the white rag at five, the red at seven.

It is not disappointment, but surprise to find so little of what he had been thinking of, ghosting in on the making tide to a broad and shining bay. The bosun sounds the still water. At every fall the lead marks its own centre; ripples widening outward link with those before and after, the ship’s course marked by this light chain. His singing chant comes back to them from the woods behind the beach, strong and clear and startling after a month on the echoless ocean. And with the echo come all the other sounds, a flood of the particular; instead of the dull percussion of the waves, they hear their own breath as it escapes them, and as it is drawn in, with it comes the dizzy scent of pine, overwhelming, lucid; the rustling of the palms that line the beach and just now begin to shift and sway in the first trace of the morning breeze breaks in upon them as though upon their sleep, sibilant and distinct; a brook that clatters across the beach on the far shore rings like a bell; across the hollow bay, the green of the forest keens, birdsong; the sea-worn sails furl like sheering silk; each thing astonishing in its clarity and separateness glistens under the light of the senses returning, it seems, one by one, the knot of the voyage that bound them up suddenly loosened. The morning is still, the bay to all appearances deserted: no town, no village, not even a clearing or a path presents itself. True, mixed in with the scent of the forest warming in the morning sun, there might be the sour trace of an extinguished fire, and there is at least the possibility of fishing nets draped like shadows to dry among the shadows higher up the beach.

This is nothing that he had expected.

But consider, reader, in this brief hiatus (for the bay is not deserted, nor is it still for long: if you look here, off the island’s southern point, you will see where Columbus has already painted, in a dense wash of blue bice, the shadow of the morning breeze that picks up the islands one by one all along this archipelago, bright shells gathered in a palm of wind), consider how this prospect—the running brook of sweet water, the solace of the scented air, the flowers and the earth, the white strand and safe harbour—how this prospect might allay any disappointment over unmet expectations, and instil instead a sense of wonder in one so long at sea and so far from home. The place might seem magical.

And indeed, when the first trace of morning breeze turns the mirror of the bay to the wall and the ships swing to and set their anchors, several young men and a girl emerge from the porous wall of trees and slough off the leaves’ green shade, stepping naked into the sunlight. Their movements are easy and unhurried and clothed in light. They slide a boat out from a shaded lee and into the water to the depth of their thighs where they slip into the narrow hull to take up their flashing oars. The winged hull moves just a breath above the surface of the bay where it leaves no wake, despite its swiftness, and the paddles feather nothing but the bright air. The paddlers are decorated with cochineal, yelloe, black, their skin, myrrh slightly darkened. Behind them, the island itself is extravagant, a green gem set in gold, banded by a line of white and then by turquoise (fine ground azurite),and set in a deep blue wash of ocean. When they come up to the ships and speak, their voices are like the senseless soft chattering of birds.

But despite the chart’s excesses (gold dissolved in ox-bile brightens some sections of the beach, and lapis lazuli deepens the inland lakes), the ships do not stay for long at this first island. When Columbus rows ashore and, unsteady after a month on the pitching sea, climbs carefully backwards over the bluff bow of the ship’s boat onto the sand, he looks down to see the toe of his narrow shoe pointing seaward (and still westward); this we may, as he does, interpret as a sign, his footprint clear in its declaration of departure not arrival. Today and tomorrow they do take time to enjoy the beach and eat a local meal of conch fritters and iguana tail, cassava bread, and carry out a little trade in beads (for braiding in the hair), and in the colour red. And Columbus makes a formal proclamation which, in a word, lays claim to this one island. But the ceremony of arrival is muted, a small speech in a large hall, and all parties seem unsure of the dimensions of their gestures, whether of conquest or of greeting: the one invents a ritual for surprise, the other for arrival at a place they cannot recognize.

Columbus is working by dead reckoning, and dead reckoning finds its meaning in motion only; a careful balance between expectation and observation, it defines where the ship is, always and only in terms of where it has been and is going. Consider the instruments he has at his disposal: the compass in its binnacle, that precipitous enclosure; the ampoletta, or sand glass, that lays down its golden path through time; the knotted log-line that measures out the ship’s speed through the water; and the lead and line that leads them through the brailled shallows. He is not equipped for standing still. And so it should be no surprise that we find him even now, on this evening of the first day, mixing burnt umber with egg-white (beaten and settled) for the hulls, myrrh lightened with yelloe for the sails lit by the morning sun, and white lead for the water cresting at the bows. Look. He has already set the three ships into another day and westward under full sail, their shadows billowing before them. Vermilion pennants unfurl at the mastheads.

It is just dawn and the bows bear down on the still midnight west. Behind them the first island has flattened to a silhouette against the eastern sky when the sun lifts free and burnishes the empty sea before them. The guides he has taken lean against the gunwale and sweep the horizon from the south to the northwest, calling out between them a litany of one hundred islands that lie just beyond their sight; the ships sail out among them.




©Robert Finley, 2000. From THE ACCIDENTAL INDIES, published by McGill-Queen’s University Press , Montreal & Kingston, London, Ithaca; with permission.


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