The literary life of EDWARD JAMES, author,reviewer, occasional poet and former pension adviser to the government of Kyrgyzstan
‘IMPOSSIBLE! It cannot be true. I had a promise – we were delayed on the road but we are still in time. You are lying. You’re making mock an old man and his infant child!’
‘Papa, come away’, begged Diego, pulling at his father’s sleeve. ‘Don’t fight him.’
‘Senor,‘ protested the innkeeper, ‘a sane man does not blame the messenger for bad news. You-are-too-late. The Royal Court left Cordoba yesterday for Madrid. They will return in three months and then go to Barcelona. You can choose to follow them to Madrid, go back to Sevilla, or find somewhere else to stay until they return to Cordoba.’
‘Father’, cried Beatriz, ‘how could you? They are weary and have come a long way and you can see the boy has a fever. Besides, the inn is empty, now that the Court has left town.’
A wise innkeeper distrusts all visitors, especially strange foreigners attractive to his nineteen year old daughter. But Pedro Henriquez had a nature ever at war with his profession. The tall stranger and the little boy troubled him and he could not help thinking about the innkeeper who had turned away the Holy Family.
The stranger had shoulder-length white hair and seemed gaunt and frail, yet he was perhaps younger than he looked for his son seemed scarcely out of petticoats, maybe six or seven years old. The boy’s fair hair was almost as white as his father’s, like a German or an English child. The father’s accent and grammar were certainly not Castilian; the innkeeper guessed that he was Italian or Provencal, although he spoke to boy in Portuguese.
The third member of the stranger’s party was a donkey, as tired and sick as its human companions. It carried two well-worn saddle bags, one of which seemed to stuffed with books and papers.
The stranger ceased raving and his eyes turned blank.
‘We have no money to go on to Madrid or stay here in Cordoba. Thankfully I have an employment with the bishop in Sevilla, to which I must return. It was the bishop who promised me an audience with Their Catholic Majesties. I will never get another chance.’
‘We who work for a living’, said Pedro clumsily’, are better without the royal justice. I have known men ruin themselves that way.’
‘I am no litigant’, said the stranger indignantly. ‘ I came to offer my services to Their Majesties, to make them greater than all the monarchs of Christendom.’
‘Yes, indeed’, replied Pedro, anxious to be rid of this trio who seemed to be more outlandish by the minute. Even so he could feel his daughter’s black, Andalusian eyes watching him.
‘Keep your gold. We need a man who can write to draw up our accounts for the royal agents. You can earn your keep with us for a while.’
The young warm body slid into bed alongside Cristoforo and pressed against him. Diego had heard his father sobbing and had come to comfort him. His father had had nobody else to share his bed since Dona Felipa died four years ago and Diego had grown into the role.
‘Why are you crying, Papa? We have money to get home and we can come back another day.’
‘I am a bad father to you, Diego. I should have given you to the Misericordia when your mother died and they would have found a good family for you. Or I should have sent you to uncle Bartolome to one day become his apprentice as a weaver. But I was selfish and I kept you to myself and took you with me to Spain, to ride poor Isabella from city to city through the dust and mud.’
‘I love you, Papa, and I love Isabella. Tell me about Mama.’
Diego knew that his father liked to escape the wearisome present with tales about his glorious past.
‘You know your Mama was no common person like the people at this inn. She was a lady with a title. You have your titles too, Diego, but they would laugh at us if we told them – you a German baron and seigneur of the island of Porto Santo in the OceanSea.’ And he told Diego about his grandfather who was a German knight who had sailed a caravel into the Ocean further than any man before and found the island of Porto Santo and the king of Portugal had made him seigneur of the island. The seigneur had brought peasants to farm the island and rabbits to feed them, but the rabbits had eaten all the plants and the peasants had left. So the seigneur left as well to live on the beautiful island of Madeira with his daughter who had married Christoforo.
‘I like that story, Papa, but I like the stories about you best of all. Tell me about how you were sailing to England and fought the pirates.’
So Cristoforo told him of how the pirates had laid their ship alongside his and stormed aboard and how Cristforo had rallied his men and drove them back and killed the pirate captain in single combat. Both ships had been so shattered in the battle that they sank locked together and Cristoforo had spent three days in the ocean, clinging to a broken mast. The fishermen who had found him on the beach in the Algarve had first taken him for dead, then seeing a flicker of life had taken him to the misericordia where the monks had nursed him to health, which was how he came to live in Portugal. By the time he reached this point in his story Diego was asleep.
‘You must get some sleep, Cristobal’, pleaded Beatriz. ‘You have watched over Diego for two nights and the doctor says he has passed the crisis and will live.’
‘I am truly grateful to your father for sending for the doctor and paying him, but I will stay with Diego. He is all I have to live for, so why not spend my life for him?’
‘But we need you to be wakeful to prepare our accounts’, laughed Beatriz. Her laughter disturbed him. She was beautiful, with skin as olive as a Morisca. As she tossed her head her gold ear-rings glinted through the tresses of her silken black hair. A man of Cristoforo’s age could easily make a fool of himself with a girl like Beatriz.
‘When I die I will leave Diego a title and estates and he will never again need charity. You think I’m mad? I have seen that you have an understanding beyond the generality of women’ (Beatriz blushed darkly) ‘so you know that the world is round. Well, I came to Cordoba to ask Their Majesties for two ships to sail west from Spain to reach India by a shorter route than the king of Portugal is attempting along the shores of Africa. It would make them richer than the Doge of Venice and the envy of the Portuguese, which would indeed please Their Majesties.
‘But as you know I was late and the doctor tells me that Their Majesties are preparing was against the Moriscos, so there will be no money for other things. So Diego and I have decided to go to England, where they respect foreigners and the king has money for bold ventures.’
‘What a marvellous, magical idea’, breathed Beatriz, ‘to go to the Indies I mean, not to go to England.’
Cristoforo looked into her dark, worshipping eyes and began to cry.
‘Don’t look at me like that. I can’t lie to you. It’s a fraud. I am a fraud. I tell everybody I was a sea captain, I tell that to Diego, but in truth I spent my youth as a slave of the Barbary pirates, caring for the children of the Bey’s seraglio in Algiers. My family in Genoa borrowed the money to ransom me and they sent me to work for my brother in Lisbon to repay them. I still owe them.’
‘But your project?’
‘Yes, that’s a fraud. The Arabs have calculated the circumference of the globe very precisely and the Indies are far too far for a ship to reach without revictualling, which is what the Portuguese do on the coast of Africa. But Christian cosmographers do not agree on the size of the globe and I reckon that the Queen would be tempted to finance my project if only to discomfort her old enemy Portugal.
‘But if there is no route, why then do you want your ships?’
‘Beatriz, no ordinary person would put money into a project a fantastical as my true plan.’ His eyes said that he did not include Beatriz as an ordinary person. ‘The Holy Scriptures say that the Earthly Paradise is to the west, and although they cannot lie we fortunately have other evidence. For instance my cousin in England has visited the western shores of Ireland, where they gather wood on the beaches which comes from no trees that grow in Europe. Dona Felipa and I often sat on the cliffs of Madeira, dreaming of that western land.’
‘Cristobal’, she said, touching his hand, ‘I think the Paradise you dream of is in the past – the time has come for you to seek Paradise here and now in Spain.’
The little convoy wound down the defile on the flinty road from Cordoba to Sevilla, two laden donkeys, one ridden by a little boy, two white haired men and a young woman, her hair decently hidden under her headscarf. Cristoforo was taking Doctor Miguel to introduce him to the bishop of Sevilla and some possible new patients and Beatriz was escorting the convalescent Diego.
‘STOP in the name of Allah!’
Two youths sprang from behind a rock. They were turbaned like Moriscos and waved scimitars, although this may have been a ruse. Surely the Bey of Granada would not dare attack the road from Cordoba to Sevilla? Or if so he would come in greater force.
Diego’s eyes shone. ‘Papa, our crossbow is in Isabella’s bag’, he whispered, confident that his father would pick off the bandits like the rabbits they had hunted together that morning. Instead Cristoforo behaved as he had done in all previous armed confrontations – he surrendered immediately.
‘Our money is not worth our lives. Give it to them.’
The three adults lined up and the two men offered their purses. The taller bandit snatched Cristoforo’s purse with a sneer and then with a sudden stroke slashed open one of Isabella’s saddle bags. Two dead rabbits and a flurry of books and papers cascaded into the dust.
The bandit kicked at the books. ‘What have we here? A sorcerer, eh?’
He moved to Beatriz, standing close against her, and lifted the edge of his scimitar until it hovered in front of her eyes.
‘No gold’, she repeated defiantly, refusing to flinch.
‘What’s this then?
With his free hand he ripped away her headscarf and as her hair fell free he hooked the curved end of the scimitar into one of her gold ear-rings and wrenched it from her ear, drawing a thin streak of blood across her cheek.
Without pause for thought Cristoforo was between them, as he had so often intervened to separate children quarrelling in the seraglio.
‘Give that back at once!’ he commanded in Arabic.
Only then did he think. What had he done? He was barehanded in front of a drawn scimitar. He tried not to shiver.
The bandit gaped. Cristoforo saw that he was a mere boy, his beard as thin as summer grass on the Sierra. He pressed home his advantage.
‘Yes, I am a sorcerer. Give that back or I will turn you into a donkey, as I did with Isabella and Fernando.’
He gestured towards the donkeys and for a moment the youth’s eyes followed the
gesture, but not for long enough for Cristoforo to seize his sword arm.
‘Bah!’ The youth seized his courage and smashed his scimitar hilt into Cristoforo’s face. Cristoforo sprawled in the dust, spitting blood from his crushed lips..
The youth stood over him and lifted the scimitar above his head, holding it high with both hands.
‘Right then old man, turn me into a donkey.’
A slow grin stretched across his face from ear to ear. Before it could fade another smile gently opened from chin to crown. He swayed as the blood oozed from the unfolding wound and crashed like a falling tree, his skull split by a crossbow bolt.
The other bandit stood bewitched, as if still waiting for his comrade to transform into a donkey. Cristoforo lunged for his ankle and jerked it aside. The bandit fell to one knee. Beatriz was on him, tearing at his face. He dropped his scimitar to save his eyes, Cristoforo reached for his dagger, but Beatriz was faster and despatched him with the knife she kept in her bodice for such occasions.
‘What happened?’ gasped Cristoforo.
‘You are hurt, Cristobal. We must take you back to Cordoba. And tell Diego that he is the bravest little boy in all Spain.’
The warm young body slid into bed beside Cristoforo.
‘I have a message from Doctor Miguel’, whispered Beatriz. ‘He wants you to reward him for treating Diego.’
‘But you know I have no money.’
‘He wants to come with you on your voyage as the ship’s doctor.’
‘But I have no ship.’
‘You will have, because we are going to help you. Miguel will pay for you to stay in Cordoba until the Court returns or to follow it anywhere in Spain until Their Majesties hear your petition.’
‘How can I thank you?’
‘I have a project of my own which should take about forty weeks. We need a bother or sister for Diego Columbus.’
SO HOW MUCH IS HISTORY?
1. Christopher Columbus was a genius but all the evidence is that he was also vain, arrogant and given to extremes of self-pity and self-dramatisation, so it would have been quite in character for him to have staged a scene at the inn when he found that he had missed the royal court at Cordoba.
2. Like all large states in the Middle Ages Spain had no fixed capital; the capital was wherever the king (or in this case the joint monarchs, Ferdinand and Isabella) happened to be and they were continually on the move.. A persistent petitioner like Columbus chased the Court all over the country.
3. Columbus died quite rich, still protesting his poverty. In 1486 he clearly was not rich but he may well have found comfortable employment with the Bishop of Seville, so the innkeeper’s charity might have been misplaced. Columbus was white haired when he arrived in Spain in 1485, explaining that his hair had turned white when he was thirty. Even allowing for the fact that he lied about his age, he probably looked older than his years. Not that this deterred Beatriz, any more than it deterred another Beatriz in the Canary Islands in later years.
4. We do not know if Diego came with his father on the trip to Cordoba. Maybe he stayed behind at Ribalda, where they had first taken shelter when they arrived in Spain. However when the couple had arrived there the previous year on their flight from Portugal they were travelling together with their donkey (or perhaps a mule) so it would not be too far fetched to imagine them arriving in Cordoba in the same way. Columbus’ obvious affection for the boy may have helped stir Beatriz’ maternal instincts.
5. Beatriz Moriz was an orphan girl brought up by relatives. She not only became Columbus’ mistress and the mother of his second son and biographer, Ferdinand, but also helped mobilise significant financial support for his venture. From the time they met Cordoba became in effect Columbus’ home town.
6. The bedtime story I have Columbus telling Diego about his mother is, so far as we know, largely true. Dona Felipa was descended from a noble Portuguese family on her mother’s side, although it was down on its fortunes when they married. Her father was the ‘conqueror’ and seigneur of Porto Santo, a small island near Madeira, which proved a most unprofitable patrimony. Dona Felipa seems to have died the same year that Christopher and Diego fled to Spain. We do not know why they had to flee. The second story, about the battle with the pirates and the shipwreck in Portugal, is the same story he later told to his son Ferdinand, who repeated it in his biography of his father. It defies credibility. The revised version I imagine him telling Beatriz, that he was a slave in Algiers ransomed by his family, is just as likely. I doubt that he was as experienced a mariner as he claimed.
7. The big confession that Columbus makes in my story is that the new route to India that he hopes to propose to the royal couple is a cover for the search for Paradise. Who knows what Columbus truly believed? He was a religious mystic but canny enough to realise that he was more likely to get support for a new trade route than a search for Elysium. Everyone who has ever applied for support from a funding agency knows that he must offer the agency what they want, not what he wants. Hence every youth project promises the Home Office to reduce delinquency and most projects fail by the funding agency’s evaluation criteria.
8. Columbus had a connection with England that we don’t understand. He corresponded with someone in Bristol but we have found only one letter in the correspondence which does not explain the relationship. When his transatlantic project was turned down by the committee appointed by the King and Queen Columbus sent his brother to England with the same proposal. Henry VII gave it serious thought but finally rejected it on budgetary considerations.
9. The ambush on the road to Seville is pure imagination, but the roads were unsafe and Moors, real and pretended, did raid into Christian territory. The family doctor is a real character who not only risked his money in Columbus’ enterprise but his life as well by joining the expedition.
10. Diego may not have been an infant bowman but in adult life he was a much more successful governor of Hispaniola than his father and restored the family fortunes after his father’s death. In later years Columbus owed his life to his younger brother, Bartholomew, who single handedly routed a group of mutineers with his sword.
11. Beatriz’ project also had its setbacks. Ferdinand was not born until 1488.
12. Finally, do you think historical notes add anything to a story or just spoil it?
Finally the link for the blog hop: