The picture above is from Jennifer Jewell’s The Earth in Her Hands. In this great green garden she created and in that T-shirt, Jamaica Kincaid is fierce. A quote from her interview there: ‘Plants contain the world. The garden, better than any college education, gave the world to me‘.
I loved this book, even if (maybe because) it isn’t very easy. I loved the spiked outline of Jamaica Kincaid in all its fullness of garden colour and glory: the obsessive gardening, the plants, the meditations on winter and colour and travel and China and self and other people and foxes and history and Vermont and Antigua and mothers and children and … you know, this stuff of everyday thought and life.
It is not full of things to be quoted really. It is to be enjoyed in the round this book, the full chiaroscuro of character that only appears when you reach that last page, close that cover. But there were two things I wanted to share. The first because I have noticed only in the past few months (pre-lockdown) the strange appearance of breadfruit everywhere in Manchester and Bristol. The new vegetarian alternative, from replacing my favourite pizza at Zizzi’s to numerous other restaurants offering strange versions of it. I know it is not at all new elsewhere, but how did it happen like this all at once here? There is something going on, but what?
Kincaid gives it new meaning.
This food, the breadfruit, has been the cause of more disagreement between parents and their children than anything I can think of. No West Indian that I know has ever liked it. It was sent to the West Indies by Joseph Banks, the English naturalist and world traveler, and the founder of Kew Gardens, which was then a clearinghouse for all the plants stolen from the various parts of the world these people had been (the climbing rose R. banksiae from China was named for his wife). He sent tea to India, he sent the West Indies the breadfruit; it was meant to be a cheap food for feeding slaves. It was in the cargo that Captain Bligh was carrying to the West Indies on the Bounty when his crew so correctly mutinied. (Perhaps Antiguan children sense intuitively the part this food has played in the history of injustice and so they will not eat it.) It grows readily, it bears fruit abundantly, it is impervious to drought, a serious impediment to the growing of things anywhere. In a place like Antigua the breadfruit is not a food, it is a weapon. (100-101)
And obsessed with history as I am, I loved this, and she repeats that larger paragraph at the end of this chapter on history, underlines it.
What to call the thing that happened to me and all who look like me?
Should I call it history?
If so, what should history mean to someone like me?
Should it be an idea, should it be an open wound with each breath I take in and expel healing and opening the wound again and again, over and over, and is this the healing and opening a moment that begins in 1492 and has yet to come to an end? Is it a collection of facts, all true and precise details, and if so, when I come across these true and precise details, what should I do, how should I feel, where should I place myself?
Why should I be obsessed with all these questions?
My history begins like this: In 1492, Christopher Columbus discovered the New World (114).
I suppose more than anything this makes me ache even more for my own space, my own garden. I know that old excitement of plant catalogs. This is an old ache exacerbated in lockdown, staring at the wild grass outside I must cut. A small yard not mine, without tools to prune the wild suckers and plant growing things (and plant for whom? though I know I should leave this place better than I found it as I hope to leave all places, yet a punishing terrible job leaves no time to cultivate or improve anything in a sustained way and I never ever expected to be here so long, that alone makes me want to curl up and give in), the damp in the walls, the furnishings and appliances that belong to a landlord and are cheap and breaking down, this bed that hurts my back so I can’t exercise much anymore, the stove that will not bake properly at gas mark 4, these uncomfortable couches, kitchen chairs you can’t sit on for too long, the glass table. Sometimes I feel like I am shriveling up.
I do, I really do, know that it could be worse.
Kincaid, Jamaica (1999) My Garden (book): London: Vintage.
I was reading Joseph Roth’s Radetzky March (1932). A great novel but also another view into this thing called Habsburg Empire. Or the death of it.
Roth writes a world of certainties. Even when fate picked a man up in Tolstoyan grasp to place him in just the right place to save the life of Franz Joseph I at the battle of Solferino (in a war I know nothing of I must confess), it simply lifted him out of the peasant rut and set him on a parallel track under the title and new routines of a Baron. A clean break. A new track. Yet uncomplainingly he continued on to be what his position demanded of him. His relationship with his old peasant father was one of distances greater than miles, silences punctuated by a ritual handful of sentences written in letters.
His son the District Captain is born to and lives on this new track, a life of settled privilege. Just as many silences, preferred by his own son. The Baron is self-contained, unchanging, moving through days of comfortable rituals. I love these descriptions so detailed you can see and smell the glowing gold of their soup.
So lunch was starting. Whenever the music paused, a soft clattering of dishes could be heard from the dining room. It lay three large rooms away from the balcony, at the exact midpoint of the second floor. During the meal, the music resounded, far but clear. Unfortunately, the band did not play every day. It was good and useful; it entwined the solemn ceremony of the luncheon, mild and conciliatory, allowing none of the terse, harsh, embarrassing conversations that the father so often loved to start. One could remain silent, listening and enjoying. The plates had narrow, fading, blue-and-gold stripes. Carl Joseph loved them. He often recalled them throughout the year. They and “The Radetzky March” and the wall portrait of his deceased mother (whom the boy no longer remembered) and the heavy silver ladle and the fish tureen and the scalloped fruit knives and the tiny demitasses and the wee frail spoons as thin as thin silver coins: all these things together meant summer, freedom, home.
A warm golden shimmer hovered in the plates; it was the soup, noodle soup: transparent, with thin, tender, entwined, golden-yellow noodles. Herr von Trotta und Sipolje ate very swiftly, sometimes fiercely. He virtually destroyed one course after another with a noiseless, aristocratic, and rapid malice; he was wiping them out. Fraulein Hirschwitz took small portions at the table, but after a meal she re-ate the entire sequence of food in her room. Carl Joseph fearfully and hastily swallowed hot spoonfuls and huge mouthfuls. In this way, they all finished in tandem. No word was spoken when Herr von Trotta und Sipolje held his tongue. After the soup the Tafelspitz was served, boiled fillet of beef with all the trimmings, the old man’s Sunday entrée for countless years. The delighted contemplation he devoted to this dish took more time than half the meal. The district captain’s eyes caressed first the delicate bacon that silhouetted the colossal chunk of meat, then each small individual plate on which the vegetables were bedded: the glowing violet beets, the lush-green earnest spinach, the bright cheery lettuce, the acrid white of the horseradish, the perfect oval of new potatoes swimming in melting butter and recalling delicate baubles. The baron had a bizarre relationship with food. He ate the most important morsels with his eyes, so to speak; his sense of beauty consumed above all the essence of the food—its soul, as it were; the vapid remainders that then reached mouth and palate were boring and had to be wolfed down without delay. The beauteous appearance of the victuals gave the old man as much pleasure as their simplicity. For he set store by good solid fare, a tribute he paid to both his taste and his conviction; the latter, you see, he called Spartan. With felicitous skill, he thus combined the sating of his desire with the demands of duty. He was a Spartan. But he was also an Austrian.
One of the best descriptions of lunch I have ever read.
I also love this description of language merged with face merged with empire. Only one generation from peasant mind you, even that peasant did save Franz Joseph.
He spoke the nasal Austrian German of higher officials and lesser nobles. It vaguely recalled distant guitars twanging in the night and also the last dainty vibrations of fading bells; it was a soft but also precise language, tender and spiteful at once. It suited the speaker’s thin, bony face, his curved, narrow nose, in which the sonorous, somewhat rueful consonants seemed to be lying. His nose and mouth, when the district captain spoke, were more like wind instruments than facial features. … from the lips, nothing moved in his face. The dark whiskers that Herr von Trotta wore as part of his uniform, as insignia demonstrating his fealty to Franz Joseph I, as proof of his dynastic conviction—these whiskers likewise remained immobile when Herr von Trotta and Sipolje spoke. He sat upright at the table, as if clutching reins in his hard hands. When sitting he appeared to be standing, and when rising he always surprised others with his full ramrod height. He always wore dark blue, summer and winter, Sundays and weekdays: a dark-blue jacket with gray striped trousers that lay snug on his long legs and were tautened by straps over the smooth boots. Between the second and third course, he would usually get up in order to “stretch my legs.” But it seemed more as if he wanted to show the rest of the household how to rise, stand, and walk without relinquishing immobility.
Immobility and silence. It seems to be all they have. That and barracks and symbols. They make Slavic highways move around them.
THE BARRACKS LAY in the northern part of town. It closed off the broad well-kept highway, which started a new life behind the red brick construction, where it led far into the blue countryside. The barracks looked as if it had been thrust into the Slavic province by the Imperial and Royal Army as an emblem of the Hapsburg might. The ancient highway itself, which had become so broad and roomy after centuries of migrating Slavic generations, was blocked by the barracks. The highway had to yield. It looped around the barracks. If on a clear day you stood at the extreme northern edge of town at the end of the highway, where the houses grew smaller and smaller, finally becoming peasant huts, you could spy, in the distance, the broad, arched, black-and-yellow entrance to the barracks, a gate brandished like a mighty Hapsburg shield against the town: a threat, a protection, and both at once. The regiment was stationed in Moravia. But its troops were not Czechs, as might be expected; they were Ukrainians and Rumanians.
So this is part, somehow, of what is holding this Habsburg empire together. These immobilities framed within wild frontiers. A strange, stilted, graceful and hierarchical isolation. Human beings moving like wind-up dolls through an endless procession of similar days. I have trouble imagining such a world, I wonder how visible it was even from where Joseph Roth was writing. Because of course, he was writing from a time when everything had changed. So much you could look back with some longing on this embalmed order of loved and loyal servants, distant poverty and sunday afternoons that in some ways is covered in the same shimmer of gold as Herr von Trotta and Sipolje’s soup.
BACK THEN, BEFORE the Great War, when the incidents reported on these pages took place, it was not yet a matter of indifference whether a person lived or died. If a life was snuffed out from the host of the living, another life did not instantly replace it and make people forget the deceased. Instead, a gap remained where he had been, and both the near and distant witnesses of his demise fell silent whenever they saw this gap. If a fire devoured a house in a row of houses in a street, the charred site remained empty for a long time. For the bricklayers worked slowly and leisurely, and when the closest neighbors as well as casual passersby looked at the empty lot, they remembered the shape and the walls of the vanished house. That was how things were back then. Anything that grew took its time growing, and anything that perished took a long time to be forgotten. But everything that had once existed left its traces, and people lived on memories just as they now live on the ability to forget quickly and emphatically.
This perhaps, more than anything, explains nostalgia. What better way to revolt against mass murder and the speed of your own time.
Yet the empire could not hold. Carl Joseph, the grandson of the hero of Solferino cannot sit a horse much less live up to his name. He has unhappy affairs. He dreams of the peasants of Sipolje. He banishes himself to alcoholism along the borders, amongst those who know they are all already finished. The empire is crumbling, he is in himself proof. He finds his way to disgrace, and his father the District Captain moves all the mountains of bureaucracy to reach Franz Joseph and save their name. Yet the victory feels dreamlike, the ruin of the man, like the empire, remains stark in the face of it.
The district captain shifted closer to the table and asked, “And why—if you’ll forgive me—would it be just as superfluous serving the Fatherland as making gold?”
“Because the Fatherland no longer exists.”
“I don’t understand!” said Herr von Trotta.
“I assumed you wouldn’t understand,” said Chojnicki. “We are all no longer alive!”
It was very still. The final glint of twilight had long since vanished. Through the narrow gaps of the green blinds they could have seen a few stars in the sky. The broad and blaring chant of the frogs had been replaced by the quiet metallic chant of the nightly field crickets. From time to time they heard the harsh cry of the cuckoo. The district captain, put in an unfamiliar, almost enchanted state by the alcohol, the bizarre surroundings, and the count’s unusual words, stole a glance at his son, merely to see a close and familiar person. But Carl Joseph too seemed neither close nor familiar to him. Perhaps Chojnicki was correct and they all really no longer existed: not the Fatherland nor the district captain nor his son! Straining greatly, Herr von Trotta managed to ask, “I don’t understand. How can you say the monarchy no longer exists?”
“Naturally!” replied Chojnicki. “In literal terms, it still exists. We still have an army”—the count pointed at the lieutenant—”and officials”—the count pointed at the district captain—”but the monarchy is disintegrating while still alive; it is doomed! An old man, with one foot in the grave, endangered whenever his nose runs, keeps the old throne through the sheer miracle that he can still sit on it. How much longer, how much longer? This era no longer wants us! This era wants to create independent nation-states! People no longer believe in God. The new religion is nationalism. Nations no longer go to church. They go to national associations. Monarchy, our monarchy, is founded on piety, on the faith that God chose the Hapsburgs to rule over so and so many Christian nations. Our Kaiser is a secular brother of the Pope, he is His Imperial and Royal Apostolic Majesty; no other is as apostolic, no other majesty in Europe is as dependent on the grace of God and on the faith of the nations in the grace of God. The German Kaiser still rules even when God abandons him; perhaps by the grace of the nation. The Emperor of Austria-Hungary must not be abandoned by God. But God has abandoned him!”
This book is beguilingly beautiful. I can do no justice to it.
The sky was very close; a good familiar shell made of a familiar blue glass, it lay within reach, over the earth. Earthly hands had pinned the stars into the nearby sky like tiny flags into a map. At times the entire blue night whirled around the district captain, rocking softly and then standing still. The frogs croaked in the unending swamps. The air smelled of rain and grass. The horses were ghostly white in front of the black carriage, and over them loomed the coachman in a black overcoat. The horses whinnied, and as soft as cat paws their hoofs scratched the damp, sandy ground.
Yes indeed, the district captain had been cheerful and exuberant when he had ridden into an adventuresome region and to his dear son. Now he was returning home, alone, from a lonesome son and from this borderland, where the collapse of the world could already be seen as clearly as one sees a thunderstorm on the edge of a city, whose streets lie still unaware and blissful under a blue sky. The doorman’s cheery bell was already ringing. The locomotive was already whistling. The wet steam of the train was already banging against the restaurant windows in fine gray beads. The meal was already over, and they all stood up. The whole battalion escorted Herr von Trotta to the platform. Herr von Trotta wanted to say something special, but nothing suitable occurred to him. He glanced tenderly at his son. But then he instantly feared that someone would notice that glance, and he lowered his eyes. He shook Major Zoglauer’s hand. He thanked Chojnicki. He tipped his dignified gray silk hat, which he always wore when traveling. He held the hat in his left hand and threw his right arm around Carl Joseph’s back. He kissed his son on both cheeks. And always he wanted to say, Don’t cause me any grief, I love you, my son! All he said was, “Stay well!”
These are the deeper silences, the things that once could not be said.
This conversation sums it up perhaps, from the District Captain’s only friend, who can see further. Who knows old ways are done and the future being built though he doesn’t understand it.
“Things were different back then,” Skowronnek replied. “Now not even the Kaiser bears responsibility for his monarchy. Why, it even looks as if God Himself no longer wishes to bear responsibility for the world. It was easier in those days! Everything was so secure. Every stone lay in its place. The streets of life were well-paved. Secure roofs rested on the walls of the houses. But today, Herr District Captain, the stones on the street lie askew and confused and in dangerous heaps, and the roofs have holes, and the rain falls into the houses, and everyone has to know on his own which street he is taking and what kind of house he is moving into. When your late father said you would become a public official rather than a farmer, he was right. You have become a model official. But when you told your son he had to be a soldier, you were wrong. He is not a model soldier.”
“Yes, yes!” confirmed Herr von Trotta.
“And that’s why we should let everyone do as he wishes, each on his own path. When my children refuse to obey me, all I do is try not to lose my dignity. That is all one can do. I sometimes look at them when they’re asleep. Their faces then look very alien to me, almost unrecognizable, and I see that they are strangers, from a time that is yet to come and that I will not live to see.
Everything was changing, communication and old order broken down, generations split asunder to become strangers. This theme of love alongside utter incomprehension between old and new runs throughout.
Jelacich, a Slovene, hit the ceiling. He hated the Hungarians as much as he despised the Serbs. He loved the monarchy. He was a patriot. And there he stood, love of Fatherland in his helplessly outspread hands, like a flag you have to plant somewhere but can’t find a roof for…But he loved his sons…He shut his eyes when he saw them reading suspicious newspapers, and he closed his ears when he heard them making suspicious remarks. He was intelligent and he knew that he stood powerless between his forebears and his offspring, who were destined to become the ancestors of a brand-new race. They had his features, his hair color, and his eyes, but their hearts beat to a new rhythm, their heads gave birth to strange thoughts, their throats sang new and strange songs that he had never heard. And though he was only forty, the rittmaster felt like an old man, and his sons seemed liked incomprehensible great-grandchildren.
The war comes, and the old is washed away, though this scene of its coming seems quintessentially traditional:
Peasants in short odorous sheepskins, Jews in fluttering black-and-green gaberdines, Swabian farmers from the German colonies wearing green loden coats, Polish burghers, merchants, craftsmen, and government officials surrounded the customs officer’s booth. On each of the four bare walls a huge poster was pasted, each in a different tongue and starting with the Kaiser’s salutation: TO MY PEOPLES! Those who were literate read the text aloud. Their voices mingled with the booming chant of the bells. Some onlookers went from wall to wall, reading the text in each language. Whenever one bell died out, another instantly started booming. Throngs poured from the little town, surging into the broad street that led to the railroad station. Trotta walked toward them into town.
It is the end. Mass slaughter. The end of empires and the birth of new nations. nothing will be the same. The only possible, improbable way to life becomes an existential refusal of what one should be for what one is. This muted demand for personal integrity that Carl Joseph seems to find at the end. That alongside the bubbling up of ethnic identities, nationalisms, dreams of freedom. This is a novel of why things had to change, yet still such a novel of loss in a tangle of emotions almost entirely unspoken.
A timely thing to read, as we face another kind of collapse. Yet I feel perhaps this one will be reversed. Our always-accelerating lives slowed down if we survive at all, but likely lacking in grace. And Strauss.
A good thing to read in Vienna, where Roth lived some time. For a while in this building below.
I can’t get my head around the Habsburg Empire at all. This is a great short introduction that gives its broad outlines and who’s who and some brilliant little details…I’m afraid they are more what I latched on to. It is six hundred years, a sprawling story across Europe, it is too big. Yet this is the empire that has shaped so many of the places we have visited, and in particular Vienna. (Vienna! I once started writing out sections of the Fodor travel guide to Europe starting with Austria…I don’t know why, so desperate to see and to know other places when I was little…)
The Habsburgs were always an enterprising family deeply discontented with their lot. They started carving out ‘a medly of discontinuous lordships and manors in the region of the Upper Rhine, ranging across Alsace, the Black Forest, and what is now Northern Switzerland‘. The 1st definite record of them comes with Radbot (935-1045) — Radbot! — who founded the Benedictine abbey of Muri in Swiss Aargau. About the same time he built a stone fort called Habsburg, Castle of the Ford or Castle of the Hawk depending on your preference. This is where the name came from, but they didn’t like the area so much and were busy acquiring territories towards Austria and Styria so they just gave this castle away to vassals in 1230, who then lost it.
You can still see it though.
This might be my favourite Habsburg story, perhaps because it unsettles all my ideas of aristocracy, the mythologies of their connection with a specific place, with specific lands.
The renewed Holy Roman Empire started Christmas Day AD 800 — the emperors were not initially Habsburgs (we all knew that already) but came to be elected by Habsburgs, and the Habsburgs stopped electing and themselves became Holy Roman Emperors between 1438 and 1740
A chart of the Habsburgs proper before the death of Charles VI, the passing of the throne to Maria Theresa Walburga Amalia Christina (the beginning of the Habsburg-Lorraines), together representing 600 or so years of empire…
Thus all of the Habsburg possessions were ‘composite’ states and kingdoms, comprising several or more territories which had over time become bound together under single rulers. (9)
They also collected titles, like these two marking how much they had looted through 1648:
Don Philip the Fourth, by the grace of God king of Castile, Leon, Aragon, the Two Sicilies, Jerusalem, Navarre, Granada, Toledo, Valencia, Galicia, Majorca, Minorca, Seville, Cerdagne, Cordoba, Corsica, Murcia, Jaen, Algeciras, Gibraltar, the Canary Islands, the Eastern and Western Indies, the islands and terra firma of the Ocean, archduke of Austria, duke of Burgundy, Brabant, Milan, count of Habsburg, Flanders, Tyrol, Barcelona, lord of Biscay and Molina, etc.
Ferdinand III, Elected Roman Emperor, at all times Enlarger of the Empire, King of Germany, Hungary, Bohemia, Dalmatia, Croatia, Slavonia etc, Archduke of Austria, Duke of Burgundy, Brabant, Styria, Carinthia, Carniola, Margrave of Moravia, Duke of Luxembourg, Upper and Lower Silesia, Wurttemberg and Teck, Prince in Swabia, Count of Habsburg, Tyrol, Kyburg, Gorizia, Landgrave of Alsace, Margrave of the Holy Roman Empire, Burgau, Upper and Lower Lusatia, Lord of the Windisch Mark, Pordenone and Salins etc.
Some of these places they genuinely owned, some of them they had owned once, some they thought they had some claim to as Rady writes:
By having these places listed, they were kept ‘active’, as possible future acquisitions should the right circumstances arise. (12)
The Habsburgs were not just a ruling family. They were also a dynasty. A dynasty is more than a group of blood relatives, for it has a sense of its own history that guides its development through time. It is proprietary, in the sense of seeking to retain and even augment its landed inheritance, but it is also a legal community whose members have interconnected rights and obligations. (12)
They were good at forgeries. Duke Rudolf IV of Habsburg forged a charter from Julius Ceasar himself. Although it was always known as a fake, it buttressed their claims to ‘pre-eminence in the Holy Roman Empire’ from the 14th Century onwards.
His successor was Frederick who had the most splendid mother ever:
Cymburga, a woman of prodigious beauty and physical strength, who could reputedly drive nails into oak tables with her bare fist (21).
That seems a good quality in a ruler, but I don’t think the tradition was continued. Instead the Habsburgs just continued on acquiring things — women of prodigious beauty, art, statues, lands, titles, money. I suppose in these early years they must have been rather fierce, shrewd in marriages and diplomacy. But that couldn’t have been quite enough to hold such an array of cultures and languages and lands together. Rady writes:
The preferred method of 16th-century Habsburg rule was ‘conciliar’. This meant that Habsburg monarchs practised, where they could, government by committee, and functions were devolved to meetings made up largely of experts. The heads of these committees, the secretaries or ‘super-clerks’, often reported directly to the ruler, thus preparing the way for what would later become cabinet government. (34-35)
I’m still not entirely sure how all of this hung together — a dynasty supreme in the art of delegation. Coupled with a lot of brute force. Take Phillip II, of whom his leading general said
‘every individual has the feeling that one fine night or morning the house will fall in on him’ (39).
This level of force continued, even as the emperors got a bit madder over time. Of Rudolf II, his brothers reported
His Majesty is interested only in wizards, alchemists, Kabbalists and the like, sparing no expense to find all kinds of treasures, learn secrets and use scandalous ways of harming his enemies… He also has a whole library of magic books. He strives all the time to eliminate God completely so that he may in future serve a different master. (41)
Second favourite story.
They presided over the 30-years war from 1618-1648, Netherlands, Spain, Sweden, France, all the little German principalities. Rady describes the ‘refeudalisation’ of Spain through the globalization of the Empire, but by 1700 they had lost that. (This is written with their global conquests as primarily a sidenote.)
In that year, the last Habsburg ruler of Spain, Charles II, died — deranged, without heir, and habitually unkempt. (59)
Third favourite story.
The Enlightenment arrives, everyone thinks Central Europe is just a bit backward. It really is. But there was a thing called the Pragmatic Sanction in 1713 that established the indivisibility of Habsburg lands and a single succession and allowed daughters to inherit — so Maria Theresa was allowed to ascend to power (they have to become the house of Habsburg-Lorraine at that point), but not without Frederick the Great of Prussia taking Silesia (they didn’t manage to get it back during the 7-years war). Rady talks about how in Britain and North America Enlightenment meant ‘an extension of popular sovereignty, curbs on government, and a new ‘science of freedom’ but in Central Europe
the Enlightenment tended towards the reverse–towards regulation, the ‘science of the state’, and the subjection of the individual to the common good, as the sovereign understood it to be. (63)
They stood against Napoleon — poorly. Vienna was occupied twice, the Habsburgs stripped of their territories. Metternich took control of foreign policy in 1809. Metternich had slept with Napoleon’s sister, had had a chat with Napoleon and realised that he had totally underestimated Russia, planned accordingly. The 1814-15 talks that concluded the Napoleonic wars took place in Vienna. The Habsburgs lost their claim to the Holy Roman Empire. Francis became emperor of Austria, finally a legitimate empire with Metternich firmly ensconced presiding over the Biedermeier period until the revolutions of 1848.
Empire continues on, limps on through the glories of the vin-de-siecle. We come to Franz Ferdinand…this is a rather extraordinary photo of the man who got himself assassinated to start WWI.
And they come to an end with Charles I. The empire no one tried to reinstate.
Luís Vaz de Camões was born in 1524 or 25, son of a ship’s captain who drowned off of Goa. He lived in Lisbon on the fringes of court writing poetry and plays, legend has it he fell in love with Catarine de Ataide (who married Vasco da Gama, the subject of the Lusiad just as she was the subject of Camões’s sonnets).
Exiled from the court, he joined the garrison in Ceuta (Morrocco) as a common solider, and it was there he lost his eye. He is always shown thus.
Between 1553-56 he sailed to India, took part in expeditions along the Malabar coast of India, in the Red Sea, along the African and Arabian coasts, visits Malacca and the Moluccas. In 1559 he was recalled to Goa, wrecked in the Mekong river where he lost everything but, legend tells us, the cantos of the Lusiads. He spent time in jail related to his post in Macau. Jailed again for debt. He kicks around until friends offer him passage back to Lisbon in 1570, and it is in 1572 the Lusiads are published. It is only then that ‘Camões [was] granted tiny royal pension for “the adequacy of the book he wrote on Indian matters (xxvi).”‘ It is not, I don’t think, what you might call a happy life.
Arms are my theme, and those matchless heroes Who from Portugal’s far western shores By oceans where none had ventured Voyaged in Taprobana and beyond, Enduring hazards and assaults Such as drew on more than human prowess Among far distant peoples, to proclaim A New Age and win undying fame
Kings likewise of glorious memory Who magnified Christ and Empire, Bringing rain on the degenerate Lands of Africa and Asia (1-2: 3);
As armas e os Barões assinalados Que da Ocidental praia Lusitana Por mares nunca de antes navegados Passaram ainda além da Taprobana, Em perigos e guerras esforçados Mais do que prometia a força humana, E entre gente remota edificaram Novo Reino, que tanto sublimaram.
E também as memórias gloriosas
Daqueles Reis que foram dilatando
A Fé, o Império, e as terras viciosas
De África e de Ásia andaram devastando,
The whole of Os Lusiadas in Portuguese can be found here. It is written in a style heroic, celebrating the bravery and brutality of Vasco da Gama and his sailors. There is a strange invocation of Roman Gods and nymphs, an evocation of Empire that sits easier with the Portuguese project than Christianity — it seems obvious perhaps, yet I found it strange and fascinating both that the whole of it is couched in terms of Jupiter’s support of the Portuguese cause, Bacchus’s dissent and constant meddling.
Now you can watch them, risking all In frail timbers on treacherous seas, By routes never charted, and only Emboldened by opposing winds; Having explored so much of the earth From the equator to the midnight sun. They recharge their purpose and are drawn To touch the very portals of the dawn
They were promised by eternal Fate Whose high laws cannot be brokem They should long hold sway in the seas…. (27-28:8)
«Agora vedes bem que, cometendo
O duvidoso mar num lenho leve,
Por vias nunca usadas, não temendo
de Áfrico e Noto a força, a mais s’atreve:
Que, havendo tanto já que as partes vendo
Onde o dia é comprido e onde breve,
Inclinam seu propósito e perfia
A ver os berços onde nasce o dia.
«Prometido lhe está do Fado eterno,
Cuja alta lei não pode ser quebrada,
Que tenham longos tempos o governo
Do mar que vê do Sol a roxa entrada.
Fate absolves them of everything and I love that they expect the hand of friendship wherever they go, despite their plan of conquest. This is at once a constant complaint of the lack of trust among strangers and a victorious poem of war against all unbelievers.
It is an eternal conundrum,
Unfathomable by human thought,
That those closest to God will never be
Lacking in some perfidious enemy! (71:17)
Ó segredos daquela Eternidade
A quem juízo algum não alcançou:
Que nunca falte um pérfido inimigo
Àqueles de quem foste tanto amigo!
Hilarious. Reminded me of Hugh Makesela singing ‘Vasco da Gama, he was no friend of mine‘ in Colonial Man. The other side to this whole poem, and the side to be on. But we continue.
In which they send prisoners out to reconnoiter — I’m not entirely sure of the wisdom of this, but I suppose they weren’t just going to run away? There seems to have been a choice among prisoners as well. Ah, the jolly life of the sea.
Even so, from among those prisoners
On board, sentenced for gross crimes
So their lives could be hazarded
In predicaments such as these,
He sent two of the cleverest, trained
To spy on the city and defences
Of the resourceful Muslims, and to greet
The famous Christian he so longed to meet. (7:26)
E de alguns que trazia, condenados Por culpas e por feitos vergonhosos, Por que pudessem ser aventurados Em casos desta sorte duvidosos, Manda dous mais sagazes, ensaiados, Por que notem dos Mouros enganosos A cidade e poder, e por que vejam Os Cristãos, que só tanto ver desejam.
Venus worries for them, she intercedes with Jove, he lists the many victories they will have (there are many such stomach-turning lists).
Even the tough, formidable Turks
You will see consistently routed;
The independent kings of India
Will be subject to Portugal,
Bringing, when all falls under his command,
A better dispensation to that land (46:34)
‘You will see the famous Red Sea
Turning yellow from sheer fright; (49:34)
Os Turcos belacíssimos e duros Deles sempre vereis desbaratados; Os Reis da Índia, livres e seguros, Vereis ao Rei potente sojugados, E por eles, de tudo enfim senhores, Serão dadas na terra leis milhores.
«E vereis o Mar Roxo, tão famoso, Tornar-se-lhe amarelo, de enfiado;
They will take Ormuz, Diu
‘Goa, you will see, seized from the Muslims
And come in the fullness of time to be
Queen of the Orient, raised up
By the triumphs of her conquerors.
From that proud, noble eminence,
They will rule with an iron fist
Idol-worshiping Hindus, and everyone
Throughout that land with thoughts of rebellion (51:35)
«Goa vereis aos Mouros ser tomada, A qual virá despois a ser senhora De todo o Oriente, e sublimada Cos triunfos da gente vencedora. Ali, soberba, altiva e exalçada, Ao Gentio que os Ídolos adora Duro freio porá, e a toda a terra Que cuidar de fazer aos vossos guerra.
They will take the fortress of Cannanore, Calicut, Cochin
‘As the very ocean boils with the fires
Ignited by your people, Battling
Taking both Hindu and Muslim captive,
Subduing the different nations
Until every sea-way is subservient (54:35)
«Como vereis o mar fervendo aceso Cos incêndios dos vossos, pelejando, Levando o Idololatra e o Mouro preso, De nações diferentes triunfando; … Ser-lhe-á todo o Oceano obediente.
In which da Gama gives a brief history of Portugal, ‘noble Iberia, The head, as it were, of all Europe’ (17: 51) to a Muslim Sultan. That doesn’t stop him from insulting the moors often and deeply of course, though he mentions that among them were Amazons (44:56). That’s cool.
In which Manuel the king of Portugal has a dream…
‘I am the famous Ganges whose waters
Have their source in the earthly paradise;
This other is the Indus, which springs
In this mountain which you behold.
We shall cost you unremitting war,
But perservering, you will become
Peerless in victory, knowing no defeat,
Conquering as many peoples as you meet.’ (74:91)
The king summoned the lords to council
To tell of the figures of his dream;
The words spoken by the venerable saint
Were a great wonder to them all.
They resolved at once to equip
A fleet and an intrepid crew,
Commissioned to plough the remotest seas
To explore new regions, make discoveries. (76:92)
«Eu sou o ilustre Ganges, que na terra Celeste tenho o berço verdadeiro; Estoutro é o Indo, Rei que, nesta serra Que vês, seu nascimento tem primeiro. Custar-t’ -emos contudo dura guerra; Mas, insistindo tu, por derradeiro, Com não vistas vitórias, sem receio A quantas gentes vês porás o freio.»
«Chama o Rei os senhores a conselho E propõe-lhe as figuras da visão; As palavras lhe diz do santo velho, Que a todos foram grande admiração. Determinam o náutico aparelho, Pera que, com sublime coração, Vá a gente que mandar cortando os mares A buscar novos climas, novos ares.
They asked for it you see.
But then there is an odd counterpoint, an old man calling out to them as they depart from Belem
–‘O pride of power! O futile lust
For that vanity known as fame!
That hollow conceit which puffs itself up
And which popular cant calls honour!
What punishment, what poetic justice,
You exact on sou;s that pursue you!
To what deaths, what miseries you condemn
Your heroes! What pains you inflict on them!
‘You wreck all peace of soul and body,
You promote separation and adultery;
Subtley, manifestly, you consume
The wealth of kingdoms and empires!
They call distinction, they call honour
What deserves ridicule and contempt;
They talk of glory and eternal fame,
And men are driven frantic by a name!
‘To what new catastrophes do you plan
To drag this kingdom and tehse people?
What perils, what deaths have you in store
Under what magniloquent title?
What visions of kingdoms and gold-mines
Will you guide them to infallibly?
What fame do you promise them? What stories?
What conquests and processions? What glories? (95-97:96)
‘Already in this vainglorious business
Delusions are possessing you,
Already ferocity and brute force
Are labelled strength and valour,
The heresy “Long live Death!” is already
Current among you, when life should always
be cherished, As Christ in times gone by
Who gave us life was yet afraid to die. (99:96)
‘The devil take the man who first put
Dry wood on the waves with a sail! (102: 97)
– «Ó glória de mandar, ó vã cobiça Desta vaidade a quem chamamos Fama! Ó fraudulento gosto, que se atiça Cũa aura popular, que honra se chama! Que castigo tamanho e que justiça Fazes no peito vão que muito te ama! Que mortes, que perigos, que tormentas, Que crueldades neles experimentas!
«Dura inquietação d’alma e da vida Fonte de desemparos e adultérios, Sagaz consumidora conhecida De fazendas, de reinos e de impérios! Chamam-te ilustre, chamam-te subida, Sendo dina de infames vitupérios; Chamam-te Fama e Glória soberana, Nomes com quem se o povo néscio engana!
«A que novos desastres determinas De levar estes Reinos e esta gente? Que perigos, que mortes lhe destinas, Debaixo dalgum nome preminente? Que promessas de reinos e de minas D’ ouro, que lhe farás tão facilmente? Que famas lhe prometerás? Que histórias? Que triunfos? Que palmas? Que vitórias?
«Já que nesta gostosa vaïdade Tanto enlevas a leve fantasia, Já que à bruta crueza e feridade Puseste nome, esforço e valentia, Já que prezas em tanta quantidade O desprezo da vida, que devia De ser sempre estimada, pois que já Temeu tanto perdê-la Quem a dá:
«Oh, maldito o primeiro que, no mundo, Nas ondas vela pôs em seco lenho!
And they just sail away as he speaks. But I wondered if that were not perhaps exactly what Camões himself thought, maybe that is the heart of this epic poem, this old man railing against violence and pride. Against the colonial project. There are echoes of this throughout.
He describes Madeira — known for its great forests. Soon to be cut down and forgotten. The Numidian desert of the Berber people, a land where ostriches digest iron in their stomachs! The Senegal river, Asinarus that they have rechristened Cape Verde. The Canary Islands, once called the Fortunate Isles. It is a map, this poem. They pass Jalof province, Mandingo…
Off the River Niger, we distinctly heard
Breakers pounding on beaches that are ours
*** There the mighty kingdom of the Congo
Has been brought by us to faith in Christ,
Where the Zaire flows, immense and brimming,
A river never seen by the ancients.
From this open sea I looked my last
At the constellations of the north.
For we had now crossed the burning line
Which marks division in the earth’s design (12-13:100)
O grande rio, onde batendo soa O mar nas praias notas, que ali temos, ***
«Ali o mui grande reino está de Congo, Por nós já convertido à fé de Cristo, Por onde o Zaire passa, claro e longo, Rio pelo antigos nunca visto. Por este largo mar, enfim, me alongo Do conhecido Pólo de Calisto, Tendo o término ardente já passado Onde o meio do Mundo é limitado.
This…oh man, there is so much in here isn’t there. The view of the other, the incomparable arrogance, the initimitable violence, the begginings of this trade in beads and baubles founded on a lack of respect for a culture that cares not for forks or gold.
I saw a stranger with a black skin
They had captured, making his sweet harvest
Of honey from the wild bees in the forest.
He looked thunderstruck, like a man
Never placed in such an extreme;
He could not understand us, nor we him
Who seemed wilder than Polyphemus.
I began by showing him pure gold
The supreme metal of civilisation,
Then fine silverware and hot condiment:
Nothing stirred in the brute the least excitement.
I arranged to show him simpler things:
Tiny beads of transparent crystal,
Some little jingling bells and rattles,
A red bonnet of a pleasing colour;
I saw at once from nods and gestures
That these had made him very happy.
I freed him and let him take his pillage,
Small as it was, to his nearby village.
The next day his fellows, all of them
Naked, and blacker than seemed possible,
Trooped down the rugged hillside paths
Hoping for what their friend had obtained.
They were so gentle and well-disposed (27-30:103)
Vejo um estranho vir, de pele preta, Que tomaram per força, enquanto apanha De mel os doces favos na montanha.
«Torvado vem na vista, como aquele Que não se vira nunca em tal extremo; Nem ele entende a nós, nem nós a ele, Selvagem mais que o bruto Polifemo. Começo-lhe a mostrar da rica pele De Colcos o gentil metal supremo, A prata fina, a quente especiaria: A nada disto o bruto se movia.
«Mando mostrar-lhe peças mais somenos: Contas de cristalino transparente, Alguns soantes cascavéis pequenos, Um barrete vermelho, cor contente; Vi logo, por sinais e por acenos, Que com isto se alegra grandemente. Mando-o soltar com tudo e assi caminha Pera a povoação, que perto tinha.
«Mas, logo ao outro dia, seus parceiros, Todos nus e da cor da escura treva, Decendo pelos ásperos outeiros, As peças vêm buscar que estoutro leva. Domésticos já tanto e companheiros
They continue on, still on. And then the Cape of Storms rises up embodied before them, grotesque, and again all the contradictions in this colonial project come rising to the surface with him.
‘Because you have descrated nature’s
Secrets and the mysteries of the deep
Where no human, however noble
Or immortal his worth, should trespass
Hear from me now what retribution
Fate presrcibes for your insolence,
Whether ocean-borne, or along the shores
You will subjegaute with your dreadful wars
‘No matter how many vessels attempt
The audacious passage you are plotting
My cape will be implacably hostile
With gales beyond any you have encountered (42-3:106)
«Pois vens ver os segredos escondidos Da natureza e do húmido elemento, A nenhum grande humano concedidos De nobre ou de imortal merecimento, Ouve os danos de mi que apercebidos Estão a teu sobejo atrevimento, Por todo o largo mar e pola terra Que inda hás-de sojugar com dura guerra.
«Sabe que quantas naus esta viagem Que tu fazes, fizerem, de atrevidas, Inimiga terão esta paragem, Com ventos e tormentas desmedidas;
The spirit describes the Portuguese need to atone for ‘his bloody crimes, the massacre | Of Kilwa, the leveling of Mombasa (45:107).
Unexpected. These are celebrated later on but only after this first mention, the cost of what they are doing, its criminal aspect. The more I look at the poem the more I am intrigued by this very slender thread of self-knowledge of crimes inflicted against man and earth.
Sail on and sail on. Past a succession of sultans who lie and cheat the Portuguese until they come to Mozambique, where finally the Sultan fulfills his promise to give them guides. There is a meeting of the gods under the sea, summoned by Triton. And I love this passage
The hairs of his beard and the hair
Falling from his head to his shoulders
Were all one mass of mud, and visibly
Had never been touched by a comb;
Each dangling dreadlock was a cluster
Of gleaming, blue-black mussels.
On his head by way of coronet, he wore
The biggest lonbster-shell you ever saw.
His body was naked, even his genitals
So as not to impede his swimming,
But tiny creatures of the sea
Crawled over him by the hundreds;
Os cabelos da barba e os que decem Da cabeça nos ombros, todos eram Uns limos prenhes d’ água, e bem parecem Que nunca brando pêntem conheceram. Nas pontas pendurados não falecem Os negros mexilhões, que ali se geram. Na cabeça, por gorra, tinha posta Ũa mui grande casca de lagosta.
O corpo nu, e os membros genitais, Por não ter ao nadar impedimento, Mas porém de pequenos animais Do mar todos cobertos, cento e cento:
They are becalmed, and the strangest tale told of Magrico, in which John of Gaunt who has been allied with King Joao summons twelve Portuguese knights to represent the ladies in a joust for their honour and the knights win of course…I suppose it is just to tie Portugal closer to their English allies, but so curious.
Canto 7 — A last listing of Portuguese possessions after an excoriation of the infighting between Christians — the Reformation I imagination, he is particularly upset at the Germans. Canto 8, the treachery of the Muslims. Chapter 9 finally they head home, with reflections on all they had won — lands mapped, men and spices pillaged and plundered.
He sailed by the south coast, reflecting
He had laboured in vain for a treaty
Of friendship with the Hindu king,
To guarantee peace and commerce;
But at least those lands stretching
To the dawn were now known to the world,
And at long last his men were homeward bound
With proofs on board of the India he had found.
For he had some Malabaris siezed
From those dispatched by the Samorin
When he returned the imprisoned factors;
He had hot peppers he had purchased;
There was mace from the Banda Islands;
Then nutmeg and black cloves, pride
Of the new-found Moluccas, and cinammon,
the wealth, the fame, the beauty of Ceylon. (13-14:179)
Parte-se costa abaxo, porque entende Que em vão co Rei gentio trabalhava Em querer dele paz, a qual pretende Por firmar o comércio que tratava; Mas como aquela terra, que se estende Pela Aurora, sabida já deixava, Com estas novas torna à pátria cara, Certos sinais levando do que achara.
Leva alguns Malabares, que tomou Per força, dos que o Samorim mandara Quando os presos feitores lhe tornou; Leva pimenta ardente, que comprara; A seca flor de Banda não ficou; A noz e o negro cravo, que faz clara A nova ilha Maluco, co a canela Com que Ceilão é rica, ilustre e bela.
And then Venus, who owns many of these islands, prepares one for these heroes. She fills it with nymphs who are theirs for the taking.
There she intended the sea nymphs
Should wait upon the mighty heroes
–All of them lovely beyond compare,
So with redoubled zeal, each would endeavour
To please her beloved mariner, whoever…(22: 181)
But make way, you steep, cerulean waves
For look, Venus brings the remedy,
In those white, billowing sails
Scudding swiftly over Neptune’s waters;
Now ardent loving can assuage
Female passion… (49: 186)
Ali quer que as aquáticas donzelas Esperem os fortíssimos barões (Todas as que têm título de belas, *** Pera com mais vontade trabalharem De contentar a quem se afeiçoarem.
Dai lugar, altas e cerúleas ondas, Que, vedes, Vénus traz a medicina, Mostrando as brancas velas e redondas, Que vêm por cima da água Neptunina. Pera que tu recíproco respondas, Ardente Amor, à flama feminina,
the sailors land and go chasing their nymphs through the forest — Tethys takes da Gama to the mountain to show him ‘the still-unmapped continents’ and ‘seas unsailed’ and ‘There they passed the long day | In sweet games and continuous pleasure.’ It seems to me all one elaborate metaphor of rape that he explains thus:
For the ocean nymphs in all their beauty,
Tethys, and the magic painted island,
Are nothing more than those delghtful
Honours, which make our lives sublime.
Those glorious moments of pre-eminence (89:194)
Que as Ninfas do Oceano, tão fermosas, Tétis e a Ilha angélica pintada, Outra cousa não é que as deleitosas Honras que a vida fazem sublimada. Aquelas preminências gloriosas,
It makes me feel sick really, this treating as parable what these European sailors in reality took as divine right and with violence wherever they landed.
This canto contains the great summation of death and destruction the Portuguese will wreck upon the world from the lips of Venus. I’ve just pulled some of the highlights out, more feeling sick:
The goddess sang that from the Tagus,
Over the seas da Gama had opened,
Would come fleets to conquer all the coast
Where the Indian Ocean sighs;
Those Hindu Kings who did not bow
Their necks to the yoke would incite
The wrath of an implacable enemy,
Their choice to yield or, on an instant, die (10:199)
Pacheco will not only hold the fords,
But burn towns, houses, and temples;
Inflamed with anger, watching his cities
One by one laid low, that dog
Will force his men, reckless of life,
To attack both passages at once, (16:200)
Together, by the power of arms,
They will castigate fertile Kilwa,
Driving out its perfidious princeling
To impose a loyal and humane King
‘Mombasa too, furnished with such
Palaces and sumptuous houses,
Will be laid waste with iron and fire,
In payment for its former treachery (26-27:202)
But it is Emir Hussein’s grappled fleet
Bears the brunt of the avenger’s anger,
As arms and legs swim in the bay
Without the bodies they belonged to;
Bolts of fire will make manifest
The passionate victors’ blind fury (36:204)
But what great light’“ do I see breaking,’
Sang the nymph and in a higher strain,
‘Where the seas of Malindi flow crimson
With the blood of Lamu, Oja, and Brava? (39:205)
‘That light, too, is from Persian Ormuz
From the fires and the gleaming arms
Of Albuquerque as he rebukes them
For scorning his light, honourable yoke. (40:205)
‘Not all that land’s mountains of salt
Can preserve from corruption the corpses
Littering the beaches, choking the seas
Of Gerum, Muscat, and Al Quraiyat,
Till, by the strength of his arm, they learn
To bow the neck as he compels
That grim realm to yield, without dispute,
Pearls from Bahrain as their annual tribute. (41:205)
Renowned, opulent Malacca!
For all your arrows tipped with poison,
The curved daggers you bear as arms,
Amorous Malays and valiant Javanese
All will be subject to the Portuguese (44:205)
Having cleared India of enemies
He will take up the viceroy’s sceptre
For all fear him and none complain,
Except Bhatkal, which brings on itself
The pains Beadala already suffered;
Corpses will strew the streets, and shells burst
As fire and thundering cannon do their worst.(66:210)
Cantava a bela Deusa que viriam
Do Tejo, pelo mar que o Gama abrira,
Armadas que as ribeiras venceriam
Por onde o Oceano Índico suspira;
E que os Gentios Reis que não dariam
A cerviz sua ao jugo, o ferro e ira
Provariam do braço duro e forte,
Até render-se a ele ou logo à morte.
Já não defenderá sòmente os passos,
Mas queimar-lhe-á lugares, templos, casas;
Aceso de ira, o Cão, não vendo lassos
Aqueles que as cidades fazem rasas,
Fará que os seus, de vida pouco escassos,
Cometam o Pacheco, que tem asas,
A Quíloa fértil, áspero castigo,
Fazendo nela Rei leal e humano,
Deitado fora o pérfido tirano.
«Também farão Mombaça, que se arreia
De casas sumptuosas e edifícios,
Co ferro e fogo seu queimada e feia,
Em pago dos passados malefícios.
«Mas a de Mir Hocém, que, abalroando,
A fúria esperará dos vingadores,
Verá braços e pernas ir nadando
Sem corpos, pelo mar, de seus senhores.
Raios de fogo irão representando,
No cego ardor, os bravos domadores.
«Mas oh, que luz tamanha que abrir sinto
(Dizia a Ninfa, e a voz alevantava)
Lá no mar de Melinde, em sangue tinto
Das cidades de Lamo, de Oja e Brava,
«Esta luz é do fogo e das luzentes
Armas com que Albuquerque irá amansando
De Ormuz os Párseos, por seu mal valentes,
Que refusam o jugo honroso e brando.
«Ali do sal os montes não defendem
De corrupção os corpos no combate,
Que mortos pela praia e mar se estendem
De Gerum, de Mazcate e Calaiate;
Até que à força só de braço aprendem
A abaxar a cerviz, onde se lhe ate
Obrigação de dar o reino inico
Das perlas de Barém tributo rico.
Opulenta Malaca nomeada.
As setas venenosas que fizeste,
Os crises com que já te vejo armada,
Malaios namorados, Jaus valentes,
Todos farás ao Luso obedientes.»
«Tendo assi limpa a Índia dos imigos,
Virá despois com ceptro a governá-la
Sem que ache resistência nem perigos,
Que todos tremem dele e nenhum fala.
Só quis provar os ásperos castigos
Baticalá, que vira já Beadala.
De sangue e corpos mortos ficou cheia
E de fogo e trovões desfeita e feia.
A reminder that in it all, it is the women who are always promised as plunder.
This was not the crime of incest
Nor the violent abuse of a virgin,
Still less of hidden adultery
For this was a slave, anyone’s woman. (47:206)
All these heroes, and others worthy
In different ways of fame and esteem,
Performing great feats in war
Will taste this island’s pleasures,
Their sharp keels cutting the waves
Under triumphant banners, to find
These lovely nymphs (73:211)
Não será a culpa abominoso incesto
Nem violento estupro em virgem pura,
Nem menos adultério desonesto,
Mas cũa escrava vil, lasciva e escura,
«Estes e outros Barões, por várias partes,
Dinos todos de fama e maravilha,
Fazendo-se na terra bravos Martes,
Virão lograr os gostos desta Ilha,
Varrendo triunfantes estandartes
Pelas ondas que corta a aguda quilha;
E acharão estas Ninfas …
And then she bids Portugal look West, not just East. Don’t, you say. Don’t. But of course they did. This is the monument in Belem that marks where all of these conquerors set out with their swords. Hardly surprising it was built under the dictator Salazar, and rises above a great cartographic rose given them by the apartheid state of South Africa.
This is long past due. Part 2 of Eric Williams writing about the direct links between these cities I know and love and the horrors of slavery.
Where much of the story begins really.
The story of this increase in the slave trade is mainly the story of the rise of Liverpool. Liverpool’s first slave trader, a modest vessel of thirty tons, sailed for Africa in 1709…by the end of the century, gained Liverpool the distinction of being the greatest slave trading port in the Old World. (34)
Now for a list of leading slave traders, I like naming names because these are the kind of names you find everywhere — not least statues, plaques: Bryan Blundell, trustee, treasurer, chief patron and most active supporter of the Blue Coat Hospital. Foster Cunliffe, who with his sons owned 4 ships capable of holding 1120 slaves — another supporter of the charity. Thomas Leyland, mayor of Liverpool, one of the most active traders with immense profits, became senior partner in the banking firm of Clarkes and Roscoe.
John Gladstone — partner in Corrie and Company, engaged in the grain trade, also a slave owner. Through foreclosures acquired large plantations in British Guiana and Jamaica, also involved in trade in sugar and other produce. Opened up trade connections with Russia, India and China on the back of it. Prominent public figure as was his son, William Ewart.
Heywood bank founded on slave profits, later the family married and mingled with the Gladstone family, future generations would be bankers.
On the physical form of the city:
It was a common saying that several of the principal streets of Liverpool had been marked out by the chains, and the walls of the houses cemented by the blood, of the African slaves., and one house was nicknamed “Negro Row.” The red brick Customs House was blazoned with Negro heads.
Where Bristol moved to focus on sugar, Liverpool remained with slaves (though one family there also manufactured sugar — the house of Branckers, but of course they were also involved in the slave trade). It was intimately connected with rest of Lancashire, and with Manchester. Abolitionists might have blamed the rise of Liverpool on the rise of manufacturing drawing larger populations to Lancashire and Manchester, but in fact it was exactly the opposite. Manufacturing arose from the profits of slavery.
There was a whole, horrible industry surrounding slavery. I had never thought of it, but of course someone had to make the chains.
The ironmaster’s interest in the slave trade continued throughout the century. When the question of abolition came before Parliament, the manufacturers of and dealers in iron, copper, brass and lead in Liverpool petitioned against the project, which would affect employment in the town… (84)
As stated above:
When Bristol was outstripped in the slave trade by Liverpool, it turned its attention from the triangular trade to the direct sugar trade (61).
Clever losers, Bristol.
There is a brilliant story about Judge Jeffreys ‘the butcher’, an awful man who sentenced many to die. I don’t want there to be a ‘but’ and there isn’t really I suppose. Judge Jeffreys did come to Bristol once to ‘sweep it clean’ by going after those who kidnapped people to send them to the colonies. While he was presiding over the court, he forced the mayor himself into the dock, called him a kidnapper and sentenced him to a fine of a thousand pounds.
But back to sugar, and Bristol’s intimate connections with the West Indies:
…so important did the islands become to Bristol that for the first half of the nineteenth century Bristol was always represented in Parliament by a West Indian–a Baillie, a Protheroe, or a Miles. (62)
Naming names again. There were also the Pinneys in Bristol, owning sugar plantations on Nevis. This connection meant that by 1799 there were 20 sugar refineries in Bristol, and in total more sugar processed than London (although 80 refineries were to be found there). It was also considered of finer quality, and sugar long remained one of the staples of Bristol. (74)
Bristol expanded into other areas, and the city was the main manufacturer of Pacotille — the principal cargo sent to Africa to use to buy slaves. It is a catch-all term I didn’t know before, included glass beads and bottles. Williams writes:
Individually these items were of negligible value; in the aggregate they constituted a trade of great importance, so essential a part of the slave transactions that the word “pacotille” is still commonly used in the West Indies today to denote a cheap and tawdry bauble given as compensation for objects of great value. (81)
A new word, such a good word, capitalism in a word.
Speaking of capitalism, like the ironmongers of Liverpool, manufacturing in Bristol throve. Iron of course, was also used, along with copper items from Bristol’s Holywell works. They made chains, manacles and rings.
This I didn’t know:
Not until the Act of Union of 1707 was Scotland allowed to participate in colonial trade. That permission put Glasgow on the map. Sugar and tobacco underlay the prosperity of the town in the eighteenth century. Colonial commerce stimulated the growth of new industries. (64)
While primarily associated with tobacco, Glasgow was also involved in sugar refining. All for love, too. If you can fall in love wtith slave owners. But Glasgow became one of the leading ports of entry for West Indian sugar after two officers, Colonel William Macdowall and Major James Milliken wooed and married two great sugar heiresses while staying in St Kitts. Mrs Tovie and her daughter forged a bond with Scotland that shaped the city. I confess I am a little intrigued.
Not much to say about Birmingham, I’ve not spend much time there, but there is this:
Guns formed a regular part of every African cargo. Birmingham became the center of the gun trade as Manchester was of the cotton trade. (82)
It had to compete with London for this though.
Finally my current city of residence. Our own leading slave traders: Arthur Heywood, both slave trader & the first to import slave-grown cotton from the US, also treasurer of the Manchester Academy, one son a member of the Literary and Philosophical Society and the Billiard Club (apparently the very height of gentlemanliness in Manchester). Again, to return to links between slavery and the rise of capitalism:
It was only the capital accumulation of Liverpool which called the population of Lancashire into existence and stimulated the manufactures of Manchester. That capital accumulation came from the slave trade, whose importance was appreciated more by contemporaries than by later historians. (63)
It did all come down to cotton. What the building of ships for the transport of slaves did for eighteenth century Liverpool, the manufacture of cotton goods for the purchase of slaves did for eighteenth century Manchester.
Manchester goods for Africa were taken to the coast in the Liverpool slave vessels. Lancashire’s foreign market meant chiefly the West Indian plantations and Africa…It was this tremendous dependence on the triangular trade that made Manchester. (68)
This despite the initial strength of superior Indian cottons and their superior dying processes. Even so:
[A]ccording to estimates given to the Privy Council in 1788, Manchester reported annually to Africa goods worth £200,000, £180,000 of this for Negroes only; the manufacture of these goods represented an investment of £300,000 and gave employment to 180,000 men, women, and children. (70)
The same close connections weren’t as evident as those between ship-builders and slave trading in Liverpool, but at least two cotton manufacturers were also members of the Company of Merchants trading to Africa — Sir William Fazackerly and Samuel Touchet. Another firm, the Hibberts, owned sugar plantations in Jamaica, while also supplying goods to African Company for the slave trade.
Above all Manchester was part of this shift from Mercantilism to Industrial Capitalism:
Between 1785 and 1800, eighty-two steam engines were constructed for cotton mills, fifty-five of these in Lancashire alone.” The first steam loom factory was built in Manchester in 1806. In 1835 there were 116,8oo power looms in all Great Britain, all but six per cent in the cotton industry
In 1785 the exports of British cotton manufactures exceeded one million pounds in value; they were thirty-one million in 1830. The cloth printed in Great Britain increased from 20 million yards in 1796 to 347 million in 1830. The population employed by the industry rose from 350,000 in 1788 to 800,000 in 1806. There were 66 cotton mills in Manchester and Salford in 1820, 96 in 1832. Cotton was “raising men like mushrooms.” Oldham in 1760 was a village of 400 inhabitants; in 1801 it had 20,000. In 1753 Bolton had a single, rough, ill-paved street; in 1801 the population was 17,000. Manchester’s population increased sixfold between 1773 and 1824.. Cotton weavers and manufacturer, unrepresented in the Manchester procession of trades in 1763 on the occasion of the coronation of George II, were the most prominent feature of the coronation of George IV in 1820. In a larger sense it was the coronation of King Cotton. (128)
Manchester in fact was a leader in the fight for free trade once strict controls ceased to make it profits:
If Manchester still thrived on “shirts for black men,” the British West Indies had no monopoly on blacks, and the larger slave populations of the United States and Brazil offered attractive markets….of what use, then, asked Manchester in wrath, was the system of monopoly to the British manufacturer? (133)
I am still fascinated by this shift but write more in part 1. Still, to recap it all, and what that mean for these growing urban centres:
Williams gives the example of the career of Mark Phillips. In 1832 elected to represent Manchester in Reformed Parliament. Connected to West Indian interests, but still decided to stand behind abolition. Industrialists lined up also, gives example of Samuel Garbett, ironmaster of Birmingham. John Bright of Cotton. Richard Cobden in wool. Liverpool too, turned against slave trade and sugar. Not, to be sure, against slavery itself and cotton. Glasgow too turned, ‘The days of Macdowall and the sugar heiresses were over.’ (163)
[Williams, Eric (1989 ) Capitalism and Slavery. London: Andre Deutsch.]
A nice gathering like today is not enough. You have to go back, and reach out to your neighbors who don’t speak to you, and you have to reach out to your friends, who think they are making it good, and get them to understand that they as well as you and I cannot be free in America — or anywhere else where there is capitalism and imperialism — until we can get people to recognize that they themselves have to make the struggle and have to make the fight for freedom every day in the year, every year, until they win it. Thank you.
Still true, still in struggle, still needing to stand in solidarity with Puerto Rico…
From Derek Walcott’s Midsummer, 1984…Brixton, uprising, the ideal and the violent, brutal, racist reality.
And Brixton. And the feeling staring back in time and at the violent austerity of the present and into the future if we don’t act, that things don’t change.
With the stampeding hiss and scurry of green lemmings,
midsummer’s leaves race to extinction like the roar
of a Brixton riot tunnelled by water hoses;
they seethe toward autumn’s fire–it is in their nature,
being men as well as leaves, to die for the sun.
The leaf stems tug at their chains, the branches bending
like Boer cattle under Tory whips that drag every wagon
nearer to apartheid. And, for me, that closes
the child’s fairy tale of an antic England–fairy rings,
thatched cottages fenced with dog roses,
a green gale lifting the hair of Warwickshire.
I was there to add some color to the British theater.
“But the blacks can’t do Shakespeare, they have no experience.”
This was true. Their thick skulls bled with rancor
when the riot police and the skinheads exchanged quips
you could trace to the Sonnets, or the Moor’s eclipse.
Praise had bled my lines white of any more anger,
and snow had inducted me into white fellowships,
while Calibans howled down the barred streets of an empire
that began with Caedmon’s raceless dew, and is ending
in the alleys of Brixton, burning like Turner’s ships.
I worried that moving north would make the tradition of bluebell hunting on my birthday much harder, and I was right, but on the 22nd of April we still found lots of them, though it seemed perhaps they weren’t quite at their height.
The walk from Altrincham to Durham Massey also wasn’t quite a country walk, but it had its moments.
From the town:
With its suspicious great-coated highwaymen and thieves:
I confess, though, I love these few weeks when we get to walk softly through a world of flower petals:
We had a bit of country lane before arriving at the deer park crawling with human beings (and a few highly indifferent deer):
I confess I didn’t love the house (once belonging to the Earls of Warrington and then Stamford) so much as the old brick outbuildings — some of them from the original Elizabethan period I imagine, like the mill:
The stables (and everything being surrounded by such beautiful stretches of water really helps):
These are places of work, unlike the ostentation of the house which is a thing of Empire. And if you weren’t sure, they immortalised a black figure right dead centre in front of it to remind you:
Not a slave, the plaque is quick to proclaim, but a moor. Cemented into eternal service.
We were there for the bluebells though, I admit I should have chosen a wilder wood, with no memories of slavery and long stretches of bluebells to be stumbled across at will, but ah well. They were beautiful here none the less.
The other spring flowers were also stunning, they have truly done a wonderful job making this a winter/early spring garden with color lasting beyond all of the crocuses and most of the daffodils, but before many of the other flowers are yet out.
The new foliage of the trees:
We walked back to Navigation Road station along the Bridgewater Canal.
Returning to both Victorian industrial splendour in the shape of these 1897 Linotype works (clearly being prepared for what I imagine will be more ugly luxury flats, but I am glad they are keeping the facades at least):
And some more modern splendours of ugliness:
We ended the day with Fast and Furious 8, which was a ridiculous and enjoyable as expected, though this AMC cinema always make me feel as though the apocalypse has already happened when we come in this entrance.
Beginning Postcolonialism by John McLeod was quite good as a starting place for understanding major currents of thought, major debates, and the principal theorists as well as literary figures. For a long time I’ve always felt a bit of disdain for these kinds of introductory books, I’m not sure where that comes from. I think from auto-didactically reading some of the ‘classics’ and finding them so very different from how they were taught me in my early years in school. But as a place to begin, not end, in developing my understanding this was very helpful indeed, and will be worth going back to once I’m a little further along. In terms of learning on one’s own, I actually quite appreciated its format of exposition interspersed with sections highlighting key questions for consideration, and the way it walked the reader through a couple of key theoretical and fictional texts to better illustrate the methodologies used.
I also really appreciate clarity. Perhaps a little too much, but it’s nice to start with the basics. Like this explanation of the debate over using postcolonial versus post-colonial:
the hyphenated term… seems better suited to denote a historical period or epoch, like those suggested by phrases such as ‘after colonialism’ (5)
Without a hyphen?
referring to forms of representation, reading practices, attitudes and values…. postcolonialism does not refer to something which tangibly is, but rather it denotes something which one does: it can describe a way of thinking, a mode of perception, a line of inquiry, and aesthetic practice, a method of investigation. (6)
Ah. Useful, right? This also explained the trajectory, especially within academia, from ‘Commonwealth’ to ‘Postcolonial’ studies — something I’d never quite known about. Another distinction was in the difference between colonialism and imperialism — McLeod cites Peter Childs and Patrick Williams as they argue that imperialism:
is an ideological project which upholds the legitimacy of the economic and military control of one nation by another. They define imperialism as “the extension and expansion of trade and commerce under the protection of political, legal, and military controls.* Colonialism, however, is only one form of practice, one modality of control which results from the ideology of imperialism, and it specifically concerns the settlement of people in a new location. (9)
Again, that is such a nice encapsulation of something I’ve been thinking about a while. Other things are very new indeed, such as the difference between new ‘postcolonial’ critics from earlier literary studies:
…their insistence that historical, geographical and cultural specifics are vital to both the writing and reading of a text, and cannot be so easily bracketed as secondary colouring or background. (18)
Said, orientalism and literary studies
There is the key role that ‘representations’ and ‘modes of perception’ play — these aren’t terms thrown around a great deal across a large portion of the social sciences. In theorising colonial discourses, McLeod draws out the ways that Fanon and Said, for all their differences:
explore the ways that representations and modes of perception are used as fundamental weapons of colonial power to keep colonised peoples subservient to colonial rule. (19)
What together they brought to postcolonial studies was the idea that:
Overturning colonialism, then, is not just about handing land back to its dispossessed people. relinquishing power to those who were once ruled by Empire. It is also a process of overturning the dominant ways of seeing the world, and representing reality in ways which do not replicate colonialist values.(25)
This is slightly different from what I myself pulled from Said or Fanon, coming from a different tradition, so it’s interesting to read more of how Said’s Orientalism has been developed further in literary studies, with three main strands of textual analysis prominent:
re-reading canonical English literature in order to examine if past representations perpetuated or questioned the latent assumption of colonial discourses.. (26)
examining ‘the representations of colonized subjects across a variety of colonial texts’ drawing on Derrida, Foucault, Lacan — Spivak and Bhaba (27)
A look at how ‘literatures were primarily concerned with writing back to the centre, actively engage din a process of questioning and travestying colonial discourses in their work.’ (28)
This included the forming of new ‘englishes’, which I quite love, and am very familiar with having grown up along the border. I find them quite subversive, but think the debate around language is so important — to write in the coloniser’s language, to write in your own, to write the creative hybrids that tend to flourish…
I like the focus on change, on struggle (and the self-reflective debate about the efficacy of postcolonial theory in doing either):
‘postcolonialism’ recognises both historical continuity and change. On the one hand, it acknowledges that the material realities and discursive modes of representation established through colonialism are still very much with us today, even if the political map of the world has altered through decolonisation. But on the other hand, it prizes the promise, the possibility and the continuing necessity of change… (39)
Returning to Fanon, it shows the ways that others have built on his insight that, for the person who is colonised:
Ideology assigns him a role and an identity which he is meant to internalise as proper and true, and he is made subject to its iniquitous and disempowering effects, both psychologically and socially.
McLeod argues that Foucault expands this understanding — and I like this explanation of Foucault’s understanding of power (though I don’t think he cites Fanon, I don’t know if he ever read him):
Although the example of Fanon soberly highlights the pain of being represented pejoratively by other people, Foucault argues that power also worked through gratification. Power is not simply punitive; if it was, it could not function so successfully, gain so much day-to-day support nor ultimately maintain its authority. … Indeed, we might consider that colonial discourses have been successful because they are so productive: they enable some colonisers to feel important, superior, noble and benign, as well as gaining the complicity of the colonised by enabling some people to derive a sense of self-worth and material benefit through their participation in the business of Empire. (45)
More useful summaries of the activities outside my own field — what colonial discourse analysis does:
‘first…refuses the humanist assumption that literary texts exist above and beyond their historical contexts. (46)
‘second…is caught up in the sordid history of colonial exploitation and dispossession…’
third, the attention to the machinery of colonial discourses in the past can act as a means of resourcing resistance to the continuation of colonial representations and realities…. (46)
Texts such as Mansfield Park or Jane Eyre have been as much a part of this analysis as those by writers like Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o or Chinua Achebe. Another key distinction that is nice to just read clearly stated:
‘Orientalism’ and colonial discourse do not amount to the same thing. They are not interchangeable terms. (47)
Just as I found this a very useful summary of Said’s work in headings:
Orientalism constructs binary oppositions
Orientalism is a Western fantasy
Orientalism is institutional
Orientalism is literary and creative
Orientalism is legitimating and self-perpetuating
There is a distinction between ‘latent’ and ‘manifest’ Orientalism
Of course McLeod also summarises the critiques of Said: that Orientalism is ahistorical, that it ignores resistance by the colonised, that it ignores resistance in the West, that it ignores the significance of gender.
But what a foundation to build from. It does feel very contained however. I liked thinking about how Bhaba looks at why the two aspects of orientalism never quite work as they are pulling in two different directions, in his own words:
colonial discourse produces the colonised as a social reality which is at once “other” and yet entirely knowable and visible.’ (63)
So of course there is room here to maneuver.
Bhaba argues that within colonialist representations the colonised subject is always in motion, sliding ambivalently between the polarities of similarity and difference, rationality and fantasy. He or she will simply not stand still. hence the prevalence for stereotypes in colonialist discourses: stereotypes are an attempt to arrest this motion and fix the colonised once and for all. (64-65)
All fail to achieve to fixity, but it is interesting to think of stereotypes in this way.
I haven’t read enough Bhaba, I will fix that. The above insights I find useful and hope to work more with, others I find interesting and am still thinking about, such as his descriptions of the threat of ‘mimicry’:
Hearing their language coming through the mouths of the colonised, the colonisers are faced with the worrying threat of resemblance between coloniser and colonised. This threatens to collapse the Orientalist structure of knowledge… (66)
What I do love, though, is his focus on struggle. For example, Bhaba critiques Said in not seeing
how colonial discourses generate the possibilities of their own critique. (67)
Nationalism and nationalist discourses
There is another chapter on nationalism and nationalist representation, ie negritude and how important these came to be for struggles for independence. This is followed by a chapter of the discussion and critiques that this inspired. Impossible to summarise it, I shall just focus on bits and pieces that jumped out at me, like Gilroy’s lovely definition of race from After Empire:
“race” refers primarily to an impersonal, discursive arrangement, the brutal result of the raciological ordering of the world, not its cause. (132)
The there is Balibar writing about the way that
nationalism always has a reciprocal relation with racism (although the nature of that relation can take many different forms): where one is found, the other is never far away. Therefore, in using nationalist, it is claimed that decolonising peoples are in danger of perpetuating a concept which tends t support divisive processes of racialisation. (133-134)
Again returning to Bhaba’s work, where
nationalist discourses are ultimately illiberal and must always be challenged. (142)
With a quote from Robert Young, McLeod also notes that it is not simply race at play in these discourses:
nationalism is frequently a gendered discourse; it traffics in representations of men and women which serve to reinforce patriarchal inequalities between them. (136)
I wish intersectionality was woven into this discussion, that people like Patricia Hill Collins or bell hooks were quoted and part fo these theoretical discussions. But there is a chapter on feminism, that opens up with a definition from June Hannam that I hadn’t seen before and that I think I like:
a set of ideas that recognize in an explicit way that women are subordinate to men and seek to address imbalances of power between the sexes. Central to feminism is the view that women’s condition is socially constructed, and therefore open to change. At its heart is the belief that women’s voices should be heard — that they should represent themselves, put forward their own view of the words and achieve autonomy in their lives. (Feminism, 2006, 3-4, quoted p 198)
This is where we really start to come to grips with Spivak. McLeod discusses some of the debates and difficulties around naming, the problems that surround the use of ‘first-world’ and ‘third-world’ and yet a need to have some way to mark identities in recognition of power differentials etc. To get around this to some extent — acknowledging its flaws but hoping to salvage what is useful, McLeod writes…
So, although such phrases will be used in this chapter, they remain provisional categories of convenience rather than factual denotations of fixed and stable groups. (200)
I like that way of managing it. Some of the starting points for Spivak…
As poststructuralism would have it, human consciousness is constructed discursively. Our subjectivity and consciousness are constituted by the shifting discourses of power which endlessly ‘speak through’ us, situating us here and there in particular positions and relations. In these terms we are not the authors of ourselves. We do not simply construct our own identities but have them written for us; the subject cannot be wholly ‘sovereign’ over the construction of selfhood. Instead, the subject is ‘de-centred’ in that its consciousness is always being constructed from positions outside itself. (218)
Spivak argues that this is as true for colonial or working class subjects, but Foucault and Deleuze both wrongly often fall into speaking of them as essentialised and centred subjects. I found McLeod’s interpretation of ‘Can the Subaltern Speak’, which I tried to read too long ago and found very difficult, so can’t judge if this is fair but regardless it is quite interesting:
Rather than making the subaltern as female seem to speak, intellectuals must bring to crisis the representation systems which rendered her mute in the first place, challenging the very forms of knowledge that are complicit in her silencing. (221)
I also like Spivak’s idea of ‘strategic essentialism’, which he explains:
involves us in actively choosing to use a concept which we know is flawed, often as a way of challenging the very system which has fashioned that concept in the first place, (222).
I like this mix of theoretical rigor and bowing to practicality, I’ve always meant to try reading Spivak again. I like how much of the postcolonial debate is about how we move forward without erasing the past, about finding the points of hope without turning away from past points of despair.
I like how often these involve ideas of borders, though possibly just because I am from one…
In Bhaba’s thinking, the disruption of received totalising narratives of individual and group identity made possible at the ‘border’ can be described as an ‘uncanny’ moment, where all those forgotten in he construction of, say, national groups return to disturb and haunt such holistic ways of thinking. This uncanny disruption brings with it trauma and anxiety. It serves as a reminder that exclusive, exclusionary systems of meaning are forever haunted by those who are written out and erased. (254)
This is trying to tackle at one of the key questions of our times, I think. How to we come together made stronger by our differences to find justice? McLeod writes:
The problem posed in ‘New Ethnicities’ by Stuart Hall has remained: how are new communities forged which do not homogenise people or ignore the differences between them; communities based on crossings, interactions, partial identifications? Can there be ‘solidarity thorough difference’? (264)
Which is part of why I love Stuart Hall. I love Paul Gilroy’s idea of conviviality as well, though still find it slippery:
Gilroy’s answer lies in the ways in which different cultural practices circulate in the black Atlantic between groups in different locations, creating contingent transnational forms of community. ‘Solidarity through difference’ can be built by plotting the ways in which diaspora peoples in any one location draw upon the resources and ideas of other peoples in different times and places in order to contest the continuing agency of colonialist, nationalist or racist discourses at various sites(267).
This is the hope for the future, this, and as the conclusion emphasises, the habit of ongoing dialogue and reflexivity within the discipline.
[McLeod, John (2010) Beginning Postcolonialism. Manchester and New York: Manchester University Press]
*An Introduction to Post-Colonial Theory, Peter Childs and Patrick Williams, Harvester Wheatsheaf, 1997, p 227
After that hot gospeller has levelled all but the churched sky,
I wrote the tale by tallow of a city’s death by fire;
Under a candle’s eye, that smoked in tears, I
Wanted to tell, in more than wax, of faiths that were snapped like wire.
All day I walked abroad among the rubbled tales,
Shocked at each wall that stood on the street like a liar;
Loud was the bird-rocked sky, and all the clouds were bales
Torn open by looting, and white, in spite of the fire.
By the smoking sea, where Christ walked, I asked, why
Should a man wax tears, when his wooden world fails?
In town, leaves were paper, but the hills were a flock of faiths;
To a boy who walked all day, each leaf was a green breath
Rebuilding a love I thought was dead as nails,
Blessing the death and the baptism by fire. (6)
The sea waits for him, like Penelope’s spindle,
Ravelling, unravelling its foam
Whose eyes bring the rain from far countries, the salt rain
That hazes horizons and races,
Who, crouched by our beach fires, his face cracked by deserts,
Remembering monarchs ask us for water
Fetched in the fragment of an earthen cruse,
and extinguishes Troy in a hissing of ashes,
In a rising of cloud.
Clouds, vigorous exhalations of wet earth,
In men and in beasts the nostrils exalting in rain scent,
Uncoiling like mist, the wound of the jungle,
We praise those whose back on hillsides buckles on the wind
To sow the grain of Guinea in the mouths of the dead,
Who, hurling their bone-needled nets over the cave mouth,
Harvest ancestral voices from its surf.
Who, lacking knowledge of metals, primarily of gold,
Still gather the coinage of cowries, simple numismatists,
Who kneel in the open sarcophagi of cocoa
To hallow the excrement of our martyrdom and fear,
Whose sweat, touching earth, multiplies in crystals of sugar
Those who conceive the birth of white cities in a raindrop
And the annihilation of races in the prism of the dew. (15-16)
Just communities, just cities, Just connections between country and city. Also, the weird and wonderful.