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When Columbus Freed the Slaves and Other Tales of Caribbean Colonialism

photo (1)I’ve been shadowing Columbus.

Lying awake, listening to the bachata coming from the disco next door, I think of Virginia Woolf’s line—“Music had become visible. That was a discovery.” The electric arpeggios and percussion appear as if inscribed in the settled air of 3:30 in the morning, full of an exhilarated yearning that has pulled me from my dreams. High tenor voices shivering in a giddy testosterone rush, violence held in check by the rhetoric of romance. It’s the sound of this nation, on the radio stations in the taxis, blaring from speakers outside second-hand clothing shops selling American relief donations brought from Haiti—“Ropa de pa’ca.”

Later I look out the window of the speeding guagua at the fields newly lit by the sun—the tall coconut palms, cows grazing beneath them, a white scattering of egrets. The jutting hills, emerald after the rain. I can see the history of the slave plantation in the face of the woman in the front seat, her smooth dark skin, her straightened hair, in the face of the driver with his eyes the color of almonds.

The Dominican Republic, Saint-Domingue, Hispaniola, Ayiti. The Pearl of the Antilles in the twenty-first century. The island that made Europe rich—sugarcane fields still line the roads leading to the city of Puerto Plata, now intermixed with resort developments and love motels. Farmers and prostitutes, fishermen, Haitian children selling bags of roasted peanuts from bowls they carry on their hips, covered with dishtowels. This is where the New World plantation began. This is its epicenter. But there are no crumbling plantation houses, no slave quarters—no signs pointing to tourist attractions like the ones you see scattered across the U.S. South. The plantation has not been folded into the mythology of this place, into the stories people tell themselves. The plantation past holds no mystique here that I have found.Columbus_landing_on_Hispaniola

The stark, alarming face of Columbus, however, stares out from the wall of the local elementary school with startling pale eyes. If the totem of the evil eye did come from white colonizers’ blue gaze—the stare that could terrify, and, appropriated, defend—Columbus’s gaze is a warning that has come too late.

Like him, I’ve come here under sail. This form of travel is rigorously antimodern, a kind of time travel that illuminates some of the basic dramas of modernity. The meaning of passages from one reality to another, the sheer unknowing, the purposeful, misguided seeking that resolved itself into what we call the history of the New World. It makes plain why mariners have seen the work of gods in the winds and been attuned to omens—the baroque superstitions that still, to this day, have not been explained away.

I live on a sailboat. I have a life that many people have told me is their dream, or somebody’s dream. It never occurred to me that this could be a dream. It was the result of a pragmatic decision, the result of a few things. Overwork; visions of fossil fuel and apocalypse; Hurricane Katrina. I became an exile, one small node in a network of collective mourning. The New Orleans paper reported people were killing themselves and that made sense to me. Water was the element—the enemy to hold close. I stopped trying to get a full-time tenure-track job teaching English (that was my dream, and sometimes now in my sleep hiring committees come to me and offer me positions, and I turn them down, always ambivalently). I took off for Mexico and beyond. By now I have left behind almost everything.

Sailing is about time, about having time, about being part of time, not separated from it by artificial measures. It’s about not being able to move faster than the elements are moving, about being thrust back into—not harmony, because harmony is hard-earned—into proximity with nature. It is a meditation, a real meditation, deeply uncomfortable, that throws you up against the limits of your (for lack of a better word) soul. I’m not a natural sailor. I’m drawn to that sublime and it repulses me.

At anchor in the broad, shallow bay at Black Point, Mayaguana, I read Christopher Reeve’s memoir, written after his accident, in which he describes waking up every day and having to remember that his body was a dead, immobile thing. A stone attached to his brain. Waking up with a mind full of possibilities and having to remember that loss, over and over. I try to remember not to take for granted my ability to move but it seems impossible. Mostly I feel haunted by visions of disaster. We’re on our way to Samana Cay, an island where some scientists back in the eighties determined that Columbus first made landfall in the Americas. We arrive. From where I’m standing in the rigging I can see submarine outcroppings of staghorn coral, some rising nearly to the surface. On the other side is a stretch of sand with plastic bottles at the tide line. Then spare, raw emptiness.

Living in this future primitive I now know you can’t pick and choose the past. Like el Almirante, right now we are concerned about the shallows. About weather. Weather hasn’t changed. These are the same prevailing winds, this is the same swell direction. Now and 500 years ago, the thinking is coming from the boat. Without the boat, you are a castaway. The people we meet see us as self-contained, somewhat outrageous. We are, at the same time, representatives of pa’ca. Almost all the sailors I’ve met in this part of the world are white people. You ask yourself, what is time?

photoThe sky, empty of clouds—the wind, blowing in big ugly gusts, kicking up the waves. The entrance to Salt River Bay, a rough-edged body on the north side of St. Croix. Columbus’s sailors dinghied in. There they “liberated some Taino slaves” (according to the National Park Service). And now this is the site of the first recorded armed struggle by natives against Columbus’s mission—a skirmish over slaves, no less, if the reports can be believed.

There’s an eco-tourism outfit based here, kayaks with white college students and intrepid retirees out in the moonlight on the bioluminescent bay, smacking the water with paddles, somebody falling in and radiating circles of brilliant green under the thin edge of moon. Belonging—who belongs here now?

Going back means encountering yourself as a subject in ways that are unexpected, means participating in an uneasy relationship of privilege and being at a disadvantage—of being seen while only dimly seeing. That is to say, there is only so much you can drop out of.

Now I understand in a way I never did before that enough discomforts stitched together, enough arguments, enough moments of trying to find water, and money, and food, enough moments spent searching, and you get the colonization of the New World.

Columbus renamed this island La Isla Española, but soon the gaps between the letters disappeared. The place where the plantation began is also the place where, arguably, it’s most clear that it has never ended. There has been little resolution, no happy ending. The plantation—where is it? I bring a reminder of it on the tide of old technology, in the pulse of all that has not changed. Standing over the skull and ribcage of a small Spaniard felled by pox, one of Columbus’s party in the settlement of La Isabela—the first attempt to settle, really settle, this part of the world. The mountains of Haiti are bluegreen in the distance—keeping their own counsel.

Jessica Adams, on the path of the blazing sarong.

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