Shooting stars ten histo.., p.1
Shooting Stars: Ten Historical Miniatures,
Flight into Immortality
The Conquest of Byzantium
The Resurrection of George Frideric Handel
The Genius of a Night
The Field of Waterloo
The Discovery of El Dorado
The First Word to Cross the Ocean
The Race to Reach the South Pole
The Sealed Train
Also Available from Pushkin Press
About the Publisher
NO ARTIST is an artist through the entire twenty-four hours of his normal day; he succeeds in producing all that is essential, all that will last, only in a few, rare moments of inspiration. History itself, which we may admire as the greatest writer and actor of all time, is by no means always creative. Even in “God’s mysterious workshop”, as Goethe reverently calls historical knowledge, a great many indifferent and ordinary incidents happen. As everywhere in life and art, sublime moments that will never be forgotten are few and far between. As a chronicler, history generally does no more than arrange events link by link, indifferently and persistently, fact by fact in a gigantic chain reaching through the millennia, for all tension needs a time of preparation, every incident with any true significance has to develop. Millions of people in a nation are necessary for a single genius to arise, millions of tedious hours must pass before a truly historic shooting star of humanity appears in the sky.
But if artistic geniuses do arise, they will outlast their own time; if such a significant hour in the history of the world occurs, it will decide matters for decades and centuries yet to come. As the electricity of the entire atmosphere is discharged at the tip of a lightning conductor, an immeasurable wealth of events is then crammed together in a small span of time. What usually happens at a leisurely pace, in sequence and due order, is concentrated into a single moment that determines and establishes everything: a single Yes, a single No, a Too Soon or a Too Late makes that hour irrevocable for hundreds of generations while deciding the life of a single man or woman, of a nation, even the destiny of all humanity.
Such dramatically compressed and fateful hours, in which a decision outlasting time is made on a single day, in a single hour, often just in a minute, are rare in the life of an individual and rare in the course of history. In this book I am aiming to remember the hours of such shooting stars—I call them that because they outshine the past as brilliantly and steadfastly as stars outshine the night. They come from very different periods of time and very different parts of the world. In none of them have I tried to give a new colour or to intensify the intellectual truth of inner or outer events by means of my own invention. For in those sublime moments when they emerge, fully formed, history needs no helping hand. Where the muse of history is truly a poet and a dramatist, no mortal writer may try to outdo her.
FLIGHT INTO IMMORTALITY
THE DISCOVERY OF THE PACIFIC OCEAN
25 September 1513
A SHIP IS FITTED OUT
When he first returned from the newly discovered continent of America, Columbus had displayed countless treasures and curiosities on his triumphal procession through the crowded streets of Seville and Barcelona: human beings of a race hitherto unknown, with reddish skins; animals never seen before; colourful, screeching parrots; slow-moving tapirs; then strange plants and fruits that would soon find a new home in Europe—Indian corn, tobacco, the coconut. The rejoicing throng marvels at all these things, but the royal couple and their counsellors are excited above all by a few boxes and baskets containing gold. Columbus does not bring much gold back from the new Indies: a few pretty things that he has bartered with the natives, or stolen from them, a few small bars and several handfuls of loose grains, gold dust rather than solid gold—the whole of it at most enough to mint a few hundred ducats. But the inspired Columbus, who always fanatically believes whatever he wants to believe at any given time, and who has been so gloriously proved right about his sea route to India, boasts effusively and in all honesty that this is only a tiny foretaste. Reliable news, he adds, has reached him of gold mines of immeasurable extent on these new islands; only just below the surface, the precious metal, he says, lies under a thin layer of soil in many fields, and you can easily dig it out with an ordinary spade. Farther south, however, there are realms where the kings drink from golden goblets, and gold is worth less than lead at home in Spain. The ever-avaricious king listens, intoxicated to hear of this new Ophir that now belongs to him. No one yet knows Columbus and his sublime folly well enough to doubt his promises. A great fleet is fitted out at once for the second voyage, and now there is no need for recruiting officers and drummers to find men to join it. Word of the newly discovered Ophir, where you can pick up gold from the ground with your bare hands, sends all Spain mad; people come in their hundreds, their thousands to travel to El Dorado, the land of gold.
But what a dismal tidal wave of humanity is now cast up by greed from every city, every village, every hamlet. Not only do honourable noblemen arrive, wishing to gild their coats of arms, not only are there bold adventurers and brave soldiers; all the filthy scum of Spain is also washed up in Palos and Cádiz. There are branded thieves, highwaymen and footpads hoping to find a more profitable trade in the land of gold; there are debtors who want to escape their creditors and husbands hoping to get away from scolding wives; all the desperadoes and failures, branded criminals and men sought by the Alguacil justices volunteer for the fleet, a motley band of failures who are determined that they will make their fortunes at long last, in an instant too, and to that end are ready to commit any act of violence and any crime. They have told one another the fantasies of Columbus, repeating that in those lands you have only to thrust a spade into the ground to see nuggets of gold glinting up at you, and the prosperous among the emigrants hire servants and mules to carry large quantities of the precious metal away. Those who do not succeed in being taken on by the expedition find another way: never troubling to get the royal permission, coarse-grained adventurers fit out ships for themselves, in order to cross the ocean as fast as they can and get their hands on gold, gold, gold. And at a single stroke, Spain is rid of troublemakers and the most dangerous kind of rabble.
The Governor of Española (later San Domingo and Haiti) is horrified to see these uninvited guests overrunning the island entrusted to his care. Year after year the ships bring new freight and increasingly rough, unruly fellows. The newcomers, in turn, are bitterly disappointed. There is no sign of gold lying loose on the road, and not another grain of corn can be got out of the unfortunate native inhabitants on whom these brutes descend. So hordes of them wander around, intent on robbery, terrifying the unhappy Indios and the governor alike. The latter tries in vain to make them colonists by showing them where land may be had, giving them cattle, and indeed ample supplies of human cattle in the form of sixty to seventy native inhabitants as slaves to work for every one of them. But neither the high-born hidalgos nor the former footpads have a mind to set up as farmers. They didn’t come here to grow wheat and herd cattle; instead of putting their minds to sowing seed and harvesting crops, they torment the unfortunate Indios—they will have eradicated the entire indigenous population within a few years—or sit around in taverns. Within a short time most of them are so deep in debt that after their goods they have to sell their hats and coats, their last shirts, and they fall into the clutches of traders and usurers.
So in 1510 all these failures on Española are glad to hear that a well-regarded man from the island, the bachiller or lawyer Martín Fernandez de Enciso, i
THE MAN IN THE CRATE
And so, with all sail set, Enciso’s ship leaves Española and steers towards the American mainland. The outlines of the island it has left behind are already merging with the blue horizon. It is a calm voyage, and there is nothing in particular to be said about its early stages, or at most we may note that a huge and extremely powerful bloodhound—a son of the famous Becericco, who has become famous himself under the name of Leoncico—prowls restlessly up and down the deck, sniffing around everywhere. No one knows who owns the mighty animal or how he came on board. Finally the crew notice that the dog cannot be prised away from a particularly large crate of provisions that was brought aboard at the last minute. But lo and behold, this crate unexpectedly opens of its own accord, and out climbs a man of about thirty-five, well armed with sword, helmet and shield like Santiago, the patron saint of Castile. He is Vasco Núñez de Balboa, giving us the first evidence of his astonishing boldness and resource. Born in Jerez de los Caballeros of a noble family, he had sailed for the New World with Rodrigo de Bastidas as a private soldier and finally, after many wanderings, was stranded off Española along with his ship. The governor had tried in vain to make Núñez de Balboa into a good colonist; after a few months he had abandoned his allotted parcel of land and was bankrupt, and at a loss for a way to escape his creditors. But while the other debtors, clenching their fists, stare from the beach at the government boats that prevent them from getting away on Enciso’s ship, Núñez de Balboa circumvents Diego Columbus’s cordon by hiding in an empty provisions crate and getting accomplices to carry him aboard, where no one notices his cunning trick in all the tumult of putting out to sea. Only when he knows the ship is so far from the coast that the crew are unlikely to sail back to Española on his account does the stowaway emerge, and now here he is.
The bachiller Enciso is a man of law, and like lawyers in general has little romanticism in his soul. As Alcalde, chief of police in the new colony, he does not intend to put up with dubious characters. He brusquely informs Núñez de Balboa that he is not going to have him on his ship, but will put him ashore on the beach of the next island they pass, whether or not it is inhabited.
However, it never comes to that. For even as the ship is making for Castilla del Oro it meets—miraculously, in a time when only a few dozen vessels in all sail these still-unfamiliar seas—a heavily manned boat under a commander whose name will soon echo through the world, Francisco Pizarro. The men in the boat are from Enciso’s colony of San Sebastián, and at first they are taken for mutineers who have left their posts of their own accord. But to Enciso’s horror, they tell him there is no San Sebastián left, they themselves are the former colonists, their commander Ojeda has made off with one ship, the rest, who had only two brigantines, had to wait until all but seventy colonists had died before they could find room for themselves in the two small boats. One of those brigantines has been wrecked in its own turn; Pizarro’s thirty-five men are the last survivors of Castilla del Oro. So now where are they to go? After hearing Pizarro’s tale, Enciso’s men have no taste for braving the swamp-like climate and the natives’ poison-tipped arrows in the abandoned settlement; turning back to Española seems to them the only option. At this dangerous moment, Vasco Núñez de Balboa suddenly steps forward. He explains that after going on his first voyage with Rodrigo de Bastidas, he knows the whole coast of Central America, and he remembers that at the time of that voyage they found a place called Darién on the bank of a gold-bearing river where the natives were friendly. They should found the new settlement there, he suggests, not in this unhappy place.
At once the whole crew comes down on Núñez de Balboa’s side. In line with his proposition, they steer for Darién on the Panama isthmus, where they first indulge in the usual slaughter of the natives, and as some gold is found among the goods they rob, the desperadoes decide to found a settlement here, in pious gratitude naming the new town Santa María de la Antigua del Darién.
A DANGEROUS RISE
The unfortunate financier of the colony, the bachiller Enciso, will soon be sorry he did not throw the crate overboard with Núñez de Balboa inside it, for after a few weeks that audacious man has all the power in his hands. As a lawyer who grew up believing in order and discipline, Enciso tries to administer the colony on behalf of the Spanish Crown in his capacity as Alcalde, the chief of police of the governor, who cannot be found just now, and enacts his edicts as sternly in the wretched huts of the Indios as if he were sitting in his legal chambers in Seville. In the middle of this wilderness where no humans have ever trod before, he forbids the soldiers to haggle over gold with the natives, gold being reserved for the Crown; he tries to force this undisciplined rabble to observe law and order, but the adventurers instinctively back a man of the sword rather than a man of the pen. Soon Balboa is the real master of the colony; Enciso has to flee to save his life, and when Nicuesa, one of the governors appointed to the mainland by the king, finally arrives to enforce the law Balboa refuses to let him land. The unhappy Nicuesa, hunted out of the land allotted to him by the king, drowns on the voyage back.
So now Núñez de Balboa, the man from the crate, lords it over the colony. But in spite of his success he does not feel very comfortable about it. He has openly rebelled against the king, and can hardly hope for pardon because it is his fault that the appointed governor is dead. He knows that Enciso, who has fled, is on his way to Spain with his complaints, and sooner or later he, Balboa, will be brought to trial for his rebellion. All the same, Spain is far away, and he has plenty of time left, all the time it takes for a ship to cross the ocean twice. Being as clever as he is bold, he looks for the only way to hold the power he has usurped for as long as possible. He knows that at this time success justifies all crimes, and a large delivery of gold to the royal treasury may well moderate or delay any punishment. So first he must lay hands on gold, for gold is power! Together with Francisco Pizarro, he subjugates and robs the indigenous people of the vicinity, and in the midst of the usual slaughter he achieves a crucial success. One of the natives, Careta by name, suggests that as he is already likely to die he might prefer not to make enemies of the Indios, and instead conclude an alliance with Careta’s own tribe, offering him his daughter’s hand as a pledge of his own good faith. Núñez de Balboa immediately recognizes the importance of having a reliable and powerful friend among the natives; he accepts Careta’s offer, and—what is even more surpris
This visit to the powerful Indio chief ushers in a decision of great importance to international history as well as to the life of Vasco Núñez de Balboa, who has hitherto been only a desperado and bold rebel against the Crown of Spain, destined by the law courts of Castile to die by the axe or the noose. Comagre receives him in a stone house with spacious rooms, a dwelling that astonishes Vasco Núñez by the wealth of its furnishings; and, unasked, the chieftain makes his guest a present of 4,000 ounces of gold. And now it is Comagre’s turn to be astonished, for as soon as the Sons of Heaven, the mighty and godlike strangers whom he has received with such reverence, set eyes on the gold there is an end to their dignity. Like dogs let off the chain they attack one another, swords are drawn, fists clenched, they shout and rage, every man wants his own share of the gold. The Indio chief watches the disorder in scornful surprise; his is the eternal amazement of children of nature the world over at those cultured people to whom a handful of yellow metal appears more precious than all the intellectual and technical achievements of their civilization.
At last the native chief addresses them, and with a shiver of greed the Spaniards hear what the interpreter translates. How strange, says Comagre, that you quarrel with each other over such small things, that you expose your lives to the utmost discomfort and danger for the sake of such a common metal. Over there, beyond those mountains, lies a huge lake, and all the rivers that flow into it bring gold down with them. A people live there who have ships like yours, with sails and oars, and their kings eat and drink from golden vessels. You can find as much of this yellow metal there as you want. It is a dangerous journey, for the chieftains on the way will certainly refuse to let you pass, but it would take only a few days.