It is a tempting counter-narrative that during his third voyage Christopher Columbus may have literally “stumbled” upon Iere on August 31, 1498. Iere is the land of the hummingbird to the First Peoples, who were already here when Columbus arrived.
Admittedly, the counter-narrative of “stumbling” does not exactly valorise Columbus. It leaves behind a ripple of disquiet when looking upwards at his statues, with his feet firmly rooted in pedestals.
Still, I want to offer up the counter-narrative that Columbus may not have danced a jig when Iere was sighted, as our son-of-the-soil, the eminent historian Michael Anthony has pointed out. It is a good time for counter-narratives; finally, the wind is in our sails now that a pivot has occurred, and many marginalised voices are holding the centre.
Our late historian, Angelo Bissessarsingh, according to his research, and writing in the Trinidad Guardian on July 15, 2012, tells us on August 31, 1498, crew member Alonzo Perez, “native of Huelva in Spain, sighted three points of land from the mast of the brigantine Vaqueños… Upon receiving the intelligence that land had been sighted and the description of the three peaks, Columbus immediately christened the new land ‘La Trinidad’ in honour of the Holy Trinity”.
From this account, it appears Columbus may not have been on deck. If this is so, then it means he did not gaze directly upon the Northern Range’s three-peaked majesty when he put quill to ink.
Indeed, if Columbus had come up from his quarters, then he would have probably done so with a stumble, hobbled as he was with gout, or what could have been severe arthritis.
Bissessarsingh adds that Columbus did not land, which is in itself a remarkable feat, since his statues stand today with feet too-firmly cemented inland, in Port of Spain and Moruga. It is tempting to think Columbus was in too much physical pain to leave the comfort of his quarters and set an ailing foot onshore, being mindful of his reduced mobility.
Perhaps, he was also aware of his rank as Gran Almirante del Océano. This means he was mindful of the optics: how his disability would impact on his elevated stature in the raised eyebrows of the crew – that it would not do to issue orders while leaning on Perez’s stabilising shoulder. Then there is the unflattering image of weakened leadership, which would not really impress the wide, staring eyes gazing out from among the trees above the shoreline.
It also seems north Iere was not the first attempted entry point for the Vaqueños. We know Columbus was being kept up-to-date with “intelligence” while suffering in his captain’s quarters, no doubt his ailing leg elevated from the amplifying roll and pitch of the brigantine. It means he was aware the ship had encountered hostility after “several anchorages” were repelled by arrows from the First Peoples at Icacos.
The hostility in itself is also quite interesting: that in the face of First Peoples’ resistance, and given the superiority of forged weapons on board the Vaqueños, Columbus chose not to land encased in armour and driven by the iron will of Spain.
Perhaps this inaction was part of his “stumble” – that due to his painful affliction, the eminent admiral did not wish to engage hostile, resisting First Peoples. It would not do to have them gaze with wonder, arrows notched in their bows, at his eminence making painful landfall, and then hobbling onshore while leading the charge.
Surely, such a landing was unworthy of a conqueror; it would not do to display such a leveling display of human frailty. It does not bode well to arrive as a god-like conqueror, only to be defeated by the slings and arrows of swollen toes.
What was needed was a conqueror confidently striding onto shore and planting the fluttering Spanish flag proprietarily, for all the ages, into the vast array of First Peoples’ footprints leading inland. What was not good optics was wading onshore with unsteady, halting steps, occasionally leaning on the flagpole as a walking cane.
Six years earlier the narrative flowing from Columbus’ quill was a healthier one. On November 12, 1492, perhaps he had danced a jig on deck, gazing excitedly at “the newly-named Rio de Mares”, as Jennifer Wenzel describes in Petrocultures: Oil, Politics, Culture, her paper titled, “Afterword: Improvement and Overburden”.
As Columbus wrote, “The mouth of this river forms the best harbour I have yet seen; being wide, deep and free from shoals, with a fine situation for a town and fortifications where ships may lie close along the shore, the land high, with a good air and fine streams of water”.
He would have made this assessment as an eye-witness, not from second-hand “intelligence”, while casting his encompassing, acquisitive gaze from the ship’s deck. Such a sheltered lay of sea and land was ideal for a port of Spain, that space inhabiting both the fluid and terra firma, one foot in the ocean, the other rooted solidly onto land, the site ideal for development, and for extracting projected, future inventory.
The prospect of wealth extraction, envisioned by his assessing, roving gaze, dances off the tip of his quill. It is this prospect that Wenzel, citing Mary Louise Pratt’s text, Imperial Eyes: Studies in Travel Writing and Transculturation, notes as Columbus’ assessment of bounty using the “improving eye”: “gold, spices, cotton, aloe, and mastic to be traded, as well as pliant souls to be converted”.
Then six years later, Columbus’ narrative stumbled as he grew weak, either with the gout, or arthritis. On that day of August 31, the Vaqueños left behind the not-so “pliant souls to be converted” in Iere’s south, and sailing along the west coast, arrived at a sheltered isthmus in the north, similar to the “Rio de Mares”.
It was yet another promising site for settlement and a port for extraction. Now it was sufficient to merely claim ownership, rename Iere, note its location, the extractive possibilities, and sail on. The isthmus was an ideal spot for yet another port of Spain; it was all he needed to record for now. For the world-weary, gout-afflicted traveler, explorer of “new” worlds and grand admiral of the ocean, the more southern part of an emergent archipelago had become déjà vu.
Columbus was sailing away from the yet-to-be-christened Puerto d’España, Port of Spain. We know he did not land; and that perhaps, incapacitated by the tropical heat and gout, he chose to prayerfully remain in his quarters, coincidentally stumbling upon Iere even as he contemplated the Holy Trinity.
Maybe he left his captain’s quarters later, coming on deck to enjoy a refreshing August squall, the eternal rainy season clouds happily sailing in the opposite direction, on its way to baptise the three peaks.