Years before the stumbling upon the so-called New World the Portuguese had already penetrated the Western coast of Africa to bring home gold dust, strange fruits and African slaves. They beat back the bush like a lion tamer with a whip and leave but nothingness in their wake. They conduct business with others who can not fathom the destiny of this trade. In this continent that is called Africa, humanity’s vanity falls to its knees in the presence of alien creations and lives are exchanged for glass beads, for caps and clothes that hang suspect on the new-owner’s skin. The story is one that will become a universal one— Lives exchanged for trinkets.
Portugal dominates the global stage then. Columbus, married to the daughter of a Portuguese nobleman, is witness to the rise of this empire. It is a convenient marriage for them both—he procures access to the Royal Court and her family relief from their poverty.
The exploration of the Atlantic and the pushing back of the Horizon is in the air. The magnitude of the destruction can not be reckoned with, especially among a people who do not fear death. Fortresses are built and Portugal’s only real enemy is not the people who inhabit this coast, but from within, as such, she can not look without.
Fast forward and so Columbus enters Spain a 34 year-old widowed destitute .He will not make history until he is 39. Columbus’ success hangs on serendipity: Spain fights the crescent with the cross and sweeps it’s Jews out of its way. What is at stake in the end is not the amount of gold, or even how large the empire. What is at stake, in the end, is the way in which history is written. Like a jealous sister, Spain is bent on eclipsing her sister, Portugal. Spain is interested in Columbus’ ideas, but she is distracted. He approaches Portugal yet again, but this time at the height of her African triumph. Columbus finds that Portugal, having found the sea route to the Indies along Africa’s coast, is now in want of nothing. Truly it can be said that one man’s discovery is ( wittingly or unwittingly), the other man’s destruction. He does not allow himself to be destroyed. Spain continues her battle against the moors, where even Isabella herself dons armor and sword. Granada falls and a spirit of invincibility intoxicates the Spanish crown enough to give in to the folly of Columbus.
So in the end Columbus sets sail to convert the heathens he already assumes are out there, while hopefully fattening the purse of the Spanish treasury. In his possession is a letter of introduction from the King and Queen of Spain, a crude compass that is not reliable and a crew of 90 or so men, disgruntled to be under the command of a foreigner.
For a foreigner Columbus is. Remember, he is Genoese and like his crew, he has his prejudices. Venetians, as far as he is concerned, can not be trusted, although it is Marco Polo he adores. But when the Spanish Court grants Columbus his wish they, of course do it at another’s expense. The town of Palo would be the town so honored to supply Columbus with two ships and a crew. Its citizens hear of this honor in a former mosque, now church, at a mass. From Palos was given the Nina and Pinta—the girl and the whore. But let us not forget Santa Maria’s humble beginnings—first as Naughty Mary and then to Holy Mary. But foreigner or not, Columbus is successful in launching, finally his dream-- this journey to Cipangu that promises to make him Admiral of the Sea and finally, rich.
From its port he sails to XX, the ancient land of the Quenches, or man of Tenerife, who years before have suffered the very same fate their so-called New World brothers are destined to face, for is it not one of the universal aspects of humanity—to conquer, or be conquered.
Today Andrew sweeps the front steps. His broom is made of straw and the sun is, as usual, hot. He is barefoot, as he owns no shoes. As a testament to this, his toes are spread neatly away from each other, something he will later curse because it makes wearing shoes a labor. His hair is silky black and every time he sweeps, it falls in front of his eyes. His young head is bowed, because he does not want to be seen. He is ashamed that he has to do this work where every one can see, even though his mother encourages it. Vishal don’t be shame, is good he like you. That way your life end up better than we. But he does not want a life that is better than his parents if it means he must live away from them. As he sweeps he notices the grains of dirt that falls through the floorboards of the steps. Each straw of the broom forms lines of dust and no matter how often he sweeps the steps, the lines never seem to disappear and the dust falls between the cracks. It is, of course, hot.
The Indians, except for Andrew live in the barracks on the Estate. The barracks is made of thin wood and covered with corrugated iron. There is no toilet, just a hole in a shed outside. Andrew is part of the first generation to be born on this soil, and unlike so many of the other Indians his parents had traveled here on the boat with, his parents do not talk about home as there, but as here. Don’t take on what they saying about home Vishal—it is easy to make it a Paradise when you here, and so easy to forget the hell that is there. Andrew sometimes wonders about his father. He sometimes wonders why his father seems to be so different than so many of the other Indians. He wonders why his father yells at the others when they laugh at the Africans behind their backs, calling them XX. Andrew wonders why it troubles his father so.
Every evening, if the weather allows, the Indians gather around a fire and eat their food. On this practice Frances’ father had once commented, “See how smart they are? They have not forgotten to sit together and eat together” They gather around the fire, and the women dish out steaming curry channa and potatoes from black pots. They wear their riches on their arms: gold bracelets from wrists to elbows, their saris the colors of tropical flowers—fuchsia and yellows and grasshopper greens. Their skin is as dark as their creole neighbors but they speak to each other in their own tongue. They wear no shoes and understanding innately the language and order of the universe, gravitate to rivers no matter where in the world they may roam. They are called coolies without realizing the pride inherent in being able enough and strong enough to share the burden of building this new world. They too have come by boat, but unlike the other people of the boat they are allowed to pack in their hearts, never to be forgotten, their languages and their customs. There tongues are not cut out. They bring silken saris, curry and their multitude of gods of goddesses. They are allowed to bow down to candied colored deities and revere the idol. They are indentured laborers, shipped from India, to act, unknowingly, as yet another nail in the black man’s coffin. But theirs is not an easy journey along broken promises and upon broken backs. Together these people spawn villages which they baptize with names from home—Patna and Chaguanas. They are the real Indians, the people to whom this land once belonged, now forever gone and invisible—unwritten into oblivion.
But these invisible people—Andrew knows all about. His father, an indentured laborer is Blasini’s stableman. He takes care of the horses and when he is not at work, he takes the little boy out to the bush where they squat alongside the river and he tells his son stories of the people who are now ghosts. His father uses bark of the hibiscus to clean his teeth, and he teaches his son to do the same. He tells his son the story of the ghosts in his own language, a language that Andrew can not repeat but can understand without thinking. In this language there are pat-tat-tats and beats and rhythms that drum up these ghosts and Andrew’s father’s stories come up as songs. His father, crouching by the river, with feet which are browner than the soil, tells his son about people who lived here and climbed trees and whistled like the birds and who fought each other and loved each other very much like people, from the beginning of time, no matter where in the world they came from, have always done. It is from his father that Andrew learns of the beautiful face of humanity and it will be from his cousin that he learns of its ugliness.
Andrew’s father tells him about the Indians who they brought to Santa Cruz to work the fields. He told Andrew that they wanted the Indians to forget themselves so that in the end, they will be forgotten. He told Andrew how they hoped that in separating them, they will not fight anymore. “Indians?” Andrew is confused. His father laughs and disposes of the chewed up hibiscus branch. There is a little stream that whispers as it flows past. “Yes, Indians—but they do not come from India like we do. But we do not really know what they call themselves.”
That is why, his father explains, it is important we still talk about them. He continues the story of how the Indians, who were not really Indians, were brought to Santa Cruz away from their own people so that they will forget. He tells Andrew how they scattered the Indians, far away from each other. But one day, one is insulted. There are two who take care of the Church’s garden and the priest slaps one of them. He slaps him because he thinks that they work slowly deliberately and that through their slow work, they mock him. He does not like that these two workers speak to each other in a tongue he does not recognize. It makes him, this man of the cloth feel foolish. So he slaps one of these workers. There is only so much insult a man can take, he tells his son, without his son really understanding what he means, but it is a something that he will remember in his adulthood. So they strike back, and they find it hard to hold back their blows once the opportunity to defend themselves presents itself. But even then, to win is not to kill—to win is to humiliate. They disrobe him in his unconsciousness and together, they make a cry known only to their own, and cry that trouble will soon be on their heals, yet again. They must run into the bush and dive into the sea. They run through the bush and jump off that cliff—it is a cliff that Andrew can see. No one knows whatever became of them, he tells his young son. Many say that whenever you see a hummingbird, it is their spirits—their wings never taking rest from flight, for to them it seemed that no matter where they stopped, so would they be confronted by this white death., and so they too, will never know rest.
When Andrew is alone with his father along this river, he cares about nothing else but smelling the effort of a day’s work waft from his skin and being able to lay his head on his father’s bare shoulder blade. Sometimes they sit like this in silence, listening to the wild chatter of the monkeys and tropical birds. Once they sat at the edge of the river and another man, a creole, a black man came upon the other side with his own son. Together the four men stood, opposite each other, mirror images of each other’s fates. Here now Vishal, Andrew’s father says, no mind they hair different from we, we all come from the same place. Andrew’s heart felt full.
Andrew likes the other black people who do not quite look like them. Some of the other Indians who live in the barracks do not like them—they envy them their position on the Estate. For some, it is an affront that they are allowed to live in their own houses. Andrew’s father tells him, hear now the foolishness they does carry on with. There is a reason all of we leave India, and here they acting like what it is we think we leave behind. Although Andrew’s feet have never tread upon Indian soil, his father has taken him there, he has said, Vishal—hear now how much India love you—she give you this blackness, and his father would caress his skin in the way one would touch a thing of great value. Hear now Vishal the blackness is gold. And his eyes would twinkle as he gently stroked the lush mane of Blasini’s favorite horse.
Andrew’s father would tell him of a time before the ships and the white men and would prophesize, hear now Vishal—look at all of we, look at how much of we there is, they can not last for long, we go take over one day, I promise you one day, is just us that will be here and we go do it in peace, but it just us will be here. When he said this Andrew would grow sad. Although just eight, Andrew had now discovered that thing which tears at one’s heart—to possess or to be possessed. He liked Blasini. Blasini let him stay in the house even though Pa did not like it. The first night Andrew slept there was the first time his father took a tamarind switch to his skin, but on the Estate, Andrew learned, that the will of the brown man does not count. In the end, Andrew stayed in the house with Blasini, serving him white bread with Jam and filling his glasses with fresh goats milk. It is true that he did not have a nice, big room to himself like Louis. Although Louis is Andrew’s cousin, he is also Blasini’s nephew. Every day Blasini sits with him and teaches him the mystery contained within the books.
It is hard for Andrew to stomach the sight of Blasini teaching Louis to read. It is hard for him to understand why he teaches Louis, and acts as though Andrew is invisible. Andrew swallows hard whenever his cousin sees him scrubbing the floors or shining Blasini’s shoes. But no matter how hard he swallows, he feels himself swallowed by the shame that burns his skin. He can not understand why he is not allowed to go to read. He wonders how it is expected that he will be anything other than a houseboy if he is not allowed to go to learn. He has asked his father to teach him, but Pa turned away from him in silence. But these are silences that the children of the Estate are born into, silences that muffle their hearts and stifle their dreams. But Andrew is not a lesser man and he knows that he is destined to go beyond the white painted sign that reads Blasini’s Estates one day, and when he does, he knows he will take his princess.
What he loves about Frances, as he sees her now, although not resting his eyes on her, but seeing her nevertheless is the way in which she treads the land, as though she is not of the land. Frances is the daughter of Paul Lopez—a Venezuelan come to Trinidad to plant cocoa and whatever else the soil will take. He is tall and has one eye and he does not ever bother to look at Andrew. Paul Lopez is the overseer, and he makes sure that work is done. Andrew is afraid of him, which is why he does not look at Frances. He keeps his eyes diverted, concentrates on the sweeping away of the dirt and the hills jut out all around and he can see that Frances is working away at her needlework.
He can hear the rattling of glass balls hitting each other and knows that Louis is shooting marbles. He wishes he can play but he knows better than to attempt. He has enough experience with his cousin to depend on the capriciousness of his nature. He has figured out that it was always better to allow Louis to approach him, as opposed to the other way around. Louis De Gannes, already experiencing the need to be in control.
Louis’s mother is Andrew father’s sister. She lives in the barracks along with all the other East Indians. She is not married and has no other family and Louis is not allowed to live with her. No one has ever met Louis’ father, but he came, a long time ago, to plant cocoa and as Andrew’s father will later say, is not only cocoa these white men does come here to plant, eh? He returned to Corsica, no one ever really knowing the reason why.
Andrew wipes the sweat away from his brow when he is finished sweeping the steps. He returns the broom to the washroom and decides to climb the mango tree in the back of the house. That way, he could sit in the shade and watch Frances.
The mango tree is laden with small, bright yellow mangoes. It is the same mango from India, his father had once told him. Once seated comfortably on one of its branches, Andrew begins to pull at the skin with his mouth, eating the sumptuous yellow flesh by running his teeth along the skin. As he does this, he sees Frances, fully entranced in her stitching, as if oblivious to the hot sun. She sits under the flaming immortelle, her fibrous hair in two short plaits along each side of her head. Unlike Andrew, Frances wears shoes and she is Catholic. Every Sunday, she dresses in fine dresses that her mother sews and together with her family, they make their way up the hill, towards the giant crucifix and into the Church. There are no Indians in that congregation.
Once Andrew asked his father about this anomaly—he wanted to know why there were no Indians who went to this place of worship. His father warned, don’t meddle in whiteman’s business. But still, Andrew’s curiosity was not satisfied and he soon learned the unimportance of questions uttered by children. The question as to why there were no Indians among the Santa Cruz congregation became yet another question to be shhhd and hush up nah’d it seemed, to oblivion and he can’t help but think about those Indians his father would tell him about, he wondered if that is why they are invisible now, because no one listened to them and no one answered their questions.
But Andrew wanted to go to church. He wanted to wear shoes and nice suits and take the horse from the Estate and sit with Blasini, Louis, Frances and her own family. Andrew wanted to put two feet into this world in which he found himself sleeping in the kitchen in. He didn’t want to be Indian anymore. He wanted to be like Frances and Paul Lopez and even Blasini and especially Louis—he wanted to be Trinidadian.