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The Islands of Unwisdom

Robert Graves

  The Islands of Unwisdom

  Robert Graves


  The Islands of Unwisdom

  Copyright by The Trustees of the Robert Graves Copyright Trust

  Copyright © 1949 by Robert Graves, renewed 1976 by Robert Graves

  Cover art, special contents, and Electronic Edition © 2014 by RosettaBooks LLC

  All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any form or by any electronic or mechanical means, including information storage and retrieval systems, without permission in writing from the publisher, except by a reviewer who may quote brief passages in a review.

  Cover jacket design by Carly Schnur

  ISBN e-Pub edition: 9780795336836

  …la tragedia de las islas donde faltó Salamon: esto es, la prudencia. [The tragedy of the islands where no Solomon was found: that is to say, no wisdom…]

  ‘Varios diarios de Jos viajes à la mar

  del Sur y descubrimientos de las Islas

  de Salamon, las Marquesas, las de Santa Cruz, etc…. 1606.’





















  19. MURDER











  Don Alvaro de Mendaña y Castro, General, Leader of the Expedition, on board the San Geronimo galleon

  Doña Ysabel Barreto, his wife

  Don Lope de Vega, Admiral, his second-in-command, on board the Santa Ysabel galleon

  Doña Mariana Barreto de Castro, his wife, sister to Doña Ysabel

  Colonel Don Pedro Merino de Manrique, commander of the military forces

  Major Don Luis Moran, his second-in-command

  Captain Don Felipe Corzo, owner and commander of the San Felipe galeot

  Captain Don Alonzo de Leyva, commander of the Santa Catalina frigate

  Captain Don Manuel Lopez, Captain of Artillery

  Doña Maria Ponce, his wife

  Captain Don Lorenzo Barreto, Company-commander, eldest brother of Doña Ysabel

  Captain Don Diego de Vera, Adjutant

  Ensign-Royal Don Toribio de Bedeterra

  Ensign Don Diego Barreto, second brother of Doña Ysabel

  Ensign Don Juan de Buitrago

  Doña Luisa Geronimo, his wife

  Ensign Don Tomás de Ampuero

  Ensign Don Jacinto Merino, the Colonel’s nephew

  Ensign Don Diego de Torres

  Sergeant Jaime Gallardo

  Sergeant Dimas

  Sergeant Luis Andrada, Sergeant-major of settlers

  Juan de la Roca, orderly to Captain Barreto

  Raimundo, orderly to Ensign de Buitrago, soldier

  Gil Mozo, orderly to Ensign de Ampuero, soldier

  Salvador Aleman, soldier

  Sebastian Lejia, soldier

  Federico Salas, soldier

  Miguel Geronimo, with wife and seven children, soldier-settler

  Melchior Garcia, soldier-settler

  Miguel Cierva, soldier-settler

  Juarez Mendés, veteran of the previous expedition

  Matia Pineto, veteran of the previous expedition


  Captain Don Pedro Fernandez of Quiros, Chief Pilot and master of the San Geronimo

  Don Marcos Marin, Boatswain of the San Geronimo

  Damian of Valencia, Boatswain’s mate

  Don Gaspar Iturbe, Purser

  Jaume Bonet, Water-steward

  Don Martin Groc, Pilot of the San Felipe

  Don Francisco Frau, Pilot of the Santa Catalina


  Father Juan de la Espinosa, Vicar

  Father Antonio de Serpa, his Chaplain

  Father Joaquin, priest in the Santa Ysabel

  Juan Leal, lay-brother and sick-attendant


  Don Luis Barreto, Doña Ysabel’s youngest brother

  Don Miguel Llano, the General’s secretary

  Don Andrés Serrano, his assistant

  Don Juan de la Isla, merchant-venturer, with his wife

  Doña Maruja de la Isla, his daughter

  Don Andrés Castillo, merchant-venturer

  Don Mariano Castillo, merchant-venturer

  Elvira Delcano, Doña Ysabel’s Spanish maids

  Ysabelita of Jerez, Doña Ysabel’s Spanish maids

  Pancha, her Indian under-maid

  Pacito, the Colonel’s page

  Leona Benitel, his washerwoman

  Myn, the General’s negro, veteran of the previous expedition


  Most of my readers will be as surprised as I was to find Spaniards trying to discover Australia and settle the South Sea Islands a generation before the Pilgrim Fathers landed at Plymouth Rock. This expedition, though it failed in its main objects, deserves to be better known because the Marquesas Islands and the South Solomons were discovered in the course of it, and because on the death of the leader, General Alvaro de Mendaña, his young widow Doña Ysabel Barreto1 assumed command of the flotilla and exercized the absolute power he bequeathed to her—a unique episode in modern naval history. But what has interested me most in the story is its bearing on the history of Spanish colonization. When the missionary spirit predominated, as in the Philippines, the natives benefited in the long run, despite governmental corruption; when precious metals excited the greed of conquest, as in the New World, they suffered cruelly; but when there was an irreconcilable conflict of motive, as on this occasion, they were abandoned (in the Spanish phrase) ‘to the claws of him who held them first.’

  The story also explains why England, with a far smaller fleet, managed to wrest the command of the sea from Spain: her forces were not so rigidly organized. An English galleon was not readily distinguishable from a Spaniard, and had much the same armament; but the Spanish seamen, though they knew their trade well, only worked a ship and did not fight her, while the soldiers, who were the best-disciplined in the world, fought, but disdained to work her. Their naval and military officers were almost always at loggerheads, and the larger the vessel, the worse the mistrust and confusion. In the English navy the arts of navigation and war were closely co-ordinated, to the especial improvement of gunnery; the same men would handle sail or repel boarders, and the only rivalry was between commanders of sister ships.

  I have not had to rely on English translations of the relevant documents. The first account of the voyage appeared in 1616, when Suarez de Figeroa included a carefully excised version in his biography of the Marques de Cañete, who had sponsored the expedition; and it was not until 1876 that the original anonymous report, from which he borrowed, was published in Madrid by Don Justo Zaragoza. What seems to be the only English translation of Zaragoza�
��s text appeared in 1903, under the title Voyages of Pedro Fernandez de Quiros, 1595–1606. The translator and editor was the then president of the Hakluyt Society, Sir Clements Markham, who possessed a wide store of geographical and nautical knowledge, but so little Spanish that he guessed at the meaning of almost every other sentence, and usually mistook it. A typical instance occurs in the starvation passage at the close of the voyage: Todo el bien vino junto, ‘All the good wine appeared too,’ which is almost in a class with Le peuple ému répondit à Marat, ‘The purple emu laid Marat another egg.’ No wine was, in fact, served to the men dying of thirst and the sense of the passage, which literally means: ‘All that was well came together,’ is that the general situation suddenly improved when the San Geronimo approached Corregidor Island at the entrance to Manila Bay.

  Yet even in accurate translation this original report, which was largely inspired by Pedro Fernandez of Quiros, the Chief Pilot, makes difficult reading. It demands for its understanding a fairly comprehensive knowledge of the contemporary Spanish and Spanish-American scene, of late sixteenth-century navigation, and of native Polynesian, Melanesian and Micronesian customs. Moreover, the author, not caring to enlarge on some of the more discreditable episodes, often falls back on this sort of reporting:

  Nine men were sent ashore to buy food. The business reached a point when Don Diego ordered an arquebus to be fired at a sailor who went up the mizzen-mast. The Chief Pilot advised Doña Ysabel that it was greatly to her advantage to finish the voyage in peace. That was a foolish affair, and so I will say no more about it.


  This was not the only false testimony borne by the malcontents; for another lie was told of another person. A friend said to one of them…

  What lie was told, and by whom, or who the friend was, we are left to guess from hints dropped elsewhere.

  I have done my best to reconstruct the real story, inventing only as much as it needed for continuity; and though I am on dangerous ground in accounting for the tense relations between Doña Ysabel and the Chief Pilot, something very much like my version of events must have taken place. The Vicar’s religious anecdotes are genuine, though condensed; and I have not had to invent names even for Doña Ysabel’s maids or the settler Miguel Geronimo’s children, Dr. Otto Kübler having recently found the real ones in the archives at Seville.

  I must here express my thanks to Dr. Kübler, who first called my attention to the story and has kindly checked the opening chapters; to Don Julio Caro for lending me a copy of Zaragoza’s now very rare book Historia del descubrimiento de las regiones Austriales, which escaped the destruction of his library during the Spanish Civil War; to Robert Pring-Mill for research at Oxford; to my neighbour Don Gaspar Sabater for placing his Spanish encyclopaedia at my disposal; to Gregory Robinson, a leading authority on Elizabethan seamanship, for correcting my nautical errors; to Kenneth Gay for constant help with the novel at every stage.



  Majorca, Spain.


  Chapter 1


  In the visible firmament which (according to my learned Sevillian friends) is but the eighth of a grand series—the other seven being designed only for the reception of saints, martyrs and their attendant angels—God has placed many thousands of stars. Some are great, some of middle size, some so small that only the keenest eye can distinguish them on the clearest of nights. Yet, as Fray Junipero of Cadiz who taught me Catholic doctrine in my childhood once assured me, every one of them is numbered and registered and twinkles with a certain divine destiny. ‘If even the least of them were to be quenched, my son,’ he said, ‘an equivalent loss on earth would soon be observed.’

  From where I knelt on the cold sacristy floor, before the image of Saint Francis, I asked dutifully: ‘Father, what moral are we to deduce from this?’

  ‘Little Andrés, my son,’ he answered, ‘the moral is as plain as the nose on your face. Even the most minute event that may to all appearances be wholly finished and done with, whether proceeding from a good intention or from a bad one, must necessarily, in God’s good time, have its effect upon the people concerned in it: an effect consonant with the quality of the intention—as grapes are fruit of the useful vine, and thistle-down flies from the thistle, food of asses.’

  Fray Junipero’s philosophic doctrine was as memorable as his discipline was severe, and with this particular conclusion I have always been in perfect accord. All the troubles, for example, that occurred during the famous and terrible voyage across the South Seas which is the subject of this history may be said to have sprung, and spread like thistle-down scattered by the wind, from the tale of the Blind Girl of Panama. This tale therefore, though raw and indelicate, I will quote in full as I heard it, not indeed for your amusement (the Saints forbid!) but—by one of those paradoxes beloved and exploited by the schoolmen—for your moral edification.

  On the morning of the fourth day of April, in the year of our Lord 1595, at Callao, the port of Lima where the viceroys of Peru reside, I stood with two companions in the waist of our flagship, the San Geronimo, a fine galleon of one hundred and fifty tons; and from the mastheads above us two royal banners of Spain and the pendant of General Don Alvaro de Mendaña y Castro fluttered bravely in the land breeze. This celebrated explorer, a nobleman of Galicia and nephew of a former Lord President of Peru, had been appointed to command our expedition, by royal letters patent signed by King Philip II himself. Our destination was the Isles of Solomon, which Don Alvaro had himself discovered twenty-seven years before, but which no one had visited since; our purpose, to colonize them. My companions were the valiant Ensign Juan de Buitrago, a scarred and grizzled veteran of many wars, and tall, hook-nosed, mild-mannered old Marcos Marin, the Aragonese boatswain.

  ‘That is very true, Don Marcos,’ the Ensign was saying. ‘Some women will never be put off, try how you may. I remember when I was a young soldier at Panama, billeted in the house of an ebony-merchant from Santander, a very respectable man whose name I have now forgotten… Shortly after my arrival, as we sat drinking in doublet and shirt, he said to me earnestly: “Don Juan, may I ask you to do me a kindness?”

  ‘“I am entirely at your disposal, host,” I said.

  ‘“It is this. In a garret of this house lives a beautiful girl, an orphan, who spends her days carding and spinning wool. Very industrious she is, and proficient at her work; but can do no other, because, poor creature, she is blind. This girl greatly desires to handle your arms and speak to you, for her grandfather who brought her up once served under the great Pizarro, and though a model of piety, she is always curious to hear tales of soldiers and camp life.”

  ‘“To refuse a blind orphan a few minutes of my long day would be uncharitable indeed,” I said. “I am ready to humour her this very moment, if you please.” With that I rose, made an armful of my accoutrements and told him: “Lead on.”

  ‘We went upstairs to a garret room where the girl sat spinning at the open window; and beautiful she was, by the eleven thousand virgins of Saint Ursula, with her pale skin and broad brow like the Madonna’s, her glossy hair, slim waist and rounded bosom. My host made us acquainted, and a few compliments and nothings were exchanged, when presently he was called away on a matter of business and she and I were left alone.

  ‘Well, first she asked permission to examine my armour; and I handed her my headpiece, my corslet and my tassets, which she tapped with her nails and stroked with her fingers, greatly admiring their lightness and toughness. Next, she reached for my Venetian scabbard and fingered it thoughtfully from end to end; she cried out with delight at the silver chasing which, indeed, was curiously intricate and graceful—as you can see for yourselves, for here is the very scabbard. Next, she drew my sword out a hand’s breadth or two and tried its edge with her little thumb—“as keen as a razor!” she exclaimed—and her finger-tips traced the fine Toledo inlay on the flat of it. Next, my Mexican dagger and its
copper scabbard with the turquoise studs. Next, my trusty arquebus, with its match; my powder-horn, my bag of bullets. Everything pleased this poor blind girl beyond expression. But then, then—’

  Don Juan paused and his face, that had been serious, took on a droll expression between triumph and shame. ‘But then—?’ the Boatswain prompted him.

  ‘—But then: “Is that all, soldier?” she asked in tones of dissatisfaction.

  ‘“It is indeed all, daughter,” I replied. “Though I am heartily sorry to disappoint you, I have nothing else.” But some women will never be put off, try how you may. She came close up to me and her eager hands went all about me, deft as a Neapolitan pick-pocket’s, remorseless as a Venetian sea-captain’s when he searches his captive Turk for concealed jewels; and pretty soon she caught firm hold of a something. “Aha,” she cried, “my brave comrade, what concealed weapon is this?”

  ‘“Take your little hands out of the larder!” said I. “That is no weapon of offence: it is no more than a prime Bolognian sausage hanging from a hook against time of need.”

  ‘“Hanging?” she exclaimed with surprise. “But it hangs upside-down!” And then in a voice of deepest reproach: “Oh, noble Don Juan, would you tell lies to a poor blind girl, and an orphan too?”’

  The intention of the tale cannot by any means be described as a good one, and its effect was altogether lamentable. At the very moment that the Ensign reached this climax, lowering his voice because Father Antonio de Serpa, the Vicar’s keen-eyed Chaplain was edging near, a boat drew alongside and the Colonel, Don Pedro Merino de Manrique climbed ponderously aboard. The Boatswain and I were so beguiled by the tale that we did not turn round, and what with the sailors’ singing and shouting, and a duet of carpenters’ hammers, it was excusable that the Colonel’s arrival should have escaped our attention; we supposed that a bum-boat had come with fruit, or perhaps the skiff that had been sent to fetch the laundry.