Tears of Mermaids
The Secret Story of Pearls
By Stephen G. Bloom
St. Martin's Press Copyright © 2009 Stephen G. Bloom
All rights reserved.
In the Beginning
The story everyone knows goes like this:
On a clear night on October 11, 1492, Christopher Columbus gazed westward into the horizon from the Santa María and saw a faint light, "like a small wax candle that rose and lifted up," as he would write in his ship's log. The next morning the Genoese navigator and his men would be greeted by legions of adoring Caribbean Indians, and thus Columbus discovered the New World. The extraordinary first-ever meeting of Indians and Europeans would stir the greatest clash of cultures the world has ever known.
But that's the official, sanitized version that details how Columbus brought prosperity and religion to tens of thousands of New World Indians and, in the process, set the course for the settlement of North and South America. It's also the version of Columbus's first voyage to the New World. Columbus's next three voyages to the New World — and the reasons for them — have largely been lost to modern readers of history.
Our story begins with why Columbus made these three subsequent trips across the Great Abyss, as the Atlantic was then called. Originally, his mandate from King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella was to find a route to the Orient so that the Spanish crown could access the reputed riches of Asia. But what specifically were Columbus and the Spanish monarchy looking for?
Columbus's charge was very specific, according to his ship's log: "to discover and acquire new lands," to set forth "the expansion of the Catholic Faith," and to secure "Pearls, Precious Stones, Gold, Silver, Spiceries, and other Things and Merchandise of whatever kind, name or description that may be."
That pearls led the list of commodities was not an accident. At the time, pearls fetched more per ounce than gold, and their scarcity led to a booming seller's market throughout Europe. While the king and queen were hopeful that Columbus's expedition would result in shiploads of gold and therefore finance greater expansion of the Spanish flag, it was pearls that particularly captivated the royalty of Spain, as well as the rest of Europe. Queen Isabella was almost a contemporary of England's Elizabeth, known as the Pearl Queen (for her coronation, Elizabeth draped herself with pearls; when she died, her corpse was swathed in them). Isabella, a strawberry-blonde fashion plate who often wore ornately spun satin and velvet gowns, was fascinated by pearls. With eyes described as a combination of jade and amethyst, Isabella collected hundreds of pearls, rubies, sapphires, and diamonds. When crowned queen of Castile in Segovia at age twenty-three, the fair-skinned princess wore a magnificent pearl necklace with a ruby pendant hanging from it. After Isabella and Ferdinand's first son, Juan, was baptized in Seville in 1478, riding high atop a white palfrey in a great procession, Isabella was dressed in a brocade shimmering with pearls. The queen took to wearing pearls woven into her flaxen hair. For the wedding of her oldest daughter, Isabel, in 1490, Isabella ordered a trousseau of tapestries, gowns, chemises, coats, and robes lined with pearls. When her religious confessor, the Hieronymite monk Fernando de Talavera, counseled Isabella against such excesses, Isabella replied that such show was necessary to demonstrate to other monarchies Spain's ascendant wealth and power. What Isabella neglected to say was simply that she adored pearls.
On his first voyage, Columbus returned to Spain with little to show for his New World expedition, except for fantastic stories that tantalized the royal court, as they did much of the nation. The admiral presented to the king and queen seven naked Indians he had seized on Hispaniola, who were ceremoniously baptized and pronounced royal vassals. The troupe, accompanied by squawking parrots, was paraded on Palm Sunday in a thousand-kilometer procession from Seville to Barcelona to awestruck crowds lining the streets, craning to get a look. The Indians bounced a strange and marvelous ball that rebounded higher than anyone in Europe had ever seen. One of the Indians was chosen to remain as a personal valet to fifteen-year-old Prince Juan; the others were to receive religious training and then to return to the New World to serve as missionaries. Columbus was accorded a hero's welcome, and asked to sit in the presence of the king and queen, an extraordinary accommodation.
Despite the fantastic cavalcade, the king and queen were disappointed with Columbus's New World treasure chest. They urged Columbus to return to the mysterious land he had assured them was Asia, confident that a second voyage would surpass the riches of another explorer, Marco Polo, from the city-state of Venice. For his next expedition, the king and queen pulled out all stops, authorizing Columbus to be master of a fleet of seventeen ships that would carry as many as 1,500 men. A frenzy spread through Spain, and so many men wanted to accompany Columbus that only 200 crew members were paid salaries; the rest were volunteers hoping to cash in on the certain riches to be found on the other side of the world. This time Columbus's flotilla carried horses, cattle, sheep, pigs, and goats, all designed to sustain a settlement in the New World. With the crammed-packed ships went accountants and treasurers: Columbus was to keep for himself one tenth of all treasures, with almost all of the rest going to the Spanish crown.
While pearls and gold may have been what the sovereigns were after, it was spices that Columbus brought back with him in the spring of 1496 when he returned from the second voyage. Spices by then had become thoroughly essential to Europeans. Salt, as well as pepper and other dried plants, was used to preserve meat and to conceal odors of spoiled foods. Spices such as cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves, vanilla, cassia, and saffron were indicators of wealth and status, and since most had to be imported through Venice and Egypt, Columbus's discovery was welcomed by the Spanish monarchs. Along with the spices, Columbus this time returned with 1,500 Taíno Indians, who were given Catholic training; almost all died of infectious diseases within six months back in Spain.
Spreading God's will to the natives may have been a noble undertaking, but what the king and queen particularly wanted — pearls and gold — Columbus was unable to provide his patrons. The most he could show for all the money the royals had fronted for both expeditions were several ornamental masks and belts accented with gold, along with crudely woven pieces of cotton. This time Isabella and Ferdinand did not ask Columbus to sit in their court.
The admiral returned to the New World two years later. On August 4, 1498, he sailed into the Gulf of Paria, at the mouth of the Orinoco, near the landmass now known as Venezuela. Columbus wrote in his diary that he was mesmerized by the lush lands he sailed by, believing that he had found the portals of the Garden of Eden on the forested islands he called Trinidad and Gracia, on either side of his ships. At about 9:00 a.m. on August 8, he anchored. Immediately, he was greeted by natives wearing strands of glistening pearls. Columbus promptly sent a boat ashore, where his crew was led to a chieftain's house for a gala feast. Columbus traded small brass bells, glass beads, and sugar for three pounds of pearls. When he inquired as to the pearls' source, the Indians told him that sumptuous, giant pearl oyster beds lay close by, to the immediate west and north, within a day's trip. At long last, Columbus was close to the Holy Grail.
Inexplicably, though, Columbus never sailed to the pearl-rich destination. In his diaries, he writes that he left immediately to sail to Hispaniola because food stock and supplies on his ship were spoiling. He also concedes that his health was deteriorating, "as a result of lack of sleep, I was suffering in my eyes." At the time, sunglasses had not been invented, nor had the relatively simple innovation of wide-brimmed hats; Columbus wrote that he was almost blind from nonstop squinting into the sun. He also suffered from aggravated arthritis and gout, and complained that he hadn't slept for more than a month. The physical ailments, as well as the worsening condition of his ships and the spoiled food in the holds, prompted him on August 8 to sail to the Spanish stronghold of Hispaniola without ever exploring the fertile gardens of luminescent pearls the queen so coveted. At least, that's what the admiral's diaries indicate.
Within a decade, the waters surrounding the islands of Cubagua, Margarita, and Coche would be discovered to contain the richest oyster beds in the world. No one knows how many pearls Columbus ever traded for or seized in the southeastern Caribbean near the coast of Venezuela, but in October he sent back to the king and queen a map of the Paria Gulf along with a sealed small cache of pearls, in an attempt to curry favor with his benefactors. Finally, the sovereigns had something tangible for all the money they had given Columbus.
News of Columbus's treasure chest, and his map pinpointing where to find more of what was inside, circulated to entrepreneurial European navigators and businessmen. Soon, the pearl rush was on. If there was little gold on the New World islands, pearls would do just fine. To Europeans, pearls meant the promise of staggering sums of money and opulence.
In 1499, Alonso de Ojeda, a gentleman (known as an escudero) volunteer on Columbus's second voyage, hired Juan de la Cosa, who had been on Columbus's first two expeditions and who had owned the Santa María, to lead a four-ship fleet to the area near Cubagua island to plunder the gulf's oyster beds. Along with Ojeda and Cosa, the Florentine merchant Amerigo Vespucci joined to assay the findings for the monarchs. The flotilla left in May 1499 and took just twenty-four days to cross the Atlantic. Vespucci wrote to a friend in Florence, Pedro Soderini, that on the expedition he found "a huge quantity of very good oriental pearls" weighing 119 marks, which he traded "cascabeles, espejos y cuentas, diez balas y hojas de latón (tiny bells, mirrors, and beads, ten shots of lead, and sheets of brass)" for. In 1500, another pearl-seeking armada set sail, this one organized by a consortium of businessmen led by Cristóbal Guerra and Pedro Alonso Niño, who had been a crew member on Columbus's first two expeditions. Niño's ships were the more successful of the two flotillas, and returned to Spain with ninety-six pounds of magnificent pearls, "some as large as hazelnuts, very clear and beautiful, though poorly strung," according to historian Carl O. Sauer. (One reason for the poor stringing was that the Indians did not possess Western instruments such as steel needles or drills necessary to pierce the delicate pearls without damaging them.)
In December 1499, the Spanish monarchy had authorized yet another voyage led by Vicente Yáñez Pinzón, the brother of Columbus antagonist Martín Alonzo Pinzón. All told, between May 1499 and June 1505, at least eleven flotillas left Spain in search of pearls and other riches in the New World. As word spread of vast pearl beds near Cubagua, more and more ships sailed from Spain for the New World. Ultimately, the waters surrounding Venezuela, and later, Colombia, were to produce more pearls in such a short period of time than any other region in the history of the world.
But the man who supposedly sailed into the pearl-producing water first was to realize none of the bounty of his successors. Columbus made a fundamental blunder when he first spotted the pearls in the Gulf of Paria. His contract with the king and queen as Admiral of the Ocean Sea mandated that he would personally receive 10 percent of the value of all goods seized on his voyages, and that he would be granted authority over all lands he discovered. What Columbus failed to do on his third voyage was not personally set foot on land. Instead, he sent his men to barter with the Indians, and thus he never performed the singular legal act of possession of the new territory. It was a technicality that was to undermine the rest of his career, providing a trump card for the king and queen to legally extricate themselves from Columbus, allowing the monarchs to license other navigators to explore what arguably should have been the exclusive domain of Columbus.
While this second crop of Spanish navigators, all following in Columbus's wake, was busy trading trinkets for increasingly large quantities of priceless pearls, enriching both themselves and the crown's coffers, Columbus had fallen into disfavor with the crown. The king and queen had commissioned a prosecutor by the name of Francisco de Bobadilla to get to the bottom of the squalid conditions and Columbus's mismanagement of affairs at Hispaniola. Bobadilla visited the island in the spring of 1500, by all accounts was horrified, and promptly had Columbus arrested and shipped back to Spain in chains. Thus, as scores of explorers, almost all of them antagonists of Columbus, were realizing huge profits from the procurement of New World pearls, the decommissioned admiral suffered the ignominy of hearing about their great fortunes while held under house arrest.
The Indians had initially regarded the Spanish as powerful, supernatural beings, who had arrived in mammoth ships never seen before, armed with such marvels as cannons, muskets, gunpowder, and axes. The Indians must have been awestruck, marveling at the enormous masts and huge sails. And metal. The Indians had never seen a substance as hard and durable, which, they were told, could be fashioned into everything, from knives, plates, cups, and utensils to needles and hooks. There was more: soft beds, finely crafted shoes, brightly colored flags. But of all the amazing items the Europeans brought with them, the most impressive to the Indians was glass.
In one of the world's most lopsided exchanges, the Spaniards heaped on the Indians inexpensive glass objects — beads, mirrors, glass shards, clear and colored bottles — for dazzling pearls that would fetch fortunes in Europe. It was the sparkle of glass, as well as its utility, that mesmerized the Indians.
Pearls were essential life elements to the Indians, but they were also plentiful in the southeast Caribbean waters. Their lack of scarcity reduced any sense of economic value to the Indians. The natives viewed pearls as material representations of a great ephemeral spirit. Pearls not only reflected light but transported light from within, and, as such, were viewed as giving strength and power to the wearer. "Light was life, light was mind, and light was great being," write historians Christopher L. Miller and George R. Hammell. Associated with water and life, pearls were a natural symbol of eternity to the Indians. Pearls were viewed as "sensuous, variably coloured embodiments of bright cosmic energy that energized the universe," writes anthropologist Nicholas J. Saunders. Shiny objects embodied brilliant luminescence and dazzling colors — values the Indians held as life-giving. Brilliant light brought structure, order, and reverence. Shimmering clear lakes, for instance, were viewed as portals through which the dead ascended to a spiritual realm.
When the Spaniards opened up their chests full of glass beads, the Indians viewed the glass as even better than pearls. The man-made "jewels" provided an even greater concentration of light than pearls. To lure the Indians to part with pearls, the Spaniards employed, as Stephen Greenblatt writes in Marvelous Possessions: The Wonder of the New World, "the grossly unequal gift exchange." It went like this, writes Greenblatt: "I give you a glass bead and you give me pearls worth half your tribe."
However skewed such a trade seems today, to the invaders there was little sense of inequality. In exchange for giving the Indians the glory of Catholicism and the privilege of being subjects of the royal court, the Spanish had the divine right to take as many pearls and other objects of economic worth as they wanted. Once they realized the pearls' worth to the Spaniards, the Indians gladly traded more and more pearls for a chance to own such novel European goods as wine made from grapes, firearms, linen, and wheat bread (by 1516, wine and guns were prohibited from trade because they had led to violence and hostility). The Spanish let nothing get in the way of their mission to bring tens of thousands of pearls back to Spain. By the end of the first decade of the 1500s, pearls had become the New World's largest export, exceeding the value of all other goods combined. Navigators returned to present to Ferdinand and Isabella so many pearls that the king and queen took to plunging their hands into treasure chests, letting the gleaming white orbs pour through their splayed fingers. (Continues...)
Excerpted from Tears of Mermaids by Stephen G. Bloom. Copyright © 2009 Stephen G. Bloom. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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