Terra Incognita (part one)

Father Ramón sincerely liked the young man. He made him think that the galleon of Manila, for once in several years, had carried from Acapulco a really interesting and valuable good, beyond the usual shipment of potatoes, peppers, pineapples, corn, horses and farm animals, or the usual herd of settlers that, once or twice a year, in hundreds, came from New Spain, most of them so proud and greedy for power and wealth as they were at the time of the conquerors who, along with Cortés, subdued the Aztecs of Tenochtitlan or, with Pizarro, the great Inca of Peru.

34_1542_bl_jean_rotz_royal_20_e_ix_ff29v-30_map_of_the_world_1He never liked that unleashed thirst of power and possessions that afflicted most of the Europeans who set their feet in the Indies, that destructive and pernicious fever that, thanks God and brother Bartolomé de las Casas, his intellectual mentor, had been substantially curbed by the new laws that were discussed and enacted in the Council of Valladolid. Ramon’s father considered himself a Christian and a humanist, a sincere servant of Christ and one of those men who indefatigably chased to make of the New World, as far as possible, a real Kingdom of Heaven on earth for both Indians and whites. As such, he had always tried to make sure that those men in charge of exploring and civilizing the Indians were worthy exponents of European civilization and Christianity, members of a dignified and fearful race of God, noble, selfless, cultivated and pious, who could threat natives with dignity, rise beautiful cities, and behave as much distinctly as possible as the looters, rapists and slavers that abounded among the newcomers used to do, despite the efforts of the Vice-royalty to accept only honest, noblemen, old Christians and pure blood settlers.

This being the case
he liked the young man, because he saw in him nothing of what he intended to avoid that corner of the world, his own corner of the world, but a lot of what I wished for it. The newcomer was gentle, respectful of Indians men and, very important, also Indian women. He was humble too, connoisseur of several languages ​​and many cultivated virtues, all very appreciated by a man of a moral and intellectual stature as Father Ramón, who often missed refined and good conversationalists in that part of the world. However, if something had really attracted him since the beginning was what his compatriot actually never expressed openly but hinted at times, that is an idealism that father Ramón judged quite similar to what inspired his own life and work.

Of pleasant manners and presence, even if somehow reserved too, his friend had a spirit that, as the priest felt, connected them. Shrewd and very able to analyze others, Ramón thought he had realized that light in his eyes, that beaming feature men who pursue a high ideal use to have. He seemed to notice it in his warm eyes, his generous smile and his frequent sighs and if, as the motto uses to say, men had to be judged by their actions and not by their words, he did not lack evidences based on facts, because his friend, who was there in principle as a soldier, and that soldier may have limited himself to be, soon proved to be imbued with a true humanitarian spirit, a true character of man of the world, and apart from participating in small exploration expeditions, be engaged in occasional skirmishes with Chinese and Malay pirates, and help in raising strongholds on Manila Bay, Batangas and Dagupán, he selflessly collaborated in mapping navigation routes, and making extensive and detailed descriptions about lands, populations, villages, customs, language, food, fauna, ports, flora and history, which used to be extremely interesting not only for Father Ramón himself, but also for other Dominicans friars, merchants, sailors, the Navy and even the Crown.

That is why he helped him, not only because of the sympathy he felt for him, or because the boy, arrived from the Old Castila through Mexico just six months ago, introduced himself a good day in the archbishopric with few but very good references, looking honestly and openly for his help. He helped him especially to support an enterprise that, basically, father Ramón considered as his, because supported, he believed so, his own life work, because it served to enlighten the newcomers with a necessary and enriching understanding of the beautiful and fascinating world they had just arrived to, something that could inspire them with the curiosity and the respect necessary to make them worthy to dwell into that paradise.

Father Ramón’s personal struggle in the Philippines was a utopia, an enterprise he, still young in spirit in his nearly 40s, had not yet abandoned, but long ago addressed in a more realistic way. For America, full already both with lights and shadows when he first arrived there, very young, to his former diocese of Chiapas, such efforts might come too late, he thought at that time, but in the Philippines it could be possible yet, thanks to their remoteness and their recent discovery, which made them a inaccessible, distant, hidden place, yet largely unknown and exotic, where the inhabitants of the Old World came with a dropper and where, for once, things could be done right from the very beginning.

thinking Father Ramón, and thanks to his contacts within the order, joined the tragically famous second expedition of Álvaro de Mendaña, who departed with four ships from the port of El Callao on April 9th 1595 AD, only thirty years after the Gipúzkoa illustrious Miguel López de Legazpi finally conquered the Philippines for the former king Felipe II, something that many others had already tried previously, as Ruy López de Villalobos, Álvaro de Saavedra Cerón or Hernando de Grijalva did, leading their efforts to nothing at best and, at worst, to death at the hands of the Indians, the stormy sea or the Portuguese fortresses.

The ill-fated second expedition, trying to achieve what was not achieved during the first nearly thirty years before, first explored the Marquesas, and then reached the islands that, since they were found at the first crossing, were called Salomón. Once there it unsuccessfully attempted to colonize a small archipelago called Santa Cruz but having the leader been killed by malaria, and being rebellious the Indians they found on those shores, it headed Guam and then Manila, where only one ship managed to arrive on February 11th 1596 AD, on which deck was, survivor, father Ramón, who joined immediately after landing the small but thriving colony of priests who lived in the Philippine archipelago.

Luckily, h
is very personal project began with a very good start. The Indians, for the most part, were gentle, peaceful and very responsive people, making his evangelical work not facing too many problems, not even on the largest island, Luzón, where the heresy of Islam had rooted some centuries ago. Manila, the city where he soon established his headquarters, had become the capital of the East Indies and the main Christian center of the province after several successful battles against the Rajah Sulayman, the Tagalog Indians and the Chinese pirate Li Ma Hong. And the galleon that connected the city to Acapulco once or twice a year, first following the route of Magallanes and returning to New Spain by the famous tornaviaje discovered at the time of the conquest of the islands by fellow Dominican friar Andrés de Urdaneta, that ship, by then, was the only connection to the rest of the Spanish settlements, and this being the case, as he wisely anticipated, the influx of settlers was very small and tidy, and therefore easily controllable and measurable.

This being the case, the father could, together with some of his acolytes and supporters, gradually take some control of the number and qualifications of his compatriots who came to settle and populate the colony, and lost no time using his prominent position in order to put pressure on the rulers against behaviors or individuals he deemed unworthy or undesirable. To do this, indefatigable and industrious as he was, and also a tireless traveler, and as a member of the unfortunate expedition that brought him to the islands, he cultivated and maintained a dense network of contacts and informants both overseas and over most of the archipelago islands, an extremely varied network composed of cosmographers, priests, sailors, soldiers and people of all sorts, and so effective that he often shared it with spies and agents of the king, in a mutually beneficial relationship that allowed officials to govern better that corner of the world and to reinforce father´s personal crusade for the foundation of a new Garden of Eden.

This is precisely why his young friend had introduced himself in his house that morning, already about four months ago, because a mutual friend had advised him, quite rightly, to meet this outstanding prelate if what he wanted was to have a mentor to help him in his pursue to discover and document this new and yet mainly unknown world. And among all the different things father Ramón had helped him with since then one had to be highlighted, a beautiful and ambitious project the young man wanted to title as A List of Exotic Animals and Nations that Populate the Islands and Atolls of the Pacific Ocean.

The truth was that father Ramon found quite understandable that tremendous fascination those mysterious islands seemed to inspire his friend. They had barely begun to be explored, were lost in the middle of a vast ocean, situated in the most unknown portion of the unknown that could be found around the globe, and whenever a new expedition sailed their waters always discovered dozens of them, always more and more, and always with reasons and evidences enough to believe that, most likely, still there should be many more to discover. To make this mystery worse, to all this should be added the greatest enigma of all, around which much gossip and legend used to revolve around, and it was none other than the legendary Terra Australis, the mysterious, gigantic, and completely unknown Southern Hemisphere continent, which theoretical existence raised Aristotle and that nobody had ever found. Several scouts had thought to find, on occasion, a small part of it, as happened for example to Magallanes himself, but subsequent expeditions had always and invariably showed it was just a new group of islands, more islands, always more.

In ports some stories were told about the few islands that, always a little and in passing, had already been visited, as The Islands of Thieves, The Gardens, Los Pintados, the Dangerous Islands, Tuvalu, Salomón, the Matelotes, Guadalcanal, San Francisco, New Guinea, Sulphur Island … The few men who had visited them usually spoke of small islands, sometimes tiny, sometimes mere sandbars with a few palm trees growing in the middle, sometimes long and narrow spits of land of a wide variety of shapes, some rounded, solid, others with soft contours, others steep and high, some with a lagoon inside, others with huge natural pools of corals and reef, others flat and others with huge, towering volcanoes at their center. They spoke of beautiful beaches of tall palm trees and white sands, of turquoise waters, sometimes of a very bright, crystal, clear and translucent blue, of lush, evergreen vegetation, and of an invariably generous and mild climate. Many, they said, were uninhabited, but others were full of all sorts of indigenous people, some naked, others dressed in loincloths, skirts and other garments made of straw, some wearing flowers in their hair or necks, some tattooed profuse and superbly, some timid, others very friendly and others even hostile. They talked about people who lived in wooden huts on stilts, who worshiped all kinds of idols and statues, and who possessed large double canoes and catamarans to cross the great distances among the islands or to approach entrusted the European ships to trade or nose around.

In order t
o help his very much appreciated new friend the solicitous father had pulled strings and with great dedication and effort managed to find, here and there, some odd sailor or missionary willing to tell them about his experiences. Unfortunately, apart from those vague descriptions hardly anyone could tell them anything really interesting or consistent. Even father Ramón himself, who in his own rough journey had passed by some of these islands, was perfectly aware of how very little he had had the choice to see and observe. As for the animals, every sailor they asked told them those seas were teeming with marine life, but could not explain it but very vaguely, and regarding land animals, apparently very limited, they mentioned merely some birds, insects and very small reptiles, not even a single mammalian or snake. And all that in the best of cases, because very often their tales, clearly fanciful or invented, did not make any sense at all.

Ramón, having seen what he saw, suggested to his friend more than once to conduct, by himself, a summary of the animals that populated the Philippines, and to leave alone those other lost islands, to which he had replied, politely but with that unyielding tenacity that characterized him, that for that task he would probably have plenty of time in the future, but that what he really wanted to do then was to find out what lived and grew in those numerous tiny islands dispersed in the middle of the vast ocean Vasco Núñez de Balboa baptized as “Ocean of the South” and later Magallanes named “Pacific”. And so, with fanciful tales, inaccurate and insufficient testimonies, and lots of guesswork involved, the priest and his friend had begun their researches, getting a lot of music but few results.

God wanted, however, that on May 22nd 1607 AD, the last of all expeditions undertaken landed in Cavite, led by the Portuguese Don Pedro Fernández de Quirós, an old colleague of Father Ramón who, as pilot, safely guided, more than a decade ago, the only vessel survivor of the last expedition of Mendaña to Manila. For the displeasure of the father it was not Quirós himself who was found in the harbor, but his second in command, Captain Luís Váez de Torres, who told him he had lost track of his leader almost a year ago, soon after they believed to have discovered the Terra Australis Incognita, a new territory that, as Torres himself could verify later on, was, as usual, just another unknown island, which logically was renamed as Island of Espíritu Santo.

Despite that initial displeasure father Ramón and his friend appeared at Cavite without delay, and for a week collected many interesting stories and descriptions from Captain Luís Váez de Torres himself, his second in command, Diego de Prado y Tovar, and several sailors and crew. Fortunately the expedition, which landed almost entirely, had made an extremely interesting journey, first by some islands the natives called Tuamotu already discovered by Magallanes, then by others their inhabitants called Otaheite or Tahiti, afterwards the Island of San Bernardo, the Islands of Beautiful People, the island of Our Lady of Mercy, the Salomón and, eventually, that land that Quirós mistakenly took as Terra Australis Incognita. After that discovery the expedition, led by Váez de Torres, continued to New Guinea by a strait that was named like that, and from there headed to the Moluccas to end finally in Manila.

Unfortunately for the researchers, after having spent just a couple of days since their arrival at the port, two vessels coming from South America brought the news that Quirós was alive and that he had safely arrived seven months ago to Acapulco. Those good news pleased greatly everyone, including Father Ramón, but also caused that, right after knowing that, captains and sailors reembarked after a week, leaving both researchers without their valuable testimony.

In these they were, already resigned, when, just a month later, the sea brought them another unexpected gift. In mid-July Ramon known that a Portuguese ship had arrived to Cavite with a passenger recovered in one of the Moluccas, a man who arrived at the port asking in Spanish by Quirós, Váez de Torres and any signs or news of their expedition. He claimed to be a lost member of their crew, who had lost the track of his teammates on one of the islands where the ships had anchored, and who had survived for an entire year traveling through uncharted territories. As soon as he was told that the remains of their expedition had recently arrived and departed again he tried to follow them, but the brokenness of his physical and mental condition forced him to rest at a hostelry.

Ramón wasted no time: through his remarkable influence made his order to take care of the strange survivor running with all his recovery costs. He paid his permanent housing in the hostelry, including food and care, and even put a young friar in charge of periodically visit the patient to closely monitor his fragile state, regularly pay the landlord and make sure their money was properly spent. in this way, and claiming charitable reasons, he remained abreast of his developments, while informing about all the details his dear young friend, hoping both of them to find a good moment to interview the shipwreck survivor about everything he had seen and experienced in his particular and lonely journey through unknown lands.

The bereaved guest took about two long weeks to recover as little as not being limited to continuously vegetate between fever and delirium. At the end of that time, and despite of still being seriously ill, he could, as they knew, get out the bed for short walks, eat, relieve himself without assistance and even maintain minimally coherent conversations. The two friends decided to keep waiting another week, giving him time to improve, but after knowing that his condition did not change a bit in that time they decided it was time to make a move, and in mid-August they departed impatiently on the back of two mules heading Cavite.

They left quite excited, leaving their homes behind, within the walled city of Manila, but with some concern in their hearts because, according to recent reports, the altered mental state manifested by the patient did not remitted but, indeed, became permanent, and ventured it could not be due only to his physical weakness, but to a madness disturbance caused God knew when or why. However, and after a short day’s march, they arrived at sunset to the small town of Cavite, crowded in a narrow place between the port and the fortresses that protected the base of the peninsula from which it surveyed the Bay of Manila. With only a few minutes stroll through its charming streets they arrived to the hostelry where their sailor was resting, very modest and rather vulgar but, as they could see, at least with a reasonably clean and decent kitchen. They came, left off their mounts and greeted the owner of the establishment, a local from Extremadura in his early fifties who cohabited with a petite and funny Filipino Indian. The above mentioned owner was very pleased to meet the man who was generously paying him, and a knowing and quick look without words was enough for his wife to leave the floor sibylline and quickly in order to make sure in advance that the guest’s room was in order and to set aside the best of their pantry for dinner that night. The father did not think necessary to ask for a room in that place, as the Order provided them with a fairly comfortable accommodation within the town, and without further preambles all of them went upstairs, towards the guest area where their ailing protected was resting.

They found him right there, in a small but decent room, lying on bed and looking imbibed through the window the boats, frigates and the two galleys that had moored in the harbor, ships that the young friend of Father Ramón knew pretty well after having served several missions aboard. Sitting on a chair they found, idly reading, the young monk commissioned by Father Ramón to look after the sailor, and next to him the innkeeper´s wife, inspecting the room and looking for irregularities. Get inside, introduce themselves and dispatch the woman and the young monk took them little time, as little time took also the cordial conversation they held later, or the dinner they ate in the dining room, a tasty stew of pork marinated with vegetables, rice, abundant garlic and local spices and sauces.

Their protegé, as they knew in advance, was called Manuel, and was a native of Guipúzcoa. Although sick and aged by fatigue, hunched, pale, thin and gaunt, and with shaky and uncertain gait, his physical complexion hinted that in happier days he had been a big, healthy and strong man. He claimed to be about thirty-five years old or so, something difficult to prove because of his bushy beard, his long, tousled hair and his deplorable state, and as they feared he did not look entirely sane. Luckily, he was completely harmless, and did not perform any sudden or violent gestures, nor he screamed or altered, but his speech was often disjointed and messy, as if he was constantly distracted, or as if his mind and his mouth did not follow the same course as his thoughts. Despite the obvious a glance from the boy made Father Ramón to understand that he was still willing to listen to whatever that survivor had to tell them so, after dinner, with all of them back to his room, the two visitors sitting in two separated chairs, and their patient lying again on his bed with a pillow in his back, began the long-awaited interrogation.

(Keep reading the second part of the story here)

(Lee el relato en Español aquí)

2 responses to “Terra Incognita (part one)

  1. Pingback: Terra Incognita (part two) | marcosmarconius·

  2. Pingback: Terra Incognita (primera parte) | marcosmarconius·

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